Tuesday, 26 January 2021

A word to the wise

Just word of the week this time, as I have an electrician working in the new house and he often has to turn the router off. I hope to return to normal service next week.

Word of the week: Lockdown learning

Not specifically the BBC's new platform to help school students, which I applaud, but online learning in general. Have you tried it and how do you get on with it?

I registered for Oxford University Department of Continuing Education online course on the Architecture of English Cathedrals. It officially started yesterday and is all online: no Zooms, no Teams, no face-to-face. I got my login details soon after 9am, filled in my profile, got on to the course through the Portal but I might as well have tried entering through my wardrobe.

I went to the Introductions Forum and there was no-one there but me and e-tumbleweed. In the course of the day others arrived and this morning I found a whole new forum discussing the themes of the first unit. It will be fine. But I take my hat off to all those students and teachers trying to teach and learn in this new way.

Of course lockdown learning doesn't have to be digital. I did retrieve some of the losses of yesterday by reading a chunk of one of the set books, which felt more comfortable because familiar. We hear all the time about people who have used one or all of the three UK lockdowns to learn a new skill - a foreign language perhaps, a new-found gift for cordon-blue cookery or at least baking sourdough loaves and banana bread. Some have written a whole book, bought a dog, made a baby.

But the online community is also full of exhortations to be kind to yourself and not worry if you have spent the time lolling about but count it as a win if you have got washed and dressed every day. This applies to adults and children, with a strong emphasis on survival and sanity.

Still, you could always decide to learn more about grammar. See you next week.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Just the article

I've talked a lot about vocabulary recently so let's so back to actual grammar. A friend came up with a fascinating query about the definite article.

She (British) was having an article published in an American journal in which she referred to "the Cromwell Road" in London. The editor queried it. "Why not just Cromwell Road?" This led to quite a discussion on Facebook. A native English-speaker living in London would know that it should be "the Cromwell Road" but not "The Oxford Street," for example.

The Natural History Museum, on the Cromwell Road
                    The Natural History Museum on the Cromwell Road, London. Credit: Txllxt TxllxT

And while we are about it, what a lot of words there are for thoroughfares to start with: Road, Street, Lane, Mews, Avenue, Yard, Passage, Alley, Gardens, Square, Court, Place, Close, Terrace, Park - can you think of any more? And plenty that are a single word, like Piccadilly, Angel, Albany. You'd say "the Angel" but not "the Piccadilly."

The question is: how do you know which is right? And how can a learner of English as a second language possibly work out which is which?

Several respondents mentioned this habit was common in Oxford - "the High," "the Broad," "the Turl" but absent in Cambridge; you'd never say "the King's Parade."

Another said  it's also true of larger geographical divisions. We say "the West Country," "the Lake District" but not "the East Anglia." She had been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow and said that at the RLF they had tried to work out a good rule of thumb for ESL students but could come up only with guidelines which had lots of exceptions.

It does seem as if this quirk had to be learned for each example and imagine how difficult it must be for a non-native speaker whose own language doesn't have any articles, like Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

Many European languages not only have definite and indefinite articles but they are gendered (grammatically) and vary in number too. French has "le" and "la" before masculine and feminine nouns but they are both "les" in the plural. Italian has "il" and "la" but distinguishes gender in the plural too: "i" and "le." (And there's a special definite article "lo" (plural "gli") which occurs before masculine nouns beginning with an "impure s"!)

This is all hard for non-native speakers. An English friend of ours who lives in Germany and broadcasts on classical music topics used to offer to record separately "die" "der" "das" and so on to be dropped into his contributions (he has lived there over thirty years now and taken German citizenship, so presumably has his articles sorted).

                                                     Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini 

Word of the week: Cut

There has been a "non-binding" (another good word) debate and vote in the House of Commons today about whether to continue the extra £20 a week on universal credit after the end of March. The government introduced this extra money during the first lockdown so it is not strictly speaking a cut if they end it in a couple of months' time but a reversion to what UC was before the pandemic.

However, for people struggling on the breadline, it will certainly be perceived as a cut because their weekly funding will decrease and they will feel the loss of every pound.

