Thursday, 28 March 2013

The UK Backlog Authority

Yesterday's FT reports:
Ms May’s decision to bring the organisation – dubbed by some MPs the “UK Backlog Agency” – back under direct control of Home Office ministers is a risky one since she and her team will be in the line of fire if mistakes are made.
See more here
I'm not sure that the MP dubbers are  being entirely original here; but they have reminded me of a strange property that words have, letting them come to mean the opposite of what the original coining implied. They just reverse polarity (from good to bad, or vice versa) in a flip that would be the envy of Von Däniken (was he the one? - mad theory about geomagnetic shenanigans) : crazy, bad, sick, fat, wicked... It's not difficult to add to the list. These meanings just flip to make a code obscure, often intentionally.

Foreign languages can point this up: French terrible doesn't mean 'terrible'; the adjective, in English, doesn't work like that. The adverb, though, does: something that is terrible (Fr) is terribly good. (I first became aware of this in a Johnny Halliday song; when I read the song's name on the sleeve [not having started to study French] I assumed that Elle est terrible had negative connotations. When I heard it, it obviously showed approval; the tune was that of one I'd already heard: She's Somethin' Else [I had no clear idea of what it meant exactly, but it was obviously approving].)

David Crystal crystallizes  [sorry -  ] this tendency in the word 'glamour' in The Story of English in 100 Words
Grammar comes from a Latin word, grammatica [ed: a  derivation beyond the ken of many a student, asking about 'grammer'], which in turn derives from gramma, meaning a written mark or letter... and eventually this sense was extended to mean the knowledge that a person acquires through literacy.... This is where the supernatural comes in.... When the word arrived in English, in the 14th century, it brought in those associations [ed: associations with the occult]. A new word emerged. People would talk about grammarye, meaning 'occult learning', 'necromancy'.
This is the root of the word glamour, which came to refer to charm or attractiveness in the early twentieth century. Crystal doesn't say so, but it seems likely to me that Hollywood had something to do with it. The progression from wizardry to smoke & mirrors to magic lantern shows to movies strikes me as a fairly likely one.

Crystal goes on
The word took an unexpected direction in the 1950s, when it began to be used as a euphemism for nude or topless modelling.
Ironic: the schoolboy marks his place in the hated grammar book [my schoolboy is circa 1960, of course, when they still studied the stuff] with a recent 'swap' – a glamour picture on a cigarette card, thus bringing the two together after six centuries of separate (and diverging) phonetic development. It's the sort of reunion that you expect to find at the end of a Dickens novel!

But what has this to do with backlog? (I'm getting there, after a heroic exercise in self-control – resisting the urge to digress about the 'r' in encre, inchiostro etc: another time*, maybe...)

The words back and log were first fused together (to use an appropriately fiery metaphor) in the late seventeenth century. They referred to a log placed at the back of a fire. Such a log was desirable; it was a Good Thing. It protected the fire from going out. But about two hundred years later it was used metaphorically to mean a Good Thing in the commercial world: a stock of unfulfilled orders.

Here's where the reversal in polarity happened, possibly influenced by another meaning of log. The metaphorical ledger (whoops – there goes another digression that I don't have time for at the moment.... I won't even define it; even that'd take too long. But believe me, it's there. ) could be the record of a Bad Thing work that hasn't been done and gets more and more embarrassing as more is added to the mountain faster than it can be done.

Which is where I came in: UKBA RIP for a certain value of P – Purgatorio?

b
* Update 2013.04.05: It's here.

News from the word face
Release 2 of When Vowels Get Together is coming Real Soon Now just dotting a few ts and crossing a few is. Follow @WVGT_book for the announcement.

Update: 2013.10.02.15:55
Header updated:


 Mammon (When Vowels Get Together V4.0: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs – AA-AU, EA-EU, and  IA-IU, and – new for V4.0 – OA-OU.  If you buy it, contact  @WVGTbook on Twitter and I'll alert you to free downloads of the forthcoming volumes; or click the Following button at the foot of this page.)
And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: nearly 32,400 views**,  and  4,400 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1570 views/700 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.
 







