Saturday, 1 June 2019

From Tolkien to Zuckerberg – Beware what you wishes for, my Precioussss!

It can safely be said that things haven’t been going exactly swimmingly for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, given the continual scandals and revelations about the way that the organisation uses its subscribers’ data and treats them as amorphous, anonymous cash cows, much as, in the eponymous film, the Matrix is shown as treating humans as sources of unlimited electrical power. How is it that, despite all Zuckerberg’s fine words about connecting people and bringing the world together, his organisation is perceived as ruthlessly and relentlessly exploiting its clientele? It seems that he is incapable of turning this perception round, no matter how hard he tries, and many think that he doesn’t really want to turn the situation round in reality. It may well be that he is impervious to the realisation of what Facebook is doing and is therefore incapable of changing. And that may well be the reason. It struck me, as an inveterate addict of all things Middle Earth, that JRR Tolkien may well have foreseen just this in one of the key aspects of the Lord of the Rings universe: it all depends on how you start out. For this, we need to examine this central theme (plot spoilers from Tolkien’s books follow).

At the centre of all things in the world of Lord of the Rings is Sauron’s ring of power. We can pick up the story in Middle Earth in the the Second Age with Celebrimbor, the most skilful surviving elf. He forged the three elven rings, later given to Galadriel, Gandalf and Cirdan. Sauron, who could still appear in human form, learnt his ring-making skills from Celebrimbor, but when the Elven ring-maker perceived the dark lord’s evil intent, he hid the rings from Sauron, who then went to Mount Doom and forged the One Ring to Rule Them All, passing much of his evil power into his supreme creation. At the Last Battle of the Second Age, Isildur cut the ring from Sauron’s hand and claimed it for his own, refusing to cast it into the fire and destroy it, as Elrond had urged him to do. He decided to keep it for himself, but on the way back to his fortress, he was ambushed by orcs and tried to escape by swimming across a river, rendered invisible by the ring on his finger. The ring slipped off, and he was revealed to the pursuing orcs and shot. Tolkien makes it clear that he was lucky to die early in his possession of the ring, because the ring had a mind of its own and corrupted its possessor in its attempts to find its way back to its master.

Hundreds of years later, two simple hobbit-like people, Smeagol and Deagol, are fishing on the river over the place where the ring lies. Deagol is dragged into the water by a big fish and pulled to the bottom, where he finds the ring in the mud. As he gets back into the boat, Smeagol asks him what he’s got, but Deagol won’t let him see or touch it, so they fight and Smeagol kills Deagol, stealing the ring and justifying it by the fact that it’s his birthday and the ring is his present. Of course, we know what happens to Smeagol – he becomes Gollum, living for 500 years, his life stretched out in misery by his possession of the Precious, hating and loving it at the same time. The point Tolkien makes here is that he starts his ownership of the ring with murder – a heinous act ensuring that he will never be able to shake free of the ring’s evil influence.

Contrast this with the way Bilbo Baggins begins his possession of the ring. He finds it by chance in the caves where Gollum hides, and manages to stay invisible while Gollum is looking for him and cursing him as a thief. At one point, Bilbo stands right by Gollum, invisible to him and holding a sword, ready to strike Gollum dead and escape, but he doesn’t, because pity stays his hand, even though Gollum surely deserves death. For this reason, for starting his ownership of the ring with an act of pity, Bilbo is spared its evil influence. Although he is affected by it to a certain extent, especially through his extended lifespan, he remains essentially good, as does Frodo when he takes charge of the ring. One other key episode is when Sam thinks Frodo has been killed by the giant spider, Shelob, and takes the ring from him to continue the quest. As he is about to cross into Mordor, the ring tempts him, presenting visions of him becoming a great gardener, planting trees and flowers everywhere in Middle Earth and being celebrated by all the inhabitants of all lands as the greatest gardener ever. All he has to do is slip on the ring - but Sam resists; he’s just a simple, down-to-earth hobbit, not cut out for all this greatness. His own common sense saves him from these delusions of grandeur and inevitable betrayal to the Dark Lord.

