Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Shepherds Abiding on Ilkley Moor?

Thomas Clark was a cordwainer:  as Etymonline says

<digression>
It's interesting how placenames and things to do with clothing are so often linked:  
  • jeans (via Jannes) > Genoa
  • muslin (via Mousseline) > Mosul 
  • milliner > Milan
  • calico > Kolkata (when it was known in English as "Calicut")
  • ...(I'm sure there are lots more)
Not to mention more direct connections, such as Jodhpurs or Balaclava helmet or Duffel coat (where the garment name is the name of a town). Cordwainer is a fairly distant connection; I imagine some shoe-makers never worked with that fine leather known in Old French as cordoan, which came originally from Córdova.
</digression>
But Thomas did not take over the family business until 1823. Long before then he had made a name for himself as a composer. It was fully 18 years earlier that he published his melody "Cranbrook" in A Sett of Psalm & Hymn Tunes (1805) – a setting for the words 'Grace 'tis a charming sound'. It was then used as a setting for While Shepherds Watched their Flocks.
<attribution>
Now comes a link that was pointed out by the leader of my U3A Madrigals group, Francis Hayes. But it has been given the Harmless Drudgery treatment, so any error is no fault of his.
</attribution>
There's some uncertainty about what happened next. Wikipedia calls Ilkla Moor 'baht 'at a 'folk song' – though I'm not sure this comic song would pass the Cecil Sharp test. A plausible theory involves choir members on an outing:
Dr Arnold Kellett [HD: Author of The Yorkshire Dictionary] reports the traditional belief that the song "came into being as a result of an incident that took place during a ramble and picnic on the moor. It is further generally believed that the ramblers were all on a chapel choir outing, from one of the towns in the industrial West Riding".

Wikipedia
The choir members may well have fitted new (and irreverent) words to a tune they knew and sang every week, just as years later rugby players would sing Why Was He Born So Beautiful to an existing hymn tune.

Whatever the details of its origin, the church dropped it like a hot pot.... Hmmm. Perhaps roast chestnut would be a more seasonally appropriate comparator.

And nowadays the setting known as 'Old Winchester' (dating from Este's Psalter of 1592) is more commonly used, and that is the version I will be singing on Saturday with Wokingham Choral Society:


But before that, at my rather less grand U3A Christmas gathering, I'll be singing 'Cranbrook' – and with any luck avoiding the more familiar words (not unlike the problem I blogged about here, with Joys Seven and The Lincolnshire Poacher).

b

Update: 2018.12.10.17:10 – Added PS
PS Incidentally, I find Wikipedia's over-rstionalization (and so misrepresentation) of the dialect 'baht rather pitiful. This geek wants to make the word fit into what he learnt in Math 101:
The title is seen in various transcriptions of the dialect, but is most commonly On Ilkla Mooar [or Moor] baht 'at, i.e. "On Ilkley Moor without [wearing] the hat"; idiomatically "On Ilkley Moor without (i.e. bar) the hat".
RUBBISH. Bar doesn't come into it , as 'baht means without; if you want equivalences, the b represents the voiced fricative /ð/ and the t represents the final t of 'without' (rather than an imaginary definite article, as though the dialect version ended "t' 'at"). 'Without the hat' makes no sense, unless we know which hat he's talking about (such as "without the hat <someone> gave me for Christmas"); there is no definite article in 'baht 'at, and the Wikipedio-scribe should just accept it....Time for my medication...

Thursday, 29 November 2018

How many Ls do YOU have?

