Thursday, 30 June 2016

Thinking up new phrasal verbs

Just over three years ago I wrote this, decrying the raw deal...
I can't use the expression raw deal without remembering a conversation I once had with someone who thought he had been mistreated, as I had. The details of the alleged mistreatment don't matter – we've all passed a lot of water since then and there's no sense in crying over split peas – but he said  "I got a similar raw deal from <miscreant>". I felt that I'd been a bit hard done by, but calling it a similar ordeal seemed to be coming it a bit strong. 
...being given to young people. On the subject of tuition fees I wrote:
This solves another problem for the young. They have little chance of getting a mortgage.  'But they couldn't repay a mortgage anyway while they're repaying their student loan.  It's a Win-Win!' 
So young people's paranoia is fed for the first quarter of their lives. Until they're about 20. But the hell-hounds weren't finished yet.   'How else can we load the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune against the young...? Got it. Housing Benefit.'  [There was, at the time, a proposal to raise the qualifying age for Housing Benefit.] 
We're filling the streets with angry young men. And somehow I don't think it's just a revolution in theatre we're fomenting. Today's Jimmy is armed not just with an ironing board but with the power of the Internet. 
I wish I could see an up-side to this, but 'hell' and 'handcarts' spring to mind.
I don't want to contribute to the growing store of Brexi-doom-mongering, and again I hope there's a silver-lining out there somewhere; but I think Giles Coren was right on the money in last Saturday's Times calling for a re-run with a much younger electorate: I think he suggested 16–60. I'd like to suggest a small amendment in the light of the fact that younger voters don't rely on traditional news media. My suggestion is simple, though I admit I haven't thought it through fully: keep coverage of the re-run off the mainstream media. That way it needn't bother me.

Anyway, I'm acutely aware of the risk of talking the economy down. So I've been changing the subject, and not thinking too hard about Brexit, in an ostrichy sort of way, thinking instead about that phrase – talking down.

One of the most striking things we did on the first day of my CELTA course.was....

I think we  may have been brain-storming a list of problems confronted by learners of English. (although maybe that's a false memory – the course had too tight a curriculum for that sort of thing; more likely chalk and talk or perhaps felt-tip and... umm THING).
...Anyway, we got onto the subject of phrasal verbs, and English's tendency to string together a verb and something else (often a preposition, but the right-thinking Phrasal-Verb-ese buzzword is particle) to form a new meaning  leading to memory-taxing seeming-paradoxes like You cut a tree down before you cut it up. There were 14 students on the course, and that activity I found so striking was that we each in turn had to construct a sentence using the phrasal verb pick up  in a way different from all previous ones. We managed 14; my trusty Cobuild dictionary lists 15 (though I'm sure various one-off contexts could  support new coinings).

I hadn't realized, until I started to  teach ESOL, what a big hurdle phrasal verbs were. Try Googling English Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs. You get (or at least I get – Heaven alone knows what customized search algorithms are at play) over 500,000 hits. That's a world of pain for ESOL students; who have to remember not only apparently-paradoxical meanings but a range of syntactic oddities. And to make things worse, we English-speakers keep inventing new ones.

Returning to talking down, my Cobuild lists only two meanings, apart from talk down to. They are:
  1. the one used in disaster movies: the hero amateur pilot, who's told by the control tower "You can do it  kid, we're counting on you" [cut to control tower conversation off-mic: "Jeez, he'd better be up to it, there's only five minutes of fuel.... etc etc" – you get the gist]
  2. the one I'm trying to avoid in present circumstances: saying things that cause economic and/or political  harm.
But as I said of pick up "various one-off contexts could  support new coinings". One of those suggests itself without too much thinking (perhaps this meaning has appeared relatively recently – my Cobuild,  at the age of nearly ten years, is a valuable relic; [I'm sitting on a gold-mine, though I think MrsK might have a different way of characterizing my collection]): talking down is what people do to potential suicides about to throw themselves off a roof/bridge/ortcetera.  In fact,  Collins Online does add to Cobuild's two meanings: what people do in negotiations to make someone charge less, but it still doesn't  include the potential-suicide meaning.

And, with an ever-broadening range of meanings, look what happens to usage:
from Collins Online

Looks pretty straightforward; but ...
<not_so_fast reason="There's more to this than meets the eye">

But the phrasal verb didn't spring fully-formed out of the ether at the turn of the 18th century.  It had been around for over a century before that: 

I wonder why...? (No time now though.)


PS Another clue:

Mischief-makers' solidarity? They'll get away with it. (8)

Update: 2017.02.09.15:15 – Added PPS, and afterthought in bold.

PPS The answer: IMPUNITY

Thursday, 23 June 2016

I went down to St James....

