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 them="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.
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 ...
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.
...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.
That list also contains the rather enigmatic (APSEUDONYMOUS?) credit
"Cyril J. Knowles
... photography: second unit (as Cyril Knowles)"


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.


* 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.
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).

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.)

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.


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 ...
(just click on that link and watch while the search unfolds)
... 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 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...


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


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

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">
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.] ...
...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.)

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. 
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.


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
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).
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.
...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.
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.
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".