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.

Forever Playing Catch-Up


New books were published last week and others are scheduled for publication next week. Some I will read; some I will intend to read; but the vast bulk of them I’ll never manage. We know we can’t read everything, so we make choices based on mixed criteria of obligation, recreation and inquisitiveness. Every now and then a volume from the past may also catch our attention and tempt us to open it. Early this year I had such an experience.

It was a mirror-within-a-mirror moment when I came upon Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, a collection of essays published posthumously a generation ago in 1991. I knew of his work through Invisible Cities, Marcovaldo, Mr Palomar and On a Winter’s Night a Traveller but I hadn’t read his non-fiction. The premise looked promising, so I bought a copy.

The book can be opened and begun from any chapter. Calvino praises and re-evaluates works of many a great writer: Homer, Ovid, Defoe, Voltaire, Balzac, Stendhal, Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Conrad, Pasternak, Hemingway, Borges et alios. But he lays out his definitions for what makes a classic during his introductory essay, beginning with the observation that adult readers who claim to be re-reading a classic are often reading it for the first time. Such readers, he contends, are guilty of a small act of hypocrisy (ipocrisia in the original Italian) by implying they already read the famous book when they were younger. We all have knowledge gaps in the historical-literary-critical canon, says Calvino, so why not admit it? He affirms that reading a great work for the first time as an adult can be an extraordinary pleasure, so we should celebrate these discoveries instead.

Unless we’re compulsive liars or comedians or fantasists (not mutually exclusive categories), we don’t claim to be Elvis Presley in disguise or pretend we have evidence that Harold Holt was taken by a Chinese submarine. Yet I wonder how often people claim closer acquaintance with a book, film, play or concert than they have truthfully known. I imagine that the rationale would go something like this: ‘Hey, I’ve seen the movie of the book, so that counts as reading it, right?’ ‘Look, I saw the trailer, so I’ve got the gist of the film, right?’ And then a person can boast of greater erudition than he or she has earned.

Now we all know that watching a two-hour movie adaptation of a five-hundred page novel does not equate to reading the book, as screenwriters must combine characters and compress scenes to fit the different art form. It’s an even riskier gambit to sample highlights from film and claim you’ve ‘seen’ it, as excerpts are seldom representative of the work as a whole. So why do people do it? Motivation for such white lies of cultural appropriation may well be a guilty response to falling short of someone else’s standards. These can be real or imagined or aspirational standards, perhaps inferred from conversations in our social or educational circles or professional environments. If so, such guilt symptoms bear more than a fleeting resemblance to fashion-victimisation and body-image shaming. ‘You haven’t seen that clip on YouTube? It’s been around for months. What planet have you been on? I’ll send you the link.’ A helpful Facebook friend then proceeds to tag you, so now the rest of your on-line friends realise you’re an out-of-touch ignoramus.

And while on this roundabout of social media, we are bombarded with requests to ‘like’ a product or service. Even a seemingly benign site like Goodreads has a sweetheart deal going with Amazon, so that every ‘like’ can be a sales foot in the door. Regarding that list of books you say you’ve read, you enjoyed Agatha Christie so why not try Dorothy L Sayers or Kerry Greenwood? You enjoyed Plato so why not try Herodotus or Suetonius? Calvino never had to suffer the clicks and arrows of social media but he may be right. To extend his argument further, for some adults it may be acceptable to admit lack of acquaintance with an esoteric text like Plutarch’s Lives but it’s a bridge too far to confess they haven’t read a staple like Lord of the Flies. And why the cover-up? Maybe they were unwell during Year Nine when everyone else was forced to read it. Maybe they were bored to tears trying get through the thing under duress but now at last they’re genuinely motivated and willing to appreciate it, only they’re too ashamed to say so.

This is crazy. We all know none of us can read everything. Sir Francis Bacon was the last person foolish enough to brag that he’d read all the books published. In 2015, how would any individual find world enough and time? If Calvino is right and some among us are guilty of ipocrisia for pretending to re-read classics, what about those who aren’t even attempting to read but claim to have already read, lest they be branded as culturally under-qualified?