In this way, we can clearly see the message that Tolkien is trying to give – the way that you start your seemingly great project, in this case the possession and custodianship of the great ring of power, determines how you will continue. The intentions, desires, attitudes and mindset that you start out with will set in stone the future development of the project. If you have good intentions from the start, you will ultimately accomplish good, but if you start with bad intentions, it’s all downhill from there and there’s virtually no chance of redemption.

All this now brings us to Facebook. First, let me make it abundantly clear that I don’t regard Mark Zuckerberg as a servant of Sauron, or even Sauron himself in disguise, let alone Gollum. I don’t believe he has a ring of power hidden away anywhere, or that he has an army of orcs ready to destroy humanity. However, I do think, with regard to initial intentions, we can validly contrast him with another famous citizen of the wired world, Tim Berners-Lee. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the physics research installation and particle accelerator, which straddles the border of Switzerland and France. CERN was generating huge amounts of data and wanted to share the data with other researchers, but in the time before the world wide web, this wasn’t a straightforward process. Berners-Lee took an existing computer language, Standard General Mark-up Language (SGML) and repurposed it into Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) so that information could be transmitted quickly and easily by clicking on links to pages written in the language. This was effectively the start of the web in 1991. CERN initially wanted to license the technology for others to pay to use, but Berners-Lee insisted that the technology should be made freely available, thereby ensuring that the web could develop without any encumbrance into the ubiquitous network that we use today. Berners-Lee had good intentions for his technology from the start, to ensure that it would be freely available for anyone who wanted to use it and for the benefit of everyone, a principle that he has been committed to ever since. He was never seduced by the temptation, emanating from the dark side, to possess his creation.

Let’s now turn to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Over two billion people are said to be active users of Facebook today. The company has grown to be a massive devourer of data, harvesting it and using it in ever greater proportions and methods in its incessant search for profit. Of course, this has brought onto it immense opprobrium and constant criticism, as well as the unwelcome attentions of national governments and international organisations. On the face of it, Facebook purports to be bringing the world together and promoting communication and connections between people around the globe, but many people feel that this conceals a darker and more sinister intention at its heart. And this is what beings us back to Tolkien – the intent at the initial stages of ownership; the purpose at inception, which determines the future growth and development of the project.

At Harvard, Zuckerberg started a project called Facemash, which aimed to compare the university’s female students on screen and invite users to decide which was hotter. The Harvard authorities shut down the site as Zuckerberg had not obtained permission to use the data and the university’s systems for his project; not only that, but he had also promised fellow students, the Winklevoss brothers, that he would develop a project for them called Harvard Connection. While constantly excusing his lack of progress on their project, he instead developed the prototype for the current Facebook, launching it while effectively abandoning the brothers’ project. Later, they sued him for stealing their ideas and code, and using them to create Facebook.

Clearly, Facebook has been embroiled in controversy from its beginnings. Court cases have come and gone, followed by controversy and criticism lasting up to the present, but still we are mesmerised by its glittering, glinting sheen and seized and held by its magnetic embrace. It has become Zuckerberg’s Precious, and also our precious. We loves it and we hates it, don’t we, Preciousssss, but it hurts, it hurts and we can’t break free. Conceived and created in obscurity, deception and controversy, its true intent of world domination concealed from the start; it twists everything. But now revealed in its naked hunger and obsession, and its blindness and wilful denial of its true nature, it will ruin us if we don’t tame it. However, it may be too late for that. If Tolkien were still alive, I feel he would have said, “I warned you, but you didn’t listen!” And now, Facebook is rising and taking over the world, with the Precious at its heart, bending all else to its will – one site to rule them all, one site to find them, one site to bring them into the data mine and bind them, in the land of Facebook, where the shadows lie…

Sunday, 8 April 2018

-less is often more

I was on a bus a short while ago. A couple of kids behind me were playing an old word game: Have you ever been ____-less (supply a word in the space)? Have you ever been hairless? Have you ever been shirtless? And so on, to much giggling and a total absence of any answers. It took me back to my childhood, the days long before youngsters had their heads buried in electronic devices, to when I made up silly games with my siblings to pass the time on journeys long and short, till we got fed up with the game, stared out of the window for a while, and then started another one. But enough of pointless nostalgia.

