Monday, December 17, 2012

New portmanteaux for smug writers

Rather than keep adding to my list at the end of Let's talk about crapmanteaux, I decided to make a separate list to be updated whenever the mood takes me, or whenever someone comes up with a suggestion that tickles me. 

The original list
Shortmanteau: a single-syllable portmanteau, such as smog or brunch

Crapmanteau: mompreneur, webinar, etc

Momnivore: a mother who copes with stress by comfort eating

Ad choc: the eating of confectionery on impulse

Jazzturbation: aimless, self-indulgent music

Footmauler: any English defender

Gluicide: an overdose for someone who can’t afford proper drugs

Quartomaton: someone with at least 25% of their body replaced by robotic parts

Piesexual: someone attracted to fuller-figured men or women

Pisexual: someone with slightly more than three partners

Hobknob: an obscene cooking injury

Pornucopia: the internet

Prepostrophe: a preposterously misplaced apostrophe

The latest additions
Neologasm: the (probably unjustified) feeling of satisfaction and pleasure one feels when inventing a new word, even though no-one will ever use it and a dozen other people had probably thought of it before you did

Contrapreneur: an unconventional business innovator

Fauxhito: at 2am, someone decides to make cocktails. Unfortunately, they don't have all the right ingredients. Fauxhitos should not be drunk while sober

Prebauchery: lunchtime drinking when there's a party in the evening

Rebauchery: any party that starts while the guests are still hungover from the last one

Apostroppy: How editors react to prepostrophes (thanks to Sarah Townsend)

Linguapreneur: What I'm being here, according to Cathy Relf, who is one herself.

Fauxmosexuality: That bit in films, usually where a pretty girl kisses another pretty girl at the point where the director realises that something more is needed to get adolescent boys into the cinema.

Thanks to Sarah Rakowski for the unsubtle 'shituation', which fulfils all the criteria since it's immediately understandable.

Blahbarian: Writer of long-winded, graceless prose. Most often found in legal practices, government or near the top of customer service departments. This comes satisfyingly close to the original meaning of 'barbarian', which doesn't mean 'bearded person' (as many people believe) but 'one whose language cannot be understood'. It comes from the Greeks, who thought their northern neighbours were saying 'bah-bah'.

Fauxtography: Credit to Snopes, the website where I first saw this word and the place to go before you make a fool of yourself by sharing "Ohmygod they're going to charge for Facebook!". And of course, that picture is a fake.

Cucumbrance: The feeling of being obstructed or weighed down by salad.

Cucumference: Boasting about the size of your willy.

Flexicography: Changing a dictionary definition.

Fleminism: Women's rights in Belgium.

Classhole: Someone who does pointless acts of spite, but with creativity (

Any new suggestions gratefully received.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Slick reporting: the Guardian gets spun by Greenpeace

Whales don't bother me, and I try not to bother them. On the whole, I'm against oil spills and the unnecessary killing of whales. But regardless of that, I prefer my newspapers to deal in facts rather than unfounded prejudices or hysterical assumptions. Nonetheless, I still read the Guardian.

Fact: This is a dead whale. Everything else is speculation
So I was less than impressed by a Guardian article last week implying that the US authorities had suppressed evidence that the Deepwater Horizon spill was responsible for killing a number of whales. There's an irony in the fact that whales have a lot to thank the oil industry for, since its emergence led to a massive reduction in whaling when we realised that fossil oil was a lot better for lighting homes than whale oil. But that's another story.

My job means I know a bit about oil spills without being an expert, but you don't need to be an expert to see that the Guardian's correspondent was being led by the nose. This is a growing problem in journalism, and one that I've touched on before: many journalists let their guard down as soon as they're presented with research that reflects their own beliefs or seems obvious. So when Greenpeace (hardly the most objective of sources) told US Environment Correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg that evidence of whale deaths was being suppressed, she compliantly repeated the activists' line.

In short, Greenpeace was able to get emails proving that the US National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration had prevented the release of photos showing a dead sperm whale. So far, so good. Suppression of information should always be questioned by journalists, and I don't blame Greenpeace for taking the partisan line it did: they're activists. That's their job.

Goldenberg reports Greenpeace's take on the story, but doesn't seem to have bothered contacting the NOAA to ask why the pictures were suppressed, preferring to speculate. To her credit, she does report that the NOAA admits it has no idea how the whale died. She also adds that there are 1,200 whales in the Gulf of Mexico, which should have made her stop and think. 

The discerning reader might ask whether one whale dead from unknown causes – out of a population of 1,200 – is really a story at all. The editors, perhaps aware of the thinness of the story, published three very similar pictures of the whale, even though the Guardian usually makes do with one picture and leaves the printing of several near-identical pictures to the Daily Mail. So it's clear that an emotional reaction was being sought

It then published the story under the very dubious headline 'US downplayed effect of Deepwater oil spill on whales, emails reveal'. The US didn't downplay the effect; it didn't know what the effect was. Nor does Greenpeace, as its press release freely admits.

I've got a particular problem with this paragraph:
NOAA did put out a press release about the dead whale. However, the release was edited and shortened in a way which appeared to minimise the effects of oil on whales
If you read the press release, it's clear that the NOAA did nothing of the sort. It did what any science-based agency should do: it reported the known facts unsensationally without speculating or pursuing a separate agenda. Of course that wasn't good enough for Greenpeace, which naturally wants to demonise the oil industry. As I've said, they're activists and that's their job. But that paragraph could have been written by Greenpeace, and a newspaper shouldn't be colluding with anyone to spin the news. 