Though I lack first-hand observation of Calvino’s hypocrisy charge, I have heard people say ‘I must get around to reading that’. Maybe this is a symptom of our education or maybe we feel a sense of unfinished business, playing cultural catch-up. I still read in the traditional way but nowadays I have additional opportunities. In the car I listen to actors perform audio books, so I ‘read’ some texts without touching a page. And on my morning run I listen to podcast versions. Perhaps this movement metaphor isn’t accidental in our sped-up era, yet I believe that pursuing an ideal is more important than reaching a target. Sure I can absorb one more classic but I need to keep in mind a memento mori: getting through them all ain’t gonna happen. And if I ceased trying, would it matter? When is enough?

An even greater problem is finding reading time and head-space in this distraction-heavy age. Reading requires discipline. It’s not easy to jump straight into Juvenal or Thomas Aquinas or Sun Tsu. If a classic is translated into English, it will arrive from another era and another country: multiple transition. But let’s face it: on a plane trip or lounging at the beach it’s easier to sample a modern biography or a book about domestic politics than to plunge into the heavy style of Thucydides or Gibbon. Even approachable historians like Manning Clark or Barbara Tuchman require adjustment to a certain reading mood, while tackling modern fiction masters like Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace requires more mental energy than most people have to spare. When commuting homewards, many of us plug into phones or thumb through less demanding reading. That volume of Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann can wait until tomorrow. It’s waited long enough. The to-be-read shelf will never be empty, as cultural relics continue to pile up. And there’s no shame in that.



Hyphen - late amazonhyphen anal
Last month reportedly withdrew an e-book for the crime of containing too many hyphens. If this was 1st April, I would not be surprised. But seriously?

Acting on an email complaint from a single reader, Amazon withdrew this e-book from circulation for including one hundred hyphenated words in a novel of 90,000 words. At approximately 300 pages, that makes one hyphenated word every third page. Seriously?

Why would Amazon suffer a panic attack rather than stand by its author? Prior to publication, Graeme Reynolds, author of Werewolf novel High Moor 2: Moonstruck, had paid a thousand pounds for professional editing. He had already received more than a hundred positive reviews on Amazon before the distributor received the complaint. The company then contacted the unfortunate author to advise that his book would be withdrawn because it contained too many hyphens. In Amazon’s official-ese, he was told ‘this significantly impacts the readability of your book’. Amazon went on to inform Mr Reynolds that ‘we have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers’.

Leaving aside the ugliness of such clumsy sentences, not to mention their ambiguity, the statement by Amazon appears to be disingenuous at the very least. What exactly is this ‘combined impact’? Do they mean their combined readership? Or is the motivation more likely to be anxiety on the part of a global distributor hoping to avoid the tiniest hint of criticism? If so, they miscalculated.

Amazon, using more managerialist language, further explained to Mr Reynolds: ‘As quality issues with your book negatively affect the reading experience, we have removed your title from sale until these issues are corrected… Once you correct hyphenated words, please republish your book and make it available for sale.’

Amazon chose to act not as a secondary editor but as a censor, though hardly out of concern for public morality or literary integrity. Advice from lawyers and insurers would be higher on the Amazon list of priorities. So they jumped at this one opinionated email without reference to the perfectly acceptable practice of using hyphens in English to join two related words. Egregious examples of Reynolds’ use of hyphens includes ‘razor-filled muzzle’ and ‘brown-furred monster’. Unsurprisingly, Amazon has since received many complaints about the unfairness of this publishing suppression, far outweighing the initial excuse for withdrawal. Their tactic backfired. Amazon now looks even more foolish, rather than the responsible distributor it purports to be.

