Friday, 27 August 2010

Why Bavarian is not the Language of Love

Did you know that Bavarians have no word for love? That’s what the BBC claims at any rate. Reporting on the work of a Yorkshire academic, Anthony Rowley, who is an expert on the Bavarian regional language, Bayerische, the BBC says that the nearest the language comes to expressing love is “I like you” (I mog di) though it does have a colourful range of insults (Oide Zwidawur'n = Grumpy old git; Beiss Zehnd zam und machs Mei auf, wendawosnedbasd! = Like it or lump it (or, literally: Clench your teeth and open your gob if you don't approve).

Read more on the BBC site.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Out, Out Damned Apostrophe!

I had thought that I had a pretty decent command of the apostrophe. But this week, a particularly egregious apostrophe has caused me a few headaches. I had just written a Reviewer’s Guide for one of my company’s programming software products. Yes, that’s right - a Reviewer’s Guide. Or then again, maybe that should that be a Reviewers’ Guide?

The second version (Reviewers’) suggests that this guide is intended to be read by more than one reviewer (which it is), whereas the first version (Reviewer’s) suggests that I expect only one reviewer at a time to read it (which I do).

So which should I go for? Reviewers’ in the plural or Reviewer’s in the singular?

I tried to think of some comparable examples. You would say “a child’s toy”, wouldn’t you? So maybe it should be “a reviewer’s guide”? But then you would say “a children’s book” so that means it should be “a reviewers’ guide”!

No, no, this is madness! Why is a toy aimed at a single child but a book aimed at a whole load of them? Let’s try to think of some better examples...

If I said “Butch Omi” is a Men’s Magazine, that would mean it is a magazine aimed at a male readership (thus men, plural). I could equally say that it is a Man’s Magazine but if I were to do so I think I would be most likely to qualify ‘man’ in some way - for example, “It’s the working man’s magazine” or “the thinking man’s magazine”.

I am not at all sure that there is any hard and fast rule to determine where the apostrophe should be placed when you are describing something that is aimed at an individual who is also a member of a group. In most cases, the pronunciation of the singular and plural nouns is identical so it would be impossible to distinguish between them in spoken language (reviewer’s guide or reviewers’ guide; dog’s lead or dogs’ lead). In the examples above, I deliberately chose words (man/men, child/children) whose sounds change from singular to plural to try to make the distinction more obvious.

Just to add to the confusion, glancing along my bookshelf, I notice copies of those two invaluable reference works for the freelance writer: the Writer’s Handbook and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. What am I to deduce? That the first assumes a lone reader while the latter expects to be passed from hand to hand among a multitude?

Well, the time has come to make a decision. I think I’m going to stick with Reviewer’s Guide (and assume that each reviewer believes the guide was written for him or her alone). Mind you, this bothersome matter is probably not something worth losing sleep over. The apostrophe is such an ill-treated punctuation mark these days that I suspect a great many people won’t know why I’ve put one there at all: Reviewers Guide anyone...?

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Geek - from Monster to Nerd

“Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek.”
Thus begins William Lindsay Gresham’s wonderful novel Nightmare Alley (1946). And, just in case you have any doubt on the matter, I should explain that the geek in question is not a spotty-faced computer programmer with bad breath and glasses held together with sticking plaster. The modern meaning of geek (which I think might be described as a more intelligent and intense relative of the ‘nerd’) came much later.

Gresham describes the geek in lovingly repulsive detail. He is a wretched man wearing brown-dyed long johns and a curly black wig. His face is covered in brown greasepaint, presumably intended to make him into the caricature of some sort of exotic savage. The carnival caller outside his enclose tells the crowd that the geek was found on an uninhabited island five hundred miles off the coast of Florida. In his pen he is surrounded by lethargic snakes.
“Stan liked snakes,” (Gresham writes), “The disgust he felt was for them, at their having to be penned up with such a specimen of a man.”

Here in the outer pen, carnival visitors can see the geek surrounded by snakes for free. But that isn’t the main attraction. What people really want to see is the geek feeding. And to see that, they have to pay. Once he has a paying audience, the carnival caller takes a live chicken from a basket and throws it to the geek. Then the geek eats...
“How do you ever get a guy to geek?” (Stan asks) “Or is this the only one? I mean, is a guy born that way - liking to bite the heads off chickens.”
The rest of the novel is, essentially, an answer to that question.

