Monday, 29 February 2016

Beware the Kalends of March

It beats me how those early Romans ever got round to writing letters.
I remember a Latin lesson given in 1965. Very confused, those ancient .Romans. Even some years before the beginning of Anno Domini – about 4 years after the birth of Christ, I think (current scholarship seems to put it somewhere between 7 and 4 BC) – they had to start their letters with the abbreviation a.d.
Father Aloysius explained to us the dating system used by the ancient Romans, based on a number of key dates in each month (the Kalends, the Nones and the Ides). Before starting your letter, you had to work out when the next such date was due, and count back from it: hence a.d. – ante diem. It must have been a great relief when your letter-writing coincided with one of these key dates; there was no need for the counting back. 
But not much of a relief; the Nones and the Ides jumped around – maybe the Kalends* too; this isn't something I've researched that closely. Luckily for me in that lesson, I was sitting next to a new boy, who had joined us from a prep school (fee-paying, non-state). He had done some Latin before, including this date malarkey. So he knew this mnemonic:  
So when they sat down to write a letter they had to spend the first half an hour fiddling about with dates and counting. I don't know if they had almanacs back then, but if they had it would have made life a lot easier.

Another memory – at a previous school, named after a Pope Gregory, but not the one associated with calendars – exposed me to the idea of Name Days. The Polish children (of whom there were many at that school in Ealing) celebrated their Name Day rather than their birthday. For most of them this was quite straightforward, but not for those born at the end of February. The feast of St Matthew,  for example, had to change from its more common date of 24 February to the 25th in a leap year. In a leap year, the 24th is an intercalary day; it doesn't exist as far as Name Days are concerned.

This was discussed by John Chambers, former Head of the Time Service at the National Physical Laboratory, speaking on PM on 24 February (from about 47'30" – and get it while it's hot, it'll only be on iPlayer until the twenty-somethingth of March [24th?, 23rd?, 25th? – search me]).  His wife is Finnish, and it was a Finnish almanac that alerted him to the issue.

I think I remember first learning what the French for Leap Year was –  année BISSEXTILE. I knew enough Latin to know that six came into it somewhere but what about the bi? And what did six or two have to do with Leap Years anyway?

I should have noticed the double s, which occurs also in the rarely-used scholarly English word BISSEXTILE.
When French audiences want to see an encore, they don't say Encore. What they say is bis.
The prefix was not bi- but bis-.

The bis- prefix crops up in Spanish too. A great-grandfather – a grandfather being un abuelo – is un bisabuelo. So in a bissextile year, something happens twice . But what? Presumably something to do with six? And here's the answer: the thing that happens twice is 24 February (with the alias "25 February"):

The ante diem date
courtesy of Fr Z's blog.

Thankfully, this all changed at the end of the Millennium (whenever that was – 2000, probably; no idea what all those fireworks were for on 31 Dec. 1999). The Finnish almanac in 1996 marked 25 February as the feast of St Thomas. But thanks to Mr Chambers (who suggested to the Finnish authorities that the extra day in a Leap Year should be recognized as 29 February, in accordance with the popular belief that that is obviously when the extra day is), in 2000, also a leap year (thanks to Gregory VII's divisible by 400 rule), the feast of St Matthew was 24 February.

Happy 29th.


Update 2016.03.01.11:45 – Added footnote:

* Incidentally, the similarity between Kalends, Latin calendae, and English calendar is – of course – no coincidence. But it is a pleasing (to me, at least) irony that the source of the word calendar reflects that variability/uncertainty.

Every month, the priests would observe the moon and formally proclaim when the new month started. Etymonline says this:
calendar (n.) Look up calendar at c. 1200, "system of division of the year;" mid-14c. as "table showing divisions of the year;" from Old French calendier "list, register," from Latin calendarium "account book," from calendae/kalendae "calends" the first day of the Roman month -- when debts fell due and accounts were reckoned.

