Monthly Archives: November, 2013

What the vernacular?

What the  Abbott  Ducks in a road

This blog has previously discussed malapropisms, in January 2012 and May of this year. And in June 2013 we covered the related phenomenon of the egg-corn.

The other day I came across a new low in malapropisms, a low called ‘low and behold’.

What can the writer have been thinking? What imaginary height connection must he or she associate with the act of perception?

Look, I can understand typos. We all make them. In a hurry, everyone commits this sin, typing ‘manger’ when we mean ‘manager’, ‘collage’ for ‘college,’ or howlers such as ‘text massage’ or ‘hair’s breath’ – at least, I hope they’re typos.

And I can understand slips of the tongue. These lighten a dull meeting or a slow news day. Remember when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott gave stand-up comedy ‘suppository of wisdom’?

But there are outright malapropisms that can only be the result of astounding ignorance and lack of self-awareness or self-discipline. ‘Low and behold’ is one of these. And it is supposed to mean what exactly?

Or how about ‘take it for granite’? Perhaps this is supposed to be an avowal of certainty, as in ‘safe as houses’ or ‘hard as rock’? Maybe. But I’ve collected a few that have no excuse: ‘pier pressure,’ ‘voters going to the poles,’ ‘rest bite,’ ‘a moo point,’ ‘health conscience’ or, my favourite, ‘just assume give as receive.’

Ignorance is no excuse. ‘Penultimate’ is not greater than ultimate, just as ‘supernatural’ isn’t more natural than natural. Perpetrators of the preceding examples cannot have been curious what they were writing about. And maybe they have never been curious.

So is it a mute point? Do they have all their ducks in a road? Is it sixty-one and half-a-dozen of the other? Are they judging words on their emeritus? Is it a poisoned challenge? Is it a momentum of their schooldays?

Yes. Quite possibly that last one. If so, that momentum has never been arrested. Low and behold. Here, here. I’ll reframe from further usage. I think we’ve had enough incite into this topic. Time to go with the floe and let’s all be niece to each other.


Whatever happened to causality?

Because science

Climate change is real because science. The apostrophe matters because grammar. Shops are all closed tomorrow because Christmas. I couldn’t finish my homework because Doctor Who.

Are the preceding samples true sentences? Well, they certainly contain nouns, verbs, a subject and an object (sort of). What they lack is a sense of logic, especially in the matter of cause and effect.

Does it matter? I can understand what they mean. So can you. What’s the worry?

The conjunction ‘because’ has traditionally played the role of causality traffic cop: direction-pointer, navigator. With help from the preposition ‘of,’ it forms a compound preposition. All very helpful and conventional. But this usage has recently developed in a new way because innovation. No? Because laziness? No? Because efficiency?

This modern usage of ‘because’ has quit the band to embark on a solo career. Because fun. Again, what’s the worry? This usage can be witty and ironic. Obviously it’s shorthand for the unstated: a form of elision. It achieves its effect by operating as a stand-alone preposition. Why? Because evolution. Hmm. I am not convinced. Is there something antediluvian about offering a demonstrable link between cause and effect?

Like an anxious parent not rushing to judgement, I will maintain a watching brief on this usage. This version of ‘because’ is playful. It’s devil-may-care. My only worry is the risk of foreshortened reasoning that could result from doing away with true causality because the writer or speaker assumes an audience already knows the logic of an argument. This would be false efficiency, as miscommunication takes more time to correct.  Because ineffective.

Flying the coup

British CoupNative AmericanPeron

Recently I heard someone say ‘That’s a real coup’. What a sec, methought. I’m meant to interpret this as a triumph?

There are several ‘coup’ phrases in English, obviously taken from the French, yet they do not all mean success. Some of them spell disaster. So when is a coup not a coup?

Everyone knows about coup d’état, which translates literally as ‘blow of state’. Most writers and speakers use this one appropriately. After all, it’s kind of a big deal: such as a people’s revolution, an armed uprising or the military takeover of an elected government—that kind of big deal. So is this usage the origin of ‘it’s a real coup’? Not every coup is a coup.

