Thursday, 22 March 2018

Memories are made of this

Part of my repertoire of random odd memories is that I revised for my Greek O-Level ...
<glossary audience="millenials and post millennials">
GCSEs are an amalgam of GCE O-Levels and CSEs (though I bet the official line would involve using  a much longer and nuanced explanation than the bare word  amalgam).
...on Broadstairs beach.
Detail from this site
This is a sufficiently incongruous juxtaposition of ideas for it to stick in my brain. I trotted the memory out again today, and in the process put some flesh on the bones – stuff I hadn't associated with the memory before.
A book I recently read pointed out that when we remember something it is not the event itself that we recall, but our most recent recollection of it. Teachers know this, and keep reminding their charges that revision needs  to be little and often. If you start your revision in week two of a course, you won't go far wrong.
Or, as my Tai Chi teacher's husband says, if you want to commit a movement to memory, practise it before you get home – park the car and do it (if only mentally –  although ideally physically).
Stupidly, I kept no note of the book's title, or even its author (although I do remember that he was an  Argentine...).

First, the dramatis personae: the  name of one participant stuck in my mind (I don't know why, but I imagine sex may have been a factor (I was 17, and she was a trainee teacher, so Katie George may well have been a PHI [Person of Hormonal Interest]). She was a New Zealander (or Australian?), supporting a world tour with bouts of teaching. In 1968...
<authority type="PPS">
This is an easy one. Forty-odd  years' worth of CVs  have meant that this datum-point  has been  recycled again and again.
... she was working at my old Primary School.

But where did she fit in –  maybe my little sister was there at the ti...? No, the dates don't work. That's when another memory kicked in: my mother (whom saints preserve [and they'd better]), was a dinner lady there, and she had a talent for picking up young waifs and strays.

Now, the date. It was in the middle of a fairly extended exam period, so it must have been late Spring/early Summer – which narrows it down to the Whitsun holiday (as it was in those days; now it's the Late Spring Bank Holiday), probably the Monday (3 June).

So there we have it; the memory gets better and better – although of course the more detail it accumulates the greater the risk of false memory.

Ho hum – I should be revising for my concert on Saturday. Don't miss it.


PS: And here's a clue:
  • Sweet singing in the choir? After a fashion! (8)
Update: 2018.03.23.10:50  – Added inline PPS

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Taking the cake

A proverb that bothered my younger mind has come to unwonted prominence, in the fertile soil provided by the context of Brexit. And recently a Prospect blog written by Professor Simon Horobin cast some light on this:
The well-worn proverb “you can’t have your cake and eat it” is enjoying something of a revival in the heated exchanges over Brexit. Ever since Boris Johnson characterised his policy on cake as “pro having it and pro eating it too,” Brussels has sought to alert the British negotiators to the impossibility of adopting such an attitude.

In October 2016, European Council president Donald Tusk, taking a rather literal approach to the aphorism, called upon proponents of the ‘cake philosophy’ to carry out a scientific experiment: “Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate.”
A month later a Tory MP caused a certain amount of embarrassment when, emerging from a Downing Street briefing, his handwritten notes were photographed in the barefaced admission “What’s the model? Have your cake and eat it.” 
And NO, the "?" doesn't absolve the miscreant. The question  is “What’s the model?...". The answer is "...Have your cake and eat it.”
My impression is that this slip gave rise to the neologism cakeism, used strictly in the context of Brexit.

Horobin's blog explains the source of the confusion mentioned in my first sentence:
The reason for the confusion is that the original form of the phrase has been reversed in its modern incarnation. Here it is in a 16th-century book of proverbs: “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?” The idea, then, is that once you have eaten your cake, you can no longer continue to possess it; that is, sometimes you are forced to choose between two irreconcilable options.
In France, the approximately equivalent idiom is vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre which I have seen translated as “to want the butter and the money from the butter”  – confusingly. What does "from the butter" mean? (I suspect the intervention of an abused dictionary, as 'du' can (sometimes) mean 'from [the]'). But this is the translation that Professor Horobin uses, although I imagine he's not the original dictionary-abuser – rather that he knows French and overlooked the inadequacy of the translation.

