Wednesday, 31 January 2007

A better kind of hat

No. 187 in Notable Hats, soon to be a major new TV series

Having said all that there is to be said about Napoleon’s hat, it is now time to turn our attention to something much jollier. Several hundred soldiers were wearing these with brio, not to mention panache, at the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi last week. It must have been a sight to stir the blood.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Looking ahead

Two days ago I mentioned a remarkable guess made by Hal Draper in 1961 in the form of a fantasy about a problem that future generations of mankind might face.

More than fifty years earlier a more famous writer had made a similarly inspired guess. E M Forster wrote a short story call The Machine Stops which he said was “a reaction to one of H G Wells’ earlier heavens”. It describes a society in which two twentieth-century technological advances have progressed in a way that few could have foreseen.

The first is automation: machines run everything in Forster’s future world, maintaining and repairing themselves and leaving nothing for humans to do except be entertained and indulge their intellectual and artistic interests. It has long been forgotten that machines were designed and built by men, and The Machine, beneficent and all-providing, has become a sort of deity.

Second, in that world people live in individual cells and rarely meet face to face—and indeed prefer not to. The automatic transport systems continue to work but are hardly ever used, for no-one needs to go anywhere. They obtain whatever they need by pressing buttons and are in constant communication with each other irrespective of distance.

Thus Forster in 1909, in an extraordinary feat of imagination , brings into being television, videoconferencing and the internet.

As you might gather from the title, it all ends in tears. But there is a glimmer of hope left, so you will not be too depressed if you read the story here.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

The misnudged quanta

The Microsoft Corporation has applied for a patent on a new idea which Martin Gardiner of Really Magazine looks at here. As he says, it is very difficult to see how it will work, or indeed what it actually is, but the concept appears to relate to the problem of storing the huge amounts of data which are accumulating, of accessing it, and of ensuring that it will be “immortal”.

Forty-six years ago, the socialist activist and author Hal Draper (1914-1990) wrote a witty and uncannily prescient short story called MS Fnd in a Lbry. It takes the form of a report written by an anthropologist from an alien civilization who investigates the remains of our civilization several billion years into the future. It turns out that mankind's fall was brought about by information overload and the inability to catalogue and retrieve knowledge properly.

The report chronicles the technological advances by which mankind found ways in which to cope with the increasing volume of data. When it was taking up an entire artificial planet new technologies enabled it to be condensed progressively into smaller spaces, until the sum of human knowledge, stored round the galaxy in a virtual sort of way, could be accessed from one drawer. Then they lost the drawer…

A footnote to the report suggests that the alien civilization, as yet unsuspecting, may be about to suffer a similar catastrophe. You can read the story here.

It is frightening to think that we may one day tackle the problem by means of techniques devised by the Microsoft Corporation, whose use in their patent application of the phrase “…during the lifespan of the immortalized data…” suggests that their grasp on these matters, not to mention the English language, is at best tenuous.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

Bush spells it out

Get the full SOTU speech and the Democratic response on video HERE.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

The darkness deepens

Last Sunday my eye was caught by an announcement about a TV programme in the series Songs of Praise. This would not normally have caused me to switch on, for few entertainments excite me less than church services, but this one promised massed choirs, handbell ringers, something called the Boghall and Bathgate Caledonia Pipe Band and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, so was obviously going to be a bit special. Even the fact that it was called, depressingly, a Scottish Big Sing for Burns Night did not put me off, for one of the items to be performed was Abide with Me.

This is one of the top half-dozen Christian holy numbers*. Its best setting is called Eventide which, given anything like a half-decent rendering, cannot fail to make you want to join in**. Though not much of a hymn-singer myself, having sung them very rarely since my schooldays, I could certainly be counted on in a sinking ship situation (when other helpers fail and comforts flee...) to support my doomed fellow passengers with Abide with Me in a lusty if inaccurate baritone, perhaps even with a bit of descant.

However, the announcement also spoke of “spectacular orchestral arrangements” which should have warned me, and the scene when I tuned in was not encouraging; the general impression was of a late night show at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, though actually the colourful throng were in the Glasgow City Halls.

