OK Evolution

Supposing you fell into a coma ten years ago, late 2009, and only woke up today, how different would it seem? Apart from superficial fashion alterations, perhaps not that much. Our phones are thinner. Our petrol prices are insane. But the real difference you would notice is public discourse. The yawning political and ideological divide in American politics during the Obama years has reached chasm proportions. And in Britain that gap has not so much widened as crumbled the ground.

At the same time, many new terms describe phenomena that require reference to other phenomena to make any sense. A time-traveller from Shakespeare’s London or Dickens’ London would hear words and phrases that barely approximate English. The explosion of social media during the last ten years, as we live daily online, connects us globally in unprecedented ways while making us dependent on technology, especially to the iPhone or Android (how apt a term), like symbionts never far from our side. We can’t leave home without them. The Internet is omnipresent. Wordsworth wrote: ‘The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending we lay waste our powers…’ On-line living has so many implications for us as a species but one major impact is the pace of language change. A few terms popular during the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s still hold currency, even if others now look or sound quaint. We’re no longer feeling groovy. We don’t talk about Reds under the bed. As for the War on Terror, how’s that going?

Instead we have online discussion that often relies on memes: those nuggets of wit and occasional wisdom that fly around the Web faster than a speeding bullet point. But the most partisan and vicious use of language dwells in the cellar – or the sewer – known as the Comments section. No matter how reasonable some begin, kept in check by moderators, sooner or later they degenerate into barbs and baits that Shakespeare or Dickens might envy for vicious creativity.

Taunts from the far right include ‘Snowflakes,’ ‘Libtards,’ ‘Feminazis’ and ‘SJWs’ (social justice warriors); and from the left, ‘Deplorables’, ‘Blowhards’ and ‘Trolls.’ Some of these have been around for a while but they’ve taken on fresh connotations in our wired-up world. New words and phrases appear every day in the twilight country online where a sun never sets. Some rely on puns (e.g. ‘skinterns’ and ‘Trumpettes’) while others – especially movements, often including a Twitter hashtag – signal a connection to specific phenomena (‘Alt-right,’ ‘Antifa,’ ‘Thoughts and Prayers,’ ‘Incel,’ ‘MeToo,’ ‘I Can’t Breathe’). The term ‘family values’ has been around for decades as code for socially conservative ideals. Recent phrases signal a whole capsule of ideology in much the same way: ‘white privilege,’ ‘Dreamers’ and ‘woke.’ From the left or right these phrases fly, sometimes with benign intent; but more often the opposite. And since 2016 with the election of US President Trump, the language of public discourse has entered an era of dystopian oratory. ‘Alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ sum up the Orwell-level of reality-bending reached in the USA, where news media are demonised as the enemy of the people. In Australia the public’s right to free speech is under existential threat as journalists’ homes are raided by police. And in the UK, the country is self-destructing under the weight of internal pressures brought about by so-called Brexit, where remainers are smeared as ‘remoaners’ and the most John-Bullish of leavers are ‘Brexiteers’.

A time-traveller from Dickens’ era might be able to work out some of these for himself but what would he make of changes to commerce such as ‘crowd-sourcing,’ ‘slashie,’ ‘gig economy’ and ‘influencers’? The text-speak phenomenon of the early 2000s seems to have moved on with a new incarnation of smart phones, even if we retain a few fun abbreviations like ‘BFF’ and ‘LOL’. But we now sometimes dispense with written language altogether in favour of emojis, our latter day hieroglyphics. Even if a coma-waker from 2009 could decode these little ideograms how would he or she handle terms like ‘flight shaming,’ ‘Calexit’ or ‘virtue signalling’? Each one depends on references to other phenomena; and these are neither bad nor good, just new.

But here’s my pet peeve: the ‘OK Boomer’ meme. The sentiment itself is understandable, a reaction to being patronised. Generations X, Y, Z etc. are anxious about catastrophic climate change and they’re tired of Baby Boomers (as arbitrary a generational definition as others) in power who offer only condescending platitudes while not doing enough to combat the crisis. My problem with this phrase is simply that it’s lame: just sarcasm, a passive-aggressive sneer. It doesn’t inspire. It doesn’t take up arms against a sea of troubles or promise to work together or even to fight. It’s just a sulk. And the movement deserves better. It warrants a call to action like Extinction Rebellion or Occupy Wall Street. But perhaps the originators of this phrase don’t know what else to do, feeling powerless. I get it. Sometimes change sucks, and our language with it. OK Evolution.




For %@#&’s sake

Like musical notation, punctuation is code, offering more than its symbols suggest and adding layers of meaning without unnecessary verbiage.

