Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Spivs and Bankers

The word ‘spiv’ has, rather surprisingly, come back into everyday usage in the UK. The Government’s Business Secretary, Vince Cable, made a speech in which he referred to some bank employees as ‘spivs’ and gamblers.

While the word ‘spiv’ has never completely gone away, until Mr Cable’s speech, I had assumed that it was a quaintly antiquated word. The heyday of the spiv was during the second world war. Typically, a spiv was someone who, while not an out-and-out villain, was not entirely honest either. When luxuries were in short supply, the spiv could find some way of obtaining them - at a price.

Four classic spivs (from top-left, clockwise): Flash Harry (George Cole), Max Miller, Private Walker (James Beck) and perhaps the ultimate incarnation, Arthur English

Partridge’s Dictionary Of Slang defines ‘spiv’ as “One who lives by his wits - within the law” and dates the word to about 1890. By 1946, the word more specifically described “small town touts and racketeers”. Partridge gives the word the same origin as ‘spiffing’ (neat, smart, dandified), presumably in reference to the spiv’s habit of dressing in loud and flashy suits - a habit which has been portrayed by well-known fictional spivs such as Private Walker (James Beck) from the BBC TV comedy, Dad’s Army and Flash Harry (George Cole) in the St. Trinian’s films. Two comedians, Arthur English, and Max Miller, also adopted variants of the classic ‘spiv’ image. The thing about all these spivs is that they are ‘likeable rogues’ (Max Miller was called ‘The Cheeky Chappie’, Arthur English was “The Prince of the Wide Boys”).

The classic version of the spiv generally wears a double-breasted suit with big lapels, a loud kipper tie and a small trilby hat set at a jaunty angle.

The Cassell Dictionary Of Slang believes that the word ‘spiv’ may either derive from Romany (spiv=sparrow, a term for someone who picks up the leavings of others) or else from the inversion of VIPs or from SPIV - a police abbreviation Suspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants. None of these explanations sounds entirely convincing to me and, moreover, would seem to contradict the Partridge’s claimed ‘spiffing’ derivation. The OED, incidentally, gives ‘spiff’ as (1959) “the percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock”. That sounds a credible source for ‘spiv’ in the wartime sense.

But whatever its derivation, I very much doubt if the wartime spivs ever imagined that the term might one day be applied to city bankers earning eye-watering bonuses!

Geekdom and Nerdcore

I wrote recently about the curious origins of the word ‘geek’. I see from an article on the BBC web site that geeks now have their own subculture which goes by the name of ‘geekdom’ while nerds have embraced a musical idiom called ‘nerdcore’.
"Nerdcore is like every other sort of hip hop, just considerably less cool," said MC Frontalot, one of the founding fathers of the scene.

The subject matter stands in contrast to that traditionally explored in hip-hop, he explained.

"Topics include video games, science fiction, dungeons and dragons, but the deeper themes also look at feelings of alienation, paranoia and inadequacy that must always be battled in order to leave your apartment." 
The BBC article (Nerdcore: hip-hop for rhyming geeks) tends to use the terms ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ indiscriminately as though there were no real difference between them. I’m not sure that is the case. It seems to me that ‘geek’ has slightly cooler overtones than ‘nerd’. Hence the expression ‘geek chic’. I can’t imagine a word as positive as ‘chic’ being applied to a nerd.

But then again, maybe that’s just the sort of thing a nerd like me would say...?

Monday, 20 September 2010

The 24 Letters Of The Alphabet

Sitting in a dusty stack of old and tatty books on one of the shelves in the corner of my office is a disintegrating copy of The Works Of Ben Jonson. My copy was published in 1879 and, in addition to the well-known plays such as Volpone, The Alchemist, Epicoene and Bartholomew Fair it also contains the text of Jonson’s ‘The English Grammar’.

Most of Jonson’s plays are still to be found in modern editions available in bookshops or as digitised texts on the internet. The Grammar, however, is something of a rarity and I am mightily pleased to have a copy of it.

I happened to be browsing through the opening pages of Jonson’s Grammar earlier today and one of the first things that struck me was this statement: “In our language we use these twenty and four letters.” Twenty-four? Not twenty-six? Where, I wondered, were the missing two?

Jonson goes on to list the letters of the alphabet minus the ‘j’ and the ‘u’. Unfortunately, my 19th Century edition of the Grammar ‘corrects’ the original spelling by putting ‘j’ and ‘u’ where the modern reader expects them to. I haven’t seen a copy of the original, uncorrected, version, so I uncertain whether the modern characters ‘j’ and ‘u’ were used. At any rate, even if they were, they would have been considered to be mere stylistic variants of the letters ‘i’ and ‘v’. If you look at facsimiles of the old editions Shakespeare plays, for example, you will see examples of both characters:

Jonson explains that Iis a letter of double power” since it is used both as a vowel and as a consonant: “For where it leads the sounding vowel, and beginneth the syllabe, it is ever a consonant; as in James, John, jest, jump, conjurer, perjured.

