Hyphen - late amazonhyphen anal
Last month reportedly withdrew an e-book for the crime of containing too many hyphens. If this was 1st April, I would not be surprised. But seriously?

Acting on an email complaint from a single reader, Amazon withdrew this e-book from circulation for including one hundred hyphenated words in a novel of 90,000 words. At approximately 300 pages, that makes one hyphenated word every third page. Seriously?

Why would Amazon suffer a panic attack rather than stand by its author? Prior to publication, Graeme Reynolds, author of Werewolf novel High Moor 2: Moonstruck, had paid a thousand pounds for professional editing. He had already received more than a hundred positive reviews on Amazon before the distributor received the complaint. The company then contacted the unfortunate author to advise that his book would be withdrawn because it contained too many hyphens. In Amazon’s official-ese, he was told ‘this significantly impacts the readability of your book’. Amazon went on to inform Mr Reynolds that ‘we have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers’.

Leaving aside the ugliness of such clumsy sentences, not to mention their ambiguity, the statement by Amazon appears to be disingenuous at the very least. What exactly is this ‘combined impact’? Do they mean their combined readership? Or is the motivation more likely to be anxiety on the part of a global distributor hoping to avoid the tiniest hint of criticism? If so, they miscalculated.

Amazon, using more managerialist language, further explained to Mr Reynolds: ‘As quality issues with your book negatively affect the reading experience, we have removed your title from sale until these issues are corrected… Once you correct hyphenated words, please republish your book and make it available for sale.’

Amazon chose to act not as a secondary editor but as a censor, though hardly out of concern for public morality or literary integrity. Advice from lawyers and insurers would be higher on the Amazon list of priorities. So they jumped at this one opinionated email without reference to the perfectly acceptable practice of using hyphens in English to join two related words. Egregious examples of Reynolds’ use of hyphens includes ‘razor-filled muzzle’ and ‘brown-furred monster’. Unsurprisingly, Amazon has since received many complaints about the unfairness of this publishing suppression, far outweighing the initial excuse for withdrawal. Their tactic backfired. Amazon now looks even more foolish, rather than the responsible distributor it purports to be.

What exactly has the poor old hyphen done to deserve such a teacup-storm anyway? It’s a perfectly normal tool to link or to form compound words for clarity and to prevent confusion, especially where a short phrase consists of compound adjectives or numbers: e.g. thirty-odd people, re-cover, pre-Christian, un-American, second-hand, post-1945, neo-Nazi, anti-Communist, sub-prime loans.

We also use the hyphen where two vowels meet as the last and first letters respectively: e.g. anti-intellectual, pre-eminent, de-emphasise, re-use. And speakers and writers of English have long deployed the humble hyphen when two nouns or two adjectives have equal status: e.g. tenant-farmer, owner-driver, hocus-pocus, city-state, bitter-sweet, colour-blind, red-hot, accident-prone.

So it looks like the company founded by Jeff Bezos, and named after a big exotic river rather than fearless female warriors, has bungled in its risk aversion and instead created an episode of absurdity on a par with any Evelyn Waugh farce.

What next? Will the clumsy distribution giant lurch with hammy fists at isolated complaints about excess adverbs? Will it lunge at the misuse of gerunds?

Or will the bungling behemoth confine its grand inquisitor searches to a more manageable task easier for algorithms, namely seeking out deviants from arbitrary standards of punctuation? Lookout semicolons—you’re next.





Ums aren’t dumb, just new-fashioned

Um Emerson Hobgoblin

Not long ago I attended a meeting where the chairperson spoke about an information forum. Then he went on to describe more than one forum; except he said ‘fora’. I assumed he was making a joke, being ironic or just poking fun at pointless pedantry. Nope. He was serious. ‘It’s the plural form,’ he announced, dispelling any doubts about his lack of mirth. A scholar of Latin he was not, just a stickler for a non-rule. Wherefore this absurd assumption that ‘um’ endings must be Latinised into an ‘a’ for plurals?

I’m all for logic but this is not logical. Speakers of English in the twenty-first century no more use ‘fora’ for forums than we use ‘alba’ for albums. Nobody says ‘acquaria,’ ‘stadia,’ ‘conundra,’ ‘capsica,’ ‘plectra’ or ‘auditoria,’ unless we’re making a joke — or asking for a smack over the head.

