Showing posts with label language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label language. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Difference between murderers and assassins ?

In my own mind, this linguistic question arises often. For example, in the case of my preceding blog post, I wasn’t quite sure whether I should designate the Taliban suicide-bomber who killed 72 people on Sunday as a murderer or rather an assassin. This question was further complicated by the fact that the killer had surely targeted Pakistani Christians, whereas his victims apparently turned out to be mostly Muslims.

The Arabic word hashishiyyin is a plural noun meaning “people who consume the drug hashish”. At the time of the Crusades, it was thought that future killers were often deliberately motivated, prior to their murderous acts, by drugging themselves with hashish. Consequently, the plural term gave rise erroneously to a singular word, assassin. Over the years, an assassin is thought of as a murderer of an illustrious victim. In the case of terrorist killers whose victims are often everyday citizens, there is no obvious reason to label such murderers as assassins. Admittedly, the case of the celebrated Charlie journalists in Paris might be thought of indeed as a strict assassination.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wrong words that sound write

An urban child, strolling along a rural road with his parents, came upon a carpet of acorns beneath an oak tree, and he asked his parents what these fruit were called. He picked up a few specimens and put them in his pocket. The next day, at school, he showed one of them to his teacher, and told her that it was an "eggcorn".

This anecdote has given rise to a database of amusing eggcorn examples. Click the above photo to visit this database.

Two lovely specimens were created through confusion between the terms "ilk" and "elk" (British word for moose). Palin and her elk are running everyone else out of the Republican Party. I would rather be in hell than have anything to do with Christians like Sarah Palin and her elk.

Later on in the database, we hear that: The word "sheila" is an Aussie youthamism.

My post entitled Quackery [display] included a well-known eggcorn: The equator is an imaginary lion running around the Earth.

Eggcorns can arise in terms borrowed from foreign languages. For example: My boss asked me to bring two on-trays to our christmas party, but I honestly don’t know what to put on the trays.

My cousins Peter and Mitchell unearthed a delightful French eggcorn. Having learned that the French word for a backyard swimming pool is piscine, they promptly got around to referring to their family pool in Sydney as a "piss-in".

Sunday, April 11, 2010

When spades were called spades

The other day, my ex-neighbor Bob called in to pick up his mail. He was driven here by his female companion. Bob had a broken collar-bone as a consequence of riding his bike into an oncoming tractor, so he was incapable of driving. To my mind, Bob, a former champion rugby player, is indeed the sort of guy who would be capable of plowing his bike into a tractor. He probably imagined the vehicle, for a split second, as an attacking player... and he automatically tackled it.

I talked to them about the disappointing Plowmen's Feast at St-Jean-en-Royans [display]. At one point in our conversation, I exclaimed that this event used to be fun when there were floats manned by inmates of the two local mental asylums (in St-Laurent-en-Royans). All of a sudden, realizing that Bob and his companion are employed in these institutions, I imagined that I might be using offensive language: "You professional people surely don't talk any longer of mental patients." Bob's companion replied: "Effectively, the administration asks us to refer to them as X, whereas we employees, talking among ourselves, call them Y." Here, X was a verbose expression, which I've forgotten, along the lines of "individuals with an exceptional cerebral state", whereas Y was more like "dingbats".

In the context of my genealogical research, I've just been consulting the UK census for 1911. On the left, you see the heading of the final column on the census form, which was filled in by a state employee referred to as an enumerator. In the copies of the census results that are available online today, entries in this column have simply been erased by big white rectangles.

I'm not basically opposed to politically-correct language, although many specimens of NiceTalk strike me as rather stupid. Personally, I tend to not get excited about such matters.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

European dignitaries

Herman Who? Baroness What?

Herman Van Rompuy, that's who: the 62-year-old prime minister of a charming land named Belgium, with two coexisting cultures, Flemish and Walloon (mainly French-speaking, but with a distinct German-speaking fringe). And the 53-year-old English lady Catherine Margaret Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, that's what. So, stop acting like Henry Kissinger when he used to complain that it was all very well trying to establish contacts with Europe; he said he simply didn't have the precise name and phone number of a chief who could speak unequivocally on behalf of Europe. From now on, if you want to contact Europe, simply call either Herman or Kate.