Friday, 22 March 2013

Tempora obscuratio mea

This post refers to a pair of articles in last Saturday's Times, but it is hidden by those obscurantists behind a paywall. (Interesting word, 'obscurantist'; think of darkness, 'obscurity'. My first full-time employers, OUP, have a colophon that shows an open book inscribed with the words - the opening words of Psalm 27- Dominus illuminatio mea: 'The lord [is] my light':



current University device
The University Arms. The OUP Colophon shows just the open book: 

Domimina nustio illumea - oh how we larfed! The spreading of light, that's what text-based communication is about. Not paywalls. Tempora obscuratio mea - perhaps that should be The Times' motto. [And I KNOW OUP would have wanted an italicized The in my opening line; the Hart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.]

The first article is a news item on p. 11 of the hardcopy about a decision by Mid Devon Local Authority not to use apostrophes on road names; in fact. it is making official a de facto actuality that is not unique to Devon. When I moved to my current address, in 1984, I noted (with slight but admittedly risible annoyance) that my new home was in 'Spencers Wood' [sic - no apostrophe]. And in 1979 I learnt (with similar slight but admittedly risible annoyance) that book designers don't like apostrophes in display work, thinking they're visually fussy.

But my late twentieth-century sightings of apostropho-clasm are far from original. GBS wrote
I have written aint, dont, havent, shant, shouldnt, and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only when its omission would suggest another word: for example hell for he’ll. There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of papering [sic, in the Otrops article I link to below for further research. I regret having no time to find a primary source; I suspect Shaw may have used the more meaningful 'peppering'] pages with these uncouth bacilli.
(Isn't that bacilli marvellous? Bacilli were in the news at the time, because of discoveries in connection with these stick-like [Latin baculum  'little staff'; there's that '-ulus/m' again, denoting a diminutive, as noted in a previous post] microscopic objects. Shaw was a contemporary of Fleming – who was born before Shaw but outlived him. One can imagine Shaw reading a newspaper or scientific leaflet illustrated with a slide covered with these things looking like chocolate vermicelli - and there's another metaphor, 'little worms', but that would be a digression too far). You can read more about apostrophes here, if you're that way inclined. I really can't get awfully excited about this sort of thing.

 But one of the editorialists at The Times can oh yes. No names, no pack-drill, but I have my suspicions (think of the word 'pray' tacked on coyly after  questions in the Literary Quiz). How's this for blustering grandiloquence?
Its great virtue as a mark of punctuation [ed: my underline: useful bit of clarification here, in case we thought he was talking about its great virtue as... a table ornament?] is that it aids clarity and dispels confusion.... The residents of Mid Devon should have the uncontested right [best sort that, 'uncontested'; but has anyone contested it?] to share those benefits, [are we dealing with a Human Right here? Oh no, it's just for those happy few who have a winning ticket in the lottery of life:] which are enjoyed by the rest of the English-speaking world.
 A case in point is the unbelievably significant 'Bakers View'

The apostrophe is a punctuation mark [phew, that possible table ornament was getting uncomfortably central in my mind, glad he's cleared that up] that drives out ambiguity [shouldn't that have been 'casteth out ambiguity'?] It allows the reader to tell immediately [useful word that, 'immediately'; clearly, the apostrophe is not one of those insidious delayed-action punctuation marks] if a word or name is a singular possessive ('Baker's View'), a plural possessive ('Bakers' View') or a plural noun followed  by a verb ('Bakers View'). [Incidentally, that last one is meaningless as captalized; given the correct lower-case v, there are only two possible meanings.]
 As it happens, the news item explains that 'Bakers View' is  a new road or building overlooking a bit of greenery already called 'Bakers Park'. So if you wanted to be really anal about it there should be no apostrophe; but I don't. I don't think sane people do.