That leaves the Guardian in the embarrassing position of seeming less objective than the activists who provided the story.

Moral: Believe what you want, unless you're a journalist.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Smoke and mirrors at the BBC

"Oh goody, another survey. It's got numbers in - no, not just numbers, statistics - so it must be true. Plus it supports what I want to believe, so I won't look at it too closely."
And so, with a flourish of a mouse, the BBC website finds itself carrying this nonsense:
Smoking in the car breaks toxic limit (BBC Health, 16 October 2012)
The article, by Health Editor Michelle Roberts, claims that "smoking in the car, even with the windows open or the air conditioning on, creates pollution that exceeds official "safe" limits. Roberts got the story from a journal called Tobacco Control, which is run by the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal). All fairly respectable, and I daresay I'd be tempted to take the evidence at face value if the BMJ claimed that homeopathy is bunk. But a glance at Tobacco Control's website shows that it's already nailed its colours to the mast. Tobacco Control isn't science, it's advocacy. Any journalist should treat it with scepticism.

For those who don't know, BMJ is wholly owned by the British Medical Association, which recently called for a ban on smoking in cars and later had to admit that it had relied on sensationalist, long-discredited data. One might also criticise them for authoritarian control-freakery, but that's a subjective judgement and a journalist should rise above it. But whatever one's views, a good journalist should immediately ask themselves what agenda, if any, is being pursued.

So, let's have a look at those claims:
  1. "A Scottish team who took measurements during 85 car journeys found readings broke World Health Organization limits"
  2. "The researchers … analysed air quality data during a number of journeys ranging from about 10 minutes to an hour in duration"
  3. "In 49 of the 85 journeys in total, the driver smoked up to four cigarettes"
Wait, wait, hang on a minute. None of those journeys lasted more than an hour and yet in 58% of them the driver got through FOUR cigarettes. There's no evidence that people smoke much in cars with kids in them, yet this survey had the drivers practically chain-smoking. That on its own is enough to dismiss the entire study. All we've learnt so far is that the University of Aberdeen, which carried out the research, is a bad place to study science.

Mind you, the article says "up to four". So it could be as low as zero. You can try to get something better out of the abstract if you like, but that's just as vague. Finally:
4. "During these 49 smoking journeys, levels of fine particulate matter averaged 85µg/m3, which is more than three times higher than the 25µg/m3 maximum safe indoor air limit recommended by the World Health Organization"
Pretty damning, huh? Since the headline cites the WHO's recommendations, we ought to check them. I've provided a link so you can check them yourself, but the relevant paragraph says this, with the number the researchers relied on highlighted:
Guideline values
10 μg/m3 annual mean
25 μg/m3 24-hour mean
20 μg/m3 annual mean
50 μg/m3 24-hour mean
Now, this is particulate matter, and I have to take it on trust that the harmful bits in tobacco smoke fall into that category. But WHO is quite clear: this is not occasional doses or a safe limit. The WHO's guidance is that average concentrations of small particulate matter should not exceed 25 microgrammes during the course of the whole day. Isolated or occasional readings above this limit are irrelevant. So the headline isn't just misleading: it's wrong.

What this study actually shows is that, if you lock yourself and your child in a car for 24 hours and chain-smoke constantly, it probably won't be very good for the child. It says nothing about the real world. Put it another way:
"We have created an entirely fake and unrealistic scenario that has produced results that bear no relationship whatsoever to the real world but which we think should be used as the basis for legislation."
Moral: You can always get the numbers you want if you skew the research, and you can always find a journalist who's gullible, lazy or as unprincipled as you.

Quick fixes for the lazy writer

Every editor thinks he can make writers better (see point 2 for why some of these words are highlighted). But few editors can face the truth: most writers think they're good enough already. And even if they know they're not, they can't be bothered to learn all the editor's cherished rules. They don't care about the difference between participles and gerunds.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the pub with an author who told me that he deliberately writes about leveraging strategic solutions to turnkey issues going forward, because that's how the industry people he deals with talk. Makes you want to weep, doesn't it?

This post isn't for him. It isn't for the editor either. It's for the business writer who knows that his writing can be improved but hasn't got the time or inclination to learn any self-important editor's rules that he suspects were concocted randomly on a Wednesday lunchtime between the third pint and the second whisky. 

This post isn't about how to make your writing beautiful. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, it's about making stuff a bit less sucky.

1) Put words in a natural order
Here's a simple sentence: "Jane ate chicken yesterday." Keep to that order of events as much as you can: "Who did what when." 

So, when one of my authors wrote something similar to this: "ABC Co in 1999 implemented a business restructuring", I changed it to "ABC restructured its business in 1999."

2) Keep the subject next to the verb
Look at the opening of this post: every subject is right next to its verb except in one instance, where the adverb 'deliberately' has inserted itself. I haven't gone back and edited it to make this happen. That's how I write, and I'm feeling a bit smug that I was already subconsciously obeying my own rule. 

Every sentence introduces a subject, and every subject does something, as revealed by the verb. As soon as your readers encounter a subject, they want to know what the action was. Don't leave them in suspense. Answer the question 'who did what?' as soon as you can by putting the verb straight after the subject.

