Saturday, 31 July 2004

Citius, Altius, Nummatius

Faster, Higher, Richer is the motto (more or less) of the modern Olympic Games, which were devised by Pierre de Coubertin at the end of the nineteenth century in imitation of those held in ancient Greece, and since revised in accordance with today’s tastes. Many of the traditions of the original Games – cheating, corruption, greed – have been carefully preserved, but some have had to be modified: the participants are no longer exclusively naked slaves, and women are now allowed to watch (and even to participate!).

Now, as then, the Games serve the function of uniting nations in friendly competition and thus reducing international tension and the risk of conflict; the 1936 Olympics in Berlin ensured that Europe would never again face anything like the horrors of 1914-18.

De Coubertin had picked up the English concept of amateurism (“gentlemen” and “players”), some aspects of which persisted in the Olympics until the 1980s. Juan Antonio Samaranch, a former bureaucrat in Franco’s fascist regime, then became the president of the International Olympic Committee and, as vast sums were raised through sponsorship and in TV deals, professionalism came back to the Games for the first time since the days of the naked slaves.

Provided you don’t mind mixing with some pretty unsavoury characters and watching some fairly boring sporting events, participating in the world of the Olympic Games can be interesting and enjoyable. I was professionally involved in them (not as an athlete, I need hardly add) for ten years or so, and have some happy memories; here's a nice picture of my wife Anne at the opening ceremony in Barcelona, cheering for the Canadian team (she had lived in Ottawa for a time) . That's me clapping on the left, inspired by her enthusiasm.

Thursday, 29 July 2004

Pick ten from a hundred

This is the 101st post in this blog.
A selectors' panel, chosen from among the most distinguished literary critics of a dozen countries, met last week at a secret location deep in the Sussex countryside. They examined, re-examined and discussed the first one hundred posts, and finally, after four days of acrimony and even, at times, fisticuffs, agreed a list of the ten posts which, in their expert opinion, represented the most erudite, informative and generally outstanding pieces of prose, or the finest poetry.

The list is to be announced to the public at a ceremony at London's Guildhall towards the end of the year, in the presence of a senior member of the Royal family whose name will be revealed later.

Meanwhile, these were the ones I liked best, or, as Americans say in their quaint way, my favorites:
Carol concert
Sayings of the week
Concealed weapon
Poor Orientalism
So many cheeses
Our Fish Tastes Quite Nice
Verbal economy
Jayyid Jiddan!
Tok Pisin

Tuesday, 27 July 2004

Familiar face

Who is this?
Clue: This photo was taken in 1965 when he was in disguise, aged 37. Two years later he died.


Sunday, 25 July 2004

Six mugs

mug n. drinking vessel
mug n. face
mug n. gullible person
mug v.i. study hard
mug v.t. rob with violence
mug v.i. make faces, esp before audience or camera

That's not very interesting, really, is it? I think I've been overdoing this word thing lately; I have carelessly started some extremely tedious discussions about words, and found myself surfing websites consisting entirely of such discussions. There's a whole world of screaming boredom out there among the language buffs.

I suppose it's a kind of addiction we have: "I've struggled against it, Phoebe, but it's no good, I just can't help myself, I've got to go and buy another dictionary, that'll be the fourth this month..."

So why did I post this stuff? Well, just because I was charmed by this translated phrase I saw, and had to find an excuse to record it: petite frimousse éveillée...
...her wide-awake little mug...

A mugwump sounds like some kind of fool. Not at all: he is a great man who holds aloof from party politics (from the Algonquin mugquomp, a great chief).

Oh, and the French have a word for a collection of mugshots: trombinoscope.

I suppose all the above is pretty damn dull, too. I really must try to get out more.

Friday, 23 July 2004

Old men singing and dancing

Someone was complaining to me the other day about the way that "convince" is now often used instead of "persuade", as in "I convinced him to leave". I sympathised with the poor fellow's concern, of course, though it seemed to me to be a slighter matter to worry about than the virtual disappearance of "assert", which has come to be replaced by "claim", but, as happens constantly nowadays, I found that my grandfather had a contribution to make to this discussion.

Not in person, of course. He was born in 1861 so if he had lived he would have been 143 this year, and it is quite a while since he has been personally involved in anything at all. But he did illustrate very clearly how "persuade" is not a verb to be messed about with.

