Friday, 29 January 2010

The Bearer of Bad News

I had some things planned for writing today, there's some scribbles in a notepad somewhere that prove that. No doubt I'll get it done some time soon, but today is a little aside from all that. You see, J.D. Salinger died yesterday, and I though a little reflection here would serve well.

Initially, I was going to go on about the meaning behind the title of Salinger's best known work, Catcher in the Rye, what with it having come from a proverb and all. However, I recently discovered just how influential the book itself was, and felt that that really need to be shared with you, dear reader.

In its early years, Catcher got some dodgy reviews, because a lot of academic-types have a little difficulty sympathising with the main character (hell, I did). It still does, but critics now see it as a classic work, depicting a controversial coming-of-age, mentally unstable teenager. One of the books early supporters, though, was one George H.W. Bush (that's George Bush's dad). He claims it to be one of the books that inspired his career. Keep that in your mind, because I want to look at some of the other people it inspired a bit later on.

When I say some people didn't like the book, I don't mean they just shrugged it off, oh no. In 1960, 9 years after its publication, a teacher was fired for setting it as a class text. For the next few years, it was the most censored book in American schools and libraries. The main character, Holden Caulfield, was deemed to have such a dangerous complex, that they didn't want the damn thing near anyone. Generally, these people have no idea what happens in the book, and censorship only made it more popular, like the Sex Pistols. Mhm, this is the Punk of books. One teacher made the remark that the people who were trying to stop it being read were being "just like Holden". Buuurn...

Ok, so it had some impact at the time, but what has it done to you? What in the world of culture has been inspired by Salinger's baby? Well, you cynical thing, remember I said something about Holden's messed up complex? Guess what? It's all over your culture! Green Day and Offspring count the book as inspirational, if it didn't already show, and films like Donnie Darko owe their protagonists to the genius of J.D.

But there's a catch. Whilst Catcher might have inspired a lot of music, it's also killed some. Ever heard of The Beatles? Then I'm sure you know what happened to John Lennon. Well, his killer was found with a copy of Catcher in which he had written "This is my statement", and then signed in the name of Holden Caulfield. He even quoted the thing in his trial. This guy wanted to be Holden. Other murderers, like the man who killed Rebecca Lucile Schaeffer, or the guy who tried to bump Reagan off, have had links to the book. And it inspired George Bush Snr....

The point of this post isn't to be funny or clever, it's to remember a man and his work. It'll live on for a damn good time more, so long as I can help it, because it's been such an influence. Salinger made his stories get off the page and into our lives. Because of his inspiration, the world around us has literally been altered to an unimaginable degree (what would Lennon be doing now?). Not only that, but his style was flowing and expressive, his characters clear, and it stories compelling. Any writer who can do all those things in one book deserves remembrance, as far as I'm concerned.

It'll be business as usual with the next post.


Tuesday, 26 January 2010

iPhone Compatible, By the Way

I'm down with the kids, I know what's happening, and I can most certainly keep it real. I stay on the raw edge of things, typing in my comfy chair listening to my folk rock. Yeah. Ok, maybe not, but what I can do is things with words. So, I'm going to keep myself updated as to the oddities we get around us today, and that starts here.

The thing I want to look at today is a prefix. For those of you who don't know, that's a thing that can go at the beginning of a word to change its meaning, like UNhappy or DEcompression. I need you to understand the jargon before I blow it out of the water. Y'see, the prefix one that applies specifically to concrete nouns (that's actual things you can touch), as opposed to abstract nouns and verbs. As a result, I'm in two minds as to whether it's really a proper prefix. Even the Oxford English Dictionary has yet to comment. No matter, we shall be the first! Together! So, our topic is this:


Ok, so you can go to the OED and look up some versions of "i-" that are already in there. Those aren't the ones I'm talking about, though. No, mine refer to words like iPod and iplayer. That "i-" has yet to get its own definition, though I've no doubt it's work in progress (they're like linguistic ninjas, I swear).

The root of this prefix (let's just call it that) can probably be traced to the iPod, the iMac, the iPhone, that sort of thing. Apple products. If it were confined to a marketing brand, we could leave it at that. Once upon a time, that's all it was, and of little importance. Nowadays, if we take a closer look, we can see it's getting bigger.

