Monday, 22 May 2017

Numbers

Time for another of my periodical looks at Harmless Drudgery‘s vital statistics.
In  Oct 2016 I wrote of the previous 2 years and 3 months:
It would be unrealistic, I think, to expect a similar near-doubling readership over the coming 9 quarters;  and, besides, it takes quite a bit of (writing) effort to maintain interest – which is at odds with the original purpose of the blog [which, longer-term visitors will know, was to support my other writing efforts].
In April 2015, in a PS to this) I had written of a record average of daily visits of 55. Well, 55 schmifty-five. The average for this month so far is about four times as much – over 200. The trend started about Christmas 2016, followed by another up-tick at Easter 2017, leading me to think that maybe my key demographic was teachers, who saved their recreational blog-reading for the school holidays, but page visits in May are already (after about two-thirds of the month) almost as high as the total for April (5,147).
HD stats, courtesy of Blogger
And while we're on the subject of numbers, I have long felt something that grates on my ear as "just American"...
<digression>
(pace Susie Dent, whose Americanize!: Why the Americanisation of English Is a Good Thing on Radio 4 last Saturday neither was  particularly persuasive nor had to be; I don't need persuading. I prefer -ize myself where admissible – certainly NOT in the lamentable cases of *televize or *analyze, for example  And incidentally, I suppose the inconsistency of that programme's title [Americanize but Americanisation] was intentional)
</digression>
...needed further attention – preferably on the basis of numbers. My source as usual is the British National Corpus (BNC) and its much bigger and more recently updated transatlantic cousin the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). My first three searches seemed to confirm my prejudice:

BNC:
sooner rather than later (just click and sit back while BNC does its thing) 65
sooner than later (just click and sit back while BNC does its thing)
COCA:
sooner than later (just click and sit back while COCA does its thing) 105.

QED. Sooner than later could be assigned, along with I could care less (and incidentally I don't buy Steven Pinker's irony argument – but I don't have time to trace the reference, given the length of the grass) to the Expressions that don't make sense in American English pile.

But COCA is more than five times the size of BNC, so I might have expected a frequency for the preferred form of more than 5 times 65 – well over 300. So I looked again in COCA.
sooner rather than later (just click and sit back while COCA does its thing) 486
So what was demonstratum was not what was demonstrandum. Based on those corpus figures, sooner rather than later is more than 10 times as commonly used by British English speakers/writers than sooner than later. But among American English speakers/writers the predominance is similar; just more less pronounced – less than half the ratio of sooner rather than later to sooner than later. And perhaps the preference is on the wane – taken up by a smaller proportion of linguistic ground-breakers on this side of the Atlantic; the sort of comparative-historical corpus query that could prove that though is beyond me.

Enough. Biomass destruction is the hors-d'œuvre of the day, and the mower awaits.

b

PS – a clue to be going on with:
  • VIP? Mark; a nut, when crushed. (6,5)
Update: 2017.05.22.22:40 – Added PPS

PPS – Whoops; got the polarity of the comparison wrong, fixed in bold.

Update: 2017.05.26.14:10 – Added PPPS

PPPS – I said I'd write more about Americanisms. I find it hard to say anything new, because I've been fighting this prejudice for so long and in so many different forums.
<digression>
(And there's another one – pluralizing of words with a clear Latin provenance. I'm with Fowler on this one, as I've said before. He wrote:
 ...that all words not English in appearance are in English writing ugly and not pretty, and that they [HD: Latin plurals] are justified only (1) if they afford much the shortest or clearest, if not the only way to the meaning ... or (2) if they have some special appropriateness of association or allusion in the sentence they stand in.
A consequence of the practice of using English endings is that you avoid solecisms such as syllabi; incidentally, for what it's worth – not a lot for writers of English – the Latin plural of syllabus is syllabūs [or a u with some such diacritic – we didn't need them for the exam, so like any self-respecting school-child I ignored them.)
</digression>

A few years ago I wrote here:

...Less well-informed commentators go so far as to say - when asked the difference between authorise and authorize -
No difference at all ... only that americans spell it different cos they feel the need to be different . The correct spelling is with an -s-

Oh dear. In one such discussion I said
There's nothing unBritish about the spelling 'apologize'. It has been the house style of The Times for well over a hundred years, and is used by many large and influential publishers (Oxford University Press, for example). I'm tired of being accused of flirting with modernity and excessive American influence, just because I use a spelling that millions of British people use (so long as they haven't been got at by generations of school-teachers peddling misinformation).
That may have been true of The Times at the time of writing, but 'the times they are a-changin''. A few cases of '-ize' pass the scrutiny of the subs' eyes - especially when there is a strong etymological justification - as in the case of 'baptize' (where there is a zeta rather than a sigma in the original Greek); but fewer and fewer.
But to quote the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors


The first line is crucial:

WHERE verbs can be spelled with either an -ize or -ise ending...