3) Keep the sentences short
Read it aloud and don't breathe till you reach a full stop. If you run out of breath before the end of the sentence, it's too long.

4) Use simple phrases
Don't write "more cost-competitive when compared to" when you could write "cheaper than". Don't write "due to it being" when you could write "because it is".

5) Delete adjectives and adverbs
You probably use three times as many as you need. "Total" can almost always go, closely followed by "overall", "ongoing", "rather", "very" and "quite". 

6) Ditch the numbers
Words are for telling stories. Numbers are data, and readers don't absorb data when reading stories. That's why someone can write: "Rates fell 11.2% from $9,468 to $8,330," and half of their readers wouldn't notice the mistake. And don't write 50% when you mean half.

7) Ditch the initials
Any paragraph spattered with initials looks daunting. Where possible, write the names of organisations in full, unless it's an organisation better known by its initials (OPEC, for example). Then consider knocking it down to title case: Opec.

8) Break any rule if doing so makes the sentence read better
That goes for all these rules too.

Moral: You're smart, you're articulate and you know your job. Simple language conveys that better.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A shameful failure of ethics at the Guardian

Readers of the Guardian newspaper in the UK rightly criticise the 'gutter' press for whipping up hysteria by pandering to the prejudices of their readers. But Friday's web version showed that the paper isn't averse to doing the same thing itself, while its readers are just as prone to moronic mob behaviour.

It began with a link on the Guardian website's front page, concerning the hunt for missing five-year old April Jones: 
Go to the story, and you get a video clip of notorious Sky News journalist Kay Burley interviewing someone who I presume isn't a police spokesman but seems close to the investigation. He reveals that the police are now treating the abduction as a murder investigation and that the police are now looking for "a body". 

Burley then calls across two women, to whom she was speaking earlier, to ask for their reaction. That's where it all goes wrong.

Here's the Guardian's story in full:
Sky News presenter Kay Burley on Friday chose – live on air – to tell two volunteers searching for April Jones that "having spoken to the family" they "don't expect to find her alive".
Stunned, both women struggled to offer a coherent response.
Within minutes Twitter was ablaze with complaints. Tom Watson MP said Burley's questions were "insensitive bordering on cruel".
Take a look at the film to make up your own mind (start watching at 1 minute 10 seconds): do you think Burley was right to tell the volunteers?
If you retweet the story, your "suggested" tweet reads:
April Jones: was Kay Burley right to say family 'don't expect to find her alive'?
You'll notice that the Guardian urges you to start watching at 1 minute 10 seconds. This is deliberate: that way you miss the interview with the spokesman and the crucial moment when Burley calls "Donna" over. If you start watching where the Guardian tells you to, you'll probably miss the fact that Donna was standing just off camera and heard every word. A second woman then arrives, who seems to be Donna's friend and seems to have been part of an earlier interview. Here's a transcript:
Kay Burley: I want to chat to Donna who we were chatting to a little while ago. You've heard the news.
Donna (choked voice): Yeah, he's just said. ... (breaking up) I'm sorry.
Woman 2 (off): What's happened, what's happened? We haven't heard.
KB (awkwardly): OK, I didn't know you hadn't heard.
W2: No, we hadn't heard. We've been helping ... [indistinct]
KB: OK, let me just tell you what we've heard from the police - is that it's now become a murder investigation. And they have spoken to the family and they don't expect to find her alive. I'm sorry to have to tell you in circumstances like this. Would you like to say anything or…
W2: If they haven't found her, there's a chance… (the rest of the interview is Woman 2 expressing continued hope).
That's very different from how the Guardian presents it. According to the Guardian, Burley "chose – live on air" to break the news to these women. This makes it sound like she deliberately sought them out for that purpose. But she was clearly surprised to learn that the women didn't know and was momentarily at a loss what to say. She is offering them the chance to terminate the interview but is interrupted by Woman 2, who is keen to have her say.

Donna said, "Yeah, he's just said." So Burley didn't tell her. The second woman says, "We hadn't heard." 'Hadn't heard' is the pluperfect tense, meaning she has heard now – before Burley tells her. So, contrary to what the Guardian says, Burley didn't "choose" to tell either woman the news, and she didn't do it accidentally either. Donna learned it from the spokesman, while her friend learned it either from the spokesman or from someone else off camera. 

So the Guardian is either lying in an attempt to blacken a competitor's star reporter, or it put the video up without watching it and relied for its analysis on Twitter. We can discount the latter option, because whoever wrote the un-bylined story tells us exactly where to start watching so we get the most damagingly misleading impression possible of Burley and Sky. The Guardian even adds an extra dishonest twist, saying "both women struggled to offer a coherent response" when the second woman is perfectly coherent and is keen to offer her view on camera.

The manipulation by the Guardian of its readers doesn't stop there. Compare how the Guardian reports Burley's words with what she actually said to the volunteers:
"they [the police] have spoken to the family and they don't expect to find her alive" (Burley)
"Burley chose … to tell two volunteers searching for April Jones that "having spoken to the family" they "don't expect to find her alive"." (Guardian)
There's a slight misquote - "have" becomes "having" - which enables the newspaper to give the impression that Burley spoke to the family privately and is now telling the volunteers, whereas she quite clearly said that the police had spoken to the family.