As a teacher of English, I often find myself musing on some of the vagaries of our language, asking myself unusual questions which often lead off into quixotic pursuits in the strange and arcane regions of English grammar. I fell to thinking about the suffix -less, used to indicate the absence of a quality stated by a noun. Often, the negative suffix -less is paired with a positive suffix, either -y or -ful, or in some cases both (though there are also others, such as -ed). For example, something which is not useless can be said to be useful. Compare also thoughtless and thoughtful, hopeless and hopeful. Equally, something which is dustless is not dusty, guiltless – not guilty, luckless – not lucky, smokeless – not smoky. The meanings may not always be used in exactly opposite ways, but the point is that the opposites exist. Some words in -less even have the good fortune to have two opposites: cheerless cheerful/cheery; fruitless fruitful/fruity; tasteless tasteful/tasty.

So far, so normal. But then it occurred to me that there are some weird things that happen when you look closely at those -less words which don't have a ready-made opposite, or those words which do have a seemingly ready-made opposite which actually turns out not to be so. For instance, if you take the horn off a rhino, it will then be hornless. The question that is now manifesting itself in your head is whether a hornless rhino has ceased to be horny. Put it next to a rhino of the opposite sex and you'll soon find out. Similarly, can a baseless accusation be contrasted with a baseful, or indeed, basy accusation? Clearly, some -less words don't have a partner of the opposite persuasion, or, if they do, the partner is a rather strange one; the sort you'd soon suspect in the manner of “I Married a Monster From Outer Space”.

First of all, some, words like motionless, motiveless and nameless, don't have an opposite, most likely because the property in question is perceived to be present as a default position, and only noticeable in its absence. People and animals have a tendency to move a lot, so the state of being motionless arouses attention through its infrequency (apart, of course, from sleep). Crimes are generally assumed to have a motive, so a motiveless crime is significant simply because it is unusual. Similarly, someone or something that is nameless arouses our attention as we are so used to naming things, animals and people. When it comes to the absence of a person, we have words like motherless, childless and wifeless, which clearly indicate the absence of that particular person in someone's life. However, we would never think of people as being motherful, wifeful or childful if any of these relatives were present in their lives. I suppose that the same could be applied to godless, if that's an important concept for you.

When it comes to physical attributes, we have toothless, and its opposite, toothy, but not toothful. Manx cats are clearly tailless, though we would never think of tail-bearing cats as being taily, or even tailful. If you think about the absence of one's self, you could be conceived as being selfless, though that has a rather different meaning. However, if you're too full of yourself, you're termed as selfish, and not selfful – that could even be a new word, as could selfy; though, on second thoughts, maybe not. If you exist in an entirely non-corporeal form, you could be described as bodiless, as opposed to bodiful, though one thing I'd rather not contemplate in relation to the body is the idea of being bottomless (or indeed topless).

If we look at the absence of attire, we find the usual suspects such as bootless and shirtless, and even parts of attire, such as zipless. Clearly, if you wear boots, you aren't regarded as bootful, and with your shirt, you aren't shirtful, though if you're a punk rocker, you might be zipful. However, going down the other adjectival route doesn't get you very far in terms of the opposite meaning, as all you end up with is booty, shirty and zippy, who might have pretensions to being companions to a modern-day Snow-White.

Here are a few -less words which lack a good opposite; and they really got me thinking. If we aren't deathless, we must be deathful, so how come we don't die all the time? We now have driverless cars, but a car can't occupy the opposite state of being driverful, as there is no need to fill the car up with drivers. One will do, though you may have an unwanted one in the back seat. If you've been jobless, do you then become jobful, working 24 hours a day? You certainly don't want to be jobby (or even a jobbie). If your life is pointless, would becoming pointful turn you into a hedgehog? And what if you're feckless? Would you have any chance of becoming feckful, or even fecky, by getting more feck in your life?

I'll leave you with one final thought. We normally think of bees and wasps as having stings. However, there are certain species which don't have stings, and are hence stingless. What does that make a bee that never pays for its round in the pub? Stingy?

Thursday, 15 June 2017

GH: a potted history.