What English does for this sort of "de" is that it simply prepends the beneficiary/recipient: e.g. "dinner money", "fag packet" ... L'argent du beurre is "the butter money" or, if you like, "the money reserved/designated/intended... to pay for the butter", or, more briefly (but rather clumsily), "the money for the butter".  For, at  a push, but not From ". The money from the butter" could be used if somebody were selling the butter.

Which brings us to the afterthought sometimes added to intensify Vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre ...: et le sourire de la crémière. The crémière does perhaps collect "the money from the butter". This intensifier was presumably the source  of  the Luxembourg Prime Minister's: “They want to have their cake, eat, and get a smile from the baker.
This is a pretty impressive bit of linguistic pyrotechnics  – not so much L1-interference  as L1-interpretation or just L1-riffing; he even adds "get" where the French model has no verb, and then changes the supplier appropriately. And all in a second (or even possibly third) language.
Another culinary metaphor to receive a new lease of life from Brexit is cherry-picking. This can be understood in one of two ways: either picking dessert cherries from a mixed fruit-bowl (not a way I've ever seen cherries served),  or – greedily and selfishly – picking a glacé cherry from the top of a bun/cake,  and thus unknowingly but carelessly marking the residual carbs as tainted. Or maybe, now I think of  it, the image evokes someone viewing a bowl of cherries and picking the ripest.

I'm not sure I buy everything Profeeor Horobin says. For example, I don't think even he believes it when he says 'The belief that the mouth was designed principally for its consumption is suggested by the slang term “cake-hole.”'. "Designed principally"...? Does he know what principally means?   But his blog is worth a read. And when he points to "with a cherry on top" as a possible intensifier to "the icing on the cake" I'm reminded of that crémière (whose smile is used to intensify the beurre metaphor).


PS: A couple of clues:
  • Championship is moreish in a sense. (8)
  • Orchestral manœuvres after withdrawal of leftist extremists before Part Three finale, Nijinsky, for example. (9)

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Les mots n'existent pas

My late French master (the marvellous Cedric Baring-Gould, mentioned before in this blog, here for example) used to attribute this gnomic expression to Maurice Grévisse (who, appropriately, enough, looks not ungnome-like)  

I think it means something like A word without a context has no free-standing existence. There's more to a language than a set of dictionary definitions. If anyone ever wrote it, that is  (as I haven't been able to pin down chapter and verse). And even if nobody ever did write it, it's still true.

Some time ago I wrote (here)
...I've never been a great believer in the exactitude of synonyms. I've mentioned before (several times – check in the cloud of keywords in the left-right-hand column) my old French master Cedric Baring-Gould, who was fond of quoting Grévisse: 'Les mots n'existent pas'. I haven't been able to trace the quote, which is pretty gnomic; but I think it means that words don't have an independent existence, that has no regard for context. In any case where there can be said to be synonyms, one of them will – in that context – be le mot juste.

I thought of this  during the BBC  news coverage of the March 2018 Italian elections, the morning after which  a newspaper bore the headline Tutto cambia.  "All  change" mistranslated the reporter. I imagine he knew enough Italian to know it was wrong. A condottore, reaching the end of the line, says Si cambia. If I were being charitable, I suppose the reporter had been up all night, and reached for the nearest cliché (which, after all, looks like the  sort of thing that might appear in a tabloid).

But, wearing my less charitable (more usual?) garb, I smell the sterile whiff of a dictionary in the hands of an ignoramus. "What does tutto mean? 'All'. What does cambia mean? 'Change'. Put them together, and hey presto: ALL CHANGE. Simples."

Except... no. Tutto – everything (not everyone, as in "All change"); cambia it changes. So that headline means something more like "Everything is changing" – it gives information about the new situation, rather than issuing an irrelevant order.

Just saying...

But I must get back to THE BOOK #WVGTbk2.