And the way they did Abide with Me suited this ambiance. I had a vision of the cloth-eared arranger, one David Pringle, settling down to his task: “Now, I think I’ll begin with a bit of the Moonlight Sonata, then bring in some tubular bells and one of those instruments that you hit with a little stick and it goes blingdingdiddleyding, then a few bars of Eventide sung VERY SLOWLY. A few trumpets, they’re always good, then a bit more Beethoven and back to Eventide, then…

I switched off sadly disappointed but consoled to think that I am missing very little nowadays by not going to church. Change and decay, indeed.

*Another, of course, is Cwm Rhondda. I mentioned this tremendous tune once before, in the footnote to an earlier post about Jehovah and his supporters.

**Especially if sung using the Hungarian words by Áprily Lajos: Maradj velem, mert mindjárt este van/ Nő a sötét, ó el ne hagyj, Uram/ Nincs senkim és a vigaszt nem lelem/ Gyámoltalannal, ó maradj velem.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Er, probably

The letters 'our' within a word generally make the sound 'aw', 'or', 'ow-er', 'ow' or 'oor', and are pronounced in other ways too for all I know.

Is it possible that there is only one English word of one syllable in which these letters* are pronounced 'er'? I can think of only one, but I cannot be sure because, sadly, the advanced OED search engine cannot search by number of syllables and there are 5,802 words in it containing 'our'.

“Try it again, General:
‘This urgent surge will purge the insurgent scourge

If you think this sort of discussion is boring, look HERE for a joke which is a source of much hilarity wherever top linguists foregather.

[*There must be a technical term in linguistics for a group of letters within a word; I thought it might be morpheme, but that's something else.]

Friday, 19 January 2007

Here they come

Reproducing a cartoon from a magazine in your blog is a fairly contemptible thing to do, so I must make it clear that it is only in order to let American readers know of the fun in store for them in a few months' time that I offer the following, which appeared this week in Private Eye:


Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Dan Brown’s Body

When I last wrote a post mentioning The Da Vinci Code I had not read the book or seen the film. I still haven’t, so remain unqualified to express any opinion about either. But I did enjoy reading in the magisterial Language Log some notes by Geoffrey K Pullum on Brown’s prose style, from which I extract:

I am still trying to come up with a fully convincing account of just what it was about his very first sentence, indeed the very first word, that told me instantly that I was in for a very bad time stylistically.

The Da Vinci Code may well be the only novel ever written that begins with the word renowned. Here is the paragraph with which the book opens. The scene (says a dateline under the chapter heading, 'Prologue') is the Louvre, late at night:
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

I think what enabled the first word to tip me off that I was about to spend a number of hours in the company of one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature was this. Putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions is what you do in journalistic stories about deaths; you just don't do it in describing an event in a narrative. So this might be reasonable text for the opening of a newspaper report the next day: Renowned curator Jacques Saunière died last night in the Louvre at the age of 76.

But Brown packs these details into the first two words of an action sequence—details of not only his protagonist's profession but also his prestige in the field. It doesn't work here. It has the ring of utter ineptitude. The details have no relevance, of course, to what is being narrated (Saunière is fleeing an attacker and pulls down the painting to trigger the alarm system and the security gates). We could have deduced that he would be fairly well known in the museum trade from the fact that he was curating at the Louvre...

…Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad. In some passages scarcely a word or phrase seems to have been carefully selected or compared with alternatives. I slogged through 454 pages of this syntactic swill, and it never gets much better. Why did I keep reading? Because London Heathrow is a long way from San Francisco International, and airline magazines are thin, and two-month-old Hollywood drivel on a small screen hanging two seats in front of my row did not appeal, that's why.

… "Dan Brown has to be one of the best, smartest, and most accomplished writers in the country", said Nelson DeMille, a bestselling author who has himself hit the #1 spot in the New York Times list… And there are four other similar pieces of praise on the back cover. Together those blurbs convinced me to put this piece of garbage on the CostCo cart along with the the 72-pack of toilet rolls. Thriller writers must have a code of honor that requires that they all praise each other's new novels, a kind of omerta that enjoins them to silence about the fact that some fellow member of the guild has given evidence of total stylistic cluelessness. A fraternal code of silence. We could call it... the Da Vinci code; or the Dan Brown code.

The whole piece is well worth reading as a fund of lessons in how not to write; it also provides links to some other articles about Brown’s genius.