What exactly has the poor old hyphen done to deserve such a teacup-storm anyway? It’s a perfectly normal tool to link or to form compound words for clarity and to prevent confusion, especially where a short phrase consists of compound adjectives or numbers: e.g. thirty-odd people, re-cover, pre-Christian, un-American, second-hand, post-1945, neo-Nazi, anti-Communist, sub-prime loans.

We also use the hyphen where two vowels meet as the last and first letters respectively: e.g. anti-intellectual, pre-eminent, de-emphasise, re-use. And speakers and writers of English have long deployed the humble hyphen when two nouns or two adjectives have equal status: e.g. tenant-farmer, owner-driver, hocus-pocus, city-state, bitter-sweet, colour-blind, red-hot, accident-prone.

So it looks like the company founded by Jeff Bezos, and named after a big exotic river rather than fearless female warriors, has bungled in its risk aversion and instead created an episode of absurdity on a par with any Evelyn Waugh farce.

What next? Will the clumsy distribution giant lurch with hammy fists at isolated complaints about excess adverbs? Will it lunge at the misuse of gerunds?

Or will the bungling behemoth confine its grand inquisitor searches to a more manageable task easier for algorithms, namely seeking out deviants from arbitrary standards of punctuation? Lookout semicolons—you’re next.




Ums aren’t dumb, just new-fashioned

Um Emerson Hobgoblin

Not long ago I attended a meeting where the chairperson spoke about an information forum. Then he went on to describe more than one forum; except he said ‘fora’. I assumed he was making a joke, being ironic or just poking fun at pointless pedantry. Nope. He was serious. ‘It’s the plural form,’ he announced, dispelling any doubts about his lack of mirth. A scholar of Latin he was not, just a stickler for a non-rule. Wherefore this absurd assumption that ‘um’ endings must be Latinised into an ‘a’ for plurals?

I’m all for logic but this is not logical. Speakers of English in the twenty-first century no more use ‘fora’ for forums than we use ‘alba’ for albums. Nobody says ‘acquaria,’ ‘stadia,’ ‘conundra,’ ‘capsica,’ ‘plectra’ or ‘auditoria,’ unless we’re making a joke — or asking for a smack over the head.

But I must face up to my own logical inconsistency. I do prefer ‘millennia’ to millenniums and ‘symposia’ to symposiums. Also I favour ‘candelabra’ and ‘criteria’. I’m still on the fence about old-fashioned forms such as ‘consortia,’ ‘memoranda,’ ‘referenda,’ ‘spectra,’ ‘crematoria’ and ‘compendia’.  I would never presume to correct anyone for using the common ‘s’ ending. In written form I find alternative ways to describe such troublesome plurals. This dichotomy may have its origins in a generational shift but more likely I’m just stubborn about abandoning archaisms. I suspect I’m not the only one. ‘Atria,’ ‘quora,’ ‘ultimata’ and ‘sanatoria’ sound ridiculous to our ears but I still prefer to use ‘honoraria,’ ‘curricula,’ ‘errata’ and ‘moratoria’. It’s not easy to let old habits go.

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay ‘Self-Reliance’ (1841) famously said: ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’. Nobody wants to be thought foolish or a language hobgoblin. So does it really matter if most speakers of English don’t realise that ‘data’ used to be only the plural form of ‘datum,’ but now it’s used as both singular and plural? To cling to outdated Latin singular forms like ‘agendum’ does seem hobgoblinish. Common words in English derived from Latin might once have taken the ‘a’ ending for plurals but ‘asylums,’ ‘minimums,’ ‘harmoniums,’ ‘mausoleums,’ ‘serums’ and ‘museums’ are now common plurals for English speakers.

