Monthly Archives: June, 2013

Heard it through the grapevine

Marvin GayeGossipGodfather

‘Gossip’ is a most peculiar little word. There are none like it in English: no similar shapes or rhymes to match it.

Does that mean ‘gossip’ comes from some other language? Did the Vikings bring it? Or might the word originally hail from a Celtic mist or some source in the Far East?

Not a bit of it. Pure Anglo-Saxon. It comes from ‘God’ and ‘sibb,’ the latter being a word for ‘family relation’ or ‘relative,’ from which we derive the modern word ‘sibling’.

Our modern word was originally the compound ‘god-sibb,’ in other words, a godparent. Later its meaning broadened to include any family friend with a close kinship. It grew in application, embracing midwives and other women who attended births or childrearing events. In time the word evolved into loose association with anyone engaged in family or social chit-chat. Later the lexical coin debased even further, meaning no more than idle or trifling talk, including any form of newsmongering.  As a verb, it first appeared in print from the pen of Will Shakespeare. By that time, to gossip meant to tattle. It’s a long way from godparent.

We all know about gossip. It can be frivolous, fruitful, trivial or tragic. For some, it’s a source of news; for others, it may provide malicious or misguided rumour. In some cultures it’s more than verbal backbiting or bitchiness; it can be considered wicked. The Bible has plenty of examples of gossips among the worst of sinners.

On the other hand, all societies rely on some form of gossip, even if they deploy it in respectful ways and strive not to speak ill of others behind their backs. For survival, we need to communicate. Often we need to negotiate and to form alliances. Gossip can be a valuable communication tool, a form of talk that softens the harshness of headlines and data. Even the most primitive tribes need a form of social grooming, to improve interaction between sexes, generations and other barriers that can divide.

These days gossip is just as often found on social networks or smart phones as gathering around the water-cooler. It might appear in email or text messaging. Gossip may be the only social glue that binds a group of workers or middle managers, residents or club members, or any group lacking in social power. It may even constitute a form of bullying, if those left out of the talk circle feel disenfranchised or otherwise shunned. Gossip might seem subversive and seditious. It may turn coercive, corrosive or co-dependent.

On the other hand, gossip can fill a vacuum when aggrieved parties feel left out of a decision-making process. Even if the grapevine isn’t our most helpful source of information there are times when we all need a support group. Gossip gives us a chance not only to hear but to speak, to let others listen to our fears or doubts, even if collective intelligence has nothing useful to say other than reassuring us we’re not alone.

So perhaps after all, it hasn’t entirely left behind its original sense of godparent. In times of need, it makes an offer we can’t refuse.


What’s in a meme?

Description=Richard Dawkins Photograph: Jeremy Young 05-12-2006Wonka condescendingSean Bean

Way back in 1976 (before my ancestors were even born), when writing The Selfish Gene, British biologist Richard Dawkins – these days known more for his outspoken atheism – coined the word ‘meme’. It was a metaphor to explain the growth and proliferation of ideas. Like the gene, the ‘meme’ could replicate at various rates and in various patterns of evolution. Great notion. He derived this coinage from the Ancient Greek term mimeme, meaning ‘a thing imitated’.

A meme, said Dawkins, may be understood as a phenomenon of behaviour or style that reproduces and catches on: a trend, craze, fad or fashionable unit. It may show up as a gesture, phrase, image, haircut or dance move, as a musical figure, architectural flourish or artistic trope. It acts like a gene in so far as it replicates and mutates, buffeted by the thousand natural shocks that flesh and fashion are heir to, changing as it reproduces itself, like a well-told tale ever-evolving with the teller’s embellishments and biases.

The more mutant the meme, the stronger it may become, perhaps overtaking or devouring the identity of its host. The slogan may outsell the book, as it has done for Catch-22 and Big Brother for Nineteen-Eighty-Four. A scrap of lyric may outlast its song just as the legend outlasts the writer. Who remembers now that ‘pie in the sky’ comes from a song by working-class lyricist Joe Hill (‘you’ll get pie in the sky when you die’) when ‘The Ballad of Joe Hill’ has outdistanced that ordinary Joe?

