Saturday, 31 December 2016

Watching and seeing

A quick reflection on a quirk of collocation (words that go with each other).

I noticed the other day when my Daughter-in-law-Elect asked  'Have you watched <film_name>?' that here there was a difference between my collocation rules and hers. I  'SEE a film' and 'WATCH a television programme'. I looked in the British National Corpus, and found these results:

watch a film    number of instances:  7
see a film        number of instances: 19

But the sample size is quite small and quite old (100 million words; 1980-93). The larger and more recently-updated Corpus Of Contemporary Anerican (520 million words, 1990-2015)

watch a film    number of instances: 20 (a much smaller proportion)
see a film      number of instances: 61 (a slightly smaller proportion)

But, as we're looking at American usage in the case of COCA, perhaps these figure are more representative:

watch a movie   number of instances:  253
see a movie       number of instances:  293

And they give a much more evenly-balanced picture.

Besides, this generic vocabulary is rather suspect. I thnk it's probably likely that people would say 'I have seen The Magnificent Seven n times' or – to quote a primary school colleague of mine, of dubious taste (and no less dubious veracity) – 'I have seen The Guns of Navarone 15 times.' And I don't see how one could  frame a corpus query in a way that would catch all such collocations.

Perhaps, as the speaker who started this hare was a millennial, as they say, this just indicates the age and movie-consumption mores of the speaker. Whereas I and my contemporaries look on movie-going as going to a (big-screen) show (to see a film), younger speakers are more likely to catch their movies on a smaller screen (and perhaps watch a DVD or something streamed, or whatever these young folks do, m'lud). That could account for the much more even COCA figures.

Anyway, there goes a year of great notability (make that notoriety in some respects). See you on the other side. :-)


Update: 2017.01.01.15:00 – Added PS

PS And while we're on the subject of corpora, one of the many retrospective programmes that have been aired in the last week has reminded me of two things:
  • Jeremy Corbyn's use of ram-packed
  • my response to the question What's wrong with Google as a corpus?
Google reports nearly 17,000,000 results in a search for ram-packed. But Garbage-In-Garbage-Out. Here's BNC's search for *am-packed (as usual, just click on the link and sit back while the corpus does its stuff): spoiler – 21 jam-packed, 1 dream-packed, nothing else.  COCA has a different story: 266 jam-packed, and a single alternative; but that alternative is cram-packed (only three).

Ram-packed is an interestng neologism. It combines the idea of jam-packed with the idea of people being pushed willy-nilly into a carriage. As of 2017, I'd hesitate to call it a word; but that certainly doesn't mean it  will never be . This Google search shows that only 70-odd thousand of those 17 million results link ram-packed with Corbyn. So it's well on the way to... verbitude? Perhaps OED will name it  Word of the Year 2017.

Happy New Year. :-)

Friday, 23 December 2016

.. and then TWO come along at the same time

In Wednesday's Book of the Week, Love of Country, a word leapt out from Madeleine Bunting's reading and stirred a – you guessed it – memory, tinged with regret.
<autobiographical_note date_range="1981–1983">
In the early '80s I worked for Macdonald and Co. (Publishers) Ltd. When the firm was swallowed up by BPPC, owned by Robert Maxwell, we moved to a large office building (a hastily converted factory, to be honest) renamed, with sublime lack of  social awareness, Maxwell House.

One of my favourite authors was the old (nay auld) Scot Finlay J Mcdonald (no relation), and the first of the three autobiographical reminiscences of his childhood on Harris was called Crowdie & Cream. I handled the photographs used in this book, one of which was very valuable (he had borrowed it from someone who ... I'm not sure, but anyway it was important to the owner)..

When I was let go (as discussed, or at least referred to, before) I had a few minutes to clear my desk, and the converted factory had no space for storage. The photo went missing, and the people left behind, failing to find the photo, did the natural thing and blamed the absentee. Although I had visited him and his wife at Twechar (then on the outskirts of Glasgow, since no doubt englouti enGlasgowed?) and we had been on friendly terms (I remember amusing him by observing that when I telephoned the key-tones in his 10-digit number played
There was a wee cooper wha lived in Fife
) I never heard from him again. He was a fairly spry old man at the time, but is almost certainly no longer with us*. His much younger wife (a singer of Gaelic songs, [Catriona possibly]), though,  may well still be with us, and I hope she doesn't bear a grudge.
The word that brought this to mind was machair, a sea-side strip of rough grass typical of the Hebrides. I had met the word in the typescript of Crowdie & Cream, and checked the spelling of course, but had never heard it spoken – /ˈmæxər/, says Collins   (though Ah hae ma doots about that first vowel).

