Friday, 21 April 2017

The little things of life

I have mentioned diminutives before; and they're always lurking quite close to the surface when you think about words. In my last post, for example:
...bacilli  [Latin baculum  'little staff'; there's that '-ulus/m' again, denoting a diminutive...]
Spaghetti are little spaghi ["strings"]; cigarettes (and cigarillos) are little cigars. A scintilla is a little piece that's been cut off (from the irregular verb scindere [whose part participle is scissus, recognizable in the English scissors]). Often, their meanings diverge widely from the mother-word: a tabernacle) ultimately from tabernaculum doesn't have much of an obvious link with a tavern (> taberna); the altar wine doesn't even go in  the tabernacle...
<autobiographical_note>
 (at least not in my day, when catering was easier [just a mouthful for the celebrant]).
<autobiographical_note>

The reason for this focus (on diminutives) is a chance reading of the title of an Italian board game: Il gioco dell'oca.  In Italy (and much of the Romance world) they don't have Snakes & Ladders (although Google Translate says that Snakes & Ladders is an English "translation" of Gioco dell'oca. Un' oca is thought to have derived from the Vulgar Latin *AUCA(M) (the preceding asterisk signifies that the word is not attested, but is the source of other Romance words that require it to have existed).

On the right is a rather mangled excerpt [cobbled together from the foot of one column and the top half of the next] from the Romance philologist‘s bible Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. The book was compiled more than a century ago, when the centre of the philological universe was in Germany, (Grimm's Law, remember)  so it's not a light read. And it says so much about auca, avicella and avicellus that I missed out an elision after the first four lines on avicellus: Section 828 goes on, but my interest ran out after the French oiseau.
<tangent status="just thrown out there">
I wonder if Pooh's Woozle owes anything to A.A.Milne's knowledge of Chaucer's ousel... So little time, so many speculations.
</tangent>
Anyway, oca means "goose", and there are diminutives in its back-story. But when I first (knowingly, as I imagine I may have come across the word before I saw that Italian board-game) saw the word I wondered whether it might have any connection with the English word ocarina – this odd-looking musical instrument:

I went to my usual source for this sort of information, Etymonline:
ocarina (n.)
1877, from Italian ocarina, diminutive of oca "goose" (so called for its shape), from Vulgar Latin *auca, from Latin avicula "small bird," diminutive of avis "bird" (see aviary).
My guess was right (though I'm not sure I buy the so-called for its shape. The instrument comes in all sorts  of shapes, but the most common one doesn't remind  me of a goose; perhaps the noise it makes comes into  it).

Returning to the game, its instructions were in Italian; and I suspect  – my command of Italian is more of a comma – they claimed a millennial origin for the game, though Wikipedia suggests that the author of this pooh-poohs the idea with a rather curt sniff:
[The games]...are unlikely to have been the same
Geese figure elsewhere in much language. The rather dated silly goose, cooking someone's goose, wild goose chase...
<digression theme ="goose".
In my partial soon-to-be-released new vowel book, the *IL* section says this of the expression wild goose chase:
When Shakespeare put this expression in the mouth of Mercutio (in the first recorded use), he was probably referring to a certain kind of horse-race, with a leading horse being followed by other riders in the V-shape typical of migrating geese. When used today, it refers more directly (although figuratively) to the notion of chasing after wild geese. (It seems to me that this change in meaning may have been influenced, in days when Latin was more widely studied, by an awareness of the fact that a mission to find the solution to a question that has no anser [=Latin, "goose"] was vain; but there is no documentary proof of this – which, I admit, smacks of folk-etymology.)

</digression>
...what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander....[I'm not sure where that "good for the goose" in the UsingEnglish version comes from. Both BNC and COCA prefer sauce as a noun in that context {before "for the goose"}... Oh I get it. I was searching specifically for a noun . BNC prefers the noun, with only a single good; but COCA has much closer balance (indeed, an ABSOLUTE balance, in its corpus – alliteration trumps gastronomy )] Geese certainly get about. But things need doing. Further reflection on ocarinas and goslings will have to wait, sine die].

b

PS A clue:
  • Reportedly Spooner's porcine challenge for a sympathetic cure (3, 4, 2, 3, 3)


Friday, 14 April 2017

My old man said Follow the lobster...

... and don't Dili-Dali on the way.

'You couldn't make it up' – said the John Waite in this week's Pick of the Week, introducing  a BBC report on a self-styled Grammar Vigilante. This masked crusader roams the streets of Bristol righting the wrongs done to Milady the Blessed and Inviolate Language of Our Forefathers the Way Mrs Thistlebotham Taught It. [Mrs Thislebotham was a stickler for proper English who inhabited Dave Barry's Mr Language Person columns, one of which observed that an apostrophe just meant Here comes an S.], The Apostrophizer's special interest was the wayward apostrophe, and the arcane/arbitrary rules governing its "correct" application. I wrote a  few years ago (here) about this:
... my late twentieth-century sightings of apostropho-clasm are far from original. GBS wrote
I have written aint, dont, havent, shant, shouldnt, and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only when its omission would suggest another word: for example hell for he’ll. There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli. [ed, 2017: the source I originally gave had papering for peppering, but this is obviously wrong: peppering is the perfect choice, whereas papering makes no sense at all; I suspevt the finger of blame points at Optical Character Recognition]
(Isn't that bacilli marvellous? Bacilli were in the news at the time, because of discoveries in connection with these stick-like [Latin baculum  'little staff'; there's that '-ulus/m' again, denoting a diminutive, as noted in a previous post microscopic objects. Shaw was a contemporary of Fleming [HD 2017: I have no idea why I mentioned Fleming. The reason is probably a circumstantial link now lost on the cutting-room floor.] – who was born before Shaw but outlived him. One can imagine Shaw reading a newspaper or scientific leaflet illustrated with a slide covered with these things looking like chocolate vermicelli - and there's another metaphor, 'little worms', but that would be a digression too far). You can read more about apostrophes here [ed, 2017: this source is no longer there. Here's an option], if you're that way inclined. I really can't get awfully excited about this sort of thing. [HD 2017: I'd like to include a contemporary picture {mid-late 19th cent.} but for the time being you'll have to make do with this:
A better one is TBS, but breath retention is not advised.]
The Pedant column in The Times, responding to the BBC's story, layed into the Apostrophizer in a column entitled ...
<digression>
See rant here (the bit in red) if you're interested in my feelings about this wronged word.
</digression>
...The Apostrophiser should Apologise. I'm not convinced the writer came up with that title; maybe a sub-editor was just attracted by the assonance
For a start, the grammar vigilante has misunderstood his own moniker. Grammar encompasses syntax ...morphology ... and phonology .... Mr Vigilante is concerned instead with orthography, the conventions for writing a language, which has nothing to do with grammar.

