Friday, 29 January 2016

Anything for the weekend?

Harry S. N. Greene, pathologist, cancer researcher, and Yale professor, when testifying in 1957 to a Congressional committee, disputing an interpretation of a statistical study,  famously said
It was noted long ago that the front row of burlesque houses was occupied predominantly by bald-headed men. In fact, such a row became known as the bald-headed row. It might be assumed from this on statistical evidence that the continued close observation of chorus girls in tights caused loss of hair from the top of the head. 
See more
I think of this wherever a politician mentions the 'Weekend Effect'  (painfully often of late).

Whereas people in ivory towers (no – considering the state of academic funding I should make that stucco-clad breezeblock towers) may talk about "The Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy", I think of bald men and naughty ladies.

BMJ study wisely says (my emphasis)
The weekend effect is real, concludes Helen Crump in her review of the evidence (doi:10.1136/bmj.h4473). Paul Aylin confirms this in his Editorial but explains that we are left with a range of possible explanations (doi: 10.1136/bmj.h4652). These need to be scrutinised before assumptions and suggestions harden into policy. 
Here are a few obvious yeah-buts that have occurred to me without the benefit of any training in statistical analysis (beyond O-level maths).
  • People don't practise many extreme sports during the working week; they save their death-defying stunts up for the weekend. Even practices as gentle as rambling (risking exposure, hypothermia...) can lead to weekend emergency hospital admissions.
  • People who start feeling dicky during the week don't go straight to hospital. Come 5 o'clock Friday though, and nobody's picking up the tab for their misfortune, they high-tail it to A&E (in the absence of a weekend GP service)
  • Elective surgery is done during the working week. Emergency surgery is done from Monday through to Sunday (sorry  can't bring myself to say "Twenty-f..."; see  just no can do) . As a result, the average surgery patient is automatically nearer death at the weekend.
  • etc etc ...
Last Wednesday, Inside Health went into this in much more (and more persuasive) detail. published a round-up of some research last year, but the list of 8 papers was compiled in October 2015, and the earliest 2 date from 2010. And only the most recent 2 date from 2015.

All of  which reminds me of the lady mentioned on Midweek (?) last Wednesday who always packed a hand grenade when flying, to reduce the possibility of anyone else having one. Or the driver who, on learning that most road-traffic accidents happen near junctions, automatically put his foot down whenever he saw one. As the title of an early BMJ article warned at the time of the first paroxysm of Jeremy Hunt's madness:

Seven day working: why the health secretary’s proposal is not as simple as it sounds

And as archy said, in archy and mehitabel (rough quote),

whenever a politician 
does get an idea 
he usually gets it wrong

Well, must go. Time for More or Less.


PS – A crossword clue:

Model worker? Hardly, arriving at THIS time. –  (8)

Update 2016.03.11.10:40 – Added PPS

Time's up: TEMPLATE (with apologies to people whose brand of English doesn't include the word temp.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Shameless plug

A choral singer knows he's getting on when, as for me this term, the next concert includes three choral pieces all of which he's sung before with another choir or choirs.

The first is Vivaldi's Gloria, which I've sung twice before, once with Reading Haydn Choir about 20 years ago, and once when I was driving my son to a concert arranged by a fellow barbershop singer (who was choir master at his local church). As I knew the piece, I became a singing chauffeur.

The other two pieces involve a setting of Psalm 110, once entirely (Handel's Dixit Dominus) and once as one of several texts in Mozart's Vesperae Solennes de Confessore. When I first sang the Handel, at the first rehearsal, somebody asked me what the opening words of Dixit Dominus meant. One word in the opening sentence was new to me, so I could only say 'The lord said to my lord "Sit on my right, until I do something jolly unpleasant to your enemies."'

The unknown word  was scabellum* – a footstool. The something jolly unpleasant was turning them into footstools (although I imagine there was an element of metaphor here  – I don't think trans-substantiation was involved).

The word 'until' seems a bit odd. Does the first lord – the speaker – mean that  the second lord can only occupy the favoured position until the enemies turn up and suffer enscabellation – thereafter to sit somewhere else (on the enemies, perhaps)? But donec, when followed by a subjunctive, usually does mean until. The bible translations listed here all use until or till, with a small handful of exceptions. Only two translate it as while, in which case donec would usually be followed by an indicative (not ponam but pono). Food for thought. But not today – I'm neglecting the cricket.