Before punctuation, handwritten texts featured words in an unbroken stream. Early punctuation arose for entirely practical reasons, such as assisting readers of scripture to pause for breath while not losing the context.

Here’s a standard trivia question: how many punctuation marks are commonly used in English? Here’s the standard answer: fourteen.

(i) full stop (or ‘period’ if you’re American) (ii) question mark (iii) exclamation mark (exclamation point’ for Americans) (iv) comma (v) semicolon (vi) colon (vii) dash (viii) hyphen (ix) parentheses (x) brackets (xi) braces (xii) apostrophe (xiii) quotation marks or inverted commas (xiv) ellipsis.

But fourteen will no longer do.

Nowadays we have access to a range of variable fonts and typeface on any computer. How can that old exclusive club ignore such recurring characters as the following?

(i) slash – also known as ‘solidus,’ ‘slope bar,’ ‘diagonal,’ oblique,’ ‘shilling mark’ or ’virgule’ (ii) hash (iii) currency signs (iv) ampersand (v) asterisk (vi) square brackets (vii) at sign @ (viii) ‘caret’ – an upside down V, also known as the ‘wedge,’ the ‘up arrow’ or the ‘hat’ (ix) the ‘therefore sign’ (a three-point plug) and (x) its upside down image signifying ‘because’.

Add to this list the many other marks available in standard software, such as the percentage mark and all those mathematical symbols, not to mention a welter of diacritical marks used in words from Spanish, French, German and just about every other language. Some of these can no longer be neatly separated into standard and non-standard.

Yet a few still tend towards the obscure. Lesser known include the very old and the new.

There is the ‘pilcrow’:

This was used to indicate paragraph breaks and is sometimes is known as ‘the blind P’. Pilcrow was a Middle English word for ‘paragraph.’ That makes sense. We can imagine clerics snatching a breath when reading aloud from scripture. And this quaint symbol is available in Word. Some people even click it for default display to mark their place while drafting documents.

There is also the decorative ‘hedera’:

This word is Latin for ‘ivy’ and the symbol is also known as the ‘fleuron’. The hedera functioned as a paragraph divider too, though just as often it graced the page border as an ornament. Today it retains decorative value only.

Here’s a more recent punctuation mark, the ‘interrobang’:

This one amounts to a polite WTF??!! It may not feature on the standard keyboard but it can make an impact when used. Not for everyone perhaps yet it’s growing in levels of acceptance.

Of these new kids on the block, my personal favourite is a symbol known as the ‘snark’:

This one is also called the ‘percontation point,’ ‘rhetorical question mark’ or ‘irony mark’. A recent addition, it offers an opportunity to add a shade of meaning. By offering a reverse question mark, a writer can suggest ironic comment without needing further explanation. It remains on the fringe of acceptance though.

A more extreme version of this idea is called the ‘SarcMark’ ™:

This one is a proprietary creation, short for ‘sarcasm mark’. It’s less obvious in design, bearing a logo-like quality. It’s a bit too try-hard for my tastes. Perhaps I’m allergic to sarcasm.

But why do we even new punctuation marks?

Before the invention of moveable type when books were hand-written, scribes relied on home-grown style guides. Decorative marks to beautify a page were no problem but when a scribe translated text, the effort was fraught with peril. A scribe might use punctuation which only local readers would understand. And there weren’t that many readers.

With the advent of moveable type, mass production and mass distribution dictated the need to standardise punctuation, like spelling. A reader in the next county or the next country might not otherwise be able to follow the meaning.

Fast forward to today. In the twenty-first century, adding whimsical new punctuation marks like the interrobang or the snark might be amusing but they’ll only be effective if readers are in on the joke. Outliers such as the SarcMark™ cannot deliver without such widespread acceptance. And like most readers I remain unconvinced, sticking with the usual suspects. But I’m open to novelty, so let’s see what happens.

I have identified one area where punctuation marks of all kinds might come in handy: the Comments section of on-line posts for newspapers. If an algorithm can be developed to recognise particular words and convert them into certain symbols, this might ease the tension of trolling and counter-trolling.

So %@#& you and your ($+)*^~ë{¥©} opinions. Who could take offence at that?







The gig is up


Even a couple of years ago the ‘gig economy’ might have related to playing in bands. Not today. This innocuous sounding phrase is code. It might appear glamorous but it’s just another way to describe casual and underpaid jobs. Uber drivers, couriers, cleaners, care workers: they’re all part of this brave new work. And it is notable for a lack of security and low pay with few benefits. Not such a great gig.