Dawkins would say that the meme thrives on copying, and the stronger memes come to dominate as the gene does in nature. Malcolm Gladwell compares the meme to a virus, infecting each mimic with its mutant power. Some memes can take malevolent form, as copycat crimes or symptoms of mass hysteria, demagoguery, racist or persecutory behaviours or any irrational crusading fervour.

A third of a century later we are bombarded with memes. Language-related memes encompass the unhealthy repletion of buzz-speak and managerial gobbledygook that passes for corporate discourse in some bureaucracies. And son-et-lumière memes arrive, as we now say, 24-7, courtesy of social media.

Whom do we see about that? Mr Berners-Lee? Mr Gates? Mr Zuckerberg?

Hey, surely there’s no harm in LOL cats or YouTube rants or Sean Bean sound-grabs? A meme on the Web can arrive via email, SMS, Twitter, YouTube or Facebook. It can form part of a joke stream, an evolving humorous conversation or mocking thread or series of photo jests. It can be political in temper, totally topical or tantalizingly trivial.

Whether the Web-based meme arrives by hyperlink or hashtag, it can replicate with rapidity. A celebrity goof or misspoken statement can at once ‘go viral’ – how much more accurate can the meme metaphor be? Advertisers have been quick to spot this trend, eager to exploit that meme of memes, viral marketing – also known as ‘guerilla marketing’. It’s free. It’s instant. It’s global. The Internet meme is not passive. Anyone can participate. Link. Share. Hit send. LOL.

I like a joke as much as anyone but I can’t say that I care for the term ‘meme’. I think we’ve worn it out. It has become little more than a social science buzzword. Its analogy with the gene has been lost in a plethora of comic turns like Skeptical Baby, One Does Not Simply, Grumpy Cat and Condescending Willie Wonkas. A moment of wry smiling gives way to rolled eyes as we say ‘not another one’.

It’s a pity. The idea was a good one. But then maybe the meme has gone the way of ‘icon’ and ‘font,’ whose originals have been lost in a memetic process, sacrificed on the altar of user-friendliness. The meme has been memed. C’est la langue.

For all intensive purposes

SpaniardMute point

Misheard phrases: they’re not exactly mondegreens (see earlier post ‘The Girl with Colitis Goes By’) but they’re close.  You might call them phrasal misnomers, or first cousin to the malapropism, but they have a semi-official name: ‘egg-corns’.

This affectionate moniker (not you, Monica) comes from a mishearing of the word ‘acorns’. It’s more than likely the product of folk etymology, a homonym in the manner of ‘Jerusalem artichoke’ for ‘girasole artichoke’ or ‘cockroach’ from ‘cucaracha’.

Some egg-corns are simply amusing, like ‘damp squid,’ ‘taking things for granite’ and ‘a Spaniard in the works’. People who use such expressions may have acquired the misheard phrases as part of conversational development without questioning their lack of logic, accepting them merely as verbal place-fillers. Why would a squid ever be anything but damp? And is there some inherent vandalising trait in people from the Iberian Peninsula? I concede that ‘taking things for granite’ could be rationalised away, a reassurance of solidity, safer than the Bank of England.

But other egg-corns make no sense at all: ‘slight of hand,’ ‘time in memorial’ or ‘cool, calm and collective’. Have the speakers never paused to wonder what they’re saying? Misheard phrases can lead to misunderstandings as well as amusement. To ‘pass mustard’ might be rather painful. And a ‘mute point’ may give the impression of something left unsaid rather than something worthy of debate.

Though they’re obviously wrong, some of the following do not entirely miss their target: ‘one foul swoop,’ ‘all that glitters,’ ‘nerve racking,’ ‘chaise lounge,’ ‘honing in,’ ‘daylight savings,’ ‘butt-naked’ and ‘mind of information’. It’s not hard to see why they have deviated a little from their original.

Then we have expressions which must baffle anybody trying to learn English: ‘beyond the pail,’ ‘eek out a living’ and (my favourite) ‘for all intensive purposes’. WTF?

I see potential for wit in some egg-corns: ‘ex-patriots,’ ‘different tact,’ ‘peaked my interest,’ ‘a blessing in the skies,’ and ‘mother load’. Sure they’re wrong, but each of them could be re-served with a sprig of irony to make them palatable.

Notice I wrote ‘re-served’. An incautious keystroke or overzealous spellchecker could turn that into ‘reserved,’ just as it could re-form ‘reform,’ re-lay ‘relay’ or re-create ‘recreate’.