Suffice it ...
I refer readers to an old discussion,, in the UsingEnglish forum, where I explained: 
The fossilized phrase 'Suffice it to say' means 'let it be sufficient to say'; a more modern idiom is 'Enough said' - but, unlike 'suffice it to say', this follows the thing said: 'I shouldn't have done it. I'm sorry. Enough said'.

You'll have noticed that I keep saying 'Suffice it to say'. This uses the subjunctive, which is hardly used in informal British English. And as both 'it' and 'to' are unstressed in that phrase, they are easily heard as a single /t/ followed by a schwa - particularly by habitual non-users of the subjunctive. This form [HD clarification: the ITless form] is widely used, and has become almost as common as the fuller form: BNC has 53 instances of 'suffice to say' and 88 of 'suffice it to say'.

In COCA, on the other hand, which is based on N. American usage, has [HD correction: 'there are' (I may have meant háy)] 376 (377 if you include 'sufficeit to say', of which there is a single instance which I found by accident ), and only 97 of  'suffice to say'. And that balance makes sense, considering the relative strength of the subjunctive in American English. 
Anyway, I'm an IT-man. 

... to say that you should put Saturday 2nd April, 2016 at 7.30pm in your diary. (More details of the concert here.)

Tales from the word-face

My android system's latest exploit in the matter of spelling corrections involve a Character Entity expressed in the Named Entity Syntax (and if you really want to know what all that means, pick the bones out of this).  My HTML code makes occasional use of &nbsp; – a non-breaking space (for use when you want to keep a space between two words but keep them on the same line).

If I used it often enough I'd tell the spell-checker to add it to my dictionary. But for now, whenever it sees "nbsp" it asks me if I'd prefer to use "tbsp", which sounds like the sort of Character Entity that'd come in useful for writers of recipe books.


PS Another clue:
Landlubbers' haven in heavy swell (in case of bowel-movement) (5)

Update 2016.01.27.12:15 – Added PPS

I've been thinking about the until/while problem mentioned in the fifth para. To recap: the Latin text has Donec ponam  (="until I put"), not Donec pono (="while I put"). "Until I put" involves the first 'Lord' (the speaker) in some rather strange reasoning, making the sitting at the right hand only a temporary (pre-enscabellatory) position – which I suppose I should gloss as meaning lasting only until the end of the turning-into-a-footstool [sorry about these unfeeling neologisms, but scabellum is too good a word not to have any derivatives in English]). So why is ponam not pono – unless, of course, St Jerome (or one of his predecessors) got it wrong (when translating from David's [or someone's – Wikipedia has a rather ominous  "although his authorship is not accepted by modern Bible scholars"] Hebrew)?

It would take a Hebrew scholar to take this further (and I'm working on that), but I suspect that Hebrew has a way of expressing temporal and/or conditional relations in a way that does not fit in with the Latin way – so that neither "until" nor "while" really does the job. Hmmm...

Update 2016.01.27.15:05 – esprit d'escalier in blue.

Update 2016.02.05.10:15 – Added PPPS


When, in last night's rehearsal, we broached (and on occasion breached) the Magnificat, I was reminded of last summer's post, My soul doth magnify the problem – particularly this bit:
...the words of the Magnificat reminded me of a confusion that keeps cropping up in the life of a choral singer. In the text that that link points to you'll see in the third line of the Latin exultavit, translated in the English as "hath rejoiced". But later on the word exaltavit appears, translated in the English as "hath exalted". 
Italianate pronunciation of Latin now gets involved. Listen to this YouTube clip; the relevant word starts occurring from about 30 seconds in, and is repeated as often as Vivaldi chooses. When this vowel (not unlike the English /ʌ/ phoneme – the one that occurs in, for example, "exulted", although it is closer to [ɑ] {Update note: this is an IPA transcription})  – is heard by a strictly Anglophone ear, confusion arises.... 
 Last summer's post   
Update 2016.02.06.16:40 – Added P⁴S
P⁴S Another clue:

Surfeit of promissory notes – hateful (6)

Update 2016.02.10.09:15 – Added concert poster.

Update 2016.03.24.14:40 – Added footnote, and crossword solutions.

