Category Archives: language and grammar

The Indifference Engine

As you probably know, the Difference Engine is a proto-computer designed by Charles Babbage to do something called polynomial calculations (polynomial being the sort of word you hear bandied about and just nod as though you understand, after which it’s too late to ask.)  But the Indifference Engine is something else entirely, and has to do with public debate.

The point of debate used to be to enlarge on topics, to test out arguments against counter-arguments and maybe arrive at some sort of conclusion, and along the way to learn something and even to change people’s minds.  But nowadays public debate is becoming more and more gladiatorial: a contest where the only interest is in the outcome.  Who won?  Who lost?  Who was ‘shut down’?  Whose arguments ‘killed’?  We cheer for one side and boo the other and rejoice or fume at the end, depending on the outcome.  It’s basically a boxing match.

As far as the actual arguments go, they are not tools for debate or food for thought but weapons – and the upshot of all this, for many, is indifference to whole swathes of reality.  Forget your nuanced arguments – sock it to us with a slogan.  You can keep your if’s and but’s – what we want is a knockout punch.  Nobody cares about the grey areas.  If a politician is accused of sexual assault he’s probably guilty (or probably innocent, depending on which side you’re on.)  There’s no examination of the evidence; no ‘wait and see’ – we want a judgment and we want it now.

Tragically this may have led to someone taking his own life.  Yesterday Carl Sergeant, a Welsh Labour MP who had been accused of sexual assault by three women, committed suicide.  We don’t know – and may never know – whether he did so because he was guilty or because he couldn’t cope with the burden of accusation.  Nothing can be inferred from his death – though you can bet your life that the media (social and otherwise) are inferring it left, right and centre as we speak.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/nov/07/suspended-welsh-labour-politician-carl-sargeant-has-died

Whereas it seems to me highly likely that Harvey Weinstein was a predatory creep, since so many women have come out and told similar stories about him, it does not follow that every man accused of such crimes is guilty.  There needs to be a process.  Evidence needs to be gathered and assessed.  And not by us, that’s the point.  We don’t know who’s guilty and who isn’t – and we don’t like not knowing.  We must have a judgment and we want it now.

This indifference to evidence, fact and nuanced argument greatly depresses me.  I think I need to play around a bit on my difference engine…

Kirk out

 

 

 

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I Have A Dead Ringer

Yes, it’s all too horribly true: my phone ringer is dead.  Or maybe it’s sleeping; either way on any of the various occasions when it is supposed to make a noise – alarm, text, call, facebook message, facebook update, reminder and god knows what else – it is content to make a sudden purr like an intermittent cat.  In other words it does everything it should do when it’s on silent, but it isn’t.  I have checked and double-checked the settings; I have (in the time-honoured way) turned things off and on and on and off again and still it persists in purring.  So I must perforce consider the meaning of the term ‘dead ringer’.  Jeremy Irons (once my favourite actor) plays twins in a film of that name, Meat Loaf sang about it and the Radio 4 programme features it.  So what is it?

The origin of the phrase is apparently from horse-racing: ‘dead’ meaning ‘exact’ (as in ‘dead heat’) and ‘ringer’ meaning a horse falsely substituted for another which it resembles.  Hence a dead ringer, meaning an exact lookalike.  At least I’ve always understood it to mean a lookalike, which makes the radio 4 concept somewhat paradoxical don’t it?

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/dead-ringer.html

Still it’s a fun programme: Tom Baker is a staple and they do Boris Johnson brilliantly:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007gd85/episodes/player

Here’s the Meat Loaf song:

 

and here’s the film:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094964/

A short one today but what do you expect?  My ringer is dead…

Kirk out

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Crossword Crossover

It’s funny the things that cross over from real life into blogland and the things that don’t.  As I said before, I’m very bad at telling people about this blog; but I am also quite bad at telling my readers about some things that happen in real life.  Viz: crosswords.  I have got into the habit of starting each day with – well, first of all with a pot of tea and second of all with a conversation (see previous posts) but third of all – once I’ve checked email and Facebook – with the Guardian crossword.

I began these when I felt stymied in my work.  Either no words came, or else the ones that did were dull and uninspiring; or they were interesting but like hair after washing I couldn’t do a thing with them (I’ve never understood that comment about hair, by the way) – anyway, I decided that a cryptic crossword would sharpen the wits and enable me to do more of the things I like doing with words – or more of the things that words like me to do with them.