Next on the morning's schedule was Woman's Hour, in an edition called Seven at 70. One of the seven was Liz Lochhead. Jane Garvey ( for it was she) didn't use the word, I think, in introducing the poet. but she is (or was – Wikipedia would know)  holder/occupant of the Scottish equivalent (a word that may well raise some hackles: what sort of worth are talking about?) of  the UK's Poet Laureate. This position's name is transcribed in the many ways typical of a borrowing, one transcription (a hotly disputed, hypercorrect one) is machair. I think makar is more politically correct (some would say just CORRECT), bur this coincidence, thrown up by the aleatoric whimsy of the radio schedule, tickled my fancy.

Ho hum... yuletide ballast to be collected... In the immortal words of Tom Lehrer

Deck the hall with hunks of holly
Brother  here we go again.

PS And here's a clue:
  • Dr Spooner's instruction to Capt. Kirk, jumper in line-out? (9)
Update: 2016.12.23.13:30 – added PPS

PPS A festive clue:
  • Drumstick? Stocking-filler? (3)

Update: 2016.12.31.14:55 – Added footnote.

* This morning, by chance, I heard on the radio a programme that incorporated an interview with Finlay,  which made me wonder whether there was yet time to make my peace in person. But I soon realized that as it was on Radio 4 Extra it might well not  have been live. I've just checked: Old Year's Night was indeed recorded some 20 years after I knew him, but still 13/14 years ago.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Waiting Around, take 2

See full-sized version here
A quickie to preview tomorrow's carol concert, when I'll be revisiting the perennial crowned all in white problem first mentioned here.
In my (painfully RC) schools the line was unbending: the 'children' (the souls of the righteous) in the carol are 'crowned all in white'. In other words, they are sainted – and marked with haloes; which makes them look, from a distance, 'like stars' (Geddit?).
This was at oods with the version sung by my present choir, who put the breath after crowned (at least, they have done with previous MDs). I later (in the same post) concluded
... the waiting around needn't detain us. In any case, the unfortunate vision – of juvenile delinquents hanging about on street corners – applies to both readings. The position of the breath (after 'crowned' or after 'white') affects only the colour of their hoodies. While 'wait around' is a phrasal verb in current English, it probably wasn't when the carol was written towards the end of the 19th century. I suspect the 'wait' has the sense of 'being available to serve'; and the 'around' is a simple preposition of place.
To summarize,, the souls of the righteous, wearing haloes (in the manner of well-dressed saints everywhere, especially in Heaven) are positioned all around Himself, ready to jump to attention.

We will be singing several pieces new to the choir, among them Joys Seven – which is, in jazz terms, a paraphrase of The Lincolnshire poacher.
That's something they don't seem  to do in  Primary Schools any more  – communal singing of  what were known as "Folk Songs" before the Revival of  the late '50s–early '60s.. I remember at St Gregory's RC Primary School singing with gusto
When me and my companions were
    setting of a snare

'Twas then we spied a gamekeeper
For him we did not care
For we can wrestle and fight,
    me boys,

And jump o'er anywhere...
A one-time colleague of mine, who already played the piano and the violin, during her teacher-training was required to learn the guitar so that she could maintain eye-contact with her pupils. As a consequence of this sort of thinking, today's schoolchildren can sing Kumbaya but not Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill.
The interjection "me boys" in that extract are significant in a mistake I am always tempted to make in Joys Seven, because the two-word interjection at the equivalent place is "good man" – and I find it hard to avoid the less devout version.

Words, though; they won't learn themselves.


PS: The blog is becoming increasingly popular; I may have celebrity followers. On 13 Nov I posed this clue (here):

Unprepossessing discount store stocking entertainer. (8)

And I think, as you've had a month, I can point to an Uxbridge English Dictionary item from the 6 December edition of  I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue which uses the same wordplay: Susan Calman  said,  "Grimaldi: A run-down supermarket". Hers is less cluttered, but it's essentially the same joke. Not that I'm discounting independent evolution of the idea; it's not that obscure.