What is our authority? As usual our mother tongue doesn’t have one. Dictionaries reflect, rather than dictate, usage. A more reliable mentor is the style guide. Almost all English-language newspapers have these. Regarding tricky plurals, such guides generally distinguish between less common (e.g. scientific, medical or legal) Latin-derived plurals that require the ‘a’ ending and those commonly written as ‘ums’. Therefore we have ‘bacteria’ and we have ‘maximums,’ ‘dicta’ and ‘nostrums,’ ‘substrata’ and ‘solariums,’ ‘effluvia’ and ‘emporiums,’ and the word ‘labia’ peacefully co-existing with a word like ‘gymnasiums’. Some Latinate plurals will never feel comfortable, like those for ‘colosseum,’ ‘continuum,’ ‘delirium,’ ‘pandemonium’ and ‘magnum’. But if doubts arise, we can usually find an alternative.

So if this discussion has taxed your collective cerebella, go outside and pick some nasturtia, chrysathema or gerania from your arboreta or herbaria. You’ll soon recover your mental equilibria.

Advent vs Adventure

Adventures of Tintin William Miller Advent Calendar

In the church calendar the season of Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It derives from Latin, via the Old French word ‘to come’. This season signals the coming of Christmas. Cue ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and other such song sentiments. It also carries a connotation of arriving, entrance and onset.

So how does advent relate to adventure?

There’s definitely a sense of motion in undertaking a risk or hazard: The Adventures of Tintin or The Adventures of Barry McKenzie or even Baron Munchhausen. There’s excitement, danger and uncertainty. There is also venturing. But these dares, risks and hazards surely reflect going rather than coming.

So are we coming or going during Advent? It is near the end of the year, after all.

Chaos and the silly season are upon us. This was the time in the Middle Ages calendar when we celebrated topsy-turviness with the Lord of Misrule, a close cousin to April Fool’s.

At this time of year we often experience instances of the ‘adventitious’. These are phenomena of haphazard or unpremeditated design: fortuitous, random, accidental, unexpected, serendipitous or coincidental. The adventitious is the unlooked-for, even the exotic. It comes out of the blue. We didn’t see it coming. Unlike Christmas. Unlike a planned adventure.

The movement known as ‘Adventism’ has no direct relation to Christmas, nor with adventitious matters of biology or the adventures of anybody, except perhaps its founder, one William Miller. Who?

In the 19th Century this Baptist preacher drummed up 100,000 followers when he predicted Jesus Christ would come again on October 22, 1844. After this Second Coming no-show, the movement known as Millerism or Adventism lost its appeal for many. Yet a determined few remained optimistic that a Second Coming would come… eventually.

In 1863, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formed, with a focus on the sanctity of the Sabbath. There have been many other kinds of Adventist church, such as the Christdelphians, the Advent Christian Church and the Primitive Advent Christian Church, as well as radical offshoots like the Branch Davidians, many of whom perished in a siege in Waco, Texas in 1993. That was an adventure, though the results were adventitious.

Most of us are not looking for adventure in the season of Advent, yet this year has seen its share of unlooked-for dramas. Advent can be adventitious: births, deaths, breakups, reunions, natural disasters and human triumphs. Like the Roman god Janus, we look back as well as forward. Roll on 2015. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.

No Need to Mention My Opponent’s Drinking Problem


Paralipsis (also known as paralepsis, parasiopesis, preterition, cataphasis, antiphrasis or occupatio) is a rhetorical figure of speech whereby I can state that I won’t even talk about the allegations that my political opponent has a drinking problem. Oops. I went and did it.

Or I could be even sneakier, asserting that I’m not calling my opponent a liar but I note that his grasp of facts appears to be shaky.

If I’m feeling very cheeky, I might have my cake and eat it by saying something like “In that suit you look like—no, I was going to say ‘spiv’.”

Paralipsis is a form of apophasis, a general rhetorical device where I can raise a subject by either denying it or denying that it should be brought up. It’s a first cousin to irony.

If I overstep the mark of paralipsis, I stray into the murky realm of proslepsis. This is when I draw attention to something while pretending to pass it over. For example: “I won’t demean this debate by mentioning an occasion when my learned opponent was found asleep in a park with an empty vodka bottle.” Ouch. I’ve gone too far. Not classy. Over-egged that pudding.