Some of them are neither a triumph nor a disaster, more of a shock. The expression coup de théâtre, for example, indicates a success of the dramatic art: some kind of trick in a play, where events take a sudden turn. If done well, this might be considered a real coup. But it might backfire also. Of a more technical nature, coup d’archet means a stroke of the bow—though not from an archer’s quiver; rather it signifies the action of a violin bow. This might be a triumph but it might only be a technical movement. The latter hardly qualifies as ‘a real coup’.

The less common expression coup à la porte means a knock at the door: a surprise or sudden signal. This too suggests neither triumph nor calamity; merely some real-life coup de théâtre. A sudden streak of lightning could be described as a coup de foudre, while an ill stroke of fate is a coup de destin. Neither of these amounts to victory or success; they might even be the opposite. A coup de main, meaning a blow of the hand, is a sudden personal attack. A coup de poing is a blow from the fist, or an almighty thump. Hardly what we mean when we say ‘a real coup’.

So what of that other, more common expression, coup de grâce? It means a stroke of mercy: a sort of ‘real coup,’ in euthanasia terms, but not necessarily an occasion for fist-pumping.

There are several triumphal types of coup: the coup d’eclat (stroke of brightness, in other words a glorious moment), a coup de ciel (a stroke from the sky, or sudden good fortune) or the coup de plume (a mighty stroke of the pen, or winning turn of phrase). Is ‘a real coup’ one of these? It certainly can’t be coup en traître (a stroke of treachery), coup sur coup (in quick succession, or a blow upon a blow), or coup pour coup (blow for blow, tit for tat).

There is an alternative possibility. Coup may have originated with the French (though probably from the Greek word kolaphos and then the Latin colapho) but it migrated long ago to North America. In the USA, there is an expression ‘counting coup,’ which Urban Dictionary defines as ‘an act of bravery by North American Native Indians,’ and it appears to be the act of dominating or defeating an opponent in single combat without causing injury. Now that is a real coup. ‘Counting coup’ was measured by notches on said stick.

So whether the ‘real coup’ is just a derivation of ‘blow’ or ‘stroke,’ I remain suspicious of the damn phrase. If it’s not a full-blown Peronist coup d’état, in my book it’s not a real coup—but I’ll make an exception for the mot juste, the bon mot and the coup de plume.

To dumb down is dumbing down

Dumb and dumberSocialingSolutionize

The verb phrase ‘to dumb down’ is a dumb expression: dumb in the colloquial sense of stupid. But it works. Why?

Alternative expressions such as ‘lowering the bar’ or ‘insulting the intelligence of readers’ don’t encapsulate this IQ-impaired syndrome. The expression ‘dumb down’ at once describes and epitomises a condition that we recognise and loathe: a dumbed-down culture – especially, though not exclusively, American – in which film and TV producers (or publicity departments) feel compelled to reduce complexity to headline-simplicity and to downgrade nuance to a slap-in-the-face obvious. The punch-lines must be foreshadowed, and then reinforced, so any subtlety of humour is lost. Get it? It’s a joke, right? And we must have canned laughter, in case we’re not sure exactly when to respond. Anyone who has endured a segment of Two and a Half Men (one of the least funny and most obvious comedies on television) will hear hyperventilating levels of canned laughter. Perhaps the intensity of fake mirth needs to be commensurate with the poor jokes.

But at least ‘dumbed down,’ as a phrase, works: a successful neologism in the way that ‘phone hacking’ is at once recognisable, comprehensible and necessary.

Neologisms work best when they fill a need that existing words can’t quite achieve. Other newly coined verbs that work well, in my opinion, are ‘to download’ and ‘to upload’. Sure, they’re hideous from an aesthetic viewpoint, but there’s a reason why we need them. ‘Data transfer’ isn’t specific or directional. This is why ‘photobomb’ works. It pertains to photography in a way that ‘upstage’ or ‘surprise appearance’ can’t satisfy. In the same vein, ‘to pirate’ is a useful neologism, pertaining to electronic intellectual property. I’m less convinced by ‘to google’ and ‘to Facebook’. Surely there are better ways of expressing our interaction with software.

Unquestionably the modern workplace has some truly ugly neologisms: ‘to action,’ ‘to diarise,’ ‘to transition’ and ‘to author’. Just verbise that noun and you’ll sound important, authoritative and contemporary–except that a percentage of the listening (or reading) audience hates it. We really do.

