Archive for October 2008

Wales through a window

October 31, 2008

We’ve already established that the “they all started speaking Welsh” story is problematic. Luckily, there are other ways to identify arrogant English attitudes. One great way is if you’re chatting to an English person and you mention that you’re Welsh/a Welsh-speaker/someone who has lived in Wales. If the other person says, “I know one word in Welsh – ARAF!” you know you have a bona fide case of English privilege on your hands.

Araf, as many people already know, is Welsh for “slow”. Lots of people know it because they’ve seen it on Welsh roads. When they tell you that it’s the only Welsh word in their vocabulary, what they’re really telling you is this:

  • They’ve been to Wales on at least one occasion but haven’t tried to learn a single word of the language.
  • They’ve been to Wales by car on at least one occasion without trying to learn a single word of the language. In other words,  either they haven’t grasped the fact that safe driving involves preparing for driving through an unfamiliar area, or they believe Wales is essentially the same as England and can hold no surprises.
  • They think this is nothing to be ashamed of.

I would also guess the following:

  • They see driving as an easy option compared to public transport, because the car is a magical metal case that will protect them from any foreignness that the country can throw at them.
  • They haven’t grasped that safe driving, just like being a decent human being, involves interacting with other people and being aware of your surroundings.

When they’ve told you all about how they learnt the word araf, they will then try to tell you that actually, they’ve remembered another word they know. That word is almost always gwasanaethau, which means “services”. Unfortunately for the English person, they’ve never learnt how Welsh pronunciation works, so even if they remember how the word is spelt, they can never pronounce it. And so the marvellous joke, the “I went to your country and all I got was this lousy road-sign” joke, never reaches its full potential.

An Englishman walks into a pub…

October 30, 2008

An Englishman decides to go on holiday to Wales. He chooses to visit North Wales or mid-Wales rather than South Wales, because he wants to go somewhere rural and different from his city home in England.

In other words, he chooses to holiday in a part of Wales well known for Welsh nationalism, anti-English sentiment and high levels of Welsh-language fluency.

Then he walks into the pub. Or the post office. Or the village shop. And suddenly we’re in a Wild West tableau. Everybody else in the pub (or post office, or shop), who had previously been chatting away happily in English, falls silent. Then they resume their conversation – in Welsh. He feels excluded yet gratified. He goes home and tells his friends, “I walked in… and they all started speaking Welsh.”

But this story is part of another story. The bigger story is about a Welsh person who’s moaning about the stupidity of the English. He or she tells the straw-Englishman’s story as part of their own story, which is about English ignorance. Google for “they all started speaking Welsh” and you’ll see that none of the anecdotes are from English people complaining about Wales. They’re all from Welsh or pro-Welsh people complaining about English people complaining about Wales.

I’m not saying that you don’t get real anecdotes ending with the words “… and they all started speaking Welsh”, and I’d be interested to hear about any spotted in the wild. I’m just saying that to tell those stories is to position yourself, unwittingly, inside someone else’s story.

I have heard a genuine version of the “I went in to the post office…” story, but it was a dramatic variation on the usual one. An English friend of mine said that he walked into a post office in North Wales and heard people speaking Welsh. But as soon as they spotted him, the counter staff realised he was English and switched to speaking English out of courtesy. He was very surprised because he’d always been told it was supposed to happen the other way round. He thinks the surprising politeness was because he’s black.

Time-stealing tricks: using the landline

October 29, 2008

Most time-stealers learn this one fairly early on: always ring the victim’s landline, never their mobile. Mobile phones have caller ID; if they can see it’s you, they’re much less likely to answer.

Some of them try to get round this by withholding their number and then ringing the victim’s mobile, but this technique has limited success. Most victims have some experience of time-stealing tactics already, so they’ve already learnt not to answer calls from withheld numbers.

Of course, people who are very used to time-stealers often end up getting caller ID on their landlines too.

Scheduling idiom

October 28, 2008

When we talk about pushing a project deadline back, we’re actually talking about setting that project’s new deadline further forward in time. And when we talk about moving an appointment forward, we mean that we’re rearranging that appointment to happen sooner, so the new date will actually be further back in time than the original date.

I’m astonished that this doesn’t cause more confusion. I think it’s because although the idiom is confusing at face value, it’s the expression of a metaphor that most people are comfortable with.

When we talk about time in the context of scheduling, we’re really talking about our own relationship to the scheduled dates, and we’re imagining it in a spatial way. So, when you say that you’re moving the deadline back, you mean that you’re pushing it further away from you. And when you say you’re moving an appointment forward, you mean you’re bringing it nearer to you.

The “you” in both cases is the you of the present. You may not accept that the you of the present is the true you, or even that there can ever be a single authentic self, but you have to accept that the “you” of the present has been saddled with the task of organising your diary.

Forwards, not backwards

October 27, 2008

The equinoctes are a time for celebrating confusing idiom and useless mnemonics. Someone recently told me with pride that she knows a sure-fire way of remembering how the clocks go: “It’s spring back – no, spring forward – yes, spring forward – and then fall back because obviously Americans call it the fall because, well, I don’t know, because leaves are falling from the trees or something.”

The “spring forward, fall back” mnemonic isn’t completely useless, though. Although “spring back, fall forward” is also grammatical English, at least “spring forward, fall back” is more idiomatic, which means that the version more likely to trip off your tongue is actually the correct version. That’s rare and laudable in the world of mnemonics.  (Although, if you’ve been brought up on a diet of useless mnemonics, you may confidently be expecting the less idiomatic version to be the correct one.)

My real problem with “spring forward, fall back” is its limitations. It’s great for telling you what to do with your clocks, useless at telling you how to conceptualise time at this time of year. What I want is a mnemonic that tells me whether my imaginary hour is being lost or gained, whether mornings and evenings will seem lighter or darker, why on earth we go through this palaver twice a year, what time it “really” is. And no mnemonic could spring back under the weight of all that expectation.