To illustrate the level of difficulty for a student of English encountering some of our egg-corns…

It’s a zero-sum gain in a doggie-dog world and you’ve got another thing coming if you cut off your nose despite your face.

What does the student of English make of someone ‘taking up the reigns’ or ‘pouring over’ a document or having an ‘outer body experience’? Pigeon English indeed.

Waiting with baited breath, they will soon learn that the proof is in the pudding, ex cetera. They can nip problems in the butt while puzzling over the role of basic tenants receiving just desserts with all do respect. They might tow the line, learn an abject lesson or endure a bad wrap. It’s only a hare’s breath, quote on quote, come hell or dry water, and they’ll be in dire straights or blind-sighted on tenderhooks without further adieu. That’ll wet their appetite. It’s all smoking mirrors, after all. When all is set and done they might have a new leash on life and come to turns with the statue of limitations.

From here on end, though loathe to do it, I’ll give free range to any pigment of my imagination. If not in the throws of passion or in high dungeon, I’ll curve my appetite for knit-picking, and no holes barred make a pack with the devil. Though no ten-year professor I’m willing to ferment trouble, using antidotal evidence and nauseam. In lame man’s terms, I will keep batting down the hatches, reaping what I sew and going at it hammer and thongs, all the way to my far-gone conclusion.

Diversity versus university


University: it’s an oddly anachronistic word.

Sure the noun has a European origin, via Latin and the Christian church. And it retains quaint traditions of bachelor and doctoral degrees, with medieval ceremonies and barely updated antecedents of dress. But is it still the most helpful description for a place of higher learning?

The university emerged in the epoch of guild and corporation, under charter to either a prince or prelate, with its notion of one body and one community. That made sense in the thirteenth century, with Europe emerging into the Renaissance. But the word ‘university’ sits oddly in the twenty-first century. We have a globally interdependent economy and an on-line fast-broadband educational marketplace. Does that make us one world, one super-community, or just one noisy planet?

I contend that we are not of one body, in the sense we use our etymologically related word ‘universal,’ and that the late Mediaeval notion of ‘university’ no longer fits with our largely vocational institutions, many of which are sophisticated training organisations, fitting us for super-trades and often aligned with–and funded by–product-driven commercial enterprises. So I propose a replacement word: the ‘diversity’.

Yes, it probably won’t catch on but I believe it would better suit the ideals of learning and fellowship of the traditional university.

We are hardly of one mind or one set of values. Our respective national and ethnic cultures are at once breaking down and regrouping into new forms. Old verities are shifting from liberal-democratic to neo-feudal. The world financial crisis has helped to fracture economies and societal structures in Greece, various Arab states, and now Turkey. The USA is now more politically and ideologically polarised than at any time since their civil war. Britain has a government nobody voted for. Australia has a hung parliament. Queenslanders punished their previous government by almost annihilating them politically, and now they hold the incumbent government in contempt, mirroring other sections of the electorate. Italy has a new government almost every month. And the French can’t seem to agree on anything except resenting foreign interference. Rather than being of one mind, one community and one guild, many of our societies seem more akin to city-states of the Middle Ages, fortified against foe and rival family alike. We are not one.

So I like the idea of attending a diversity. Such a re-naming would appeal to the best in all of us: not just those who have been fortunate enough to attend a culturally and linguistically and sexually and attitudinally diverse institution of higher learning, but everyone.

Monash Diversity. Oxford Diversity. Sydney Diversity.  Such titles imply a plurality of opinion, an open-mindedness and a willingness to listen.

Perhaps this notion is overly idealistic. But where better to be idealistic than at a college of higher learning? And where better to gather in one place a collection of diverse attitudes, interests, passions and backgrounds? We don’t all have to agree but at a diversity we could assemble and listen and perhaps learn from one another as much as we might learn from authority figures in person and in print. We wouldn’t need to be surrounded by the magnificent architecture of Bologna or the Sorbonne or Cambridge or Perugia; nor would we have to be of one mind, one set of ideals or even one generation. We would not need an ancient agora or forum, just a set of circumstances to bring together diverse opinions: Q & A on an institutional scale, or the best kind of conference.

Worth dreaming.