American and British English speakers simply disagree over that can: not, say we, in a case like televise; to give it a z would be to suggest that there was the noun or adjective telev - and if you televized something you made it either more like one (in the case of the noun) or just more televvy (in the case of the adjective).

The rest, as Professor Brian Cox might say, is science (sic).


    Thursday, 18 May 2017

    And only man is vile

    <apologia_pro_subject_line_sua>
    (But the island in question is not Heber's "Ceylon" (isle...vile is the rhyme); it is on Henderson Island that

    In vain with lavish kindness

    The gifts of God are strown
    Source

    Besides, that lavish kindness doesn't really work, and I doubt if The Big Fellah would be in a hurry to claim discarded Tizer bottles as part of his bounty.)

    But I'm getting off the subject. Ahem...
    </apologia_pro_subject_line_sua>

    I spotted this sub-head in a Guardian article on Monday.
    Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairn group, is covered by 18 tonnes of plastic – the highest density of anthropogenic debris recorded anywhere in the world
    Anthropogenic debris. Take a moment to consider that phrase. The article goes on:
    The largest of the four islands of the Pitcairn Island group, Henderson Island is a Unesco World Heritage Listed site and one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by humans.

    The island exhibits remarkable biological diversity given it covers only 3,700 hectares, with 10 endemic species of plant and four land bird species. Its isolation had, until recently, afforded it protection from most human activities...

    ...The threat to biodiversity posed by plastic debris has come under increased scrutiny as findings reveal the extent of the problem, with millions of tonnes ending up in the ocean every year.
    The natural world has put up a brave response  to this assault.  Hermit crabs, for example, have started using bits of this debris to stand in for empty shells. On the face of it, this is a Good Thing – reuse rather than refuse. But a member of a research group working on the island, interviewed for the Guardian article, reported finding
    ...  hundreds of crabs living in rubbish such as bottle caps and cosmetics jars, and has been told of one living inside a doll’s head.

    “From the looks on people’s faces, it was quite grotesque,” she said. “That was how I felt about all these crabs – we are not providing them a home, this is not a benefit to them.

    “This plastic is old, it’s brittle, it’s sharp, it’s toxic. It was really quite tragic seeing these gorgeous crabs scuttling about, living in our waste.”
    <digression>
    Hermit-crab chain, about 6/7 minutes in
    By the way, while  we're on the subject of hermit crabs, I recommend this Natural World programme, part of which deals with an  informal house-swapping chain formed by a sequence of different-sized hermit crabs, with the biggest finding a new shell and all the others swapping theirs for the next size up.
    </digression>
    But a solution could be provided by the natural world. At the end of April 2017 in an article in Current Biology reported on Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella a title that rather telegraphs the message (and promises a less than inviting overview of the research). I admit that I was more inclined to read about a Caterpillar found to eat shopping bags, suggesting biodegradable solution to plastic pollution in a piece in the University of Cambridge's Research review.

    This very hungry caterpillar produces "something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut", says Paulo Bombelli, a Cambridge researcher and co-author of the article.
    ...the degradation rate is extremely fast compared to other recent discoveries, such as bacteria reported last year to biodegrade some plastics at a rate of just 0.13mg a day. Polyethylene takes between 100 and 400 years to degrade in landfill sites.  "If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable," said Cambridge's Paolo Bombelli...

    ...As the molecular details of the process become known, the researchers say it could be used to devise a biotechnological solution on an industrial scale for managing polyethylene waste.
    So it looks as if we might not need to go as far as Mars to do our terra-forming. Maybe we can do it on Earth. Hang on though, that doesn't make much sense: TERRA-forming on Earth?  Holy pleonasm, Batman.

    b
    And here's a clue:
    • Buy on favourable terms – in other words, credit. (7)

    Update: 2017.05.30.22:45 – Added PS.