Herman might look like an absent-minded professor. And his lady has the allure of the strict mistress of a finishing school for daughters of the aristocracy. But, believe me, he and the baroness of Upholland (up what ? you might be wondering) are surely capable of painting the town red... whatever that might mean in the case of a vast entity such as Europe.

One would expect that Daniel Cohn-Bendit, known in the revolutionary France of May 1968 as Danny the Red, would like that idea. But his current color in European politics is strictly green. In any case, Cohn-Bendit has expressed total disenchantment concerning the election of the Herman + Catherine couple. Danny used an ugly French adjective to designate Rompuy-Dompty. He described him as falot (rhymes with shallow), which is akin to our English word fellow. In English, you might say that falot could be translated as "a dull fellow".

As a cross between a native Aussie bloke and an adoptive French mec (translatable as guy, or maybe dude), I've always been intrigued by the terms used to designate males. Long ago, when I was working with IBM in Wigmore Street, London, my Liverpudlian colleague Larry Doyle gave me a precious linguistic lesson concerning an attractive female secretary named Sarah, who had surely been causing sparks of lust (or whatever else you might like to call it) to illuminate my Antipodean eyes. "What you've got to understand, Bill, is that Sarah is not the kind of English girl who's looking for a man. She's out to conquer a chap. As an Aussie, you might not necessarily be familiar with English chaps, and English girls who've set their eyes upon this domain." With Larry's help, I soon became quite proficient at recognizing both chaps and female chap-huntresses... but it wasn't a subject that interested me greatly. At that time, I was starting to become infatuated by another exotic female category that Larry designated as birds... but that's a long and complicated story.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Loose language

I've already evoked the brilliant books of the Canadian-American psychologist Steven Pinker. He's best tackled, I believe, by The Language Instinct (1994), which explains simply—as its title suggests—that we humans have an instinctive relationship (as if anybody ever doubted it) with the gift of the gab.

From a Pinkerian point of view, my blog title, Loose language, is abominable, since human language is a constantly-evolving process that should never be described as "loose". Lame, lost or lousy, maybe... but never loose, since it remains a mysterious archaic art that experienced human practitioners are constantly perfecting.

This afternoon, I was momentarily surprised to see an exhortation on the cover of a popular French science magazine: Mangez sain. Translated literally into English, that reads: Eat healthy. In grammatical terms, the adjective "healthy" has been placed into a slot that normally receives an adverb such as "healthily". Now, is this a problem that should upset me? No, not at all.

I was vaccinated by the publicity of my favorite computer company:

Apple wasn't suggesting that we should think differently in the same way that you might ask somebody to reply rapidly, to talk calmly or to argue intelligently. The "think different" exhortation simply urged viewers to adjust their thinking to a different context: that of Apple products. That's to say, it was shorthand for: Do your thinking in a different context. So, no major grammatical crime was committed.

The most striking Pinker book, to my mind, is How the Mind Works, which is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of old-fashioned adepts of Freud. Pinker adopts a totally "mechanistic" explanation of the human mind... where my adjective in inverted commas designates everything that has been happening in computer science and brain research over the last half-century. In a nutshell, everybody knows by now that humans are magnificent machines, neither more nor less. So, why carry on talking as if there were mysterious ghosts in the machines?

As for Freud, he has been thrown out wordlessly and unceremoniously with the slops. Maybe it would have been nicer, more polite, if Pinker had pronounced a wordy eulogy concerning this well-minded Viennese quack doctor who fascinated the Western intellectual world for a century or so... and still does. History has its charms. But time wasted in talking about what we now know to be obsolete nonsense would be better devoted to catching up with the fabulous realities of contemporary science.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sinister name

In the following NASA image, the dense white horizontal bars that look like gigantic clouds indicate the shifting location of the Intertropical Convergence Zone [ITCZ], which is the equatorial region where winds of the northern hemisphere clash with those of the southern hemisphere.

Colossal storms rage constantly in these skies, and it's possible that lightning from one such violent eruption resulted in the loss of Air France Flight 447 a few days ago.