The Guardian implies that Sky is ghoulishly exploiting this tragedy. Its readers, who are invited to comment below, are far more explicit, since they are as bad as Twitter users when it comes to hysterical, ill-informed abuse of people they don't agree with:
My God, the pits…
…cruel and cynical…
…crass insensitivity…
Unnecessary, underhand and despicable…
A new low for the Murdoch empire… 
etc, etc
The Press Complaints Commission's guidance says: 
"In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests."
Since these two women were volunteers and not family, I'd question whether the guidance even applies here. Even if the women hadn't already heard the news (which they had, albeit only moments before), there's nothing wrong with a reporter clarifying the facts with two members of the public who have volunteered to be interviewed. What was she supposed to do? Tell them to wait till they could read the story in tomorrow's Guardian

I'm surprised so many people are upset that news organisations supply news to members of the public. It seems to be symptomatic of the "Sky = Murdoch = Evil" attitude that abounds post-Leveson, where even a picture of Murdoch rescuing a kitten* would be met with howls of rage from "sickened" Twitter users.

Was this a shameful piece of reporting? Yes, but by the Guardian, not Sky. It told at least two deliberate lies in order to whip up a hysterical response against a competitor, adding the reaction of Tom Watson, who has campaigned against the Murdoch media for nearly a decade and is hardly an objective voice. 

Saying "make up your own mind" to readers is truly ironic, considering the way the paper has cynically tried to manipulate their reactions from the start. 

Moral: Ethics exist at the Guardian, as long as they can be exploited for competitive advantage

*Disclaimer: Image might have been manipulated

Friday, September 28, 2012

Apostrophes in plurals

There is a simple riposte that all grammarians are familiar with hearing. It goes something like this: "The rules are too complicated and who gives a stuff anyway? People know what I mean."

Boots: remarkably thick, even by cat standards
True, and I know what my cat means when he follows me into the kitchen and wraps his tail around my leg. He wants feeding. In fact, almost every attempt by my cat to engage my attention can be translated as "Feed me". 

So "They know what I mean" is only a valid argument if you aspire to no higher level of communication than my cat, who is remarkably stupid even by cat standards.

When it comes to apostrophes in plurals, those who say the rules are too complicated seem to have devised a rule of their own that is almost infinitely more convoluted than the real rule. As far as I can gather, it goes something like this:
No apostrophes in plurals, unless it's a foreign word, an abbreviation, an acronym, a word I don't know how to spell, a word that ends in a vowel that isn't 'e' or word that is in any way a bit funny or unusual
Poor me. I'm going to stick with the super-intellectual rule laid down by those Grammar Nazis (or is that Nazi's?)
No apostrophes in plurals
Admittedly, that's a simplified version. The full, long form is as follows:
No apostrophes in plurals. Ever
That includes abbreviations, which is much easier now that dots are considered fussy. Sorry if that's too complicated. Leave your WTF?s in the comments section.

Moral: The simpler the rule, the easier it is to devise something far more confusing

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Olympic visitor's phrasebook

July and August will see the UK spend two weeks enjoying the fruits of a £9-25 billion (depending on how you do the sums) investment in a Festival of Minor Sports. It has another name, but it is illegal to use it unless you are a multi-billionaire corporate sponsor.

Of course, very few British people will be at the events themselves, since most of the tickets are too expensive or have been promised to bureaucrats, politicians, sponsors or other apparatchiks and freeloaders, while unauthorised persons within a five-mile radius of any venue are likely to be shot with bazookas if they come near. Special measures have also been taken to ensure that the most important visitors need never see the vulgar plebs known as 'Londoners'. However, the more adventurous might find themselves dealing with the colourful patois used by the locals, so please cut out and keep this guide in order to save embarrassment:

Words and phrases you might encounter

"Welcome to London"
Sit down, shut up and empty your pockets. We'll be along to strip-search you in three hours.

"A good service is operating on all routes"
A train will arrive eventually. Probably.

"We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause you"
We can't be bothered supplying the service you've paid for. What are you going to do?

Spelt 'tube', this is London's underground railway. For the convenience of all, it stops running just before the pubs close.

Where Londoners gather before fighting each other.

Pub grub
Something wriggling in your salad.

Night bus
Mobile vomitorium

The Bill

The Fuzz

The Filth

Thinly cut potatoes, deep fried and dusted with industrial waste, known as 'chips' in the USA.

Deep-fried potato sticks, known as 'French fries' in other parts of the world, except in France, where they are unknown.

A carpenter, or a shop selling fish, mystery-meat pies and deep-fried horse penises.

A word of obscure origin, chanted in a pub before hitting a foreigner.

Yeeearsenooooo! Cheeyelseeyee! Cmonyouspurs! Meeewor!
Names of London football teams. Chanted in a pub before hitting another Englishman. Other clubs are available, but if you hear the names 'Fulham' or 'Queens Park Rangers' chanted menacingly then you have entered a surreal plane of alternative reality.

"Do what, John?"
"Pardon?", in the sense of "Say that again and I'll lamp you."


"May I help you?"
Spend some money or get out.

"Got a light?"
Give me your wallet.