The distinction matters. [HD: Well yes. I thought as much when I first heard the BBC report but dismissed it as a bit of typical dumbing down; and eternal vigilance in this sort of thing strikes me as almost as anal as the malefactor.] Whenever you hear a complaint about “bad grammar” levelled at a native speaker it will almost invariably be untrue. We know how the rules of grammar go (real rules, I mean, like word order or inflection for tense) and don’t get them wrong. But the conventions of spelling and punctuation have to be learnt. Mr Vigilante believes it’s a “crime” to get these wrong. [HD: Well, again, yes. The self-styled Apostrophizer was making a rhetorical rebuff of the interviewer's question (about the legality of his efforts), without weighing his words more carefully, so ...] What nonsense [... it was indeed pretty silly. He needs a PR training course. But his use of "It's a crime" to refer to something not strictly criminal is fairly standard hyperbole and hardly merits this put-down. Sledgehammers and nuts spring to mind.].
Though agreeing with a lot of what Oliver [Pedant] Kamm writes, I fear this article was not his finest hour. He talks about the history of orthography, giving loads of detail. I sympathize with his objection to being corrected by an ignoramus who thinks English should be pickled in aspic.

Incidentally, Kamm obviously knows but has over-simplified the story:
The apostrophe didn’t enter the English language till the 16th century. It was adopted from French as a printers’ convenience to denote an elision or contracted form. From that usage, [HD: Here's the missing bit, expanded below.]  it was adopted to denote singular possession and then plural possession. But this was no logical stepwise progression. The conventions fluctuated and they didn’t settle down in their current form till around 1800, with mechanised printing.
The printers' convention was applied, in a case of a possessive usage, to a missing letter or  letters that had been part of the possessive inflexion. Chaucer's Pardoner inveighs against the casual use of oaths such as

"By Goddes precious herte," and "by his nayles"...

and the possessive ending is necessary for the metre. So those compositors weren't just inventing a convention for denoting possession, but using a trick used in other contexts (such as ñ for nn); it was just a convention for making the artisan's work easier. The apostrophe came to denote possession more-or-less by accident, by marking the elision of a possessive ending.

Anyway, I must start on the picnic bench in the gaps between rain showers and neighbours' bonfires.

b


Friday, 7 April 2017

Crossed wires

Not for the first time, my Tai Chi class has set me off on what might politely be called a tangent (less politely another hare-brained reflection).
<digression theme="hare-brained">
Interesting metaphor, that; presumably not unrelated to the Mad Hatter: darting about, with random changes of direction. (They're not really boxing;  something to do with mating, I think. Wikipedia would know.) 
<meta_digression>
And another thing. In Western culture we have the association of the moon with lunacy (which does what it says on the tin, as it were), but many Eastern cultures see  not a Man in the Moon  but a Rabbit in the Moon. I wonder... (For Further Study, as the used to say in the ISO world: "FFS" [meaning interesting, but don't hold your breath])
<meta_digression>
</digression>
My teacher often teaches in mirror image, and refers to our bodies: 'Your right hand,' she says, demonstrating with her left. This is easy enough to understand, once you know the convention and have practised a few hundred times: the body just gets used to reproducing (or, at least, trying to reproduce) the movement demonstrated. But to a newcomer it‘s not so easy. What Wordsworth called our meddling intellect gets involved, willy-nilly.

This is reminiscent, I thought, of the Stroop Effect
...a demonstration of interference in the reaction time of a task. When the name of a color (e.g., "blue", "green", or "red") is printed in a color that is not denoted by the name (e.g., the word "red" printed in blue ink instead of red ink), naming the color of the word takes longer and is more prone to errors than when the color of the ink matches the name of the color.
More here
In short, red is easier to make sense of than green. Presumably, colour is processed in a different part of the brain than writing, and the translation of writing to meaning in yet another, and the translation of writing to sound in yet another. So there's a huge amount of processing going on here, and if two  of those domains overlap (the written glyphs' meaning and their cognitive content – R-E-D) the brain has life a bit easier.

This crossing of wires, the interference of the intellect with a motor skill, is often apparent to a language teacher. Many years ago, when I was teaching Portuguese to a group of adults (people who've been taught at school the stifling and confusing and just plain WRONG lesson that the way to solve a problem is to turn the intellect loose on it) I drew this diagram to show what I wanted them to do:



There are many more steps on the left-hand route, each being error-prone. So there's a Chinese Whispers effect, which means that there's next-to-no chance of the sound output of the two routes matching.

The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to other motor skills (and speaking is unquestionably a motor skill).
<digression theme="Underhill talk">
I missed a recent talk by Adrian Underhill, in which he talked about decognitvizing the teaching of pronunciation to ESOL students. I must catch up with the transcript. Watch this space.
</digression>
So a teacher has to beware of the interference of intellect. On the other hand, though, it's easy (and fashionable) to go too far in what has been called, in another context, the romanticization of ... illiteracy (that "..." represents the one word musical, which is what I meant by another context.
See this letter  to the Guardian from many leading musical lights).

b

Friday, 31 March 2017

the pencil-sharpenings of journalism

Last week I was reminded of my intense dislike of rolling news (although to call it news is an unmerited compliment: EVOLVING RUMOUR might be nearer the mark). During the BBC's ravings, the phrase the pencil-sharpenings of journalism occurred to me (building on the first draught of history trope.Pencil sharpenings look like a mess, but one made of discrete chunks of apparently innocuous bits; at a first glance, one doesn't notice the dark bits at the end of each shaving. But the shavings are good for nothing; they just indicate that something, involving a pencil, has happened. It's not clear from the shavings even if the effort of sharpening worked. There's no telling what the sharpened pencil, if it was sharp in the end, was used for.

At Westminster on that day, something happened. What it was is beginning to become clear. I imagine in a month or two we'll have a better idea.