PS – A couple of clues:
  • Concealed before place of concealment? Concealed. (6)
  • Old lag getting it back a third of the way in: near the knuckle. (8)

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

A mole by any other name

Last week MrsK tried a new recipe for something called Turkey Mole. I had never met the word mole in a culinary context – though the fact that  one of the ingredients was chocolate should have alerted me to the likelihood of a South American origin.

New words are like buses, you spend years not meeting a word and then two come along at once. In Saturday's Times Giles Coren  was reviewing a restaurant specializing in Mexican food, and he mentioned that one of the dishes came with a mole. I knew what it was,  just-in-time,  and tried to find other related words. Staying in South America, guacamole is a sort of mole – so there was another mole, hiding in plain sight.

Could this be related to our molars – the grinding teeth? Everyday English doesn't have any other word that preserves the "o" in a grinding word (as do Spanish and Italian [moler/molere] and no doubt many others. In French, it's become "ou" in moulin (and even the most monoglottally Anglophone will have met this in the trade-name  Moulinex). In English and German, different leaves of the PIE tree, we have mill and Mühle.
Another way of smashing things up to release the flavour (apart from grinding, that is) is pounding or crushing, and words related to that are derived from the Latin pestare. The most obvious derivative from this is pesto, made with a pestle. This shows how a word that refers to a process can come to be used to refer to a sauce made with that process.
Detail of the image in that video
But let's look more closely at that derivation of guacamole.   I knew before that avocado, the main constituent of  guacamole, is nothing to do with the similar-looking advocacy. Rather, it derives from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl (Nahuatl being the language spoken by the Aztecs).
Watch the video here  to see that avocado means testicle – presumably because of the way they hang.
But I had no idea until the last weekend in February that the "guaca-" of guacamole derived from ahuacatl.  Etymonline says:

So, it all looks pleasingly neat: Sp. moler, Pg moer, It. molere, Prov. molre, Cat. modre. Eng. mill, Ger. Mühle, Nahuatl molli ...{?} Hang on though, not so fast. Why should the language of the Aztecs (which pre-dates the Spanish which didn't begin to taint it until the late 15th century)  have anything to do with a PIE language? This is inviting further investigation, though I suspect the seeming relatedness between words to do with grinding (which on the analogy of pesto can  be used to refer to a sauce made with that process) and the Nahuatl molli is illusory and accidental. Shame....  Very probably molli has as much to do with grinding as ahuacatl has to do with advocacy.


PS – A couple of clues:
  • Bi-polar longing to spill the beans. (6)
  • Deserving opprobrium about sort of tail wrapped round first of belligerents. (13)

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The law of accumulating returns

Agonists and antagonists – things have an evil anti-thing;
<ipa_joke origin="tweeted once, but never caught on">
Jim Al-Kalili's anti-person would be "Midge Acid-id". Midge/Jim isn't an obvious pair, but /mɪʤ/ versus /ʤɪm/ looks a lot better.
This site explains "the expanding sphere of radio signals traveling outward from the earth":
As depicted in the beginning of the movie ‘Contact’, the earth has an expanding ‘bubble’ of man-made radio signals expanding outward at the speed of light. The first of these early radio transmissions were short range experiments that used simple clicks and interrupts to show transmission of information in the 1890s. In 1900, Reginald Fessenden made the first — though incredibly weak — voice transmission over the airwaves. The next year saw a step up in power as Guglielmo Marconi made the first ever transatlantic radio broadcast.

This means that at 110 light-years away from earth — the edge of a radio ‘sphere’ which contains many star systems — our very first radio broadcasts are beginning to arrive. At 74 light-years away, television signals are being introduced. Star systems at a distance of 50 light-years are now entering the ‘Twilight Zone’.
But hold on to that Twilight.  "Rage against the dimming of the light" – the Lichterdãmmerung. That site goes on:
As radio signals leave earth, they propagate out in a wave form. Just like dropping a stone in a lake, the waves diffuse or “spread out” over distance thanks to the exponentially larger area they must encompass. The area can be calculated by multiplying length times width which is why we measure it in square units – square centimeters, square miles, etc. This means that the further away from the source, the more square units of area a signal has to ‘illuminate’.
inverse square law
Another way to think of it, is that the strength of a radio signal will be only 1/4 as great once you are twice the distance from the source. At ten times the distance, the strength of the signal would only be one hundredth as great.

