Monday, 22 December 2014

Face, Arm. Speech...

<explanation object="grandmother" teaching_topic="egg-sucking" source = "Wikipedia"> 
FAST is an acronym used as a mnemonic to help detect and enhance responsiveness to stroke victim needs. The acronym stands for Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time.[1]
  • Facial drooping: A section of the face, usually only on one side, that is drooping and hard to move
  • Arm weakness: The inability to raise one's arm fully
  • Speech difficulties: An inability or difficulty to understand or produce speech
  • Time: Time is of the essence when having a stroke, and an immediate call to emergency services or trip to the hospital is recommended.[1]

I've been thinking about the weasel-word 'noncritical'. A couple of years ago I reflected (here) on another word whose meaning betrays the value-system of the speaker:
What do we mean by safe? The question was occasioned by a news story I heard recently, which reported that driver deaths had declined while there had been a more-than-proportional rise in deaths of  'other road users'. As a lifelong member of the ORU club I can only say 'No sh*t Sherlock'. 
Cars are getting 'safer', say various partis pris; fewer motorists are being killed. Well bully for them! - I'll tell you what a safe car is: one that instead of a driver airbag has a fixed bayonet mounted on the steering wheel, its point aimed at the driver's heart. Safe. Hmmm....

A bit of background. News broke yesterday of a 'secret plan to double ambulance waiting times'.

The changes would see target times for a proportion of "serious by [sic, perhaps 'but'] not life threatening" Red 2 incidents, which include strokes and seizures, increase from eight minutes to 19 minutes. 
The leaked memo drawn up by the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives said the proposals have been approved by Mr Hunt, subject to confirmation from the medical directors of 10 ambulance trusts.
OK, OK, we all know about leaks of secret plans and how easily they are batted aside by spin doctors. The only undeniable fact here is that someone THOUGHT about it. [E pur si muove, as Galileo put it. {Rough translation: But still...}]

What I find irksome about the frantic 'spinning' that followed the leak was the assumption that they could talk their way out of it by thinking up a new meaning for a well used word – not, in this case, 'safe', but 'noncritical'.

The word critical has been with us for quite some time:
critical (adj.) Look up critical at Dictionary.com1580s, "censorious," from critic + -al (1). Meaning "pertaining to criticism" is from 1741; medical sense is from c.1600; meaning "of the nature of a crisis" is from 1640s; that of "crucial" is from 1841, from the "decisive" sense in Latin criticus...
says Etymonline, among other things, But that 'medical sense' is presumably the one that's relevant here. Medical professionals know what they mean by it; if an ambulance doesn't get to a stroke victim for an extra eleven minutes, they're not going to die. Granted, they'll have a much-reduced quality of life; but they'll be at least breathing for a good few years yet (and, incidentally, consuming more NHS resources into the bargain [I wonder how good  Jezzer is at saying 'Unintended consequences']); they won't die.

But whoever wrote that lamentable and pusillanimous proposal wasn't using that medical sense (although he knew it, and relied on his audience of medical professionals to assume that that was what he meant). He was using it in the more recent, devalued, generalized sense of 'jolly important'.
Coincidentally, 'jolly important' is the vulgarized and diluted meaning of 'time is of the essence' as used in that Wikipedia quote. It wasn't until I met the legal meaning in contract law, where time really is of the essence (that is, there's no contract – it has no being – unless the <whatever>  is done on time) that I understood this idiom.
It's a shame that the Collins usage graph doesn't show different rates of change for different senses: one sense coming to the fore, but dying out, with others taking over with greater or lesser success. But here's what they give us for 'critical':
Scroll down to the foot of the page for this unsung lexicographical gem
I've said before that sadly we don't know the absolute values of the axes and have to make do with relative ones. But what is clear is that for its first few hundred years it was bumping along at about the 1 somethings level (with a momentary doubling at about the time of the Seven Years War – coincidence or what?) But then, about the middle of the 20th century, its usage went up 3 or 4 times; and I imagine (THIS IS A GUESS – [extrapolated from the economic tenet: 'Bad money drives out good'])  the majority of this increase reflects  the vulgarized meaning.

And this growth coincides with the growth in the usage of noncritical:
(didn't bother with the 300-year view, as it hasn't been around that long)

Words with a vague meaning like that are a godsend for HMG (HER MAJESTY'S GHOULS?); I see their use as DOUBLEPUSUNGOOD.†

Ho hum. Enough for now. There's serious word-bashing to be done.


PS today's clue: Blues boy eats energy bar before appearing  at a dive like this. (6)

Update 2014.12.23.18:25 – Added this note:

There's an explanation of  this piece of Orwell's Newspeak at the end of the second paragraph of this piece, but you might find it interesting to read the whole thing, which I hope will give an idea of my point – about the intentional manipulation of language for political reasons.

Update 2015.02.16.15:10 – Time's up on that clue: cabaret

 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 48,600 views  and nearly 6,550 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 over 2,400 views and nearly 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.

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