This used to be called the ‘sharing economy’ – though employers always had the lion’s share. Today it might be better described as an ‘app economy’. Online platforms are regularly used for delivering each gig, amounting to no more than piece work. Who gets the gig? People who deliver or drive or clean. In other words, paid servants. These jobs resemble zero-hour contracts, with no guarantee of pay except on delivery and without an hourly minimum.

The ‘gig economy’ enables companies to cut or limit staff costs. They call it ‘flexible’ – though workers have less polite names for it, missing out on protection and fair pay. Flexibility only goes one way. The employer can roster workers on and off as required, without annual or sick leave. Workers aren’t even considered employees but ‘contractors.’ Sounds more glamorous. It’s not.

In Britain the ‘gig’ workforce is currently 15%; that’s five million people, though this number does includes traditional contractors and underemployed workers on short-term contracts. Predictions in the USA indicate that by 2020 up to 40% of the workforce will be independent contractors. Great news for employers. They can pick and choose from an even larger pool of workers.

Getting a gig is allegedly popular with so-called ‘Millennials’ but the reasons are manifold. Yes, there is a generational preference for online connection and an attraction to short-term planning. On the other hand, many younger people report despondency as they face diminished job prospects due to increased automation and digitisation. And there is a larger than ever pool of people willing – or forced – to move around global labour markets, vying for a shrinking number of sustainable jobs.

Employers can’t lose. In the ‘gig’ economy they even save on office space and employee benefits. They buy and drop expertise as needed without having to waste money on frivolities such as staff development. Also they can spruik increased flexibility as family-friendly and achieving a greater work-life balance for workers. Benevolent.

Most would-be gigsters face a plight comparable to the Blues Brothers band. Even a redneck roadhouse gig where you’re expected to play both Country and Western music is better than having no gig at all. But let’s not give it the dignity of a term like ‘gig economy’ when ‘hand-to-mouth economy’ is more accurate. Some gigs are more equal than others.


Woke Up Call?

For the majority of English speakers, ‘woke’ will only ever be the past particle of ‘wake’; and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for others, it might be difficult to avoid bumping into ‘woke’ on the Internet.

Anyone who feels like giving their blood pressure a workout just needs to read the Comments section under many a Web posting. Ouch. Usually no time will lapse before the trolling starts. Sneers from the right include ‘bleeding heart’ and relative newcomer ‘snowflake’. Sneers from the left include ‘redneck’ and ‘Nazi’. But for a person on the left to call a fellow leftie ‘woke’ is considered a compliment; in fact it’s becoming a byword for social justice awareness. The term implies ideological sensitivity to the plight of the marginalised, the oppressed, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses.

Urban Dictionary.com naughtily defines ‘woke’ as the following: ‘A state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post.’

But seriously, when and how did ‘woke’ awake?

There is evidence of this term being much older than the current generation. In 1962 The New York Times published an article by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley entitled ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It.’ But the word appears to have entered the wider American vernacular only a handful of years ago in 2008, featured in the song ‘Master Teacher’ by Erykah Badu, which included the lines:
Even though you go through struggle and strife
To keep a healthy life, I stay woke
(I stay woke)
Everybody knows a black or a white there’s creatures in every shape and size
(I stay woke)

While this song may not have started the trend, it widened the audience. ‘Stay woke’ gained currency throughout the African-American community for anyone considering themselves self-aware and reformist. In 2013-2014 the expressions ‘stay woke’ and ‘woke’ entered mainstream media discussion after the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. It soon became a watchword for the Black Lives Matter movement. Any activist was ‘woke’ and called on others to ‘stay woke’.

Since then on social media, especially Twitter, the little word has become shorthand for online activism. ‘Woke’ tweets discuss such topics as police brutality, racism and deaths in custody. #StayWoke is a means of reminding the Twitterati to look beyond mainstream media and to cross-examine their own positions of privilege.

Is this cultural appropriation? In 2016 journalist Amanda Hess wrote in The New York Times Magazine: “The conundrum is built in. When white people aspire to get points for consciousness, they walk right into the cross hairs between allyship and appropriation.” Another new word, ‘allyship’ refers to the phenomenon of someone from a non-discriminated group supporting those suffering from discrimination.

But is ‘woke’ really cultural appropriation or is it just an aspect of language evolution? After all, this is hardly the first time a word or phrase from Black English has later crossed into the mainstream. English owes a wealth of contributions to this source. We have ‘rock and roll,’ ‘jazz,’ ‘bogus,’ ‘hip,’ ‘dig’ and many more. People might no longer say ‘groovy’ but ‘cool’ has never stopped being cool.