Update: 2016.12.16.14:50  – Added PPS

And while we're on the subject of the words to Joys Seven, the sixth verse (which needs a rhyme for six)
evokes in me another conditioned reflex from my old  St Gregory's days, provoked by the words
"To see her own son Jesus Christ upon the crucifix"

A cross is a cross; an image of someone on one (there have been thousands of people tortured to death that way, if not  millions, but Christ is usually the one depicted) is a crucifix. I thought I'd better confirm this bit of pedantry, and it seems that dictionaries tend to agree:



Still, they needed a rhyme for six, and there aren't too many. Besides, the Collins English Dictonary is more forgiving:

Monday, 5 December 2016

Carry on bell-ringing

You might have to work a bit at that one.... Try saying it with a French accent. :-)

But they're not (carrying on). The knell has been rung (!) for Whitechapel Foundry, which cast both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, based in London's Whitechapel, has long been the international centre for bespoke bells but the family run business has announced it is now set to close due to the "changing realities" of running a niche business. 
said the Daily Telegraph on Saturday not unbreathlessly. (What's wrong with a comma after the but? Apart from making the whole horrid sentence more readable it would make the absence of a hyphen from family-run less likely to derail the reader.)

The number of significant bells they have cast...
I expect (yep) foundry is related to font (as in typeface) – the  format           
 gives it away. The word font is yet another  example of  metaphor surviving long after the technology they're based on is obsolete. (I keep finding examples: here is a list (by no means exhaustive) that just deals with the technology of warfare.) In the days of hot-metal typesetting, a font actually involved molten metal. Microsoft and Apple's use of font is as metaphorical as their use of window.

* The dental stops in English are /t/ and /d/. They are both articulated with the tip of the tongue in the same place. The chief other difference (not the only one) is in the voicing.
... suggests that bell-foundries  aren't thick on the ground.  And this suggests that the Jenga tower of bell foundries is starting to wobble. So maybe a post-Brexit UK can say goodbye to church bells and start importing carillons....(?)

Will We Ever Learn?

The other day the lady at the Post Office offered me one of the new fivers, and said defensively "Are you OK with that?" The problem was animal fat.
This took me back to an O-level history  class that dealt with the Sepoy Mutiny: Mr Crosby told his class ...
(it was a history class and we were boys, but you can forget The History Boys: he dictated and we wrote.
... that the mutiny was caused by the use of tallow in the manufacture of a new rifle cartridge. More recent scholarship suggests that this was never proved, but anyway the rumour was enough to prevent your average Hindu soldier from tearing off the top of the cartridge with his teeth.
More than a century later, the makers of the new fiver have made the same mistake, introducing new technology and not thinking about the implications of using animal fat in its manufacture. I wonder how much this will cost to put right; one of the main new features of this note was its long life in comparison with the old ones – a feature that won't be of any value if the bulk of the new notes have to be recalled and destroyed.

Updated: 2016.12.06.14:45 – Added digression in red.

Updated: 2016.12.20.16:25 – Typo fix in bold. I've no idea why examples became exams; it's a while since I thought of exams. Apologies to anyone who feared for my sanity. :-)

Monday, 28 November 2016

Confession of a prescriptivist in descriptivist's clothing

Word Watch

Funny how bees get attracted to bonnets. When I started writing for a living (not so much an author, more a glorified typist) I was warned against an arriviste word. As I started working for DEC (before HR started to insist on a full polysyllabic "Digital Equipment Corporation", which usually evoked a quizzical look, followed by the response "Oh, you mean DEC") in 1984, the word had just started its assault (to use the prescriptivist's word, although the descriptivist might defend its  appropriateness by noting its derivation from the Latin saltare [="jump"]) on the citadel of linguistic rectitude. Collins English Dictionary shows this sudden uptick:

This curve suggests (as I was told at the time) that in the early '80s some group of linguistic vandals (probably Those Damn Yanks [traditional Bogeymen of prescriptivist rants])...
<digression subject="traditional Bogeymen">
(as has been the regular slur since the early days of the Republic). It is the price the USA pays for being such a fertile source of the innovations that make English so rich.
...probably on an MBA course (contrasting management styles), started introducing the  "proactive/reactive" distinction. And this was  not a case of a word being resurrected after pre-Victorian popularity, as is sometimes the case with "new" words decried by old fogeys.