<autobiographical_note>
This reminded me of the afternoon of 11 September 2001. I was working in an open-plan office, recovering from the Y2K jollities.
<rant flame="low-mid">
Which reminds me of all the smart a*s (=ALECS, of course) who say things like "Remember all that Millennium Bug nonsense. The IT sales people used it as an excuse to sell a load of new kit. And what happened? Nothing! Not a thing, except that we all have to fill in 4-digit dates. I mean who needs to scroll down through dozens of 21st century dates when they're opening a new bank account, say?.... Er... maybe that's not the best of examples."

Well no, you bozo, I think. Nothing happened, not a thing, because for the last two or three years of the 20th century IT engineers were busy making sure it didn't.
<rant>
A colleague was following rolling news on one of his many devices (he was the early adopter's early adopter – adoptio praecox was his thing, perhaps). A report (possibly the BBC, though they're not by any means the worst ...
<digression type="mitigation">
In a recent Media Show [correction, Feedback] a  caller compared the BBC's coverage with Channel 4's. He referred to a scoop the BBC had "missed". The presenter came back with what to me – and to Humpty Dumpty, probably – seemed like a knock-down argument: the "scoop" was a mistake.

But the complainant was not remotely disturbed: the BBC's job, it seemed, was not only to jump on any passing bandwagon, however unroadworthy, but preferably to start its own: Nation shall speak cr@p unto nation.
</digression>
...) and he passed on the "news" there had been several casualties and AT LEAST A DOZEN deaths.
</autobiographical_note>
So, as far as I'm concerned, rolling news can just keep rolling. It seems to me interesting that – among the many possible "first uses" investigated in that Slate piece – one, Phil Graham's (not the Ur-text, it turns out), came from a speech addressed to correspondents for a weekly. Let us not get our fingertips dirty with the pencil-sharpenings.

But I must go and learn some words, ready for Sunday's Johannes-Passion. (That story's more than two millennia old, and still people are arguing about what really happened!)

b

Update: 2017.04.03.14.40 – Correction and typo-fix

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Johannes-Passion, Take N

("Take N", because I've had the good fortune to sing it several times.)

As I have said before, more than once, when talking about music:

(This is an open goal for musicologists – my theoretical knowledge of music is minimal. Please comment if this needs another update.)
When I first discussed Bach's St John Passion here I recalled many hours standing listening to the Passion story during mass;  it was standing room only in churches around Easter  (in the One True Chorch, that is):
... on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday ([ed. there were] dramatized readings on that day, to the extent of having separate voices for the Evangelist, Jesus, Pilate, Peter et al., but without Bach's extraordinary music).
Later in the same post I mentioned this pelagic pun:
from Rick Marschall's biography, p. 99 
[I imagine the English word 'beck' – now for the most part reserved for dialects and crossword puzzles–is related.]
Beethoven's pun ...
<confession>

I am reminded of a venial sin of mine, which I feel the need to confess. At a quiz held by my choir a few years ago, this pun was background to a question about the meaning of Bach. At the time, I didn't know; but I guessed that there might be some link between the consonants in the two languages (German and English). I scrawled my guess: book. My reputation as someone who sometimes knows stuff about language may have influenced the marker on the neighbouring table  – assuming that I'd got it right because it was the sort of thing I get right,

The situation was quite competitive, and I accepted the ill-gotten point. (Stupid really. We didn't win – divine retribution, no doubt.)

</confession>
...came to mind as I listened to the recit before Peter's Ach, mein Sinn, with its excruciating chromatic keening – a mixture of grief, fear, and self-pity. Not long afterwards the dramatic writing is no less oceanic when the veil of the Temple is rent 'from top to bottom' [cascade of  little black notes] and 'the earth did quake' [another three bars of frenetic black notes], until an uneasy peace is restored when 'many bodies of saints arose'. 
(Ed: My memory here was at fault. Ach mein Sinn isn't sung by Peter; it's a reflection sung by an unnamed tenor after Peter's denial.)

Anyway, the St John Passion is uppermost in my mind at the moment, because of my choir's forthcoming concert (oo-er, on Sunday week):


  

Don't miss it.


Update 2017.03.28.16.55 – Added PS

PS

In my subject line, both here and on the occasion of my Cambridge rendition , I said Johannes-Passion. This isn't because of snobbery (though elitism does come into it – so bite me, as I believe they say in some parts of the world). It's because the German is part of the music.

There are, in the piece, two choruses with more-or-less identical settings. But what is matched is not just the notes. In one the mocking words are

Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüden König!

In the other, the corresponding words are

Schreibe nicht der Jüden König!

The last two words are (trivially, of course) a perfect match, but consider the vowel sounds in the first three syllables: two are identical (Sei/schrei-, ge-/-be) and the third is similar: nicht has a front vowel and grüßet has a vowel that, though not strictly a front vowel, is fronted (the lips are forward); the same applies to König. All the stressed vowels are either front, or fronted,  or in the case of the first diphthong the tongue position is moving forwards (from [a] to [ɪ])

The first version, which I sang (in  English) with a previous choir about 30 years ago, had "Write thou not..." for Schreibe nicht... The first syllable is a close match; not so the others. My present edition has both German and English and goes for a strangled and outlandish version: "Write Him not as our king of the Jews"; how glad I am that we're not singing that... :-)

There's more to be said, but tempus is fugendum (or whatever). My point is that the original language adds to the drama of the original, forcing facial antics in the singers to indicate mockery/anger/hatred... as appropriate. And the sounds are part of the musical picture.

Update 2017.03.30.14.35 – Tiny correction to PS, in bold.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Here we go steadily nuts in May

...Or perhaps it was April.

Last Saturday's Times announced a revival of the National Theatre‘s original(-ish production of Tom Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. At least, I assume it's a revival; the 50th anniversary can't have escaped the notice of the publicity department. I say -ish because the first production of the play under this title took place on the Edinburgh Fringe in the Summer of 1966

The following Spring the play  opened at the Old Vic (because at the time there was no bricks and mortar [or rather slabs and mastic, I suppose] home for the National Theatre). For a few weeks before the opening, the doors were open for Press Previews, at reduced prices – reduced enough for a school trip.

The school minibus accommodated about fifteen passengers. Priority bookings went to the VIth form, and any seats left were offered to the years below. At the time I was in the fourth year (which, in new money, is Year 10), so it was a rare treat for the likes of us to be given the chance. But in the March or early April of 1967 I had such a chance. Some of us were self-assured enough to be amused by the bar-room talk at the interval, with pseuds ....
<explanatory_note type="suspected neologism">
(some of us read Private Eye, home of the Pseuds Corner column).