In a recent edition of

The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry

an accent coach said
You may or may not be aware that in your own accent [HD: bog standard educated/metropolitan RBP] you have 2 Ls
Close enough for jazz, as my old Musical Director used to say ...
<potential_rant get-out="life's too short">
(in a way that I thought didn't give jazz the respect it deserves – how DARED he? – though in his defence I imagine in some circles it's a strong collocation [that's ESOL teacher-ese for "well-known phrase or saying"] in which case he was guilty of a careless use of words, rather than actual intellectual vandalism) 
</potential_rant>
...What she meant (and probably knows) was in your own accent you have dozens if not hundreds of Ls, which can be divided into two broad types. I mentioned this in the Introduction to When Vowels Get Together: Book 2 - Sonorants  (now available in a work-in-progress form at all good Kindle libraries) in a note about allophones
If the idea of allophones is new to you, consider the words leek and keel. In the first, the [l] sound is formed towards the front of the mouth (the so-called "clear l") and the [k] is formed at the back of the soft  palate. In the second, the [k] sound is formed nearer the front of the mouth (the closure is between the body of the tongue and the hard palate),  and the [l] is formed at the back (the so-called "dark l"). In both cases the distinct [l]s and [k]s are allophones of the /l/ and /k/ phonemes. (The sounds represented by the /i:/ phoneme differ too [because of the distinct positions of the tongue at the onset of the vowel] but the difference is much more difficult to hear).
<erratum>
If you've downloaded a copy, there's a mistake in this note; I got "hard" and "soft" mixed up. I'll upload a fixed copy later today.
</erratum>


To be clear, all the [l]s in  keel, carl, coal, cool, kale, kill, call, curl, col, cull,.. [etc: the whole range of possible phonetic contexts] are different, though broadly similar: the so-called dark l. Similarly, all the [l]s in leek, lark, look, Luke, like, lake, lick, lack, lurk, lock, luck, leck...[etc: the whole range of possible phonetic contexts] are slightly different, though broadly similar: the so-called clear l – a name that has mnemonic value, as the l in it is clear.

But, returning to that Curious Case... As often, given the format (13-odd minutes of popular science) it wasn't entirely satisfying. If I had been the original asker of the question Why do people speak in different accents? I'd have felt short-changed (although I wouldn't have asked it in the first place, as I already know that it couldn't possibly be answered in this format).

It's an interesting question, and one that's impossible to  answer in any non-circular way: People speak their mother tongue because it's the tongue spoken by their mothers (and their family and peers, colleagues et al)., and accents differ between mothers because they learnt from their mothers,,,: it's turtles all the way down, as many thinkers before Terry Pratchett said.

A feature of the Curious Cases... format is the signoff, with one of the presenters asking "Can we say Case Solved?" and the other answering "Y-e-s but..." Although there's an infinite supply of buts, I'm constantly entertained by the questions.

b

Update:2018.12.01.16:15 – Added PS

PS
Towards the end of the  programme, Adam Rutherford mentions the effect of "fortnight"  on an American audience – which reminds me of a fortnight-related tidbit from my time at DEC (in the days when it was still OK to call it DEC, rather than the polysyllabic monstrosity wished on us by HR).

In the HELP text for VMS (the operating system that drove VAX computers) a  counter was specified in micro-fortnights, as
60 (secs) x 60 (mins) x 24 (hrs) x 14 (days)
is a rough approximation to a million – OK, just over 1.2 million, but it was an engineering firm at the time.

For all I know, this may still be lurking in  the code for OpenVMS; I doubt it though, as network management changed radically in the early 1990s (in ways discussed elsewhere [in my other blog]).

Update:2018.12.02.12:05 – Added PPS

PPS
On further reflection, I've  realized that the approximation was a bit closer than that 1.2+ million. As the writer was a software engineer, his "million" was 10242:  about 1.05. So a fortnight is not that much more than a mega-second.

Monday, 19 November 2018

A brace of coincidences

In the week after my choir's Mozart concert (mentioned last time) a pair of Christmas-related coincidences made their presence felt in my life.

The first was triggered by a visit to Reading's St Mary's Butts to buy Christmas cards.



<autobiographical_note type="aside">
We were welcomed by a gentleman who asked if we'd visited the Minster before. I forbore to say that Yes indeed, I had sung there several times, but that's as may be...
<autobiographical_note>

The view of the Minster reminded me of the leaving presentation for my first manager in DEC's Media and Publishing Production and* Design Services in the late 1980s – as she was given a painting of St Mary's (presumably without the streetlamp).

