Monthly Archives: March, 2013

Getting tense

All the Doctors Doctor Who companions

Ever notice people saying the thing is… is?

The thing is… is I find the habit merely annoying. Yet the double ‘is’ can be enough to drive some people nuts. Why?

Perhaps this verbal tic irritates because it suggests a laziness of mind. A speaker uses the phrase ‘the thing is’ simply as a conversation filler, not much more than ‘um’ or ‘er,’ to keep the talk channel open. But then the speaker pauses to gather his or her thoughts, before remembering the implied promise of a sentence. So he or she chimes in with a verb, forgetting that one has already been deployed.

Laziness perhaps. But I like to place a gentler construction on this little slip-up. I think it’s a symptom of tense confusion, of the ‘had had’ variety. Tenses confuse not only newcomers to English but many native speakers also.

You know what I mean. We’ve all been there. It’s the old pluperfect construction where you have to become Doctor Who travelling through time, back and forth across your own sentences, to reach a point of destination.

For example: ‘And at that point I will have had to reconsider my position in the light of circumstances I would have known if only you had had the foresight to tell me.’

The thing is… is… is that we can’t all be the Doctor; nor do we have the luxury of his charming space-time vehicle or the companionship of his charming companions. Instead we must negotiate as best we can the confusing byways of time in our language.

To illustrate:

I time-travel (present simple or indefinite), I am time-travelling (present continuous or progressive), I have time-travelled (present perfect), I have been time-travelling (present imperfect), and I do time-travel (present emphatic). Easy as jumping into the TARDIS, is it not?

There’s also habitual present, instantaneous present, historic present, attitudinal present and hypothetical present. Multiply by two for the past and the future. Multiply again for the conditional.

Then there’s the subjunctive and all the other moods. The Doctor only has to deal with space and time; whereas speakers of English must skate around the byways of possibility, conjecture and supposition.

Perhaps that’s why we call this grammatical function ‘tense’.

Try remaining calm while time-and-space tripping through this perfectly innocuous piece of English: ‘If I had had an opportunity to do so I would be sure to have told you how often I have wished I could be in two places at once.’

The thing is… well, is and is are not such a big deal after all: a mere stumble on a crack in the footpath of the present tense.

Time. I’ve had enough of having had enough. Outa here. Easter break.


Wet, wet, wet


No, I’m not referring to the 80s/ 90s band or to a change in weather, only the wetness.

Traditionally, one could be wet behind the ears, eager to wet one’s whistle or, if under extreme pressure, in danger of wetting one’s pants.

Recently I heard the phrase ‘wet signature’. This is surely a backformation, like ‘acoustic guitar’ and ‘landline;’ terms that have come into existence because of technological change. That tablet-computer requiring a digital or ‘dry’ signature by a courier doesn’t require original paperwork. Whether or not such ‘dry’ signing is eventually replaced by a retinal scan or some other form of identification will be a matter of technology rather than probity. For the rest of society, such as anyone transacting business in the property, legal or finance sectors, a ‘wet’ signature remains essential on original documents, so much so that often blue ink is specified to distinguish the signature from its digital version.

A less wholesome usage of the word is used by the army and intelligence services, when referring to an operation that is likely to involve lethal force. CIA or KGB ‘wetwork’ does not refer to aquatic adventures but rather to bloody enterprise, like something out of a thriller by Frederick Forsyth. The only signature they leave is a messy one, and not blue.

For blue-blood wetness, we have to turn to British Conservatives of the old school who retain some vestige of human decency. Those on the receiving end of insults from Margaret Thatcher during her tenure as Prime Minister knew the term ‘wet’ to mean a moderate, as opposed to a ‘dry’ or hardliner. This latter group became fixated on laissez-faire free market economic policy. While the Iron Lady might have cast hostile glances across the House at Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, she reserved this withering use of ‘wet’ for those in her own party opposed to her hard-line policies; people like former Prime Minister Edward ‘Ted’ Heath and his adherents. It’s hardly surprising that this use of ‘wet’ originated in English public-school slang, for a person considered feeble or sentimental.

