Monday, 24 October 2016

'Local' colour again

Some years ago I wrote here about local colour, and last Saturday's Zola adaptation on Radio 4 re-wakened me to its importance. I noticed (with a mixture of regret and contempt) some strangely inappropriate background music: it was the thirteen waters* version of Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine (although the extract started after the words Très-Haut, so they may not have committed that particular solecism).

It starts at about 31'30"  of that iPlayer recording, and it is the unaccountable music played at a ball in the Tuileries. I say unaccountable not because of any anachronism (although to quote Wikipedia
"Zola's 20 Rougon-Macquart novels are a panoramic account of the Second French Empire. They are the story of a family principally between the years 1851 and 1871" and – as  the Cantique was published in 1866  –  it was a close-run thing – the Tuileries was burnt down in 1871. [Perhaps the entertainers at the ball were singing from a proof copy...  ]) But contemporaneity is not my biggest problem.

I just wonder whether sacred music with an organ accompaniment was a likely accompaniment to a glittering society ball in Second Empire Paris (for a start, how would they have got the organ through the doors of the Tuileries?...Unless it was already there. But then it would have  been in what Wikipedia calls "The little-used northern wing of the palace, which contained the chapel, Galerie de la Paix, and the Salle de Spectacle [which] would be called into service only for performances, such as the Auber cantata performed the evening of Napoleon and Eugénie's civil wedding ceremony, 29 July 1853,"). Perhaps it is an ironic comment on the narrative, but I don't see how.... (unless Racine's "tout l'enfer" stood  for what was going on at the ball; nah, much too subtle).

What made the music grate so painfully, though, was that the singers were English:

 /repɒn su:r nu: lǝ fǝ dǝ tæ græsǝ pwi:sɒnte
kwǝ tu: lɒnfǝ  fwi: ǝʊ sɒn dǝ tæ vwɑr/
.../ki: læ kɒndwi:  æ lu:bli: dǝ teɪ lwɑr/ ... 

(OK, I'm exaggerating a teensy bit; as with most choirs, only a few singers get it flamboyantly wrong, but those few stick out like a bear with a sore head).

What does this tell us about local colour? It had better be pretty damn good if it's to avoid breaking the spell of whatever it's supposed to be adding colour to.


PS A bit of an unfair clue, but quite pleasing (for me, at least):

"Bufo" for organic pest control? (8)

*This reference is explained here.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Bless each honey bole

In the second of his Radio 4 series on the Robber Barons, Adam Smith (stop sniggering at the back – it's just a name) played a clip from The Ballad of Casey Jones in the background of his account of the life of Jay Gould. The link was clearly appropriate: Gould made his millions from railways.

But it brought to mind an early board-treading occasion in the life of the young... well, me.
In a Gang Show produced  in the very early '60s (or even late '50s) the 20th Ealing (St Benedict's) Wolf * Cubs sang what I presume was a precursor of that ballad:  Steamboat Bill. I say presumably because either way it was a pretty close-run thing. The song narrates a steamboat accident suffered by Steamboat Bill "trying to beat the record of the Robert E. Lee" and that record was set during Casey Jones's childhood (in 1870, a few months before his 7th birthday.)

And  the last lines involved the captain's widow telling her children ("Bless each honey bole lamb" [the hastily typed script featured that gross typo, and I always remember the  meaningless version, and then wonder why it doesn't rhyme with the last line:
 The next papa you have'll be a railroad man

] – which suggests that Peak-Steamboat preceded Peak-Railroad, although there was a fair overlap between the two forms of transport.
Anyway, as I wrote elsewhere songs interbreed and cross-fertilize quite prolifically in the Folk Process, and my reaction on hearing the tune – Why are they playing Steamboat Bill in the background of a piece about railroads? – was unreasonable.

Word Watch

As I was listening to the TMS commentary this morning, my mind was arrested (I don't think  that's too strong a word) by a commentator saying that someone had "wrestled the initiative". "Doesn't he mean wrested?" I thought. And then I had the further thought "What's the difference between wresting and wrestling?"