But maybe this bit of verbiage-generation doesn't happen behind the paywall. The repetitive and unnecessarily verbose editorial may have  been 'written' in response to a need to fill the space (about a third of the available – editorial – space). I'll never know. But I do recognize a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Language changes. 'Change and decay in all around I see.' It's a bit of a shame about the fate of the apostrophe. Life goes on. 'Point final' as my old French master used to say at  the end of a Dictée. I think it meant something like 'End of.'


b

Update 2013.03.24 PS * I was right about peppering. The source is George Bernard Shaw, "Notes on the Clarendon Press Rules for Compositors and Readers." The Author, 1901. (It is a happy coincidence that Shaw's words come from a review of the forerunner of the very rules that I mentioned with respect to another bit of quaint arbitrariness – the italicized The in The Times though not in, for example, 'the New York Times'.) I have this information from a fuller and more reliable piece on the apostrophe than the Ostrop piece I cite in the main post. For fuller information, see here. I've taken this opportunity also to update the usage figures in the section that follows.
* Update 2013.04.05: It's here.

Update: 2013.10.02.15:55
Footer updated:


 Mammon (When Vowels Get Together V4.0: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs – AA-AU, EA-EU, and  IA-IU, and – new for V4.0 – OA-OU.  If you buy it, contact  @WVGTbook on Twitter and I'll alert you to free downloads of the forthcoming volumes; or click the Following button at the foot of this page.)
And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: nearly 32,400 views**,  and  4,400 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1570 views/700 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.
 

Friday, 15 March 2013

The War Against Error

When I first saw the title of If you need to explain why it's wrong... (a blog post) I suspected that it was another case of ellipsis-abuse, and meant 'If you need to explain why, it's wrong'. But I was wrong. The unexpressed (ellipted) conclusion was '....in what sense are we using the word wrong?', or - more radically - '...how can we say it's wrong?'

The title of the post was suggested by an experience that the blogger describes at the outset: 
Do you know what the word ambivalent means?
A student of mine was very pleased to be able to catch me out with this word. I had assumed it meant "not particularly bothered", but apparently it doesn't. I had a hunch about this word so I asked four of the native speakers sitting with us what they thought. Three said they had no idea and one said she thought it meant something similar to what I had thought. 

This student got me thinking; when no one knows the so-called 'correct' meaning, how can it still be considered correct? Likewise, if a language rules exists but no one follows it, is it still a rule?
As a matter of fact I do know what ambivalent means; by guessing on the basis of ambidextrous and co-valent (from a half-remembered chemistry lesson) I can see that it means more than not particularly bothered. But I also know, from studying the history of languages, that historical mistakes play a big part in the meaning of words now. My own post told the intriguing story of how a bat (an 'owl-mouse') became a 'bald-mouse' (Fr chauve-souris); but the unarguably correct word for 'bat' in French enshrines that mistake.

At the end of a recent discussion here (pay special attention to the thread title) I posted this correction:
I missed this first time around. It's such a commmon (make that 'commmmmon') mistake that I've become de-sensitized.

Millenium, if it existed ('These are the only ones of which the news has come to Hahvard/And there may be many others but they haven't been discuhvered') would be an element with the atomic number 1,000. A period of a thousand years is a millenNium.
Another discussion in the same forum involved some ritual posturing about the meanings of {yawn} infer and imply. The final (or maybe I should say 'latest') post pointed to this dictionary definition, which gave these four definitions:
1. To conclude from evidence or premises.
2. To reason from circumstance; surmise: We can infer that his motive in publishing the diary was less than honorable.
3. To lead to as a consequence or conclusion: "Socrates argued that a statue inferred the existence of a sculptor" (Academy). [BK Sic - I've no idea what that is; I suppose I could have brushed it under the carpet with an ellipsis, but I thought I'd let you share my confusion.]
4. To hint; imply.
What's a girl to think? Meanings 1 and 2 are the inverse of meanings 3 and 4. The dictionary comes to the rescue with a Usage Note:
The use of infer to mean imply is common in both speech and writing, but is regarded by many people as incorrect
Errors happen, and they play a role in the evolution of language. I know that. In Darwinian evolution (if you'll excuse the excursus), a faulty copy of the gene for neck growth - I'm over-simplifying here of course, but bear with me - gives a proto-giraffe a tiny advantage in the Acacia-leaf-gobbling Stakes and thus makes a longer neck more likely to feature in the next generation. But given my run of  the human genome I wouldn't swap a few As and Cs for Gs and Ts at random on the off-chance of causing a fitter mutation. I prefer what I know works.

