Monthly Archives: August, 2017

For %@#&’s sake

Like musical notation, punctuation is code, offering more than its symbols suggest and adding layers of meaning without unnecessary verbiage.

Before punctuation, handwritten texts featured words in an unbroken stream. Early punctuation arose for entirely practical reasons, such as assisting readers of scripture to pause for breath while not losing the context.

Here’s a standard trivia question: how many punctuation marks are commonly used in English? Here’s the standard answer: fourteen.

(i) full stop (or ‘period’ if you’re American) (ii) question mark (iii) exclamation mark (exclamation point’ for Americans) (iv) comma (v) semicolon (vi) colon (vii) dash (viii) hyphen (ix) parentheses (x) brackets (xi) braces (xii) apostrophe (xiii) quotation marks or inverted commas (xiv) ellipsis.

But fourteen will no longer do.

Nowadays we have access to a range of variable fonts and typeface on any computer. How can that old exclusive club ignore such recurring characters as the following?

(i) slash – also known as ‘solidus,’ ‘slope bar,’ ‘diagonal,’ oblique,’ ‘shilling mark’ or ’virgule’ (ii) hash (iii) currency signs (iv) ampersand (v) asterisk (vi) square brackets (vii) at sign @ (viii) ‘caret’ – an upside down V, also known as the ‘wedge,’ the ‘up arrow’ or the ‘hat’ (ix) the ‘therefore sign’ (a three-point plug) and (x) its upside down image signifying ‘because’.

Add to this list the many other marks available in standard software, such as the percentage mark and all those mathematical symbols, not to mention a welter of diacritical marks used in words from Spanish, French, German and just about every other language. Some of these can no longer be neatly separated into standard and non-standard.

Yet a few still tend towards the obscure. Lesser known include the very old and the new.

There is the ‘pilcrow’:

This was used to indicate paragraph breaks and is sometimes is known as ‘the blind P’. Pilcrow was a Middle English word for ‘paragraph.’ That makes sense. We can imagine clerics snatching a breath when reading aloud from scripture. And this quaint symbol is available in Word. Some people even click it for default display to mark their place while drafting documents.

There is also the decorative ‘hedera’:

This word is Latin for ‘ivy’ and the symbol is also known as the ‘fleuron’. The hedera functioned as a paragraph divider too, though just as often it graced the page border as an ornament. Today it retains decorative value only.

Here’s a more recent punctuation mark, the ‘interrobang’:

This one amounts to a polite WTF??!! It may not feature on the standard keyboard but it can make an impact when used. Not for everyone perhaps yet it’s growing in levels of acceptance.

Of these new kids on the block, my personal favourite is a symbol known as the ‘snark’:

This one is also called the ‘percontation point,’ ‘rhetorical question mark’ or ‘irony mark’. A recent addition, it offers an opportunity to add a shade of meaning. By offering a reverse question mark, a writer can suggest ironic comment without needing further explanation. It remains on the fringe of acceptance though.

A more extreme version of this idea is called the ‘SarcMark’ ™:

This one is a proprietary creation, short for ‘sarcasm mark’. It’s less obvious in design, bearing a logo-like quality. It’s a bit too try-hard for my tastes. Perhaps I’m allergic to sarcasm.

But why do we even new punctuation marks?

Before the invention of moveable type when books were hand-written, scribes relied on home-grown style guides. Decorative marks to beautify a page were no problem but when a scribe translated text, the effort was fraught with peril. A scribe might use punctuation which only local readers would understand. And there weren’t that many readers.

With the advent of moveable type, mass production and mass distribution dictated the need to standardise punctuation, like spelling. A reader in the next county or the next country might not otherwise be able to follow the meaning.

Fast forward to today. In the twenty-first century, adding whimsical new punctuation marks like the interrobang or the snark might be amusing but they’ll only be effective if readers are in on the joke. Outliers such as the SarcMark™ cannot deliver without such widespread acceptance. And like most readers I remain unconvinced, sticking with the usual suspects. But I’m open to novelty, so let’s see what happens.

I have identified one area where punctuation marks of all kinds might come in handy: the Comments section of on-line posts for newspapers. If an algorithm can be developed to recognise particular words and convert them into certain symbols, this might ease the tension of trolling and counter-trolling.

So %@#& you and your ($+)*^~ë{¥©} opinions. Who could take offence at that?







