Friday, 18 May 2018

Quod erat pudendum

Prove is a tricky word; "to try, test; evaluate; demonstrate," says Etymonline
with the line  between test and show falling about halfway down that list. The idea of trying is (it seems to me – I can't think of a way to show this) waning in English; in Spanish, on the other hand, the trying end of the "meaning pool" is quite deep: a stall-holder in a food market in Barcelona will invite passers-by to probar their produce, whereas the equivalent stall-holder at a Farmer's Market in Swindon would say "Try some"; calling "Prove it" wouldn't help sales.

It was not always this way .  When a printer wanted to test how accurate his typesetter had been, he produced a proof copy – whence comes the use of proof as a verb meaning "read and correct a proof copy" (which is not to deny that proof was already a verb; Etymonline puts it at 1834).

Which brings us to "the proof of the pudding is in the eating", mangled by people who didn't understand this meaning of proof.  There are various juxtapositions of words beginning with p. Something is (?) "the proof in the pudding"...
<example source="Boston Globe, 2003, quoted in Quinion piece, vide infra">
While the team’s first Super Bowl victory back in 2002 could be explained away by some skeptics as a fluke, the second victory is the proof in the pudding in cementing the Pats’ status as the cream of the NFL crop.
...but far and away the winner is "the proof is in the pudding". Google shows the size of the victory – about 6 times more for the meaningless newcomer.

Full form: 159,000 results
Demonstrative charcuterie:  1,080,000  results

In a 2012 edition of Morning Edition, Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer anointed the meaningless interloper thus:
Well, the proof is in the pudding is a new twist on a very old proverb.
Hmm...."New twist", sounds pretty catchy. He goes on to fill in the back story:
The original version is the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And what it meant was that you had to try out food in order to know whether it was good....Back then, pudding referred to a kind of sausage, filling the intestines of some animal with minced meat and other things - something you probably want to try out carefully since that kind of food could be rather treacherous.
OK. That's the way language works: a sort of linguistic Gresham's Law:

Bad language drives out good

But I know what I know; my prescriptivist in desriptivist's clothing credentials are unchanged. My lip will always curl when I hear about the proof being in the pudding. And I agree with Michael Quinion's
The proverb is ancient — it has been traced back to 1300 in a rather different form and is recorded by William Camden in his Remains Concerning Britain of 1623. It’s sad that it has lasted so long, only to be corrupted in modern times.

More here
But that corruption is terminal. "Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour. England has need of thee..." Well, best not to make a fuss.  :-)

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Beware geeks bearing gifts

Poor old Jeremy. If he wasn't such a wazzock I'd feel sorry for him. As poisoned chalices go, his brief in the Commons the other day was a doozie. His PPS, or whoever does these things told him "There's been a bit of a whoopsie. A number of women in their late sixties, who were meant to be invited for their last smear test, weren't. As a result a few hundred may die – we can't be sure how many (if any)  but in any case we're jolly sorry. Now go out and tell the world."

What he didn't say, though, as Professor David Spiegelhalter said on More or Less last Friday, is that as a result of the absence of invitation, a few hundred may LIVE – we can't be sure how many (if any). Or, as Doctor Karsten Jørgensen summarized,
The evidence says that this is a close call, and increasingly the benefit is being brought into doubt and people are beginning to worry more about the harm.
But this is a nuanced problem, and experts are inclined to say things that are on the face of it quite upsetting to a non-expert's equilibrium, like "Of course, these people haven't died yet" (which invites the non-expert to add an unsaid "... so what's all the fuss about?" And given the length of the grass and the growth of the hedge, I don't have time to do it justice. But have a listen.

Before I sign off, though, I am reminded of a related programme in the Inside Health series a few weeks ago, about prostate screening (which I should say Doctor  Jørgensen said was a whole 'nother thing, because some sorts of screening have more hope of predicting the usefulness of possible treatments then others... but still). Dr Margaret McCartney warned about what the presenter called "a poor test" (screening for Prostate-Specific Antigen):
 ... [M]y heart sinks very often when we hear celebrities tell us that their life was saved by having a PSA test done... 
Because of the timing (early March 2018 programme) I assumed Dr McCartney was thinking of this celebrity endorsement:

But the Inside Health programme was a repeat, so Mr Fry just happened to have his head above the parapet at the time of that fusillade.
...And part of this is what’s called often the popularity paradox and that’s where bad tests become more popular.  The worse a test is, the poorer it performs, the more false alarms we create.  And the more false alarms are created the more treatment people have for conditions that were never going to become life threatening and were never going to harm people in any way.

Margaret McCartney on Inside Health 6 March 2018

Stuff happens... Live with it (until of course circumstances force you to suspend that operation in the land of the mortals.)


Saturday, 21 April 2018

Et in arcadia Lego

What people say and the way they say it often grates with me. This is my problem rather than theirs, but as I've said elsewhere, I'm a prescriptivist in descriptivist's clothing, Believe me, my life would be a lot easier if I didn't have a gnome brandishing a red pen sitting on my shoulder  muttering 'That's wrong' all the time. Meanwhile, on my other shoulder, the Good Fairy of Descriptivism says 'No it's not. Take a chill pill. That's how language works.'

Politicians are frequent offenders, because of the need to produce verbiage at the drop of a hat (or maybe that should be at the thrust of a microphone). As it happens – with no particular political axe to grind – my latest irritant has come from the mouth of Theresa May, who in a Commons debate accused Jeremy Corbyn of letting anti-Semitism run rife in the Labour Party.