The right Targets

October 26, 2008

When Joan Collins played bitchy Alexis Carrington in Dynasty two decades ago, she was the highest paid actress on television.
But the credit crunch must have reached even the privileged surroundings of Hollywood.
For the actress was spotted last week pushing a trolley around the distinctly unglamorous surroundings of a discount supermarket.
[…]
She is not the only celebrity to have been hit by the worldwide credit crunch.
Actor Nicolas Cage, who earned about £19million in the past year, has reportedly had to sell his luxury yacht for £3million.
The 44-year-old Oscar-winner put the 132ft Sea Ghost on the market last month fearing that it would become a financial burden. The ten crew members were made redundant.

A sub at the Daily Mail (where else?) has headed the articleWould you credit-crunch it?” It’s good to see that in these troubled times, we can still afford great journalism.

Wisdom, painfully extracted

October 24, 2008

Today’s crap acronym comes from The Pragmatic Programmer by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas (page 20, if you’re interested)

(W)hat do you want them to learn?
What is their (I)nterest in what you’ve got to say?
How (S)ophisticated are they?
How much (D)etail do they want?
Whom do you want to (O)wn the information?
How can you (M)otivate them to listen to you?

The reader who sent this one in to Verbal Tea comments: “[It’s] so bad it had to become an acrostic. To be fair, it lets down what’s otherwise a very good book.”

Hath not a woman eyes? Hath she not hands, organs, dimensions, senses?

October 21, 2008

I don’t want to get into the general debate surrounding the C-word – whether or not it’s misogynistic, whether it’s possible to “reclaim” it, whether it’s unacceptable to say it on television. But it is a very good example of how a euphemism in the wrong hands can prove more offensive than the unobscured meaning.

It probably started in the way that many euphemisms start: with the dilemma of how you report someone else’s speech if you think that one of the words used is unrepeatable.  In the case of the C-word, people started saying things like “a coarse word for part of the female anatomy”, “a slang word for a certain part of the female anatomy”, etc.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where a lot of people are happy to use long words without troubling to check what they mean. Many of those people have (incorrectly but understandably) guessed from context that “female anatomy” is a posh phrase denoting the vagina (and nothing else) and begun using the phrase with that intended meaning.

I hope it’s obvious why seeing “female anatomy” as synonymous with “female genitals” is misogynistic as well as a great way of failing medical school. But I want to go back and look at the misogyny in the original euphemism.

People using euphemisms like “a certain part of the female anatomy” are trying to convey that the word they’re talking about is a well-known swearword which can be both an insult and a slang term for a woman’s vagina. But there’s no need to do this. If you have a genuine desire to protect the listener from swearwords, you don’t need to make any effort to convey the specific swearword. Just say “He used a swearword to insult him”.

If you get specific in your description of the swearword, you are trying to evoke that word in the listener’s mind. That’s an acknowledgement that both you and your listener are familiar with the word. And by choosing a euphemism that emphasises the word’s literal meaning, you are bringing the literal and non-literal meanings together.

Then, of course, there’s the odd choice of vocabulary. A lot of people, when faced with the task of reporting offensive speech, will go for a kind of jokey floweriness in the language they use, e.g. “go forth and multiply”, “extracting the u-rine”, etc. But I think the choice of the phrase “female anatomy” is more significant than that. For a start, why not use one of the hundreds of existing synonyms for “vagina”? Or, if you really can’t bear to say any of those words, why not go for the more natural-sounding “part of a woman’s body”?

Because saying “a certain part of the female anatomy” is a distancing technique in which the quasi-medical language makes the object of the description seem more dirty and problematic.

So you’re reminding your listener of a word which links the vagina and insults; you’re reminding your listener that our culture connects women’s bodies with bad language; you’re implying that even ordinary words for the vagina aren’t suitable to say out loud; and you’re doing all that without even cursing. Talk about having your c*** and eating it.

As for the idiots who think that “female anatomy” is a fancy way of describing a woman’s genitals, you can’t stop them being stupid but you can have some fun with them. From this moment onwards, I therefore decree that “synecdoche” is an even more fancy euphemism for, y’know. A woman’s… y’know. Spread the word!

Cheshire cheese

October 16, 2008

Today’s crap acronym comes courtesy of a Cheshire voluntary group. They’re called FLUID, which stands for Freedom 2 Love Ur Identity. They’re a gay rights group working with young people.

They lose points for picking a word that actually has something to do with their aims. (I assume FLUID was chosen because they work with people whose sexuality isn’t rigidly defined.) But they still score highly on the crap-o-meter for the fact that the five words in the acronym don’t really match up with the five-letter word they’re meant to be spelling.

I’ve also just noticed that the abbreviation for the kind of people they work with is now LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning). It’s hard to avoid going into an alternative-sexuality version of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch at this point. In my day it were LGB or nothing, and you were glad of it.

Pudsey hit by credit crunch

October 15, 2008

The BBC is to ‘tone down’ the fundraising aspect of this year’s Children In Need because of the credit crunch.

Producers of the annual telethon feel it is inappropriate to appeal for money at the moment so will promote alternative ways of helping such as donating time, reports The Sun.

An insider told the paper: “There have been very senior discussions about this as execs are worried. The appeal will come smack bang in the middle of the worst financial crisis for years.

“The last thing they want is people feeling guilty about not chipping in. Obviously they will still be calling on people to give them money as the charity still needs cash. But there are scores of other ways people can help without having to hand over cash.”

The article (from Yahoo News)  doesn’t mention whether or not Terry Wogan will still be paid for hosting the television appeal.