But I must face up to my own logical inconsistency. I do prefer ‘millennia’ to millenniums and ‘symposia’ to symposiums. Also I favour ‘candelabra’ and ‘criteria’. I’m still on the fence about old-fashioned forms such as ‘consortia,’ ‘memoranda,’ ‘referenda,’ ‘spectra,’ ‘crematoria’ and ‘compendia’.  I would never presume to correct anyone for using the common ‘s’ ending. In written form I find alternative ways to describe such troublesome plurals. This dichotomy may have its origins in a generational shift but more likely I’m just stubborn about abandoning archaisms. I suspect I’m not the only one. ‘Atria,’ ‘quora,’ ‘ultimata’ and ‘sanatoria’ sound ridiculous to our ears but I still prefer to use ‘honoraria,’ ‘curricula,’ ‘errata’ and ‘moratoria’. It’s not easy to let old habits go.

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay ‘Self-Reliance’ (1841) famously said: ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’. Nobody wants to be thought foolish or a language hobgoblin. So does it really matter if most speakers of English don’t realise that ‘data’ used to be only the plural form of ‘datum,’ but now it’s used as both singular and plural? To cling to outdated Latin singular forms like ‘agendum’ does seem hobgoblinish. Common words in English derived from Latin might once have taken the ‘a’ ending for plurals but ‘asylums,’ ‘minimums,’ ‘harmoniums,’ ‘mausoleums,’ ‘serums’ and ‘museums’ are now common plurals for English speakers.

What is our authority? As usual our mother tongue doesn’t have one. Dictionaries reflect, rather than dictate, usage. A more reliable mentor is the style guide. Almost all English-language newspapers have these. Regarding tricky plurals, such guides generally distinguish between less common (e.g. scientific, medical or legal) Latin-derived plurals that require the ‘a’ ending and those commonly written as ‘ums’. Therefore we have ‘bacteria’ and we have ‘maximums,’ ‘dicta’ and ‘nostrums,’ ‘substrata’ and ‘solariums,’ ‘effluvia’ and ‘emporiums,’ and the word ‘labia’ peacefully co-existing with a word like ‘gymnasiums’. Some Latinate plurals will never feel comfortable, like those for ‘colosseum,’ ‘continuum,’ ‘delirium,’ ‘pandemonium’ and ‘magnum’. But if doubts arise, we can usually find an alternative.

So if this discussion has taxed your collective cerebella, go outside and pick some nasturtia, chrysathema or gerania from your arboreta or herbaria. You’ll soon recover your mental equilibria.

Advent vs Adventure

Adventures of Tintin William Miller Advent Calendar

In the church calendar the season of Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It derives from Latin, via the Old French word ‘to come’. This season signals the coming of Christmas. Cue ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and other such song sentiments. It also carries a connotation of arriving, entrance and onset.

So how does advent relate to adventure?

There’s definitely a sense of motion in undertaking a risk or hazard: The Adventures of Tintin or The Adventures of Barry McKenzie or even Baron Munchhausen. There’s excitement, danger and uncertainty. There is also venturing. But these dares, risks and hazards surely reflect going rather than coming.

So are we coming or going during Advent? It is near the end of the year, after all.

Chaos and the silly season are upon us. This was the time in the Middle Ages calendar when we celebrated topsy-turviness with the Lord of Misrule, a close cousin to April Fool’s.

At this time of year we often experience instances of the ‘adventitious’. These are phenomena of haphazard or unpremeditated design: fortuitous, random, accidental, unexpected, serendipitous or coincidental. The adventitious is the unlooked-for, even the exotic. It comes out of the blue. We didn’t see it coming. Unlike Christmas. Unlike a planned adventure.

The movement known as ‘Adventism’ has no direct relation to Christmas, nor with adventitious matters of biology or the adventures of anybody, except perhaps its founder, one William Miller. Who?

In the 19th Century this Baptist preacher drummed up 100,000 followers when he predicted Jesus Christ would come again on October 22, 1844. After this Second Coming no-show, the movement known as Millerism or Adventism lost its appeal for many. Yet a determined few remained optimistic that a Second Coming would come… eventually.

In 1863, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formed, with a focus on the sanctity of the Sabbath. There have been many other kinds of Adventist church, such as the Christdelphians, the Advent Christian Church and the Primitive Advent Christian Church, as well as radical offshoots like the Branch Davidians, many of whom perished in a siege in Waco, Texas in 1993. That was an adventure, though the results were adventitious.