My daughter studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton. For me, this entails periodic visits by car to ferry her back and forth to London, in particular when she has large quantities of personal effects to move. Every time I drive down the M23, which morphs into the A23 after Pease Pottage Services, a sign appears indicating the turning to Warninglid and Slaugham. Now, leaving aside deliberations on why a village in Sussex should carry a name which one would more likely expect to be seen on top of a container of hazardous material, I would like to focus on the other name, Slaugham.

Go on. Say it. Except...er...how exactly? Slawm? Sloggam? Slougeham? Well, like any internet user, when confronted with a conundrum which can only be solved by reference to a reliable(ish) source, I consulted Wikipedia, which duly informed me that the pronunciation was Slaffam. Entirely predictable in being entirely unpredictable. All over the country we have other gems: Slough, Brighton, Broughton, Middlesbrough, Edinburgh, Clougha Pike, Happisburgh (no - you'll never get it; just check Wikipedia) to name but a few, many indecipherable without local help.

Now, that got me thinking. How would anyone know how to pronounce the name of such a village if one had never heard it pronounced before? I had assumed Slawm, based on the name of the well-known writer of excellent short stories, W. Somerset Maugham. But no. It had to be Slaffam. Do we then recast the pronunciation of the writer's name as Maffam? Somerset Maffam? Doesn't quite ring true. All these ruminations focused my attention on the nature of -gh- itself. In short – why?

The answers are manifold. Here they are, as far as I know them.

Old English -h- was pronounced a bit like ch in German achtung, or Scottish loch and Auchtermuchtie. After the Norman conquest in 1066, the French-speaking scribes started rewriting these words with a -gh- to represent the pronunciation. As a result, we have: bight, bright, daughter, doughty, eight, fight, flight, fright, height, high, knight, light, might, naughty, neighbour, nigh, night, nought, ought, plight (troth), sight, slaughter, slight, slough, straight, taught, thigh, though, thought, through, tight, wright.

The same happened to these words, in which the -h- originally came from -g- or -k-: enough - OE genog; neigh – OE neygan; bough – OE bog; bought – OE bycgan/boht; dough – OE dag; drought – OE drugath; plough – OE plog; weight – OE wegan; wrought - OR werken

In all the above words, the -h- sound disappeared over time, though the -gh- remained as a reminder of the old pronunciation. However, there was a small group of words where the -h- perfectly naturally evolved into an -f- pronunciation, and so we have the following: draught/draft – OE dreaht, laugh – OE hlaehhan; cough – related to OE cohhettan; rough – OE ruh; tough – OE toh; clough – OE cloh; slough - OE/ME slouh; trough –OE trog,

As if that wasn't enough, over time the scribes started seeing things which weren't there. By the time of Chaucer, Middle English had adopted thousands of words of Latin and French origin, and before long -gh- started poking its nose in where it was never welcome: inveigh, originally invey; caught, from catch, ultimately from Latin captiare; delight, originally related to delectable; haughty, originally from French haut, "high"; plight (bad situation), originally related to plait, "folded"; sprightly, originally from sprite, itself from spirit.

Then on top of all that, the Dutch got in on the act. When William Caxton introduced printing into England in the 15th C, he employed Dutch printers. Now, as printers were paid by the letter, certain letters were sneaked into certain words to make them longer and thereby earn more money. Added to that, the Dutch printers started messing with words in English that resembled Dutch words. As a result, we have ghost, from Old English gast, but influenced by Dutch gheest. In turn, ghost forced an -h- into ghastly and aghast. Later, Dutch gurken had a spelling change with -h- added in the 1800s to form gherkin. Other Dutch interlopers include these: freight/fraught, from Middle Dutch vracht/vrecht, and sleigh, altered from Dutch slede.

This leaves us with a few outliers from other languages. Italian uses -gh- to keep a hard g pronunciation before e and i, so we get ghetto and spaghetti. Interestingly, we also get sorghum from Italian despite the following u. Arabic has a voiced uvular sound (way down in the throat) which is rendered -gh- in transliteration, as in Maghreb, and that also gives us ghoul, from ghul, "evil spirit". Finally, Hindi and Malay refuse to be left out, Hindi with dinghy, from dingi, in 1810, and Malay with gingham from ginggang, via Dutch in 1615.