Seafarers have always dreaded this zone, where the friendly trade winds often cancel one another, meaning that vessels get stuck there, often in a blanket of dense fog. To designate the unfriendly ITCZ in the Atlantic, between West Africa and the New World, French mariners use the everyday term pot (recipient, as in chamber pot). The zone is referred to as the pot au noir, which might be translated as the black hole. [Click here to see my recent blog article entitled Loose language.] In fact, the origin of the adjective "black" is particularly sinister. During the terrible era of the slave trade, vessels leaving Africa with their human cargoes were often held up in this zone, because of a lack of winds. In such cases, the captain often gave the order to throw overboard any slaves who happened to be sick, because it was considered that the vessel would not have sufficient supplies to keep such individuals alive up until their arrival in America. So, the ITCZ "pot" was black in the sense that the murky depths received the bodies of black-skinned slaves.

Our planet has indeed been an ugly place at times. It's still ugly, today, when a plane full of people disappears without an adieu.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Loose language

A moment ago, in the French press, I jumped to a one-word headline: Earthquake. I imagined immediately that the ground had probably shaken once again in Italy. No, a dull journalist had simply drawn this term out of his empty head in an article on yesterday's unexpected grounding of Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros.

Back in the old days, when writers could throw in expressions from the Bible or great authors such as Shakespeare, they were on firm ground. No reader is going to raise questions about the veracity of dust to dust, ashes to ashes, say, or to be or not to be. But nowadays, with culture and language permeated by science, it can be difficult for a journalist to keep his head above water.

Among the greatly misused scientific metaphors, I would say that "Big Bang" deserves first prize. When the English astronomer Fred Hoyle invented the expression in connection with a cosmological theory with which he himself did not agree, he needed a name for an absolutely unique "event" that was totally unlike anything that had ever happened before... since nothing had ever happened "before", because there could be no "before" with respect to this weird happening. The cosmological Big Bang wasn't in any way whatsoever an explosion, so it didn't really "bang". Besides, it wasn't big at all. At the singular instant zero, the so-called ylem—or primordial egg out of which our cosmos was about to spring—was unimaginably tiny and unimaginably dense. Consequently, it's silly to hear journalists evoking latter-day "big bangs" in domains such as economics and politics. Such usage is more than a matter of using bad metaphors; it's an insult to wisdom.

In the same domain, most metaphorical uses of "black hole" evoke what the French refer to as a Turkish toilet: the sort of place where you must be careful not to drop your car keys, otherwise you'll be hitching a ride home. In reality (if we can talk realistically about black holes), they're a far more subtle cosmological concept than a kind of giant sewage tank in the heavens.

One of the silliest metaphorical blunders from a scientific viewpoint consists of using "quantum leap" to designate something akin to Zorro and his steed jumping over the Niagara Falls. In formulating the theory that electromagnetic radiation was quantized into discrete chunks, Max Planck calculated that the energy associated with an electron when it performs a quantum leap from one orbiting shell in an atom to another is infinitesimally small. Not nearly enough energy to prevent a tennis ball from leaping onto the wrong side of the line. Let's hope, in any case, that the psychological shock of yesterday's big bang at Roland-Garros doesn't drag Rafael Nadal into a black hole of despair.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Danger scale

I've been reading Steven Pinker's bestseller about language, published back in 1994, entitled The Language Instinct. It is indeed an excellent and refreshing book, which insists upon the fact that humans are not really taught to communicate by language, even though many parents surely imagine that their children would never have learned to speak were it not for the teaching efforts of their parents... who've often made a huge effort to become experts in "baby talk", believing naively that this was the only way of being understood by their toddlers. No, as Pinker's title suggests, the basic capacity to use language is a human instinct shared by every individual. The proof that our linguistic ability is instinctive is the fact that we say many things that have probably never been said before. So, how could we have been taught to make such statements?

Anecdote. Many years ago, I encountered briefly an exceptional woman: the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a world authority on the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951], whose mysterious and celebrated Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus had fascinated me when I was a student back in Sydney. Anscombe, closely linked to friends in Brittany who shared her Catholic faith, told us a weird story about one of her sons who had never uttered a single sound up until the age of four. One day, unexpectedly, he proclaimed loudly in perfect English: "Mother, you must punish my brother, for he just tried to lock me up in a wardrobe." Stupefaction! From then on, he spoke normally, as if some kind of a mental dam had been unclogged. This trivial anecdote would have probably never impressed me so much were it not for the associations between Anscombe and Wittgenstein.