Because of this inverse square law, all of our terrestrial radio signals become indistinguishable from background noise at around a few light-years from earth.
Of course, the Inverse Square Law works in both directions The Cosmic Microwave Background radiation didn't start life as, say, I Love Lucy, but by the time it reaches us it doesn't have a very high signal-to-noise ratio; my guess is that it's 0, as near as dammit.
The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is thought to be leftover radiation from the Big Bang, or the time when the universe began. As the theory goes, when the universe was born it underwent a rapid inflation and expansion. (The universe is still expanding today, and accelerating for unknown reasons). The CMB represents the heat left over from the Big Bang.


An image of the cosmic microwave background radiation, taken by the European Space Agency (ESA)'s Planck satellite in 2013, shows the small variations across the sky
Credit: ESA/Planck Collaboration
That account goes on:
... the CMB was first found by accident. In 1965, two researchers with Bell Telephone Laboratories (Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson) were creating a radio receiver, and were puzzled by the noise it was picking up. They soon realized the noise came uniformly from all over the sky. At the same time, a team at Princeton University (led by Robert Dicke) was trying to find the CMB. Dicke's team got wind of the Bell experiment and realized the CMB had been found.

Both teams quickly published papers in the Astrophysical Journal in 1965, with Penzias and Wilson talking about what they saw, and Dicke's team explaining what it means in the context of the universe. (Later, Penzias and Wilson both received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics).
A year after the Nobel Prize was awarded, I also found something by accident, and it has a strangely metaphorical relevance (to signals being broadcast rather than those received).
I was on holiday in the Pelopponese,  in the then only slightly developed fishing village of Tolo. (For some reason Wikipedia says "in Katharevousa known as Tolon [Τολόν]" – as though that purifying semi-artificial language were unique in using case-endings.
I suppose that "semi- artificial" may raise a few hackles. Do put me straight if I have wronged the Wikipedi-scribe.
The village is on a tiny coastal strip. There were no big hotels at the time, and the roof of the sea-front taverna I was staying in had views  in one direction of the Aegean and in the other of the range of mountains (or rather, hills –  but quite rugged ones) that constituted that Pelopponesian finger.

Early one morning, before even the squid-basher had started his daily tenderizing tattoo, I walked up the hill to try to make sense of Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn"; of course, in order to see the sunrise I had to get away from sea-level.

At the top of the hill I was indeed surprised, but in a bad way. Beyond the skyline (tourist-line, perhaps) was a tip – thousands of binbags and plastic bottles, the waste-matter of a few years' tourism (as tourism was a relatively new import at the time). I touched on this plastic time-bomb here.)

(I never did get to the bottom of that "rosy-fingered" thing.).
Like that careless and improvident excretion of rubbish out of sight. our growing sphere of spent radio signals is a sign of our disruptive presence. And if we are really to take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints we need to find a way of catching our radio-frequency detritus before it makes more of a mess. Perhaps Elon Musk could take a break from wantonly adding to space pollution (see where that roadster is here if you must) and turn his mind to the problem of making money somehow by clearing up after 20th and 21st century technology's messes.

 PS And here are a few clues:
  • Lack of viciousness characteristic of  this sort of apprentice.(6)
  • Solitary predatrix's loss of second ring underlines her lack of team-mates. (10)
  • Getting the better of, with redoubled energy, is source of shock. (8)

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

A participle is not a particle

Play. That‘s what it means:  

Press this to make the thing play

Similarly, Pause:

Press this to make the thing pause.

That's the way  it's been since the dawn of ti... technology (the 20th-century sort, that is: specifically, audio equipment). But globalization has undermined these comfortable certainties.