The same goes for language. There are some 'mistakes' that are well on the way to being incorporated into 'the standard language' - whatever that is; but I will not knowingly make them. I am a prescriptivist in descriptivist's clothing. But I'm not sure I understand how it's possible to be anything else if you love language.

b

Notes from the word-face
Yesterday I broached the -EU-s. As I did much of the work 18 months ago, in preparation for my ELton 2012 submission, this digraph shouldn't take long; I just have to 're-purpose' it, as they used to say in the tech-writing world, and reformat it. But, barring cruel strokes of fate, release 2 of  When Vowels Get Together should happen next month. And in the dimmer and more distant future, there may well be an ELTons 2014 submission of the whole thing
* Update 2013.04.05: It's here.

Update: 2013.10.02.15:55
HeadFooter updated
Update: 2015.12.02.22:05 – and again:

Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs – but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?)

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  
Nearly 50,000 views and 9,000 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with nearly 2,700 views and nearly 1,100 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.




Saturday, 2 March 2013

The bookcase has landed

The diary entry
Long before the date in 1951 when my mother, whom Saints preserve, wrote in her diary the less-than-flowery 'Robert was born', she had a corner bookcase. It had the characteristic of all such handed pieces of furniture (MrsK has inherited a chaise longue quite like it in this respect): it never fits. Or, more accurately, it fits perfectly very occasionally. It did in the first home I remember, where it housed a number of small-format books (the shelves are rather dinky) – notably a dictionary that would only fit diagonally (with a spine that reflected this mistreatment), a number of green Penguins, the Ogden Nash book I quoted from in an earlier post (I remember wondering what 'Thoughts Thought After a Bridge-Party' was about, although I enjoyed the rhyming of canteloupe' (whatever that was) with  'a lioness opening up an antelope'), and a book of comic verse that included a ballad starting: 
Prope ripam fluvii solus
A senex silently sat

Super capitum ecce his wig

Et wig super ecce his hat.
My big sister, who was just starting Latin at school, translated for me. It was not a very exciting story; it involved an old man sitting by a river wearing a wig and a hat. The first action was 'Tunc blew zephyrus...'; and, to cut a long story short, everything ended up in the water; and the moral was 'Mehercle, you're gratus to that'.

When we were divvying up her [my mother's] post-mortem chattels, it was decided that I should have the bookcase. But, as I said, it didn't fit in most places; in particular, it didn't fit in the life of a young man in his thirties. But last month it came home, as I'd finally found a room where it would fit, and my big brother, who'd been minding it for over thirty years, brought it back to what I like to think of as its home - the place where some of the contents I remember (small format, do not forget that, Best Beloved) were being kept.

The other books that had caught my young attention were a pair of slim volumes by Ivor Brown, called A Word in Your Ear and  Just Another Word, published in the early 1940s, and adhering to the Book Production War Economy Standard. They are charming compendiums of words that just happened to interest Mr Brown – published by Jonathan Cape, now swallowed up by Random House, who published them at a time of trial. (Incidentally, I think there may be a relation between troubled times and the publication of whimsical books like this;  Gallimaufry: A hodgepodge of our vanishing vocabulary was published in late 2006, when the capitalist boat was starting to rock, The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language was published in late 2011, a little over a year after the onset of George Osborne's reign of terror, or as Wikipedia in its section on 2011 puts it 'Osborne's policies caused continuing concern as a series of bad data indicated the deteriorating state of the UK economy.'... Maybe there's a blog idea here... <thinks>). Ivor Brown's two gems  are now in the bookcase, in my study.