Until writing this I assumed that the Eye had created the word. But it  turns out that it has been around since the turn of the 18th century, peaking in 1930. Then there was a lesser peak in 1953, 8 years before Private Eye was founded. The second of these mini-peaks, which the Eye might claim some credit for, was in 1967 – the year of my visit. So the word was popular at the time;  just not as popular as I once supposed (or for the reasons I imagined):
Frequency graph from this Collins site
(though the graph is generated from scratch when your browser loads the page,
so you may want to have a cup of tea while you wait)

</explanatory_note>
... who, having no reviews to bone up on, didn't know what to think). Some of us, though. were too shocked at the prices (4/6 for a bottle of Double Diamond! [bought for us by the older boys while Mr Crawford's back was turned]).

Another visit, one that I didn't go on, was to see The Royal Hunt of the Sun – also at the Old Vic. But I did witness its fruits, as it became the school play (once in my time, but with many revivals since*).

When, a few years later, I started to learn Spanish, I smugly laughed at the pronunciation of Pizarro with a [ts]. Though on reflection my school play's pronunciation no doubt mimicked that of the National Theatre; and they, very probably, had a dialogue coach who had done their homework.

In my loft there may well be a moldering copy of  "The De-voicing of Mediaeval Sibilants", mentioned in a similarly Latin-American context here. A written z, which had in Old Castilian been pronounced [dz], came to be pronounced [ts]. I don't know how long this process took, or when the subsequent progression to [Ѳ] heard in some parts of mainland Spain (and on the lips of learners – of whom, at the time of the aforementioned smugness, I was one) started. But with my usual magnanimity I'm prepared to give that National Theatre dialogue coach the benefit of the doubt; besides, as Pizarro's men were adventurers, it's reasonable to imagine that they were early-adopters of the linguistic trend.

Thassall – I must try to catch the last of this glorious weather.


b

* Many years later, a contemporary of mine (and the other half – though much the more vocal half – of The Simon and Garfunkel of North Pinner), who had taken the leading part of Pizarro in 1969, visited the old school unexpectedly and unannounced. One of the directors of the play was still there. And when Albert interrupted his class he said to the boys "This is the original Pizarro".

This is a sample of the duo's work – not precisely contemporary, but from  1969.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Out of the mouths of babes and ducklings


Some time ago, here,  I wrote this:
<soapbox>
To learn to speak a foreign language, we must regress to our infancy and learn to make speech noises the way a baby does. Even infancy is a bit late*; there is evidence that growing familiarity with speech sound starts in the womb. Here is just one such study).

* To quote from a recent article:

"The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are human neonates capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester of gestation," said Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany.
</soapbox>
I've just come across a much more recent source via this NY Times article .  The immediately relevant issue (language-acquisition in the womb) is summed up here:
In the latest study, published in January in Royal Society Open Science, Jiyoun Choi, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands... and her colleagues looked at Dutch-speaking adults, some of whom had been adopted from Korea, but none of whom spoke Korean. The researchers found that people born in Korea and adopted as babies or toddlers by Dutch families were able to learn to make Korean sounds significantly better than the Dutch-speaking controls who had been born into Dutch families.

It was especially interesting that this effect held not only for those who had been adopted after the age of 17 months, when they would have been saying some words, but also for those adopted at under 6 months. In other words, the language heard before birth and in the first months of life had affected both sound perception and sound production, even though the change of language environment happened before the children started making those sounds themselves.

This is impressive, though I‘m not sure the NY Times‘s last sentence (in that excerpt) is entirely justified: "under 6  months" is not the same as "before birth"; and how could they possibly test anything to do with sound production...? (That's a rather immature question: I need to read the original paper – although the title

Early development of abstract language knowledge...

doesn't inspire confidence. The continuation does though:

...: evidence from perception–production transfer of birth-language memory

... is more  promising though.)
<autobiographical_note>
During last Saturday's Purcell concert – which, sadly, many of you missed – I was struck by two pre-echoes of our next (perhaps the little MD knows something about it, as  veterans of the original Bill and Ben series might think
<digression type="cultural background">
Bill and Ben were flower-pot-men (don't ask – it was a children's TV programme in the days when [in the UK] the BBC's Watch with Mother was more-or-less the only source of children's TV) . They caused various sorts of mild mayhem; and the narrator often finished with the words "... and I think the Little House knows something about it").
</digression>
         Where was I...? Oh yes, pre-echoes:
  • The trumpets in the canzona in the overture to Come ye sons of art play a phrase remarkably similar to this tune from a very different context (J. S. Bach's St John Passion):
  • The words "Haste, haste to town" in Dido and Aeneas, which are similar in both sense and melody to this passage::
</autobiographical_note>
Enough. Onward and upward: next on the agenda (perhaps that should be canenda –  from Latin cano [="I sing"]) needs work:


PS Quite incidentally (not a COincidence, it just happened), I wonder if Evan Davies in last week's The Bottom Line knew what he was doing when he produced this glorious mixed metaphor:

Is the white van your bète noire?

b


Update: 2017.03.06.18.40 – Added PPS

PPS And here‘s a clue:
  • Switch prison guard‘s allegiance and increase metaphorical pressure. (4, 3, 5)
Update: 2017.03.20.16.10 – Added PPPS

PPS: On the subject of my last point, I wonder how a white-van man might become an eminence grise. Oh, and that clue: TURN THE SCREW.

Incidentally, for the benefit of anyone expecting sense from my subject lines, ... no, it's gone. There was a reason though.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The price of education

... or rather the cost of its omission.

Some bumf has just plopped onto my doormat  (is any other verb possible, I wonder? – things might thud if they're particularly heavy, but otherwise plop it is)...

STOP PRESS: BNC and COCA checked

 Yes; they can fall, drop or land
and lie or be, of course,
but I was thinking particularly of falling. 

... listing donors  to college funds. There is a list showing percentage participation by year of matriculation whatever that is  – presumably percentage of matriculands giving, rather than the percentage (given by each year) of the total given (which, come to think of it, can't be so, as the average for all years since 1942 [before which there are a few odd nonagenarians] is 14%).

It would only be to be expected that there would be a bell curve, with earlier years tailing off and later years rampimg up (as graduates find either their Heavenly  reward or their feet, respectively).  My own year, 1971, does quite well: since then, only two years have exceeded its participation rate, and one has equalled it:


But something happened in 1998 (and I think the Chancellor of the Exchequer knows something about it: tuition fees). Since 1998 the average has fallen to single figures; graduates presumably think Pay more? I should cocoa. You've already had N thousand (where N is typically somewhere between 10 and 100 – at a guess; the NUS probabl;y has more exact figures). And that average is raised by the anomalous 2009, when the reported rate is (dubiously?) more than twice the mean.