Among the LPs I listened to in the 1960s (with ‘microgrooves’ it said on the sleeve – cutting-edge technology) were two notable ones:
  • A jazz collection that included the St James Infirmary Blues
  • The soundtrack of My Fair Lady
On the latter, I remember being nonplussed by Eliza Doolittle’s

One day I’ll be famous
I’ll be proper and prim
Go to St James so often
I will call it “St Jim”

I wasn’t to know that she meant St James’s Piccadilly. For all I knew, it might have been any St James’s ...
Of course I couldn’t hear the apostrophe, but the warm embrace of Holy Mother Chorch meant that I could guess that what Eliza called /seɪnt  ðeɪmz/ was a church – (…and sic, by the way – she did not reduce the diphthong, or assimilate the /t/)  

...St James’s , Marylebone, for example.

Under the benign gaze of a statue of St Mary the Good, I sang, on Tuesday night, with a few members (4 or 5 – well precisely 4, but our versatile [‘multi-vocal’, perhaps  though not quite omni-vocal, as I don't remember him singing soprano] MD helped out as needed) of Siglo de Oro. The pieces we sang were by Byrd, sailing quite close to the Protestant wind as they were settings of English, with themes such as deliverance and captivity.

It was marvellous for an amateur choral singer to sing alongside a professional. And it was temptingly easy to think "I can do this". I could during the first hour, before Ben (the professional bass) was redeployed from being next to me to a fairer (more central) position – the third of five basses. Then I was positioned between  another fallible bass like me and a tenor, so that it was clear just how good (that is, bad) my sight-reading was.

And sight-reading was needed. I realized – when my crutch was so rudely snatched away ( :-) ) – that I couldn't watch the conductor as much as I (and, no doubt, he) might have wished, and relied on listening rather than watching.

It was not cheap. After paying for the train and the ticket there wasn't much change from £40.  But,  I  thought, You're only old once. I had joined the trend mentioned on Start The Week recently, of buying experiences rather than stuff. And this was an experience worth buying.


In an earlier post I discussed this possible derivation of the word Marylebone. One site holds that:

...In the thirteenth century when the language of the aristocracy was French, St-Mary-by-the-Tyburn would have been St-Mary-a-le-Bourne (‘bourne’ being the French for a small stream) and from this we arrive at the word ‘Marylebone’ as we know it today. 

Based on this etymology and a progression of phonetics, the correct way of pronouncing ‘Marylebone’ is widely considered to be ‘Marry-leh-bon’ – although in reality this is rarely heard.

I went on, not unstuffily (“Once a pedant…”)

As to the meaning of "a progression of phonetics" your guess is as good as mine – though I imagine it may mean something like 'a number of both phonetic and phonological changes' ; after all, those 13th-century origins pre-dated the Great Vowel Shift. 

I once gleaned, from a source that I regarded at the time as authoritative (although as this was in the late '60s I no doubt set the bar pretty low), that ‘-le-bone' just meant 'the good', as le was feminine at the time,  and the convention of doubling a word-final consonant before adding an e for the feminine (for example bon/bonne, cadet/cadette,…etc) …. had not yet been adopted…

Still, -a-le-bourne is plausible enough, and I'm not going to lose any sleep over it either way. On the one hand, beware folk etymologies, especially on special-interest web sites; on the other hand, what's the point  of saying 'St Mary the Good' at all, unless there were a... aha, maybe Mary Magdalene was 'Mary the Bad' (not so 'bad', though, as to stop her being canonized in the end [for all that, by all accounts, she was no better than she SHOULD be, if you catch my drift, and note the colour of this parenthesis. St-Mary-the-Not-So-Bad-Really-(just-not-the-one-in-the-blue-frock)perhaps]).

PS A few clues:
  • Club rodent or use one of these to similar effect – (9)
  • Gunning down means easier to read, says this – (3, 5)
  • Openreach made to  monitor communications – (9)
 Update 2016.10.13.13:50 – Added PPS
Answers: MACERATOR, FOG INDEX, CHAPERONE (! – pretty cool, this last one, doncha think?)

Monday, 20 June 2016

An aperçu and a coincidence

For years I have had a snobbish distaste for the word comradery. I assumed it was just an uncouth anglicization of cameraderie, with the first vowel 'corrected' to that of comrade.  I was about to inveigh about this assumed vulgarism, but thankfully did a spot of research before putting finger to keyboard.

It seems that both words exist.  Not all dictionaries recognize both, but the Collins does; and has corrected the mistake I deprecated some time ago (in this blog somewhere I can't trace) by making its word frequency feature more visible; it used to be right down at the bottom of the page; it is now more central, both vertically and horizontally.