Most of us are not looking for adventure in the season of Advent, yet this year has seen its share of unlooked-for dramas. Advent can be adventitious: births, deaths, breakups, reunions, natural disasters and human triumphs. Like the Roman god Janus, we look back as well as forward. Roll on 2015. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.

No Need to Mention My Opponent’s Drinking Problem


Paralipsis (also known as paralepsis, parasiopesis, preterition, cataphasis, antiphrasis or occupatio) is a rhetorical figure of speech whereby I can state that I won’t even talk about the allegations that my political opponent has a drinking problem. Oops. I went and did it.

Or I could be even sneakier, asserting that I’m not calling my opponent a liar but I note that his grasp of facts appears to be shaky.

If I’m feeling very cheeky, I might have my cake and eat it by saying something like “In that suit you look like—no, I was going to say ‘spiv’.”

Paralipsis is a form of apophasis, a general rhetorical device where I can raise a subject by either denying it or denying that it should be brought up. It’s a first cousin to irony.

If I overstep the mark of paralipsis, I stray into the murky realm of proslepsis. This is when I draw attention to something while pretending to pass it over. For example: “I won’t demean this debate by mentioning an occasion when my learned opponent was found asleep in a park with an empty vodka bottle.” Ouch. I’ve gone too far. Not classy. Over-egged that pudding.

The great Roman orator Cicero wasn’t averse to a little paralipsis: “I now forget your wrongs, Clodia. I set aside the memory of my pains [which you caused].”

Or how about this Ciceronian effort? “I might say many things of his liberality, kindness to his domestics, his command in the army, and moderation during his office in the province; but the honour of the state presents itself to my view, and calling me to it, advises me to omit these lesser matters.”

Ronald Reagan liked the rhetorical device too. When questioned about the rumours of psychological treatment provided in the past to Michael Dukakis, the wily president seeking re-election said: “Look, I’m not going to pick on an invalid.”

No doubt about it, paralipsis might be cruel but it’s often funny. In the film The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) the main character is asked to apologise to the marshal’s wife and friends for calling them whores. Roy Bean says: “I understand you have taken exception to my calling you whores. I’m sorry. I apologise. I ask you to note that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts. But I did say ‘whores.’ No escaping that. And for that slip of the tongue, I apologise.”

There is also a legendary, and perhaps apocryphal, exchange recorded in Hansard, the official transcript of parliamentary debate in the Parliament of Australia:

Hon. the Member for B…. : The Member opposite has the brains of a sheep.
Members: Shame, shame.
Hon. Mr Speaker: Order! The Member for B…. will withdraw that remark.
Hon. the Member for B…. : Very well, Mr Speaker, I withdraw my remark. The Member opposite does not have the brains of a sheep.

Now that’s classy paralipsis.

Geoffrey Chaucer liked his paralipsis on occasion, as in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1480): “The music, the service at the feast, /The noble gifts for the great and small,/ The rich adornment of Theseus’s palace/ All these things I do not mention now.”

Jonathon Swift, one of the great masters of irony, showed his love of paralipsis in A Modest Proposal (1729): “Therefore, let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees… of using neither clothes, nor house hold furniture… of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming of learning to love our country…”

Herman Melville in Moby Dick (1851) described the character of Queequeg with masterly paralipsis: “We will not speak of all Queequeg’s peculiarities here; how he eschewed coffee and hot rolls, and applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare.”

But the acknowledged master would have to be Shakespeare. One famous speech in Julius Caesar (1599), delivered by Mark Antony, is a masterpiece of political paralipsis to put other politicians’ efforts in the shade:

“Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it./ It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you./ You are not wood; you are not stones, but men;/ And, being men, hearing the will of Caesar,/ It will inflame you, it will make you mad:/ For if you should, oh, what would come of it…/ But here’s a parchment, with the seal of Caesar;/ I found it in his closet; ‘tis his will:/ Let but the commons hear this testament–/ Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read.”

The word obviously comes from Ancient Greek. Para means ‘alongside’ and lipsis comes from leipein for ‘leave,’ therefore ‘leave alongside’.

But language keeps on evolving, damn it. Phrases, like currency, can lose their punch and become devalued. In much the same way that ‘literally’ has been devalued by confusion with ‘figuratively’ because the former sounds stronger, certain phrases are no longer applied logically.