Recently, I was fascinated by a TV documentary concerning the amazing story of the Israeli crooner Moshe Brand, who was a French celebrity under the name of Mike Brant, up until he jumped to his death from the balcony of a building in Paris. He too, as a child in Israel, never pronounced a single word. Then, at the age of four, he suddenly started to speak in Hebrew, revealing an exceptionally powerful and beautiful vocal tone that would contribute later to his international success as a singer.

Getting back to Pinker's book, I'm amused by his debunking of the silly myth about Eskimos having a huge variety of words for snow. The truth of the matter is that Eskimos probably use fewer words than a run-of-the-mill Alpine skier to talk about various kinds of snow.

When I arrived in France, I was intrigued by cases of a single English word being replaced by two or more French terms. For example, whenever an English-speaking person talks about finding bones [in French: os] in his fish dish, French observers are greatly amused. They imagine, say, a humble trout with a huge thigh bone. The correct French word for the bony things you find in a fish skeleton is arête.

Another stumbling block was the word scale. In a measurement context—for example, in maps—the French equivalent is échelle, which is also the word for ladder. But in music, when referring, say, to the scale of C major, a quite different word appears in French: gamme. Apparently, this new word has something to do with the Greek letter gamma. So, back at the time I was taking guitar lessons in Brussels, not only did I have to replace C, D, E by do, , mi, etc, but I had to force myself to refrain from speaking, say, of the échelle de do majeur.

The subject I wanted to evoke today (after taking quite some time to get around to it) is danger scales for potentially catastrophic events. To start the fireball rolling, let's say that everybody has heard of the famous Richter scale for earthquakes. As strange as it might appear, this logarithmic scale has no upper limit. Consequently, we could never refer to an earthquake of "the greatest possible magnitude", because there would be always be room at the top of the scale for an even more disastrous earthquake. That's nice scientific rigor, but I wouldn't feel like buying a used car from an earthquake scientist who told me that the vehicle required no more than a couple of minor repairs.

I wonder how many people are aware of a similar scale for accidents in the domain of peaceful nuclear energy, known as the INES. Now Ines, pronounced een-ess, happens to be an elegant French female Christian name of Greek etymology, meaning "pure and virginal", which I've encountered once or twice. But the INES that concerns me today is an acronym for the International Nuclear Event Scale, whose eight degrees extend upwards from zero to seven, from green to red.

As I pointed out in my articles of 17 June 2007 entitled Nice TV spot [display] and 27 December 2007 entitled Nuclear energy [display], France is covered with a relatively dense system of nuclear reactors run by a state-owned corporation named Areva, whose president is Anne Lauvergeon. Well, over the last fortnight, several minor accidents have occurred. The first was at the Tricastan site on the Rhône.

Many years ago, Christine and I spent some time there, when it was still thought of as the Pierrelatte center for refining the stuff with which you make atomic bombs. I was participating as a computing instructor in a job skills recycling program aimed at transforming nuclear energy technicians into computerists. I remember, above all, that we were housed in a VIP lodge in the woods, and that the notorious Mistral wind, blowing through the Rhône Valley, drove me mad during my entire stay at Pierrelatte. Indeed, these days, whenever my friends Natacha and Alain extoll the splendors of Provence, I still think to myself: Provence, yes... but Mistral, no!

Over the last fortnight, there have been no less than four accidents in nuclear installations operated by the French electricity authority, EDF. One occurred in the nearby city of Romans, and another in my home département, Isère. We're informed that they were all trivial events on the INES scale... which is nice to know. The latest accident, resulting in the irradiation of a hundred Tricastin employees, was of level zero on the INES scale. A French journalist, not accustomed to the habit (derived from computing) of starting to count with zero, asked rhetorically whether the nuclear authorities might end up trying to convince us that we're faced with negative dangers from their reactors!

There is, in fact, a competent French government agency, called ASN [Nuclear Safety Authority], in charge of safety and security in the nuclear energy domain. [Click their logo to access English-language documentation.]