But the flatness of that ground-hugging frequency curve until the early '80s shouldn't be thought to imply that the word just didn't exist before then. Etymonline traces it back to 1921:

proactive (adj.) 
also pro-active, of persons or policies, as an opposition to reactive, 1921, from pro- + active. From 1933, in psychology (learning theory).
I don't think I'll ever use it, as active – in the right context – can usually do the same job. But my lip will curl less when others use it.


PS: And here are a few clues:
  • After uneven exchange with Romans (five against six hundred), Boudicca might camp in one. (7)
  • Just take the first amendment: "Here I am" – whingeing, I'll be bound. (8)
  • Might be cooked up for one of ducal rank/ego. (4,1,1,6) 
Update: 2016.12.08.23:15 – Added PPS

PPS: Oops – Fixed one of the clues; saying which would give the game away.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Of crooks and crosiers

If you visited Iceland and asked someone what they called the smelling organ in the middle of their face, they'd tell you, nev. In Japan, it's hana. To Sar speakers in southern Chad it's kon, and among the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States. it's noli. In fact, you could go to more than 1,400 places around the world, question speakers of more than 1,400 different languages, and hear 1,400 words that contain the sound "n." But all of them mean the same thing: nose.

So said the Washington Post last September.
Well   G O S H ... Given that N is the nasal consonant par excellence (if it's possible to achieve excellence in nasality. There are others, but N is the granddaddy of them all)...
<further_explanation type="egg-sucking for grannies">
Put the tip of your tongue behind your teeth and jam the body of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, then make a speech-sound. It'll come out of your nose and be something like [n]. That's what a nasal consonant is – not necessarily [n], that is, but a consonant formed by releasing air down the nose.
... it seems to me that the question should be Out of 7,000 languages in the world, why do only 20% of them include a nasal? Surely it's just contrary NOT to include one? (Natural languages aren't invented; they evolve. And whatever mixture of sounds and gestures is involved in referring unambiguously to a nose, a nasal consonant is the first thing one would expect.)

Morten Christiansen, author of the paper that occasioned that article was on Inside Science last week, and he gave another body-part example: in languages that have a word for breast, many have the sound [m] in its name. I found this as surprising as the nose example: that is, nugatorily. Take a tube (a length of plastic drainpipe would be ideal) and make the  noise you make when the doctor tells you to 'Say "Ah"' – a continuous noise – down it. Then shut-and-open the free end of the tube, imitating a brass player with a mute. That's the noise a baby makes: ma. It would be surprising if words for mammary in natural languages FAILED to include the sound [m].

But as the Professor says at the end of that interview, there's something going on but we don't know what (that's not verbatim, but it gives the gist: the interview occupies the last 5 minutes of the end of that programme). The examples I've given are cherry-picked for literary effect (alias "cheap laughs"). There's more to this than meets, and while some of it can be explained with reference to articulatory physics there is much that can't be. By chance, I have been thinking about the not unrelated phonesthesia (first discussed here), which is due for a revisit.

Tai Chi, as so often, started the hare. My teacher often refers to what I hear as "the croix" (which she often explains by referring to the inguinal crease*). I make my francophone assumption by analogy with other linguistic relics of France's imperial presence in the far east, such as the name for a Chinese (ritually important) pony-tail  – the queue. But maybe, I've since thought, it's a native Chinese word that happens to share the crucial sound..
This sparked off a not entirely irrelevant memory of a conversation I had about 5 years ago with a fellow chorister  – a German national, but with impeccable English; impeccable, but not up to the term "cruciate ligament". She pointed to her knee and used the word she knew – Kreuzband. Although my German was immeasurably inferior to her English, I could translate (or at least make pretty secure educated guess) on the basis of the /kr/ sound.
The title of this post cheats a bit. The words crook and crosier do share a reference to what Etymonline calls
perhaps related to a widespread group of Germanic kr- words meaning "bent, hooked". 
Presumably crochet, crouchback, and hundreds of other /kr/ words share this provenance; even, by a more indirect root, words like crotchet (that's an American quarter-note), half of which in French is une croche (the French care more about the image – a quaver looks much more hook-y than a crotchet). This recalls.... no, no time.