This is from calare "to announce solemnly, call out," as the priests did in proclaiming the new moon that marked the calends, from PIE root kele- (2) "to call, shout" (see claim (v.)). In Rome, new moons were not calculated mathematically but rather observed by the priests from the Capitol; when they saw it, they would "declare" the number of days till the nones (five or seven, depending on the month). The word was taken by the early Church for its register list of saints and their feast days...
The link to claim is worth following up as well. (For extra credit, the most punctilious of students will also investigate the association of month with moon. As Etymonline again says:
month (n.) Look up month at Old English monað, from Proto Germanic *menoth- ... related to *menon- "moon" (see moon (n.); the month was calculated from lunar phases)...  
As usual, it's all related: calendar ⇨ solemn announcement of lunar observation month; and when you start pulling on one thread, the whole thing unravels [if you have the time].)


Monday, 22 February 2016

Making whey (with whetstones?)

Almost a year ago I wrote here about words making way for other words in dictionaries. My use of the evanescent word burgher ...
whose evanescence...
longtime readers may remember that I wrote here about the inchoative infix -ISC- {with its legacy of  English words that contain the letters 'sc' and have something to do with a  beginning or gradual process}
...has been dragged out over more than a century

... led me to think, not about words replacing others but words dying out while others become more popular – even though they're completely  unrelated.
This happened in the case of let (meaning obstacle), because of a pun caused by the Great Vowel Shift (which led to the words for obstacle – as in without let or hindrance or a let in tennis...
... and gawd 'elp me I'll swing for that tennis commentator who insists on saying "let-cord" (which is, for the record, hyper-correct)...
... and (not because of the vowel this time, but because of RBP's careless conflation of the sounds [w] and [ʍ]* into a single /w/ phoneme) in the case of whet (meaning sharpen).  
* [ʍ] is the "whispered" /w/, sometimes represented  in print as hw – still apparent in the spelling "wh" (making the word whispered strangely appropriate). 
In that blog I wrote of  "the burghers of Ealing"  – which itself seemed rather strange.
Incidentally, burghers collocates with the and of about 10 times more frequently than burgher, as this BNC search shows; and for some reason the burghers of Ealing seems much less resonant than the burghers of Hamelin.
But while I was looking up the spelling here I glanced down out of interest at the Usage Trends – which made me wonder what occasioned the change. Was the relative neologism burger involved?

The word burger was shortened from hamburger in 1939 – that is, 1939 was the earliest attested usage; it was no doubt gathering a head of steam throughout the inter-war years.

Here is what Etymonline says (about hamburger, as burger just has a terse cross-reference):
hamburger (n.) Look up hamburger at
1610s, Hamburger "native of Hamburg." Also used of ships from Hamburg. From 1838 as a type of excellent black grape indigenous to Tyrolia; 1857 as a variety of hen; the meat product so called from 1880 (as hamburg steak), named for the German city, though no certain connection has ever been put forth, and there may not be one unless it be that Hamburg was a major port of departure for German immigrants to United States. Meaning "a sandwich consisting of a bun and a patty of grilled hamburger meat" attested by 1909, short for hamburger sandwich (1902).
So in 1902 hamburger sandwich was attested in American English; and a few years later the unrelated [w e l l... the burg- part of it was, via the placename, but the concepts burger and burgher are unrelated] burgher started to dwindle in  popularity.

Started to dwindle? How do we know? Collins helpfully lets you specify different extents for a word's changing fortunes, and taking the word frequency back another two hundred years we see something of a roller-coaster. The general trend was up throughout those first two centuries, though with many ups and downs; and there was a marked peak at about the turn of the century. But the story has been one of fairly consistent decline throughout the twentieth century and beyond – which I think justifies my use of the word started.

Of course, many other things have changed – politics, various kinds of context... Besides, I am the last (excuse the hyperbole, maybe ante-pre-penultimate) to make the rookie mistake of confusing correlation with causality. And anyway, the slide in frequency was well under way before the abbreviation was coined.. Still, it all strikes me as rather THINGish.


Monday, 15 February 2016

Progress with Unity (or was it Nancy?)