 But the two words do not have the same popularity, although both first appeared late in the 19th century. A few years after a World War (14 years after WWI and 8 after WWII), comradery has a spike:
spikettes (spikelets? stilettos?)
 in 1932 and 1953
The Collins frequency graph isn't documented (as far as I can see), although perhaps (I hope) this is work-in-progress, as a part of the raising of the graph's profile; so I've no idea what a frequency of 0.1 means (which is what it says on mouseover as I regret they say); but I assume it's a good deal less than the 0.44 racked up by camaraderie at its height:

My "coincidence" also comes from this frequency graph, but it was instigated by a recent Radio 4 programme about The Dream of Gerontius.  It started (in the first 30 seconds) with a quotation from Elgar, presumably from a letter (the radio presenter just said "writing to his friend..."). He used the word illimitable  – not a word that springs regularly to the lips today. I expect Conrad used it, but I admit I wasn't sure when I heard the Elgar quotation whether he was coining it himself to do justice to the Malvern Hills (the context was "that illimitable horizon"). Collins shows this frequency graph:

The plateau throughout the second half of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th century happens to coincide neatly with Elgar's life (1857 1934). Of course I'm not suggesting that Elgar was the sole or main user of the word, but the coincidence is, I think, quite neat (and, coincidentally, it gives a particularly limpid example of the etymology of the word co-incidence).

Must go and do some prep for the forthcoming tour of my choir.

PS A couple of clues:

Hear me out:  it's WAGs' quarters (6)
Endless flak about spies – you've got a nerve!   (7)

Update 2016.09.09.14:50 – Time's up: HAREEM and SCIATIC

Monday, 13 June 2016

The end of the affair (stress on foreign words, part 2)

The other three words I had sur lea plancher (a metaphor that will become relevant in the fulness of time: – avoir du pain  sur lea plancher ≅ have work to do, have one's work cut out  [at the risk of confusing the baker with the tailor]) were
  • Medici 
  • Wallander
  • /`mama/ (more likely /`mʌmʌ/)


I forget the context; it may have been the first half of Sky Arts programme about The Eagles An American referred to someone as "a sort of 20th-century Medici" (a lavish patron of the arts). The nationality is relevant, because I often notice that speakers  of American English tend to be more sympathetic (or even respectful) of foreign words' pronunciation. I imagine this is related to there being so many 1st/2nd/nth-generation immigrants there.

Anyway, he stressed Medici correctly, rather than using the common (British) anglicization Medici. The machine generating the sub-titles really went to town on this one, calling to mind the saying
To err is human, but if you want a real SNAFU use a computer
This latter-day Medici became a meta-chief.


I can't work up much enthusiasm to write about this  travesty –  the abuse of word-stress (by several if not all the characters, as well as the BBC continuity people, whom I mistakenly gave the benefit of the doubt) should have warned me not to get my hopes up. There's two hours of my life that I'm not going to get back. For the record, stress is on the second syllable –  but you already knew that, didn't you, from the original sub-titled series.


If I'd seen the word mentioned in the salutation of each of the letters in  Love from Boy: Roald Dahl's Letters to his Mother that Radio 4 serialized recently I wouldn't have suspected an anachronism. Each letter began with what I thought must be 'Dear mama' (given the period and context – pre-war (in the first selection, at least) letters home from a boy at a boarding school). But I did some checking here and found that mamma was indeed stressed on the first syllable; his contemporaries would have written to Dear Mama, but young Roald would indeed have said /`mama/.


But what about that pain sur lea plancher? Well, in last night's Cav&Pag (on BBC 4) I tuned in a bit late. In her intermezzo (as it were), between Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci (the new Covent Garden modern-dress production) even the lovely Clemmy made Cavalleria rhyme with the English cafeteria – which was strangely appropriate, as the setting featured a panificio (bakery) .

But what made my metaphor particularly appropriate was that the first scene I saw (tuning in, as I said, a few minutes late) featured Santuzza singing and Lucia kneading dough. It wasn't yet du pain, and it wasn't on a plancher (which I suppose is the board that a baker loads with loaves before putting a batch in the oven) – rather on some kind of work-surface; close enough, though.

On with the motley, as someone once said.


And it's been a while since I gave you a clue.

Withdrew endorsement of researchers first, then called to mind. (7)

And I almost forgot  this:

Update: 2016.08.26.10:40 – Added PPPS, and added explanatory phrasing (they're not repairs exactly, just avoidance of infelicities) in red.

PPPS OK, time's up on that clue: REVOKED.