I was reminded of these books while I was listening the other day to John Lloyd's The Meaning of Liff at Thirty, which included an interview with Steven Pinker. Pinker introduced the word – new to me and to John Lloyd (whose cv in Wikipedia for some reason omits reference to one of his earlier  professional productions, Paradise Mislaid [get it?]) (As it was one of the highlights of my misspent youth, I'd better get editing....) – Pinker introduced the word (I was saying) phonesthesia, more vulgarly known as 'sound symbolism'. Phonesthesia, says Pinker (the discussion of this feature lasts for a bit more than a minute, starting at 18'40") is 'the way that the sounds of words remind you of what they refer to'. And the example he uses is 'sn-' words - snout, snuff, sneer, sneeze, snooty.... - all which have something to do with noses.

Here's where Ivor Brown comes in:
...[W]hen the snob is spurning or rebuking his supposed inferiors, he conforms  to the habit of his first letters. Here is a catalogue of proud, contemptuous 'Sn's' – sneer, snub, snicker, sniff, sneap, snotty or snooty,  snub, snuffy. Sneap is the most dignified of these, a word of pedigree as well as pride. Falstaff used sneap for rebuff: 'I will not undergo this sneap without reply'....It is regrettable that snub should have grown so far in favour as to make us forgetful of sneap...Snirrup or snurp is (or was) a Northern term for turning up the nose.
As seun as she fund I depended on labour
She snirpt up her nose and nae mair leuked at me.
occurs in a Cumbrian ballad.
Just Another Word, sv SNEAP, SNOB, AND SNUB

When I first read this, I thought sn- words were unique in this quality, a belief that seemed to be confirmed when Steven Pinker gave this as an example (talking over 70 years later – which I thought was long enough for scholars to think up other examples). But he did give another one: cl- words often refer to gathering things together: clutch, clench, clasp, class, cling....; the same does not apply to all such words, though I suspect it's hard to clamber or climb without clutching something on the way. And, now I think of it, nonsense verse and other sorts of word play exploit phonesthesia: 'Oh frabjous day!' free and fruitful, marked by frantic celebration* – rather like what I feel about about the bookcase and its new-found and long-lost familiar contents, those two books..

b
† She had yet to learn that my name is 'Bob'.

Update 13.03.13:15.30: a few tweaks, and new TES stats
Update 04.04.13:12.20: * And joyous, of course. Note to self: never underestimate the intricacies of comic verse.

* Update 2013.04.05: It's here.

Update: 2013.10.02.16:05 – Footer updated
Update 2013.11.10.10:30 – Footer updated
Update 2014.10.05.14:30 – Footer updated again (but not yet with today's figures naughty TES), and added this PS:
PS
Another common source of examples of phonesthesia is words that start st- : steady, sturdy, staunch, stalwart, stout, stolid, stanchion, staddle stone, staid, steadfast .... And, I suspect, stud – in the sexual sense if not the fixing. I was reminded of this in last night's Crimes of Passion, when Eje had been caught out in circumstances that could suggest straying from loyalty to his new, and extraordinarily (not to say implausibly) nosy wife Puck. The programme is subtitled, but I couldn't help taking in (although the nearest I know to Swedish is a smattering of German, Best Before November 1969) the Swedish word he used in his defence. This surprised me rather, as he seemed to be using a word cognate with stud. But no, he said stödjande [='supportive'] (I tested the subtitle against Google Translate.)

But the 'Google translate' test isn't really enough. When you translate, you have to do something about the imagery as well; I said a bit more about this here. An over-protective, interfering, fierce woman (xanthippean is the word  – which I didn't call out at the Wilde Theatre the other night (in response to a challenge to find a word beginning with X other than xylophone, X-ray and xenophobe [much to the relief, no doubt, of my companions but that's another story]) kept telling her daughter not to slouch. I think the subtitle said 'slump'  – not quite the right word. But then she said 'You look like a sack of flour' – not quite the right image. In this context (my father and his sister Katy were sticklers for deportment, in a gentle sort of way) the only simile I've heard is 'You look like a sack of potatoes'.

Update 2015.03.25.22:30 – Added picture of the diary mentioned in the first para.


 Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?) 

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  over 46,200 views  and over 6,225 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with nearly 2,350 views and 1,000 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.