Gresham was fascinated by the carnivals in 1930s and ‘40s America and, in addition to the fictional carnival of Nightmare Alley, he wrote a non fiction book on the subject called ‘Monster Midway’ (1953). This book also describes the pathetic life of a geek.
"How do you find guys that will do things like that? I mean, biting the heads off chickens. Good God, man, do you find a guy doing that behind a barn somewhere and ... ?"
"Kid, you don't find a geek. You make a geek."
"But how?"
"When you get hold of one of them fellows, he ain't a geek—he's a drunk. Or he's on the morph. He comes begging for a job. You tell him, ‘Well, I ain't got anything regular, but I got a temporary job. My wild man quit on me, and I got to get another to fill in. Meanwhile you can put on the wild man outfit and sit in the pit and make believe you're biting the heads off chickens and drinking the blood. 'Course you won't be biting the heads off. You'll have a razor blade hid in your hand, and when you pick up the chicken you'll give its neck a slit and let the blood run down your chin. Mind, it ain't a good job, but it'll give you a place to sleep ...’ "
"Well, you let him go on, faking the geek for a few days, and you see that he gets his bottle regular. Or his deck of 'M' so he can bang himself night and morning and keep the horrors away. Then you say one night after the show closes, 'You better turn in the stuff and hit the road after we close tomorrow night. I got to get me a real geek. You can't draw no crowd, faking it that way.' You slip him the bottle and you tell him, 'This is the last one you get.' You tell him that. He has all that night and all the next day to think it over. And the next night when you throw in the chicken—he'll geek."
The Cassell Dictionary of Slang claims that the word ‘geek’ was used in 19th Century America to mean ‘a clumsy, eccentric or offensive person’ and was only applied to carnival performers in the 20th Century. It suggests that the modern sense of the word came about in the '80s on US campuses and was initially used to describe someone who devotes too much time to his books.

Partridge’s Dictionary Of Slang says that ‘geek’ may have been a shortened form of ‘give us a peek’ and was used in Australia World War I. Possible derivations are German ‘gucken’ (to peep or peek) and Cornish dialect ‘geek’ (to look intently at). It suggests the possibility that the geek of the carnival was the lowest type of fairground performer, one that was merely stared or ‘geeked’ at. The French version of Wikipedia also quotes the Oxford American Dictionary (I don’t have a copy of this so have been unable to check) which suggests that the word derives from the middle German, ‘Geck’ (a fool). According to the Collins/German Dictionary, however, the modern German meaning of ‘Geck’ is a fop or a dandy, which seems to be miles away from either a chicken-eater or a computer programmer.

I’m not sure how to account for the meaning change from ‘a man who bites the heads off chickens’ to a person obsessed with technical stuff and computers. If it’s true that the word ‘geek’ started to be used for over-earnest students in '80s America (in other words, as a synonym for what I would have called a ‘swot’ when I was at school here in the UK), I suppose we might hypothesise that this was a general term of abuse for “one of life’s losers” (for some reason, many school students have a strong prejudice that study must be bad for you). In which case, when computing became an area of academic study, throughout the '80s, a ‘computer geek’ might simply have been a specific type of geek. Over time, the special designation might have been dropped so that any type of geek was likely to be good with computers. That said, specialist geek variants still abound as in ‘film geek’, ‘comic book geek’ and so on - to describe anyone who takes a nitpickingly obsessive interest in some particular subject. I guess I must be a ‘word geek’?

That, at any rate, is one possible explanation of the link between computer programmers and men who bite the heads off chickens. If you have any more information on this subject, please let me know.

Nightmare Alley was, incidentally, made into a pretty good film (1947) with Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. If you enjoy film noir, this is one the best.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Why 'Wurfing' is not a word (yet)

How many words, I wonder, have entered our everyday language over the past few years thanks to the influence of computing and the Internet?

Here are a few that spring to mind:

Blog (short for ‘web log’)
Podcast (like a broadcast that can be downloaded onto an iPod)
To Google (to search for information often, though not necessarily, using the Google search engine)
To Surf (to browse the Internet - in which case wearing brightly coloured swimming trunks and standing on a board is entirely optional)

Then there are those technical words which, a decade ago, would have seemed like impenetrable jargon to many people, but which are now almost universally understood. I’m thinking of words such as upload, download, email, attachment, virus and (of course!) Monty Python’s greatest contribution to the English language: Spam!