As often, I looked to the British National Corpus for answers, and came up with these two results:
Search results for "Wrestle the <noun>"

Search results for "Wrest the <noun>"
Regular readers may have noticed that I haven't done my usual thing of giving links to actual searches, because in this case my point is made by the results rather than by their relative weights (although it's true that "wrest the <noun>" is three times more common than "wrestle the <noun>"). The more significant difference is that the objects of wrest are generally abstract, whereas the objects of wrestle are generally concrete.

But here are some links anyway, as my screengrabs aren't too clear:

This calls to mind an ertswhile colleague's answer to the question  "What's the difference between hardware and software?" Hardware hurts when you drop it on your foot. 
In other words (as a dictionary might have told me, though most [if not all] modern dictionaries are corpus-based, and I generally prefer primary sources) the words mean different things. They are, of course, etymologically linked. The $10 word, for what it's worth, is frequentative; the ending -le often marks a frequentative – usually in verbs (like tinkle and tingle), but often in other word classes; a frequentative is at the root of puddle.

puddle (n.) Look up puddle at
 early 14c., "small pool of dirty water," frequentative or diminutive of Old English pudd "ditch," related to German pudeln "to splash in water" (compare poodle). Originally used of pools and ponds as well.


So that cricket commentator, when he said "wrestle the initiative", was .... (I hesitate to say wrong; maybe just...) 'at the leading edge of yet another simplifying language change that I, pointlessly, regret'.


PS Here are a couple more clues:

  • See angry hens with alibi when subjected to reformation or some other blip in Church history. (11,6)
  • The misfit rethought anachronistic point of view. (9)

* Re this old-style name of what are now called Cub Scouts, see the PS to this.

Update: 2016.10.21.19:55 – Added BNC links.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Crash--testing for dummies: hidden mesages

A little over a year ago I wrote,  in defence  of using an INTELLIGIBLE transcription system when writing about pronunciation, I ranted thus:
Excuse my use of IPA symbols...
<rant flame="simmer">
I have ranted about this before, somewhere  in the UsingEnglish forums, but I can't find where. So some readers may get a sense of déjà-lu  – but probably not. (And I did mean -lu.) Anyway, here I go again. 
When you know your audience (and that word is crucial  – when people can hear you) it's OK to say things like 'lear sounds like leer'. 'Sounds like' is meaningful only if there's a known sound to compare. But when you're writing – say, in an online forum – it's not so easy. What  if one of your readers has just learnt bear, pear, tear (NOT the lachrymal sort) or wear, so that the /eǝ/ sound is uppermost in their short-term memory of English sounds? You've told them that leer is pronounced  /leǝ/. 
Or suppose one of your readers mispronounces law as /lǝʊ/  –  a common enough mistake in an ESOL classroom   –  and you write that a word  'sounds like law'. Again, you've misinformed them. And I don't think that's too strong a word, at  least not in a language-teaching context.  If the teacher wants to communicate something, it's part of the job to make sure it's understood correctly. 
People complain about 'having to learn a whole new alphabet'. That's nonsense, particularly in the case of English  – which can be adequately transcribed using the letters of the alphabet (most with 'their own' sound – b ⇨ /b/, k ⇨ /k/, s ⇨ /s/, and so on) with a dozen or so new symbols). The system can be taught in a few lessons, makes dictionaries infinitely more informative, absorbing and rewarding, makes modelling and  correcting sounds easier and clearer, supports increased learner autonomy.... And yet many learners (and even quite a few teachers, to my utter bewilderment – as I can't conceive of learning a new language [except by total immersion] without using the IPA) resist the idea of learning/teaching IPA symbols. 
And now the Mail has done it. Not that I'm surprised; I don't know of a more obscurantist publication. But it reminded me of  my ire. Unfortunately I failed to strike while the ire {SIC] was hot, and now the guilty party has covered his traces – a table that showed (?! perhaps show isn't quite the verb I'm looking for) how a word was pronounced in different regions, using a home-grown "system"  of phonetic transcription  based entirely on regular alphabetical characters (revealing, for the linguistically aware, more about the writer's accent than about the speakers').

