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.”