Saturday, 21 April 2018

Et in arcadia Lego

What people say and the way they say it often grates with me. This is my problem rather than theirs, but as I've said elsewhere, I'm a prescriptivist in descriptivist's clothing, Believe me, my life would be a lot easier if I didn't have a gnome brandishing a red pen sitting on my shoulder  muttering 'That's wrong' all the time. Meanwhile, on my other shoulder, the Good Fairy of Descriptivism says 'No it's not. Take a chill pill. That's how language works.'

Politicians are frequent offenders, because of the need to produce verbiage at the drop of a hat (or maybe that should be at the thrust of a microphone). As it happens – with no particular political axe to grind – my latest irritant has come from the mouth of Theresa May, who in a Commons debate accused Jeremy Corbyn of letting anti-Semitism run rife in the Labour Party.

"Run RIFE"? The British National Corpus (hereafter "BNC")  has no instances of run rife, and 1 of ran rife. [With this and other BNC searches, click on the link and sit back while the search engine does its stuff – which might take a second or two, depending on the usual computicle variables: Your BIT-RATE May Vary] .

On the other hand, in BNC, with the searchstring * riot, run riot is 3rd most common with 44 instances, running riot is 11th most common with 16 instances, ran riot is 12th most common with 15 instances, and runs riot is 20th most common with 7 instances. Running is what happens in the vicinity of the word riot: or, as a bean-counter might say "run is the most common verb to appear in collocation with riot"; this search (for any verb preceding riot) confirms it; (the figures don't match; I don't know why [e.g. 44 instances of run riot according to the first search, but 36 in the second],  but they're in the same ball-park).

But whenever the prescriptivist gnome says "That's wrong" I risk coming a cropper. Another Corbyn-related word supplies an example, only this time he was the speaker; the word was ram-packed. When he used it I thought "Well, he means jam-packed, doesn't he, he just made up this new word to emphasize how people were crammed in [to a Virgin train, if you must know]."

BNC  is too small to have a statistically convincing number of examples of jam-packed, so I've turned to the less authoritative but much more populous {if that's the word – one populates a database, so no one can say people have to be involved} Google. Given the Google treatment,  jam-packed has more than nine million hits  – more than a match, I thought, for the arriviste "ram-packed" (which of course the Good Fairy says is fine, but...).

However, ram-packed is more than a match for jam-packed, as this search shows; 22.5 million, rather than a piffling 9.27 million. It was an arriviste to my limited ken, but not to English.  Wiktionary says it was formed from ram and packed (natch)
... originally (since at least the 1940s) literal, referring to something packed with a ram. (Possibly reinforced by the rhyming synonym jam-packed.)
So he who hesitates has a chance of getting things right.


Monday, 2 April 2018

I Was Glad, take 2

This post started life as an update to an old post, but "jes' growed" It all started on the morning of Good Friday: Classic FM's Hall of Fame is marked by not infrequent travesties of justice, an early example being that "I Was Glad" was down to number 299. That's democracy for you.

Then I saw an ad for a concert I had missed, at Truro Cathedral, the venue
Church at Lostwithiel
for the final performance in my choir's tour of the West Country in the summer of 2013. From a base at Plymouth, we sang at various places, one being here at the pretty church at Lostwithiel. If more about the tour interests you, I covered it in this post nearer the time (a  bit parochial, but with some linguistic  interest on the subject on expressions of home and opinion [bei and chez]).

As I said, our last recital was at Truro Cathedral. By chance, only hours before we sang, the birth of Prince George was announced. In our  repertoire for the tour we had various largely devotional  pieces, and two party pieces from which our MD chose one, varying from concert to concert.

I thought that a  natural piece to sing to welcome the young prince was "I Was Glad".  But – rather tactlessly, I felt 😏 – for the Truro recital our MD chose "Zadok the priest" recalling the prince's grandfather's ill-starred wedding (where it had been played). (Perhaps, though, I was the only one to notice this rather lugubrious echo; besides my view was probably coloured by the marvellous bass-line of the Parry (especially the last few bars).