I have an MP3 player, characterized by the typical uselessness of its user "manual" (which is at least stapled together in the form of a book, better than the many self-styled "manuals" I've had to grapple with – often just a single sheet of A4). Like many bits of technical wizardry, it seems to have been generated by engineers who felt that their brainchild needed no written support.
Many an engineer thinks this, mutatis mutandis. I remember a conversation I had  with a Software Engineer more than 30 years ago, shortly after I started work with the Digital Equipment Corporation as a Technical Editor. He was trying to work out just what Technical Writers did (at the time I was at one remove from that, but if he could only get to grips with what Writers did he could then see what I did).  I  said things about making information clear and consistent and with repetition only when appropriate, and he raised an eyebrow and said "What, like the comments we put in our code?"

Self-documenting software has long been the Holy Grail of Software  Engineers, but the final and most insuperable obstacle is the ego of the creator:  My stuff is self-evidently Good.
But this MP3 player had more than the lack of documentation to overcome; and  it wasn't just the infelicity of  the  "translation". Its problem is incorporated into the GUI ...
That's Graphic User Interface. Most of us see them  regularly on the screens of PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The engineer who designed it may well not have known he (she? – I wonder whether female engineers are as rare in China [that's where it's from] as they are in the West) was using one at all. But the device has functions, and controlling those functions involves manipulating icons. So there's a GUI.

Which brings us to those particles (mentioned in my subject-line). Chinese has a funny way with verbs. It doesn't inflect  them. But it achieves a fully nuanced set of what I can only metaphorically describe as "verb forms" (more accurately, syntactical constructs that give context to verbal ideas). And one of the syntactical devices Chinese languages use is particles. So whereas most Western languages have participles, Chinese doesn't. Particle is a near-miss, orthographically, but unrelated.

So there's no one-word translation of Playing or of Paused – which, confusingly, are what those "universal" music-playing symbols mean on my MP3 player: the little right-pointing triangle means Playing (that is, the precise opposite* of Play), and the middle-less "H" means Paused (again, the precise opposite* of what it seems to promise). And it's specifically (usually, impossibly) a one-word translation that a user of a second language wants.

"One-word translation" – so often a mythical beast, but still believed in by so many.


PS: A couple more clues:
  • Vegan embracing angry (upset) one of less extreme practise (10)
  • The end of a tournament to waste away (7)

Update: 2018.02.13.16:10 – Added footnote.

*This phrase is open to misinterpretation. Playing is not  the opposite of Play in the same  way that black is the opposite of white, or true is the opposite of false. In this context I just mean Making it start as the opposite of  Making it pause.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Pedigree collapse

The other day my eye was caught by a BBC report:

Boris Johnson 'is descendant' of mummified Basel woman

more  here

Well GOLLY, I thought. A while ago More or Less dealt with a similar issue; in fact, the event was  so Earth-shattering that Google will find it with the string Dyer Edward III.  1,560,000 hits. The Great Relatedness to Edward II Factoid leaves our Danny having to "take a moment" while the stupendousness (banality?) of the discovery sinks in. (Not quite banality – but what was extraordinary was not that he was a descendant:[after all, most people of English heritage are] but that his heritage could be documented.)

So when I heard about  the good woman of Basel's mummy I was underwhelmed. Huh, I scoffed, aren't we all descended from her? Well no; I had failed to consider the difference between the two cases: two or three centuries on the one hand, as opposed to  six or seven  – to give the Factors-of-2 magic its chance.

I was not the only sceptic. Stephen Fry tweeted:

But his tweet was met by a flurry of corrections (rebuttwals?): GNEURR Mr Smartypants Fry <eye-roll>, haven't you heard of pedigree collapse?

Nor had I. Fortunately, last week's More or Less explained (about 18 minutes in). Taking advantage, I guess, of  Stephen Fry's presence in Wogan House (or wherever) mentioned in this tweet...

... Tim Harford recorded a request from the genial polymath (from about 20'20") and went on to explain.