Is it any wonder that a ‘dry’ signature is associated with machines and lack of emotion while ‘wet’ is associated with human foibles: the robot versus humanity? This partly explains why, in software engineering, wet and dry have become metaphors and acronyms of a comparable dichotomy. ‘Wet’ is used both as an intelligence metaphor (‘wetware,’ meaning either a human brain as opposed to a computer, or else biological systems as opposed to mechanical ones) and as a design-principle acronym (‘WET’ for ‘write everything twice’ as opposed to ‘DRY’ for ‘don’t repeat yourself’).

So how would we characterise Marvin, the paranoid android, from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? He must be a ‘dry,’ but he does like to dwell on fallible  all-too-human failings. “The best conversation I had was over forty million years ago,” continued Marvin, “…and that was with a coffee machine.” Could he be a closet wet?

“I’m quite used to being humiliated,” droned Marvin, “I can even go and stick my head in a bucket of water if you like. Would you like me to go and stick my head in a bucket of water? I’ve got one ready. Wait a minute.” Now that’s a true wet.

Face needing to be slapped or just unphotogenic?

Donald Trump Kyle Sandilands christopher pyne

We know all about negatives in English that lack a positive, breaches of which are more a matter of mirth (e.g. ‘couth’ conduct and a ‘far from gruntled’ mood).

Here’s just a selection: unruly, unkempt, uncouth, ungainly, unbeknownst, incommunicado, inhibited, inert, inane, indelible, indignant, indomitable, indolent, inept, imbecilic, incessant, impudent, incognito, impromptu, decrepit, defunct, dejected, disdain, disgruntled, disconsolate, disastrous, misgivings, nonchalance, nonplussed, extravagance and ruthless.

But what about words that don’t include a negative prefix?

How can I describe someone as being the opposite of photogenic? I don’t mean ugly, merely when a person’s best looks somehow elude the lens. The camera does not love everyone. Either ‘ugly’ or ‘plain’ would be a poor approximation as an antonym because beauty is highly subjective. ‘Photogenic’ is a more precise term because it’s partly a measure of representation in a photograph. But in standard English, we lack a word for ‘unphotogenic’, though recently one Tweeter (W P McNeil) has suggested ‘dyspictorial’. That set me thinking about other words without a precise opposite.

How about ‘sin’? It’s an age-old concept but the opposite of sin isn’t ‘good’.  There’s no straightforward word to describe an act or behaviour directly opposite to the commission of sin. I could use an approximation like ‘blessing’ but that’s really an antonym of ‘curse’. Nor will ‘goodness’ or ‘abstention’ or ‘saintliness’ be much help in describing the opposite of sin.

And what about ‘to exceed’? After all, degree of success isn’t necessarily excess. ‘Surplus’ doesn’t quite cover it. Nor is the exact opposite ‘deficit’ or ‘underperform’.

At such times I have a renewed appreciation for the necessary neologism.

Or there is another way, and we’ve been doing it for centuries. We can borrow (i.e. steal) from other languages.

Ennui is more than mere boredom. Zeitgeist is more than just ‘spirit of the age’. Auto-da-fé is far more than ‘act of faith’.

There are delectable offerings available from other languages to articulate phenomena for which we’ve not yet coined a word. How about luftmensch from Yiddish (literally ‘air person’) for an impractical dreamer? How about vybafnout from Czech (literally ‘to jump out and shout “boo”) to describe an annoying older brother? German speakers have a great word backpfeifengesicht (literally ‘a face in need of a fist’) and I can think of one or two public figures who inspire such a feeling in me. I lack only the word to describe my emotional reaction. The Italians too have an expression of this sentiment, faccia da schiaffi (a face for slapping). I love this particular offering from the Welsh: glas wen (literally ‘blue smile). It means a smile that is insincere or mocking. Buy my favourite is the French expression l’esprit de l’escalier (literally ‘spirit of the stairs’) for that feeling we’ve all had when you think of the thing you should have said, the perfect comeback, only it’s too late and you’re already on the stairs.