Anyway, cheating. The crosier is shaped like a crook not because of phonological relatedness but because it's symbolic of the role of the carrier as a pastor – it's interesting how much Christian imagery refers to sheep and shepherds: pastor (related to pasture), "Worthy is the lamb that was slain", "I am the Good Shepherd", "feed my lambs"... even the word congregation is derived ultimately from the Latin for flock: grex, -gis.
Anyway, that's enough for now. I have some serious word-bashing to do.


PS: A couple of clues:
  • Tangled thread leads to scarcity (6)
  • International security force tucked in to make a digression (11)

Update: 2016.11.23.22:00 – Added footnote and PPS.

* Investigation of inguinal crease will lead you into the sort of web-site that appeals to young men. who hanker after a six-pack, rather than to an old man with a Party Four.

PPS: And another clue – 
  • Show about the Spanish  – bit rude. (10)

Update 2017.01.20.11:15 – Added PPPS

PPPS: The answers: DEARTH. INTERPOLATE. and ... no, can't do it! [got it: INDELICATE].

Update 2017.01.22.13:45 – Corrected PPPS.

Friday, 11 November 2016

There's no 'ism' like sexism

In German man is not the same as Mann, and Germans presumably have no PC qualms about words formed with the morpheme man (if there are any – my specialist knowledge of German is limited, but the same must apply to many other words derived from PIE languages)  that refer to humanity as a whole..

In English, though, things are not so clear. On the one hand, traditionalists who insist on chairman to refer to a woman protest on linguistic grounds that the suffix -man does not refer to the gender of the occupant of that position (ignoring the fact that centuries of Anglo-Saxon culture have exploited just this ambiguity). On the other hand, strident feminists perpetrate linguistically naïve solecisms like herstory. Many English speakers insist on using chair, in the chairman case, when a woman takes the position (often betraying their cause by reverting to the [apparently] gender-marked form when the woman chair is replaced by a man).
<irrelevant_quibble water_holding="not really">
If a female chairman is a chair, what's a female spokesman? A spoke?
What can be said in public has certainly changed in my lifetime; but that 65 years is only a fairly placid codicil  to a much longer story. Here's what happened to mankind.
The 65 years from 1708 to 1773 marked a rise of many times the rate of recent decline (by eye, I'd estimate that the early rise is about six times as steep as the recent decline).

Meanwhile, what has happened to the PC replacement for mankind? It was fairly (surprisingly?) popular in the 18th century, but then tailed off throughout the 19th and most of the 20th. Then, in the late 1980s, the frequency rises steeply. It is tempting to think that the decline in mankind is directly related to the rise in humankind.

But on that scale, the demise of mankind looks terminal.  It was so popular in the late 18th century that at the beginning of the 21st it looks nearly extinct.  If you take a step forward (if you'll excuse the art gallery metaphor) and look more closely at the latest numbers (as shown on the right), the story is not quite so clear. They have fallen all right, but they have levelled off.

Presumably this means that there there are some dyed-in-the-wool mankind-users who have been unaffected by the rise in humankind.

But this isn't raking up the accursed sycamore seeds that threaten to increase the (already extreme) bio-diversity of my "lawn".

PS And here's a clue:

Can Mister Messy be the guilty party? (9)

Update: 2016.11.11.18:15 – Added PPS
PPS I meant to add that all those word frequency graphs come fro the Collins English Dictionary.  Sadly, they stop  at 2008, and the axes aren't usefully labelled.

Update: 2016.11.14.11:45 – Reinstated the latest picture (which was there once, but had disappeared).