Finally, we have a strange word meaning “boastful person” with an unknown pronunciation: bighead, possibly pronounced beeyad, or biff-ed, or maybe even beed. Unless, of course, it's just a combination of big and head, in which case it's pronounced just like that. At last – a true pronunciation of the spelling of -gh-. I know there had to be at least one!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Ode to London's Errant Apostrophes

Apostrophes of London! Cease your woes!
You come and go with highs and lows.
The Underground and street signs clash,
Resulting in an awful hash.

It seems Kings Cross and Regents Park
On roads and streets, I must remark.
I see Earls Court, as Barons do,
And no one Gardens quite like Kew.

Ravenscourt and Park as well,
While Seven Sisters cast their spell.
Snaresbrook no challenge and hold fast,
Cockfosters growth that's meant to last.

Those Theydon Bois and Shepherds Bush
Much as those Colliers Wood push.
Do Gunnersbury their hatchets deep,
While Kingsbury their queens and weep?

Pray, let the fair Queen spark and sway,
Just as her Knightsbridge night and day.
So London, sort your apostrophes.
And use St Paul's philosophies.

© Marc Loewenthal

Thursday, 9 March 2017

I swear, to tell the truth. Don't we all?

Trigger alert: swear words present (and correct)

Swearing. Cursing. Foul language. Language of the gutter. Locker room talk. There must be very little in the history of language that has caused as much disagreement and controversy as the use of language labelled undesirable, uncouth, foul, obscene, profane, taboo, or any other word or phrase that you want to apply to it. Its prohibition has been inculcated into generations of youthful minds. Countless mouths have been washed out with soap because of it. Millions of lines starting “I must not swear in class...” have been written after school on its account. Incalculable embarrassment and calumny have been incurred through its use. Polite company is largely defined by its total absence. How many times have we studiously, even obsessively, had to watch our p's and q's to avoid causing offence to family, friends, acquaintances and strangers alike?

And yet, and yet, swearing is probably the most natural, normal and psychologically healthy things that we can do with our language. I would go as far as to say we need to swear to express our feelings about someone or something. We gain a release. We show exactly what we think and feel. We identify ourselves with others through it. It becomes a badge of honour. We learn when its use is acceptable and when it isn't. We effectively become proficient users of swearing, because it's an integral part of our language and our linguistic repertoire. I would even venture to say that without swearing, we are not fully fledged users of our language. This is not just my opinion; swearing is actually part of the structure of our language.

First, let me explain why swearing is the topic of this blog post. Recently, the local council in the English town of Rochdale, near Manchester, decided to ban swearing by using a “public spaces protection order” to warn, or even fine to the tune of £100, anyone using “foul and abusive language”. You can read the report here. While I understand that consistently using foul and abusive language to the extent that people in the vicinity feel threatened and intimidated is undesirable, there doesn't seem to be any concise definition of what constitutes foul and abusive language and to what extent it needs to be used to require sanction. However, the aspect of this matter which intrigues me is the idea that an integral part of our language can and should be banned.

Swearing, far from being an undesirable and iniquitous use of language, is actually an aspect of our grammar. If you want to ban swearing, you might as well campaign to ban the use of object pronouns, modal verbs, superlatives, or even the past perfect continuous. If you open up a grammar book, you will see examples and explanations of the grammar that we use on a daily basis, the grammar which makes our language the English language. Now, you might think that postulating swearing as a grammatical category of the language on the same level as, say, phrasal verbs is going more than slightly beyond the pale. However, there is ample evidence for this, which I present here.

We have adjectives, adverbs and nouns, which we can use in increasingly lengthy strings to give more detailed descriptions, as in these examples:

a book; a good book; a really good book

a house; a large house; a large, wooden house; a beautiful, large, wooden house; an amazingly beautiful, large, wooden house.