Of course, this is a tiny sample, and says nothing  – prima facie – about state funding or its shortfall; but it strikes me, anecdotally, as at least suggestive.
<autobiographical_note theme="Primary School" relevance="tenuous">
In the mid-late '50s I met my father on his return from the 2nd Unit photography for No Time to Die. I remember the BOAC bag he was carrying  at Heathrow, where I met him, but not much else; I had just started school.  The film was released in 1958, so I expect the 2nd Unit work was finished in 1957, or even 1956. At the airport I met and shook hands with Bonar Colleano, reaching up from my height of about 4ft.
The cast and crew list at IMDB credits him as The Pole, which doesn't suggest immense stardom, but I was convinced he was (anachronistically*) a megastar and didn't hesitate to drop his name at school at the earliest opportunity. The first time, there was no sign of recognition. No accounting for the ignorance of SOME people, I thought, and went on to my next name-drop-ee. It took 4 or 5 such attempts for me to get the message that Mr Colleano's was not a name to conjure with.
<afterthought>
Perhaps, I have just thought (with the benefit of hind-sight and Wikipedia), that as many of my schoolfellows were Polish (my father had moved to Ealing because  of the film studios, but Ealing was also a magnet for Poles, because the local church had a "Polish Mass" even in those pre-vernacular-Mass ...
<background>
This is reminiscent of an issue I discussed a while ago here, explaining about the introduction of  the vernacular after the 2nd Ecumenical Council in 1966, but also discussing the inherent foreignness of familiar Church Latin texts spoken with foreign phonemes.
</background>
...days) maybe their parents sheltered their children from this portrayal of The Pole. More likely, though, he was just a bit-part player who nobody had heard of anyway.
</afterthought>
That list also contains the rather enigmatic (APSEUDONYMOUS?) credit
"Cyril J. Knowles
... photography: second unit (as Cyril Knowles)"

</autobiographical_note>

Foggy Nomination

Regular readers may remember Foggies, my award for spectacularly bad writing. As I wrote here
The idea for the name derives from Robert Gunning's FOG index, although these awards don't restrict themselves only to obstacles to readability measured by that index.
It goes to Michael Gove for his review of Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny  in The Times of 25 February 2017. The whole thing is worth a read for its consummate display of self-serving doublethink (hoping to atone for his own craven kowtowing to The-Clown-With-The-Orange-Countenance) and obfuscation. But two notable "sentences" are these:
He compares Trump's behaviour at campaign rallies to the deployment of the SS and brackets Trump's stump speeches with the "shamanistic incantation" [quotes sic, but what does he mean ? Hitler's incantation, or the crowd's, or the crowd saying "Hitler"? – probably Hitler leading the crowd. but in what way is this comparable with deployment?] of Hitler. He also compares Trump's attitude to any opposition to Hitler's approach to critics and feelings of fear on the streets of the US today to totalitarian terror in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Phew. Fifty-seven words and but a single resting place for the weary parser. The last thirty-three-word string is a labyrinth of to's (nearly 1 every 7 words ' – sort that lot out). I finally worked out that the first comparison ends at critics, and the second is between the sadly unparallel feelings of fear and totalitarian terror (whatever THAT is); only the 3rd and 4th to are the comparison  sort. Now I'm  not a stickler for "compare... with" as some language Nazis are, but since Gove did use with in the first sentence, switching to to in the second is at best mindless elegant variation and at worst an unforgivable attempt to trip the reader up.

As Sheridan père (I think it was) said (and as I may have quoted before –it being a favourite of mine)

We write with ease to show our breeding
But easy writing's curs't hard reading.

Hmm... That's enough for now. I'd like to see how Gove's writing in this article measures up to his own prescriptions (as Education Minister). But that will have to wait for an update.

b


* Collins English Dictionary supplies this usage graph:

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Whalemeat again

At the weekend a story that has been around for many years... poked its head  above the parap... no, wrong metaphor in the circumstances... surfaced again: the Earth has a [proposed – not everyone agrees. although the arguments strike me as pretty sound] eighth continent.

The Independent seemed utterly convinced, going for the indicative (There is"):

Zealandia: There is a previously unknown, submerged continent around New Zealand, say scientists


The Guardian, not atypically, went for the mangled idiomatic phrase (here):

Zealandia – pieces finally falling together for continent we didn't know we had

Surely,  things "come together" or "fall into place". I wonder what falling together involves. The British National Corpus notes 13 instances (run the search here), but they are all just juxtapositions of a verb and a preposition – not a brand-new phrasal verb.
<digression>
Which reminds me – that song I was going to write about sentences changing horses in mid-stream
...I must go and give some thought to a song inspired by David Crystal's IATEFL keynote on 'blends' (or as he said, to give it the $10 word, anacoluthon). It is based on the song sung, but not written, by the Beatles – Anna; the lead-singer sings 'Ana-' and the backing singers join in, to move the tune to the relative minor, '-coluthon'.
It's still on the back-burner (a pretty crowded one).
</digression>

The good ol' Beeb (... and how DARE that clown [the incumbent, if that's the mot juste, of the Presidency; perhaps encumbrance ...] accuse them of inaccuracy?) took a more measured view, going for the question

Zealandia: Is there an eighth continent under New Zealand?

... although under is not quite right, unless Europe could be said to be under Switzerland.

Just a week earlier, a horribly sad drama had played out on New Zealand's Farewell Spit (which takes the unintended irony prize for nominal determinism). As that report says:
The reasons for beachings remain a mystery. Explanations range from marine noise pollution to suicides, and NASA is even investigating whether solar storms could mess with whales’ navigation. But geography could certainly be a factor, considering several known stranding blackspots share characteristics.
This site considers the possible interference of magnetism:
Animals are known to figure out direction over long distances from the Earth's magnetic field or the direction of the sun. For instance, researchers of tiger sharks and thresher sharks recently said cues from Earth's magnetic fields may [sic. "be", probably] what enables those sharks to orient themselves and travel spot-on toward a far target.
See more here
<digression type="amateur_forensic_typography"> 
Perhaps the author wrote the one word  "maybe", as I'm afraid many people do. The desk-editor marked it with a "/" to signify the word-break,  rather than use the standard symbol:

Then whoever edited the final text (in the old days it would have been a compositor, but now it's more probably an unpaid intern) misinterpreted the – perhaps slightly misplaced – "/" mark as a deletion.