<autobiographical_note subject="City of Truro">
In my train-spotting days (brief and remote, and no anoraks were involved)...
Etymonline says that the slang meaning "socially inept person" (sic – I'd say that the more relevant meaning in this context is "person with obsessive interest in trivia in some very limited context") had appeared "by 1983, on the notion that that sort of person typically wears this sort of coat"...
Surely the relevant thing is that an obsessive train-spotter would go to some busy hub (Clapham Junction was a favourite among my peers, not that I ever went) and sit all day on a number of platforms in all weathers, collecting numbers. Hence the choice of outer clothing.
Though this seemed madness,
yet there was method in 't.
They could as well have been called  "Packed Lunches" or "Vacuum Flasks". The anorak might have become a uniform, but there was a reason for it.
... But my elder sibling's (not sure which, but they were felons of the first water, happy to break several laws by putting pennies on the line [that's trespass, criminal damage, defacing a coin of the realm...] which narrows down  the list of suspects to two {and you know who you are...}) – would not have been called "anoraks" at the time, some thirty years before the coining of that bit of jargon. 
 ... I used to frequent the forecourt of a garage on Spring Bridge Road W.5. The bridge was over the mainline to Bristol, a long straight stretch, and so beloved of record-breaking attempts.

One of the trains I copped ...
The train-spotter's jargon for see and register as having been seen is related to such apparently unrelated words as cop (what a policeman does to a suspect) and the German kaufen (after a bit of Grimm's Law treatment) See more on Etymonline (of course 🙋).
 ... was The City of Truro. As Wikipedia says,
Despite being a point of contention, some consider the locomotive to be the first to attain a speed of 100 miles per hour (160.9 km/h) during a run from Plymouth to London Paddington in 1904.
Naturally my informants at the time (who had to tolerate my tagging along) weren't interested in nuance, and this was a record-breaker, period.
But I'm beginning to ramble (beginning? )


PS: A couple of clues:
  • Combined ingredients of the French additives to cheat‘s lasagne, but without sea biscuits.  (7,2,4)
  • Misbehaving aircon for .server. (6) 
Update: 2018.04.16.10:55 – Added PPS

PPS Crossword answers – LANGUES DE CHAT,  RAONIC

That garage forecourt has been built over, of course. It's now the foundation of the entrance to a multi-storey car-park, here.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Memories are made of this

Part of my repertoire of random odd memories is that I revised for my Greek O-Level ...
<glossary audience="millenials and post millennials">
GCSEs are an amalgam of GCE O-Levels and CSEs (though I bet the official line would involve using  a much longer and nuanced explanation than the bare word  amalgam).
...on Broadstairs beach.
Detail from this site
This is a sufficiently incongruous juxtaposition of ideas for it to stick in my brain. I trotted the memory out again today, and in the process put some flesh on the bones – stuff I hadn't associated with the memory before.
A book I recently read pointed out that when we remember something it is not the event itself that we recall, but our most recent recollection of it. Teachers know this, and keep reminding their charges that revision needs  to be little and often. If you start your revision in week two of a course, you won't go far wrong.
Or, as my Tai Chi teacher's husband says, if you want to commit a movement to memory, practise it before you get home – park the car and do it (if only mentally –  although ideally physically).
Stupidly, I kept no note of the book's title, or even its author (although I do remember that he was an  Argentine...).

First, the dramatis personae: the  name of one participant stuck in my mind (I don't know why, but I imagine sex may have been a factor (I was 17, and she was a trainee teacher, so Katie George may well have been a PHI [Person of Hormonal Interest]). She was a New Zealander (or Australian?), supporting a world tour with bouts of teaching. In 1968...
<authority type="PPS">
This is an easy one. Forty-odd  years' worth of CVs  have meant that this datum-point  has been  recycled again and again.
... she was working at my old Primary School.

But where did she fit in –  maybe my little sister was there at the ti...? No, the dates don't work. That's when another memory kicked in: my mother (whom saints preserve [and they'd better]), was a dinner lady there, and she had a talent for picking up young waifs and strays.

Now, the date. It was in the middle of a fairly extended exam period, so it must have been late Spring/early Summer – which narrows it down to the Whitsun holiday (as it was in those days; now it's the Late Spring Bank Holiday), probably the Monday (3 June).

So there we have it; the memory gets better and better – although of course the more detail it accumulates the greater the risk of false memory.

Ho hum – I should be revising for my concert on Saturday. Don't miss it.


PS: And here's a clue:
  • Sweet singing in the choir? After a fashion! (8)
Update: 2018.03.23.10:50  – Added inline PPS

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Taking the cake

A proverb that bothered my younger mind has come to unwonted prominence, in the fertile soil provided by the context of Brexit. And recently a Prospect blog written by Professor Simon Horobin cast some light on this:
The well-worn proverb “you can’t have your cake and eat it” is enjoying something of a revival in the heated exchanges over Brexit. Ever since Boris Johnson characterised his policy on cake as “pro having it and pro eating it too,” Brussels has sought to alert the British negotiators to the impossibility of adopting such an attitude.