Apparently, when it was not possible to dissuade him he used to do a sort of soft shoe shuffle while singing, quite loudly:
Oh, I persuaded him
I persuaded him
Till he didn't need persuading any more
With the kitchen poker
I persuaded the old joker
I persuaded him to get outside the door.

This must have been a very distressing for all his family but I daresay they got used to it. He also had a way of trumpeting through his moustache, and I was very glad to learn the other day from a letter to my local paper that later generations did not lose this skill:

I wonder if any of your older readers remember Stamping Fred, who used to be a well-known character down Factory Lane way during the war, some 60 years ago when I was a lad.
Every evening he would be outside one or other of the pubs, doing his stamping act, which consisted of nothing more than stamping up and down in his great boots while making a sort of trumpeting noise through his moustache.
He was a droll sight, with his battered shako and trousers made of old gunny sacks tied up with twine. Many were the pennies and halfpennies he used to collect, though I'm sorry to say that I and the other lads used to make fun of him. I often wonder what his story was, and what became of him. Yours faithfully, A.C.Barsley (Mr)

Wednesday, 21 July 2004

Semper Fidelis

"Knock, knock"
"Who's there?"
"Sam and Janet"
"Sam and Janet who?"
"Sam and Janet Evening....."

Another of the tender love songs in South Pacific was the one in which a lot of sweaty Marines bawl out their desire for dames. This is not actually the anthem of the United States Marines; they do have an official one - or "hymn" as they call it - which will be very familiar to anyone who remembers American war movies of the forties and fifties.

Over the opening credits, and often the closing ones as well, you would hear this tune sung by male voices in unison (like plainchant only louder and with brass accompaniment). The words were something about Halls of Montezuma and Shores of Tripoli, Fighting Our Country's Battles on Land and on the Sea, etc. Stirring stuff.

If you want to annoy a francophobe Marine (and personally I should strongly advise against attempting this), you could remind him that the tune is not American at all, but was originally a song from a comic opera by Jacques Offenbach, the son of a synagogue cantor in Cologne who later became a French citizen.

The opera was called Geneviève de Brabant and the song was Les Deux Gendarmes, sung by a pair of corrupt and cowardly policemen:

We're public guardians bold yet wary
And of ourselves we take good care
To risk our precious lives we're chary
When danger threatens we're not there
But when we see a helpless woman
Or little boys who do no harm
We run them in, we run them in
To show them we're the beaux gendarmes...

Full lyrics HERE

Monday, 19 July 2004

Away with Gallicisms

Perhaps because the French teacher was a nice man and very good at his job, I became a francophile when I was quite young. But in those days language teaching was not of the kind that empowered you to converse with people from another country, so after eight years study and a pass in French at something called ‘Matric’ I found when I crossed the Channel for the first time that I couldn’t speak enough of the language to buy a packet of cigarettes, let alone engage in any worthwhile conversation.

Later I discovered French films (this was the fifties), and wallowed in them once a week for several years. Then, the three jobs I had in my working life were all with organisations which had major involvements in France, and I was married for twenty-two years to a Frenchwoman. So, one way and another, I have picked up a bit of French; I am particularly strong on vegetables.

I like French. But has always seemed to me that we should not, while in our own country, use French words where perfectly good native equivalents exist. Why call for a menu, for example, when you can say ‘Let me see your Bill of Fare’? And if some smarmy clown with a silk stripe down his pants offers you a choice of pommes parmentier, à la dauphinoise, duchesse, sautées or whatever, then you should wave him away saying, firmly but not loudly, ‘Bring me a lightly boiled Arran Pilot’ (or, in the United States, mature Red Pontiac).

Actually, Americans need to work at this even harder than we do, particularly the francophobes among them. At least we are used to ordering a fillet steak rather than what they seem to like calling a feelay.

Of course, English has its limitations; if you have acquaintances who are blasé, chic or naïve you should not attempt to describe them to third parties.

Sunday, 18 July 2004


I am not a vain man, but I was rather disappointed to find that very few visitors to OMF were sufficiently curious to go to my Blogger profile in order to see what I and my friend Thatcher look like. This is particularly hurtful because I went to a great deal of trouble with the photo shoot: it was done under very difficult circumstances (the House was debating the Fox-hunting Bill at the time), and the plethoric make-up took hours to apply.

So in a fit of pique I have removed it from my profile and reproduce it here

American readers who are not familiar with the name Thatcher will find a full explanation here.

