Monday 30 November 2009


This evening I was at a strange but rather entertaining event, an attempt to break the record for the number of languages in which the well-known Scots song Auld Lang Syne has simultaneously been sung. I think the organisers of this wacky happening at Glasgow University were hoping for 100 languages. They got nowhere near that number, but given that the standing record is apparently nine, success never seemed in doubt.

The BBC, true to its preference for speed over accuracy, and for reporting as news things that haven’t actually happened yet, was quick off the mark. Three minutes before the event even began, their website was reporting that languages sung had included “Persian, Arabic, Malay, Vietnamese, Frisian, Hindi, Urdu, Irish Gaelic, Romanian, Scots, Welsh, Ukrainian, Yoruba, Swahili, Catalan, Bangla, Maori, Chichewa, Georgian, and Igbo”. Given that the words of the song are in Scots, it would be surprising if that had not been on the list, but I can personally vouch for the regrettable fact that Yoruba and Welsh were not involved.

In the end the total was apparently 41 languages, sung by perhaps 200 people. An easy victory, but surely, in a university and city as large as Glasgow, there could have been more? Leaving aside the issue of putting the word about effectively, the limiting factor may well be the availability of translations. I had been hoping to sing in Welsh, and apparently several other Welsh speakers had volunteered themselves, but I for one had been unable to find a translation on the Web, and there wasn’t nearly enough time to write a serviceable one (even if I didn’t have other things to do). So I ended up being recruited to sing in Latin and felt very academical.

I had naively expected to find an Auld Lang Syne website somewhere with translations in dozens of languages, but no luck. My theory, for what it’s worth (and I think this was confirmed by tonight’s event), is that while in the world at large, especially perhaps Eastern Europe and the Far East it is felt to be as international as Happy Birthday To You, in the UK it is seen as an emblem of Scottish culture. Hence to translate it into Welsh would be rather like putting Gaelic words to Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner. Only one person showed up to sing in Hungarian, but she had two versions of the text to choose between. However, several admirable people had brought along their own specially-crafted translations, and perhaps these will find their way onto the web for future occasions.

So what do 41 languages sound like, sung together? I would have loved the chance to move around the hall between different groups of singers, actively experiencing the effect, but the main impression from the midst of it (just between the Japanese and the Lithuanians — wot no Kurdish?) was of rhythmic sibilants. Presumably with that many languages going on someone or other will be singing an s sound on almost every syllable, and that’s what really penetrates the general wash of sound.

There was something very fine about seeing languages bravely represented by a single individual. I was delighted to be singing near to a native speaker of Sami (the language of what we used to call the Lapps), and later to chat to the only Georgian speaker. But my heart went out even more to a small contingent singing a language of which no-one (probably) is a genuine native speaker: Esperanto. The Latin of the twentieth century? One of them, a splendidly geeky-looking girl, told me as she left that next time she would do it in binary.

Sunday 29 November 2009

More mince(d)meat

Seasonal specialities tend to have a way of spreading throughout the year. Is the Cadbury’s Creme Egg even associated with Easter any more? One year I actually found an example of Christmas and Easter meeting in the middle, in the form of a table in a supermarket bearing both hot cross buns and mince pies. This photo was taken one April and shows mince pies on special offer. Not just any small mincemeat tartlets, these had little Christmas trees on and everything. With still well over 200 shopping days till Christmas, they had already been reduced. Or are we talking a particularly large and resilient stock left over from four months earlier, refusing to shift? Oh all right then, just a wrong code typed into the central bakery’s computer system?

Minced pies

It’s that time of year again and Morrisons are selling “minced pies”. Presumably some kind of convenience food aimed at the time-poor shopper, like pre-mashed potatoes. And yet as far as I could see these were completely intact. Most puzzling.

Friday 27 November 2009

“The final tweet”

...from Chambers on Twitter. “sorry for recent silence - due to office closure about ½ our staff leaving today. this is probably the final tweet. thanks for following!”