I can date with some precision my first exposure to the horrid "going forward" (in the meaning from now on (which saves a few characters, saves one syllable, doubles the opportunities for sensible line-breaks – go-ing? for-ward? – and has the added advantage of NOT MAKING YOU SOUND LIKE A TOTAL WALLY).  I was reminded of this quite unexpectedly when I happened to see a flurry of tweets such as these:

Not being a close follower of a Presidential Election that's not going to take place for another nine months – we haven't reached Peak Bull$h*t  yet, not even close – it was news to me that she was even in the running for nomination (until she wasn't).

In September 2001 Ms Fiorina, in only her second year as CEO of HP (or "H-P" to use the rather quaint style favoured by the Wall Street Journal) made her play for Compaq (the shrimp that had engulfed the Bostonian lobster that I had started to work for in 1984, acquired by Compaq in 1998). A short time after her arrival in my world (probably in late 2001, or possibly early in 2002 – I have a feeling that she may have wished us well for the Holiday period, but I wouldn't swear to that memory) she spoke to her worldwide empire in a huge video conference. I was one of the few hundred employees crammed into the canteen at DEC Park – or the employee cafeteria at Worton Grange as we were corporately adjured to call it. But we were one little outpost; questions were phoned in from all over the world.

Revenons à nos moutons  – "going forward". In that video conference (a description that grossly overstates its interactivity – it was really a TV broadcast with a few carefully sanitized phoned questions  tacked on at the end) Ms Fiorina outlined her view of HP's future (which didn't include the bit about her being kicked out in 2005), and during this rose-tinted vision she used the phrase going forward several times. The first time she used it –  although it was not difficult to interpret, because of English's (and most [if not all?] other natural languages') use of the spacetime metaphor – it took a moment to sink in; had she really said that? Well, she had, and went on to do so several times more. Maybe it was current then in the American business world. But it is now, even in the UK.

I referred in my last paragraph to 'the space → time metaphor' . I think I've provided examples of this somewhere in my earlier posts. I'm sure I've come across it in works by David Crystal and Steven Pinker (not in collaboration [!]) But links to these will have to wait for an update 'for I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep and miles...' (you get the idea).


Update 2016.02.16.15:55 – Added PS:

PS. Here are some of the links I promised.

The Pinker one is from The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (edition-specific reference; other editions are available) p. 191 et passim:
The similarity between space and time is limpid enough  that we routinely use space to represent time in calendars, hourglasses, and other time-keeping devices. And the cognitive similarity  also shows up in everyday metaphors, where spatial terms are borrowed to refer to time.
My post was about transport rather than space, though speed (space/time) is central to that idea. Here's a taste:
He [Ed: Brian Foster, in The Changing English Languagewrites:
'Cavalcade', etymologically a procession  of horsemen, has given rise in American English to a series of words in which the -cade element denotes the idea of 'spectacular display', e.g. aquacade, musicade and motorcade. Of these only 'motorcade' has penetrated into British use.... It remains to be seen how productive this ending will be in Britain....
Well, he was writing in 1968 (or before), so I think we can stop holding our breath;  -cade's hopes of becoming a productive suffix in British English, can wave forlornly to that slow-moving motorcade, or cortège, that follows many a linguistic speculation like this.
But elsewhere automobile-based metaphors pervade the language. A person who is not at their best can be said to be 'not firing on all four [cylinders]'. Rather than rush you can 'put the brakes on' (or, with a nod to former times, you can 'hold your horses'). If you're in a hurry you either 'put the pedal to the metal' (which must come from American English, as the wordplay is better with an American accent) or 'step on it' or 'burn rubber'. The point where, for the walker 'the shoe pinches' is where 'the rubber meets the road'. And while we're on the subject of tyres, assessing the suitability of something in a desultory way, with no clear intention of buying it (either literally or figuratively) is 'kicking the tyres'. People who need to get moving should 'get their a$$ in gear' and someone who's making progress is 'going through the gears'.
I must have dreamt the Crystal quote, or – more probably – just can't find it. Anyway, the metaphor is clear and suggestive, or to use Pinker's word limpid, which I'll trump, if I may be so bold, with a word I've just come across: NITID. This word, defined by Collins as (poetic) bright; glistening deserves, I think, a new lease of life. The Collins Usage Trends graph shows this sad decline (meteoric, in the falling-rapidly sense). In the 18th century the word must have been on everyone's lips:

Where was I? Commonness. The future is in front of us; the past is behind us –everyone knows that. And I'll bet that no language teacher could ever have taught the past tense without pointing back over their shoulder. En seguida ['following'],  sur-le-champs ['on the field' – hmm, not sure how that one works; perhaps it's the field of battle, where you have to make split-second decisions...], langsam ['lengthily', to mean 'slowly']... there must be hundreds (thousands?) more.

Update 2016.02.17.12:55 – Added PPS:

1965 coat of arms
PPS. I've just realized that my subject line (Progress with Unity...) makes little sense to anyone not having knowledge of my early drafts. The word progress suggested itself to me as a possible meaning for going forward – "as we  progress". Progress with Unity is the motto of the Borough of Ealing – "QUEEN OF THE SUBURBS" as  it was once known.

1902 coat of arms
In the '60s, with Ealing, Acton, and Southall conglomerated, the burghers of Ealing realized that they needed a new coat of arms; the old one, granted in 1902, was reworked. "The boring old elitist Latin obviously had to go – but hang on, what did it mean anyway?"

Coincidentally, it exemplifies that space/time metaphor this blog was looking  at earlier: "Look back [and] Look forward". "Well," said that burgher (talking in the Swinging Sixties) "Look back? Where's THAT at? But Look forward – that works."

So, ironically, the new motto does "Look back", in that it keeps the idea of looking forward from the 1902 version.


Friday, 12 February 2016

How low can you go?

A guest on a recent Midweek was Willard Wigan, the maker of very small sculptures. As his website says
Willard’s micro-sculptures are now so minute that they are only visible through a microscope. Each piece commonly sits within the eye of a needle, or on a pin head. The personal sacrifices involved in creating such wondrous, yet scarcely believable pieces are inconceivable to most. Willard enters a meditative state in which his heartbeat is slowed, allowing him to reduce hand tremors and sculpt between pulse beats. Even the reverberation caused by outside traffic can affect Willard’s work. Consequently, he often works through the night when there is minimal disruption.    
Willard’s artwork has been described by many as “the eighth wonder of the world”.... 
Willard Wigan‘s website

I'm not so sure about the Eighth Wonder thing. My tip for octavio-mirabilitude (I've no idea how English has managed for so long without a word for the quality/fact of being the eighth wonder) is the sculptures that are much smaller than "only visible through a microscope". I'm not sure of the numbers in relation to Willard Wigan's sculptures, but the technique of DNA Origami surely beats them into a cocked hat. In this video the narrator says that her nano models, in comparison with an origami model of about the size of a bag of sugar, had the relative size of a grain of sand to Mt Everest. They are much smaller than simply microscopic. More of this anon, but here's a taster (borrowed from  CAVmag 13 [after a little tweaking]):

And while I'm on the subject of scale,  my latest award of a Tezzy (first mentioned here,  but awarded irregularly several times since to a super-cool(ed?) site – best avoided if you've got a deadline to meet) goes to this. It's similar to an earlier version produced (also by NASA) that  I saw in the closing years of the 20th century (but not, I don't think, as another NASA page says
the most famous short science film of its generation ... Powers of Ten, originally created in the 1960s
).  But it's much cooler, and interactive, and takes only a few seconds to load – well worth the wait.


This is a new one on me, but maybe it's been part of the jargon of Sales since time immoral.
What's the one thing sales teams generally suck at? Onboarding new sales reps.It isn't anyone's fault, though. It's difficult to nail down an effective onboarding program. According to research firm, TOPO: 72.5% of high growth companies hire sales reps with 0-1 year of experience. 
But most teams don't have an onboarding process. This sets reps up for failure. The sad part is they have the potential to become top performers, but only if they receive proper onboarding...
It seems to mean roughly the same as inducting, but with less strait-laced overtones. The spam that told me about this amazing opportunity linked to this page, which interested parties might want to upfollow.