One common sentence opener example is: ‘Needless to say’. This used to mean that it didn’t need to be said. Now it’s become an instance of paralipsis, without the wit and wisdom of Swift, Shakespeare or even Reagan. It doesn’t need to be said but it is. “I surely need not remind you to get your Christmas shopping done early”. Yup. In doing so, I have reminded you. The same goes for “I need not mention that everything must be done by the deadline” or “I don’t have to remind everyone of the urgency of this matter”. Devaluation to paralipsis without any of the fun: this is just boring. How often have we heard “Here’s a man who needs no introduction”? And how often has that precluded an introduction?

I will finish with my favourite modern example of paralipsis. It’s the character of Tony Stark from Iron Man 2 (2010): “I’m not saying I’m responsible for this country’s longest run of uninterrupted peace in thirty-five years. I’m not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a phoenix metaphor been more personified. I’m not saying Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven’t come across any one man enough to go toe to toe with me on my best day!”

That’s about as paralipsistic as it gets.


Me, Myself and Aye

Myself Dont Matter Batman

Some people are anxious about using the apostrophe. Should they leave it out or would that be worse than putting it in the wrong place? I’ve seen an apostrophe floating vaguely above a sentence without committing the sin of landing on the wrong spot.

Same goes for ‘myself’.

Lately I’ve been hearing this one a lot: “He gave the gift to myself.”

Are such speakers confused about whether to use ‘I’ or ‘me,’ fearing embarrassment if they use the wrong one? Do they fear trolls appearing to attack them and so they push ‘myself’ out there as a sort of neutral option?

I seriously doubt that those same speakers would use the word in this way in written form. Apart relying on alarm bells from their innate sense of non-standard English, there’s also the help offered by spellchecker and grammar-checker.

So is there a right and wrong for ‘myself’? Formal English says yes.

‘I’ is the most common version of the first person pronoun: the subject form. Yes, we do like to talk about ourselves.

The object pronoun ‘me’ naturally gets plenty of air time too, as the person on the receiving end, the one being done unto.

So it follows that the reflexive pronoun ‘myself’ should be heard least.

In conventional English, reflexive pronouns are used as a direct and indirect object when the object is the same as the subject of the verb. For example: ‘I congratulated myself when I won’. Here is the direct object of the verb restating the subject. Other examples: ‘He cut himself with the razor’ and ‘She gazed at herself in the mirror’.

Also, adding the preposition ‘by,’ followed by the reflexive pronoun, shows that the person performing the action did so without anyone’s help (e.g. ‘He hung the frames by himself’).

So far, so what? You may congratulate yourself for already knowing this. But do you yourself know it?

The reflexive pronoun is often used for emphasis in conversational English. But traditional grammarians of formal English do not like it. If you really want to give sticklers’ blood pressure a workout, try triple emphasis (e.g. ‘I myself personally believe it to be true’). Ouch.

An old chestnut of grammar lessons is that speakers should never say ‘Between you and I’ when they mean ‘Between you and me.’ It’s the common confusion about object and subject. So the Queen can say ‘My husband and I are happy to be here’ but Her Majesty would be in serious trouble if she went all vernacular and said ‘My husband and me are happy to be here.’

But to confuse the already confused, traditional English grammar also allows ellipsis to reduce word redundancy (e.g. ‘You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din’ rather than saying ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din’. In this example, the ‘am’ is redundant).

All fairly obvious, so why have I been hearing instances of ‘myself’ used more frequently of late, in preference to ‘I’ or ‘me’? Perhaps I have only just tuned in or perhaps this is a sign of a more relaxed English usage.

So I offer an alternative to the theory of grammar anxiety: blissful ignorance. This is a state much to be desired by those of us who notice the difference and bother about it too much.

Sure, we might have the knowledge of convention, custom and practice, meaning that we can take the linguistic moral high ground but maybe the ignorant legions of ‘myself’ users are happier. Maybe they don’t give a toss. They’re far more interested in life’s bigger concerns. They will probably live longer.

As a word worrier, I myself almost envy them.

Not the end of the world as we know it

The Who TARDIS Bill-and-Melinda-Gates-Foundation

Research published in the USA last month showed that, contrary to expectation, the young are reading more than their parents. As the four wise men of The Who said a generation ago, the kids are all right.