(Reading it back for sense was above their pay-grade.)

</digression>
But this blog avers with unconvincing certainty that the problem is something to do with air pressure.
But whales [sic scientists will not [sic – oh now I get it, it's them durn "experts" again]  tell you that barotrauma in the air sinuses of mass stranded whales and dolphins causes echo-navigation system failure. They know for a fact [ !!! my emphasis  this is the unmistakable sign of a bar-room know-all ] that the air contained in odontoceti cranial air spaces serves underwater to bounce, channel, reflect, isolate, send, and otherwise direct the returning echoes these animals use to navigate and find their food.

Oh dear. With "writing" of this lamentable calibre, no wonder people are confused.  The "writer" must want people not to understand.
In other words, nobody knows. And I haven't found even speculative finger-pointing at, say, micro-waves or underwater cables or any other man-made techno-pollutant. Plastic waste is the the closest candidate, but there's nothing high-tech about simple suffocation Note, this is not an Official Rumour. I don't want to start well-meaning environmentalist fanatics demonstrating against the coastal siting of cell-towers or anything of the kind..

But certainly, to judge by the noise my computer makes when I get a text (SMS), it seems to me that it's at least worth considering the possibility that something man-made (not land forms or solar wind or any of those other inanimate scapegoats – Not me guv) might have something to do with it.

Meanwhile the horrific and pathetic regular beachings go on, with  well-intentioned volunteers working around the clock to keep stranded whales alive until they can be refloated, just to see the disoriented beasts turn round and beach themselves again.

So perhaps the new continent should continue to keep its head down, as it were.  Being out of the way of man-made interference seems to me like a reliable survival strategy.

Time for bed.

b


PS And here are a couple of clues, with a certain thematic coherence.
  • Herd, by the sound of it, of erzast wildebeest? Stuff and nonsense! (4, 4)
  • I'm Trump, starting to peter out, confusingly – totally unrehearsed. (9)

Friday, 10 February 2017

Phrasal verbs and intonation

The British National Corpus reports 666 instances ...
<wonders_of_computicles>
(just click on that link and watch while the search unfolds)
</wonders_of_computicles>
... of run in – a (suitably) devilish number – and devilish it is, for students of ESOL at least.

I've written before (here) about phrasal verbs:
...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....

(If you're new to this blog, you might want to have a read [and on the subject of problems for ESOL students, what about "have a read"?]
Phrasal verbs are a huge problem, even if you consider only the ones that are listed in the thousands of  dictionaries and web-pages and other lists of all kinds, but as I said in that excerpt we English-speakers keep inventing new ones. And a mis-reading on the news just now alerted me to a new one.

Intonation was the tell-tale slip (as it often is). The newsreader said [of a rugby player,  voicing over a bit of VT] "Here he is, running in a try". But run in, except in the context of internal combustion engines isn't usually a phrasal verb. It is very commonly (in most if not all of those BNC hits I mentioned earlier – here's one of the first of those 666: "...if we allow it to run in the way the government have in mind...") a prepositional usage; the verb run and the preposition in just happen to fall together.

So the voice said (or, to give him his due, he bailed out as soon as he realized that the words in a try were not a meaning-bearing unit [or semanteme, as I regret some linguists feel it necessary to say]):

 ... as he would have said if the words had been

Here he is, running in his Nth race.

He didn't know that in the world of rugby (I only have experience of Rugby Union, being a feeble effete Southerner, but I don't see why it shouldn't also be used in the world of Rugby League) run in is a transitive phrasal verb – referring to an easy, almost unopposed try (which, for our American readers, is not unlike a touch-down  – with the possibly counter-intuitive difference that it involves TOUCHING THE BALL DOWN).

The correct intonation would be one introductory phrase of three words, and then running in his Nth try in a separate and continuous rising and falling curve:


In a phrasal verb, both the main verb and the preposition (often, for clarity, called a particle in this context) usually (if not always – though I'll have to think about that) belong in the same intonational curve; by starting a new intonational curve at the onset of the preposition the speaker disrupts the meaning of the phrasal verb. But you can't get the intonation  right  if you don't understand the context. And phrasal verbs are readily created in specific contexts.
<autobiographical_note date_range="early 1971">
This puts me in mind of my days down and out in Barcelona. I didn't speak Spanish and hadn't done it at school; I had an O-level grammar book (not aimed at self-study), and was reading it. My daily budget extended to a copy of La Vanguardia (so not that down and out), which I scanned diligently. Articles in the sections dealing with international affairs, current events, politics and so on were not too difficult to make sense of: the vocabulary – with, on the face of it, "harder" vocabulary – was often guessable on the basis of cognates in other modern languages and/or Greek or Latin-based etymology.

Not so the sports pages  – and not just in sports I knew nothing about, such as handball, pelota, or (though the word sport is questionable in this case) bull-fighting. Even, say, reports about football (aka soccer) were a closed book to me. The words and the syntax associated with them was just not the same as you get from books.
Anyway, the point is this: phrasal verbs are, in the case I have looked at, just the prompt for the recognition of a problem with intonation. (Or vice versa. Often, in language teaching, a problem in one sphere points to a problem in another. So there's a lesson for teachers here: if you hear a problem, don't be satisfied with just "fixing" it – when you think about it, you might find that it's a symptom of another problem.)

Enough for now...

b

PS: A crossword clue:

  • Weight of the Holocaust – he doesn't believe it. (6)

Update: 2017.02.11.14:15  Added PPS


PPS And another:
  • Leaders of other teams interrupt scrum – for keeping balls in? (7)

Update: 2017.02.13.15:15  Added PPPS

PPPS

Added a clarification, in the main text, in blue, and yet another clue:
  • Average quantity? Much more important than that! (9)

Update: 2017.04.15.15:55  – Those answers, at last: 

  1. DENIER
  2. SCROTUM
  3. PARAMOUNT


Monday, 6 February 2017

The coolness of Purcell

In my last post I wrote that my use of art in a particular context depended on "an overly etymological understanding of the word art". I've been thinking about this with a certain amount of self doubt, and have found that my use of the word etymological was dubious.