That evening MrsK and I were watching a US crime thriller. A character whose death was a feature of the leading lady's backstory ...
<etymological_aside>
Interesting word, backstory, and a fairly recent coining according to Etymonline c. 1990 (about the time of Linda Pavlik's presentation, as it happens [that was my former manager's name – not a common  one in England, but she was from the USA]).
</etymological_aside>
...had thitherto been known only by his first name. But it turned out that his name, too, was Pavlik.

Perhaps I should put some numbers on that "not a common name" I just slipped out. Well, if you plug in Pavlik to the search engine of your choice you will get something like this: 3.23 million, of which a small handful are contributed by UK sites (add .uk to your searchstring and you get only 337 hits). Eastern European immigration to the United States (a 19th century caravan, I suppose you could call it, really a flotilla though) have made the name a common one in the USA.

But it wasn't a frequent visitor to my brain until that visit to St Mary's jogged my memory. And now here was a US crime drama throwing out the same name. Pretty thingish. I thought maybe I could track it down, like so many "coincidences", to some kind of cognitive bias; but I can't find a suitable suspect,

Souvenir programme
Which brings me to the second coincidence. Later that week was the first rehearsal for our carol service on 15 December (that link will be good until the day after the service, whereafter you will have to click on Past Concerts), and we spent much (if not all – my memory's pretty ropey at short range; 30 years and above is my forte) of it getting our teeth into a setting by Bob Chillcot of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The music was vaguely familiar to me, but not enough to make me stop and think where I'd heard it before, until MrsK called my attention to the composer's note; which starts "This piece was originally written for the Final of Sainsbury's Choir of the Year in 2000...Singers [included]  Berkshire Youth Choir...".

So I heard the world première, as my son was a member of Berkshire Youth Choir at the time.

Programme entry for Carols Galore
Time for walkies. Eheu fugaces, as they say (Latin for Phew, we got away with it.)

b

Update 2018.11.19.16:15 – added footnote

*The abbreviation was "MPDS" but on reflection I‘m pretty sure the P stood for Production. The old department it replaced was just called PUBS (after the computer that was at the core of the [pre-desktop computing] department), and I imagine one of the main considerations in the naming of the new department was the avoidance of anything that sounded too retro. So 4 letters became 4 words: progress. (Note for the irony-impaired: Hmm?)


Update 2018.12.16.12:15 – added PS

Now that the concert's over (and you miised a treat if you weren't there) I can say more about the Chilcott piece (as I didn't want to spoil the musical surprises). BYC sang the main body of the text, with different performers doing a guest spot for each of the 8 iterations of the words 'Five gold rings' ; for example, for the Flower Duet spoof the Opera Babes did the honours.
<background>
The Opera Babes were a 'crossover' duo whose star was rising at the time. As Wikipedia says:
They began busking together in 2001 on London's Covent Garden, where they were first spotted and were signed for their first album by Sony. They became famous for singing "Un bel dì vedremo" ("One fine day we shall see" from the opera Madame Butterfly), the song that ITV used for their World Cup 2002 programmes, at the FA Cup final and at the UEFA Champions League final in Milan.[1] Knight explained the group's strategy to BBC News as follows: "[W]e have tried to maintain the classical integrity while making these things more appealing to a wider audience."[2]
</background>
But I  must put in appearance in the Land of the Living. :-)

Friday, 9 November 2018

Aa, there's the Raab

<explanation subject="Dominic Raab">
People in the UK may know who Mr Raab is, and expect some satire here about monkeys and organ-grinders. Well, sorry about that. It was the just the /ɑ:/ sound that made me think of him. Generally I try to avoid thinking about that particular nonentity.
And people outside the UK are no doubt accustomed to my subject lines making no sense; so, nothing no change there.
</explanation>
It has often been pointed out that, at the time when English and French rubbed along together...
<aside>
 (with Norman-French being used by the nobs gifted all the plum positions by William the Bastard [who is now  better known as the Conquistador {or something}] and his cronies, while the horny-handed sons of toil used a less Latinate language)
</aside>
...the names of meat (for the table) had French-derived names like beef (boeuf), mutton (mouton), and pork (porc), but the animals themselves were cow, sheep, and pig (or in some parts) swine.