I find it interesting how much a meaningless document can convey about the writer. A recent tweet alerted me to the latest parliamentary howler (the phrase crying out to Heaven for vengeance comes to mind from a God-fearing background, though I admit that an element of exaggeration may  have crept in there).  It is an opposition motion followed by a  hotch-potch of words masquerading as an "amendment" in the sense codicil that emasculates and sucks the life out of a document:

Exhibit A: the Motion
Exhibit B: the Amendment
Out of interest, I ran the text through the Text Analyser at Using Exhibit A shows the analysis of the original motion. Exhibit B is the analysis  of the amendment. They are broadly comparable – even to the word-count. They both have a preponderance of 2-, 3-, and 4-letter words; in fact the amendment has a slightly bigger proportion of them. But the amendment has a greater Lexical Density (defined in the tool's help  page in this way:
The lexical density of a text tries to measure the proportion of the content (lexical) words over the total words. Texts with a lower density are more easily understood.
). The two texts are equally easy to understand (? – I would suggest that the total lack of punctuation [57 words without so much as a comma.... Can they seriously expect anyone to make sense of that?] in the amendment makes it significantly harder to understand; in fact it seems to me almost impossible to even parse: "into which will take place" ...???) But when I asked 'Can they seriously expect anyone to make sense of that? ' I expect the answer was "NO, OF COURSE NOT.   MAKING SENSE IS NOT THE POINT, SILLY. WE ARE KICKING DUST IN THE EYES OF THE OPPOSITION"

The importance of the amendment becomes more apparent when (as they will be when put to the House): the motion and the amendment become one text. The Fog Index nearly doubles.

This is no surprise, given that the Fog Index is defined like this: 
The Fog Index is a readability test designed to show how easy or difficult a text is to read. It uses the following formula:

Reading Level (Grade) = (Average No. of words in sentences + Percentage of words of three or more syllables) x 0.4
If Fog Index is so closely linked with sentence length, and you double the word count without adding any punctuation...

There's  more to be said about that amendment, but the final  crop of blackberries is waiting to be picked, and fruit crumble doesn't taste the same if your fingers aren't tingling with splinters (whatever's in the freezer. :-)


PS A couple of clues:
Turn winch to have a good chat. (7)
Catchphrase uttered softly and repeatedly: gin, perhaps. (7)

Monday, 10 October 2016

I don't really mien this

Is Latin really a cloak of secrecy?
<digression theme="The wonders of spell-checkers">
I originally spelt that cloac, and the spell-checker helpfully suggested that I might have meant cloaca. :-)
Diane James is said to have written vi coactus after her signature, indicating that she was signing under duress:
The document formally notifying the Electoral Commission that Ms James had taken the Ukip helm was submitted on Monday with the phrase “Vi coactus” after her name, meaning “under duress”. The term is used in the belief that it invalidates signatures on legal papers. 
More here
I don't see how this works. If it's widely known what the Latin tag means ...
...especially among the public-school educated ... 
(and for non-British readers, and maybe some  British ones who make the naive assumption that words mean what they say] I should clarify that this is the reverse of what you think unless you  know better – a "public" school, by a historical accident, is not at all public [in particular, it's not in public ownership]; it is public only to the extent that it is open to all – "like the doors of the Ritz", as some disputed quotee once famously said)
... people like Dulwich College alumnus Nigel Farrage
... what is the point of using it as a coded message? Maybe it was a double-bluff: surely a grammar school girl and student of "tourism with languages" like Diane James would have known that if the phrase meant that she was under duress it should have been vi coacta. In that case there are three possible conclusions:
  1. Ms James meant that some other (male) person was under duress.
  2. Someone else wrote it in after she had signed, and simply made a mistake.
  3. Ms James was making a deliberate mistake to indicate, secretly, that she wasn't acting under duress (although she wanted to give the impression – to witnesses of the event – that she was. Too clever by three quarters)
My brain hurts. Anyway she's gone. And squabbles and niggles and scuffles and ... and all other sorts of mayhem with the ending "-<double-consonant>le" have broken out. The name Strasbourg Oaths, known to me because of a seminal document in the history of French (discussed here and in many other places in this blog) now takes on a new reference – the language that presumably  preceded the alleged shenanigans.