Yet ‘woke’ may not be the new ‘cool’. Writing in The New York Times last month, the ever-perceptive David Brooks observed: “To be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures… Cool was politically detached, but being a social activist is required for being woke. Cool was individualistic, but woke is nationalistic and collectivist.”

So it feels right and proper – maybe even ‘woke’ – to acknowledge the sources of this contemporary term, especially in our post-Obama triTrumphalist era. To paraphrase Australia’s current Prime Minister: there’s never been a more exciting time to be woke.

Is it Time to Beg Off?

Beg the Question. Time to throw in the towel on this one?

It’s a losing battle, maybe already over. People chuck the expression around with such abandon I don’t feel there’s much point quibbling. It’s like insisting on using a fountain pen when everyone has gone biro. Or sticking with a quill, or a good old-fashioned clay tablet and chisel.

Yes, there are still official academic definitions. Oxford and Merriam-Webster are in virtual agreement on this, calling the modern usage ‘nonstandard’. But is it?

Google, fast becoming people’s dictionary of choice, has a bet each way: Beg the question 1. (Of a fact or action) Raise a point that has not been dealt with; invite an obvious question, e.g. ‘Some definitions of mental illness beg the question of what constitutes normal behaviour.’ 2. Assume the truth of an argument or proposition to be proved, without arguing it.

The first is more commonly heard nowadays. The second teeters on obsolescence.

Here’s what used to happen when you begged a question: you assumed the conclusion of your argument. In other words, you practised false reasoning. For example, ‘There must be something to the legend of the Loch Ness monster because there have been so many sightings of it.’ Huh? This is a classic beg, also known as an informal fallacy.

Or what about this one? ‘Abortion is the unjustifiable killing of human beings, in other words murder. As murder is illegal, abortion should be illegal.’ This is begging the question – old-style. The speaker already assumes that abortion is killing, which is the whole point at issue. The conclusion that needs to be proved has been rolled into the premise. Like one of those Escher staircases in a castle, you never get out of there.

Where did such an odd expression come from?

It entered English during Shakespeare’s century, the 16th, via the Latin phrase petitio principii (literally ‘asking for the first’). This concept (originally in Greek) started with Aristotle, relating to a debating point in which a questioner sought to find a logical inconsistency between responses and the original statement. You lost debating points if your reasoning circled back to make a question too close to the original statement.

The phrase made its way to Latin – didn’t they all? – and thence to English, where petitio can be translated as either ‘to assume’ or ‘to postulate’; alternatively it can mean ‘to petition’ or ‘to beseech’. Either way, such an accusation used to mean you had failed to demonstrate your proposition, arguing in a circle, ‘proving’ what was not self-evident by stating what you hoped to prove. Here’s an example: ‘Valium makes you fall asleep because it has soporific properties.’ Or how about ‘Beer refreshes because it’s thirst-quenching.’ False reasoning by another name. Might as well say that the rain feels wet today.

All very well, Aristotle. But in the twenty-first century most English speakers use the phrase either to mean ‘raise the question’ or ‘evade the question.’ As in ‘Hey, I weigh a hundred kilos and I have clogged arteries, which begs the question: why have I not started exercising?’

Some people even use it as a form of ‘I wonder why?’ Example 1: “Artificial intelligence is on the rise, which begs the question, ‘whose job is next?’” Example 2: ‘President Donald Trump isn’t in jail so that begs the question “Where are Hillary’s emails?”’

Well, no. Just no. Also I’m still shaking my head over the juxtaposition of the words ‘president’ and ‘Donald Trump’.

Damn it. Language evolves. Don’t you hate that?

I mean, hanging around with the pen and parchment crowd gives me a feeling of moral superiority but it’s not much consolation. I might as well be yammering away in Middle English if I quibble about these modern beggars. And they probably have a point. After all, ‘terrific’ used to mean ‘frightening’; now it means ‘excellent’. ‘Awful’ used to mean ‘full on wonder and awe’; now it means ‘dismal and disappointing’. So it might be time to beg off. Ain’t it awful?

An open letter to my American friends

idiocracy keep-calm-im-moving-to-australia-1

Dear friends in the USA, after a devastating week in which your fellow citizens (well, about a quarter of them) elected your first orange president, you may be considering a move to Australia. Before you cross the pond, there are a few things you should know.

Firstly, don’t come by boat. We have an unfortunate habit of locking up anyone who tries that.

Secondly, the seasons are back to front. So be prepared for Christmas suntan. If you’d like to experience all four seasons each day, come to Melbourne. But bring a raincoat, sunscreen, scarves and a towel. And remember to wear black.