And recently I’ve collected a few neologisms to make your skin crawl: ‘to solutionize,’ ‘to dogsbody’ and ‘to accolade’.

Come on, dumb-downers! This is unnecessary–and an insult to the language. I’ll put up with ‘to document,’ ‘to stress out’ and even ‘to speechify’. I’ll accept the logic of ‘to cybercast’ and ‘to crowd-source’. I’ll endure the word life-cycle of ‘to twerk,’ ‘to plank, ‘to occupy’ and ‘to sex up’. I will even stomach the shorthand ‘power down’ and ‘power up’. But when I hear ‘to Wikipedia,’ ‘to bling’ and ‘to subimpose,’ I know that dumbing-down has gone too far. We’re already just a little dumber; is it necessary to roll around in the muck?

These new verbs are a dumb-down too far. I’ll have to chillax before I max out. LOL.

Where exactly is the trick?

Trick or treaters on the porchPeter Paul and MaryDruids

Last evening, children of our neighbourhood came calling, asking for sweets. They didn’t demand confectionery in so many words. Instead, dressed in Halloween costumes, they uttered the phrase ‘Trick or Treat’.

Sure, I thought: just another imported American tradition that children and young parents copy from film and TV. I’m cynical about the increased commercialisation of such annual events. Confectionery sales experience a boom around the end of October, rivalled only by Easter, which has no historical basis as a sugar-fest. But then I was struck by the phrase ‘Trick or treat.’

Where, I thought, is the trick? This term suggests an implied threat. ‘Give me a Mars Bar or I’ll throw stones at your cat.’ Instead no trick is offered, not even a threat—unless perhaps it’s the threat to traffic congestion or childhood nutrition or the public health bill from nascent diabetes cases. Then I wondered whether this ‘trick’ might be a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance, or a mere linguistic leftover? After all, who among us will tell a kid dressed as Harry Potter to get lost? ‘Forget it, shorty. I’ll take the trick. Do your worst, son, and hang the consequences…!’ Says no one ever.

Then I began to read. Even preliminary research on the subject told me I was mistaken about that wholly American tradition.

In England a kids-begging-at-the-door routine dates back to the Early Middle Ages, and was known as ‘souling’ or ‘soaling’. At the feast of Hallowmas, on 31st of October, pauper children knocked at the doors of better-off citizens and begged to sing hymns or say prayers for the souls of recently deceased relatives of those householders. In return for which, the children received treats known as ‘soul cakes’ (often with a cross marked on top, like a hot cross bun). Soul cakes were generally sweet, with ingredients such as nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and raisins. In the 1960s, Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a traditional song that included the following lines:

The streets are very dirty, my shoes are very thin.
I have a little pocket to put a penny in.
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you.

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him who made us all.

Not exactly trick or treat but there sure was a guilt trip in that pitch from the kids: even an implied threat. ‘Give us a cake and it’ll help those poor souls in Purgatory. You can at least salve your conscience by feeding us.’

Meanwhile up in Scotland, this souling tradition was known as ‘guising’ (from disguising). But why? Poor kids, and a few adults, would dress in outlandish costumes to disguise themselves as demons. For the Celtic peoples, 31st of October was New Year’s Eve. They believed that, as one year ticked over to the next, the dead and the living (the quick and the dead) would cross one another’s paths. Revenants and other undead demons (precursors to our modern notion of the zombie) roamed the earth. By ‘guising’ oneself as one of these undead, you might fool any stray demon into mistaking you for one of them and therefore you’d remain unmolested.

Ever-enterprising, the early Christian church succeeded in re-packaging this annual event as All Hallows (Saints) Eve. Newly converted Christians could now gad about ‘guised’ as saints, angels and the odd mediaeval zombie.

Even the rest of the modern Halloween apparatus – the artificial spider webs, the fake skeletons and the jack-o-lanterns –all pre-date the British presence in America. Back in those ‘guising’ days, Scottish kids would carry lanterns made from scooped-out turnips. Italian children indulged in similar practices for souls of the dead. Shakespeare gives such continental customs a nod in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of ‘puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.’