* By chance, flicking through a dictionary looking for something else (the kind of serendipitous Aha-provoking discovery that doesn't happen with an online dictionary – excepting artificial things like Word-of-the-day), I found that Spanish (and indeed Catalan, Provençal, Italian, French etc, I've since determined [courtesy of the wonderful Meyer-Lübcke – which I've mentioned before] all have similar words) has the word escabelo. Spanish also has a quite charming metaphorical use for escabelo (which is, on weekdays, "a little stool"); in its Sunday best, figurative, use it is a "stepping stone". Life really is just one digression after another.

Solutions: BELOW and ODIOUS.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Winners and losers: icon and dozen etc

A little over a year ago I wrote here about words coming and going to and from dictionaries, which – with a few exceptions –  record the current state of [lexical] play. But what makes words come and go out of fashion? I've been thinking of late about two (clusters of) words, with diametrically opposite fortunes in my lifetime. Well, not exactly (symmetrically) opposite. Their rates of change don‘t match. But one goes up and the other goes down.

Up: icon

Things have gone well for icon. Time was when an icon was something you'd associate with Cyrillic script; it was a religious picture:

Its use in that context spawned several related word: iconoclasts (literally the smashers of holy pictures), iconoclasm ...

Then two things happened; one cultural and one technological. The growth of celebrity culture exposed the need for a word for something unique, striking, and representative of its class  – classic, if you'll permit me to use the word IN ITS PROPER SENSE (excuse that little outburst – I know I shouldn't).

The word icon was readily to hand. But a technological breakthrough in the late '60s added its weight to the impetus. Douglas Englebart's Mother Of All Demos, at Menlo Park in 1968 unveiled a system based on the notion of a new sort of computer interface that used windows, a mouse, and a pointer (some sources make the P stand for pop-up menus) – a WIMP interface. And that was windows not the capitalized sort: Apple was first to make a commercial go of this, and young Mr Gates came late to the party. Now, the command-line interface is unknown to many computer users (a majority? – this is neither conclusive nor representative, but more than two-thirds of visitors to this blog use Windows ).

Collins Online's "Usage trends" graphs show the affects of these two changes. Starting in the early '70s, usage rocketed:
(Scroll down to the bottom of the  page, 
and wait for it to load)

Down: dozen

Over more or less the same period, the word dozen was suffering  a similar change – but in the other direction. The reasons  for this were mainly cultural (decimalization and metrication – in the UK, that is), though these were no doubt reinforced (and to an arguable extent prompted)  by a technological imperative: the calculating infrastructure (computers, electronic calculators, adding machine, cash registers and so on) favoured base-10 calculations.

Our dozen derives, unsurprisingly, from the French douzaine – "about twelve".  In French -aine is a suffix that can make any number approximate; in English, though, dozen is the only ...
I was hoping that, in recognition of the fact that flowers are sold in 10s and 5s, the word dizen would evolve (French dixaine). Sadly. it hasn't happened.
...such word we have; quarantine is related, but came via Italian quarantina giorni – the period that ships from plague-ridden countries had to wait in the offing [never thought I'd use that one, except in the song "Blow the Wind Southerly"] before putting in at 17TH-century Venice.

But this analysis oversimplifies. The high-point of that 50-year picture for dozen wasn't appreciably higher than in the 18TH century (see left).

And although the rise of icon reaches record heights – well above the 18TH-century peaks – it did enjoy some popularity before its 19TH-century doldrums (right).

There's more to be said about derivatives, but that's enough for today. If this sort of thing floats your boat, stay tuned for an update.


Update 2016.01.16.17:20 – Added afterthought in blue, and fixed a few typos.

Update 2016.01.19.13:0 – Added PS on derivatives:

PS So much for icon. But the adjective derived from it was not subject to the technological influence I mentioned earlier; if you click on the right part of a window on a computer screen, it doesn't become iconic. Moreover, a little painting of a saint in the Orthodox church isn't iconic either – at least, not any more: this Etymonline excerpt shows that that, indeed, is what it once meant (what else, in 1650?):
iconic (adj.) Look up iconic at
1650s, "of or pertaining to a portrait," from Late Latin iconicus, from Greek eikonikos "pertaining to an image," from eikon "likeness, image, portrait" (seeicon)... 
But now, the word iconic is reserved exclusively for the more recent cultural sort of icon; so, as one might have expected, its nigh-on vertiginous (do I mean that, or just vertical?) rise in usage over the last 60-odd years:

But if a window turned into an icon on a computer screen isn't iconic, what is it? In the early days of WIMP interfaces, various neologisms were toyed with, among them iconize and iconify. Once you had a verb, a past participle could describe the thing on the screen. In this Wild West of maverick nomenclature, Microsoft felt the need to lay down the law. Their Manual of Style for Technical Publications (my copy is from 1995felt strongly enough about iconize that they devoted to it a separate headword:
Do not use; instead use shrink to an icon or minimize.
– a forlorn hope: in nearly 20 years of exposure to technical publication, I saw many more instances of iconize than of minimize in this context: Sic semper tyrannisdiktats about language use don't usually work, though their existence is often a useful indicator for students and observers of language change (as this blog has shown on several occasions).