You’ll soon discover that the beer is far better down under. Also you should know that nobody – no living Australian – drinks Fosters. Seriously.

It won’t take you long to realise that the coffee is infinitely better too. And the food. Of every kind. For that, we can thank the Italians, Greeks, Lebanese, Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, Turks etc.

You may have trouble finding access to guns here. We don’t see the point.

Also race relations are relatively harmonious in Australia. We like to think we invented it. However, if the subject of aboriginal land rights comes up, just shuffle your feet and look embarrassed. You’ll get the idea.

As for politics, it’s as crazy as anywhere but we’ve mostly avoided the demagoguery habits you seem to have fallen into of late. There are oddities all the same. ‘Liberal’ means the opposite here; so does ‘republican’. And voting is compulsory, with elections held on a Saturday, usually to the sound of a sausage sizzle. This prevents riots when the winner is announced because everyone has already had a say and they have a full tummy. Also we don’t elect our head of state. In fact we don’t elect any of our leaders. Nothing ever gets done in our parliament because of factional politics but you’ll be familiar with that. We try not to take it seriously. After all, our national sport is changing prime ministers.

Speaking of actual sport, this is not a subject for joking. Australian Rules Football is a tribal doctrine with time-honoured ceremonies and ritual colours. We hold these truths to be self-evident. And our game in no way resembles what you amusingly call ‘football’.

The animal kingdom here is unique but you’ll discover that we do not have kangaroos hopping about in the yard. Most of us don’t see a kangaroo from one end of the year to another, unless we visit the zoo.

TV programmes are much the same as in your country, as you make most of them – one of the few things America does make anymore. We stopped making things in Australia a while ago, except for wine and beer. You will need to learn the phrase ‘couldn’t be arsed’.

Regarding language, you should be used to our accent by now, as half the actors in Hollywood come from here. But a few expressions may challenge you. Here’s a small sample:

Ace (excellent), Arvo (afternoon), Bloody (very), Bloody oath (indeed), Blue (a disagreement), Cactus (broken beyond repair), Carked it (died), Chocka (full up – also applies to our refugee intake policy), Cost ya big bickies (this item is expensive), Dry as a dead dingo’s donger (very dry, like our Chardonnay), Deadset (the absolute truth), Docko (a documentary, usually seen only on public television rather than commercial networks, unless it’s a diet infomercial in disguise), Fair Dinkum (genuine; almost never used in conversation except by politicians during election campaigns), Fair suck of the sauce bottle (an epithet of awe or disbelief at the affront to our belief in egalitarian principles), Going off (having a good time, usually with minor vandalism involved), Good onya (well done; best uttered in a slightly patronising tone), Heaps (a large amount), Iffy (of doubtful reliability), Kangaroo loose in the top paddock (lacking intellectual capacity, a phenomenon often found in our Senate), Mad as a cut snake (ditto), Mate (a universal term of endearment; useful when you can’t remember someone’s name), No worries (our psychological default position), Not within cooee (a long way away; applies to most places in this country), Piece of piss (piece of cake), Pig’s arse (I find that we disagree on that point), Rack off (might be a good time to leave), Rooted (ruined or broken; also the past participle for fornication. You must never use this word or any version of it in any show of sporting enthusiasm).

So welcome to Australia for the next four years. You’ll find us to be a less insane version of the USA. Just watch out for the drop bears and flying bunyips. And it’s sauce, not ketchup.

Truth but not as we know it

Facts maam No-WMDs Mountweazel

“NOW, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life…” said Mr Gradgrind at the opening of Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

But what exactly are facts? The merits or otherwise of a dictionary definition can both help and hinder; help because definition can set limits and create structure for a discussion; hinder for the same reasons.

The most famous questioner of defining truth must be Pontius Pilate, quoted in the Gospel of St John, 18:38 ‘Quid est veritas?’ He wasn’t the only Roman prepared to cast a stone in that glass house. In his Meditations, emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: ‘Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.’ And in the modern era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote: ‘There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,’ putting these words in the mouth of his most famous character in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’.

The OED primarily defines ‘truth’ as ‘the true facts about something, rather than the things that have been invented or guessed’ and ‘the quality or state of being based on fact’.

