Monthly Archives: December, 2011

Airs and Graces

Airline talk

Why do airlines insist on their staff using such rarefied language? Isn’t flying just a variation on other forms of travel and didn’t many of its terms originate in the days of seafaring?

Next time you sit through another safety demonstration (contemporary version of the parson’s blessing) or blandishments from the Captain–when audio and visual entertainments go offline–you might have fun decoding the airline patois.

‘Last minute paperwork’— Euphemistic talk for (a) a bomb threat (b) a crew member’s panic attack or (c) awaiting a tardy celebrity in First Class.

‘We should be under-way shortly’— Anything from ten minutes to an hour, depending on that overdue celebrity or a crisis nobody wants to draw our attention to.

‘Flight deck’— What we used to call the ‘cockpit’ in the days before political correctness.

‘Cross-check’— Either the flight attendant is fed up with being leered at while performing safety callisthenics or this is simply quality control, each attendant double-checking the work of colleagues.

‘We do remind you that smoking is not permitted’— They do mean it. They do.

‘Pre-boarding’— First Class passengers, friends of the captain, or both.

‘Final and immediate boarding call’— Get here or we go without you, slacker.

‘Wheels up time’— Would that be just after ‘going up in the air time’?

‘First officer’— The second officer, used to be known as the ‘co-pilot’.

‘Captain’— The first officer, used to be known as the ‘pilot’.

‘ATC’— Air Traffic Control, as important as the crew but without star billing: equivalent to writers and producers at the Oscars.

‘Knots’— 20 knots equals 20 miles per hour, except these are nautical miles, so they’re 1.5 longer. The term comes from an era when lengths of knotted rope were thrown from a ship to gauge distances.

‘Flight level’— Not a euphemism to inform passengers the plane is no longer climbing but a way to indicate height above sea level.

‘Area of weather’— Used to be known as a ‘storm’.

‘Air pocket’— A thing made of nothing that makes the plane go bump.

‘Wake turbulence’— A thing made of nothing that makes the plane go bumpity-bump-bump.

‘Wind-shear’— A thing made of nothing that makes the plane go b-b-b-b-b-b-bump.

‘Initial approach’—If at first you don’t succeed…

‘Instrument approach’— A computer is landing the plane.

‘Visual approach’— The computer is off-line, so we’re remembering flight school lessons.

‘Holding pattern’— A queue in the air.

‘Final approach’— If we don’t land this time we’ll have another coffee and wait our turn at the back of the queue.

‘Cleared to land’— Please turn off Twitter now.

‘Chimes’ (or ‘dings’) — The flight crew don’t want to be disturbed. They’re probably trying to land the plane or something.

‘Full, upright and locked position’— Please assume the appearance of sobriety.

‘Tampering with, disabling or destroying’— We know there are children on board.

‘Missed approach’— This is also called a ‘go-around’ and it means ‘Oh, shit.’

‘At this time we ask you’— Do what we say or else.

‘In the off position’— Used to be known as ‘off’.

‘Ramp’ — Tarmac nearest the terminal.

‘Apron’— see Ramp.

‘De-planing’— Are passengers ripping apart the aircraft from sheer frustration or is this just horrible jargon for ‘disembarking’?

‘Thank you for flying with us’— Please go now. Smiling gives me a headache.


Summer of discontent

If he’d been writing in Australia (impossible for so many reasons) Will Shakespeare might have reflected with irony on the oddity of an upside-down culture with its imported northern languages, habits and mores.

Even on what we call ‘cold’ days in the lower reaches of Australia, some people still get around in T-shirts. Our midwinter is usually equivalent to a mild spring day in Britain, while our summers are baking hot. So why do we retain the language of Jack Frost in the flyblown and humid Christmas season, when it’s time to play cricket and sunbathe?

Nobody in the southern continent goes dashing through the snow, on a sleigh of any kind.  No folk are dressed up like Eskimos. Even in our coldest July mornings we don’t do hazy shades of winter, though we do have four seasons in one day. Slip sliding away is something we do with sunscreen on a boogie board. The ice man cometh not. Nobody walks in a winter wonderland. Nobody heads south, unless on an expedition to Antarctica. In mid-year, southerners may fly north to Queensland: an express not polar but solar. The midwinter is never bleak and sumer is almost always icumen in.

Baby it’s not cold outside—at least, not that kind of cold. Australians, even those of us from the ‘cold’ states of Victoria and Tasmania, don’t experience real winter until we visit Europe or North America. Below the tropic of Capricorn, ponds do not freeze. We don’t make snowmen in our front yards. Nobody owns an Astrakhan cap. We have to drive up mountains to find snow. We skate indoors, not out. And yet we still sing about it, somehow unable to scrape the Disney-Dickensian snowflake from our cultural windscreen.