Earlier this month I visited a place that embodied a similar class distinction, but with pronunciation rather than vocabulary. Hardwick Hall has the /ɑ:/ sound adopted by the upper classes for certain words with an -er- spelling...
<digression>
English, in some parts of the world, still keeps this sound in words like clerk, derby, sherd, and serjeant...
<meta_digression source="WVGTbk2">
In the work-in-progress now in all good Kindle libraries as When Vowels Get Together with Sonorants I have written:
*ER* represents this sound in a dwindling number of words. For example, in the BBC Radio comedy series The Navy Lark recorded 1959-61, the rear end of a ship is called its /stɑ:n/, but I have only ever heard the /ɑ:/ pronunciation in that context. This sort of specialized argot – used in particular areas of work – may support the /ɑ:/ sound from time to time, but this pronunciation persists in only a small handful of words in British English (more so than in American English: BE /klɑ:k/ but AE /klɜrk/).
 </meta_digression>
...  although in, say, American English the first two still use /ɜ:/ while the /ɑ:/ sound of the last can be preserved by a revised spelling: sargent.
</digression>
... and to make sure the pronunciation didn't stray back to that /ɜ:/ the ruling classes changed the spelling.

But the sheep grazing in the fields surrounding the house were herdwicks (well, to be honest they may not have been that breed, but I'm not one to spoil a good story with mere facts – there are some of that breed on farms that need hardier livestock).

<unrelated_observation>
And I'll record here a totally unrelated observation, from the first part of a recently televised spy thriller. It was set in Berlin, and most of the key characters had the decency to speak English. But  there were bits of German dialogue that had English subtitles – one of which reminded me of an exercise we did in my CELTA course, to raise awareness of the problems caused for ELT students by English's predilection for phrasal verbs.
<autobiographical_note date="2006" subject="Phrasal verb exercise">
The students sat in a circle, and each in turn constructed a sentence using the phrasal verb pick up with a meaning that differed from all the previous examples.

I expected that with a class-size of 14 it would become increasingly difficult after the first half dozen, and impossible before the end. But the lecturer had done his homework and knew that the Collins Cobuild Dcitionary (a favourite at the time) lists 15 separate meanings (some of which can easily be sub-divided: for example it gives one meaning for what "a microphone or radio" does, and it seems to me that processing an audio signal that is clearly part of the soundscape  [as in "We're picking up the traffic noise in the background"] is quite distinct from being able to detect at all a radio signal that just doesn't get there [as in "We can't pick up channel X when we're <somewhere>"). So in other dictionaries I imagine the total is more than 15.
</autobiographical_note>
And to add to the difficulty, some phrasal verbs are separable (the verb and the particle can straddle the object), or not, or either. And in one of the local-colour subtitles the translator had got it wrong. At a service desk of some sort a German-speaker said "I want to pick up something" (sorry – no time to check the original German). What the subtitle should have said was "I want to pick something up".
</unrelated_observation>

Is that the time? I must check the words/notes for tomorrow's concert (well worth a listen if you can make it):


b
PS: A couple of clues
  • Rather draconian response to a failed marriage? (13)
  • The deity's offspring, it's said, introducing energy to regulators. (11)
Update: 2018.11.11.19:30 – Typo fix, and added PPS

PPS And it was "well worth a listen".


Update: 2018.11.12.15:40 – Added PPPS

PPPS And here's a review..

Friday, 19 October 2018

What's that got to do with drawing?

The latest round of transport chaos on the GWR line to Paddington was reported here.
A new £16million “bullet” train on a test run caused commuter mayhem after wrecking 500 metres of overhead power cables on the approach to Paddington station.

The major rail hub was almost effectively closed this morning with no services to or from Heathrow and Reading until lunchtime, and knock-on delays expected for the rest of the day....

