Fowler’s Miscellany

Observatory

Things that should not bother me but do.

 

It’s probably not bad grammar, especially from the Washington Post, and I hugely admire Americans for taking welcome shortcuts through language, but in my head this reads ‘lose even more badly’. Sorry. I’ve managed to adapt to ‘train station’ instead of ‘railway station’ and even ‘bored of’ instead of ‘bored with’, but this may be a step too far.

Arabella Plunkett, BA (Biscuits)

The year is 1960. George Cole is showing an Arab Sheik photographs of the sixth form of St Trinian’s with a view to him buying them. The sheik stops before a bikini girl in a pin-up pose. The sheik asks, ‘What is her background?’ ‘I think that’s Clacton Pier,’ Cole replies.

There are 33 universities in London. One of them, Regent’s University, is an unbelievably glamorous college in Regent’s Park, and has more sheiks and princesses being schooled there than you can sheik a stick at. It’s not alone; many others sound equally delightful. Doubtless their students are not being flogged off to a harem but taught how to do upper class English things along with their regular curriculum of ‘soft’ undergrad subjects in liberal arts and holistic wellness.

I think of such colleges as educational show trials, where merely to have been able to afford to attend is the end result, rather like Swiss finishing schools were in the sixties. We have a history of creating such places. Arabella Plunkett’s parents can say she went somewhere nice and English, and the fact that she only learned how to make art videos and do reiki need never be mentioned in Dubai Society. It’s another example of how class allies itself to money in the UK, in this case to sell that dubious quality, Englishness, about which I have a theory.

Cocksure

My theory, by Christopher Fowler, open brackets, Mister, close brackets*.

Where Americans are cocksure, the English are unsure. Why is this? America has confidence, we have doubts. In English democracy nobody leaves the conference table happy. The problem has a linguistic root. America has a positive collective noun for its residents and we don’t. We’re stuck with adjectives and modifiers. They’re always Americans. It’s a word that crops up hundreds of times in every speech, along with the name of the country, in every commercial and sales pitch.

We can’t do that. For a start, there’s no single name for our nation. Are we Great Britain, Britain or the UK? We’re English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish, collectively British. A thousand years ago we were Danish for a while, then French. We don’t have borders to defend and there are no reasons for constructing walls. It makes us embarrassed when we have to describe ourselves. We don’t stick flags on our lawns or recite oaths in classrooms, and the upheavals that followed the Reformation eventually made us agnostic. Lacking a traditional sense of patriotism is either liberating or for wimps, you takes your choice.

Trellick Tower, Cheltenham Estate, North Kensington.

Ghastly Poor People

The BBC has explained their lousy coverage of the Grenfell disaster by blaming their middle class journalists, because none of them has ever been on a council estate. The little darlings are too preoccupied worrying about whether the BBC will devolve them to Manchester to live among ghastly poor people. Their attitude sits beside Matt Hancock’s after the Health Secretary stated that an hour out of the house during lockdown would ‘allow for a game of tennis’. I suppose we’re lucky Jacob ‘Marley’ Rees-Mogg didn’t suggest croquet.

I have visited a council estate or two, first to buy pot when I was 16, secondly to accompany my mother when she had a night job as a collector of bad debts on one of the roughest council estates in London. Oh, and I sometimes take a short cut through the nearest one and it’s eerily quiet. But it has one of the highest murder rates in the city, kids off-site engaged in tragic postcode knife standoffs. I’d like to get our Minister for the 19th Century up here to visit some council estates and see how hard people are trying, but as Rees-Mogg is still struggling with the concept of ‘jeans’, it might come as too great a shock.

No Longer Off-Key

Here’s the last word on a previously visited topic. Over the years I’ve introduced classical music lovers on this site to what was once Britain’s most beloved orchestra, without quite knowing what happened to them. Now the truth has been revealed.

In 1974  a music lecturer at Portsmouth College of Arts held auditions for members of a new orchestra to be composed of members who had no previous experience of their chosen instrument. After overwhelming response he added some further musicians with a little more experience, and let them play. The result, to everyone’s amazement, was…horrible. Their version of the Hallelujah Chorus was especially rough on the ears.

Four years later they were performing at the Albert Hall to sellout audiences. The founder, Gavin Bryers, became a famous musician, as did other members Brian Eno and Michael Nyman. The British have a long and complex relationship with failure. Where other countries like to pretend they’ve never lost wars (America, France etc) we openly embrace lost causes, doomed strategies and Boris Johnson. Hopeless Eddie the Eagle got a film made about him, which is more than most Olympic stars ever got.

But a poke abut YouTube uncovers the truth about why this superstar band eventually crashed and vanished. They got too good. Ten years of playing together honed their skills and turned them into real musicians. The moral is obvious. Music, like art and literature, requires creative skill – and a lot of practice.