We use adverbs to modify our impression of something, to add positive or negative feelings or attitudes to expressions, or to enhance certain aspects of the thing, person or idea that we are describing. And we use swear words in a similar way. However, what makes swear words a separate category from all other modifiers in the English language is how we use them to modify. In short, swear words are the only words in our language that can grammatically split other words. Here are some examples:

abso-bloody-lutely; un-fucking-believable; fan-bleeding-tastic; the under-poxy-ground

We usually use these words to emphasise something, stress disapproval and express annoyance. Their use adds emotion to what we're saying in such a way that other words can't. We can also use swear words in other ways without splitting words. The significant thing is that other words which are not normally regarded as taboo, cannot perform the same function. Have a look at these:

no fucking way; I don't bloody believe it; a piss-poor game; I should sodding-well think so.

There are many more examples if you care to look for them, or even think of them (if you aren't afraid of sullying your mind). Of course, you can go through your life without using swear words, just as you can go through your life without ever using the passive, or relative clauses. It would be quite difficult to avoid doing so, though. The point that I'm making is that swear words form a grammatical category in our language, and attempting to ban their use in natural language expression is both unjustifiable and futile. Certainly, we as speakers should be able to judge when to use them and we shouldn't be sanctioned for the odd use of a choice word. I think that if local authorities want to regulate the behaviour of certain people in public, they would do better to focus on what they do, rather than try to deny them the right to use the full range of language that we have at our disposal.

If you would like to read a more comprehensive description of taboo words, read the taboo section in Michael Swan's Practical English Usage, a must for anyone keen to know how the English language really works.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

You can't handle the truth!

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition is the way in which we deal with truth and untruth, reality and fantasy, fact and fiction. We can use fantasy and fiction to imagine other worlds and other “realities”, as well as to test ideas and hypotheses. The problems come when we knowingly use fiction to replace fact, and then try to present that fiction to the world as reality.

A good example of this was revealed last week by the Trump administration. Now, this blog is not necessarily the place to launch a political attack on Trump and his team, as, among other things, there are people far better equipped at doing that then I am. I will, however, take issue with the language that any politician uses to obfuscate the truth. I have no problem in calling out lies when I see language being used to pretend that they are anything but lies.

On 14th February Mike Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, resigned after it emerged that he had misled VP Mike Pence over his previous contacts with Russian officials. The exact words he used for his misdemeanour were “inadvertently briefed” and “incomplete information”. Now, let's analyse this. He briefed him. OK. That's his job, so I can accept that he opened his mouth and produced words designed to help Pence make a decision or come to a conclusion of some kind. Except that he wasn't briefing in this case – he was responding to a specific question as to whether he had discussed with Russian officials the prospect of raising sanctions imposed on Russia. What was required was a yes/no answer. There was no briefing required here.

Let's now examine “inadvertently”. Dictionary.com defines “inadvertent” as “unintentional, heedless”. Thesaurus.com gives these synonyms (among others): careless, reckless, unintended, unwitting, chance, not on purpose, unpremeditated. So Flynn is saying that the “incomplete information” that he transmitted to Pence in their exchange on this matter somehow emanated from his mouth in an entirely unplanned, unintended and unpremeditated manner. In some way, words expressing that he did not discuss state matters with foreign officials somehow formulated themselves in his mind in an entirely unplanned way, and escaped from his mouth with no intention at all. And he is in one of the highest advisory positions in the administration of the most powerful country in the world. In other words, as far as he is concerned, he didn't lie, as that would have involved premeditation, intention and clear denial of a manifest truth of which he was certainly aware as he had actually held the talks with the Russians.

Of course, Flynn isn't the only politician to engage in this type of wordplay in an attempt to save their bacon. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have confessed that they “misspoke” - Trump when referring to abortion and Clinton when referring to her trip to Bosnia. In fact, “misspeak” has a history stretching back to Old English, though it mostly meant “murmur”, “grumble”, “speak disrespectfully” and “pronounce incorrectly”. However, more recently, especially under the influence of politics in America, it has come to mean increasingly “avoid telling the truth” under the guise of not saying what you intended to say. Another expression for lying, “economical with the truth”, entered political discourse during a 1986 trial over a book, Spycatcher, which the British government was trying to stop from being published in the UK. Alan Clark, a minister in Margaret Thatcher's government, admitted to being “economical with the actualit√®” in Parliament, which stretches the denial of lying even more. Careful research will no doubt produce numerous other examples of alternative expressions for telling lies.