The incident happened at Hanwell about 10pm last night [HD:16 Oct 2018]. The Italian-built Hitachi train – capable of 140mph - was being used to train Great Western Railway drivers when its pantograph arm, which connects carriages to overhead power cables, got caught in the wires.
Source
It was the last paragraph that – amid a tale of  woe that is by no means unusual – grabbed my attention. At first sight, given the appropriate lexicographical background, the obvious question is '"What's that got to do with drawing?"

At least, that was my response But this is not – as with photograph – a special sort of drawing (in that case, manipulating  chemicals to simulate the process of drawing with light)...
<another_example>
And in digital photography we can see another instance of old technology frozen in metaphor, as discussed here. From graphite to photographic chemicals isn't that big a figurative leap – from one physical medium to another. But with digital photography there is no kind of physical medium (unless you consider that the pixels involved have a physical reality).
</another_example>

... it is a metaphor that refers to a tool that can be used in drawing. If you have a look at this animation you''ll get  the idea.
<process_note subject="flickering lights">
(I originally cut/pasted it into this post, but it made the rest of the post [and also the beginning, though that was not where I was at] impossible to read.
<meta_digression>
Cavemen gazing at a fire are the fore-runners of 20th-century people gazing at TVs (and 21st-century people gazing at smartphones). Flickering light commands attention.
<further_digression>
(Which, incidentally, is where the word focus comes from – a fireplace [source of flickering light.])
</further_digression>
</meta_digression>
</process_note>

You can see where the railway electrification people got their idea; the doofer that electrified trains use to get power from overhead wires is called a pantograph.

The suffix -graph is quite  prolific when it comes to coining words that have nothing to do with drawing. Choreograph, phonograph, tachograph, and telegraph all bear little sense of drawing, and many other -graph words have left the idea of drawing some way behind - epigraph, paragraph, monograph...

But I could do this all day. That's all folks.

b

Monday, 8 October 2018

Joining up

<digression subject="linking">
A recently broadcast and less than memorable TV drama (The City and the City) was set in a divided city. Wordplay was a feature of the writing and the linking building between one side and the other was called "Copula House".  Students of language will have met the term copula; many of the actors though, not having met it, assumed there had been a typo and said "Cupola House".

It  was this sort of ignorant slip that made suspension of disbelief impossible, so I didn't stick with the series. (With the growing trend of wacky cerebral TV dramas, there needs to be some way of getting the actors to understand the reality they're playing with, or the silliness just gets compounded.  Alternatively, of course, one could just get a life and switch off.)
<meta_digression>
Checking out the Wikipedia entry on copula, I notice that while many languages (like English) have a copular verb (be, in that case), some languages use a suffix to do the same job (linking a subject to its predicate), which ties in quite neatly with today's theme. To see how, read on.
 </meta_digression>
{Thinks: All these digressions and he hasn't even started yet.}
</digression>
My eye was caught last week by an old article in The Week  – one of those '10 things you didn't know about <thing>'  articles. It makes a number of interesting points and – not unpredictably – misses a few tricks. It starts with a quite telling image:
Think about when you were a kid discovering the wonder of glue. Hey, why not glue Barbie to this teacup? Let's glue Daddy's fancy pen to Mommy's ceramic figurine! But when you try to unglue them, you discover that glue can be strong — sometimes stronger than the things you were gluing. Now Barbie is permanently holding a teacup handle and Daddy's pen has a ceramic arm on it.

Words can be like that.

This is pretty suggestive (in a good way), and I'm afraid I missed it at first, thinking Where's the beef? and starting right in on the list – looking for trouble: what do they mean? The very idea of me not knowing something! (In fact, the slight wasn't "you didn't know", but just saying words were badly broken; I had one foot in the stirrup of my high horse, ready to say "words can't be badly broken, except if you're the sort of nincompoop who complains about words like decimated that come to be used in a way less stringent than that required by Mrs Thistlebottom and her ilk.