In October 2016, European Council president Donald Tusk, taking a rather literal approach to the aphorism, called upon proponents of the ‘cake philosophy’ to carry out a scientific experiment: “Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate.”
A month later a Tory MP caused a certain amount of embarrassment when, emerging from a Downing Street briefing, his handwritten notes were photographed in the barefaced admission “What’s the model? Have your cake and eat it.” 
And NO, the "?" doesn't absolve the miscreant. The question  is “What’s the model?...". The answer is "...Have your cake and eat it.”
My impression is that this slip gave rise to the neologism cakeism, used strictly in the context of Brexit.

Horobin's blog explains the source of the confusion mentioned in my first sentence:
The reason for the confusion is that the original form of the phrase has been reversed in its modern incarnation. Here it is in a 16th-century book of proverbs: “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?” The idea, then, is that once you have eaten your cake, you can no longer continue to possess it; that is, sometimes you are forced to choose between two irreconcilable options.
In France, the approximately equivalent idiom is vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre which I have seen translated as “to want the butter and the money from the butter”  – confusingly. What does "from the butter" mean? (I suspect the intervention of an abused dictionary, as 'du' can (sometimes) mean 'from [the]'). But this is the translation that Professor Horobin uses, although I imagine he's not the original dictionary-abuser – rather that he knows French and overlooked the inadequacy of the translation.

What English does for this sort of "de" is that it simply prepends the beneficiary/recipient: e.g. "dinner money", "fag packet" ... L'argent du beurre is "the butter money" or, if you like, "the money reserved/designated/intended... to pay for the butter", or, more briefly (but rather clumsily), "the money for the butter".  For, at  a push, but not From ". The money from the butter" could be used if somebody were selling the butter.

Which brings us to the afterthought sometimes added to intensify Vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre ...: et le sourire de la crémière. The crémière does perhaps collect "the money from the butter". This intensifier was presumably the source  of  the Luxembourg Prime Minister's: “They want to have their cake, eat, and get a smile from the baker.
This is a pretty impressive bit of linguistic pyrotechnics  – not so much L1-interference  as L1-interpretation or just L1-riffing; he even adds "get" where the French model has no verb, and then changes the supplier appropriately. And all in a second (or even possibly third) language.
Another culinary metaphor to receive a new lease of life from Brexit is cherry-picking. This can be understood in one of two ways: either picking dessert cherries from a mixed fruit-bowl (not a way I've ever seen cherries served),  or – greedily and selfishly – picking a glacé cherry from the top of a bun/cake,  and thus unknowingly but carelessly marking the residual carbs as tainted. Or maybe, now I think of  it, the image evokes someone viewing a bowl of cherries and picking the ripest.

I'm not sure I buy everything Profeeor Horobin says. For example, I don't think even he believes it when he says 'The belief that the mouth was designed principally for its consumption is suggested by the slang term “cake-hole.”'. "Designed principally"...? Does he know what principally means?   But his blog is worth a read. And when he points to "with a cherry on top" as a possible intensifier to "the icing on the cake" I'm reminded of that crémière (whose smile is used to intensify the beurre metaphor).


PS: A couple of clues:
  • Championship is moreish in a sense. (8)
  • Orchestral manœuvres after withdrawal of leftist extremists before Part Three finale, Nijinsky, for example. (9)

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Les mots n'existent pas

My late French master (the marvellous Cedric Baring-Gould, mentioned before in this blog, here for example) used to attribute this gnomic expression to Maurice Grévisse (who, appropriately, enough, looks not ungnome-like)  

I think it means something like A word without a context has no free-standing existence. There's more to a language than a set of dictionary definitions. If anyone ever wrote it, that is  (as I haven't been able to pin down chapter and verse). And even if nobody ever did write it, it's still true.

Some time ago I wrote (here)
...I've never been a great believer in the exactitude of synonyms. I've mentioned before (several times Рcheck in the cloud of keywords in the left-right-hand column) my old French master Cedric Baring-Gould, who was fond of quoting Gr̩visse: 'Les mots n'existent pas'. I haven't been able to trace the quote, which is pretty gnomic; but I think it means that words don't have an independent existence, that has no regard for context. In any case where there can be said to be synonyms, one of them will Рin that context Рbe le mot juste.