Friday, 16 July 2004

Tok Pisin

This means talk business and is a language (technically, it’s the creolized Melanesian Pidgin) spoken in Papua New Guinea; it is an official language and the most widely used. You can read all about it in the excellent free encyclopaedia Wikipedia, where you will learn, for example, that the word for 'moustache' is mausgras - literally 'mouth grass'.

This seems to make very good sense, but I am less sure about some of the longer expressions they are said to use. I can just about swallow liklik box you pull him he cry you push him he cry as their word for ‘accordion’, but surely they would find it much easier to say ‘rifle’ than bigfella iron walking stick him go bang along topside?

Talking now of Vanuatu, those who do not already know just why the Duke of Edinburgh (oldfella Pili-Pili him b’long Missy Queen, possibly?) is regarded there as a supernatural being, and what part a certain Mr Wilkins played in this matter, should look

Thursday, 15 July 2004

Pedants' Corner (2)

Here are four modern usages. None of them is particularly heinous and I do not know why they jar on me:
The mispronunciation of dissect as dye-sect seems to be almost universal now. It arises from confusion with bisect, which is correctly pronounced bye-sect. Dye-sect cannot be right because a double consonant always follows a short vowel - that's what a double consonant is for.
But this is English we are talking about, so there must be exceptions. I know only one English word in which a long vowel precedes a double consonant.
There are some high-powered English language experts who sometimes look at this blog (unsurprisingly, several of them have English as a second or third language) and I am expecting one or more of them to comment on this, telling me what that word is, and providing a list of others that I haven't thought of.

Plethora, used as if it just meant a great number, or plenty in a good sense. Actually, it means too damn many: "over-supply, glut, unhealthy repletion, or a morbid condition marked by en excess of red corpuscles in the blood". Red-faced gentlemen about to keel over with a heart attack can be described as plethoric.

I have always used See you later to mean later on today. Many people now use it to mean See you again, any time in the future.

Bored of.. seems to have become widely used. I have the impression that this started less than twenty years ago. Why? Tired of.. but bored with.. or bored by.. sound right to me.

Tuesday, 13 July 2004

Our Great and Respected Leader: Part 2

...continued from Part 1
During my time in Pyongyang I never saw President Kim Il Sung, much less met him, and he didn't even attend the international championships which were the reason I was there, although it was a hugely significant event for his country, with more nations participating than any event there before or since.

But he was everywhere: an inch high on every lapel, fifteen feet high in bronze, thirty feet high on posters. And on everyone's lips "....The great revolutionary Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung, the ever-victorious ironwilled brilliant commander and the outstanding military strategist performing immortal feats in defeating US imperialism..."

But to us, in private, he was always Chubby-Chops.

It was not only US imperialism he had defeated: he was the "creator and leader of the anti-Japanese guerrillas, who liberated the country from the yoke of oppression..." Actually it wasn't quite like that; the anti-Japanese guerrillas (Korean and Chinese) had some success in Manchuria in the 1930s but were eventually defeated and Kim went to Moscow. In 1945 the war ended, the Japanese moved out of Korea and the Russians moved in, bringing Kim with them and installing him as a puppet leader.

In a few years Kim, by playing the Chinese against the Russians, had made himself the unquestioned (and Great and Respected) leader and was able to outdo his former sponsors in organising Moscow-style demonstrations of military might and his people's affection:

...continued in Part 3

Saturday, 10 July 2004


I posted a note on 1st July about the spoof on the naming of "aluminium" dreamed up by the Los Alamos National Laboratory's Chemistry Division, or, as they are known in vaudeville, The Comical Alamos. Although it's a poor joke, I did learn one thing from it, which is that the reason why "Aluminium" was finally settled on was that most elements end in "ium". As Tom Lehrer taught us:
There's yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium,
And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium......

..and so on and on..**
But after going through the lot, to the tune of the Major-General's Song from Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates Of Penzance, he notes that:
These are the only ones of which the news has come to Hahvard,
And there may be many others but they haven't been discahvered.

Yes, indeed: since the song was written, the following have been discahvered: Lawrencium (Lr), Rutherfordium (Rf), Dubnium (Db), Seaborgium (Sg), Bohrium (Bh), Hassium (Hs), Meitnerium (Mt) and several others yet un-named.