But, having read that first paragraph, I now  see that "badly broken" doesn't mean "seriously mangled" (referring to a supposed "lamentable decline in linguistic standards, why in my day kids... etc etc") but to a bad (that is, misplaced) break between a root and a prefix. And as a result the expression "the glueline" struck me at first as a rather arch metaphor.

My fault-finding zeal was not, however, entirely misplaced. In the first word on the list, for example:
Are any of your apps broken? Your app is! You know it's short for application.
Well yes, up to a point. That's where the new word comes from. But you can't therefore take it that "App and application mean the same thing; 'app' is just a shortened form of 'application':  the two are interchangeable".  They're not.

An application, or to give it its full dress name an application program (one that does stuff of interest to a user, unlike a systems program – which just makes the computer behave) does not need to have a Graphical User Interface;  many don't. An app does, and it has to run on a hand-held device. Also, an app almost always interacts with the Internet in some way. The ones that don't tend to be used once and uninstalled at the first opportunity; even obvious counter-examples – like graphics apps – often tie in with the Internet for things like clip-art libraries.

Next on The Week's list  is copter.
Ask someone what helicopter is made from, and they'll probably say heli plus copter. But actually it's helico- ("spiral") plus pter ("wing"), same as in pterodactyl, "wing finger". Obviously nobody says it like "helico-pter" — pronunciation trumps etymology. So this is one whirlybird that flies even when broken off badly.
There's a missed trick here; the (misconstrued) "ending" copter has taken on a life of its own, not only as a free-standing word (meaning helicopter) but also as a suffix used to name new inventions such as the gyrocopter.*

The item dealing with demo was new to me, for which thanks. The last line, though, was a bit of a throwaway (in two senses – both an unpursued possible digression and a gratuitously wasted opportunity): "There's also a bit of a history in English of making short forms that end in o." This tendency is more common in some parts of the world. In Australian English , for example, a relative is a relo. And I suspect the ready adoption into informal British English of the abbreviation arvo (for afternoon) owes something to early scripts of Neighbours and Home and Away.

But the lawn needs attention, not to mention the pyracanthus.
<autobiographical_note>
I usually prefer to leave the pyracanthus to get straggly, so that the smaller birds have first dibs on the less accessible berries. After I've done my boring topiary, life's too easy for the fat pigeons gorging themselves on the tabula rasa, leaving the tits to clear up the berries left in the less accessible places. But needs must...
</autobiographical_note>
So I'll leave you to read that The Week article; it's definitely worth a visit.


b

PS: A couple of clues:
  • Mischief-makers interrupting least dark recycled document. (10)
  • Turned up with every other unsisterly character, but fashionably outmoded first. (10)
Update: 2018.10.08.11.35 – Added PPS

And the same thing (bad break between prefix and word) can happen to names too. Santo Iago (St James) became Santiago, leaving (after an underdone abbreviation) the name Tiago. (And whether/how Tiago and Diego are related is a matter of some debate. Start here if this sort of thing floats your boat.

Update: 2018.10.12.11.45 – Added footnote

* Researching other neologisms such as gyrocopter (are there any?) I (having accused them of missing a trick) missed a trick. There are two survivors of a bad break  – what comes before (heli- in this case) and what comes after (-copter). Heli- has had a much more productive career: the Macmillan English Dictionary lists  helipad, heliport, and heli-skiing, but others crop up regularly: heli-boarding, for example.