In his extreme case, if a man marries his sister they share a single maternal great grandmother (not four, as unrelated people have). Of course, very few of Edward III's descendants went in for this degree of inbreeding, but the general case is clear: the closer the consanguinity, the fewer the maternal great grandparents. This pedigree shows how 1st cousins marrying share only three maternal great grandparents.

When 1st Cousins M and F Marry

This reminds me of the issue of pedigree's pedigree ... Hmm... [See PPS]
But I'm missing this week's More or Less.


PS: A couple of clues:
  • I will do it again (despite this key skills deficit). (10)
  • Do they turn up trousers before droning on?. (8)
Update: 2018.02.05.12:30 – Added PPS on pedigree's pedigree

PPS  – As prefigured in my last digression., I've been looking into the derivation of pedigree. The version I was told 40+ years ago, and still favoured by many authorities (including the OED and Etymonline – but not having the wholesale  support of some current scholars ...
<example_scepticism source="Anatoly Liberman">
This offering from the OUPblog asks Does the current etymology of pedigree [pied de grue] have a leg to stand on?
... ) is pied de grue. As Etymonline says
pedigree (n.)
early 15c., "genealogical table or chart," from Anglo-French pe de gru, a variant of Old French pied de gru "foot of a crane," from Latin pedem accusative of pes "foot" (from PIE root *ped- "foot") + gruem
According to this derivation, the pun with  degree (in the sense of descent) was a happy accident of Middle English.

To quote that OUPblog again
In 1895 Charles Sweet, the brother of the famous Henry Sweet, and Round put forward the same explanation: according to them, the mark used in old pedigrees had the shape of a so-called broad arrow, that is, a vertical short line and two curved ones radiating from a common center, like three toes of a crane’s foot, with an allusion to the branching out of the descendants from the paternal stock.
So the jury's still out.

What we do know is that English crane and French  grue are related. Etymonline's entry for crane says:
Old English cran "large wading bird," common Germanic (cognates: Old Saxon krano, Old High German krano, German Kranich...from PIE *gere-no-, suffixed form of root *gere- (2) "to cry hoarsely," also the name of the crane (cognates: Greek geranos, Latin grus, Welsh garan, Lithuanian garnys "heron, stork"). Thus the name is perhaps an echo of its cry in ancient ears...
But what bothers me is this statememt from  the same entry:
Metaphoric use for "machine with a long arm" is first attested late 13c. (a sense also in equivalent words in German and Greek)...
And in French of course .  Scholars who question the crane's foot derivation of pedigree seem to be very concerned about the vowel: Isn't degree a more likely root for pedigree, preserving the /i:/ of degree? They seem to overlook the fact that the tongue positions for English /i:/ and French /y/ are very similar (if not  identical –  many a language teacher uses this device for teaching /y/: Get ready to whistle and try to say /i:/); the main difference is in the lip-rounding.

OK, crane and grue are related. But if the first attested version of the lifting machine  dates from the 13th century, who thought of the metaphor first? Or is this a case of "convergent etymology".  Either an English builder thought
Pierre has named this machine after a bird that stands on one leg. That‘s a good idea. I‘ll do the same. Right, this hitherto unnamed device, which he calls une grue will henceforth be a crane
Or a French builder thought
Les Rozbifs ont donné à cette machine le nom d‘un oiseau qui se tient d‘une seule jambe. Formidable. Je ferai également. D‘accord: d‘ici en avant ce truc sans nomme, nommé outre-manche a crane sera une grue.
Well, no, that‘s silly. It‘s hard to imagine how people felt about language in the 13th century, when French, Latin, and English vied for... no, even that is an over-simplification. There was no "vying";  people just used whatever communication mode was suitable. And on a 13-century building site, with rulers setting impossible deadlines...
"I want a cathedral here in two years".  
"But sire, there  are not enough stone-masons in all Anglia."  
"Then get some from Francia. Two years I said.")
...the linguistic picture would have been very fluid.