Friday, 26 April 2013

Historic Present: so yesterday!

  Why do historians on, for example, "In Our Time" (BBC R4) use the historic present? Don't they realise it annoys many listeners? Aren't they sensitive to the awkwardness caused by doing this, not so much real ambiguity but rather more difficulty in relating events and periods to each other? Also it seems so patronising, as if they are saying, "If we do this we can make history cool, now and happening for the listeners / students / young people / youth." Do they think we are so easily fooled?

  If you look online, you find that, as with many topics, there is much more discussion about it in the US. Things seem to start there and spread fast. Scientists there have been starting every answer with "So..." for years. And others have been complaining about it ever since.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Misspelt names

  In my last post I was wondering whether security forces looked closely at names in the search for "extremists". It now seems that the Russian security service alerted the FBI about the Boston suspects but  that there was a mix-up over different spellings. Of course, many names are spelt and pronounced differently in English, Russian, Arabic, Chechen or whatever, let alone the difficulties with alphabets and characters.

  Also we hear rather a lot of reports of people being wrongly arrested because their name corresponds to that on a suspect list. Then we hear that it was, say, Samir Ahmed or a very common Arabic name, something like John Smith! Also names of suspects often seem to be obvious noms de guerre like Mohammed Baghdadi, or similar. One sometimes wonders what sort of intelligence is in operation and what advice is taken.

Sifting for Names - Nominative determinism?

  I've been wondering if the FBI, MI5 and other security agencies "filter" or "sift" for names as well as extreme language. I was surprised, even shocked, when, a few years ago MI5 advertised openly in the press for people to monitor phone calls, emails and social media. I think the question: "Do you speak Arabic, Farsi or other foreign languages?" featured in the copy. But I think what shocked me was that the recruitment was carried out by a private firm called "Tribal": it seemed horribly inappropriate, or do I mean the opposite? A far cry, anyway, from the discreet tap on the shoulder in the common room. Or being asked, as I was, to do Chemistry 'A' Level by Mr Norwood, husband of Melita, the very successful nuclear "grandmother spy".

  Names have been in my mind particularly this week after another terrorist attack. The FBI were said to have had the suspects under observation for some time but found "nothing derogatory" against them. I wondered if the name Tamerlan was seen as significant? Timur, Tamberlaine, known as "the sword of Islam"? In Marlowe's play, at least, he talks of "the terror of my name" and says "our swords shall play the orators for us". Can names indicate a mind-set, of the parents, or of the person who adopts a name? Would anyone strive to live up to their name, to be a hero, a defender of the faith, a sword and champion? Is nominative or nominal determinism (the second sounds better to me, and is shorter) no more than a joke?

  Probably - and it is foolish to read too much into names. After all, many people are unaware of the origins of names, even those they give to their children. And etymologies are ancient and have little resonance now, otherwise we might not use, say, Campbell, from Gaelic for "crooked mouth". Or we might avoid the lovely name Pandora, "all the gifts", because of the myth of the first woman "created by the fire god Hephaistos as a scourge for men in general" and with a box that "unleashed every type of hardship and suffering on the world" (Oxford Names Companion, 2002). We might hesitate even with Mary, thought by some to mean "star of the sea", but by others to come from Hebrew for "plump princess", no doubt a great compliment at the time. And many Christian and Biblical names, and no doubt some from Hindu and other traditions, have quite war-like or even bloody origins.

But I can't help wondering if they give some attention to names with meanings or connotations of war, weapons and martyrdom.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

NotPopeQuotes - new hash tag

"Since no-one guessed that couplet was by me,
Fly downwards, Muse, to spheres of modesty."

Of all my worldwide audience not a single person has guessed that couplet in the previous post was by me and not by Pope. So I have started a new hashtag (one word, be modern, Autocorrect) called #NotPopeQuotes. The quotes in my previous #PopeNotPontifex tag (started around the time the Pope started tweeting, I think, rather than when the new one replaced him on the twig) wasn't ** much read and then was deleted by a higher power! So was the second one, #PopeQuotes. So these ones can try and make their own way.

I've also made the first couplet a bit more modest:

"Sometimes mistaken for his mentor, Pope,
He still toiled on, not quite bereft of hope."

**No-one noticed the deliberate mistake there so I will have to point it out. There was a false agreement, with the writer (apparently) distracted by the nearest noun ("tag") and forgetting the real subject, "the quotes". Anyway, nowadays GrammarCheck programs can make this sort of mistake for you - or you can blame them.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Pope Not Pontifex (not)

Often mistaken for his mentor Pope
He still toiled on, not quite bereft of hope.
(NotEvenPopeNotPontifex 2013)

That's not always the way, you know

"Perhaps they love and clasp this usage as a rule
Because a favourite teacher taught 'em it at school."
(School of #PopeNotPontifex)

I made the mistake of bringing up the "which vs that" controversy on Twitter recently. I was immediately involved in a discussion with, I think, well, I'm sure, an American correspondent who really does love that "that for restrictives / definitions - which for extra information" pseudo-rule, as @StanCarey calls it.

In that last, rather long sentence I used a restrictive (UK used to say "defining") relative clause. Why don't US writers, or more importantly editors, have similar problems with other wh- words? What about:

"The house where I was born has been demolished.
The house, where I was born, has been demolished."

The same problem (?) may / must exist, if less often, with "when". I suggested that it was mainly a problem of punctuation and that people just need to read aloud (or with internal voice) and decide whether they pause (add comma) or not.

It is true that it may be useful for harried and hurried journalists and subeditors, or people unsure of commas, but it is a matter of usage and punctuation, not grammar. Those who have been taught this usage as a "rule" - it is certainly not a rule in BrE, see standard grammar books and e.g. British Council Learn English website - seem to be fond of it and sometimes get self-righteously cross about it.

Mormons, Autocorrect and Twetherlands

I've tweeted about how Autocorrect is often funnier than I am on Twitter, so I often go with it. I've been communicating with @elchienbekker in both English and Dutch - well, trying to. But Twitter Autocorrect nearly always intervenes, at first, especially in Dutch. So (no, not that sort of "so", the "Hwaet" type, just a normal one), I responded to his usual "moin, moin" with "Mornin', mornin'" (I was guessing). Twitter instantly corrected it to "Mormon Mormon", which I might just start every day with. The trouble is (optional extra is is  here), is that, Twitter/ Autocorrect learns pretty fast (foreign, too), thus losing that mad spontaneity and (potential) inspiration.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Mare of Chicago or Night Mayor?

I posted way back about the move in BrE towards AmE pronunciation of "mayor", not always sounding the /r/ but with more stress than formerly on the -yor. This made it two syllables, rather than one as before, when it was the same as "mare".

I joked that this might be because we were copying the Americans reluctance to get involved in confusion or cracks about standing for mayor, or running for mare. Not so silly as I thought, in that, I notice, the joke occurred in "Boss", starring Kelsey Grammer [sic]. This is well worth watching but, too hard on corruption - and, one might say, much of the American way of life - it has been dropped, I think after its first series.

The latest episode on UK TV (or Sky Atlantic) opened with a nightmare / night mayor sequence about forcing a large pill down a horse's throat. Later the Grammer mayor character makes this dream explicit by punning on mare / mayor. Is someone passing on my ideas to US media or channel(l)ing me to satellite chan(n)el(l)s? *** NB IWS (Irony Warning System) in operation.

Btw, this reminds me of south London comedian Arthur Smith, who calls himself "the Night Mayor of Balham" (with pun on nightmare, for those who have pronunciations which don't allow this wordplay).