Kids, go talk to your grandparents. Ask them what life was like in the early days of the internet. They'll go on about things you won't have heard about, like "dial-up" and "Internet Explorer". Ignore those bits, and see if you can draw any jargon from the depths of their knowledge. Chances are, the nitty-gritty bits will have the prefix "e-". You still use it for email, if you still use that slow stuff, as opposed to Twitter (oh yeah, check the lingo!). It stands for electronic, electronic mail, and was pretty common. But where's it gone?

Nowadays, in what we here call Web.2.0, we've got the "iplayer" and similar complicated programs, not just HTML. Shouldn't that be "eplayer"? What's happened? Well, when it comes to technical wizardry, especially in the realms of film and music, who do we turn to for our portable devices? Cassettes? Hah!

Here's where I stand on the matter: Apple have a monopoly. It's like those years before big consoles, where we only had Nintendo. Then Sony crept in, and the analogy breaks. My point, though, is that they have such an influence, that their products are synonymous with the market they fill. Anyone else, like the BBC, who wants to get in on the act, doesn't stand a chance unless they look as cool (!) as Apple, so they've started using the same sort of language. Easy peasy, really.

It won't last. The iPod won't always be the cool thing. Some other company will take over, and the things they say will be gospel (my current guess is with 3D companies). Then everyone will start to follow them, and it'll go on forever. Maybe that's why there's no OED entry. Maybe they reckon it's just a fad, too.

There ya go, folks, a little bit of history for our generation. These are the words we have, so enjoy them while they last. It's nice knowing where they come from, and I look forward to witnessing the next lot step up to the podium!


Monday, 25 January 2010

It's Kind of a Mix...

Evening, ever expanding readership (I know you're out there, I can name three of you)!

Like most folk, I like to read the newspaper. Like more folk, I like to cut to the chase and grab the bit with the crossword in. Because I loyally follow a particular mostly unbiased newspaper owned by a media tyrant, I've become acquainted worryingly well with the layout of my crossword section. Imagine my delight and surprise, then, when it was announced several months ago that a chap would be writing each Monday with some informed pedantry concerning the English Language. Huzzah!

The next week, I grabbed the paper with glee, and flicked to the page I had anticipated. Horror! This fellow, this protector of the our Mother Tongue, had got it all wrong! This wasn't commentary on linguistics, this was a stubborn middle-aged man going on about the decline of language, and how we're not supposed to use split infinitives and the like (don't even get me STARTED!).

Peeved, I endured, and still do. However, a mistake he made a few months ago has re-entered my brain for reasons I will never know. No matter, though, for it allows me to vent my proverbial spleen, and enlighten the boys and girls who so frequent the internet. My point, darling reader, is that the Pedant (as he calls himself) was against this word:


You may have seen it, you may have used it. You may have rolled in the glorious sound of its delightful diphthong. You may, of course, have never used it. If not, don't blame yourself. However, its meaning should become clear immediately. It is, as far as I know, a combination of "melt" and "blend", serving to scintillate the senses with an almost onomatopoeic new verb.

"Oh no!" Cries the Pedant, "That's not the meaning of "meld" at all! Don't you silly children know? It's a German [he even got that wrong, it's Dutch in this sense] word used in canasta, and it's still used as such, gerroff my language! Shoo!" What's worse is that this is hardly an exaggeration. Well, Pedant, this may not be the largest audience ever (I'd be surprised if half of them were still interested after I used the word diphthong), but it's there, and I'll used it. Behold, the reasons why the Pedant is foolish in his humble opinion:

1) Words have more than one meaning each. Everyone knows this, it happens all the time, yet it's conveniently for gotten here for a good ol' bit of conservative change-hating. Remember my article on "cool"? Where's the outcry? Where's the fury? If there was any, it was lost in the awesome popularity of Miles Davies' trumpet, that's where.

2) "Meld" in this oh-so-despised form isn't even a neologism, as the Pedant would have you believe. No, indeed. The truth of the matter (and I'm going by the OED itself on this one) is that this usage dates back to 1936. That's right, 74 years ago, D.T. Lutes put "meld" in a cookbook, and got the ball rolling. To add insult to injury, the very paper the Pedant works for used the word in the fifties. THE FIFTIES. And again on my birthday in '73! Hahahaha! No further questions, yer 'onour.