PS – a clue:
Turn winch and have a good chat. (7)

Monday, 3 October 2016

Confounded diphthongs

On Saturday evening, at Reading's Great Hall, listening to Trinity Concert Band, I was reminded of the power of music in stimulating memory (much greater, I'd say, than the overrated Madeleine Effect). Earlier this year I wrote here about my thespian debut:
My own 42nd Street dream centred on the Sergeant-at-Arms in Iolanthe. I was a peer, but I dreamt of  standing in at the last minute for the fellow bass who had that part – not a huge one (I wasn't that ambitious –  he had one song, at the beginning of Act Two (in that YouTube clip the song starts after about 1 min.), as I remember: "the ice-cream slot", as it was archly referred to among the wiseacres of the Cecilian Players [not the chamber ensemble, an amateur operatic society based in SW London in the 1960s and '70s] – the first turn after the interval, when the audience are at their least attentive).  I was going to "Go out there an unknown and come back a st... well, a bit-part player".
And on Saturday, when the band played the opening chords of the Peers' March, I was back in the Questors Theatre, at the back of the audience, ready to process down to the stage. The words of the chorus came back to me:

Bow, Bow ye lower-middle classes
Bow, Bow ye tradesmen, bow ye masses

And with that memory came a memory of the MD ...
..."Budgie" Byrne, my music teacher (though it wasn't a school production) who, in the days when teachers were allowed to write what they thought in school reports, wrote of me "C+ – has ability but is disinclined to use it musically"...
...warning us not to enunciate the /ʊ/ of /bɑʊ/ until the last moment (a warning repeated by countless MDs over the next 50 years in other contexts).

One of those MDs warned me about another diphthong (tricky chap, Johnny Diphthong), rehearsing Haydn's Te Deum. This time, it was a diphthong to be avoided; the opening word was not /teɪ/ but /tɛ/:  not having the resources of the International Phonetic Association, she told us to imagine it was spelt teh (at the risk of anachronism I suppose she might have said it rhymed with meh). And that warning too has been repeated by my present MD (as we will be singing the piece, inter alia, at the Great Hall [where I started this post]).

I have mentioned word painting several times before; but one particular instance has caught my attention in the Te Deum. The tritone ....
(bane of a child violinist's life, especially in the key of Bb if memory serves*, not that I stuck at it for more than a year or two; couldn't stand the noise)
... is known as diabolus in musica. I don't expect Haydn was ignorant of this. An entry in the Guardian's Notes and Queries section summarises:
...the augmented fourth was the only augmented interval that appeared in the modes used before the emergence of the major and minor scales. Using only the white keys on a piano, the interval of F natural to B natural is the only augmented one (also known as the tri-tone) and was considered so unnatural and discordant in pre-tonal times as to be known as the Devil in Music
 There's much more there, of varying  quality and accuracy. Caveat emptor ; I for one don't buy
THIS chord was banned because it was very hard to sing.
The devil's interval
Near the end of the Te Deum, the basses sing  Non confundar – "Let me not be damned" – ending on a B. And there, in the soprano line, is an F.  F  to B – "the  devil's interval". The sopranos' F is a good few octaves above the basses' B, but the devil is hiding there. Sneaky.

Aunty Katy (mentioned many times before) was right: he was always lurking where a good Christian least expected it.

Idle hands, though. I must be getting on.


PS: A couple of political clues:
  • Regurgitated nasty brioche that he left to make left-winger. (10)
  • Not 'ard Brexit – no way; after haggling, very costly. (10)
Update 2016.10.04:14:15 – Added footnote

* Close, but no cigar. I was thinking of the key of F major (which involves a tritone stretch on the A string. (It all comes flooding back: An inch boy, an inch. Don't you know what an INCH looks like? My teacher, a dreadful old woman, was a fan of neither Galileo nor Pythagoras.)