PPS: A couple of clues:

Proceed with unspecified questionable practice? Get away! – (4,2)
Such a philistine most unlikely to visit place dedicated to literati– (5,6)
Update 2016.10.11.10:50  – Added PPPS


An answer to the second clue: POETS' CORNER. Can't do the first one right now.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Keeping things personal

A reader recently asked where the to-infinitive came from – or rather, since he went to a school that shared my pre-CELTA nomenclature, he said just infinitive. In a post some years ago (the fact that I hadn't yet mastered the en-dash – there are three accusatory hyphens where there should be dashes ...
I haven't marked them sic, though, in the name of readability [although I would find it more readable if it was typographically pure, I know there are some people {quite possibly a not inconsiderable majority} who don't share my neuroses and anyway I'd better get on with the sentence before the adverbial phrase that began it 'slips in a moment out of life', as Wordsworth put it}]  
...  –  is  an indication of its vintage) I wrote of someone who had written (among much other evidence of such bone-headed stupidity)  'Ms. O'Conner and Mr. Kellerman [authors of the article I discussed here] are simply wrong [my emphasis] when they say that "to" isn't part of the infinitive in English ':
I've been studying foreign languages, off and on, for about 50 years. In French, Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian (that's the approximate order of the onset of study) the infinitive was one word; and to translate manger we learnt that we had to use two words - even to the extent of having a teacher correcting us: 'No, it's not just "eat", it's "to eat"!' That was the culture I had known as a student of foreign languages. 
In my CELTA class, though, my trainer used 'infinitive' differently. The infinitive (the form of the verb with no tense marking - whence the name, incidentally†) took two forms: the 'to-infinitive' and the 'bare infinitive', and the default sort of infinitive tout sec was the bare infinitive. So as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language one learns to say things like 'To form the -ing- form of "eat" you add "-ing" to the infinitive'.'Simply wrong'?What is simple is that the view is born of a culture clash - the culture of people who study languages and the culture of people learning and teaching English as a Foreign Language. In the words of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme 'Nous avons changé tout ça!' 
† The infinitive is non-finite. In Portuguese it is even called o infinito. [2016 addition: it was this point that prompted my title. Portuguese has a form called, paradoxically, 'the personal infinitive': o infinito pessoal.]
Where was I...? got it, to in the to-infinitive and whether it had a former life as some more meaning-bearing word (lexical item, as we say in the trade).
<digression type="potential, better get on before I lose my thread again"> 
 We, paleface?...
[old joke about Tonto.... You had to be there.] 
The story is not simple. The change happened a very long time ago (before the earliest Old English texts), and there is great (and unsettle-able) debate about exactly what happened and when. My investigations have exposed me to indescribable monstrosities such as desententialization ( which seems, from context, to refer to "the process of a phrase's becoming not-a-sentence").  Here are three examples:

See below for reference.

Connectives in the History of English (secondary source, also, of my second quote)

This last starts out quite promisingly ("to-PP" being broadly [shorthand for I don't know any better but I bet it's not as simple as that] a prepositional phrase such as "to eat worms" – the sort of purposive PP that could follow "going down the garden"),  but goes rapidly downhill after that. Besides, it doesn't answer the question. It jumps in in medias res, long after to became a linguistic nut or bolt (rather than a lexical item). I had hoped, when I started to look into this, that I'd seen the answer in Guy Deutscher's The Unfolding Of Language  but I haven't found it.

Not that it isn't there: it may be. Remember when publishers actually spent money on indexes...?  Maybe the bit I remember dealt with a similar word: work in  progress...

PS And here are a couple of clues:

Insist on confounded redraft. (6)
Expression of such self-assurance after Cabinet reshuffle. (3,1,3)

Update 2016.05.15.22:25 – And here are the answers: DEMAND and BET I CAN