Christmas down under means heatwaves, vacation time, and bushfire season. We have fire like nobody else: an environmental nightmare beyond the comprehension of people raised in northern climes. And often these fires are followed by floods, which can make for a decidedly unhappy new year in parts of rural Australia. January is hot. February is hotter. Many people don’t own an overcoat. If they do buy one, it’s not until the cooler period of June to August. And cool is often as cold as it gets. Most of us have never experienced a white Christmas: it’s not like the ones we used to know. Frosty the Snowman is not a familiar childhood character, though Louie the fly is. We don’t do eggnog. We don’t do jugs of punch or mulled wine. We like our beer chilled, enough to freeze your gums. Drinking a stubby that isn’t as cold as a Bose-Einstein condensate is considered unpatriotic.

So on a 35 degree day (95 Fahrenheit) many Australians serve up roast turkey and pork crackling followed by Christmas (suet) pudding with brandy butter. Mad dogs and Aussies go in for winter food in the midday sun, while perspiring fathers and uncles dress to heat exhaustion levels in Santa Claus costumes; and their children sing about mistletoe, sleighbells in the snow, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

And why, through all seasons of the year, do we squander precious water to maintain English-style lawns? At the antipodes of European civilisation, we continue to harvest non-native pine trees and drape them in tinsel, with symbols of reindeer and other wintry fauna.

Why? Why? Why? I do have one theory: political correctness gone mad, to use a tabloid cliché. Here are the culprits: concert organisers, retailers spruiking the peak retail season and politicians and their servants anxious not to exclude any constituent. They have shied away from the Christ part of Christmas, going for the holly over the holy. Religious stuff is a bit old-fashioned, a bit sectarian, a bit assimilationist, isn’t it? All those references to Jesus and the manger and the three wise men, all the saints and miracles and virgin births and angels: it’s all rather—well, spiritual—isn’t it? So let’s leave that stuff out, and concentrate on the ‘real’ Christmas, which is tinsel and reindeers and… too much sugar for me. More like Ex-mass. This devaluation of language follows the secularisation of the season, so we get Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph instead of that Bethlehem stuff, which doesn’t retail well anyhow. People don’t buy church services and carol singing, unless there’s a tie-in CD or DVD available. Even ‘Silent Night’ is a loss-leader, sandwiched onto a Wiggles or Mariah Carey release, in between something with winter wonderland and other unseasonal titles.

If they had visited the great south land (impossible for so many reasons), Asterix and Obelix might have said: ‘These Australians are crazy’—though the Gaulish duo couldn’t have been referring to the indigenous population, who managed to live in harmony with their environment for forty millennia before Britain flexed its empire muscle with cultural cargo in the First Fleet. Thanks, England, for the language, the tunes, and the superior technology, but can we let go now? Apparently not.

Australia might be the envy of other nations, with sporting legends, a buoyant economy and an impressive showing in the arts. But we are a bit upside down at Christmas time.

Rabbiting on


Slang in English has merited some history of scholarship. Its first substantial dictionary, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was written by Francis Grose in 1785, and there was an impressive volume published the following century by John Camden Hotton, Dictionary of Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words (1860). Rather earnest stuff though.

Nearly a half century later G K Chesterton wrote a series of essays called ‘Defences’ for The Daily News. In 1901 these were published in a collection called The Defendant. One essay in the collection was called ‘A Defence of Slang’ in which G K wrote: ‘All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. If we paused for a moment to examine the cheapest cant phrases that pass our lips every day, we should find that they were as rich and suggestive as so many sonnets.’ How beautifully put. This blog can add little except to illustrate Mr GKC’s point.

In our early colonial period in Australia we saw the arrival of many Londoners; some as army officers and free settlers, many more as convicts. Those born in London’s East End, within the sound of St Paul’s cathedral bells or the great bell of Bow (the church of St Mary-le-Bow) brought with them a form of slang (for short language) known as ‘rhyming slang’. Australian rhyming slang  (e.g. ‘dead horse’ for sauce, ‘Barry Crocker’ for a shocker) lasted until well into the 1980s but then began to fall out of use until enjoying a brief revival thanks to the success of British TV programs such as Minder, The Sweeney and The Bill. Even those titles suggest slang (‘Minder’ for bodyguard, ‘Sweeney Todd’ for flying squad, and ‘The Bill’ for Old Bill, a nickname for the London Metropolitan police that has no fewer than eleven disputed origins).