Surveys results from a 2013 project conducted by Pew Research Center, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, indicate that so-called ‘Millennials’ (defined as those born between 1985 and 1998), also known as ‘Generation Y’ and the ‘iPhone generation,’ are reading as much as, and in some cases more than, their parents. They read in various formats: e-books, paper books, newspapers, magazines and, of course, on-line. But wait, there’s more. Younger readers are also heavy users of public lending libraries. What the font? This wasn’t supposed to happen. Didn’t we convince ourselves that technology would fracture our attention span, reduce human ability to read any text longer than a limerick, and usher in the decline and fall of literacy?

I’m father to a pigeon pair of Millennials, both keen readers in multiple formats. Whether we should thank J K Rowling or our own example as parents seems less important than taking the opportunity to celebrate these latest research findings. Sure, there’s ignorance among younger readers about history and politics of bygone eras, but wasn’t it ever thus? What group of humans hasn’t complained about inter-generational ignorance? I’m sure Babylonians, Phoenicians and Etruscans whinged about ‘kids today’. But if this recent research is reliable, the signs do not point to Dumb and Dumber as we all feared.

At age seven, my son wrote this line: ‘When you read, you will learn the secrets’. I didn’t keep his proto-essay but I’ve not forgotten that knock-out opening. Written words open a door to secrets. Nowadays we have many doors and it appears that the young are opening them. Since the late Twentieth Century in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we’ve devalued the currency of oral storytelling, instead trusting to the written record or the camera. This loss of transmission for generational sagas and family lore means diminishing cultural richness: a truism newly arrived immigrants and refugees learn as soon as their children start school and embrace their adopted culture. Perhaps over-reliance on documentary record-keeping has a deleterious effect on memory too. Who needs to remember stuff? Isn’t there an app for that? Just recalling where we left the car keys can feel like an achievement.

In my pre-digital childhood, certain books were held sacred: religious texts, scholarly texts and wise narratives. Such volumes acted like a TARDIS, slipping the surly bonds of time and space. Nowadays ‘book’ is a state of mind rather than an object. No wonder Doctor Who and his flying box are enjoying a new lease of life. Every access point to the Internet tells us it’s bigger on the inside. The concept of ‘library’ has reached out and engulfed our world. Reading hasn’t gone away, just diversified.

That polymath of the Renaissance, Sir Francis Bacon, was the last person to brag he had read all the books in the world. No one today–with the possible exception of Kim Jong-un–would make such a claim, not with half a million books published annually. And just imagine trying to read the entirety of one popular website: Wikipedia, a knowledge repository which publishes four million articles every year. If printed, its 1,600 volumes would fill nine stacks of shelving, with a word count fifty times that of Britannica. Compare that to the most recent print edition of the OED, a skimpy twenty volumes. So much text, so little time.

Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 book The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember claimed that digital distraction is shrinking our concentration powers to goldfish level. Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times in 2011, alleged ‘we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud’. I feel more sanguine than either author, with their fears of brain-eating computers. So what if Millennials use the global mind for their data-gathering and storage, preferring to concentrate on narrative and analysis? The great Albert Einstein didn’t bother to learn his own phone number. Why waste the time and effort when he could just look it up? Today he’d use a search engine, probably on his phone. The big E made room for big ideas.

So I’m heartened by this recent research, which suggests that the prophets of doom might have spoken prematurely. Dewey did not defeat Truman, after all. Hold the panic presses. Shhh. The kids are reading.


Gunpowder, treason and the plot thickens

download V for Vendetta What if

Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder treason should ever be forgot…!

Are we remembering this event for the best reasons? Further lines to that famous verse tell of Guy Fawkes, his thwarted scheme to blow up the king and parliament with barrels of gunpowder, and prevention by divine providence. The verse usually accompanies bonfires—a noisy treat for proto-arsonists young and old.

Guy Fawkes Night was still celebrated in Australia when I was a boy, a post-colonial legacy already going out of style for health and safety reasons. I’ve seen the ceremonies celebrated in England: crowded and crazy, a pyrotechnic Thanksgiving without the turkey. Nor is Guy Fawkes always the villain. For some he’s become an anti-hero, partly thanks to V for Vendetta. And it’s not hard to see why, in the aftermath of 911, a re-born Fawkes would play into the hands of conspiracy theorists.

Most revellers assume they’re celebrating a failed Catholic attempt to assassinate James I on 5th November 1605. That effigy or ‘guy’ atop the bonfire is supposed to be wicked ringleader Fawkes. But folk memory and rhyme sometimes get it wrong. Undoubtedly caught red-handed with the gunpowder, Mr Fawkes was no more a criminal mastermind than Lee Harvey Oswald. At least historians can agree there was an actual conspiracy—ah, but which conspiracy?