But what if the facts are anything but true? A pedant might claim that this means they’re not facts but this is mere sophistry for there are plenty of charlatans offering facts that are patently false. Let’s consider The Da Vinci Code, that notoriously bad—if best-selling—fiction based on a sensationalist theory but claimed by its author, Dan Brown, to be historical truth. The real truth of Brown’s effort was a tissue of unattributed ideas from other authors amounting to plagiarism. Far more honest would be to offer us fiction as plausible truth with all the trappings of true scholarship, like ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ by Jorge Luis Borges, or the novels of Umberto Eco. Or we might sample beautiful fantasy like Dinotopia by author-illustrator James Gurney, which only the most credulous of readers (i.e. Sarah Palin) could mistake for truth.

But what about a lie offered by that most sacrosanct of language authorities, the dictionary? Not a mistaken entry based on a misreading of historical documents (e.g. the word ‘Dord’ appeared in the 1934 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary as a result of a typographical error for the genuine entry of ‘D or d’) or the description of a discredited theory (e.g. phlogiston or vitalism or Iraq WMDs). No, I’m talking about lexicographers deliberately misleading their readership.

These fake words—known by terms such as ‘paper towns’ or ‘ghost words,’ have long been inserted into reputable tomes such as encyclopaedias, atlases and even dictionaries. Then in 2005, journalist Henry Alford, writing for The New Yorker, coined a new term: the Mountweazel, of which more anon.

What would prompt any sober researcher to throw aside scholastic caution and plunge into the murky waters of fiction? One possibility is to set a trap for would-be Dan Browns: the potential plagiarists and forgers. Better known examples include: a fictitious member of the German parliament called Jakob Maria Mierscheid; an entry in the Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia of 1903, ‘zzxjoanw,’ allegedly a Māori word for drum; an entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary of 2005 for the made-up word ‘esquivalience’ as a classic copyright trap; and the remarkable word ‘Mountweazel’ invented for the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia.

Lillian Virginia Mountweazel was supposedly born in 1942, a fountain designer and photographer from Ohio who perished in 1973 in an explosion, on assignment for Combustible magazine. The name of that fake publication and the ‘fact’ that she was born in Bangs, Ohio should have been enough to alert the more astute readers they were being teased.

During the 1980s a publication already a decade old, The Trivia Encyclopedia, enjoyed a renewed wave of popularity thanks to the success of Trivial Pursuit, invented by Canadian journalists Chris Haney and Scott Abbott. The encyclopedia had inserted some mischievous false information about the first name of Lieutenant Columbo, a TV detective played by Peter Falk in the 1970s, asserting that his name was Phillip, despite the fact that the character’s name was never mentioned in the entire series. When a new edition of Trivial Pursuit included this false fact as a clue answer, the editor of the encyclopedia, Fred Worth, tried to sue the game distributors for breach of copyright for stealing his idea from the book. But intellectual property is a slippery beast. The makers of Trivial Pursuit did not deny they used Worth’s book. They argued that facts are not subject to copyright, even false facts, and the book was one of many sources they used for their research. The judge ruled in their favour and the case was thrown out, and was upheld on appeal. Even though the fact was demonstrably false, it was deemed legitimate by a court of law as the answer to a general knowledge question.

‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ said Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet. But he never cross-examined a Miss Mountweazel.

Code for the opposite

Euphemism 2

Why do many people use ‘mental health’ when referring to an aberrant psychological condition? We don’t mis-label physical health in this way. Instead we use terms like ‘injured,’ ‘sick,’ ‘unfit’ or ‘obese’. So why is ‘mental health’ misused? We used to say ‘mental illness’ but that changed during the 90s, no doubt born of good intentions. If we consistently used the term to describe a mental state on the continuum of health then this good intention would be reinforced. Instead ‘mental health’ is too often used as a synonym for anything but mental health. Taboo alert! Quick, reach for a medical euphemism. In other words, a well-meant term has become code for its opposite.

We do the same with ‘life insurance’. Why is that? If fire insurance is about insuring against fire, and accident insurance intended to insure against accidents, surely ‘life insurance’ cannot be intended to insure against life. So it’s really death insurance. Taboo alert again. Call for a euphemism.

We do this for other areas of infirmity. We say ‘indisposed’ when we really mean sick or hung over. We refer to nursing homes as ‘residential facilities’ as if they’re a kind of commune. Advertisers apply euphemism to all manner of personal hygiene, e.g. ‘bathroom tissue’ instead of lavatory paper. ‘Lavatory’ too is a euphemism, like ‘water closet’, ‘rest room’ and even ‘toilet’ – see blog entry July 2011.

Death remains a great repository for euphemism, especially when eulogising. ‘Loveable larrikin’ sounds far better than ‘drunken lout’. ‘Colourful racing identity’ and ‘bon viveur’ sound less judgemental than ‘career criminal’ and ‘glutton’. Like ‘tired and emotional’ and ‘under the weather, they’re code for what everyone knows is the very opposite.