I thought of this  during the BBC  news coverage of the March 2018 Italian elections, the morning after which  a newspaper bore the headline Tutto cambia.  "All  change" mistranslated the reporter. I imagine he knew enough Italian to know it was wrong. A condottore, reaching the end of the line, says Si cambia. If I were being charitable, I suppose the reporter had been up all night, and reached for the nearest cliché (which, after all, looks like the  sort of thing that might appear in a tabloid).

But, wearing my less charitable (more usual?) garb, I smell the sterile whiff of a dictionary in the hands of an ignoramus. "What does tutto mean? 'All'. What does cambia mean? 'Change'. Put them together, and hey presto: ALL CHANGE. Simples."

Except... no. Tutto – everything (not everyone, as in "All change"); cambia it changes. So that headline means something more like "Everything is changing" – it gives information about the new situation, rather than issuing an irrelevant order.

Just saying...

But I must get back to THE BOOK #WVGTbk2.


PS – A couple of clues:
  • Concealed before place of concealment? Concealed. (6)
  • Old lag getting it back a third of the way in: near the knuckle. (8)

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

A mole by any other name

Last week MrsK tried a new recipe for something called Turkey Mole. I had never met the word mole in a culinary context – though the fact that  one of the ingredients was chocolate should have alerted me to the likelihood of a South American origin.

New words are like buses, you spend years not meeting a word and then two come along at once. In Saturday's Times Giles Coren  was reviewing a restaurant specializing in Mexican food, and he mentioned that one of the dishes came with a mole. I knew what it was,  just-in-time,  and tried to find other related words. Staying in South America, guacamole is a sort of mole – so there was another mole, hiding in plain sight.

Could this be related to our molars – the grinding teeth? Everyday English doesn't have any other word that preserves the "o" in a grinding word (as do Spanish and Italian [moler/molere] and no doubt many others. In French, it's become "ou" in moulin (and even the most monoglottally Anglophone will have met this in the trade-name  Moulinex). In English and German, different leaves of the PIE tree, we have mill and Mühle.
Another way of smashing things up to release the flavour (apart from grinding, that is) is pounding or crushing, and words related to that are derived from the Latin pestare. The most obvious derivative from this is pesto, made with a pestle. This shows how a word that refers to a process can come to be used to refer to a sauce made with that process.
Detail of the image in that video
But let's look more closely at that derivation of guacamole.   I knew before that avocado, the main constituent of  guacamole, is nothing to do with the similar-looking advocacy. Rather, it derives from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl (Nahuatl being the language spoken by the Aztecs).
Watch the video here  to see that avocado means testicle – presumably because of the way they hang.
But I had no idea until the last weekend in February that the "guaca-" of guacamole derived from ahuacatl.  Etymonline says:

So, it all looks pleasingly neat: Sp. moler, Pg moer, It. molere, Prov. molre, Cat. modre. Eng. mill, Ger. Mühle, Nahuatl molli ...{?} Hang on though, not so fast. Why should the language of the Aztecs (which pre-dates the Spanish which didn't begin to taint it until the late 15th century)  have anything to do with a PIE language? This is inviting further investigation, though I suspect the seeming relatedness between words to do with grinding (which on the analogy of pesto can  be used to refer to a sauce made with that process) and the Nahuatl molli is illusory and accidental. Shame....  Very probably molli has as much to do with grinding as ahuacatl has to do with advocacy.


PS – A couple of clues:
  • Bi-polar longing to spill the beans. (6)
  • Deserving opprobrium about sort of tail wrapped round first of belligerents. (13)

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The law of accumulating returns

Agonists and antagonists – things have an evil anti-thing;
<ipa_joke origin="tweeted once, but never caught on">
Jim Al-Kalili's anti-person would be "Midge Acid-id". Midge/Jim isn't an obvious pair, but /mɪʤ/ versus /ʤɪm/ looks a lot better.
This site explains "the expanding sphere of radio signals traveling outward from the earth":
As depicted in the beginning of the movie ‘Contact’, the earth has an expanding ‘bubble’ of man-made radio signals expanding outward at the speed of light. The first of these early radio transmissions were short range experiments that used simple clicks and interrupts to show transmission of information in the 1890s. In 1900, Reginald Fessenden made the first — though incredibly weak — voice transmission over the airwaves. The next year saw a step up in power as Guglielmo Marconi made the first ever transatlantic radio broadcast.