Etymology (the word) is developed ultimately from the Greek adjective ετυμος (there may be a diacritic or two there – we didn't do them at O-level ).  It means true or real. A calque...
<recently_provided_gloss date="2017-01-17" skippability="max">
<digression>
To form a calque the receiving language borrows the format that the donor language uses to construct a typically two-part compound, but not the word itself. It translates each element of the compound using a native word: for example Latin omni- + potens, Old English æl- + mihtig (whence our almighty), Spanish todo- + poderoso. [Incidentally, that bunch of examples isn't supposed to suggest a series of any kind; its just a bunch of examples.] ...
</digression>
</recently_provided_gloss>
...used by Cicero was veriloquium (says Etymonline); sadly there's no English borrowing *veriloquy.

But what of art? There's nothing particularly real or true about the meaning I was referring to.  Etymonline says this:
art (n.) Look up art at Dictionary.com
early 13c., "skill as a result of learning or practice," from Old French art (10c.), from Latin artem (nominative ars) "work of art; practical skill; a business, craft," from PIE *ar-ti- (source also of Sanskrit rtih "manner, mode;" Greek arti "just," artios "complete, suitable," artizein "to prepare;" Latin artus "joint;" Armenian arnam "make;" German art "manner, mode"), from root *ar- "fit together, join" (see arm (n.1)). In Middle English usually with a sense of "skill in scholarship and learning" (c. 1300), especially in the seven sciences, or liberal arts. This sense remains in Bachelor of Arts, etc. Meaning "human workmanship" (as opposed to nature) is from late 14c. Sense of "cunning and trickery" first attested c. 1600. Meaning "skill in creative arts" is first recorded 1610s; especially of painting, sculpture, etc., from 1660s. Broader sense of the word remains in artless... More here
So the words "Meaning 'human workmanship' (as opposed to nature) is from late 14c." hit the spot, but of course the meaning kept developing; the meaning I had in mind was not original (not that that matters, as I keep emphasizing, and as this blog argues – it was just one of many stops along the way).  A rolling word gathers dozens of meanings. In  fact, even stops is the wrong image – meanings are more like a river (which has different general characters at different points of its passage, but which at any moment can take on any new meaning or nuance of meaning, depending on context).
See a bigger one here


My reason for making the assumption that human workmanship was the original sense was the text of one of Purcell's pieces that my choir will be singing in – oo-er – less than four weeks: Come Ye Sons of Art. When I first sang this piece (with another choir) I realized that sons of art weren‘t people like Constable (Junior) and his school-chums, assuming (stupidly) that this sort of art was the original meaning. Offshoots like artless and Bachelor of Arts should have saved me from leaping to this conclusion.


In that choir, our MD was a music teacher, and in one concert we sang part of Dido & Aeneas – possibly the sailors' chorus "Come Away, Fellow Sailors" where they...

...take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore
And silence their mourning with vows of returning

But never  intending to visit them more.

(Age-old sailor behaviour – ‘doing a "Bobby Shaftoe"', as mentioned before.)

<FWIW> 
Etymonline notes boozy as dating from 1719, and OED is one of its sources. So – unless Etymonline is missing a trick – Nahum Tate's libretto of Dido & Aeneas, written in the last years of the previous century, was putting a pretty untried neologism in the mouths of the sailors. 
</FWIW>
Anyway, Dido. We  were singing from a set of scores borrowed from our MD's A-level set. And in the margin next to the marvellous descending ground bass at the beginning of Dido's Lament the previous owner had written

‘Purcell, you are so cool‘.

Well, he is. Come and hear, on 4 March at Reading University‘s Great Hall.

b

PS And here's a clue:

  • The pathologically dependent, in for a penny,  accuses. (7)


Friday, 3 February 2017

'I'm in a bit of a rush' said Tom...

... Swiftly. <bou_boum_and_indeed_tsh>

The topic of Tom Swifties was broached in this week's Museum of Curiosity (starting at about 14'30"). The Tom Swifty is an amusing ... form (I nearly wrote "art form", but to say that would be to depend on an overly etymological understanding of the word art; wordsmithery would be nearer the mark.

This mention of Tom Swifties reminded me an online community I used to be a part of. It was based on a 1980s bulletin board system – ahead of its time (in those days) called variously Notes, Notes 11, VAX NOTES, and ultimately (marking DEC‘s nod to UNIX – ULTRIX) DEC Notes.

The halcyon days of NOTES are detailed in an article published in Knowledge Management magazine (which explains the abbreviation used in the text – KM). It's pretty long, but this gives a flavour:

...The ability to find a subject matter expert quickly and get the answer to a question or assistance in solving a problem, is a key KM priority. It saves time (and money), enhances customer relationships and ensures that knowledge transfer happens to the right person at the right time. And yet we also know that tools are not the whole answer. Even the best tools will not give you a return on investment unless the employees of the company are committed to helping one another.


Employees of Digital Equipment Corporation worked in an environment that got this combination of technology and culture about right, back in the 1980s. The technology was a simple collaboration tool called Notes... that ran on Digital’s worldwide network, supported by the company’s VAX/VMS... software development tools group. Among the people who worked at Digital during that time, the nostalgia for that tool and the culture it enabled (and that enabled its success) assumes Camelot-esque proportions.

More here
<historical_aside>
Notes was what in Reading UK was known as a midnight hack, and in the USA a skunk-works project (done in the engineers' "own" time – not that they had any [in the eyes of the corporate lawyers: the contract of employment was referred to by one wag as "a certificate of brain donation" my own very late name for it – the staircase for this bit of esprit has been grinding away {must have been an escalator} for about thirty years – is a writ of HABEAS MENTEM]). It was a vehicle of creative collaboration between users of DECnet (the internal network used by over 100,000 employees).
<autobiographical_note>
The midnight hacking did not stop with DECnotes. In the mid-'90s a US engineer (whose name escapes me) wrote a PC client to run on Windows NT (maybe other flavours of Windows too); this was just a client – the server ...
<explanation type="more egg-sucking">
At the time (and possibly even now...yes) the client/server model was a common and very useful system for designing software. We normal punters usually aren't aware of it – anything we get to use is a client. But if you use an app on your mobile phone you already know what a client looks like. The server is the beefy code running somewhere Out There, supplying services as required by the many clients.
</explanation>
...still had to run on a VAX or ULTRIX machine.  I wrote the online help for this client (volunteering, of course, in a way that exemplified that ability to find a subject matter expert quickly – through Notes).