"Run RIFE"? The British National Corpus (hereafter "BNC")  has no instances of run rife, and 1 of ran rife. [With this and other BNC searches, click on the link and sit back while the search engine does its stuff – which might take a second or two, depending on the usual computicle variables: Your BIT-RATE May Vary] .

On the other hand, in BNC, with the searchstring * riot, run riot is 3rd most common with 44 instances, running riot is 11th most common with 16 instances, ran riot is 12th most common with 15 instances, and runs riot is 20th most common with 7 instances. Running is what happens in the vicinity of the word riot: or, as a bean-counter might say "run is the most common verb to appear in collocation with riot"; this search (for any verb preceding riot) confirms it; (the figures don't match; I don't know why [e.g. 44 instances of run riot according to the first search, but 36 in the second],  but they're in the same ball-park).

But whenever the prescriptivist gnome says "That's wrong" I risk coming a cropper. Another Corbyn-related word supplies an example, only this time he was the speaker; the word was ram-packed. When he used it I thought "Well, he means jam-packed, doesn't he, he just made up this new word to emphasize how people were crammed in [to a Virgin train, if you must know]."

BNC  is too small to have a statistically convincing number of examples of jam-packed, so I've turned to the less authoritative but much more populous {if that's the word – one populates a database, so no one can say people have to be involved} Google. Given the Google treatment,  jam-packed has more than nine million hits  – more than a match, I thought, for the arriviste "ram-packed" (which of course the Good Fairy says is fine, but...).

However, ram-packed is more than a match for jam-packed, as this search shows; 22.5 million, rather than a piffling 9.27 million. It was an arriviste to my limited ken, but not to English.  Wiktionary says it was formed from ram and packed (natch)
... originally (since at least the 1940s) literal, referring to something packed with a ram. (Possibly reinforced by the rhyming synonym jam-packed.)
So he who hesitates has a chance of getting things right.


Monday, 2 April 2018

I Was Glad, take 2

This post started life as an update to an old post, but "jes' growed" It all started on the morning of Good Friday: Classic FM's Hall of Fame is marked by not infrequent travesties of justice, an early example being that "I Was Glad" was down to number 299. That's democracy for you.

Then I saw an ad for a concert I had missed, at Truro Cathedral, the venue
Church at Lostwithiel
for the final performance in my choir's tour of the West Country in the summer of 2013. From a base at Plymouth, we sang at various places, one being here at the pretty church at Lostwithiel. If more about the tour interests you, I covered it in this post nearer the time (a  bit parochial, but with some linguistic  interest on the subject on expressions of home and opinion [bei and chez]).

As I said, our last recital was at Truro Cathedral. By chance, only hours before we sang, the birth of Prince George was announced. In our  repertoire for the tour we had various largely devotional  pieces, and two party pieces from which our MD chose one, varying from concert to concert.

I thought that a  natural piece to sing to welcome the young prince was "I Was Glad".  But – rather tactlessly, I felt 😏 – for the Truro recital our MD chose "Zadok the priest" recalling the prince's grandfather's ill-starred wedding (where it had been played). (Perhaps, though, I was the only one to notice this rather lugubrious echo; besides my view was probably coloured by the marvellous bass-line of the Parry (especially the last few bars).

<autobiographical_note subject="City of Truro">
In my train-spotting days (brief and remote, and no anoraks were involved)...
Etymonline says that the slang meaning "socially inept person" (sic – I'd say that the more relevant meaning in this context is "person with obsessive interest in trivia in some very limited context") had appeared "by 1983, on the notion that that sort of person typically wears this sort of coat"...
Surely the relevant thing is that an obsessive train-spotter would go to some busy hub (Clapham Junction was a favourite among my peers, not that I ever went) and sit all day on a number of platforms in all weathers, collecting numbers. Hence the choice of outer clothing.
Though this seemed madness,
yet there was method in 't.
They could as well have been called  "Packed Lunches" or "Vacuum Flasks". The anorak might have become a uniform, but there was a reason for it.
... But my elder sibling's (not sure which, but they were felons of the first water, happy to break several laws by putting pennies on the line [that's trespass, criminal damage, defacing a coin of the realm...] which narrows down  the list of suspects to two {and you know who you are...}) – would not have been called "anoraks" at the time, some thirty years before the coining of that bit of jargon. 
 ... I used to frequent the forecourt of a garage on Spring Bridge Road W.5. The bridge was over the mainline to Bristol, a long straight stretch, and so beloved of record-breaking attempts.

One of the trains I copped ...
The train-spotter's jargon for see and register as having been seen is related to such apparently unrelated words as cop (what a policeman does to a suspect) and the German kaufen (after a bit of Grimm's Law treatment) See more on Etymonline (of course 🙋).
 ... was The City of Truro. As Wikipedia says,
Despite being a point of contention, some consider the locomotive to be the first to attain a speed of 100 miles per hour (160.9 km/h) during a run from Plymouth to London Paddington in 1904.
Naturally my informants at the time (who had to tolerate my tagging along) weren't interested in nuance, and this was a record-breaker, period.
But I'm beginning to ramble (beginning? )


PS: A couple of clues:
  • Combined ingredients of the French additives to cheat‘s lasagne, but without sea biscuits.  (7,2,4)
  • Misbehaving aircon for .server. (6) 
Update: 2018.04.16.10:55 – Added PPS

PPS Crossword answers – LANGUES DE CHAT,  RAONIC

That garage forecourt has been built over, of course. It's now the foundation of the entrance to a multi-storey car-park, here.

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 Professor 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)