Update: 2018.02.15.09:40 – Corrected misremembered idiom (courtesy of Twitter:


Monday, 6 June 2016

stress on fo'reign words

Some time ago (a little over two years ago, in this post) I wrote this:
In my youth I spent a few months selling magazine subscriptions, as mentioned in a previous post. ... 
One of the English titles that I had for sale was Motor Sport. So  into my fairly competent spiel (I had learned the necessary Spanish off pat) I dropped these three totally unrecognizable syllables: /məʊtəspɔ:t/. The Spanish for 'Motor Sport' included an /r/ sounded before the epenthetic vowel that precedes the outlandish consonant cluster /sp/. 
‡  Outlandish, that is, at the beginning of a word.
In my transcription I overlooked what may be a crucial point: in English, stress is on the first syllable; the Spanish is /mɔ`tɔ`pɔrt/.

Of late I've been noticing cases of mistaken stress, sometimes occasioning further phonological mistakes. In no particular order they are
  • Boris
  • Karel
  • Roland Garros

There's a problem here. In Russian an o in an unstressed syllable is reduced to something a lot more central; I know no  Russian, but I think of this sound like the Portuguese /ɐ/ (and don't get me started on people who  overpronounce Portuguese as though it were Castilian Spanish: that's OK for Brazilian Portuguese, but in Continental Portuguese it's a sure sign of foreignness). So English speakers are stuffed either way. Putting the stress on the first syllable is wrong; but if you do put the stress on the second syllable then the o has to change – resulting in a noise that is going to be simply unintelligible to other speakers (either of English or of Russian).

This is a related problem. My taiji teacher's husband, Czech by birth, has this name. Many English speakers (myself included) pronounce this as we would say Carol (which at one time was optionally male...

... which reminds me of a Carroll Gibbons 78rpm record in my father's collection  – on the Brunswick label, I seem to remember. On the air is the one tune I remember from it. The balding pianist on the jacket was obviously a man. (Aha – faulty memory, it must have been an LP, with a jacket like that; and come to think  of it the Brunswick 78 may have been The Little Fiddle
Oh what a tangled web we... trawl(?)
When first we practice to recall
as wossname so nearly said).

But stress is on the second syllable of Karel. Some students, noticing this, adopt that stress (as in some way "better") . However , they can't keep themselves from enforcing the English phonological rule that requires unstressed syllables (with a few exceptions, notably /ɪ/PPS) to be reduced to /ə/. So they say /kə`rel/ which is wrong in spite of their assiduous striving towards linguistic purity.

Roland Garros

PS: Aha, that was it
The BBC, like most English speakers, uses the anglicized /`gærɒs/. But MrsK often prefers the Eurosport coverage – which exposes the viewer to advertisements aimed at a wider audience. The sponsor of the French Open (whose name, the marketing department will be disappointed to hear, escapes me) regularly announced "Longines,  proud sponsor of Roland Garros".

But here's the thing: they assigned the correct stress to Garros, but at the expense, ...
<digression type="sophomoric"> 
as with "Karel" [vs, as they used to say in Latin (vide supra="see above")
at the risk of sending musicians into a frenzy of page turning (volta subito). #BouBoumTsh ]
 ... of reducing the /a/ to /ə/.  And, to compound the injury, they didn't change the stress on "Roland", indeed they made no attempt at all to disguise their obvious feeling that this was an Anglo-Saxon name: /`rəʊlənd/ – "demmed Frenchies", as the Scarlet Pimpernel might have said.

Is that the time? I'll wrap this up another day.


Update:2016.06.06.17:00 – Added picture

Update:2016.06.07.12:05 – Added PS

PS re Boris
Another bit of autobiog: I first became aware of this when I was rehearsing with a balalaika player who wanted me to adopt the name 'Boris', and as it happens one of the tunes we played was Korobeiniki (neither of whose os makes an o-like sound). I was reminded of this by a recent radio programme that used the soundtrack of the GAME BOY game Tetris (which, I'm obviously not the first to discover, is the same tune).

Update:2016.06.07.16:30 – Added PPS

I just remembered that I wrote this snippet about five years ago – for the forerunner of When Vowels Get Together, but at a time when my vaulting ambition extended to all  vowels everywhere. I've brushed it up a bit (but left the period detail – notably the reference to ol' red eyes):
Unstressed i is regularly – in Received British English (RBP) – pronounced /ɪ/. But in many variants, particularly ones with Estuarine tendencies, /ə/ is used –(especially in words that already have a stressed /ɪ/). For many speakers, for example, Tony Blair was the /praɪm 'mɪnəstə/, with the second i of minister reduced to /ə/. 
Also, even in people who think of themselves as speakers of RBP,  this reduction may occur: demonstrations may, for example, be accompanied by acts of /'sɪvəl dɪsə'bi:djəns/, although those speakers, if asked 'How do you pronounce C-I-V-I-L?' would say /'sɪvɪl/ (possibly adding /əv kɔ:s/).