Update 2016.10.16.22:15  – Added snippet of Te Deum score.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Islands again

Some years ago I posted here about islands; it must have been quite a while ago, as it was occasioned by a visit to an Open Day at Silchester, and they have been a thing of the past for a year or two (maybe three – time gets quicker at a certain age, in an ironic reversal of an arrow [which gets slower and slower, having no doubt heard about Xeno). But I've been thinking about islands again  – in the context of elephants and Cyclops.

Somewhere on Radio 4 last week a woman spoke about dwarf elephants (and iPlayer's indexing algorithm isn't good enough to remind me of who she was).
Dwarf elephants are prehistoric members of the order Proboscidea which, through the process of allopatric speciation on islands, evolved much smaller body sizes (around 1.5-2.3 metres) in comparison with their immediate ancestors. Dwarf elephants are an example of insular dwarfism,...
Also sprach Wikipedia.

But the woman on the radio didn't mention Cyclops – a strange omission, given that the "fact" (some doubt there, I suspect?) is so succulent. Perhaps she didn't mention it because she has an academic haughtiness about the story. But Wikipedia had no such fastidiousness: has been suggested by the palaeontologist Othenio Abel in 1914,[3] that the finding of skeletons of such elephants sparked the idea that they belonged to giant cyclopses, because the center nasal opening was thought to be a cyclopic eye socket.
A studio guest asked why dwarfism happened on islands. I'm sorry to have to be so reliant on Wikipedia, but iPlayer has let me down::
...large terrestrial vertebrates (usually mammals) that colonize islands evolve dwarf forms, a phenomenon attributed to adaptation to resource-poor environments and selection for early maturation and reproduction.
... Not that "large". In 2003 a fossil was found on the island Flores. Homo Floresiensis, was known by some more fevered journalists as 'the hobbit'.
In the late '80s or early '90s, with Reading Haydn Choir, I sang Stanford's The Revenge, a Ballad of the Fleet. The libretto,  was written by Alfred Lord Tennyson  (the hosts of that wiki – IMSLP  – are presumably politically hostile to all that lickspittle bowing and scraping, as they call him plain "Alfred Tennyson"; I've referred to this strenuous egalitarianism before, in connection with the word titled [see the rant in red here].)

But the opening words of that piece are "In Flores, in the Açores" (which leads me to suspect that Tennyson didn't know much about pronouncing Portuguese, FWIW), and I remember, when Homo Floresiensis was discovered in 2003, wondering if it was the same Flores. (It's not. BTW  – unless HMS Revenge was fighting off the coast of Indonesia. :-) )
In a later Reading Haydn Choir concert I sang Handel's Acis and Galatea, with the Cyclops Polyphemus represented by a very agile bass. [Keep up. keep up; I mentioned Cyclops a while back.]
Homo Floresiensis is thought by some experts (I haven't kept abreast of all the arguments, though I think there are several theories [with one having Homo Floresiensis descended from an as yet undiscovered small ape]) to have been a descendant of Homo Erectus subjected to insular dwarfism.

Ho hum time for bed.

 PS And here's a clue:

Thus might Spooner keep the con-artist apart from the aviatrix, we hear. (8,3,5,4,3,5)

Update 2016.09.25.15:05 – Added PPS

PPS And another:

Bad-mouth trendy food shop first, with malice aforethought. (10)

Update 2016.10.25.16:25 – Added PPPS


Thursday, 15 September 2016

Quips and quiddities

I've been thinking about seasons – specifically about adding an s. Taking as an example the frame

"a <season> day

I thought it was simple (if arbitrary): you can have a winters day or a summers day, but you can't have a springs day or an autumns day.

But I was forgetting the importance of collocation – what comes next  (in this case).