*Yes, I still fall back on old Monty Python jokes occasionally, and anyone who doesn’t find Anne Elk funny is dead to me.

30 comments on “Fowler’s Miscellany”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    We beat everyone else on humour. Or humor if you’re American.

  2. Peter T says:

    I’m not good with language. I try not to criticise others as I make more mistakes than most and often produce sentences that are terse, vague and even slightly inaccurate. Still, many grammar ‘rules’ are stupid and worrying too much about them blocks creative thought. However (not supposed to use however to start a sentence, should be on the other hand or …). As I was writing before I interrupted myself, however, it’s good to try to produce logical, rational and informative sentences and avoid excessive redundancy.

    For example: He only was the most unique president ever, different to all the others.

    “He only was” = he wasn’t anything else such as a human being, a failed tycoon, a useless husband, a genius, a total dipstick, or even bigly.
    “the most unique” is beyond comment.
    “different to” – well that’s not surprising as he’s unique. Moreover, though different ‘to’ is supposed to be acceptable, for me, it’s not logical. If one thing is different ‘from’ another, it’s because it’s diverged away ‘from’ it or it’s distinguished ‘from’ it.

    The ‘to’ and the ‘from’ would have been in italics, if I knew how to produce them in these comments.

  3. Brooke says:

    Please, please! Stop insulting residents/citizens of the Dominion of Canada, Estados Unidos Mexicanos and twenty other countries by using America when you mean the United States of (America). And as early observers suggested, our cockiness is the fruit of carefully cultivated ignorance, especially of the English language.

    Had the Post used correct grammar, few readers would have understood. And the headline would have been too long for the standard column width. Digital formats dictate how we write and speak. Thank you, Microsoft and your spawn, Grammarly.

  4. admin says:

    We often say ‘North America’ but no-one in our family ever said ‘USA’. I wonder why. It’s a bit like Middle Europe, whose residents gets most upset if they’re called ‘Eastern Europeans’.

  5. Brooke says:

    Interesting….friends from other countries typically say, “the USA” or “the US of A,” and sometimes “the States.” The last is used derogatively. Here “Eastern European” is a pejorative term..

  6. Davem says:

    I was brought up on a council estate, namely Cherry Orchard Estate in Charlton, South East London … the name of which is most certainly enantiosemic.

    We thought everyone outside of our estate was Middle Class.

  7. Davem says:

    North America is the term we also used in our family

  8. Peter T says:

    We always called the USA America. Since the people are Americans, it made sense. They were sometimes, less respectfully, Yanks, southerners included. I’ve always enjoyed my visits to the country and living there, though that was in Texas and might not count.

  9. admin says:

    Sorry, can’t concentrate – ‘enantiosemic’.

  10. Ian Mason says:

    One should use the majority language of the Americas to refer to those in the north of the continent: Norteamericanos.

    [If we ‘did’ smileys on here, that’d be followed by a wink, wicked variety.]

  11. Peter T says:

    Chris, that’s a dangerously confusing condition to suffer.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    My genealogical friend refers to them as Unicans, although the derivation is a trifle awkward.
    Even more badly = even worse. I think it’s a stress thing. “It went badly.” “It went worse.” “It went even worse (than that).”
    Peter – I agree about different from. Two things are set apart and one is different from the other.
    enantiosemic. After looking it up I think I prefer “Janus word.” A word or phrase with two opposite meanings, although if you have a pedant whom you’d like to stifle the use of enantiosemic might be useful. I can even spell it now without looking.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and the confidence comes with the territory. They’ve been cheering and flag waving ever since they chased the then top nation out in the 1770s. I have been considering writing to Dr. Gates about his certainty that people came to the U.S. to make good and did. No one would want to go anywhere else, certainly not somewhere that still had a crowned head. I have two whole streams of family that tried the States and came to Canada instead, while only a small number of individuals went the other way. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have good relations with my American relatives. (Written without considering word choice.)

  14. David Ronaldson says:

    I am avidly anti-“Haitch” and my then 9 year-old son and I bonded during a holiday in Norfolk while erasing grocers’ apostrophes from menus and advertising hoardings.

  15. Liz Thompson says:

    Best post and comments for some time! I do use USA, possibly because I have a penfriend in Ohio and have constantly written it on the envelope.
    Thank you for enantiosemic. I shall treasure this addition to my vocabulary.

  16. Paul C says:

    Latest annoying phrase on emails is the hideous ‘reach out to’ instead of plain old ‘ask’

    An email from a workmate said he would have to circulate all branches and therefore ‘reach out internally’ which is even worse……..

  17. Andrew Holme says:

    Along side their work with the Portsmouth Sinfonia, Bryars, Eno and Nyman are responsible for some of the most creatively unusual music over the last 50 years. I was at college from 1980-83 and their work during the Seventies left a lasting impression on me. A lot of their compositions were released on Eno’s Obscure Records label. It’s worth a look through their back catalogues, especially Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic and Eno’s Ambient Music No.1- Music for Airports. I was fortunate to see Gavin Bryars and Michael White in concert at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool ( 1982 I think). Inspiring.