‘Confirmed bachelor’ used to be code for a gay man. The word ‘gay’ itself used to be a euphemism, though in recent decades it has been re-claimed with pride by homosexuals, along with terms like ‘queer,’ thus removing the need for euphemism.

But journalists still rely on the use of code, usually for legal reasons. A ‘robust’ debate appears in print to describe an all-in brawl, while a ‘full and frank exchange of views’ is code for a shouting match.

In conversation, we know code when we hear it. ‘With the greatest respect’ often means we have no respect at all and we’re about to demonstrate that. Likewise the use of ‘frankly’ and ‘honestly’ often suggest that, until that moment, the speaker has been anything but.

Sales people deploy euphemism all the time. ‘Pre-owned’ sounds far better than ‘used’. And where would the real estate industry be without it? ‘Renovator’s delight’, ‘beginner’s luck’ and ‘would suit an enthusiast’ are code for the desperately decrepit. ‘Spectacular views’ means that the place has windows. ‘Cosy’, ‘compact’ and ‘charming’ are all code warnings for anybody suffering from claustrophobia. ‘Up-and-coming-neighbourhood’ means that the streets are crime-infested, while ‘conveniently located’ means it’s uncomfortably close to something like a freeway entrance or a busy train station.

I’m not necessarily saying that salespeople are being economical with the truth if they make reference to a sweaty colleague’s ‘distinctive aroma’ or describe power blackouts as a ‘service interruption’. But let’s at least honour the term ‘mental health’ and give it the respect of its intention, instead of relegating it to the code of negative connotations. Here endeth the rant.

An Alternative

The Other Internet Eating keyboard

With all the talk of high-speed broadband, it’s worth considering this modest proposal as an alternative information source.

There’s another Internet, with many advantages over the World Wide Web. This system doesn’t require fibre-optic cable, nodes or servers. It has no harmful effect on flight navigation systems. Nor does it need system upgrades. Best of all, it doesn’t even carry ads.

The technology is not new. In fact, it’s been around for a couple of millennia. It’s called a ‘book’. The data storage unit comes in portable form, never runs low on battery power, and is available in many languages. Also it costs almost nothing to use. Moreover, when you cross international boundaries, you don’t incur added user costs or retail carrying charges. If lost or damaged, the book unit is relatively cheap to replace.

This other Internet doesn’t require proprietary technology to operate in different network domains. You can use the English version without difficulty in other protocol environments. Its signal reaches anywhere on the planet, without reception black-spots. And it’s not at risk of spam or cookies—at least, not the digital kind. The book unit can’t be hacked. It even works during a power blackout. Provided you keep your unit dry, it’s safe and convenient to use during heatwaves and thunderstorms. What’s more, you can carry a book without the slightest concern about electromagnetic radiation.

The book unit even has hyperlinks, known as ‘quotations,’ which encourage users to investigate other compatible units. Its click-bait are called ‘titles’ and ‘chapter headings’. A word of caution: even the book unit can’t avoid all sources of distraction. ‘Titles’ and ‘covers’ can be especially bothersome when browsing in the portal known as a ‘book shop’.

Admittedly there are some drawbacks to this alternative Internet. Storage capacity can be a problem for heavy users, though there is a file-sharing facility in the form of cloud servers called ‘libraries’. Usage of a book unit can sometimes demand more physical movement than just elbow, thumbs and wrist. On occasion, actual use of the legs may be necessary for portal access. And there’s the added risk of human contact dealing with help desk staff known as ‘librarians’.

Another shortcoming with the book unit is its lack of metadata capability. A sudden upsurge in usage could present problems for our Attorney-General’s crusade to monitor everybody’s data footprint. Detection of access activities such as ‘book buying’ or ‘borrowing’ won’t be easy for surveillance agencies, requiring labour-intensive methods of scrutiny. Fortunately the online marketplace has discouraged the spread of access by closing down bookshops across the country. Yet the risk of non-digital browsing remains. If our government is truly serious about metadata monitoring, we may yet see an increase in restricting book access. Library surveillance is one obvious precautionary measure.

At the extreme end of metadata investigation is a black market traffic in information exchange known as ‘borrowing,’ a difficult practice to monitor. Likewise, subversive cells called ‘book clubs’ can evade inspection by security agencies by using non-digital communications like handwriting or talk. Tracking devices for book units would not be an effective response to the metadata mission. Already the dissident user can avoid detection easily by meeting in venues not favourable to electronic monitoring — such as most of rural and regional Australia.