I could go on. I could talk about how the refusal to accept new words would drastically alter the Pedant's life. I could go on about the pointlessness of his style of pedantry, from the point of view of a language-lover. I could but I won't. If I did, the whole thing would become as petty two silly little kids squabbling over who ate the most bugs.

Thus, I put it to the jury that you shouldn't believe what you read in the papers. People can be wrong. More to the point, there's nothing wrong with new words, changes in meaning, or coming to the same word via a different route. It's glorious, it's expansive, and it's intellectually stimulating. So, I urge you, put pen to paper, finger to keyboard, and write. Write all those lovely words floating in your head and meld them with reality.


Friday, 22 January 2010

What's in a Name...

Well, it seems my current rambling style seems to take up quite a bit of cyberspace, and cutting it down to one word really hasn't helped. At the suggestion of my peers, then, I've decided to start doing a little name-trawling, digging up what I can about the roots of the things I shout across rooms to those I know. Without delay, I present you with the only logical choice for my beginning...


It's a wonderful name, is it not? Most delightfully concise when shortened to "Becky", but never "Becca". Perhaps there are reasons for this set deep in the aesthetic structure of the two words, or perhaps I've been conditioned over quite some time to NEVER use the latter over the former. EVER. Bias aside, mind, once I started digging, the name got interesting.

The name, y'see, is Hebrew in origin, which is a great place to get your name from. After all, the noble "Matthew"'s of history have all trodden the same path. It is well worn. It is sturdy. It is mine. Bias really, really aside, it does make it an old name. So old, in fact, that there are Rebeccas (or Rebekkas) in the Bible itself. If you're the sort who cares for these things, she's the wife of Issac, who's the son of Abraham (but, good Christian schoolkids as we were, we knew that anyway...).

The fact we can pinpoint one language of origin so neatly means we can, and will, find the meaning very quickly. On the face of it, Rebecca might have an unusual meaning, but we can soon get to the bottom of that, right? Before we can do that, we need to know what it is: to tie firmly. Now, some very clever people who've studied more Ancient Hebrew than I have reckon this equates to "Rope with a noose". Grim? Think again.

Naturally, your first thought's going to be of hangings, but that's not the case at all. In fact, the current reasoning is quite new. Until recently, lots of people thought that the rope referred to snagging men in a lasso, a rope of love, that sort of thing. Convenient as that would have been for me, it makes it a very unlikely contender for the name of one of the Bible's Good Girls. "What then", you cry, "is the current theory, oh mighty man of words?"

Because of all this biblical malarkey, some of these clever and well-practiced language chappies now reckon the rope and noose refer to leading cows about, and herding. "What?" You (especially if you're Becky) shout, "That's a weird thing for such a popular and awesome name to have come from!" Well, it is, if we take it literally, but that's never fun to do in these situations. What seems to be the interpretation of this image is one of guidance, of herding, and control. We're given the image of confused little animals being shown where to go, looked after, and comforted by something greater than they are (this isn't just my interpretation, seriously!). We get a person who knows what they're doing, and sees the bigger picture. Not some whore using a rope to catch men. Ew.

To finish this post, Rebecca means, if we're being direct, Tied Up. Nobody, though, looks at their name literally. What Rebecca really means is Security, Comfort, and Kindness. Now, dear reader(s), go and snuggle up by the fire.

If your name's not Becky or any variant therein, please feel free to request an audience with the Wordy Wookie, and I'll do all I can to turn your name into an exciting (!) blog post. That'll be something to tell the grandchildren about.


Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Groovy, man...

This post is a half requested one, and by that I mean it came up in conversation with a friend, and I didn't have a clue what to say. Fearing for my life, I ran away to learn all I could, but the discussion had moved on over that weekend... Anyway, what I have decided to do with this new-found pretty knowledge is to pass it on to those who have strayed onto the internet, that it may save their bacon too one day. Enjoy.

Unlike the other posts I've made, there's no proverbs here. Rather, I've taken something a little shorter, but just as interesting: one word. That's right, one word. Naturally, that's going to make this ramble a little shorter than the other, but hey, let's not run a marathon every time we go jogging. So without further ado, I shove a word in your face and tell you to love it. That word, ladies and gentlemen, is...


