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Philology without tears

hoep Everyone loves words, whether they know it or not. Even the least educated, literate or not, take pleasure in wordplay, creating and repeating slang, slogans, puns, doggerel rhymes, sarcastic quips, nicknames; man is the talking animal par excellence.

Most of us do this as second nature, oblivious of the long, weird, colourful history of English, once an obscure tongue evolving in a remote and primitive island but now virtually a global lingua franca — what linguists call a vehicular language.

But note that I’ve used one French and one Italian expression; English just adopted them, as it has so many words and phrases from other languages. Many more, though, have been fused invisibly from languages as diverse as Persian, Hindi and Inuit into a colossal and always growing vocabulary.

It’s a marvellous story and it’s been told over and over again in a myriad books, from the informal — Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue, for example — to the more solid, like David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language and determinedly recondite books, such as Eric Partridge’s Origins.

But the sheer volume of the reading necessary for the full story, not to mention the expense of all those books, is daunting.

The web comes to your assistance with a peculiar bastard of a neologism: a podcast.

It’s the History of English podcast and it cannot be recommended too highly, whether you’re a high-powered pedant or you have only a mild curiosity about why we talk the way we do.

As befits the subject, it has been executed on a grand scale; with 39 episodes of up to an hour’s duration, at the time of writing, its creator, Kevin Stroud, has not yet reached the time of the Norman invasion.

He has done this without being dull, stuffy or terribly technical, in a relaxed, conversational style that still manages to convey the complexity and the sheer weirdness of English and its origins.

The History of English podcast website shows that he has a lively community of fans. You can subscribe to the podcast from the site or via iTunes. It’s free, but well worth the modest donation he suggests.

Down from the Mountain

Rich-Land-Wasteland-240Some time ago Knocklofty reviewed The Woman on the Mountain by Sharyn Munro, a book which explained why she retreated from city life in Australia to a remote peak a long way away from the nearest town, there to become a nature writer and found a wildlife refuge.

But for the last three years, she has been often away from her mountain, initially travelling the width and depth of this huge continent by air and road, and lately finding herself still on the road in the glare of television lights and the eyes of crowds who have come to listen to her. This shy and introspective woman came out of her chosen seclusion because she began to see that a monster was devouring the world where her grandchildren were growing up — a monster fully endorsed by myopic governments and heads-we-win, tails-you-lose laws.

The monster is the coal industry and its offspring, coal seam gas. The result of her journeying and talking to hundreds of people affected by its untrammelled advance is another book, Rich Land, Wasteland — how coal is killing Australia.

Every Australian politician ought be locked up with this book and not let out until they’ve read it; and then they should all be frog-marched around the devastated moonscapes that the mining industry has made while they were looking in some other direction.

Indeed, its impact on readers has been such that several have bought as many as a hundred copies, which they have posted to politicians in the hope that the small voices of a multitude of Australians might be heard through the roar of subsidised diesel machinery, money that doesn’t talk but rather swears at the top of its stentorian voice.

I have known the author for more than twenty years and I’ve been in regular communication with her during the more than two years that this book monopolised her life from conception to publication, so I have an idea of what she’s been through and how much the task damaged her spirit and drained her energy.

But I also know how indomitable she is; one lone woman to whom the smell of an oily rag is a luxury, with no background in investigative jourmalism and fortunately backed by a small and courageous independent publisher (and later a large international house as the book’s significance was recognised) has done the job our news media should have been doing instead of inane lifestyle supplements, wall-to-wall sport, tabloid ‘news’ and snarling shockjockery.

The result is a harrowing read. It’s an account of how the people who are the true backbone of Australia have been betrayed by the very politicians they have voted in for generations, of the astonishing cynicism of big business and the heartless flacks and gun-for-hire lawyers who represent it, and of the grief, loss and plain bodily suffering as an entire way of life has been trashed in less than one of those generations.

She’s not a fringe deep-greenie. She isn’t anti-mining — she agrees that any civilisation depends on the resources of the earth and on their judicious use. What shocked her — and her readers — are the scale, speed and consequences of the devastation.

An early and just as appropriate working title for the book was Coal Wars, appropriate because of the ravaged, polluted land the industry leaves behind looks like the aftermath of a titanic battle. And where it isn’t digging monstrous holes, it’s claiming huge tracts of prime agricultural land to sink fracking wells and link them with a web of pipelines and pumping stations, creating a nightmare for the broad-acre farmers on whom our food security depends.

Attempts to stop it, or at least to restrain its appetite, are rarely successful, and then only at the cost of what to ordinary people are heavy costs — mere pocket change for the Palmers and Rineharts — and the disruption of normal life by not only the need to organise and campaign but also by the dread of losing their lives’ work and their families’ futures.