Although the rhyming slang of Cockneys has largely fallen into disuse, some expressions are still current, at least in the Greater London area; expressions such as apples and pears (stairs), elephant’s trunk (drunk), pen and ink (stink), mince pies (eyes), tit for tat (hat), macaroni (pony), sugar and honey (money). They still turn up in the patter of greengrocers or other vendors in places like Spitalfields, Camden Market or Portobello Road, and else in films or TV shows featuring atavistic characters like Austin Powers.

South of the equator we are more likely to hear the remnants of Cockney in everyday expressions that most of us would not readily identify as slang. But these—as Chesterton would have it—‘cheap cant phrases’ were originally rhyming slang. The quality of metaphor is not strained; just obscure.

Expressions like ‘rabbiting on’ (from ‘rabbit and pork’ for talk) or ‘use your loaf’ (from ‘loaf of bread’ for head) make more sense when we identify their derivation. These are second generation slang. Our politicians have been known to tell ‘porkies’ (from ‘pork pies’ for lies) or tales not likely to be believed which might be described as ‘a load of cobblers’ (from ‘cobbler’s awls’ for balls). Although speakers of English in Australia today would be decreasingly likely to tell someone to have a ‘butcher’s’ (‘butcher’s hook’) or a ‘Captain Cook’ (for look), and the phrase ‘dicky bird’ (for word) is no longer common, an aloof or isolated person might still be described as being on his ‘Pat Malone’ (for alone). And older Australians might still use the phrase ‘me old china’ (from ‘china plate’ for mate), or ‘Steak and Kidney’ (for Sydney).

There’s one that always make me smile, when multiple generations of viewers who’ve seen a lot of British TV shows describe an annoying person as ‘getting on my wick’, that comes from ‘Hampton Wick’ (for prick).

So next time somebody gets on your wick, have a care.

Brought to you by the Department of the Bleeding Obvious

The following instructions originate from real instructions and warning labels of products in English-speaking countries. In other words, there’s no excuse of inadvertent mistranslation.

What does it say about the assumptions underlying such written communication? It’s likely that even the dumbest of these dumb warnings can be attributed to past or anticipated litigation or else overprotective legislation. If that’s the excuse, then we are in a sorry state. Can anyone capable of reading English really be as stupid as these warnings imply?

(On a packet of cashews) Warning: may contain nuts.

(On a string of Christmas lights) For indoor or outdoor use only.

(On a tiramisu pack, printed on bottom of the box) Do not turn upside down.

(On a hairdryer) Do not use while sleeping.

(On a bag of chips) You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside.

(On a bar of soap) Directions: use like regular soap.

(On frozen dinners) Serving suggestion: Defrost.

(On a bread pudding packet) Product will be hot after heating.

(On packaging for an iron) Do not iron clothes on body.

(On a bottle of children’s cough medicine) Do not drive car or operate machinery.

(On a pack of sleeping pills) Warning: may cause drowsiness.

(On an airline packet of nuts) Instructions: open packet, eat nuts.

(On a child’s Superman costume) Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.

(On a hotel-provided shower cap) Fits one head.

(On a toilet plunger) Caution: Do not use near power lines.

(On an electric rotary tool) This product not intended for use as a dental drill.

(On a cat litter box) Safe to use around pets.

(On a moist towelette pack) Directions: Tear open packet and use.

(On foaming face wash bottle) May contain foam.

(On a pack of Zantac 75) Do not take if allergic to Zantac.

(On a floodlight box) This floodlight is capable of illuminating large areas, even in the dark

(On a mattress) Warning: Do not attempt to swallow

(On a soy milk carton) Shake well and buy often

(On a box of matches) Caution: Contents may catch fire.

(On a windshield visor) Warning: Do not drive with sunshade in place.

(On a rain gauge) Suitable for outdoor use.

(On a TV remote control) Not Dishwasher Safe

(On fire logs) Caution: Risk of fire

(On a motorcycle) This vehicle is not made with edible parts.

(On a road sign) Water on road during rain.

(On the back of a badge saying ‘I am 2’) Badge not suitable for anyone under 36 months.

And my favourite…

(On a Marks & Spencer child’s toy) In the interest of safety, it is advisable to keep your child away from fire and flames.

What a handy safety tip for people whose children aren’t fireproof! Call me a quibbler, but I would have thought that ‘advisable’ suggests a rather minimalist approach to safety. The warning was probably written by the legal department rather than a fire brigade member.

Lawyers, insurers and other risk-aversion merchants are only doing their masters’ bidding, protecting the manufacturer rather than the customer. But in the process they are helping to devalue language. Still, perhaps it keeps mandarins at the Department of the Bleeding Obvious occupied. Either that or they have a job creation program in process for trainee technical writers.