I don‘t know if  later, in the unfortunate but inevitable jargon, this PC client was productized.
<autobiographical_note>
I was told that the Project Manager wanted to enhance it so that it could handle, in addition to text, all sorts of other media. Her bosses said No, she took the idea to Lotus, and the rest is herstory.  I can't vouch absolutely for this story, though this extract from a user suggests that it might be true:
Len Kawell wrote Notes-11 (his LinkedIn profile says that this work was done “in his spare time”) and later worked with Ray Ozzie on Lotus Notes. Notes-11 was then taken on by Benn Schreiber and Peter Gilbert as a “skunk works” project within DEC Central Engineering and resulted in VAX Notes

More here  (my emphasis)
Anyway, apart from being used for work-based collaboration, there were Notes files devoted to leisure interests. As that memoir goes on to say, 
...[I]n August 1989, some 10,355 VAX Notes conferences were active inside DEC, 390 of which were dedicated to employee interests such as “Good restaurants in the South of France”...
One of these employee-interest conferences was called JOYOFLEX, and harboured various sorts of discussion about language. A note in this conference was my introduction to Tom Swifties.
</historical_aside>
The Tom Swifties in this note had a twist: the punchline had to be the name of a language (but after a few weeks some latitude came into it – a contribution of mine, referring to the UNIX variant SCO and the name of the dialect spoken in Liverpool, was "'I prefer UNIX' said Tom, a Scouser". No...? SCO-user. Ah well. Some fell on stony ground. This one's less contrived: "Pass me the f...ing spanner' he called in French."

The idea of the Tom Swifty, at the time, was new to me. I expected that by the time I had got it (it wasn't very fully explained, as US-based employees already had the necessary cultural background), the well would have run dry  –  after maybe a dozen or so replies. But, rather like the holiday experience of Jack Waley-Cohen on Museum of Curiosity, the idea smouldered away for weeks, amassing eventually several hundred replies.

The memory stirred up by that programme was of my favourite (though I say it as shouldn't – TISIAS)

"'Just because the bread-mix is too dry, 
surely the recipe didn't say to do that
he said in Indo-European".

b


Friday, 27 January 2017

Misguided missiles

The Trident test débàcle ...
<quibble>
(it didn't  fail, incidentally, although many commentators who should know better keep saying it did; its outcome was suboptimal but the test worked [although part of what it was testing didn't])
</quibble>
Find a bigger original of this,and many more images, at the NASA site.
...reminded me of the time in the early-mid '90s when, along with many other concerned citizens I wrote to Al Gore in a vain attempt to throw a spanner in the astrolabe,  as it were. Since its arrival in July 2004, the Cassini space probe has been making  enormous contributions to our understanding of Saturn and its rings. For the nearly four centuries between Galileo's observation (and mis-identification) of Saturn‘s rings in 1610 (he thought their appearance was caused by the motion of two moons), not much was added to our knowledge of the rings – what they are, what they do, what they're made of, how they were formed.... But this knowledge came at a price – not that the price was actually incurred (apart from the obvious cost of simply undertaking this extraordinary voyage). The potential cost, not actually paid, was took the form of a risk

At the time of Galileo's death in Tuscany in 1642,  there lived, a few hundred miles to the north-west in the Duchy of Savoy, the 17½ yr-old Giovanni Domenico Cassini (whose father was in fact Tuscan). Giovanni, according to Wikipedia, was
... the first to make successful measurements of longitude by the method suggested by Galileo, using eclipses of the galilean satellites as a clock.
And it was presumably this link (not his father's birthplace – that was one of mine) that led the Caltech engineers who conceived of the 10 years+ mission to observe the rings of Saturn from Saturn orbit, andto dubbed the mission Cassini.

My reason for writing to the Vice President more than twenty years ago was the inconvenient truth that the Cassini spacecraft, to perform its gravity-assisted (slingshot) bypass of the Earth involved a craft carrying 72 lb of plutonium nearly colliding with the Earth. The closer it got, the greater the 'gravity assist', so the engineers could be expected to under-estimate the risk. Cassini was falling through space, and the Earth was saying Here, here, oh please sir, hit ME. Cassini came tantalisingly close to the Earth before whizzing past. But the Earth kept on begging to be hit. This is when the slingshot effect kicked in  – the potential nuclear device turned round and had another go. (The risk would be clear to any schoolboy [or schoolgirl if they played, though in my experience at a co-educational primary school they didn't] who has played conkers in the pre-Health & Safety era and had the tethered missile loop back and give them a clip round the ear.)

NASA engineers said the risk was tiny, but many other scientists claimed the probability numbers were dubious. This gives a taste:
"Give me a break. They're making these numbers up," says Michio Kaku, a professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York, adding that by his calculations of NASA's own accident scenario, some 200,000 people could die if Cassini crashed in an urban area. "This is a science experiment, and we are the guinea pigs."

More here
Whatever the numbers, the risk was small. But the risk was there. And compare Cassini's  Earth-tickling  gravitational assist with the more recent Trident failure (involving, after all, US engineering in both cases): that missile took an unplanned right-turn somewhere over the Atlantic and had to be destroyed to prevent it crashing on the US mainland. If the Cassini vehicle had made a similar unplanned detour during its periterranean jaunt (there may be a proper word for that, but I reckon it's less effort to just make one up) future palaeontologists might have found an anthropocene/Trumpocene boundary (I know Trump missed by nearly 20 years, but in geological dates, who cares? [Besides,  I think we can safely leave it to him to merit the eponym....])

But what of Trident? There is some merit in this view:


My own view (which I may have voiced before, though not in this blog, I think) is that, given the realities of the nuclear winter, it's more desirable to be vaporized by the first strike than to survive. So, given the ridiculousness of deterrence based on Mutually Assured Destruction, it's MUCH cheaper to build a massive nuclear device (big enough to  wipe out the entire population), instal it in the centre of our own country, and not spend anything at all on a delivery system. In response to a nuclear threat, threaten to self-destruct – that'll teach 'em. :-)

Duty calls.

b


PS

Eppur si muove. But Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.  In the seventeenth century the Vatican tried to suppress scientific understanding of the facts. It didn't work in the long run, though it caused a certain amount of discomfort before the Vatican's alternative facts were recognized for the hooey that they were. In the twenty-first, the Trump administration is trying a similar trick; and it will fail, eventually, in the same way. But it will cause a lot of discomfort before going down fighting.

Update: 2017,01.28.16:20 – A few typo fixes, rewordings in bold, and esprit d‘escalier in maroon.