Moral: The English are charming when sober, whenever that is.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Over-egging the pudding

The Guardian seems to have a fascination with sports writers who construct sentences in much the same way a seven-year old bakes a cake. The basic ingredients are there, but then their enthusiasm gets the better of them and before you know it, a simple jam sponge is adulterated with noons, hundreds and thousands, half a bowl of Coco Pops, mashed banana and a sausage roll.

Chief football writer Kevin McCarra is the master when it comes to producing collections of thoughts that all vaguely relate to the subject but are thrown onto the page in a random order. When enough sentences have been written, the result is split into paragraphs and published as an article. 

Now the football season is over, the torch has been passed to Mike Selvey, who brings his own unique talent to the task of making cricket seem more baffling than it really is. 

Whereas McCarra uses the Random Sentence Generator®™, Selvey has his own fog machine. The result is that his sentences resemble a forgetful old man shuffling round his flat trying to find his glasses. Midway through the search, it becomes clear that he has forgotten where he started and is no longer sure exactly what he was looking for. Here's how he describes Ravi Bopara's innings in yesterday's one-day match against Australia:
He and Eoin Morgan, who was within the merest smudge of a mark on Hotspot of being lbw to the second ball he faced (Aleem Dar, the third umpire may have heard a noise as well for it transpired that the inside edge was scarcely detectable by Snicko either), had added 79 in 73 balls for their fourth-wicket partnership when, having made 82, with eight fours, from 85 balls and with the testing total of two runs needed from 29 deliveries, he attempted the sharpest of singles to Brett Lee at mid-off, who flung down the stumps with the batsman still well short in his dive. (Guardian, 2 July 2012)
The sentence starts with Bopara, but by the end Eoin Morgan, Aleem Dar, Snicko and Brett Lee have all got involved. The poor verb somehow has to make sense of 105 other words, 24 of them nouns. It's an impossible task. 

Speaking of McCarra, he seems to have an understudy in Barney Ronay:
No doubt due in part to Ukraine playing in Donetsk on the same night, but also, perhaps, appropriate tribute to that reigning-in, the one-bank-of-eight defence that here was absent from the start. (Guardian, 15 June 2012)
It's always good to remove unnecessary ingredients from a recipe, but I strongly recommend keeping the main verb. I'd also recommend learning the difference between 'reign' and 'rein'.

Moral: Put two nouns and a verb into a bowl. Stir gently. Leaven with commas and lightly season with adjectives. Add no more than one conditional clause or the mixture will not rise.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A dialect with its own army

I can't find the original source, but someone once said that a language is just a dialect with its own army. People my age have had to get used to this, what with the proliferation of new countries since 1990. Europe now has fifty sovereign states, which is why the Euro 2012 football championship takes two years to get from the qualifying rounds to the final. If they'd held it in 1875 (and if England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales didn't insist on competing separately), they would only have needed a three-way play-off between Montenegro, Andorra and Luxembourg before getting straight down to the last 16.

Language gets intimately tied up with politics. A dialect often becomes a language simply because the map-makers have started drawing new borders. A Slovakian friend recently lamented that his younger countrymen could no longer understand Czech, whereas he could because he was born in Czechoslovakia when it was still one country with one language. My friend from Kiev claims she can speak Russian pretty fluently, whereas I'd always thought Ukrainian was just a dialect of Russian, partly because it was (almost) never a separate state. Another friend whose native tongue is Flemish has no problems holding a conversation in Dutch (and, being fluent in Swedish, claims to find Danish reasonably easy), while her French needs a little work, meaning she understands the people of the neighbouring country better than half of her own compatriots. 

When I visited Yugoslavia in 1974, I was told "the language" of the country was Serbo-Croat. That single language is now four: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin. If the distinction seems political, you could easily argue that the idea of a single Serbo-Croat language was just as political.

Similarly, Norway has spent most of its century of independence promoting Nynorsk ("New Norwegian"), an artificial recreation based on older Norse dialects, as a way of distinguishing Norwegian from Danish - the language of its foreign occupier till 1814. 

This is all very confusing to those of us brought up in an era when it was thought that 1 country = 1 people = 1 language, with the exceptions of a few awkward minorities like the Welsh and the Basques and the outer provinces of the last two empires: the USSR and China. The lesson is clear: you aren't a nation without your own language.

And yet the UK and the USA have been separate countries for a couple of centuries now, but they still maintain that they speak the same language: English. Still, America has been assiduously developing a different style for about 170 years, which enables the Americans and the British to argue about what is 'right'. This provides fuel for plenty of transatlantic bickering of every hue, from the illuminating to the infuriating and the downright silly. The arguments are also spiced up by Australians, South Africans, Canadians, Scots and others who feel that their own variations of English are just as valid and who hate being ignored. 

Disparage his language, and you'll find that even the most liberal of internationalists sleeps in pyjamas cut from the national flag.

Moral: Speak English. It makes everything simpler. British English for preference. But not Geordie. Or Brummie. And definitely not Scouse.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pub quiz: guess the word origin

"They took everything we had – and then they came back for our language."

Most countries have a historical association with the British, usually based on folk memories of several thousand red-coated psychopaths coming over the hill and grabbing everything of value, leaving nothing but a signed portrait of Queen Victoria and the rules of cricket printed on a tea towel. Even after the empire had gone, we continued our campaign of international cultural vandalism through a triple-pronged assault of football hooliganism, The Benny Hill Show and the first four Black Sabbath albums. 