This means that at 110 light-years away from earth — the edge of a radio ‘sphere’ which contains many star systems — our very first radio broadcasts are beginning to arrive. At 74 light-years away, television signals are being introduced. Star systems at a distance of 50 light-years are now entering the ‘Twilight Zone’.
But hold on to that Twilight.  "Rage against the dimming of the light" – the Lichterdãmmerung. That site goes on:
As radio signals leave earth, they propagate out in a wave form. Just like dropping a stone in a lake, the waves diffuse or “spread out” over distance thanks to the exponentially larger area they must encompass. The area can be calculated by multiplying length times width which is why we measure it in square units – square centimeters, square miles, etc. This means that the further away from the source, the more square units of area a signal has to ‘illuminate’.
inverse square law
Another way to think of it, is that the strength of a radio signal will be only 1/4 as great once you are twice the distance from the source. At ten times the distance, the strength of the signal would only be one hundredth as great.

Because of this inverse square law, all of our terrestrial radio signals become indistinguishable from background noise at around a few light-years from earth.
Of course, the Inverse Square Law works in both directions The Cosmic Microwave Background radiation didn't start life as, say, I Love Lucy, but by the time it reaches us it doesn't have a very high signal-to-noise ratio; my guess is that it's 0, as near as dammit.
The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is thought to be leftover radiation from the Big Bang, or the time when the universe began. As the theory goes, when the universe was born it underwent a rapid inflation and expansion. (The universe is still expanding today, and accelerating for unknown reasons). The CMB represents the heat left over from the Big Bang.


An image of the cosmic microwave background radiation, taken by the European Space Agency (ESA)'s Planck satellite in 2013, shows the small variations across the sky
Credit: ESA/Planck Collaboration
That account goes on:
... the CMB was first found by accident. In 1965, two researchers with Bell Telephone Laboratories (Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson) were creating a radio receiver, and were puzzled by the noise it was picking up. They soon realized the noise came uniformly from all over the sky. At the same time, a team at Princeton University (led by Robert Dicke) was trying to find the CMB. Dicke's team got wind of the Bell experiment and realized the CMB had been found.

Both teams quickly published papers in the Astrophysical Journal in 1965, with Penzias and Wilson talking about what they saw, and Dicke's team explaining what it means in the context of the universe. (Later, Penzias and Wilson both received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics).
A year after the Nobel Prize was awarded, I also found something by accident, and it has a strangely metaphorical relevance (to signals being broadcast rather than those received).
I was on holiday in the Pelopponese,  in the then only slightly developed fishing village of Tolo. (For some reason Wikipedia says "in Katharevousa known as Tolon [Τολόν]" – as though that purifying semi-artificial language were unique in using case-endings.
I suppose that "semi- artificial" may raise a few hackles. Do put me straight if I have wronged the Wikipedi-scribe.
The village is on a tiny coastal strip. There were no big hotels at the time, and the roof of the sea-front taverna I was staying in had views  in one direction of the Aegean and in the other of the range of mountains (or rather, hills –  but quite rugged ones) that constituted that Pelopponesian finger.

Early one morning, before even the squid-basher had started his daily tenderizing tattoo, I walked up the hill to try to make sense of Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn"; of course, in order to see the sunrise I had to get away from sea-level.

At the top of the hill I was indeed surprised, but in a bad way. Beyond the skyline (tourist-line, perhaps) was a tip – thousands of binbags and plastic bottles, the waste-matter of a few years' tourism (as tourism was a relatively new import at the time). I touched on this plastic time-bomb here.)

(I never did get to the bottom of that "rosy-fingered" thing.).
Like that careless and improvident excretion of rubbish out of sight. our growing sphere of spent radio signals is a sign of our disruptive presence. And if we are really to take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints we need to find a way of catching our radio-frequency detritus before it makes more of a mess. Perhaps Elon Musk could take a break from wantonly adding to space pollution (see where that roadster is here if you must) and turn his mind to the problem of making money somehow by clearing up after 20th and 21st century technology's messes.

 PS And here are a few clues:
  • Lack of viciousness characteristic of  this sort of apprentice.(6)
  • Solitary predatrix's loss of second ring underlines her lack of team-mates. (10)
  • Getting the better of, with redoubled energy, is source of shock. (8)