Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Sentence First

 In my last post I neglected to put a link to Stan Carey's excellent blog, Sentence First. I was delighted to come across it some time ago - even the title was promising. "Sentence first. Verdict afterwards." I think that was it, but I'll check Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. There is so much thought-provoking stuff about language (Humpty Dumpty on verbs, anyone?) in Lewis Carroll - is it unusual for there to be a good connection between language and mathematics or science? Stan Carey is a scientist, I'm glad to say. There should be more interest across  these fields, shouldn't there? Comments, please.

Here's that link:  http://stancarey.wordpress.com


 The excellent Stan Carey (see Sentence First website and @StanCarey on Twitter) uses the term "fancyisms" for what I have called posh or pretentious words. He mentions "signage" when "signs" is what is meant. More when I think of some more.

Monday, 7 April 2014


 By the way, my transatlantic audience may not know what I meant by the heading "Simples-tic". It was meant to be playing on the UK TV commercial which uses, for some strange reason, Russian meerkats to advertise a price comparison website, comparethemarkets.com. "It's compare the markets, not meerkats - simples!" (or similar) was the catch phrase or slogan and for equally mysterious reasons this really did catch on. Why do some new language uses grab the public imagination and others don't? It's not simples.


 More on word inflation, hyping and perhaps pretentious or posh words later.


 I've mentioned what I call "word-inflation" before. Sometimes it is a case of extending words to make them sound more important: "transport" is lengthened to "transportation" (when it means transport around a city, not to a penal colony), or "methodology" is thought to sound more impressive than "method".

 In other cases a sort of hyping occurs. We used to say, for example, "We need to be clear", and maybe that was varied with "have clarity". Then someone sought to emphasise it by saying "crystal clear". Somewhere along the line this became commonplace or hackneyed and "transparently clear" began to be used, without really thinking of the meaning but just by a sort of inflation or, um, upgrade. Then we began to hear of the need for "transparency", "total transparency" and so on.

 No thought was probably given to the fact that totally transparent things are nearly invisible. If, for example, top bankers' salaries (or "compensation", presumably for doing such a noble, self-sacrificing job) and procedures are totally transparent they must be pretty hard to focus on, or even glimpse in outline.

 In sport, "giving a hundred per cent" sometimes just doesn't do it. You have to dig deeper and find that extra ten per cent you didn't know you had in you. But is that enough? Why only 110 or 200 or even a thousand per cent? So we have moved into the million per cent region now.

 In a similar way,  if "lucky" or "fortunate" is not impressive enough,  try "fortuitous" - it might make TV sports sound better or more worth spending your time on. Such things have happened with other words but, as with "unique", this inflation decreases their value. Last week I heard Sean Pollock, distinguished South African cricketer, say something was "a little bit unique". It clearly just means "rather unusual" now.

 And what about "simple"? It seems to be giving way to "simplistic", which according to my OED used to mean "characterised by extreme, excessive, or misleading simplicity".

 And please, don't even mention "fulsome".

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Other Englishes Are Available

 I mentioned that I got into trouble with some transatlantic commentators for querying whether it was "hockey" or "ice hockey" at the Sochi (Winter) Olympics. They accused me of being ignorant of North American English and of the context. In the end I had to say: "Only a joke, chaps, ok?" But there was a serious point lurking behind the cousinly (I hope) teasing - there are some Canadians and US-ans in our clan, after all. And in fairness I ought to add that I came in halfway on a conversation (as happens with Twitter) where my Canadian friend was pointing out that the Winter Olympics were not all about "hockey". I was sort of supporting this and pointing out, jokingly, that it was even true that other types of hockey were available. And indeed that perhaps the world looks different from India, or Malaysia or even the UK. (This was quite possibly partly the point he was making, but I had missed the start of the exchange.)

One more serious point was that we all tend to favour our own dialect - or favourite sport. But also that AmE is increasingly dominant and it could be argued the default dialect and therefore the most important. Speakers of other Englishes argue back and resist but know we are probably doomed. So, North Americans think "hockey" means "ice hockey" and if you want to talk about that obscure sport not played on ice you have to qualify it, adding "field". And it seems quite likely this will become true in due course. At the moment, though, guys / chaps, the IOC, and many of the official websites in the hockey-playing world disagree. Remember the millions of Indians and Pakistanis who consider it a national sport. But maybe soon they will all be trying newer, more technologically demanding sports, snowboarding and so on.

A similar thing is evident in printed and digital media: in the UK we used to think the Times was the Times. There might be others in New York (NYT) or indeed any town in the English-speaking world but the Times was "the Thunderer" and, it goes / went without saying, in London.

Now the Observer contains a European edition / supplement of the NYT every week. This (and perhaps increasingly the rest of the media) now refers to itself as "the Times". The poor old UK version will now have to be known as "the Times of London" and indeed refers to itself as such on Twitter and perhaps elsewhere. As with hockey, the minority (or is it non-North American) variety has to be qualified and explained, perhaps as something arcane or quaint, of minor interest. Inevitable perhaps, but annoying to us BrE speakers, not to mention millions on the sub-continent. NB other Englishes are still available - hurry while stocks last!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Oh, Spring! (from Unnecessary Apostrophes & Other Short Poems)

friday branches shred the air
monday a cloud of cherry blossom
springs long expected surprise

 I wrote this many years ago as a sort of jokey haiku. I know it doesn't follow the syllable count but then it's not Japanese. I revive it annually. It comes from a collection of my shorter poems that I call "Unnecessary Apostrophes". According to my New Shorter OED, "apostrophe" has several meanings including "omission of one or more letters" and "sudden exclamatory address".