An Englishman's idea of 'abroad' should resemble a weekend in Cleethorpes but with nicer weather. As I have discovered, if you ask for the local delicacy and insist that you don't want chips with it, most foreign waiters will assume you are Irish, Australian or Canadian. Not only will they then give you better service, but they won't ask you to return the nation's valuables - which have been in a locked cellar in the British Museum since 1879 - or accuse you of selling their great-uncle into slavery.

And yet, when it comes to language, the British have been remarkably open-minded about other people's. We notoriously despise their cuisine, take no interest in their culture except to steal it and regard their history as seriously lacking unless it contains a regiment of the British Army. But when it comes to words, we'll happily blag anything that's going, either because it expresses a concept we don't have a word for (pyjamas) or we just like the sound of it (kharzi). So an English-speaking cricket commetator has no problem using the Urdu word doosra for a certain type of delivery, but a French football commentator risks the wrath of the Académie Français if he says kick instead of the correct but unwieldy coup à pied.

So, pour yourself a pint of foaming best bitter and see if you can guess where English stole the following words. Most English vocabulary comes from Low German, French, Latin or Greek, so there are no examples from those four. Two of the names are also related to the names of geographical regions, and one also gave its name to a well-known language. Award yourself a whisky chaser if you can guess (or already know) which.



The 'ak' combination gives it away as a non-English word. Not surprisingly, it's from the Greenland dialect of Eskimo-Aleut, where such an invention was essential for survival.

This comes from Arabic, and was transmitted into European languages during the seven centuries of Muslim Spain.

This effectively means 'high wood beam' and comes from Italian via the Germanic Lombards, though I have also seen it claimed as Persian. Since their language is technically a closer relative of English and German than French is, it wouldn't be surprising if the Persians came up with a very similar-sounding word for a similar thing. It also means we can pretend that, when Xerxes invaded Greece in the 5th Century BCE, he looked at the mountainous, wooded country to the north and named it 'The Balkans'. Sadly, that's a fantasy since the name didn't come into use till over 2,000 years later. There might also be a Turkish origin. Somewhere on the internet, Turks, Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians will be fighting to the virtual death on this one. My advice is, don't join in.

From Gujarati. A one-storey building common in Bengal, from which it takes its name (similarly Bangladesh). 

Irish Gaelic, meaning enough, so it's galling that one of its more famous uses is in the Scottish novel and film, Whisky Galore. 

Spanish. War is one of the few Germanic words to force its way into Romance languages, with W being replaced by G to make guerre in French and guerra in Spanish. In the Peninsular War, the Spanish fought small actions against Napoleon's forces, calling them "little war": guerrilla.

Mongolian, of course. The ordos is a Mongolian camp, and the dialect spoken in the Mongol camps in northern India became known as Urdu. But Europeans adapted the word and used it to describe the people instead (the Poles added the 'H'). At its peak, the Russian branch of the Mongol Empire was so wealthy that was known as The Golden Horde, which to my mind is one of the best names any country has been given. The European football championships will be played in part of their old territory in a few days. Wouldn't "England v The Golden Horde" look great on the fixture list?

Hindi: the large cart on which the image of the god Krishna was conveyed: jagat - earth, nath - lord. 

Japanese. When Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, tried to invade Japan, his fleet was driven back by sacred winds (kami kaze). The Japanese invoked the same spirit when trying to fend off the Americans in World War II, and the English word describes their methods rather than the original sense.

Zulu, meaning latrine. It's one of the coarser slang words for lavatory, but I love the sound of it. Not to be used in polite company. Kenneth Williams' character in Carry On Up The Kyber (the best of the Carry On films) was the 'Khasi of Khalabar'. 'Up the Kyber', of course, is rhyming slang and is too rude to explain here. 

Czech. Robota means forced labour and the 'rbt' combination betrays its relationship with the German arbeit. The word even found its way into French during the ancien régime, when a peasant's duty to work on the lord's land was known as robot. The word was adapted by science fiction writers after Karel Capek used it in his 1920 play RUR.

Chinese. But you knew that one already, didn't you?

So, how did you do?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Killer communications

And the award for simple, direct English goes to … The Ministry of Defence.

I know, it's hard to believe. These are the same people who talk about "collateral damage" (killing civilians) and "friendly fire" (killing your own side). And yet, when they need to get a message across and the PR people aren't watching, they can be admirably direct.

Yesterday I was killing time in Southend-on-Sea, so I drove out to the mud flats near Great Wakering. That involved crossing an MoD firing range that's open to the public at weekends. As you drive in, there's a sign warning you not to touch anything you might find, 
"or it might explode and kill you"
I can't think of a clearer, more concise way of putting it. No "ignition hazard" or "potentially unsafe ordnance"; just a direct statement of the risk, with the blunt addition of "you" to stress that the danger is personal rather than abstract. I would have taken a picture, but there was an equally strong warning not to do that. These people have guns. It's best to do what they say.

The poet John Donne said, "Each man's death diminisheth me, for I am involved in mankind," and yet the thought of my own death has a particular significance. I'm less engaged by "a potential risk to members of the public", but "you might die" gets my full attention.