Update 2016.03.09.16:00  – Added this PS:

In the early 1930s Pyotr Kapitsa persuaded his colleague Ernest Rutherford to spend £15,000 of a government grant to build a new laboratory in Cambridge. As the CU Department of Physics website says:
The Laboratory was built in 1933 by the Royal Society for Kapitza to continue his work into intense magnetic fields. During the building work, those passing the lab were surprised to see a figure in a brown monk's habit busily chipping away at the brickwork behind a tarpaulin screen. This was Eric Gill who had been commissioned by Kapitza to carve both a plaque of Rutherford and this Crocodile...
The reason for this, on the face of it, odd choice of subject is a cause for some debate. Everyone agrees that Crocodile was his nickname for Rutherford, but there are various versions of the reason behind it:
..."The Crocodile" [was] Kapitza's pet name for Rutherford, either because of his fear of having his head bitten off by him, or because his voice could be relied upon to precede his visits, just like the crocodile's alarm clock in "Peter Pan".
The first of these is pretty unimaginative; the more literary Peter Pan-based one strikes me as more interesting; and given science students' predilection for cult/fantasy fiction (which Peter Pan may have been at the time), it's the reason I favour.

Anyway, the crocodile sculpture is quite well hidden. In three years living within a quarter of a mile of it (and in two of those years less than half that)   I didn't see it until last Sunday, when I went back to Cambridge to sing Messiah.

The picture of the three crocodiles I borrowed from CAVmag is a little misleading – though not to a serious extent. I could, by estimating the brick size, have calculated the applicability of the caption Bricks 100m. When I saw it in the flesh (or, I suppose, brickdust) I saw that this was a bit of an underestimate. The vertical extent of the bas-relief is indeed a little over 100m (which to us non-mathematicians means, I think, 1m). But, even with its curled tail, it forms the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle with base ca. 0.8m; so its length is more like  √1.6 m. With its tail uncurled (like the middle one of the 3 crocodiles) it would exceed 1.5 m. This makes the size of the DNA origami crocodile even more impressive.

I had hoped to use my visit to Cambridge to see DNA origami in action, but the opportunity didn't arise. As this post has been visited more often than all but 4 of my posts – all of which have been around for 3 or 4 years, as opposed to this post's 3 or 4 weeks – I was looking forward to updating it with something  a little more substantial (rather than this somewhat trivial reflection on what is – I must admit – a pretty unimpressive Eric Gill pot-boiler



Here are two clues:

Such animal magnetism is a charm - sort of.  (8)

And a thematic  one:

Fancy folding, reversing, I'm a PO cheque. (7)

(Hint: the last two words make this nigh-on impossible for people with no experience of/in the UK. If you can't  bear the ignorance, look at the HTML source [where there's a comment].)

Update:2016.05.16.09:55 –  Answers: CHARISMA and ORIGAMI

Friday, 5 February 2016

Keeping it simple

Guy Deutscher, in The Unfolding of Language constructs an allegory (typically – read it, it's fun) about people who tried to save the effort of communicating by simplifying their language use. Everyone does it, and – paradoxically – it can lead to new complexities (Guardians of The Queen's English like to refer to the "lazy" pronunciation of dialects such as Cockney but (no reference I'm afraid...
This observation comes from a lecture given by John Trim, in the days when Cambridge's Department of Linguistics was run from a converted cricket pavilion on the Sidgwick Site
...) the phonological  system of Cockney is much more complex than that of RBP.