Sunday, 6 November 2016

A dog's Brexit

What a mess. I blame Cameron for kowtowing to the hate-filled pseudo-politics of Little Englanders. Hate-filled...
In my youth, hateful meant the first of these two definitions (from the Collins Dictionary of English):

I wonder if, in a country full of speakers of English as a second language, this anomalous definition (as opposed to the many -ful words that have a clear sense of filled-with-<noun>, like careful) the word was readily confused with the very similar-sounding hate-filled  [especially if, as is often the case, the /d/ is not fully released]). Not, of course I suppose I still have to make this clear (although I keep making the same point) that I'm saying the newer sense is wrong.
Examples of hate-able-ness
  • Trump, Farrage et al blithely going around, whether intentionally or not, inciting the sort of violence that claimed the life of Jo Cox
  • as Caitlyn Moran called it in Friday's The Times (referring to Twitterstorms  the sadly predictable avalanches of vitriol and bile provoked by Lily Allen and Gary Lineker's good-hearted expressions of compassion) "denouncing people for being kind"
  • threats of death and rape made, criminally, to Gina Miller after her brave and constitutionally impeccable stand 
  • etc, etc
For pity's sake, these are PEOPLE we're talking about. In the words of Sky Masterson. Let's keep the party polite.

Stats update

Back in January 2015 I wrote (on the subject of visits per day to this blog
Footfall (eyefall?) has been markedly higher in the first two weeks of 2015: a smidgen under 50 (49.85, as of midday on the 14th).
That was then. As I write, in the first 4.5(-ish – as I have said before. these stats are based on an Internet-day, based [presumably] on some arbitrary stretch of 24 hours: maybe PST) days of November, daily visits are averaging about 110 per day. So that growth over the last year (to August 2016) was fairly flat at just over 16,000; until the most recent quarter, when it was just short of 20.000. [Update: Just before midnight UTC on  5 November it was well over 120 per day.]


Update 2016.11.06.15:50 Added PS
PS Stop Press – Daily Page Views now over 125  and counting.

Update 2016.12.13.15:40 Added PPS

PPS: Another update: Novembers uptick is continuing; nel mezzo del cammin di nostro Adventu, as Good Ol' Mr terza rima himself might have put it, December's well on the way to matching November. But I have promises to keep etc, learning words for Saturday week.

Update 2016.12.21.16:55Added PPPS

PPPS Last one, honest :-)

In the last fortnight the blog has gone from cliché to cliché. In the last 3 months there have been nearly 19 thousand  page views; and there are several more blogging days left before the month's end. In the previous 12 months there were just over 17½ thousand. An update to the graph is left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Siege perilous

For the last month or so, though no longer – as atrocities redefine atrocity and the word enormity reclaims its self respect – I couldn't hear the name Aleppo without recalling an early Richard Curtis sketch.
<autobiographical_note time_span="197607:197609" venue-"Edinburgh">
Like much (all?) Richard wrote at the time, it was a vehicle for Rowan Atkinson. That star of the Oxford Theatre Group one-man show (with a cast of 9) – mentioned here and, briefly,  in the update to this post – was a conductor in tails and white gloves and with a baton, conducting (in the hilarious sort of random juxtaposition, so typical of Oxbridge humour at the time) a rehearsal of a scene from Othello. The Moor was delivering the lines 
"...that in Aleppo  once...
I took by the neck the smitten dog and circumcised him thus"
[I've underlined the two typoes for the benefit of bardophiles who may know the original and gloss over them.]
At this, the conductor tapped his lectern, frowned, and indicated that Othello should try again. Othello did, still with the words "smitten dog ...circumcised". The conductor stopped him again. [Repeat ad lib as long as the audience is laughing]. Eventually, Othello got the words right: "circumcisèd dog...smote".
Now though I can hear the word Aleppo without that irrelevant memory popping its irreverent head over the PC parapet. Now it's the word siege. that distracts me momentarily from the horror.

I discussed  chairs a while back, here, but said nothing about siege at the time. In Mallory's Morte d'Arthur the vacant seat at the Round Table was the siege perilous, and this was the earliest meaning: a chair. Etymonline says
siege (n.) Look up siege at
early 13c., "a seat" (as in Siege Perilous, early 13c., the vacant seat at Arthur's Round Table...[F]rom Old French sege "seat, throne," from Vulgar Latin *sedicum "seat," from Latin sedere "sit" ...
Only then does the entry go on:
...The military sense is attested from c. 1300; the notion is of an army "sitting down" before a fortress.
That is to say, siege had been around for about a century with the meaning chair before it acquired its military sense. Sadly (considering the fate of the besieged) the military sense became the predominant one

