Saturday, 27 November 2010

Lickety splits: two nations divided by a common language

The 1950 Manchester Guardian stylebook gravely listed "Americanisms" to avoid, including "aim to do" (instead of "aim of doing"), "balding", "to call" (rather than "to telephone"), "to contact", "to date" (rather than "so far"), "to help him finish the job" (instead of "to help him to finish the job"), "high-ranking officer", "to pinpoint", "teen-ager" and many similar outrages that no doubt exercised letter writers of the time.
In 2010, its readers object to brownstone, duke it out, lickety split, pony up and suck. Can't see the problem myself. English has a long and glorious history of sucking up new words like a sponge. Far better to do that than to worry endlessly about foreign imports as the French seem to do.

More on The Guardian:

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Who's more "progressive"? David Cameron, Hegel or Rick Wakeman?

It's a word that's starting to get on my nerves. Just before the last general election in the UK, the word 'progressive' was barely a soundbite away from spittle-flecked lips of politicians of every shade of political opinion. In the sense that no politician would wish to be regarded as regressive, I suppose it is natural that they would like to be thought of as progressive. But why did they all start using the word? And what, other than a vague notion that going forward may be better than going backward, does progressive really mean anyway?

There is an interesting article on the BBC web site that sheds a little light. Political reporter, Brian Wheeler, explains that politicians use 'progressive' to describe two very different things (though to the rest of humanity the distinction may not be at all obvious):
"When applied to taxation," (says Wheeler), "progressive simply means hurting the rich more than the poor by taking a progressively bigger slice of their earnings."
The other meaning of 'progressive' is, he concedes, harder to define.
"The first progressive movement emerged before the First World War, when followers of the philosopher Hegel promoted the idea of history as progress out of ignorance and division towards peace and prosperity. But the term began to gain currency again in British politics during the Blair years - when many Labour politicians felt uncomfortable about describing themselves as 'socialists' or even 'left-wing'."
Left wing politicians initially adopted the term 'progressive' to describe social liberalism. This was supposed to be a left-wing ideal. But now even the right-wing Conservative Prime Minister tends to favour this kind of liberalism - he thinks women and gay people are jolly decent sorts and doesn't actively frown upon the poor and working class either - so he too is happy to be called progressive. In fact, he now talks about something called "progressive conservatism".

All of which leads Brian Wheeler (and me and probably most other people of a 'certain age') to think back to another notable movement which once adopted the word 'progressive'. When rock music came out of the 'underground' and into the arena in the late '60s and early '70s, it was proud to call itself progressive. So-called "prog-rock"" bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Yes championed 'serious' rock music that demanded a long attention span and the ability to sit through ten-minute drum solos without squirming.

I am not sure that prog-rock really had any greater claim to being truly progressive than prog-politics. When punk came along in the mid-to-late '70s prog rock seemed to vanish almost overnight. The market simply dried up. Maybe that was indeed progress? But it probably wasn't the sort of progress that prog-rock stars such as Yes's Rick Wakeman had envisaged.

Who knows, maybe what we need next is a good dose of punk politics? Who, I wonder, might be the political counterparts of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious?

Read more on the BBC site: So what exactly is 'progressive' in politics?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

What is The Third Age?

Listening to a broadcast of ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ on BBC radio earlier today, I was interested to hear the presenter say that the team had been the guests of the University of The Third Age. I’d heard of this organisation before and had supposed it to be some sort of educational establishment for retired people. But, if so, why is retirement considered to be “the third age”?

The Seven Ages Of Man (an engraving by H Bourne from a picture by William Mulready)- but which is the third age?
The obvious source of the idea that a person’s lifetime is divided into numbered ‘ages’ is Jaques’s ‘All The World’s A Stage’ speech from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. So which age dies he define to be the third? Let’s take a look....
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. [1] At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms;
And then [2] the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then [3] the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow"

So there we have it. the third age is the lover. So is the University of The Third Age aimed specifically at lovers? If so, sign me up!

Let’s see what they say on their site:
“U3A membership is not related to a specific age but to a period in one’s life (the third age) after the second age of full-time employment and parental responsibility. Anybody in their third age can join U3A and this includes people who are working part time. There is no lower age for membership.”

So, contrary to my expectations, they say that, first, the ‘age’ in the name of the university doesn’t say anything about the age of their students and, secondly, that the ‘third age’ is some time after retirement or bringing up children.

This seems a bit arbitrary. Also a bit vague. For a more precise definition I turned to an academic paper called ‘Third Age Guidance: research into guidance needs and methodologies’ by Dr Pamela Clayton of the University of Glasgow. She directly refers to the Jaques’s speech but rapidly dispenses with three of its ages, claiming that “we can conceptualise at least four ages of man” and goes on to do so:
  • First Age: to the end of formal education
  • Second Age: of potential membership of the labour force
  • Third Age: or the later stages of active life
  • Four Age: frailty and greater dependency

I suppose, then, this definition of ‘third age’ blends ages 5 and 6 (justice and pantaloon) of Shakespeare’s version. I have no idea who decided to use the term ‘third age’ to mean this. If anyone knows, please tell me. It strikes me as a bit of a cop-out, frankly - a wishy-washy way of saying not very much. In spite of the U3A’s insistence that there is no lower age for membership, the definition “after the age of full-time employment and parental responsibility” suggests, to my cynical mind, that what mean to say is “retired” or “old”. However, both those words might be regarded as carrying negative connotations whereas phrases such as Dr Clayton’s “later stages of active life” sound wholly positive. The Collins World English Dictionary takes up this positive theme in its definition of ‘third age’ as “old age, esp when viewed as an opportunity for travel, further education, etc.”

Personally, as I get older I do not intend to enter the ‘third age’. I plan, simply, to get old. That does not, of course, mean that I might not avail myself of educational opportunities and travel – I just plan to be an old student and traveller. As I’ve never been a soldier (Jaques’ fourth age) I am probably ready to pass straight on to the fifth age of the ‘justice’. The very existence of this blog demonstrates well enough that I am already full of “wise saws and modern instances” and I am perfectly prepared to aim for the “fair round belly with good capon lin'd”.

Here, then is the rest of Jaques’ speech:
Then a [4] soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then [5] the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin'd,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the [6] lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav'd, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
[7] Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Thursday, 4 November 2010

What is a 'shellacking'?

Apparently President Obama was shellacked recently. I must say I have never heard the verb used this metaphorical sense before. Shellac is a type of resin used in varnishing wood and in the creation of old gramophone records. But when the President used the word he apparently intended it to mean "been defeated" or, to use another odd metaphor: "received a pasting".

According to the BBC, this sense of shellac goes back to the 1930s in America: "Its original meaning was 'to beat or thrash' - to give someone a physical beating - and some early citations come from organised crime or gangster slang."

See: BBC News - Who, What, Why: What is a 'shellacking'?