5th November would’ve been England’s 911, if it had worked. Blowing up the House of Lords was only part of the plan. Various malcontents were disillusioned with their new king, James VI of Scotland, now James I of the UK, for not going soft on Catholics as they had hoped: quite the reverse. As several attempts against the king’s life had failed, these fellows decided to do the job themselves. Led by Robert Catesby, they would cleanse the realm of king, lords, judges and bishops in one extremely fell swoop, and then stir up a popular revolt.

But they were hardly Al Qaeda. Their weakest link was the size of their inner circle: too large. At the eleventh hour, one conspirator wrote to a sympathetic MP, suggesting he should call in sick to work if he wanted to live, ‘cos His Maj wouldn’t. As this baron remained loyal to the king, the conspiracy was foiled… or was it?

Some historians have cast doubt on the official tale, suggesting a ‘false flag op’ for 5th November. The ‘false flag’ is CIA-style talk for a covert operation, including terror activities, designed to throw the blame on somebody else. The ‘false flag’ here would be the king’s first minister, Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, who allegedly engineered the Gunpowder Plot to inspire anti-Catholic sentiment and so strengthen the new king’s reign. The conspiracy notion goes something like this: a perception existed that the king (son of Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic martyr) was already showing too much leniency with recusants in Protestant England. And little Lord Salisbury feared that English Catholics might become a political handful if treated with moderation. As the king was known to fear violent death due to a boyhood spent in peril of kidnapping, Catholic assassins made the perfect bogeyman. Nice theory but is there any proof?

Some unanswered questions lend credence to this other gunpowder plot. The government held a monopoly on the explosive, securing it in places like the Tower of London, so how did Catesby’s men obtain three-score barrels without attracting attention? Either they had someone on the inside or they relied on the black market. Either way, it’s strange how they could rent a house so close to parliament and then move the barrels from that home to the cellar of parliament without anybody noticing. Troubling questions remain. No half-dug tunnel under parliament has ever been found. Why was there a nine-day delay between the anonymous letter and the search that captured Fawkes? And why, when they knew the plot was blown, did these conspirators not flee the country?

It’s not hard to see the attraction for conspiracy theorists in ‘false flag’ operations, such as the alleged Tonkin Gulf attribution, the JFK assassination and, of course, 911. Records from 1605 do chronicle post-911 types of public outrage, minus the assistance of Fox News and CNN. Catholics were persecuted and murdered. Others saw their homes torched and a succession of laws passed restricting their rights and liberties. England became obsessed with ‘homeland security’. Maybe even more so. Catholic persecution in the early seventeenth century reached levels worse than that of Muslims in the early twenty-first. Is this a lesson worth learning?

Whichever conspiracy is true, the result was terror. We can remember, remember Guy Fawkes as a near miss (strictly speaking, a near hit) or a reflection of the espionage-dense paranoid nature of Elizabethan/ Jacobean society. Remember, remember: only a generation later the country descended into civil war and ultimately regicide.

‘False flag’ operations offer a perpetrator immediate excuses for war. Citizens will be less likely to object if they’re still recovering from acts of terror. War with Spain did follow soon after the foiled 1605 plot, so is it a coincidence that influential English businessmen, including Salisbury, had long been keen for Spanish war, from which they hoped to make a tidy profit? Not exactly War for Oil but it’s hardly a stretch for conspiracy theorists to paint Salisbury as the Dick Cheney of his day.

5th November might have dodged a huge bullet for the United Kingdom but the jury is still out on the ‘remember, remember’ part. And why.

Quite gruntled, thanks.

jeeves-and-wooster Wodehouse

P G (Pelham Grenville) Wodehouse in The Code of the Woosters (1938) wrote: ‘I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.’

Frightfully witty, this wordplay with a linguistic fossil, what? Thanks, Plum. Our language contains a shirtload of ‘em: remnants from a bygone age, like the above-mentioned, often surviving only in negative usage. One can be ruthless, reckless and uncouth but does one ever dress peccably? Is one gusted? Or pecunious? Or effable? Or gainly? We’ve delved into some of these in a previous blog. Such words lack a certain gorm. Bertie Wooster might describe them as far from sufferable.