The gig is up


Even a couple of years ago the ‘gig economy’ might have related to playing in bands. Not today. This innocuous sounding phrase is code. It might appear glamorous but it’s just another way to describe casual and underpaid jobs. Uber drivers, couriers, cleaners, care workers: they’re all part of this brave new work. And it is notable for a lack of security and low pay with few benefits. Not such a great gig.

This used to be called the ‘sharing economy’ – though employers always had the lion’s share. Today it might be better described as an ‘app economy’. Online platforms are regularly used for delivering each gig, amounting to no more than piece work. Who gets the gig? People who deliver or drive or clean. In other words, paid servants. These jobs resemble zero-hour contracts, with no guarantee of pay except on delivery and without an hourly minimum.

The ‘gig economy’ enables companies to cut or limit staff costs. They call it ‘flexible’ – though workers have less polite names for it, missing out on protection and fair pay. Flexibility only goes one way. The employer can roster workers on and off as required, without annual or sick leave. Workers aren’t even considered employees but ‘contractors.’ Sounds more glamorous. It’s not.

In Britain the ‘gig’ workforce is currently 15%; that’s five million people, though this number does includes traditional contractors and underemployed workers on short-term contracts. Predictions in the USA indicate that by 2020 up to 40% of the workforce will be independent contractors. Great news for employers. They can pick and choose from an even larger pool of workers.

Getting a gig is allegedly popular with so-called ‘Millennials’ but the reasons are manifold. Yes, there is a generational preference for online connection and an attraction to short-term planning. On the other hand, many younger people report despondency as they face diminished job prospects due to increased automation and digitisation. And there is a larger than ever pool of people willing – or forced – to move around global labour markets, vying for a shrinking number of sustainable jobs.

Employers can’t lose. In the ‘gig’ economy they even save on office space and employee benefits. They buy and drop expertise as needed without having to waste money on frivolities such as staff development. Also they can spruik increased flexibility as family-friendly and achieving a greater work-life balance for workers. Benevolent.

Most would-be gigsters face a plight comparable to the Blues Brothers band. Even a redneck roadhouse gig where you’re expected to play both Country and Western music is better than having no gig at all. But let’s not give it the dignity of a term like ‘gig economy’ when ‘hand-to-mouth economy’ is more accurate. Some gigs are more equal than others.


Woke Up Call?

For the majority of English speakers, ‘woke’ will only ever be the past particle of ‘wake’; and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for others, it might be difficult to avoid bumping into ‘woke’ on the Internet.

Anyone who feels like giving their blood pressure a workout just needs to read the Comments section under many a Web posting. Ouch. Usually no time will lapse before the trolling starts. Sneers from the right include ‘bleeding heart’ and relative newcomer ‘snowflake’. Sneers from the left include ‘redneck’ and ‘Nazi’. But for a person on the left to call a fellow leftie ‘woke’ is considered a compliment; in fact it’s becoming a byword for social justice awareness. The term implies ideological sensitivity to the plight of the marginalised, the oppressed, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses.

Urban naughtily defines ‘woke’ as the following: ‘A state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post.’

But seriously, when and how did ‘woke’ awake?

There is evidence of this term being much older than the current generation. In 1962 The New York Times published an article by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley entitled ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It.’ But the word appears to have entered the wider American vernacular only a handful of years ago in 2008, featured in the song ‘Master Teacher’ by Erykah Badu, which included the lines:
Even though you go through struggle and strife
To keep a healthy life, I stay woke
(I stay woke)
Everybody knows a black or a white there’s creatures in every shape and size
(I stay woke)

While this song may not have started the trend, it widened the audience. ‘Stay woke’ gained currency throughout the African-American community for anyone considering themselves self-aware and reformist. In 2013-2014 the expressions ‘stay woke’ and ‘woke’ entered mainstream media discussion after the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. It soon became a watchword for the Black Lives Matter movement. Any activist was ‘woke’ and called on others to ‘stay woke’.

Since then on social media, especially Twitter, the little word has become shorthand for online activism. ‘Woke’ tweets discuss such topics as police brutality, racism and deaths in custody. #StayWoke is a means of reminding the Twitterati to look beyond mainstream media and to cross-examine their own positions of privilege.

Is this cultural appropriation? In 2016 journalist Amanda Hess wrote in The New York Times Magazine: “The conundrum is built in. When white people aspire to get points for consciousness, they walk right into the cross hairs between allyship and appropriation.” Another new word, ‘allyship’ refers to the phenomenon of someone from a non-discriminated group supporting those suffering from discrimination.