Thursday, 27 September 2018

The persistence of technology metaphors

On Word of Mouth the other day Michael Rosen and his guests Laura Wright (a semi-permanent guest, addressing all things linguistic) and Rob Eastaway were talking about measurements. At one stage, Laura Wright remarked on the way metaphors tend to persist long after the technology has left them behind. She reached for a low-hanging fruit example (oh yes, we always use that one: the old ones are the best; I've used it more than once in this blog, here for example). Her example was the telephone:
Everybody in this building has got a mobile...
<philological_aside>
I'm surprised she could resist pointing out how an adjective can often come to be used in place of the noun it qualifies. A peach, for example,  was imported to Roman dinner tables as a mala persica (persian apple). and the adjective became the noun in most Romance languages; read more here
<philological_aside>
... and yet we will still talk about calling people up, hanging up, the phone ringing off the hook.... We're referring to  technology from the nineteenth century when phones really did hang, when you had to ring a bell to ring somebody – or somebody had to ring it; the operator had to do so....
This persistence of old metaphors affects nearly every context you can think of:
  • guns: a flash in the pan; keep your powder dry, the barrel of a gun (referring to a centuries-old method of constructing them from several pieces of metal held together with hoops, like the staves of a wooden barrel)..
  • the sea: laden to the gunnels...
    <digression>
    Two layers of metaphor there: modern ships have gunnels, but the gunnel was originally so called because it was a heavy plank  used to reinforce the part of a ship that had to support cannon: it was a gun wale
    </digression>
    ... starboard (a board attached to the right side of a sailing boat, used for  steering), ...
  • film: footage (used to refer to a series of digital images that have never been anywhere near a linear medium), "the last  reel" – referring to the same long disused technology...
  • cars: dashboard (a reference to part of a horse-drawn vehicle), fuel economy expressed in miles per gallon, long after fuel was sold by the gallon, horse-power, the colloquial use of "Shotgun" to refer to (and reserve) the seat next to the driver...
  • theatre equipment: limelight (and its use away from theatrical contexts), long after an intense artificial light was generated by burning lime, iron (to refer to the safety curtain, presumably once made of or with iron)..
  • coin-operated mechanisms: "spend a penny", "the penny drops"...
  • and so on, wherever you look
... There are more examples, for anyone who has the time – further evidence for Guy Deutscher's "reef of dead metaphors" idea, which I mentioned in a very early post (a much-visited one  – coming in third most popular among nearly 400 of these musings)
....Looking out of my rain-streaked window I see clouds - cumulus clouds. Cumulus is Latin for 'little heap' - which is what the cloud looks like. Now after the rain, a house-proud property-holder will go out and sweep the dead leaves on the new patio 'into a little heap' - ad cumulum. The Romans had a word for that - not for sweeping up dead leaves (which I'm afraid is a bit of a personal obsession at the moment), but for collecting stuff together: accumulare - whence our 'accumulate'. Guy Deutscher, in his fascinating The Unfolding Of Language: The Evolution of Mankind`s greatest Invention calls language (in a brilliant metaphor about metaphors - a 'meta-metaphor'?)  'a reef of dead metaphors'. In fact, Deutscher says more; it's not just words that were born phoenix-like from dead metaphors; dead metaphors are 'the alluvium from which grammatical structures emerge'. 
But staying with the subject of measurements (the grit at the centre of this ... erm, whatever) someone on  that programme mentioned how memorable measures (resisting metrication) tended to be monosyllabic – foot, inch, yard, and so on. Which brought to mind another such monosyllable –  chain – which was mentioned too. But what wasn't mentioned, on the subject of persistent obsolete technology metaphors, was the surveyor's assistant: chain boy. (The term was current when my brother was one in the 1970s, and a quick Google search confirms that it's still in use [though sometimes, in a diverse workforce, with PC tweezers]).

And while they were addressing the subject of monosyllabic measures, I was surprised that the seriously francophone Michael Rosen didn't mention the French pouce (which serves dual roles: both "inch" and "thumb"), especially as someone on the programme (possibly Rosen himself...?) did mention the relation between that measurement and the first joint of the thumb.

But time's wingéd chariot is doing its usual trick, so I'll just record for posterity my answer to the Height of Everest in metres problem: Michael Rosen said he knew the height of Everest in feet (29,000 odd) but not in metres. Well, if you don't mind a few approximations it's not that difficult:
  • 29,000 feet is about 5½ miles
  • 5 miles is 8 kilometres
  • Everest is 8000 metres + a bit under 1km (8848m, to use Wikipedia's figure, though I'm sure Rosen's right in saying  that snow makes a seasonal difference; and "just under 9000 metres" is good enough for me.).
Bye for now.

b