Caution: reading may cause knowledge.

One Bad Apple

I’m not talking about Apple computing. There’ll be no discussion here regarding hardware or software associated with either Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak. Instead I’m concerned with a man called Tom.

Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579) was an economist before that profession had a name. He was a financier during the turbulent Tudor era, an Englishman who articulated a phenomenon that Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus had observed two centuries earlier. So Gresham’s Law is really Copernicus-Gresham Law. You say tomato and I say tomato. There are even indications that Aristophanes observed it in 5th century BC, so the idea has been kicking around a while.

In a nutshell, Gresham’s Law is this: bad money drives out good. ‘Good’ money is the kind with not much difference between face value (e.g. a fifty-cent coin) and commodity value (e.g. the value of the zinc it’s made from.) ‘Bad’ money has a commodity value lower than its face value (e.g. not worth the paper it’s printed on) such as inflated or counterfeit cash. Gresham’s law states that ‘good’ is soon dominated by ‘bad’ because people circulate ‘bad’ coins (e.g. coppers) rather than ‘good’ ones (e.g. silver dollars, gold sovereigns), which they tend to hoard. Also ‘good’ money tends to flow out of the country via international trade, because buyers offer higher value for ‘good’ coins than ‘bad’. So the ‘good’ money leaves the country while the ‘bad’ remains behind. Bad money drives out good.

How does this relate to language? It’s not a precise analogy, I grant you, but ‘bad’ language usage drives out ‘good’ more often than not. If it’s quicker and easier to use a vogue word or phrase, so long as the meaning is clear, acceptability increases with every usage. One bad apple spoils the others, if by ‘bad,’ we mean non-standard.

Let’s consider some examples.

Back in the 1980s, ‘access’ as a verb was near-universally considered a non-standard or ‘bad’ usage. Fast-forward to 2011 and it’s common to hear of people ‘accessing’ services where they once ‘gained access’ or ‘had access to’. Not everyone (this writer included) relishes this usage or regards it as formal English. But with every usage, the resistance barriers weaken. Same goes for the verb ‘to action’ or the adjective ‘doable’: I hate them but that’s me being a linguistic conservative. How long before only the most intransigent of readers accept such usages as legitimate formal English? Perhaps this will take less than a generation as our language is evolving so fast. In former times I would have expressed this as ‘evolving so quickly’. Even recalcitrant ‘good’ apples like me aren’t immune to the ‘bad’.

What about ‘impact’ as a verb? I experience a physiological reaction when I hear the word ‘impactful.’ Perhaps it’s because I’m an unreconstructed pedant, but I don’t believe ‘impact’ should be used as a verb outside the fields of geology or dentistry. Nevertheless, most days I read about events ‘impacting’ on people or constructions such as ‘to positively impact’. Should I just get over it? Should I set aside my prejudices? Traditional usage tells me that this is a non-standard usage, an example of a rotten apple spoiling the other verbs and nouns. Just as Sir Thomas Gresham observed ‘good’ currency being driven out by ‘bad,’ I’ve been shuddering at this spoliation of usages that, as the months pass, seem to become new forms of Standard English. I might try shouting at the sea but the surf will keep rolling in, bringing all kinds of flotsam.

I might complain that ‘bad’ apples are spoiling our natural evolution of neologisms; as noxious new fruit appear regularly in our pages and on our screens. Some of them last; some do not. John Howard tried to coin ‘Incentivation’. It didn’t take. And yet the backformed ‘incentivization’ has become commonplace in management circles, with the attendant verb form ‘incentivize’ a favourite of politicians and policy makers. Why bother complaining? It would be disingenuous of me to blame ‘bad’ apples for usage change. During the Renaissance, a host of upstart writers with names like William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon coined dictionaries’ worth of neologisms. Hardly bad apples.

If ‘bad’ usage does drive out ‘good,’ I may just need to overcome my biases and preconceptions about standard and non-standard usage. Either that or I can agree to disagree. ‘Millenniums’ instead of ‘millennia’: not a problem. ‘Eight items or less’ instead of ‘eight items or fewer’: no worries. ‘Impacted’ instead of ‘affected’: give me time, maybe a long time. ‘Learnings’ in place of ‘lessons’: I may never manage that one.

Harrumph, harrumph. Such usage grumpiness has been going on since the infamous ‘inkhorn conspiracy’ of the sixteenth century: no, earlier, since the Norman Conquest, or since the Vikings, or Roman Britain, or those damn newcomers the Celts spoiling our ‘pure’ language with their bad apples. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.