V, too, he says “is like our i, a letter of double power. As a vowel, it soundeth thin and sharp, as in use; thick and flat as in us.” But “When it followeth a sounding vowel in a syllabe it is a consonant; as in save, rave, prove, love etc. Which double force is not the unsteadfastness of our tongue, or uncertainty of our writing, but fallen upon us from Latin.

Ah, yes, Latin - a language in which the letter V also doubled-up as a U. This reminds me of the 1976 BBC dramatisation of Robert Graves’s books, I, Claudius, which was ‘Latinized’ in the title sequence as ‘I, Clavdivs’ - something which caused much mirthfulness amongst my chums at school who hilariously (for we were easily amused) insisted on pronouncing the name with consonant ‘v’s to rhyme with ‘Have-gives’!

According to the OED, the letter J in English, and in other modern languages, is a rather recent addition to the alphabet. Until the 17th century, the letter I represented both the vowel (as does the modern i) and the consonant (now replaced by the modern j) and that the letter j was originally a no more than a variant of i adopted by scribes.

The letter U has a longer history. While, in classical Latin, U and V are not differentiated, according to the OED, the rounded U can be seen in some 4th Century Latin manuscripts and also in Anglo-Saxon texts.

By the middle of the 18th century, the letters seem to have started to live schizophrenic lives, uncertain of whether they were each one letter with two sounds or two letters with their own distinct identities. Dr Samuel Johnson in his ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ (1755) groups words beginning with ‘J’ with those beginning with I; similarly, he groups words beginning with ‘U’ with those beginning with ‘V’. In essence, he treats ‘j’ as a type of ‘i’ and ‘u’ as a type of ‘v’. Of the letter ‘I’ he says: “I is in Englifh confidered both as vowel and confonant; though, fince the vowel and confonant differ in their form as well as found, they may be more properly accounted two letters.”

In my quotations I retain his use of ‘f’ for ‘s’ (and I shall leave discussion of that curiosity to a future date). He goes on to give examples of the ‘consonant’ version of ‘i’ in words such as ‘jade; and ‘jet’ where, he says, it has “invariably the fame found with that of ‘g’ in giant”.

By the way, you can download Dr Johnson’s Dictionary in two volumes here:

Here are Dr. Johnson’s comments on ‘V’ and ‘U’:
“V, Has two powers, expreffed modern Englifh by two characters, V confonant and U vowel, which ought to be confidered as two letters; but as they were long confounded while the two ufes were annexed to one form, the old cuftom ftill continues to be followed. .

“U, the vowel, has two founds; one clear, expreffed at other times by ou, as obtufe; the other clofe, and approaching to the Italian u, or Englifh Oo, as obtund.

“V, the confonant, has a found nearly approaching to thofe of b and f. With b it is by the Spaniards and Gafcons always confounded, and in the Runick alphabet is expreffed by the fame character with f, diftinguifhed only by a diacritical point. Its found in Englifh is uniform. It is never mute.”

So there you are: Ben Jonson didn’t use I and U at all. Samuel Johnson did use them in a fairly apologetic manner. And we use them all the time - which is why we have two more letters in our alphabet than Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare had in theirs.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

My Grammar’s Better Than Your Grammar

Why I Won’t Be Buying Simon Heffer’s Book

UK newspaper columnist, Simon Heffer, has recently been promoting his book, ‘Strictly English’, which is all about the rules of English grammar. If you think I am overjoyed, think again. I haven’t read the book and, frankly, I am not inclined to do so. However, I am unimpressed by the extracts printed in The Telegraph.

Mr. Heffer’s views on grammar are distinctly of the “What I say is right, what you say is wrong” variety. In other words it is prescriptive, authoritarian and dull. He seems to work on the assumption that grammar is a set of inviolable rules and to ‘talk proper’ all you have to do is learn those rules. He states (and this I find jaw-dropping) that: “Our language is to a great extent settled and codified”. Well, your language may be, Mr. Heffer. Mine certainly ain’t!

In my long career in journalism, I have come across a few editors and subeditors who share Mr. Heffer’s views. When in doubt on some point of grammar they refer to the ultimate distillation of the knowledge of the Ancient Grammarians - a Holy text known as ‘The Style Sheet’. The Style Sheet contains such gems of wisdom as: “Thou shalt not use the passive voice” and “Refrain from using first person singular for this is a vile and egregious sin.