In Portugal, the tradition is still alive. Kids troop from house to house on All Souls Eve, carrying pumpkin-carved lanterns called coca, asking for Pão-por-Deus and singing rhymes to remind people what the begging is all about: to pray for souls of the deceased. If a stingy neighbour won’t open his or her door, kids end their song with ‘This house smells like lard. Here must live someone deceased’. As for bilingual Canada, some children call out ‘Halloween apples!’ instead of ‘trick or treat,’ dating back to a time when the toffee apple was a popular sweet. Sad to say, in French-speaking enclave Quebec, instead of ‘trick or treat’ the garçons et filles simply call out ‘Halloween’. A pity. They used to say ‘La charité s’il-vous-plaît’. Maybe it’s the influence of TV and films south of the 49th parallel.

But forget all that October 31st tradition. Swedish kids dress up as witches and go trick-or-treating on Maundy Thursday. Danish children go trick-or-treating at Fastelavn, on Easter Monday. In Finland it’s on Palm Sunday. In Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, children go door-to-door with home-made beetroot or paper lanterns on Martinmas (St Martin’s Day) November 11th, in return for treats. And in northern Germany and southern Denmark, children dress up and do their version of trick-or-treating on December 31st in a New Year’s tradition called Rummelpott.

Damn. This origin thing turns out to be more confusing than the genealogy of Game of Thrones. The more I read about it, the further such traditions stretch back.

The event we’ve come to know as Halloween is at least two thousand years old, originating in the Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated on the night of October 31st. Across the Celtic cultures of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Ireland and Brittany, people believed that the dead returned to earth at that time of year. These fearful and superstitious people would light bonfires and offer sacrifices to the dead. During such ceremonies, many disguised themselves in costumes of animal skin to drive away the phantoms. A few centuries on, their descendants dressed in the image of ghosts and revenants, performing antics for better-off citizens in exchange for sweet comestibles. Then around the time of the First Millennium, when the Dark Ages turned especially dark, the Christian Church had the idea of re-branding pagan rites and pagan sites with the names of saints. Presto! Instant religious compliance. Samhain morphed into All Souls’ Day, for honouring the dearly departed. Look, those folks were gathering and dressing up anyhow, so why not cash in on the bonfires and call them a hallowed celebration? There was also a confluence of two other annual pagan events for the Church to rationalise: the Roman festival of Feralia, commemorating the dead, and the Roman festival of Pomona, honouring the goddess of fruit and trees.

All well and good for a few centuries. But then pagan-lite Celtic descendants began migrating to the American colonies, They took with them many of their habits and mores, including the custom of souling. Hallowmas evolved into Hallowe’en: a kind of giant muck-up day. The youth of North America, including Mexico, would play tricks upon neighbours and families, unless bribed with sweetmeats. These days, of course, the routine has degenerated into just another candy-fest, like Easter.

So what about that phrase ‘trick or treat’? Is it American or not? Not quite. Its earliest known use turns up in 1927 in the Canadian province of Alberta. But the 1920s do hold the key to this odd phrase.

During the roaring twenties in America, a time of post-war madness, liquor prohibition and Jazz Age misbehaviour, that nation’s disaffected youth developed a tradition of serious misbehaviour at the time of Halloween: kind of Schoolies Week on a grand scale. In major cities, Mafia-style shake-downs were common among dangerous youth at this time of the year. And the damage bill to property could run as high as one hundred thousand dollars – which is like a gazillion in today’s money. Then, during the Great Depression, the rowdiness worsened. In some cities of America, the night of Halloween meant vandalism on a grand scale, with assaults and acts of violence. Only the outbreak of World War Two curtailed this rowdy conduct.

After the war, in the baby boom era, trick-or-treating in America took on a more benign character. No more Great Depression, no more Prohibition and no more sugar rationing. Manufacturers of candy cashed in. They launched national advertising campaigns at Halloween time. So we have today’s nonsense, with a spread of trick-or-treating across the Anglosphere. Thanks Hollywood. Violent and destructive tricks might have fallen away, along with fearing the undead (except as entertainment), but our modern version of the soul cake lives on, albeit drumming up business for dentists rather than exorcists.

So without a context, ‘trick or treat’ doesn’t make much sense. The trick, if there still is one, might consist of us knowing in advance that either we’d better buy sweets for small visitors or else get the hell out of our homes in advance. That trick might be our only treat.