    PS I imagine Mr (Signor?) Bombelli is one of the overseas students who could do with a guarantee of continued residence. I wish the Brexit preparations would  pay more attention to this sort  of thing.

    Oh yes, and the answer to that clue: BELIEVE.

    Monday, 8 May 2017

    Unwitting puns

    The oldest secular building in Rye is the Ypres Tower. It's been many things in its time, particularly a prison. One part of the prison was built on in the 19th century.
    ...Only a few stone buildings survive, one being the one we known as Ypres Tower. . The Court Hall was one casualty of this raid, and while a new one was being built, the Tower was used for Corporation business and the various courts. In 1421, all offenders were ordered to attend here on pain of a fine of 12 pence which suggests that part of it was also used as a prison.

    However, in 1430 the Tower was leased to one John de Ypres (hence the name), for use as a private residence, with the proviso that ‘the Mayor Jurats and Commonality’ could enter it at a time of hostility or war for the purpose of town defence. Fortunately the attack never came.

    In 1484 or 1494 the Corporation rented the Tower for use as a prison, and in 1518 bought the freehold — for £26; shortly afterwards a new roof and new floors were added.

    Source


    And in a later addition ("changes follow[ing] the 1830′s legislation to improve prison conditions: a new exercise yard (the present Medieval Garden), four additional cells, and a tower for housing women prisoners (the focus of the ongoing Women’s Tower Project...)" on a recent visit I saw what may have been a 20th-century pun by a garden designer with a sense of humour – although quite possibly the pun was unintentional and the garden designer was as po-faced as they come....

    A feature of spoken English is often known (misleadingly) as Cockney Rhyming Slang – "misleadingly" because much of the known (and growing) corpus of terms has no links with Cockney. While Tom may well have originated in Cockney criminal cant as meaning jewelry (Tom foolery/jewelry), the professional wrestler's Doin' yer Gregory (meaning feigning an injured neck [Gregory Peck]) did not.

    But one word that is a good candidate for having a criminal background is porridge (meaning time in jail) –  borage and thyme/time... which brings us back to that waggish garden designer. One of the main herbs in the Medieval Garden was borage. "Why no thyme?" I hear a doubting mutter. O ye of little faith. Thyme prefers to grow in full sun. Imagine an aetiolated thyme seedling reaching up forlornly for
     that little tent of blue
      Which prisoners call the sky

    <autobiographical_note>
    The Ypres Tower is managed by the National Trust – a marvellous institution though  possibly natural home of  folk etymology. Unquestioning "derivations" I have heard from tour guides include
    • face the music – turn round and sing a solo, facing the music from the back of a chapel
    • nod off – from church pews designed with a sloping seat to prevent worshippers from  going to sleep
    • learn the ropes – what growing gentlemen had to do in the nursery (using model ships) before taking a commission in the Navy
    • Humpty Dumpty  – English Civil War gun
    • one that's so improbable I can't remember it – it was something to do with a hangman: kick the bucket, maybe...
    • etc etc... They are a well-intentioned lot, but one has to carry a large block of rock-salt...(Hmm, is it pinch or grain...?)
    <digression type="certainty versus uncertainty">
    The Phrase Finder seems quite sure about Learning the ropes...
    A nautical term, from the days of sailing ships when new recruits had to learn how to tie knots and which rope hauled up which sail. After which of course they would know the ropes.
    ... but less so about knowing them:
    There is some doubt about the origin of this phrase. It may well have a nautical origin. Sailors had to learn which rope raised which sail and also had to learn a myriad of knots. There is also a suggestion that it comes from the world of the theatre, where ropes are used to raise scenery etc [HD: see PPS].
    </digression>

    During that visit to Rye I went to Hastings,    where in another museum I saw what a deadeye  was. The picture on the right shows a single one (alias bull's eye). But more  ambitious sailing ships had the more complex triple deadeye shown below. When, as a 10-ish year-old I went to my big sister's school production of The Captain of the Pinafore I assumed ...
    <meta_digression>
    (probably anachronistically, as the Wiktionary definition of Deadeye Dick as "An especially accurate marksman" probably  post-dates the days of sail [and certainly post-dates the days of accurate marksmanship])
    </meta_digression>
    ---that W.S. Gibert's character Dick DeadeyePS was a sort of Butch Cassidy.