  18. Brooke says:

    …”I’d like to get our Minister for the 19th Century up here to visit some council estates and see how hard people are trying,..” News flash…JRM firmly believes that the peasantry should work hard, all day every day with time out for compulsory mass on Sunday. After such a visit, he would simply telephone his bosom friend, P. Patel, and hulks would lay at anchor on the Thames again.

  19. mike says:

    I’ve often thought that succesive governments, from Thatcher onward, are trying to reduce us to serfdom.
    As far as I can tell they’re slowly succeeding.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    Brooke – Jacko Rank-Moron or whatever the parasite’s name is, would probably benefit (but would certainly not enjoy) from ‘A scrape round to Dindale’s’ followed by a close examination of some toecaps in a tour of South London pub carparks, before being dumped in Swanley, Kent. Comedian Mark Steel came from there, and has several interesting things to say about the place. To manipulate a line from ‘Salem’s Lot’:
    “You won’t like Swanley, Mr Mogg. And they won’t like you.”

  21. Brooke says:

    Ian– I like the toecaps part…so South Philly wise guys.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    Those hulks would lie at anchor, of course, Brooke. Otherwise, with so many sensible people here why do our respective countries have so many silly problems? (I see the receding U.S. president has finally agreed to allow transition to begin.)

  23. Felicity says:

    I can’t stand “bored of”. It sounds so kid aged 10 years old. And changing adverbs or verbs or whatever into nouns – such as “whip cream” instead of “whipped cream”, and there are hundreds of examples of that. Headlines are often shortened, and so badly written sometimes (Daily Mail) that it takes a few minutes for me to figure out what they are talking about. Just a stream of words related to the topic.

  24. Felicity says:

    I don’t know how on earth using “America” is insulting to Canadians. Or anyone else. I use it all the time, as a Canadian. With loads of American relatives and ancestors. We refer to the US as “the States” most of the time, but also USA, United States, Americuh!! The people are *always* Americans, so how can referring to America be insulting to anyone? As a Canadian, I don’t think of myself as North American, I am Canadian (see also the Labatt’s ad). Americans are American. Mexico is Mexico.

    I don’t think that Americans would have trouble understanding grammatically correct sentences any less than incorrect sentences. That way lies reading comprehension problems that plague the internet today. And the dumbing down of TV shows and books.
    “lose even worse” could become “lose even worser”, or “loose even worse”, which is all over the place. Chopping up sentences does *not* lead to easier comprehension. It leads to inability to read properly.
    The problem is space. The shorter the headline (or hed), the better, apparently, and headlines are not written by the authors, they’re written by people who do nothing but dream up attention-grabbing headlines. It’s all about getting attention and making it short.
    I think “deserved a much more humiliating loss” would do.

    I am so relieved, you have no idea, America.

  25. Davem says:

    Chris, I could be wrong but I believe enantiosemic means the opposite of how it sounds, i.e. our estate may have been called Cherry Orchard, but not only were there no cherry trees to be found (they were all destroyed when the estate was built) but it was nothing like as idyllic as the name would suggest.

  26. Brooke says:

    Greetings, Helen. Fortunately, the process took over; judges were prepared and refused to hear Trump instigated cases. Once Michigan’s vote was certified, the General Services Administration had to declare. And Wall Street and its capitalist hordes are tired of Trump; it’s Q4 and GDP is sucking pond water. Indeed GDP growth under Trump is worst in 70 years!

    “…with so many sensible people here why do our respective countries have so many silly problems?” Remember the POGO cartoon, “I’ve seen the enemy and it is us.” In the past 5 years I have heard more muddled thinking,outright ignorance and lies from fellow citizens than ever before in my life. Also attention on silly problems distracts citizens from really tough challenges. e.g rising inequality (wealth and income).

    Are those nosies I hear guffaws from the Dominion?.

  27. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I can’t adapt to ‘bored of’.
    ‘Should of’ is even worse.

  28. Peter T says:

    The difference may be in the dream. The American Dream is well known. The Canadian Dream may well be similar, though achieved with politeness and consideration for others. Mexican Dream is a herbal cure for dysentery. Pity the poor British, apart from those close to our leading university, a people without a decent dream.

  29. Martin Tolley says:

    What Cornelia said.

  30. Helen Martin says:

    We have totally interactive tv and radio in this house and “should of” and “bored of” receive instantaneous emphatic correction. Fewer and less used interchangeably are snarled at (but insisting on no sentence ending prepositions “is a pedantry up with which I will not put” to quote a famous writer.)
    Brooke, we wouldn’t dare to guffaw. We are as foolish as any nation. I don’t think we’re all as polite as we’re made out to be, either.

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