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.