Mr. Heffer’s inviolable rules of grammar are more numerous and more restrictive than any Style Sheet which I have had the misfortune to encounter. On the radio the other day, he waxed red in the face on the horrors of mixing up your ‘shall’s with your ‘will’s. According to the BBC web site, he also believes that the sentence "The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary" is grammatically incorrect (more on this later). He goes on to argue that the word ‘viable’ should only be applied to organisms since the dictionary defines viable as "capable of living". In fact, this is not true. I’ve just checked in my copy of the OED and it gives Mr. Heffer’s preferred definition first, followed by a much looser figurative definition “Of immaterial things and concepts” and it quotes an example from 1848: “the viable medium, the medium of harmony”. Possibly Mr Heffer considers the figurative meaning to be a bit too modern for his tastes?

By the way, if you are still wondering why Mr. Heffer asserts that "The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary" is ungrammatical, I recommend this article from excellent Language Log - which also explains why Mr Heffer is wrong. Language Log has another (rather effective) go at Heffer HERE.

My own view is that grammar describes language; it does not impose a set of rules upon it. Mr. Heffer is peculiarly reverential of the Oxford English Dictionary of 1928 and English grammars written at the same time. He says: “But” (yes, he really does begin the sentence with a conjunction!) “But we have had a standard dictionary now ever since the OED was completed in 1928, and learned men, many of whom contributed to the OED, wrote grammars a century ago that settled a pattern of language that was logical and free from the danger of ambiguity.”

I’m not sure why the learned men of 1928 should be regarded as greater authorities than those who preceded them? Grammar changes as the use of language changes. 1928 is neither a starting nor an ending point for that process of change. Ben Jonson was surely an author of sufficient greatness to compete with the learned men who contributed to the OED. So why should I not refer to Jonson’s Grammar of 1618? Or maybe I should go back further still? How about William Bullokar’s Grammar of 1586?

I may return to Ben Jonson’s Grammar in a future post. I suspect I would find it more illuminating than Mr Heffer’s book.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Tuffets and how to sit on them

"Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet..." - it’s a nursery rhyme that’s familiar to most English speaking people. But do you know what a tuffet is? If I asked you to go and sit on one, where would you look - in the living room, maybe? Or out in a field?

Arthur Rackham (1922) shows Miss Muffet sitting on a grassy knoll
Leaving aside the meaning of the rhyme itself (who was Miss Muffet, why was she eating curds and whey, why was she frightened of spiders and why should anybody care?) let me return to that curious word: ‘tuffet’.

According to Wikipedia, ‘tuffet’ is a synonym for pouffe or hassock - a small stool or low seat. It also gives an alternative definition: “an inflatable landing area for precision accuracy parachute landings” - though in Miss Muffet’s case I think that may be safely discounted. This seems to place Miss Muffet in the living room whereas I had always assumed she was sitting out in a field.

It turns out that both the words ‘tuffet’ and ‘hassock’ were originally used to describe grassy knolls (so my version of Miss Muffet may, after all, be correct). The OED gives the origin of the word as ‘tuft’ which underwent a suffix change to ‘tuffet’ and used to be used to describe, ‘a tuffet of hair’. By the 19th century the word was being applied to grassy mounds (“Here were six little grassy tuffets”) and its application to footstools came later - “perhaps due to a misunderstanding of the nursery rime” comments the OED. This misunderstanding may have been brought about by confusion with the word ‘buffet’ which, since at least the 15th Century was used to describe a low stool.

Since the ‘low stool’ meaning of tuffet seems to date only from the late 19th Century, maybe the date of the nursery rhyme may give us a clue as to whether or not this is likely to be the object that was intended?

The rhyme is often interpreted either as a story about Mary Queen of Scots being frightened by a spider or about Patience Muffet, the daughter of a 16th Century entomologist. Both of these interpretations require that the poem be dated from the 16th Century. These are attractive theories apart from the fact that there appears to be no evidence that the poem does, in fact, date from that time. The first known appearance of the rhyme was in 1805.

Nevertheless, as far as I can determine, 1805 is an early enough date to make it fairly safe to assume that the tuffet in the rhyme was a grassy mound and not a stool. Even as late as 1900, the word tuffet is used with this meaning in a parody of the original poem by Guy Wetmore Carryl.
Little Miss Muffet discovered a tuffet,
(Which never occurred to the rest of us)
And, as ’twas a June day, and just about noonday,
She wanted to eat—like the best of us:
Her diet was whey, and I hasten to say
It is wholesome and people grow fat on it.
The spot being lonely, the lady not only
Discovered the tuffet, she sat on it.