It seems that "aluminium" was also the accepted spelling in the U.S. until 1925, at which time the American Chemical Society officially decided to use the name "aluminum" thereafter in their publications. No reason is given, but of course that was a vintage period in the United States for daft decisions, the twenties having got off to a splendidly loopy start with the Volstead Act.
** But see HERE for a better version

Wednesday, 7 July 2004

Together at last!

From the fact that it was the first item on all of yesterday's television news broadcasts, and from the portentous tones of the presenters, one might have thought that the epoch-making reconciliation being celebrated was between the two Koreas, or the Israelis and the Palestinians.

But no. The depressing Windsors and the appalling Spencers are friends again! It was time to wheel out Our Royal Correspondents to express the deferential excitement we all feel on such important occasions. There were the two families, actually SHAKING HANDS with each other! Did we know they hadn't appeared together in public for years? Did we care? Had we been fretting about the recent breach in the happy relations they had enjoyed for generations?

But it was a pleasing and very English scene. The Serpentine sparkled in the sun, little children - many of them non-royal - splashed about in the tumbling waters of what looked like a rather chic sewage farm, and, best of all, the Queen was wearing one of her very large and complicated hats.
See A Fountain troubled

Tuesday, 6 July 2004

Jayyid jiddan!

It is always a good idea, when you are feeling low, to turn to the mediaeval Arab poets for a little something to cheer you up. There is an excellent Mediaeval Sourcebook on the net and its pages of Selections from the Poets of Arabia are full of rare delights. Arabic poetry is based largely on harmonies of sound and striking turns of phrasing, so most of the poems are brief, and a poet's fame depended upon a few brilliant couplets rather than on any sustained melody or long-continued flight of noble thought. Here is a splendid example, by Isaac Ben Khalif:

On A Little Man With A Very Large Beard
How can thy chin that burden bear?
Is it all gravity to shock?
Is it to make the people stare?
And be thyself a laughing stock?

When I behold thy little feet
After thy beard obsequious run,
I always fancy that I meet
Some father followed by his son.

A man like thee scarce e'er appeared---
A beard like thine---where shall we find it?
Surely thou cherishest thy beard
In hopes to hide thyself behind it.

(Some of the more serious of these thousand-year-old poems may lose much in translation, but this one clearly hasn't.)

Monday, 5 July 2004

DIANA: In Pursuit of Love

This is the title of yet another book on Diana churned out by Andrew Morton (his fourth, and another to come). It was reviewed in the Sunday Times this week by a writer I usually find rather dislikeable, but here he crisply described what the book seems to be about: “…an unedifying crew of flakes, clowns, bastards and outright nutters… the assorted flunkies, therapists, masseurs, astrologers and counsellors…”. The Spencer family "…seems uniformly swinish” and Diana herself “...appears as an unattractive cocktail of paranoia, whinging, infantilism and idiocy, and the less said about her parade of fabulously dumb boyfriends the better”.

Of course, that’s not how Morton sees them, but then he’s been making a very good living out of them all for some years now so it’s understandable that he takes an indulgent view.

But he deserves our gratitude for reminding us of the existence of the acupuncturist and former nun Oonagh Shanley-Toffolo; no need to read the book to enjoy knowing about her. Shelley Ackerman, former singing waitress and caster of Bill Clinton’s horoscope, wrote a piece about this “Royal Medicine Woman” in the New York Daily News in 2002. It seems that Oonagh has led a full life, having tended the Duke of Windsor and been present at his death, while Prince William aged 7 or 8 “requested of his mom” to meet her and impressed her by being psychic. Shelley apparently “personally levitated off the table after being ‘needled’ by her”.

This drivel is headed by a photo of Oonagh and Diana, identified as (l.) and (r.) in case we couldn’t tell which was which.

Sunday, 4 July 2004

Design fault

Having just acquired a nice TFT monitor which can be turned so that the short side is at the top, it has occurred to me that a huge mistake which was made forty years ago has been causing us much inconvenience ever since.

I suppose the very early cathode ray tubes were circular and later squarish, which was fine for the fuzzy sine curves which was all they had to display. But television sets had established themselves with landscape monitors, and when word processing and spreadsheets came along it didn't occur to anyone that these things are much better suited to portrait format since they are developments of things that we used to write. Whether it was double quad crown, elephant, foolscap octavo, papyrus, Tsai Ko-Shi* or A4, we have been writing mostly on stuff held short side up since the dawn of time.