But that "Vulgar Latin *sedicum" (and its more reputable Latin relatives) left many other traces, from courts in session to recording studios (with session musicians); in a less formal musical environment, a guest musician may sit in (and of course they don't just sit). In Portuguese, where Spanish has catedral (which Portuguese [Continental Portuguese, that is; to call my grasp of Brazilian Portuguese rudimentary would be a gross overestimate]  can also use, having many such pairs*), the word is (in Coimbra, in the summer of 1973 I used to catch the eléctrico at a stop called Sé Velha). The Holy See is a Santa Sé

Of course, English too has see in this sense (that is, not just in the abstract sense of Holy See, but in the concrete sense of bishopric). Cathedrals, sees and all sorts of hierarchical seats...
<digression type="potential" status="LOOK IT UP">
When discussing hierarchies it's worth remembering what ἱερός  means.
...form an all-enveloping web of words and meanings.

Back to Real Life...(at present I'm caught in the crossfire of two WSIWYG tools, which disagree about what constitutes well-formed HTML – aha, that's it, #headslap [different versions of HTML]!)


 *Eça de Queiroz  is notable for using such pairs: a bottle, for example, is sometimes uma botelha and sometimes uma garráfa for example.

PS And here's a clue:
 Feigning incapacity when malign reign gets the treatment. (11)

Update 2016.11.03.09:10 – Added PPS

PPS The penultimate sentence in that Etymonline entry for siege ended ...from Latin sedere "sit" (see sedentary). The entry for settle (the noun) ends with the same cross-refernce:

settle (n.) Look up settle at
"long bench," 1550s, from Middle English setle "a seat," from Old English setl "a seat, stall; position, abode; setting of a heavenly body," related to sittan "to sit," from Proto-Germanic *setla- (source also of Middle Low German, Middle Dutch setel, Dutch zetel, German Sessel, Gothic sitls), from PIE *sedla- (source also of Latin sella "seat, chair," Old Church Slavonic sedlo "saddle," Old English sadol "saddle"), from root *sed- (1) "to sit" (see sedentary).

That [PIE] root has many progeny.

PPPS – And here's another clue:

Unprepossessing discount store stocking entertainer. (8)

Update 2016.11.03.14:35 – Correction in red.

Monday, 24 October 2016

'Local' colour again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

"Bufo" for organic pest control? (8)

*This reference is explained here.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Bless each honey bole

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

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

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

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

Word Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


PS Here are a couple more clues:

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

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

Update: 2016.10.21.19:55 – Added BNC links.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Crash--testing for dummies: hidden mesages

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

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

Exhibit A: the Motion
Exhibit B: the Amendment
Out of interest, I ran the text through the Text Analyser at Using Exhibit A shows the analysis of the original motion. Exhibit B is the analysis  of the amendment. They are broadly comparable – even to the word-count. They both have a preponderance of 2-, 3-, and 4-letter words; in fact the amendment has a slightly bigger proportion of them. But the amendment has a greater Lexical Density (defined in the tool's help  page in this way:
The lexical density of a text tries to measure the proportion of the content (lexical) words over the total words. Texts with a lower density are more easily understood.
). The two texts are equally easy to understand (? – I would suggest that the total lack of punctuation [57 words without so much as a comma.... Can they seriously expect anyone to make sense of that?] in the amendment makes it significantly harder to understand; in fact it seems to me almost impossible to even parse: "into which will take place" ...???) But when I asked 'Can they seriously expect anyone to make sense of that? ' I expect the answer was  


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

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

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

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


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

Update: 2017.01.06.16:10 – Added PPS


Monday, 10 October 2016

I don't really mien this

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


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

Monday, 3 October 2016

Confounded diphthongs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idle hands, though. I must be getting on.


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

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

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

Update 2016.12.30.11:45  – Added PS

PS: Crossword answers: CORBYNISTA and  EXORBITANT

Update 2017.03.02.16:15  – Added PPS

PPS Fixed the link in the footnote, having initially got my Galileos mixed up. I was referring to the father,  lutenist and music theory pioneer – although I can't imagine that the boy didn't assist in his father's investigation of string-lengths.