Deutscher refers to one area of complexity in Latin that quite often
<digression type="editorial"> 
I almost said regularly but that would be etymologically inappropriate, since a regula is a 'rule' [or 'little stick']; in fact it wouldn't surprise me if there was a link [by some obscure pathway no doubt including Proto-Indo-European] to 'rigid'... [oops – close, but no cigar: Etymonline says the PIE roots are *reg- and *reig- respectively] 
Where was I? Oh yes. ... that quite often third declension Latin nouns have a seemingly irregular nominative ending in -s, with all the other case endings differing; in these the word-final s becomes a medial r (yes, I'm afraid students of linguistics do have to say medial rather than 'in the middle of a word' – which brings me neatly back to the theme of simplicity: the 6-words of the Wordsworthian version (that old sexist was very keen on the language of a man speaking to me) becomes a 6-letter jargon word.

But Deutscher shows that this irregularity  resulted from a new regularity that ran amok (though he doesn't use quite those words):
...[E]arly on in the history of Latin, some time between the fourth and sixth centuries BC, a sound change took place, in which every (undoubled) s between two vowels turned into an r. In itself this was an entirely regular change, and happened systematically in all eligible candidates. But as a result an irregularity wormed its way into words like flos [HD: = "flower"; the section head is Irregular flowers; shame flos doesn't mean "apple" really – a better candidate for being "wormed into"]. The s in flosem, flosis and so on turned into an r...  whereas the s in flos remained an s...
He cites an article by Christian Touratier, Rhotacisme Synchronise du latin classique et Rhotacisme Diachronique . Although the article itself is in French, the journal it's in is published in German, so I quote from the Abstract (and if you should chance to plug this text into Google Translate and think Aha, caught him out, he's just used their translation, you're on the right lines; I did start with Google Translate, but then edited their not entirely flawless version and told them mine was better):
Der historische Lautwandel, den man üblicherweise 'Rhotazismus' nennt, hat im phonologischen System des klassischen Lateins lebendige Spuren hinterlassen: Das Phonem /s/ realisiert sich zwischen Vokalen und in Berührung mit einer Morphemgrenze als Variante [r]. 
The historical sound change usually called 'rhotacism' has left clear traces in the phonological system of classical Latin: the phoneme /s/ is realized,  between vowels and in contact with a morpheme,  as the variant [r].
Deutscher  uses the word flos/floris but there are many (MANY) examples in the third declension (as Dorothy L. Sayers observed in The Greatest Single Defect of My Own Latin Education:
With the Third Declension, the high and austere order of Imperial Rome seemed to lose grip a little.  Irregularities set in...
This leaves us with pairs like justice/jurisprudence  (with the s and the r alternating according to the root jus/ juris).

The fortunes of the word ain't provide a good example of the way language learners take the line of least resistance. Put yourself in the position of a European immigrant to America in the 18th or 19th century. The paradigm of the indicative of the verb be is not at all straightforward, especially in the negative:
  • I am not, I'm not, [and not so long ago I amn't]
  • You are not, You're not, You aren't
  • He/she/it is not* (etc etc..., you get the idea)
How much easier than all these variants (with attendant phonological complications – for example, the vowel does not  change between 'I'm not' and 'I am not', but it does change between 'You are not' and 'You're not' [but it's unchanged again in 'You aren't']) is the word ain't:
  • I ain't
  • You [sing.] ain't
  • He/she/it ain't
  • We ain't
  • You [pl.] ain't
  • They ain't
Language Nazis may deprecate this usage, but it certainly makes the language learner's life much simpler.

Must get on.


PS And here‘s a clue:

Surfeit of promissory notes – hateful.  (6)

Update 2016.02.0810:55 – Fixed a few typos, and added PPS:

PPS And another:

Place for fixing damage to paintwork of classic motorcycle? – (8,6)

Update 2016.02.1016:05 – Added this footnote:

* I make it twelve variants (3 x 3 for the singulars, and 1 x 3 for the mercifully unchanging plurals, but with the added complexity of a plethora of more-or-less perfect [i,e. some more than others] homophones we're/were/where/wear, you're/your, they're/their/there [not to mention, for improbably advanced learners, yaw and yore – but hang on, this is getting rather silly]. Anyway, the one-form-fits-all-verb-forms ain't is a great simplifier.

Update 2016.03.09.22:10 – Added PPPS