The book is thus an account of the unseen side of the Faustian bargain Australia has made with big business; but the difference in this bargain is that only a minority of Australians are forced to pay the price — their livelihoods, their health and the soul of the land they live on. Solastalgia, a term coined by Glenn Albrecht, is the genuine sorrow for the loss of all the benefits provided by a living, sustainable environment, benefits that don’t figure on corporate balance sheets or the arid calculations of conventional economists.

It’s a big book and although it’s written with the author’s characteristic clarity and directness, it isn’t easy to read because of the inherently depressing picture it draws of a gigantic process seemingly run out of control and crushing the life out of the land. It cries out for photographs, but that would have made it too expensive for many readers. Fortunately, the internet has solved that dilemma; the book has its own website with photographic slideshows which tell the story of devastated landscapes, poisoned rivers, disappearing creeks and blighted lives in great breadth and great detail.

Governments at all levels have simply looked away and pocketed short-term revenues, often a mere token reward, while the industry has gone barging with their support into more and more territory, including federally funded nature reserves like Queensland’s Bimblebox.

When you read this book, it will be hard not to feel anger — because the damage they and the media don’t care to tell you about is being done in your name. In her conclusion, the writer reminds us that ‘we need not be helpless to stop it’.

Visit her own site where she tells not only of coal but also of the wild things with whom she shares her mountain.

Rich Land, Wasteland — how coal is killing Australia

Pan McMillan Australia

ISBN 978-1-7426-1099-3

$A29.99 RRP

Presence of mind

The gift of speedy repartee is given to few, which is why the French invented that serviceable phrase ‘esprit de l’escalier’ — the crushing retort that comes into the mind after one has been chucked down the stairs and which, delivered smartly, would have crushed the enemy under a mass of ridicule.

It was always unwise to tangle with George Bernard Shaw, for example.

He once encountered a very fat man lumbering up a narrow staircase and, being in a hurry, pushed past him. “Pig!” said the fat man.

Shaw raised his hat politely and said: “Shaw. Good afternoon.”

Dorothy Parker had the gift in abundance. She and society queen bee Claire Booth Luce conducted a life-long feud and Dorothy’s waspish wit was guaranteed to keep the humourless Claire seething.

They once arrived at a social event at the same time; Claire stood aside for Dorothy to enter, saying “Age before beauty.” As Dorothy swept past her, she replied “And pearls before swine.”

Those who challenged Winston Churchill rarely came off best. As he was speaking one night in parliament, Bessie Braddock, a very large lady member of the opposition, called across the chamber: “Mr Churchill, you are drunk.”

Churchill riposted: “Madam, you are ugly — but I shall be sober in the morning.”

There is some doubt as to whether it was the eighteenth-century radical John Wilkes or the English playwright Samuel Foote who routed the crusty, dissipated Lord Sandwich in this exchange:

“I think that you must either die of the pox or the halter.”

“My lord, that will depend upon one of two contingencies — whether I embrace your lordship’s mistress or your lordship’s principles.”

In Australia, the bumptious and inexplicably dislikeable conservative politician Peter Costello was known for caustic wit. He once twitted the secular saint, Senator Bob Brown, that the Greens party he leads is like a watermelon — green outside but red inside.

The Senator rose to the challenge and said the Greens were actually like an avocado, green inside as well as outside. Costello pounced at once: “Yes, true — and with a big Brown nut in the middle.”

And there is the perhaps aprocryphal Australian parliamentary anecdote about a politician who opened a speech with the words “I’m a country member…” only to face a roar from the opposition benches of “We remember, we remember.”

A prophecy fulfilled

When the American people get through with the English language, it will look as if it had been run over by a musical comedy.

— Finley Peter Dunne, 1938

A desideratum hitherto unfurnished

For those who despair of finding something worth reading in newspapers and journals carnned with the jargon-laden and often barely comprehensible effusions of overpaid, narcissistic ‘insider’ political pundits, inane celebrity-watching, advertising disguised as ‘lifestyle’ advice and the endless torrent of hyperbole for those who imagine sport is important, here is something that will more than fill the gap.

Longform is a website which carries links to an eclectic mix of long articles on a myriad subjects, some up-to-the-minute, some from as long ago as 1926 (a fascinating insight from The Atlantic into the grubby practices of newspaper reporting in that era — how little has changed).

And instead of being selected by an algorithm, the articles are curated by human beings who have an obvious passion for good writing.

Articles can be saved for later reading via services such as Instapaper. But beware — it’s addictive.

Which are you?

Slang is essential in any living, growing language; some slang words lose their vulgar stigma and pass into respectable usage. But because slang is also a fashion, it means that many serviceable words and subtle shades of meaning can be lost.

Take, for example, some English Edwardian slang terms for ill-behaved men — bounder, rotter, stinker and cad, all of which could be intensified in stages with the qualifiers fearful, frightful and absolute. These originated in the speech of students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the 1880s, migrated into smart London speech before World War I and were still in common use in the 1950s.

A cad — or perhaps a stinker — receives his comeuppance

Their passing, along with other subtly graduated terms of opprobrium, has deprived us of an important set of social nuances.