Yeah, that's right dude. Far out. It's so in the ether, I put some Jazz on just to help write all this up. Bear in mind that I'm only going to yack about the slang way we use "cool", and that's a little more relevant than you might have thought. Most of us have embarrassing (and hopefully distant) relatives who go on about Jazz, and how it invented modern music, etc etc. The point here is, you guessed it, it's also responsible for the word "cool" in its modern sense.

It was none other than Miles Davies, the man himself, who gave the world "Cool Jazz" in that swinging year 1949. In this sub-genre, the styles and rhythms are even more relaxed than usual, which in turn sounds relaxed, if a little of an acquired taste... Love it or hate it, it's there. An influential chap like Miles could pluck a word, change it's meaning, and make it stick.

If nothing else, we can at least see how closely linked the new and old meanings of "cool" are. They both have an secondary meaning in their use, implying that everything's just right. A "cool day" certainly doesn't have gale-force winds, bush fire, and nor is anyone stuck under a foot of snow. You can't complain about a "cool day", really. If it's "cool", it's good, regardless of which version we're looking at.

Once we've gotten over the Jazz stage, which is still in use, we get the kids on the street involved. As anyone who owns tweed clothes and leather armchairs will tell you, where there's kids, there's trouble. Sad to say, this lot do nothing to change that elitist snobbery. At some point in the 50's, the gangs of America decided to take "cool" and use it to describe a truce in a gang war. You'll note that I'm not giving it a date here, and for good reason. See, the media first used the phrase in '58, and I'd put good money on it having been used for a lot longer. It's usually a few years before these things get noticed by out-of-touch journalists. There's a nice example, the last one I have for "cool" in this sense also describes gang-fighters as "gang-bangers", but that WAS 1993...

At this point, I take a moment to look at the word "cool" as we've just looked at it, with gangs and what, and isn't it ominous? It sounds to me like letting a machine gun cool down: just because it isn't being used now doesn't mean it won't spit lead in your face later. It's volatile, and most definitely not permanent. I'm not going to push the analogy any further, you can do that if you so wish.

Which brings us bang up to date with our modern use of the word cool, which started in the 60s, and has remained as a staple of our day to day language ever since. I'm sure I don't need to explain it's meaning to your here, oh inevitably popular reader. If I do, I think you need to spend a little less time on blogs like this. We like it because it's down the middle. It's not tense, but it's not reckless. It's not strict, yet it hasn't completely let go. It's just.. cool, ya know?

I'm pretty sure that's an exhaustive account of a single word. It's not the oldest, the prettiest, the most significant, or the most life-changing, but what would we do without it? Its meaning's still in flux, as far as I can see, so who knows what it might mean fifty years from now. Whatever, man. At least we know where it came from.

Chill out for now.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

This is a Clog Blog

When trying to decided what to do this next blog entry on (because I AM going to keep this up!), I stumbled upon a beautiful little proverb I'd never heard before. I'll admit it doesn't make much sense the first time around, but I liked it and it won't take too long to read/write about. Take a look...

"From clogs to clogs is only three generations"

Now, when I first read that, I went down completely the wrong track. I started wondering if it meant a pair of clogs are supposed to last through to your grandchildren, or something. So, if you were about to prudently invest in a set of wooden soles, you're not alone (but don't because that's not what it means!).

If we want to understand this turn of phrase, it's best to go back to its roots. Although it's believed to have originally come from Lancashire, the earliest related phrase (and I'm excluding some stuff by Dryden because it's too tenuous) comes from a book called Scottish Proverbs by a J. Kelly, dated at 1721. Here, Kelly documents the phrase...

"The Father buys, the Son biggs, his Grandchild sells, and his Son thiggs."

And there you have it. What, that doesn't make sense? Sigh... "biggs" means "builds" and "thiggs" means "begs". Eeeeeveryone knows THAT, right? Anyway, once you've got the lingo down, the whole mystery behind the clogs wears away like well-used shoes. It's summed up in the 7th installment of the 4th series of Notes and Queries in 1871 thus...

"However rich a poor man may eventually become, his grandson will certainly fall back into poverty and 'clogs'"

That, by the by, is the same place that tells us it's a proverb from Lancashire, even though it was published in its other form in Scottish Proverbs exactly 150 years before. Even Dryden (if we are to include him from even earlier) came from Northhamptonshire, so maybe they got to Lancashire as an average between the two.

