Friday, 29 January 2010

The Order of the Garter

...was founded by Edward III in 1348 to fulfil a vow made at the end of the Great Windsor Tournament of 1344. Its foundation legend is probably true: the beautiful Countess of Shrewsbury dropped her blue garter as she was dancing with the king at a ball; ladies at that time did not wear pants. The king stooped, picked up the garter and bound it round his own knee as a favour for the next day's tournament, silencing the sniggers of the bystanders with the words, long since the motto of the Order, Honi soit qui mal y pense (Evil be to him who thinks evil of it). Her husband was killed at the tourney and this placed the king under a moral obligation to fulfil the oath.

[You are awarded this honour for who you are, not for anything you've done; Lord Melbourne said of it: "There's no damn nonsense about merit". Those whose know that soie is the French for silk may be confused by the false suggestion that the motto actually means "Honey, your silk stocking is hanging down".]

Monday, 25 January 2010

Politics and the English Language

George Orwell wrote a famous essay with this title sixty-three years ago. Our political concerns are different from those of 1946 and the piece contains some contemporary references which now strike us as quaint, but, as with nearly everything he wrote, most of his comments on language are as salutary today as they were then, and the clarity and precision of his prose has not dated.

You really need to read the piece, but here are some extracts:

This is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

...and here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. ...Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Nearly all that Orwell wrote here is sound advice for writers who wish to make their meaning clear. Of course, much is written with other objectives in mind: to obfuscate, to gloss, to impress, to amuse, to conceal.... But those who set out to do these things need no advice: such skills, sadly, are easily acquired by almost anyone.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Back again

After leaving home briefly to take a satisfactory if not particularly enjoyable break in the Arctic wastes of Sussex, I have returned to a changed world:

Eighty-nine-years-old Mickey Rooney has finished his stint in Milton Keynes as Baron Hardup in Cinderella, a role which he had already played in Sunderland a couple of years ago. I am sorry I missed his performance.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

First aid

"I'd say loosen his flies but who listens to sex therapists?"
Arnold Frederick Wiles, Punch, 1982

Monday, 11 January 2010

Away for a while

For a week or two Other Men's Flowers will contain only a few pre-scheduled posts with no comments allowed.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Jesus, Bjork, Tom Lehrer, the Pope and 21 others are quoted in Irish court

No, not really. Sadly, it is unlikely that even the looniest of the faithful will launch an action against the atheists who have published a selection of 25 quotations in defiance of the revised Irish blasphemy law which came into force on 1st January. The law now provides for a fine of €25,000 to be levied against anyone found guilty of "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted".

You can study the quotations here. Some people may well find them offensive, particularly as the new law, unlike the old one, covers all religions; this means that not only Christians of any kind but also worshippers of Siva, Allah, Xenu, Zoroaster, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Yahweh/Elohim/Adonai and all the rest of the pantheon now have (in Ireland) the legal right to be offended and to sue.

Five years ago I published a French limerick:
Il y avait une personne de Dijon
Qui n’aimait pas trop la religion
Il disait ‘Ma foi!
Ils m’emmerdent tous les trois
-Et le père, et le fils, et le pigeon.’

...but modestly refrained from appending my own English version of it:
There was a young man of Dundee
Who didn't much like the Big Three
He said, 'I despise
Those God-awful guys
The Father, the Son, the H.G.'

Blasphemy, undoubtedly, but I print it now without fear of the consequences, since the Irish Act states "...that it shall be a defence to proceedings for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary [etc.] value in the matter to which the offence relates”. I am sure that, as in the Lady Chatterley trial, it would not be difficult to find any number of distinguished literati happy to attest to the important place these limericks should occupy in their respective literary canons.

Friday, 1 January 2010

He's behind you!

Young Richard Whittington has a prophetic
nightmare of the way posterity will picture him
George Morrow, Punch 1925