And since it comes after a decade of actual cuts it will be felt as just another - maybe the unkindest cut of all, as Mark Antony characterised Julius Caesar's stab wound from his friend Brutus, in Shakespeare's play.

My husband used to work in local government and says that "cuts" were never described thus; they had to be called "savings." Instead of a painful wound inflicted by those with more power on those with less, the word implies thrift, good husbandry, an aspect of a Protestant work ethic rather than a bloodbath. Words matter.

Monday, 11 January 2021

Old slang revisited

It was back at the end of last September that all the dailies published articles about how the slang of my generation was incomprehensible to the under-30s. Words not recognised included "sozzled," "bonk,"cad," "wally," "plonk" and "boogie." (Really, who do these young people blame it on?)

It turned out to be a very small sample of only 300 respondents in that age category, out of a total sample of 2,000, so maybe this was not very representative. Columnists such as India Knight of The Times seized on it though, as exemplifying the loss of all light-hearted, fun words and their replacement with dreary ones like "woke", "gaslight" and "ghost"(as verbs). "The grim-faced removal of things that bring joy."

Jilly Cooper said she felt like writing a "plonkbuster" called Sozzled, the word least recognised by millennials. 

                                                                    Credit: Allan Warren

Even more revealing are the under the line comments, as you might imagine. I have a feeling that this vocabulary reflects a time which might have been more fun for the sozzled cads and wallies than it was for the poor females they wanted to bonk. An image of Terry-Thomas, the gap-toothed would- be seducer was immediately conjured up.

                                                                        Author unknown

Of course slang words change and tend to be generation-specific. That's a necessary part of each new generation of young people coining words to define and describe their experience of life, which must be different from those of their parents.

Are there words whose passing you regret?


Words of the week: Insurrection, Sedition, Coup

No prizes for guessing why! An insurrection is an uprising against a sitting government; sedition is speech encouraging insurrection and a coup is a successful insurrection that overturns the government.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Two nations divided by a common language

I used to think this quotation was from Winston Churchill, he being half-American. But no, this perceptive remark was made by George Bernard Shaw (Americans would say "Bernard").


I have been reminded of it twice this week, first by an American acquaintance on Facebook, castigating "The Crown" TV series for making an egregious grammatical error. It was "made" by a young Prince Andrew and addressed to the Queen: "Like other second sons I could mention, I'd obviously be better at it than him." My American friend thinks it should be "than he," with "is" understood. She is right about American English but not about British Standard English, which we can assume HRH was using, where a pronoun takes the accusative form after a preposition. Sorry to have to say that Prince Andrew was correct, even in a work of fiction, but so it is.

I ran into this difference with my American editor for The Falconer's Knot (published by Bloomsbury on both sides of the Atlantic).

The other occasion came from watching my favourite TV cop show, Spiral, which returned on Saturday for its eighth and last season. It's a French series, named "Engrenages" in France, so it has to be watched with subtitles. But who creates these English versions?

                                                       Caroline Proust from Spiral by YanRB

I am sad enough to be part of a Forum discussing Spiral after every two episodes and some of us are quite exercised about the use of American terms in the subtitles, when we are watching it in the UK. There are objections to the use of "laundromat" where a young boy's body has been found, when we would say "laundrette." And then, out of the blue, Laure Berthaud, played by Caroline Proust (pictured above), when asked what she has found out, "says "nothing, nowt." Now, I'm pretty sure that's not part of American vernacular!

When I was working on a project with an American publisher, she didn't know what I meant by someone not being "a patch on his father."  But then, I didn't know what she meant by a "blowhard." Truly, divided by a common language.


Word of the week: Challenging

The use of this word is growing, especially during political interviews and briefings. Homeschooling your special needs child is "challenging," Coping with the latest Covid restriction is "challenging." I wish more interviewers and questioners would "challenge" the use of this word, which is rapidly becoming an anodyne euphemism for "extremely difficult" or "impossible." It implies that if people fail to rise to the "challenge," they are somehow failing.