So, rather than twist English further into odd shapes with ‘dyspictorial’ or ‘counteraesethetic’ I will continue to comb through other languages in search of unlikely opposites, a serendipitous exercise in itself. All manner of delights await me, such as the Portuguese word desenrascano (literally ‘to disentangle’) for a last-minute wriggling out of a difficult situation.

Enjoy the photo: backpfeifengesicht. Happy slapping.

Buzzword, pretentious or neither?


Neologisms are fun. Newspapers hold competitions for the best of them. Some newly coined words and phrases last no longer than a political season (e.g. Mitt Romney’s ‘47%’) or a popular entertainment cycle (e.g. Harry Potter’s contributions such as ‘muggle,’ ‘apparate’ and ‘dementor’), while others can last an age, their novelty long forgotten.

According to the Concise Oxford, a ‘neologism’ is ‘a new word or expression’ or ‘the coining or use of new words’. These are often words on the cusp of acceptance into formal or standard usage. Some are harmless, even amusing. Others are ugly, offensive or downright insulting. And a few are utterly useless. One such word — in my opinion — is ‘agreeance’.

When did this one become a word? As it turns out, much earlier than I realised.

I’ve been hearing ‘agreeance’ in management circles now for a handful of years, though I’ve struggled to find it in printed authorities. Urban Dictionary defines the word as  ‘what stupid people say instead of “agreement” ’. Wordnik takes no such judgemental position but classifies the term as obsolete  This bastard of a word is neither a clever coinage nor filling an unmet need. It’s plain unnecessary. But is it pretentious? And am I being unfair to call its users stupid?

A word like ‘agreeance’ must gain currency somehow. Perhaps a misheard malapropism has propagated with unhealthy repletion. Such a usage isn’t so much a meme as a misspelling, along the lines of ‘mischievious’ and ‘irregardless,’ neither of which have entered formal English, though they refuse to go away.

A false neologism like ‘agreeance’ could be considered as no more than a lame buzzword. It isn’t witty like ‘ginormous,’ ‘vidiot’ or ‘chillax;’ nor is it a necessary word like ‘homophobia,’ which has a contradictory derivation yet fulfils a descriptive need. Some neologisms plug a gap we never knew existed: words like ‘prequel,’ ‘cyberspace,’ ‘gerrymander,’ ‘meritocracy’ or ‘muffin-top’.  Shakespeare, in his creative cornucopia, produced a record number of newly coined words, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 of them; fashioned from Latin, French, Greek and other language roots, and some just made up. Without his contribution we might not have ‘accommodation,’ ‘bloody,’ ‘countless,’ ‘dwindle,’ ‘exposure,’ ‘frugal,’ ‘gloomy,’ ‘hurry,’ ‘impartial,’ ‘lonely,’ ‘majestic,’ ‘obscene,’ ‘pious,’ ‘radiance’ or ‘sanctimonious’. But would Will have stooped to coining a word like ‘agreeance’? Perhaps. If he felt the poetic need.

I doubt that anyone genuinely needs this word. After all, how different is ‘agreeance’ from agreement? Nevertheless, we could be looking at another ‘normality’ vs ‘normalcy’ dichotomy because it turns out this word isn’t even a neologism—false or genuine; it’s been around a long time. There is evidence of an Anglicised version of a word from Old French, agréance, as early as the sixteenth century, not falling into disuse until the nineteenth century. So ‘agreeance’ might even be regarded as an archaism, like ‘having writ’ as a past tense of ‘written’. Yet somehow I doubt that anyone using the word in management circles today is affecting a linguistic antiquity.

Perhaps next time I hear it, I’ll reply with a vraimant or sacré bleu. Then again, I might let good taste prevail, mes amis.