I think it is reasonable to assume that Miss Muffet in this version was far more likely to chance upon a grassy mound in a lonely spot (the next verse tells us that “A rivulet gabbled beside her”) than a low stool.

We can search for more evidence for the meaning of tuffet in paintings and illustrations. Most 19th and early 20th century artists appear to favour a grassy mound. Amongst the artists who have illustrated the rhyme, the following all show Miss Muffet sitting on grass: John Everett Millais (1884), Kate Greenaway (1881), L. Leslie Brooke (1922), Arthur Rackham (1922) - as do several unnamed artists from the late 19th/early 20th Century whose work I’ve found on various web sites.

By the early 20th Century, however, there has clearly started to be some disagreement. This web site shows a number of illustrations (the earliest being from 1902) which show Miss Muffet sitting on a stool.

This picture by Jessie Willcox Smith (1912) shows that Miss Muffet was sitting on a stool when the spider appeared.

The first mention of tuffet as a stool in the OED is by (E F?) Benson (1895) from the July edition of the Contemporary Review: “Little Miss Moffat (sic) ... hastily got up from the tuffet - which turned out to be a three-legged stool”. The fact that he has felt the need to explain the meaning suggests that ‘tuffet’ was by no means an everyday word at the time. I am left wondering whether his explanation was intended to be humorous - that is, was he deliberately misdefining the word for comic effect? If so, could it be that Benson is responsible for the whole ‘a tuffet is a stool’ school of thought that since followed?

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find the full article from which the quotation is taken so the OED’s brief excerpt remains to tantalise me...

For John Everett Millais (1884), Miss Muffet's tuffet is definitely a grassy knoll and not a stool

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Of Mice and Muslims

...not to mention homosexuals and spiders.

Yes, these, and many other things, now have their very own phobias!

As anyone who has watched a Tom and Jerry cartoon will know, people who suffer from musophobia tend to jump onto a chair and scream whenever they see a mouse. People suffering from arachnophobia do the same when they see a spider.

So, do people suffering from Islamophobia or homophobia jump onto chairs and scream when they see a Muslim or a homosexual?

I had always thought of phobias as essentially irrational fears of entirely harmless things (‘fear, horror or aversion, esp. of a morbid character’, according to the OED). Being scared of a harmless house spider for example would be a phobia (arachnophobia) whereas being scared of a poisonous black widow spider would be an entirely rational reaction and, therefore, not a phobia.

Mice, small spaces and foreigners all deserve their own phobias (musophobia, claustrophobia and xenophobia) just so long as we accept that they are all harmless. But if they were not harmless - say, if the mice were plague carriers, the small space happened to be a locked and airtight container and the foreigners were enemy forces armed to the teeth with guns and grenades - then fear of them would be completely rational and would not be described as a phobia.

In fact, it seems to me that terms such as ‘homophobia’ and ‘Islamophobia’ are frequently applied to people who a) are not scared of homosexuals and Muslims - they don’t jump on chairs and scream - but may have reservations about their beliefs, actions or lifestyle and b) those reservations are rational - they have been ‘reasoned’ and are capable of explanation. That doesn’t mean to say that the reasons are correct or that the explanations may not be refuted, but that’s beside the point. It is my contention that if someone can supply a reasoned argument to support a criticism, it is not correct to say that they are suffering from a phobia.

All too often, describing reasoned criticism as a phobia is no more than a verbal trick to invalidate an opposing argument before it is made. If somebody puts forward a critical argument relating to some aspect of Islam, for example, it is easy to say “I don’t have to argue with you! You’re an Islamophobe!” (this requires no intellectual effort at all) whereas it may be quite hard to engage in a critical argument point by point and attempt to find flaws in it (this may require a good deal of intellectual effort).

Christopher Hitchens expressed this well in a recent article: “This is why the fake term Islamophobia is so dangerous: It insinuates that any reservations about Islam must ipso facto be ‘phobic’. A phobia is an irrational fear or dislike. Islamic preaching very often manifests precisely this feature, which is why suspicion of it is by no means irrational.”

As a means of defusing dissent by abusing your opponents, calling them a something-phobe is often a more effective tactic than it really deserves to be. So much so that lots of groups are being thrown onto the something-phobe bandwagon. Apparently there are Christianophobia, Heterophobia, Judaeophobia and other phobias too ludicrous to mention. My personal favourite, however is Luposlipaphobia, which was coined by the Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, to describe “fear of being pursued by timber wolves around a kitchen table while wearing socks on a newly waxed floor”.

Now that’s a phobia I can understand!