But is ‘woke’ really cultural appropriation or is it just an aspect of language evolution? After all, this is hardly the first time a word or phrase from Black English has later crossed into the mainstream. English owes a wealth of contributions to this source. We have ‘rock and roll,’ ‘jazz,’ ‘bogus,’ ‘hip,’ ‘dig’ and many more. People might no longer say ‘groovy’ but ‘cool’ has never stopped being cool.

Yet ‘woke’ may not be the new ‘cool’. Writing in The New York Times last month, the ever-perceptive David Brooks observed: “To be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures… Cool was politically detached, but being a social activist is required for being woke. Cool was individualistic, but woke is nationalistic and collectivist.”

So it feels right and proper – maybe even ‘woke’ – to acknowledge the sources of this contemporary term, especially in our post-Obama triTrumphalist era. To paraphrase Australia’s current Prime Minister: there’s never been a more exciting time to be woke.

Is it Time to Beg Off?

Beg the Question. Time to throw in the towel on this one?

It’s a losing battle, maybe already over. People chuck the expression around with such abandon I don’t feel there’s much point quibbling. It’s like insisting on using a fountain pen when everyone has gone biro. Or sticking with a quill, or a good old-fashioned clay tablet and chisel.

Yes, there are still official academic definitions. Oxford and Merriam-Webster are in virtual agreement on this, calling the modern usage ‘nonstandard’. But is it?

Google, fast becoming people’s dictionary of choice, has a bet each way: Beg the question 1. (Of a fact or action) Raise a point that has not been dealt with; invite an obvious question, e.g. ‘Some definitions of mental illness beg the question of what constitutes normal behaviour.’ 2. Assume the truth of an argument or proposition to be proved, without arguing it.

The first is more commonly heard nowadays. The second teeters on obsolescence.

Here’s what used to happen when you begged a question: you assumed the conclusion of your argument. In other words, you practised false reasoning. For example, ‘There must be something to the legend of the Loch Ness monster because there have been so many sightings of it.’ Huh? This is a classic beg, also known as an informal fallacy.

Or what about this one? ‘Abortion is the unjustifiable killing of human beings, in other words murder. As murder is illegal, abortion should be illegal.’ This is begging the question – old-style. The speaker already assumes that abortion is killing, which is the whole point at issue. The conclusion that needs to be proved has been rolled into the premise. Like one of those Escher staircases in a castle, you never get out of there.

Where did such an odd expression come from?

It entered English during Shakespeare’s century, the 16th, via the Latin phrase petitio principii (literally ‘asking for the first’). This concept (originally in Greek) started with Aristotle, relating to a debating point in which a questioner sought to find a logical inconsistency between responses and the original statement. You lost debating points if your reasoning circled back to make a question too close to the original statement.

The phrase made its way to Latin – didn’t they all? – and thence to English, where petitio can be translated as either ‘to assume’ or ‘to postulate’; alternatively it can mean ‘to petition’ or ‘to beseech’. Either way, such an accusation used to mean you had failed to demonstrate your proposition, arguing in a circle, ‘proving’ what was not self-evident by stating what you hoped to prove. Here’s an example: ‘Valium makes you fall asleep because it has soporific properties.’ Or how about ‘Beer refreshes because it’s thirst-quenching.’ False reasoning by another name. Might as well say that the rain feels wet today.

All very well, Aristotle. But in the twenty-first century most English speakers use the phrase either to mean ‘raise the question’ or ‘evade the question.’ As in ‘Hey, I weigh a hundred kilos and I have clogged arteries, which begs the question: why have I not started exercising?’

Some people even use it as a form of ‘I wonder why?’ Example 1: “Artificial intelligence is on the rise, which begs the question, ‘whose job is next?’” Example 2: ‘President Donald Trump isn’t in jail so that begs the question “Where are Hillary’s emails?”’

Well, no. Just no. Also I’m still shaking my head over the juxtaposition of the words ‘president’ and ‘Donald Trump’.

Damn it. Language evolves. Don’t you hate that?

I mean, hanging around with the pen and parchment crowd gives me a feeling of moral superiority but it’s not much consolation. I might as well be yammering away in Middle English if I quibble about these modern beggars. And they probably have a point. After all, ‘terrific’ used to mean ‘frightening’; now it means ‘excellent’. ‘Awful’ used to mean ‘full on wonder and awe’; now it means ‘dismal and disappointing’. So it might be time to beg off. Ain’t it awful?