"But is there anything we can look at in the language, here?" I hear you/my hedonistic internal voice cry. Well, calm down, dear reader/worrying uncontrolled persona. It might not be the best for that sort of analysis, but we can give it a go. If anything, the "clogs" make the sentence. There is another version of the proverb which used "shirtsleeves" instead, and was supposedly invented by Carnegie (that's the late 19th century), despite there being no record of it in his literature. I suppose that was an attempt to bring the phrase up to date, but "clogs" still clip-clopped alongside the newer alternative. There's something in the bluntness of that monosyllabic bit if onomatopoeia that really breathes life into the sentence. If you like, it's the sound I imagine comes into the grandson's head as his financial world clogs to the ground around him ("clog" is now a verb. Spread the word!). It's not much, but it's something to think about.

So, that's pretty much it for today, but there's one last thing here to distract you. How accurate is this saying, do you reckon? Yes, modern royalty and such might be an exception, where they can sit smugly behind the walls of tradition, but what about the rest of us? It occurred to me that the Great Depression happened about 90 years ago, when my great-granddad, if he hadn't disappeared in a sodden Ypres, would have been in his thirties. From then on in, the piggy bank's been building back up, until we get to the grand-kids. What have we done? Look around you, and buy some shares in Sanita. Together, we can bring back clogs (they should be grateful. I bet not every clog company gets free advertising like this...).

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Macavity Had Better Watch Out...

I’ve created a blog, and I’m already scared of it. What’s the point? What can I do? I started to think like a marketing consultant, luring parents towards some ghastly Pokemon rip-off their kids will hate when they bring it home for them. In short: Why should anyone visit this blog?

Whilst I fret about this, I’ve come up with a little idea. As often as I can (because I’m too busy/lazy/forgetful to make a promise to do this daily), I’m going to try and make a specific kind of update. Here, I’m going to take a word or a proverb, and dissect it in my own way. If it works, it stays. Simple.

So, without further ado, we begin with a well known (and rather ironic) phrase…

“Curiosity killed the cat”

Meaning: You shouldn’t poke your nose in too much.

It’s one of those idioms that gets kicked around a lot, and I felt it was worth taking a moment to look into. The first recorded use goes all the way back to Shakespeare himself, who used the line “Though care killed the cat, thou hast enough mettle to kill care” in Much Ado About Nothing. So the phrase number amongst the bajillion million other things Shakeyspeare gave to English, or at least made popular.

Having kicked around in society for three hundred years, “Care killed the cat” had relatively frequent use in other works, ensuring its survival. The phrase we use, where “curiosity” takes the place of “care”, came about in the early 20th century. This was probably to avoid the confusion “care” might have caused some readers. In case you hadn’t picked up on it, it’s supposed to be read as in “take care”, not “I care about which Z-list celebrities are shoved in a house together for weeks on end”.

Actually, it was used in the second sense, and by Agatha Christie, mistress of mystery. In fact, she’s known to have used “curiosity” in the first sense, and “care” for the lavish fuzzy feeling, but still with a dead kitten at the end of it all. That takes us on another route of exploration: why does this cat have to die?

The fact the phrase was used by Agatha gives us a big fat clue. It’s excessively ominous, for example…

Poirot: Do you know where my keys are?

Miss Marple: Curiosity killed the cat.

Immediately, we get suspicious. Surely Miss Marple knows or she doesn’t, so why hide behind such a strange line? Try this example…

Poirot: Where’s John? I haven’t seen him for weeks…

Miss Marple: Curiosity killed the cat.

SHE DID IT! It’s soooo obvious! It’s evasive, it’s unusual, and it’s really rather threatening. The death of the cat seems to be a forewarning for Poirot, suggesting Miss Marple will kill him too if he keeps going. The alliteration helps, too. “K” is one of the shorter sounds we make when we speak. You can’t hold it, it’s naturally short. In four words, we get it three times. That’s a lot of emphasis on cutting things short. If you see where I’m coming from, it looks like Miss Marple’s really trying to tell Poirot to shove it, and quick.

There we have it, everything you’ll ever need to know and more about curiosity killing cats. From 1598 through to Poirot and Miss Marple’s investigations, it’s been lurking in our literature for quite some time. I hope this sort of thing has an audience out there, and I’ll gladly keep this up if it does.

Until then, beware those in possession of dark-sounding idioms…