    A triple deadeye
    </digression>
    </autobiographical_note>

    Which (oh do keep up – theatrical scenery) brings me to my other unwitting pun (although I wouldn't put it past the speaker to have known what he was doing). A recent Book of the Week (start here, but it went on all week) was Nicholas Hytner's Balancing Acts  (which unaccountably didn't mention me, his near-contemporary at Cambridge; we may have bumped into each other at an ADC party).

    He was talking about the NT version of Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. In this they had to represent the characters' daemons – played by puppets (which the NT players had no experience of dealing with). For the later production of War Horse, he said, they didn't confront the problem in the same "cavalier" fashion. The word cavalier has an obvious connection with horses, although this usage (arrogant/disdainful) presumably relates to the demeanour of a Cavalier (right but romantic) (as opposed to a Roundhead – wrong but revolting).

    But I can't put it off any longer: HMRC – need I say more? (Probably, for non-UK readers: HMRC is otherwise known as the taxman.

    b

    Update: 2017.05.0916:25 –Fixed a clutch of typos, and added PS

    PS
    I got the words the wrong way round yesterday, but the Deadeye comes second.

    Update: 2017.05.10.17:10  – Added PPS.

    PPS
    According to this there's a link between the two. If theatre technicians were out-of-work sailors who whistled signals to each other (because a whistle is more audible than a shout in stormy weather),  this explains the superstitious avoidance of whistling backstage. In the days before head-sets and radio mikes, a rogue whistle could reward the siffleur with a sandbag or flat in the face – or on the head.

    Tuesday, 2 May 2017

    Being in two minds

    My attention was caught (while I was making other plans, as usual :-)) by a blog about bilingualism and its correlation with personality. I have to admit, though, that the distraction from those other plans was not as great as I'd hoped. Like many academic blogs it's more of an amuse-bouche than a main course.

    It starts out with the less than flabbergasting observation that
    You might think of the shy person who becomes much more extroverted when talking to family or close friends. Alternatively, we could think about someone who acts in one manner with his co-workers but acts very differently when having a drink with former college dormmates.
    Source
    Well GOSH. Next he'll be telling me the Pope wears a big hat. This observation seems to me like that Einstein line about time seeming to speed up when you're with a pretty girl [Einstein's sexism, yer 'Onner] and slow down if your hand's on a hot stove; it's  true but its relevance to Relativity (in the physics sense) is tenuous at best. What I wanted to be told about was whether processing different languages favoured distinct character traits (a point I touched on here, referring to a personal experience):
    ...[T]his has resonance in my own experience selling magazines in Spain. I found it much easier to be deceitful (not lying but painting a rosy picture of the future – I was selling subscriptions). My initial belief was that this was a feature of the language; this belief fitted in with vocabulary that related to my own position, back in England.
    <autobiographical_note blush_factor="10">
    I was a boy-friend to someone who thought I was a fiancé; the one word novio blurred the distinction. Did I love her?  I doubt it; but I was happy to say Te quiero, because – past-master as I was in the field of casuistry [fruit of an RC education] – I did want her, and querer can mean 'want' (cf. Kant's 'murderer at the door' dilemma, and this  [specifically 'All men are false']).
    </autobiographical_note>
    But maybe it's to do with speaking in foreign languages generally; maybe it works for any L1/L2 combination.
    But, returning to that blog [do keep up] that disappointing aperçu was followed by a more promising  later reflection:
    As I thought about it more, I realized that language might serve as a form of context that triggers certain memories. One interesting analogy comes from work with deep-sea divers. Divers often seem to forget what happened to them underwater. Follow up work on this observation has found that when divers are taught a list of words underwater they are better at recalling more of those words later underwater than they are outside water. The opposite was also true. They exhibited better memory for words learned above water when they were asked to remember outside of water. Hence, a particular context serves to elicit memories relevant to that context. In this view, memory is driven by a set of cues that elicit certain responses from us. 
    Source [My emphasis]
    But this is just about speaking different languages, not about bilingualism (growing up in an environment that uses two languages). Is a Catalan child cheekier, say,  when using Catalan than they are when using Castilian? And, given the same context, if they are being cheeky, are they more likely to use one language than another?

    Dunno –  Maybe I'll have to take the course mentioned in that blog.

    b