Monday, 15 January 2007

The mystery of Napoleon’s hat (Part 2)

Many famous men have been distinguished by idiosyncrasies of appearance. Both Solomon and Louis Quatorze were known for the glory of their apparel; Charlemagne was renowned for the length of his beard (it is said he could kneel on it, though it is not recorded why this was necessary). Lloyd George had his hair bobbed; Cromwell had warts; and Keir Hardie wore a tweed cap. But a tweed cap, even though a contemporary photograph shows it to have had a retractable undercarriage which fastened on top with a piece of string, is not, for sheer étalage, in the same class as Napoleon’s hat.

The principle on which this singular headpiece was designed is said to be a mystery even to experienced hatters. It is not known, for example, whether the back could be let down to facilitate the heaving of coal, or whether the front could be folded up to form the thing into a watering can. Its possibilities as a muffin dish, a font and an umbrella stand have also been canvassed from time to time by interested parties.

Those who have seen in a museum the hat which is treasured as a genuine Napoleonic relic have been impressed not only by its shape but by its size: it is enormous, and it is hard to imagine what went on inside the part of it that was not filled by the imperial cranium. Was it stuffed with despatches from the battlefield. Or with old newspapers? Did it perhaps contain a secret drawer for Josephine’s letters? Or was there a packet of sandwiches there and a flask of cognac for sudden emergencies?

That there must have been more in it than meets the eye seems certain, or how else could the little chap have kept the thing aloft? For on anyone with a head of even medium size it must have fallen about the shoulders like a cape.

Saturday, 13 January 2007

The mystery of Napoleon’s hat (Part 1)

I wouldn’t call it a fetish, perish the thought, or even an obsession, but I do find hats fascinating and often write about them, sometimes speculating on the wearers’ motives. What prompted Zoran Acimov, for example, the director of the Retezat National Park in Romania, to put this on his head?

What we have here is clearly just a personal fancy, but in other contexts spectacular hats can have great historical significance. The writer and cartoonist Nicolas Bentley well understood this:

Many reasons have been put forward to account for Napoleon’s fame, apart from those put forward by Napoleon himself. Historians, politicians, novelists and film directors never seem to tire of airing their theories about the small corporal. But I know of no theory that takes into account the importance of the Emperor’s hat.

Imagine, for instance, how different things might have been at Jena or Marengo with Napoleon in a white topper such as was fashionable at the time, the crown being rather larger at the top than at the base. Imagine the effect, especially on Josephine, of a small sugar-loaf hat surmounting that dumpy imperial figure. Imagine the Emperor at Austerlitz with the plumed casque of a French dragoon coming down well over his ears. Imagine a flat tricorne precariously balanced on that rounded pate, so that a sharp turn of the head must have left the hat facing towards the front.

The fate of nations cannot be sealed by a man whose hat causes the bystanders to grin, and Napoleon knew this.

His genius showed itself in an astonishing variety of ways. It was apparent not only in war and in diplomacy, but also in the art of good government, in his judgement of men, and still more in his judgement of moments. Above all, it was shown in his choice of a hat....

Part 2 follows...

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Don’t try this at home

Given my total lack of interest in the tedious activities which are called sport, it is surprising that I seem to have written, so far, around twenty posts with this tag, but this is because I use the word very loosely*, applying it to any pastime which can be indulged in competitively (like growing a beard) or which involves physical exertion or danger without any real point (like sewer exploration).

Here is another, which is certainly dangerous but does have a real point, or several.

This may look like Ricky Gervais, but it is not; it is a man called Brad Byers, who claims to be the current holder of the World Record for Sword Swallowing; he is also a top man at Hammering a Nail Into One’s Face. However, it should be noted that, according to The British Medical Journal, Matty "Blade" Henshaw swallowed a total of 3,782 swords in 2003 (not, I suppose, all at once), 50 swords were swallowed simultaneously by 19 individuals at a swallowers' convention in 2002, and a belly dancer has swallowed 11 swords at the same time.

Really Magazine has further notes on all this and tells us that the BMJ’s December edition carried a study on Sword swallowing and its side effects.

* Probably none of the sports I have mentioned here is highly esteemed among sports people. For a note on which sport has the highest status, see HERE.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007


These are words used only ‘for the nonce’, i.e. on one specific occasion or in one specific text or writer's works. The term was coined in the nineteenth century by James Murray especially for use in the OED (which in those days was still called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society).