Funnily enough, we're faced with a similar situation to the doping affairs in cycling, as sketched in my article of 18 July 2008 entitled Half empty or half full? [display]. If we seem to be hit suddenly by an avalanche of nuclear incidents, this doesn't necessarily mean that the whole engineering infrastructure is deteriorating. On the contrary, these danger alerts stem no doubt from the fact the security and detection processes are becoming more and more refined and intense. So, let's be optimistic.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Regional languages

One often imagines that, in France, everybody speaks French. Well, the situation is far more complex than that. Throughout the République (including overseas territories), there are indeed dozens of so-called regional languages, including Breton, Corsican, Basque, Occitan, Catalan, Alsatian, etc.

A Breton parliamentarian recently presented an amendment to the French constitution that would allow for the reconnaissance (recognition) of regional languages. Insofar as these ancient languages are a significant part of the cultural patrimony of France, it's not surprising that polls indicate that most people approve of such an amendment. In particular, French youth are largely unanimous in applauding such a change of outlook, which respects cultural diversity. After all, the right to speak the language of one's forefathers would appear to be no less sacred than the idea of perpetuating, say, their religion or their life style. Only an insensitive bureaucrat would argue that these precious regional languages should be allowed to die out in the name of progress and unity.

In any case, that's how the situation appears when examined superficially. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the acceptance of regional languages in an operational sense within the République could be quite a complex and hazardous undertaking. What I mean by "operational sense" is that citizens might end up demanding that official documents be drawn up in their local language. Imagine, say, that the authorities in Grenoble were to hand me, at the naturalization ceremony next Friday morning, an identity card written in some Alpine dialect. If I wanted to drive up to Christine's place, I would first have to find an official translator to obtain a Breton version of my driver's license. If ever this linguistic amendment were to be validated, it would only be a short while before an inspired French citizen started to lobby for the reintroduction of Latin, as a daily language, throughout the former territories of Cisalpine Gaul. Then the folk in Marseille would start to scream because they felt that it would be more fitting for them to have the possibility of using Greek. And the République would rapidly become a Tower of Babel, whose major economic activity consisted of language translation. Why reinvent such cacophony within the frontiers of the Hexagon when we already have the European Union? And soon the Mediterranean Union?

Don't take me too seriously. The truth of the matter is that I love the precious phenomenon of exotic languages, old and new... including those we invent these days to run our computers.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Power of words

There's talk in my native Australia about the fact that the new prime minister Kevin Rudd is not exactly an impressive orator. I agree. Commentators are bending over backwards in their determination to make it clear that this lack of eloquence is a commendable and specifically Australian quality. The more you mumble, the more you're an authentic Aussie. As my friend Geoff, considering me totally out of touch with my native land, once explained: "You fail to understand, William, that Australia doesn't have a literary culture." In other words, those like me who would expect powerful and logical words from our leaders must be considered as misguided un-Australian observers.

Here in France, there's a delightful ongoing scandal about a senior civil servant who has been renting dirt-cheap for decades (since the epoch when Jacques Chirac was mayor) a huge Parisian flat owned by the municipality. At one stage, the guy in question had to move to another city, whereupon he wrote a letter suggesting that he should hang on officially to the superb cheap accommodation in Paris, while offering to sublet it to a friend. In his letter, he stated that this solution, for his family and himself, would be "a factor of tranquility". Well, a talented journalist at Libération, telling us this tale, added a marvelous satirical comment, composed of no more than five words: "On ne saurait mieux dire." This terse appreciation might be translated into English as: "There's no better way of putting it."

I'm delighted every time I have the chance and privilege of encountering well-spoken or well-written words. I'm persuaded that our leaders should be able to expression themselves in powerful spoken and written words. In the USA, this was the case with leaders such as John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Here in France, eloquence has always been considered as a primary necessity... at least up until the arrival on the presidential scene of the latest incumbent, whose words would often appear to have little more power to stir the emotions, sadly, than those of a police officer surveying the scene of a crime, or a notary public assessing the extent of damages after an accident. You might judge that my harsh evaluation of the deplorable lack of eloquence of Nicolas Sarkozy, like that of Rudd, is blunt. But I believe, as they say, that there's no better way of putting it.