The bounder was a crass, uneducated, contradictory sort of fellow quite unaware of the dislike of others and of the irritation caused by his loud and over-confident tone and behaviour; a bounder was often nouveau-riche and an energetic gate-crasher.

The rotter displayed most of the characteristics of the bounder but added to it a jeering sense of humour perceptible only to himself; to rot something, such as a friend’s new car, clothes or girlfriend, was to criticise loudly and usually ignorantly.

The stinker had elements of both bounder and rotter, but added greed and indifference to the comfort and patience of others. The rotter might cast aspersions on the character and appearance of your girlfriend — but the stinker would do his best to steal her with as debonair a mien as he would guzzle the last three inches of your last bottle of Napoleon brandy.

The cad displayed none of the more egregious characteristics of the bounder and the rotter, but like the stinker he would not only try to steal your girlfriend but actually succeed in doing so, only to cast her carelessly aside when he spotted his next victim.

And among artists, a crude, vulgar or overly sentimental painting dashed off as a speedy pot-boiler was known as a cad-catcher.

It was the misfortune of the Edwardian bus conductor to also be known as a cad, but it is likely that everyone understood the difference.

A not so fond farewell

Reports that the last typewriter factory has closed its doors are slightly premature, but it won’t be long before that happens; the wonder is that it managed to survive as long as it did.

The advent of this then revolutionary device in the middle of the 19th century was greeted with much the same suspicion and occasional outright enmity as the desktop computer in the early 1980s — a mixture of the defence of vested interests and blinkered conservatism. In a couple of decades, it put out of business an entire and now forgotten class of professionals — the scriveners, copyists and engrossers who were the princes of the clerkly classes.

Anyone, almost always male, who could write a fine, elegant hand could earn a moderately good living in legal or commercial firms and a practitioner would serve a fairly lengthy apprenticeship from copying to engrossing, the pinnacle of the scrivener’s art, which was the final fair copying of elaborate documents, including wills, contracts, indentures, treaties and other instruments of power.

The documents themselves were often things of beauty, frequently adorned with flourishes and graphic furbelows, and each copy had to be as far as possible identical.

At the other end of the market, freelance scrivening and copying provided a slender means of survival for lonely eccentrics, wasters and ne’er-do-wells such as Melville’s Bartleby and other unemployables, while their more respectable colleagues could often find a post as amanuensis to a prominent author, a gentleman scholar or a busy public figure.

But still, it was drudgery. George Bernard Shaw opined that ‘Of all the damnable waste of human life, clerking is the worst.’
Read more…

Why there is no corruption in the media

You cannot hope to bribe or twist

The forthright Fox News journalist

For, seeing what those folk will do

Unbribed, there is no reason to.

With apologies to Anon.

Our suspicions confirmed?

The venerable National Public Radio network in the United Sates has a story about a robot journalist (actually, a computer programme designed to transform raw data into news stories) writing a better story than its human counterpart.

It was created by a chilling Orwellian entity calling itself Narrative Science and its website promises to fulfil the wettest dreams of the Sultans of Spin.

At Knocklofty we have had suspicions for a long time that this breakthrough was actually achieved some years ago, judging by the relentlessly banal, cliché-studded drivel that passes for so much contemporary journalism, especially because most media are now controlled by flinty-hearted accountants and supercharged office-boys with MBAs rather than by journalists.

Obviously, robot journalists can be programmed to follow whatever line of spin, bias or mendacity suits their masters, exactly like the people now staffing newspapers and other forms of mass communication.

Media owners are always disturbed by the very small but still measurable risk of a journalist developing anything like a conscience or a willingness to question the data served up by governments, corporations and politicians; this new technological triumph means that Rupert Murdoch can slumber more easily between his satin sheets and dream dreams of even more perfect control.

It’s obvious that News Limited and News International must have had such a system for quite a while — probably Windows-based, too. It’s the only explanation for their Gadarene descent into the whirlpool of drebbidge they serve up every day.

Image found at WorldMustBeCrazy

The second oldest profession — Part 1

Three journalists, one from Britain, one from the United States and one from Australia, were talking in the bar of the best hotel in some ghastly trouble spot and after the ritual round of bragging about this scoop and that, the conversation eventually turned to how they had entered their profession.

The British journalist explained: ‘The great British parliamentarian Edmund Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament — the Lords Temporal, the Lords Spiritual and the Commons, but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate “more important far than they all.” I see our profession, frank, fearless and free, as an essential part of the political and cultural life of our nation.’

The American said: ‘Well, we were first with that . Our press was free under the First Amendment to our Constitution, which, unlike yours, is actually written down, so we have a guarantee in writing that our rights and our function as one of the most important checks and balances on untrammelled state power shall not be infringed.’

The Australian said: ‘They told me there was no heavy lifting, so I went for it like a rat up a drainpipe.’