At first it was hard.  I’d been used to solving the Telegraph cryptic with a couple of co-conspirators: and let me tell you, doing the Guardian alone is a whole new quantum level of difficulty.   The online-ness of it does help though, because one of the major drawbacks to a paper crossword is that you can’t make too many mistakes, wheresas with online crosswords you have a ‘check’ button so that you can try out different ideas without committing yourself.  If all else fails, you can hit the ‘reveal’ button.  So in some ways it’s easier.

And does it help with the words?  Well it certainly gets the brain going in the morning, and I’m a lot better at solving them than I used to be.  Cryptic clues help you to see words in a different way (a ‘flower,’ for example, is often a river) and to search your memory-banks for synonyms and your lateral brain-waves for homophones and lookalikes.  There are many tricks crossword-compilers use to construct their clues; and I’m constantly finding out new ones.  The Rev. Spooner is a staple, indicating that the beginnings of words have been swapped over.  Anagrams are near-universal: you also find the ends or beginnings of words chopped off, or else alternate letters used.  It’s a whole ‘nother language: it’s English but not as we know it – in fact there’s so much I could say about this that I’m going to go away and think about it and put it in a whole ‘nother post.  Or maybe a series of posts.

Anyway, here’s the link if you want to try one yourself: I recommend the Quiptic if you’re new to these.

https://www.theguardian.com/crosswords

Kirk out

 

 

 

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Lay Your Head on the Writer’s Block

I’m never quite sure what writer’s block is.  I know it refers to an inability to write, but what actually counts as writer’s block?  If you sit staring at a screen for hours without writing a word, does that count?  Or is that too short a time?  Does it have to last at least a few days or weeks before you can call it writer’s block?  And when I wasn’t writing at all between the ages of eight and twenty-four, was that writer’s block?  Or was it a crisis of identity?

Aside from the question of how long it lasts, what kind of thing is writer’s block?  Is it the complete inability to write a single word?  Or does it mean you don’t write anything you’re remotely satisfied with?  If it’s the latter, I’m in trouble – because ‘not remotely satisfied’ describes nearly every day’s work for me.  But if it’s the former I’m OK because most days I manage to write something, even if it’s only a blog post.  Which is why I’m so glad I have this blog, because on really bad days where I can’t string two morphemes together, I can at least manacle a blog post into position, run it up the flag and see if anyone salutes it.  A blog post is usually less than 500 words; it’s achievable and, with the click of a button, it’s published and ready to read.

OH has an interesting view on overcoming writer’s block.  In the same way that Michelangelo saw the sculpture as being hidden within the stone

https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/michelange386296.html

you could regard writing as ‘taking away’ everything which is not the story.  I’m not sure how cutting things away works when faced with a blank page rather than a lump of rock, but it’s worth thinking about. *

In ‘His Dark Materials’, Phillip Pullman wrote of the subtle knife which cuts windows between different worlds, ‘you may have intentions but the knife has its own intentions.’

http://www.kidsreads.com/reviews/the-subtle-knife

This is an idea I try to bear in mind when writing a poem; that when writing I may have intentions, but the poem has its own intentions too.  Nevertheless, the blank page can be a very intimidating thing to overcome, so when I have a bad day and think all my thoughts are worthless, I try just to write, believing that anything is better than nothing and reminding myself without a first draft there can be no second draft, no finished version.

I guess the process of writing is hard to fathom, else there would be no such thing as writer’s block.  But it’s clear that writing begins with thought.  Thoughts occur in the mind, and the writer selects which of them to commit to paper: so maybe writer’s block begins here, at the level of thought.  When the mind is a blank, the page will be a blank.  However, in my experience what is more likely going on is that the mind is not producing anything your critical self deems worthy of using; hence a good exercise when blocked is to write whatever comes into your mind, no matter how nonsensical or seemingly worthless.  James Joyce did this, and look what he managed to produce just listening to the babbling of his mind!

Interesting things happen when we let go of controlling our thoughts.  And out of this arises poetry.

And I know it’s not the day for linking to it, but I’m going to link here to the Insecure Writers Support Group because this post is relevant.