Moral: There is eloquence in brevity.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sentence doctor: don't lose the thread

This sentence is so complicated that the writer has tied himself in knots and said the opposite of what he means. It’s bad enough that you hide your meaning from your reader, but so much worse when you manage to hide it from yourself:
“Compared to the loss-making average east-west container freight rate of $1,110 per unit in full-year 2009, the 1Q10 rate of $1,295 is still low by historical standards and must be below the breakeven point for carriers, even allowing for their recent cost cuts.”
Look at “compared to” (it should be “compared with”, but we’ll let that go for now). Strip out the extraneous words and the sentence actually reads, “$1,295 is low compared with $1,110,” which is nonsense.

This is the danger of the “compared to/with” construction so beloved of business writers: it declares a relationship between two things while excusing the writer from saying – and sometimes even thinking – what that relationship really is. It is harder to fall into this trap if we have the courage to use that beautiful, simple, neglected word “than”. 

So we should write “x is lower than y” instead of “Compared to … [followed by 10 words]… $1,110, … [then another 10 words] … $1,295 is still low.” All those extra words only serve to sever the logical link between the key parts of the sentence, such that before he is half way through the sentence the writer has forgotten what he is comparing with what. This is how I talk when I’m drunk. My friends forgive me because I’m happy to buy a round and sometimes fall over amusingly. Our readers are less tolerant.

The following has almost the same word count but is much easier to understand:
“The east-west rate of $1,295 in the first quarter is a big improvement on the $1,110 average for 2009. But it is still low by historical standards and must be below the breakeven point for carriers, even after their recent cost cuts.”
Mostly this is because the words are in a natural order: “x is a big improvement on y” is better than “compared to y, x is low”. I have also replaced "1Q10" with "the first quarter", because words are easier to understand than numbers, and I have deleted "full-year" because it's redundant.

Moral: Keep sentences simple, especially when making comparisons, and use comparatives followed by 'than'.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mistaken words: couples or just good friends?

Since the last time I posted about mistaken words, people have asked me, "What about…?" It seems that there's a whole legion of partially paired words out there that get treated as an item when in fact they're just good friends. 

I know many people read this blog not to learn, but to affirm what they already know. They can then pass it around so that the word abusers know it's not just their geeky colleague who cringes every time they put the language through the mangle. So here are a few more words we shouldn't confuse:

He / She
It was dark and I was drunk. It could have happened to anyone. But enough about my weekend.

Treble / Triple
If you've got a high voice, it's got to be treble. If you've got three separate things of the same type, such as awards, it's always triple (triple award-winner, triple-cylinder engine). But in the sense of multiplying by three, they essentially mean the same thing. It's like frantic and frenetic: the meaning is largely the same only one of them looks a bit more posh. Imports have trebled; exports have tripled. Or the other way round; it doesn't matter.

If you use treble, people will think you're the sort of person who writes gaol and connexion. Whether you want that reputation is a matter of personal conscience.

Phase / Faze
"Ooh, look! Phase has a ph. That makes it all Greek and sophisticated, while faze has that vulgar z. I think I'll spell it phase every time and look all ejucayted." 

Smart thinking, except it's wrong. It's true that ph almost always denotes a Greek origin, and phase is no exception (this suggests that the Greeks were pronouncing it differently 2,000 years ago, or the Romans would simply have spelt their Greek loanwords with an f).

But faze is a different word altogether with a Germanic root, meaning to alarm or frighten, or possibly to discomfit. If you're unfazed, you're calm. If you're unphased, you're not organised into discrete periods of time. This unlikely to happen to you unless you're a set of traffic lights.

Discomfort / Discomfit
We get discomfort from Old French, and it means what you think it means. Discomfit, also from Old French, used to mean defeat or destroy. The two words have been converging for about five centuries, and there's not a lot of difference between them now. If you exclusively use frenetic, gaol, connexion and treble, you might as well add discomfit to your lexicon as well.

Choose / Chose
This is similar to lose/loose, even down to the '(o)ose' ending. So it's especially irksome for those who like consistency that almost everything else is different. Choose, meaning select, rhymes with lose (and bruise - remember my previous post?), while its past tense chose rhymes with nose, those, hose and hoes. Those last two are synophones, kids. If that's a new word to you, a synophone is like a xylophone, except you play it with your tongue.

Last / Past
Last year was 2011. The past year is the 12 months till now. If someone says "in the last year", ask them, "The last year of what?"

Alternate / Alternative
This probably needs an article of its own, and it will probably get one. Let's just say that alternate is not an alternative form of alternative. You can't alternate between one and the other.

Forbear / Forebear (suggested by )
My late mother is one of my forebears. It was probably bad taste to put her gravestone on a blog post, but I couldn't forbear. As with forgo and forego, fore denotes something that has gone before, like foresight or a foreword, while for suggests a restriction, as in forbid.

Market / Marketplace
This one comes in the category "let's use a longer, similar word to make our argument look cleverer". These words are not synonyms. A market is an abstract concept. A marketplace is a place where trading happens.

If you want to sell your old toys on-line, there's certainly a marketplace for them (such as eBay). But if no-one buys them, there isn't a market.

Cancel / Postpone
Anyone who was reading this blog last summer will remember me stating that – contrary to some poorly worded media reports – Tottenham Hotspur's match against Everton had merely been postponed, not cancelled. So confident was I that I went out on a limb and predicted that the game would certainly be played at some time in the coming months. Lo and behold, Spurs played Everton on 11 January and beat them 2-0. This means that either I'm a clairvoyant or I know that cancelled things never happen (such as Titanic's return voyage from New York to Southampton), while things that are postponed are merely put off to a later date (Latin: post - after, ponere - to put). 