In addition, there are acronyms and abbreviations: lol, rofl, imho, roflmao and so on....

I wonder why some terms caught on whereas others were consigned to the recycle-folder of history? ‘Audio-blogging’ was around long before the iPod, but that term now has been pretty much erased by the word ‘podcast’. Before Google, there were lots of search engines. Why did none of these generate a verb? ‘To Hotbot’ perhaps, or ‘to Altavista’?

I chanced upon two stories about ‘new words’ recently. One, from the BBC, called ‘How the internet is changing language’, muses on such oddities are ’rickrolling’ and WTF. The other, ‘When is a word not a word? When it doesn't make it into the dictionary’, comes from The Daily Telegraph. It considers the problems with which the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary have to grapple when deciding which new words are sufficiently established to merit an entry and which are purely transient and may therefore be ignored.

The Telegraph article says...
‘A researcher at Kingston University, London recently described his fascination at discovering a vault full of millions of “non words” that had failed to made the grade. They included “wurfing”, the act of surfing the internet at work; “polkadodge”, the awkward dance performed by pedestrians trying to pass each other on the street; and “nonversation”, a pointless chat.’

I rather like ‘wurfing’. Maybe if we start a campaign to get people using it we might manage to sneak it into the next edition of the OED. Come on, people, get wurfing!

Monday, 16 August 2010

Shampoo and Curry

What’s the connection between curry and shampoo? Yes, really is one, strange as it may seem...

Many and varied are the words that have passed into English from the Indian subcontinent such as pyjamas, Juggernaut and thug. It is perhaps less well known that ‘shampoo’ came into English from Hindi (chāmpo चाँपो).

I discovered this recently while browsing through my well-thumbed copy of ‘Hobson-Jobson’ the Anglo-Indian Dictionary compiled by Henry Yule and A C Burnell in the late 19th century. This defines ‘shampoo’ as “to kneed and press the muscles with the view of relieving fatigue” and it quotes several examples. The author of 1748 book, A Voyage to the East Indies, believed it to be of Chinese origin - “Shampooing is an operation not known in Europe, and is peculiar to the Chinese...” The procedure was clearly a bit scary. “Had I not seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I should have been apprehensive of danger, even at the sight of the different instruments.”

Various other writers quoted also express the belief that shampooing is Chinese. However, by 1813 one writer says: “There is sometimes a voluptuousness in the climate of India, a stillness in nature, an indescribable softness, which soothes the mind, and gives it up to the most delightful sensations: independent of the effects of opium, champoing, and other luxuries indulged in by oriental sensualists.”

Shampoo massages (for head and body) were introduced into Britain by Sake Dean Mahomed, a surgeon from Bengal, who moved first to London and then to the seaside resort of Brighton in 1814 where he opened a ‘shampooing baths’ - these being a variant on the then popular Turkish baths. Sake Dean Mahomed is also credited with opening Britain's first curry house, The Hindoostanee Coffee House in George Street, central London. Hence the connection between shampoo and curry. Sadly, however, his curry house appears to have been less successful than his shampoo baths. The British at that period did not have the taste for vindaloos and chicken korma which they subsequently developed.

While shampooing in the original sense, may have involved a head massage, that was not obligatory. According to The Victorian Turkish Bath web site (yes, there really is one!) any part of the body might have been massaged. It quotes a description of a shampoo treatment from The Illustrated London News of 1862:

“As soon as the skin of the bather exhibits a flow of gentle perspiration a tellak, or bathman, commences the manipulation which characterises the native tellak. ... We are softly handled instead of being violently pinched. The bathman follows the line of muscles with 'anatomical thumb' to render them supple and to ascertain that they are so before the next operations are proceeded with. With a camel's-hair glove on his hand he sweeps over every inch of the body from the neck to the heels, starting the skin and planing it off in successive rolls, his dextrous hand missing no portion of the body. Legs and arms are cleared of every superfluity. Every part of your body is then cracked with surprising skill—an alarming operation to a novice, but a perfectly safe and necessary one when performed by experienced tellaks.”

Think of that the next time you have a shampoo. Or a curry...

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Victorian Polari!