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

Kirk out

*Sounds like some bizarre version of scissors, paper, stone…

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Filed under language and grammar, my magnum hopeless, novels and longer works, poems, short stories

Verb and Re-Verb

In the last year or two I’ve been collecting examples of new verbs.  These are usually existing words which have been either squashed or repurposed and made into verbs.  Previously they were either phrases (eg to manage a project becomes to project-manage) or nouns (eg to window, meaning to schedule a delivery within a particular period of time).  So here’s a little list, by no means exhaustive but comprising the ones I’ve managed to capture and commit to pen and paper:

to re-platform (heard at the railway station)

to window (seen on Facebook)

to project-manage (heard in conversation and rendered somewhat redundant by the phrase ‘I project-managed a project’…)

to part-time work

to offshore (as in tax)

to vacation (to be fair, this has been around for a while in the US but has only recently made it over here)

to semi-final (heard on University Challenge)

to sunblock (read just today on Facebook)

I’m sure there are thousands more.  Have you come across any?  I’d love to hear them.  Please send them to me and I’ll post them

Thanks

Kirk out

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Don’t Call Me Ishmael

The flow of trans thoughts never seems to abate, partly because the media are awash with the stuff; and the most recent addition to the maelstrom is ze.  It looks like a bad rendering of French, but it is in fact an attempt at a non-gendered pronoun.  Now in theory I’m all in favour of this; in fact I have long lamented the absence of a gender-neutral pronoun in our language.  Hitherto we have had to resort to they, which sounds a little impersonal, belonging as it also does to animals and objects.  But what I object to is the attempt to enforce its use by means of emotive bullying.  A few months ago it was reported that Oxford University Student Union required students to use it rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’, though it’s only fair to say that they subsequently denied this: however there is a lot of expectation from trans and non-binary people that everyone should remember and use the correct pronouns.

Of course as a matter of politeness people should be called what they wish: but whereas I’d be annoyed if, after repeatedly asking someone to call me Liz, they persisted with Elizabeth, I have to recognise that Liz is an understood abbreviation; it’s in common usage.  People don’t have to get their heads around it.  This is not the case with ze, and The Press Association has recognised this in their recent advice to journalists:

http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/03/27/journalists-told-to-ignore-gender-neutral-pronoun-ze/

Then again, there was a time (and I remember it) when Ms was new and not many people understood it; but with perseverance it became accepted.  It is now rare to find a form on which Ms doesn’t appear as an option.  Mx has been proposed for those not wishing to declare their gender – or, presumably who consider themselves non-binary, but has yet to catch on.  Besides, there has to be a limit to the number of options.

The problem with this proliferation of pronouns is that a) people may struggle to remember them and b) won’t understand the need for them.  Do most people – Jo and Jane Bloggs – have a clue what non-binary is, or even know it exists?  As the Academie Francaise is continually discovering, it is pointless passing decrees on what language people should use: unless and until we have a society like in ‘1984,’ people will continue to talk about le weekend, le parking and le camping –  and until and unless people want a non-gendered pronoun they will continue to use he and she.

As I have said before, we – as a society – have had a debate about issues such as homosexuality and gender equality and on both issues we have, by and large, come to a consensus.  There will always be people who disagree, but there is now widespread acceptance of the belief that homosexuality is not a choice and should therefore be treated on a par with heterosexuality: likewise most people accept that women should be treated on a par with men.  But we haven’t yet had that debate about transgender folk, and we need to have it.  Most people are baffled and confused; they don’t understand what it is and where it comes from, let alone how to deal with it.  And issuing a series of fiats is just not helping.

Kirk out

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I’ll Put a Spellchecker on You

Everyone has their favourite spellchecker moments; times when that ‘helpful’ device has come up with absurd or incomprehensible corrections.  It wouldn’t be so bad if all it did was suggest, but like an overbearing teacher, it often goes ahead and corrects without even so much as a polite ‘ahem!’ in your direction – so that the first you know of it is when the text or update or tweet has already been sent, and you’ve suggested using pizza leaflets as firefighters instead of the obvious firelighters.

Not only that, but spellchecker is unrepentantly American.  No matter how many times you tell it you’re in the UK, it insists on underlining your perfectly correct ENGLISH spellings of words just because you haven’t put a z where an s is, or because you refuse to chop the ends off perfectly good words – like dialogue because to spell it without the ue is simply WRONG!

And once you’ve dealt with spellchecker you come up against his croney.  Grammar-checker follows close behind spellchecker and underlines all your perfectly constructed sentences with a plaintive wiggly line of its own; making your prose look like it’s festooned with Christmas tinsel.

You’d think I’d have a million examples of these.  I ought to have; it’s happened often enough, but perhaps because I impatiently delete them and carry on, I’ve forgotten what they were.  But you’ll have some, I’m sure, so let me have them, please – put your favourite spellchecker howlers below and let’s have a laugh.  I know I could do with one.

Kirk out

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