Don't get me wrong. Humans throughout history have obfuscated, denied and dissembled for a variety of reasons. We use euphemisms and other expressions to avoid mentioning the real name of something. The ancient Greeks believed that there existed infernal goddesses known as the Furies, who punished people for breaking their oaths. However, they usually referred to them as the Eumenides, a euphemism which meant “kindly ones”, for fear of arousing their wrath by calling them by their real names. The Black Sea was stormy and difficult to navigate in the ancient world, so the Greeks called it Pontos Euxeinos, literally “hospitable sea”, to avoid incurring its wrath. Some seemingly innocuous words and expressions are even taboo. The Russian for bear, medved, literally “honey eater”, is thought to have been used to avoid uttering the real name of the animal, which has always been a powerful figure in Russian folklore. “The Scottish play” is used to avoid uttering “Macbeth”, “pass on” is used to avoid “die”, and so on. However, in most of these cases the aim is usually to avoid hurting feelings, insulting people, provoking conflict or raising a contentious subject. These ways of speaking are part of our human nature.

Let's be clear, though. When it comes to politicians, who we entrust with our votes to govern our countries, societies and lives for our good, we have every right to expect them to give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and not conceal it for their own benefit. Politicians use expressions such as “inadvertently advise”, “misspeak oneself” and “be economical with the truth” to deliberately lie. If something is a matter of state secrecy and security, then fine - we can all accept that. Just say so. We're not children to protect from the awful truth. If they want our trust, they should just come out with the truth when there is no alternative. We can handle it. They can't.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Talk of the town, but which one?

A funny thing happened to me yesterday as I was making my way to Horsham from London on a Southern rail service. Now, all railway companies screw up with their services from time to time, and they occasionally have the good grace to inform their passengers of delays and cancellations. On my train, they even repeatedly put out helpful suggestions to make sure the passengers were on the right part of the train, as the front four coaches were continuing to Portsmouth after Horsham, while the rear four were off to Bognor. I mean, you wouldn't want to have Portsmouth as your intended destination, only to pull up in Bognor, uttering "Bognor? Bugger!" in surprise and disbelief at your folly.

However, I would have thought they would draw the line at the summary renaming of random stations as you approach them. I mean, this could prove quite confusing, even disconcerting, if you were to be expecting to arrive in, say, Brighton, only to be informed that it had been renamed Invercargill or Happisburgh or something. However, this is precisely what happened on my train, not once, but twice, though I must emphasise that it did not affect me personally, as the station in question was simply one I was passing through. What's more, the replacement name was not one which, to my knowledge, identifies any genuine geographical location in this country or, indeed, anywhere else in the known universe, which makes it all the more perplexing. Still, I can do no more than give you the facts and allow you, Dear Reader, to supply your own explanation for it.

The station in question is Crawley, though anyone with less than a passing acquaintance with the vicinity of Gatwick Airport may well not have been able to deduce that, given the nature of the announcements. As we left the station before Crawley, the announcer proclaimed to all and sundry: "The next station is Wouldcustomerspleasenote." A quick search on Google maps failed to turn up a settlement, large or small, of that name in the area. However, a few minutes later the next announcement seemed to have obliterated the newborn Wouldcustomerspleasenote from the face of the earth and replaced it with yet another ostensibly non-existent settlement with the same coordinates as Crawley: "We are now approaching Pleasemindthegapbetweentheplatformandthetrain." Another search failed to identify this newest of new towns in the locality, given that a few minutes previously it had been known as Wouldcustomerspleasenote. Perhaps they had reviewed the initial renaming of Crawley as a singularly inadequate attempt to truly place it on the world stage and wanted to endow it with a name to rival Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in Wales or even Taumatawhakatangihangakoayauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukypokaiwhenuakitanatahu in New Zealand. However, I think you might agree that these attempts both fall a bit short.

Well, that's my interpretation, for what it's worth. I look forward to any other simpler, more likely explanations, should you wish to supply them. Oh, and by the way, on my arrival in Crawley Station, I noticed that it still had signs for Crawley, so evidently they had not had the time to engage signwriters to amend them. If I were you though, I'd be on my guard the next time you want to travel there by train. You never know.