The great Roman orator Cicero wasn’t averse to a little paralipsis: “I now forget your wrongs, Clodia. I set aside the memory of my pains [which you caused].”

Or how about this Ciceronian effort? “I might say many things of his liberality, kindness to his domestics, his command in the army, and moderation during his office in the province; but the honour of the state presents itself to my view, and calling me to it, advises me to omit these lesser matters.”

Ronald Reagan liked the rhetorical device too. When questioned about the rumours of psychological treatment provided in the past to Michael Dukakis, the wily president seeking re-election said: “Look, I’m not going to pick on an invalid.”

No doubt about it, paralipsis might be cruel but it’s often funny. In the film The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) the main character is asked to apologise to the marshal’s wife and friends for calling them whores. Roy Bean says: “I understand you have taken exception to my calling you whores. I’m sorry. I apologise. I ask you to note that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts. But I did say ‘whores.’ No escaping that. And for that slip of the tongue, I apologise.”

There is also a legendary, and perhaps apocryphal, exchange recorded in Hansard, the official transcript of parliamentary debate in the Parliament of Australia:

Hon. the Member for B…. : The Member opposite has the brains of a sheep.
Members: Shame, shame.
Hon. Mr Speaker: Order! The Member for B…. will withdraw that remark.
Hon. the Member for B…. : Very well, Mr Speaker, I withdraw my remark. The Member opposite does not have the brains of a sheep.

Now that’s classy paralipsis.

Geoffrey Chaucer liked his paralipsis on occasion, as in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1480): “The music, the service at the feast, /The noble gifts for the great and small,/ The rich adornment of Theseus’s palace/ All these things I do not mention now.”

Jonathon Swift, one of the great masters of irony, showed his love of paralipsis in A Modest Proposal (1729): “Therefore, let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees… of using neither clothes, nor house hold furniture… of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming of learning to love our country…”

Herman Melville in Moby Dick (1851) described the character of Queequeg with masterly paralipsis: “We will not speak of all Queequeg’s peculiarities here; how he eschewed coffee and hot rolls, and applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare.”

But the acknowledged master would have to be Shakespeare. One famous speech in Julius Caesar (1599), delivered by Mark Antony, is a masterpiece of political paralipsis to put other politicians’ efforts in the shade:

“Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it./ It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you./ You are not wood; you are not stones, but men;/ And, being men, hearing the will of Caesar,/ It will inflame you, it will make you mad:/ For if you should, oh, what would come of it…/ But here’s a parchment, with the seal of Caesar;/ I found it in his closet; ‘tis his will:/ Let but the commons hear this testament–/ Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read.”

The word obviously comes from Ancient Greek. Para means ‘alongside’ and lipsis comes from leipein for ‘leave,’ therefore ‘leave alongside’.

But language keeps on evolving, damn it. Phrases, like currency, can lose their punch and become devalued. In much the same way that ‘literally’ has been devalued by confusion with ‘figuratively’ because the former sounds stronger, certain phrases are no longer applied logically.

One common sentence opener example is: ‘Needless to say’. This used to mean that it didn’t need to be said. Now it’s become an instance of paralipsis, without the wit and wisdom of Swift, Shakespeare or even Reagan. It doesn’t need to be said but it is. “I surely need not remind you to get your Christmas shopping done early”. Yup. In doing so, I have reminded you. The same goes for “I need not mention that everything must be done by the deadline” or “I don’t have to remind everyone of the urgency of this matter”. Devaluation to paralipsis without any of the fun: this is just boring. How often have we heard “Here’s a man who needs no introduction”? And how often has that precluded an introduction?

I will finish with my favourite modern example of paralipsis. It’s the character of Tony Stark from Iron Man 2 (2010): “I’m not saying I’m responsible for this country’s longest run of uninterrupted peace in thirty-five years. I’m not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a phoenix metaphor been more personified. I’m not saying Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven’t come across any one man enough to go toe to toe with me on my best day!”

That’s about as paralipsistic as it gets.