But this should not deter the consumer. Data access shortcomings like walking to a library or reaching up to a shelf are outweighed by the advantage of dispensing with any form of broadband (high-speed or Australian medium-pace). Users do not even require support systems like Wifi access, ISPs, https, or any form of electricity.

Believe it or not, the alternative Internet relies on an operating mechanism that needs no system upgrades. In fact, it continually self-upgrades using a facility known as the ‘mind’. Best of all, a book unit has no use-by date. Older versions operate with equal efficiency as newly purchased books. These units can work at peak efficiency for twenty, fifty or even a hundred years, provided the individual book is handled properly.

So while households across Australia wait and wait for their national broadband to roll out, users should consider the advantages of this alternative means of data retention, knowledge management and information networking. Before our government embarks on legislation to limit book access in favour of a more traceable method of mental activity, the smart buyer will grab this opportunity to stock up on a bargain user system. When compared with the costs of maintaining IT departments, hardware depreciation and software development, the book unit holds its own as an economic alternative.

Teams of the Red and the Blue

Red States Blue States  Red Republican Red Scare

As the USA enters another electoral cycle of primaries, donkeys and Electoral College shenanigans, we can anticipate an extended soap opera dominating media coverage. Unfortunately, this feeding frenzy is not limited to American TV. Each political season in the US sucks disproportionate quantities of journalistic oxygen from news content in the rest of the Anglosphere, thanks to the hegemony of America’s global commentariat.

While a few US citizens may be aware that their date system format is at variance with the rest of humanity, do they realise just how weird their political team colours have become?

Across the rest of the world, blue is the colour of conservatism while red belongs to progressive movements, associated with loyalist and radical traditions respectively. Less common political colours have a varied and sometimes ideologically conflicted history. Green can be Irish nationalist, Hellenic socialist, anti-apartheid, pro-environmentalist or pan-Islamic. Black has connections with fascism, with African-American civil rights and more recently with ISIS. Orange may indicate an Ulster loyalist, a Christian Democrat, a social democrat, a conservative Afrikaner or a Netherlands patriot. But red for conservatism? Only the Americans have achieved that, and for dumb-down reasons.

Until the 2000 election, when George W Bush was controversially declared the winner, political parties in the US stuck with the traditional blue-red bifurcation. In the 1950s, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt was also known as the Red Scare. While the Cold War lasted, ‘reds’ were the bad guys (an updated version of the bad guy in a black hat from cowboy movies). But during later years of the Cold War, television networks in the US began to experiment with election-night graphics and candidate swatches. Why? Because bright colours rated well: content-lite and nuance-free. Networks could have used secondary hues like purple or orange but instead they preferred to stick with a long-standing British tradition of Tory blue and Labour red, imported decades before colour television. In the age of wall-to-wall TV coverage, Republicans and Democrats were equally happy to be red-white-and-blue but neither team wanted to be associated with just red, the commie colour. In practice this meant that networks often assigned red to the ‘other’ party, the one they weren’t backing. So in 1976 the NBC election broadcast used red for Ford and blue for Carter. Then in 1980, the same network used red for Carter and blue for Reagan. Most networks in that election stuck with traditional colour associations from Europe.

There are various theories for why the Republican Party has embraced red. One is based on alliteration, that it was a convenient mnemonic device for TV technicians. Another explanation is that because the 2000 election non-result dragged on for so long, with hanging and pregnant chads in Florida, those TV graphics using red for Republican and blue for Democrat became institutionalised. To this writer both theories sound rather glib, and dumb, which makes them equally likely to be true. In this version of Gresham’s Law, bad logic drives out good. Anyhow, we all know the real winner of the 2000 election was Fox News, who called the result for Bush, holding that dogged line until other networks capitulated. Fox became the nation’s red team, challenging its then orthodoxy. Ultimately red triumphed. Ignorance became strength. Anyone who didn’t like it was an enemy of freedom. Red was the new blue.

Today there are still conservatives in the US unhappy about this colour of choice, though not for post-Soviet connotations. They claim that red is a hot-headed irrational colour for fanatics. By contrast, blue suggests more dispassionate and managerial qualities. There might even be some substance to this. The way that Obama’s administration has played out does fit a cool blue mood, in contrast to the red-blooded hotheadedness of the Bush era. In any case, logic has long deserted the colour palette. For a decade and a half, US election coverage has adopted a discourse of ‘red’ versus ‘blue’ states, and this is now part of the politico-media lexicon. When colour association in language reaches this level of usage it’s hard to undo, despite examples to the contrary everywhere else in the world.

America is welcome to its political colour-blindness. The rest of us don’t need to follow.