Friday, 20 July 2018

Calling a spade a bloody shovel

Petroc Trelawney caused a stir the other morning on Breakfast (about 5 minutes before the end) by asking:
Why is a boatswain a /bǝʊsǝn/ but a coxswain is still a /kɒksweɪn/?
Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we expose an area of ignorance to the Twittersphere. The Radio 3 twitterfeed was swamped by corrections, some more and some less gentle.

My first thought was that it was a dysphemism (antonym of euphemism, like fall off the perch, pop your clogs, push up the daisies in place of die). Dysphemisms like this are often a sort of "whistling in the dark": I'm not going to pop my clogs for a good few years yet.

But another common use of dysphemisms is as a signal of membership of some specialist group. In some circles, fiddle rather than violin is a term of disparagement. But among violinists it's the norm – except when a violinist makes a principled stand ...
(as, I seem to remember, Biggles did when he told his group not to use the dysphemism kite instead of aeroplane. But the fact that this fictional hero did forbid it shows that real-world pilots used it.
This is reminiscent of a regular tool in the philologist's armoury: lists of mistakes not to make. Entries in such lists prove two things:
  1. The mistake was being made
  2. Somebody thought it mattered
They call attention not only  to what was thought to be a mistake at the time, but also to a turning point in the history of a word. The Reichenau Glossary is the example that most readily springs to mind, and in an earlier post I traced the French chauve-souris to a supposed (and deprecated) Vulgar Latin "owl-mouse".
But I digress...
Anyway, a crash was still a prang, and a pilot who died bought it).

Similarly, players in the finest of symphony orchestras  refer to it with the dysphemism band. Showing such irreverence is a way of ironically suggesting real reverence – while also signalling membership of the in crowd.

Another example which I have no direct experience of (maybe I heard it in a forgotten lecture, maybe I invented it – though it's unusually specific for a flight of fancy) is archæologists' pronunciation of ceramic with a /k/; this is not unlike the original meaning of shibolleth (pronouncing it one way indicated which side you were on).

Which brings us back to Petroc's "error". Presumably he knows and speaks to people who row in Cornish racing gigs. It seems to me not improbable that a coxswain in such a boat calls himself a /kɒksweɪn/,  quite intentionally thumbing his nose at the "correct" pronunciation laid down by they furriners from outside Kernow. In that case it was not a dysphemism, but a pure and simple gesture of defiance against linguistic hegemony.


PS A couple of clues:
  • Queen tucking into a Dubonnet and lemon? How refreshing! (10)
  • Higher octane propellent for this incendiary energy source? (7,4)
Update: 2018.11.26.12:45 – Added PPS


Monday, 16 July 2018

Sensing Style

Some time ago I wrote (here) about a review of Steven Pinmker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (another candidate for the pipe-dream entertained in this post).
<original subject="David Crystal, The Stories of English">
My fantasy – though I haven't discussed this with the good Professor – is to win a large amount of money and become a proper publisher. My Rights department would negotiate with Allen Lane to acquire the rights for a properly designed book, and my Design department would make this book CanDo Publishing's lead title.
In the case of the Pinker book, a large section (about 30%, I'd guess, though the tabulated sections are interspersed with full text) is presented in four columns:

 Word/Usage  Preferred Usage  Problematic Usage  Comments/
                                                 discussion/                                                             advice

The printed width of the page, net of margins and inter-column spaces, is about 4 in / 10 cm.
If I were showing off my (slight) understanding of book design  I'd be using the printer's measures of points and picas; but why send my readers off on a voyage of either confused ignorance or web searches?
In the nature of things, the fourth column is the fullest. But with such a tiny column width (the columns are more-or-less evenly distributed) there is often a single word on a line, and the comment section continues its frantic okey-cokey for an inch or two (sometimes even more), accompanied to the left by three blank columns. The Sense of Style would be a good deal more stylish (not to say readable) if it were redesigned.
Steven Pinker's advice is generally sane:
In considering questions of usage, a writer must critically evaluate claims of correctness, discount the dubious ones, and make choices which inevitably trade off conflicting values
And sometimes his advice is amusingly pithy: "Look it up" he says (more than once, I think, but I didn't  take notes).

I have to admit that a number of issues I blamed on the Independent's review (which was a filler, topped up with a number of the reviewer's pet hates) – even one that I pooh-poohed in this cartoon...

...were Pinker's. In my defence, though, Pinker refers to the confusion of the participles (interred vs interned) and the review (I think – the original seems to have been truncated)  refers to the inter/intern pair.

I don't agree with everything Pinker says (and indeed there were bits of it that I didn't follow; I was  on holiday, and it isn't your typical holiday read). And sometimes his side-swipes are unargued and capricious: on presently (used to mean now) he writes "About half the Usage Panel [of the American Heritage Dictionary] reject it, but for no good reason". I suspect that he himself accepts it (and it seems to me possible that he rounded up that "about half").

And sometimes he glosses over an interesting issue: of  flaunt/flout he writes
A malaprop based on the similar sound and spelling, together with the shared meaning "brazenly". 
Hmm???. What is shared is part of their meaning, an aspect of it. If they shared the meaning they'd be synonyms (which they're not, as Pinker obviously knows). Initial fl- is a phonesthetic marker. There is a family of fl- words that have to do with flamboyance of movement or something else. They share not a meaning but an aspect of their meaning, and flaunt and flout just happen to be most readily confused:  flounceflipflop, maybe even  flyflame  flamboyant... But phonæsthesia (the way sounds suggest things,  the basis of onomatopœia) might not fit in the tiny column width; so Pimker has to cut corners. (Seriously, I think he sometimes trivializes an argument or misses a trick just because of that pesky column width.)

Generally, though, the book is worth  reading (and referring to).

But the garden calls.


Update: 2018. – Added two words (underlined) to ante-pre-penultimate para; I had been making the same mistake as the original reviewer of Pinker's book: "Now with added Linguistics". In my case the added ingredient was phonesthetics.