So nearly all of what we do calls for a portrait screen, and for decades we have been using monitors which are the wrong way round because the designers of PCs hadn't thought of this.

* Need I remind everyone that this, invented in 105 AD by the Han emperor Ho-Ti's chief eunuch T'sai Lun, was the origin of our paper?

Friday, 2 July 2004

What have they got against marchionesses?

This is another You Couldn't Make It Up sort of item; I post it with some diffidence, since it will confirm OMF's American readers in their belief that the English establishment still has a foolish respect for toffs and a great reverence for Reverends. Still, as this is not an unreasonable belief confirming it will do no harm.

With most online booking forms you are asked to fill in "Title", and usually given the choice of declaring yourself to be a Mr, Mrs, Miss, or Ms. Sometimes there is a blank box labelled Other (so that you can book as Czar of All the Russias if you like).

But when you log on to book tickets for our National Theatre they do better than that; they give you no less than forty appellations, titles, ranks or honorifics to choose from. I can't be bothered to quote the whole list, but here are some of those on offer:

Prof. and Mrs
His Honour
Dowager Lady
The Hon Lady
Lord and Lady

It seems to me that they are opening a can of very distinguished worms here, some of which which might well turn nasty: forty options don't cover one tenth of all the things we like to call ourselves, and a lot of very powerful people will find their title is not in the list for selection. There is provision for filling in your own claim to seniority or eminence, but those who have to do this (even Dukes!) are clearly considered hoi polloi and are certain to be offended.

Take the clergy, for example. Fine if you're Canon, Venerable (eh?), Very Reverend, Reverend and Mrs, or just a sad little Rev. [sic] But Deacons, Most Reverends, Bishops, Archdittoes, Prebendary Deans and all that crowd are expected to type themselves in laboriously; this is bound to cause a lot of bad feeling at the next Synod, and whispering in the cloisters, if it gets about.

And why can you declare yourself a Rabbi but not an Imam?

And Capt. [sic], Colonel, Brigadier and Major-General are all there, but Field-Marshals, Admirals and all RAF officers are not considered worthy of inclusion.

And there is curious inconsistency about the little women who are sometimes tagged on and sometimes not. Earl is there, and Countess (though not together so they have to sit separately). Lord and Lady and Dr and Mrs are fine, but not Dr and Mr (or even Dr and Dr); same with Prof. and Mrs.

All this is very silly indeed, and there are several possible explanations:

It's a prank by an employee or a feeble joke by the management.

Someone at the NT without imagination really believed it was a good idea and didn't stop to think.

The purpose is to reduce the risk of offence: "Sotto voce on the anti-papal bits, darlings, we've got a Father in A14 and a Sister in D31".

[I saw the list mentioned in The Guardian Diary so the NT may have killed it before heads have to roll.]

Thursday, 1 July 2004


Last week I posted an authoritative note about the curious way in which "aluminium" is spelt in North America. Since then I have discovered that a rather feeble spoof "explanation" of the misspelling has been put on the net by a bunch of jokers who call themselves the Los Alamos National Laboratory's Chemistry Division.

The home page is convincing enough, with the periodic table of the elements all done in rather jolly colours, but when you click on No 13, Al, you get this :

Wohler is generally credited with having isolated the metal in 1827, although an impure form was prepared by Oersted two years earlier. In 1807, Davy proposed the name ALUMINUM for the metal, undiscovered at that time, and later agreed to change it to aluminum. Shortly thereafter, the name ALUMINUM was adopted to conform with the "ium" ending of most elements, and this spelling is now in use elsewhere in the world.

Aluminium was also the accepted spelling in the U.S. until 1925, at which time the American Chemical Society officially decided to use the name aluminum thereafter in their publications.

If you read the first paragraph carefully you will get a buzzing sensation in the head; what has obviously happened is that in two places (which I have capitalised) the spoofers' (American) spell-checker has changed "aluminium" to "aluminum" so that the paragraph makes no sense at all. Oddly, this didn't happen in the second paragraph.

This only goes to show how careful you must be with proof-reading, even when you're only fooling about. It is really irresponsible of these people to get their joke wrong in this way; the American public is quite confused enough on this subject already.

For obvious reasons I am not running this post through my (International English) spell-checker before I publish it.

Still more about aluminium