I was led to uncover this when I wanted to put numbers on this pattern. BNC doesn't happen to include an instance of a winters day.  And this made me use the "any noun" search syntax; which led me to conclude that the pattern is even more uneven. All season names are much preferred without the s (I've no  idea what its syntactical status is – some kind of possessive, I suppose; stay tuned for an update.)

By the wonders of BNC, the following seven links all run a BNC query; depending on line speeds, processor speeds, and all sorts of other techy imponderables, you may have to wait a second or two after clicking for the full story to unfold

winter [*n]  1590  winters [*n] 19 
spring [*n]  1086  springs [*n] 90 
summer [*n] 23163  summers [*n] 21 
autumn [*n]   774...
Why so many more cases of summer? About 30 times as many as of autumn, 20 times as many as of spring , 15 times as many as of winter. (Those numbers are wobbly; I didn't use a cuaculator. I could've just said an order of magnitude greater, but that expression has been sadly debased.) Hmm...  Meanwhile, back at the a <season>s <noun> pattern...
 ...But autumns doesn't follow the pattern of feast and famine. In that case it's feast and starvation; absolute starvation. The string autumns [*n]  just doesn't occur in BNC. And precious few occur in the much bigger (520 million words – more than five times bigger) COCA; just three (of which one is a mistake, resulting from a mistaken parsing of the word back):
autumns [*n] 3

I'm  not sure what this shows, except that when you put numbers on something you end up finding that things aren't quite as clear-cut as they seemed at first.

And here are two numbers that have only the very faintest soupspoon of a connection (and even that is arguable – it's just that the number of refugees world-wide can only increase when nation-states take more than their fair share of the planet's resources).

The first comes from a UNHCR report. CNN reported it like this

 The second comes from the ONS:

But the numbers reached out and grabbed my attention by dint of their similarity. I suppose another way of looking at it is that we have reached a tipping point: the number of refugees world-wide now exceeds the population of the UK (and that's before any readjustment that Nicola Sturgeon might have in mind ).

But time's wingéd chariot could do with some 3-in-ONE.

PS A couple of clues:

Affect brilliant fedora without an emergency jump-starter (13)
Such a way of arguing makes him a demon (2, 7)

Update 2016.09.16.11:45 – Added PPS and PPPS

PPS And I meant to add, justifying my subject-line (this is more of a quiddity than a quip), earlier this week I heard something of interest to a one-time translator of songs (a bit of background covered in this old post) . In Monday's Woman's Hour (the song starts at about 18'30")  Kizzy Crawford sang about a pond skater (no, really). She sang in English, but she sang the last chorus in Welsh. One word leapt out at me from the Welsh. Earlier (English) choruses had involved the word lily pad (see? – it really was about a pond skater); and the word that jumped out at me from the Welsh was lily pad.

I looked this up in an online Welsh dictionary: pad lili. What was up? Was Kizzy fibbing?

Of course not. She does say, in the interview that precedes the song, that Welsh is more appropriate to singing about nature. And one of the ways it has of being more flexible may be the choice of translation sources.  By chance I found this alternative translation (in Google Translate): lilypad  – note the lack of word-break.

Marvellous things, dictionaries. But they have their limits.

PPPS The promised update on syntax: the jury's still out. In some cases, it's obviously a possessive; summer's lease is the metaphorical lease held by belonging to a metaphorical summer. There's an apostrophe, and its aptness is not in question. But in summers day there's no apostrophe* and no sense of possession. I'll ask some teachers.

Update 2016.09.18.10:45 – Added P⁴S

Yes – it's an attributive genitive (also called descriptive). Some people omit the apostrophe, and in cases where the idea of possession is weak (or absent) this tendency is stronger.

Update 2016.09.26.11:15 – Added P5S

*Nonsense – I just misunderstood the BNC's search algorithm's treatment of the apostrophe.  I think  it's true, however, that the apostrophe , which usually marks possession, is less widely insisted on (and, from the point of view of a language historian, more likely to  be dropped   – rather like the apostrophe marking omission before  words such as bus, cello or phone – when the sense of possession is weaker.