Polari is a gay/theatrical argot known in the UK from the Julian and Sandy sketches of the 1960s radio show, Round The Horne. This is a sample...
HORNE: I'm interested in booking a holiday.
JULIAN: Would you like us to do something exciting for you in a cheap package?
HORNE: Yes. What would you recommend?
SANDY: Well, how about Juan in the S of F? That's Les Pins. Bona, ennit Jules?
JULIAN: Divine. Sitting, sipping a tiny drinkette, vada-ing the great butch omis and dolly little palones trolling by, or disporting yourself on the sable plage getting your lallies all bronzed - your riah getting bleached by the soleil.
I had always assumed that Polari was a language confined exclusively to the homosexual and theatrical subculture of the early to mid-20th Century. It appears, however, that I was wrong.

I happened to be reading a book called The Victorian Underworld about life on the seamier side of Victorian Britain. In one chapter, this mentions The Nanty Polone Ironclad firm of bookmakers. Now both ‘Nanty’ and ‘Polone’ are Polari words. “Nanty Polone” means "No women". I’m not sure if 'ironclad' has any special meaning in Polari. I suspect it is simply used in the commonplace metaphorical sense (as in an ‘ironclad’ or ‘unbreakable’ guarantee) deriving from ‘ironclad’ in the sense of a wooden ship covered with iron plating. Which may tie in nicely with the naval connection which also features in the history of Polari, as I’ll explain shortly.

As in other types of slang such as Cockney rhyming slang or French ‘Verlan’ (backslang), Polari functioned as a secret or coded language. It not only permitted Polari speakers to talk to one another without being understood by the people about whom they were talking (“Vada the lallies on that bona omi” = “Look at that good looking man’s legs”) but it was also an expression of membership of an exclusive group - often on the fringes of ‘acceptable society’ (homosexuality was still completely outlawed in the UK until 1967).

Polari uses a broad mix of words from a variety of sources. Quite a bit comes from Italian (‘nanty’ from ‘niente’, ‘bona’ from ‘buona’, ‘polari’ from ‘parlare’. There's some Yiddish, German and French (e.g. ‘bijou’) and possibly even some Welsh (I can’t help wondering if Polari’s ‘latty’ meaning "lodgings/digs" is related to the Welsh word, ‘llety’ with the same meaning?). There’s some back-slang too (‘ecaf’=face, ‘riah’=hair).

Given the fact that Polari was a typically gay/theatrical slang in the 20th century, how come it was being used by a bookmaker in the 19th? According to the Liverpool Museum site: "In the eighteenth century it was mainly used in pubs around the London dock area", later spread to merchant seafarers and only in the 1930s made its way into gay pubs and theatrical circles.

Polari is a fascinating (and, more important, funny!) argot and I shall no doubt return to it in future posts. In the meantime, if you’d like a more extensive sample, I recommend that you read a few Julian and Sandy sketches. You can find some here:

Sir Courtly Who...?

Sir Courtly Nice: Wherever I go, all the World cries that's a Gentleman, my Life on't, a Gentleman ; and when ye'ave said a Gentleman, you have said all.
Servant: Is there nothing else belongs to a Gentleman ?
Sir Courtly Nice: Yes, Bon mien, fine Hands, a Mouth well furnish'd
Servant: With fine Language-
Sir Courtly Nice: Fine Teeth, you Sot ; fine Language belongs to Pedants and poor Fellows that live by their Wits. Men of Quality are above Wit ; 'tis true, for our Diversion sometimes we write, but we ne'er regard Wit. I write, but I never writ any Wit.

Sir Courtly Nice was the invention of the dramatist, John Crowne (1641-1712). Sir Courtly is one of that type of Restoration comedy characters (other notables being Etherege’s Sir Fopling Flutter, Vanbrugh’s Lord Foppington) generally known as the ‘fop’ - a man whose opinion of himself far exceeds his talents.

So what has he to do with this blog...?

Well, this blog is about words. It’s very easy to be pompous about words. Even the words that describe words tend to sound highfalutin’: literature, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, consonance, assonance... I like Sir Courtly’s opinion on the matter: “Fine Language belongs to Pedants and poor Fellows that live by their Wits...”

If I find myself waxing pompous, I’ll try to remember that. If I forget it, you will see a very handy ‘Comment’ link which gives you the opportunity to remind me.

One thing I shall warn you of in advance: this blog will ramble. I will write about whatever takes my fancy on the day. That might be rhyming slang, backslang or Polari; it might be style, grammar or the humorous potential of the semicolon. It might be my thoughts on the ten funniest words in English or the twenty-three filthiest ones.

More anon...