Affect / Effect
Damn that . "If you can give me an EASY way to remember effect/affect, I'll love you forever!" she said on Twitter. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in unconditional love. More to the point, I can't think of an easy way. Usually, affect is the verb and effect the noun, but not always. The best I can come up with, and it's pretty poor, is this:
To Affect is Action; the Effect is the rEsult
Annoyingly, effect is a verb as well, meaning to make something happen. Its most common use is in the phrase 'to effect a change'. 

If you'll let me effect another muddying of the waters, affect also has further meaning: to adopt something unnaturally. If, despite my advice, you affect 19th Century spellings such as gaol and connexion, it might be described as an affectation.

If you can come up with something better, maybe Shannon will love you forever instead of me, damn you!

Opinion / Fact
Sorry, this is the internet. All opinions on the internet are facts.

Moral: Not to be confused with morale.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Nine (or eighteen) commonly mistaken words

Is nine the right number to nibble on? I got slapped by one of my more respected followers for being neither comprehensive nor entertaining the last time I did a disambiguation list, so I've been sobbing quietly in a corner, emerging only to impersonate a police officer and insult the entire Scottish nation, 0.000077% of whom felt moved to complain to me in person (it seems Scotland isn't as homophobic as it used to be. Good for them).

So, how many of these common mistakes have you made in the past year? Award yourself a bar of chocolate, a line of powder or a quarter hour of auto-eroticism for each one you never get wrong. 

Lose / Loose
I got a few comments asking why I didn't do this last time. I invented a pretty plausible excuse that I've since forgotten, but trust me, it was a good one and would have totally convinced you. Loosing instead of losing is one of the most common written mistakes (I don't think I've ever heard anyone make the same mistake while speaking) and its capacity to irritate is matched only by sandy condoms or Stacy Solomon's speaking voice.

Loose, meaning slack or unrestrained, rhymes with goose and is almost always an adjective (except in such archaic phrases as "Loose the dogs!"). Lose rhymes with bruise. 

To lose is the present tense of lost, as well as being a town in Southern France famed for sausages and rugby (sorry, that joke only works when you say it aloud – or, as most YouTube commenters would spell it, allowed).

Imply / Infer
Imply, as near as dammit, means suggest. Infer means understand. So, when my blog is graced with the slogan "all opinions will henceforth be your opinions", I am implying that I am always right. You might infer that I'm trying to be funny, or that I'm a pompous ass, or possibly both.

Forgo / Forego
No, they're not alternative spellings (and please don't get me started on alternate versus alternative). Forgo means go without, or give something up. Forego means go before.

Sympathise / Empathise.
Dammit. Already done that one. How about…

Lie / Lay
"Lay down Sally," sang Eric Clapton as he set off on the long journey from rock god to middle-aged mediocrity. What he never explained was who should be laying Sally down. At about the same time, Bob Dylan was imploring: "Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed," again failing to specify what he wanted her to lay across his bed. I'm guessing an extra blanket perhaps, which would make this mid-period classic one of only a small number of pop songs directed at domestic staff. The b-side, "Could You Unblock The Kharzi Before You Go?", gets rather less airplay on the nostalgia stations.

Lie, like stand and sit, doesn't take a direct object (the confusion comes because its past tense is lay). Lay (past form laid) takes a direct object. You can't just lay. You have to lay something. Stop sniggering now. 

Principal / Priniciple
Americans have a head start on this one, on account of a head teacher being called a principal. In business too, an agent works for a principal. But in all other senses, principal is an adjective meaning most important, and is related to prince (principe in Italian). Principles, also from the same root, are fundamental beliefs. 

Breath / Breathe
Again, the rhymes are helpful here. Breath rhymes with death; breathe rhymes with seethe. You breathe the air with every breath.

Pry / Prise
Since there are two distinct words here and two distinct meanings that need to be expressed, it makes sense to keep these words separate. Sadly, the dictionaries of the world don't agree and most will allow you to use either, at least when you're opening a tin of paint or burgling your neighbours. But if you like to keep them separate, remember that prise means to open something with a lever, while pry means to take an unwarranted interest in other people's business.

Fare / Fair
These old German words have a variety of meanings, but only fare is a verb. It's related to the German fahren, meaning to travel, hence bus fare and the valedictory farewell. In English it has morphed into a word meaning something like prosper (in its neutral sense), so if you want to know how life is treating someone, you ask how they're faring. Fairing with a 'i' is an aerodynamic shield round a motorbike. 

Michael Quinion has more at World Wide Words.

Discreet / Discrete
Thanks to all who requested this one. I was in my 20s and just beginning to think I knew it all, when my brother gave me a self-printed t-shirt proclaiming the "discrete continuum probability theory of everything". "You spelled 'discreet' wrong," I oozed smugly. I can't remember his exact reply, but after removing the expletives it was something like, "Do I have to teach you English as well as Physics?" This wasn't as humiliating as when he'd dangled me out of a bedroom window as a child, but he lived in a ground-floor flat and was in a wheelchair by then, so he had to improvise.

I digress. People are discreet when they are careful and tactful. Things are discrete when they are separate and well-defined.

Moral: If you know all of these, you'll look out of place commenting on YouTube.