But there are other words and phrases that have lingered long past the use-by of their original context. Some have been in circulation since time immemorial. Without further ado, and no need for bated breath, let’s explore a few.

An eke name long ago evolved into a nickname but we retain the word eke as in eking out a living. It means to accomplish or obtain with difficulty. Hither meant nearby or adjacent but these days it survives in the phrase hither and thither, the latter meaning a distant place. We still run amok. We still bandy words and talk of bandy legs, without recourse to a dictionary.

Though we no longer respond to a beck, the word survives in beck and call. If a villain gets what’s coming to him we don’t want the rascal enjoying some tasty after-dinner sweet or hanging around a parched wilderness just because we’ve wished him his just deserts. We might be in high dudgeon or taking umbrage. Retribution might even be in the offing (that is, the future). We don’t have to take heed of or pay heed to or be heedless of such a well-nigh impossible undertaking. We may draw nigh or come hither or sally forth, all without let or hindrance. We can grab that rascal by the scruff of the neck, cut him to the quick, or even be an accessory before the fact. Rather than giving the fellow short shrift I might unleash the whole shebang. Or I could use sleight of hand to wreak havoc, as they did in days of yore. I might wend my way, riding roughshod either to and fro or else helter skelter. I might even raise a hue and cry and wreak havoc but it wouldn’t make a jot of difference. Come what may, we should let bygones be bygones for our hypothetical villain. Not his fault if I have an ulterior motive in exploiting this fellow wrought from imagination. If I had my druthers I’d never have conjured him up. Good riddance.

Two faced

Janus Marx Brothers Baseball

Roman god of beginnings and transitions, Janus guarded gates, doors and passages. He looked in both directions. Often represented as two-faced, he gazed to the future and the past. January owes its name to him, at once supervising New Year’s Eve and New Year’s. He was his own opposite number. He’d have made a great politician.

In a previous blog post, I discussed ways in which ‘awful’ has transmogrified into ‘awesome’. In an even earlier post, I mentioned in passing the phenomenon of contronyms. Not long ago, when ‘awful’ still kept its earlier meaning it also had today’s meaning. It functioned as an auto-antonym, a word with an alternative meaning that is also its own opposite. Like the Roman god, it looks both ways. Examples include: ‘bolt’ (to secure and to dash away), ‘buckle’ (to secure or to collapse), ‘fast’ (firmly fixed or moving quickly), ‘hold up’ (to support or to hamper), and ‘sanction’ (to endorse or to punish). Auto-antonyms are also known in linguistics as contronyms (or contranyms), self-antonyms, antilogy or antagonyms. Is it any wonder that Janus words change their meaning over time? Today we may hear ‘wicked’ for either very bad or very good, and ‘sick’ for both poorly and excellent.

Ours is a damn confusing language. When ‘flammable’ means ‘capable of burning,’ can any student of English as a second language be blamed for concluding that ‘inflammable’ must therefore mean the opposite? Nope. They both mean the same. For an antonym, the student must resort to ‘fireproof,’ which suggests the opposite meaning to ‘proof of flammability’. Janus has switched faces again. Contronyms are legion and legendary.

We can dust a house to remove the dust. Or we can dust for fingerprints, meaning that we spray more dust, which will require dusting later. We can have oversight of a function but we must be vigilant in case of an oversight leading to errors. In music we can refrain from making a sound until the refrain. We can replace a mis-filed book in its rightful place or we can replace it with an entirely different book. Electricity can be turned off until it comes back on, at which time the alarm might go off until we turn it… off. Meanwhile a big-boned butcher can bone a chicken, meaning to remove the bones. A politician can be cool one day but receive a cool reception the next. Uncool. One critical aspect of success (positive) could be received in a critical way (negative). Someone who disposes of garbage could be well disposed to his job. An enduring career could include many tedious efforts of enduring.

Such contradictory meanings are a gift for word-play comedians like the Marx Brothers (‘Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana’) but they’re a nightmare for learners. ‘Fearful’ can mean causing fear or being filled with fear. It cuts both ways. ‘Livid’ can be greyish and bruise-coloured or else red and flushed. Which is it? ‘Moot’ can be either debatable or irrelevant. This is not a moot point. As for a word like ‘original,’ it can mean untouched and virginal like a factory setting, or else entirely new and creative. Which one do we mean? If the lights are ‘out’ that means darkness but if the stars are out, let there be light. ‘Outstanding’ is either exceptional or unresolved. Which? ‘Qualified’ is limited or skilled. Can’t be both, can it? ‘Reservation’ is both a confirmation of availability and a fearful doubt. ‘Screening’ is either a public display or else concealment. Quite the contradiction. To ‘stay’ an execution is to prevent it but to ‘stay’ the course means to persevere. In most sports ‘to strike’ means to hit but in baseball it means to miss. We can ‘trim’ the tree at Christmas (adding) or ‘trim’ the hedge (removing). A ‘vault’ can be a locked box or a wide-open night sky.