Generally speaking, they are not found in dictionaries until they are considered to have come into general use. Thus Carroll’s brillig remains a nonce-word but his mimsy (unhappy) has become accepted, though rarely used.

Anybody can think up a word that didn’t exist before and use it a few times to impress their friends, but this is a rather sad thing to do; nonce-words can be amusing but are not really very interesting unless you streponitate* them.

A paperback published this week by the Oxford University Press, written by lexicographer Eric McKean and called Totally Weird and Wonderful Words, brings together two previous volumes listing unusual words and even includes a guide on how readers can construct their own words using Latin or Greek roots. (From the book's title, I guess it is aimed at the American market.)

Here are some of them; these may be obscure or obsolete but none of them are invented nonce-words and all are in the dictionary (at least, in the OED):

bablatrice - a female babbler
chaterestre - a talkative woman
erinaceous - like a hedgehog; a person with prickly manners
deuterogamist - someone who marries a second time
dictioneer - person who takes it upon themselves to criticise diction or writing style
finnimbrun - a knick-knack or trinket
flagitation - asking or demanding with passion; begging
funambulist - a tightrope walker; a person who thinks quickly on their feet
heterarchy - government by strangers or foreigners, literally "rule of an alien"
hibernacle - winter home of hibernating animal; a sunshine retreat for people
leighster - a female liar
loranthaceous - related to mistletoe family; kisses given or received under the mistletoe
lordswike - a person who deceives their boss; a traitor
nullo - someone who has undergone an elective amputation for the purposes of body modification, usually of a toe
rhinarium - the hairless and moist nose of some mammals
snollygoster - a dishonest politician, especially a shrewd or calculating one
solfeggist - someone who sings notes using do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti
woofits - an unwell feeling, especially a headache; a moody depression; a hangover.

* This word was never used anywhere until now, and will probably never be seen again.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Bad scene

Writing the other day about a Mongol helmet topped off in a singularly unpleasant manner, I was reminded that for a long time I have been trying to find the full version of a poem of which only one verse has, for some reason, stuck in my mind.

O hark to the screams of the wounded and dying...
A mother who takes a last lingering look
At her infant aloft, understandably crying
Impaled on the spear of a Bashi Bazook

I can find no trace of it on the internet. Can anyone out there help? Can it be a serious poem or is it a parody?

(The Bashi Bazook were irregular Turkish cavalry and I think the poem described the aftermath of some terrible battle in the Levant.)

[See HERE for the full version and details of the source]

Friday, 5 January 2007

Many very elderly men...

…just snooze under newspapers.

This is a frequently observed phenomenon and is also a mnemonic which enables you to remember the order in which the planets have their orbits outwards from the sun, though it is hard to see why anyone should want to remember this. If you forget which M comes first, remember that you should never put a Mars bar near the sun.

It is depressing to find that if you put planets mnemonic into Google you are offered 372,000 pages. This suggests that all over the world thousands of people have spent hours of their lives thinking up new ones, and no doubt many are busy thinking up more now that the International Astronomical Union this year agreed that there are currently eight planets and three dwarf planets known in the solar system*.

But here is a pretty visual representation of the relative sizes of some of them. On the same site there are similar pictures
showing the others and the sun.

*The 2006 definition of "planet" by (the IAU) states that, in the solar system, a planet is a celestial body that:
• is in orbit around the Sun
• has sufficient mass so that it assumes a nearly round shape, and
• has "cleared the neighbourhood" around its orbit.
A non-satellite body fulfilling only the first two of these criteria is classified as a "dwarf planet", whilst a non-satellite body fulfilling only the first criterion is termed a "small solar system body". The definition was a controversial one, and has been both criticised and supported by different astronomers.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Happy New Year, Iraq

A sergeant in the US Marines called Gunny (or Jarhead) John writes a lively blog and lists his interests as fishing, hunting, cars, trucks, golf, and blowing shit up (one of the perks of the job)[sic].
I’m not sure exactly what this last item involves but if many of his comrades also think of it as one of the perks of the job then this might explain why bringing peace and stability to Iraq is taking longer than expected.

Monday, 1 January 2007

Now we are three

Another birthday for OMF, now with 525 posts containing 136,000 words, 230 pictures, 476 links and 834 comments.

A Happy New Year to almost everyone.

I don't need to name the two public figures, both with names beginning with B, to whom I wish bad scran (an Anglo-Irish expression, according to the OED).