How does anyone learn this language when you can proudly receive a ‘citation’ (reward for good behaviour) or shamefully receive a ‘citation’ (penalty for bad behaviour)? I can be on a train bound for Sydney (moving) while bound in rope (unable to move). After I left (departed) my school there were others left (remaining). I can ‘give out’ oxygen tanks to scuba divers but the tanks will only last until the air ‘gives out’. I can be the very model of a modern train conductor but my railway might be a mere model. You can rock my world, unless I am a rock and an island.

English is so damned confusing. I don’t know whether to wind up the engine of debate or wind up the debate. These mixed metaphors are confusing enough if I have to surf a web and avoid trolls while posting. Think I’ll leave off leaving off and let myself off without let or hindrance.

Totally awesome or perhaps not

Shakespeare plays Aint it awful

How many plays did Shakespeare write? The first folio of 1623, published seven years after his death, contained thirty-six plays (minus Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen). Thereafter for some three centuries, scholarship enjoyed a broad consensus (except for those sceptics who claimed the bard was a beard for either Francis Bacon, Edward DeVere the Earl of Oxford or Christopher Marlowe): William from Stratford had a hand in the thirty-eight plays attributed to him.

Then along came Shakespearean apocrypha, comprising works to which the jobbing London playwright may well have added his quill. There’s plenty of evidence that Mr WS helped out promising newcomers like Beaumont, Fletcher, Middleton, Rowley and Webster, as well as old hands Kyd, Nashe and Peele. Will’s workshop collaborations include Edward III (provisionally admitted to the theatre canon in the 1990s), Sir Thomas More (joined the club in the early 2000s), Edmund Ironside (still in debate) and more recently Double Falsehood (2011). There’s also the lost play Cardenio and perhaps another called Love’s Labour’s Won.

All very interesting but the above is by way of a preamble to place a single word in context. Ain’t it awful? Well, yes. Quite. And quote. Here’s the relevant extract, from Sir Thomas More. Act 4, Scene 4: ‘How shall his garment, then, or the loose points that tie respect unto his awful place, avoid destruction?’

There we have it: ‘awful’. Full of awe. How potent a word it used to be! ‘Awful’ punched above its two-syllable weight. Once upon a time the word hit hard, signifying terror (back in the day, when ‘terrific’ used to be an adjective with punch). Not any longer. Now ‘awful’ is just plain awful. Down on its luck, it goes begging for respect. It has moved from the posh neighbourhood of ‘appalling,’ ‘reverential’ and ‘exceedingly great’ to a seedy suburb on the outskirts of respectability. Shakespeare wouldn’t touch the thing now with a bard’s pole. Ain’t it awful?

Yet we still have need of it. We use ‘shock and awe’ (also called ‘rapid dominance’) as a doctrine denoting overwhelming force strike, thanks to the US military. And so, as an adjective, we’ve elevated ‘awesome’. It does ok. In spite of overuse in Hollywood-influenced surfer culture (‘whoa, awesome, dude’) the replacement ‘awful’ retains power and might. We need ‘awesome’ to describe our inspiration and our excitement. We need it to evoke a sense of wonder. ‘Awesome’ still outranks ‘cool,’ ‘sexy,’ and ‘excellent’. It remains hotter than ‘hot’ and more epic than ‘epic’. But it lacks the dark side that ‘awful’ reflected.

Just as ‘fantastic’ has lost its sheen and ‘wonderful’ has slipped down a rung or two, ‘awesome’ no longer evokes a sense of dread mingled with admiration. We would not, for example, describe Satan or Moby Dick or Professor Moriarty as ‘awesome’ with a tinge of terror in our inflection. And like ‘awe,’ it has lost the old tang of mortal fear in the face of the numinous. Devalued currency, ‘awesome’ is often trotted out as another synonym for ‘very good,’ while to be  ‘in awe’ suggests no more than admiration. An awful pity.