Sunday 22 November 2009

“A real gem”

“It’s a great feeling to stumble upon a real gem. While browsing through a London bookshop last summer, it was chance that my eyes fell on a slim book, Whatever happened to Tanganyika? It turned out to be [a] quirky page-turner on what its author¹ called “nostalgic geography” — an A-Z of long-forgotten names of places and countries that interest a handful of dotty stamp collectors today. Yet, behind the trivia about Bechuanaland, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and why national borders in Africa are often straight lines and right angles, there was a larger story: the tale of venerable statesmen meeting in Berlin, Versailles and Yalta to divide the world into colonies, protectorates and spheres of influence. ” (Swapan Dasgupta, Times of India)

¹ Actually no, for the record that was the coinage of Alexander McCall Smith, who wrote the foreword

Saturday 21 November 2009

Tripe-hounds and ink-slingers

The other week I was at the launch party of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, finally published after some 44 years in the making at Glasgow University’s Department of English Language. It is easily the world’s largest thesaurus, covering some 800,000 meanings in 236,000 categories and subcategories, and the first historical thesaurus of any language. It weighs a ton and costs £250.

It sold out in a matter of days and is now reprinting in time for Christmas.

The story of such an extraordinary book proved irresistible to the press, and its editor was inundated with requests for interviews from around the world. The editor in question is Honorary Professorial Research Fellow Christian Kay, who despite the, er, Christian name, is female. She writes very entertainingly on the OUP blog this week about the sort of questions she was asked, and needless to say, they were often not exactly the most intelligent of questions. I think her piece contributes some nice evidence to my own musings on the strange ideas journalists seem to have about dictionaries and the people that make them (see “Mad professors and lollipop ladies”, etc).

We all know how much the meejah love their heavy-handed clichés, but what also emerges here is a distinctly unappealing kind of ageism. Professor Kay is an unmarried woman around retirement age, a soft-spoken individual of kindly appearance and big owlish specs — if not quite one of the “cardiganed duffers” beloved of The Times, then perhaps the chintzy librarian stereotype might answer. As she points out, it does seem incredible that in 2009 journalists consider it all right to refer to a “lingo-loving spinster” who “coyly confessed” to celebrating with a glass of champagne, and ask whether she is looking foward to getting back to her garden or perhaps a “big piece of knitting”. If she’d been, say, a sexy twenty-nine-year-old in a miniskirt, I do think they would hesitate to suggest she was looking forward to getting her hair done, painting her toenails and putting in some time on the sunbed, and I feel pretty sure that if the thesaurus had been edited by a West Indian with a taste for colourful shirts they would not have asked whether he was planning to celebrate by chillin’ to some jungle beats with a bottle of rum and maybe a large hand-rolled cigarette. But to revert to the most moronic and patronising stereotypes is still OK where a woman over a certain age is concerned.

In time, HTOED will be available on the Web in conjunction with the online OED, but for now it takes the form of two handsome blue slipcased volumes, and this brings us back to another recent subject of this blog. In Prof Kay’s position, I for one would have been tempted to make a practical demonstration to the gentlemen of the press one of the advantages of the printed reference book over the electronic version. I speak of course of the weighty purposes the holy Koran was put to in that Bangladeshi restaurant

¹ Well, perhaps not if they were filming me for the telly.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

“Browse our food” (a second helping)

So why do we call it browsing when we look through books or visit webpages, rather than grazing? I reached out, heaved the relevant volume of my trusty copy of OED off its shelf and laboriously flicked through to the right page. No of course I didn’t, I dialled it up on the computer and scrolled down the screen. One surprise is that the figurative sense of browse seems rather recent — at least, the first citation on offer is from 1870. In 1823 Charles Lamb the essayist wrote of someone in library who “browsed at will upon that fair and wholesome pasturage”, but that doesn’t seem to convey unambiguously the idea of picking at bits here and there, just feeding, and “graze” would seem to work just as well if not better. Two centuries earlier, Shakespeare had used it much in the same sense: “There is cold meat i’ th’ Caue, we’l brouz on that” (Cymbeline).

In theory, of course, grazing refers to the action of animals such as sheep which eat grass, while browsing is pulling leaves and twigs off trees as goats and deer do. I suspect this is one of those nice distinctions that in casual use has been blurred for centuries. OED seemed to be hinting at that with the remark that browse is “sometimes carelessly used for graze, but properly implying the cropping of scanty vegetation”, though in fact that seems to be a slightly different distinction, where graze is more about hoovering up the lush sward rather than casting about here and there for edible bits.

Nowadays it’s the continuous nature of herbivorous grazing that we focus on, in contrast with the feast-and-fast pattern of a carnivore that might eat once a day, once a week or even less often in some cases. “Grazing” is basically eating between meals, a little and often. OED doesn’t trouble to suggest an explanation of the browsing metaphor, perhaps it seems too obvious, but it took me a moment to realise that the visual image of browsing is surely plucking books from different shelves here and there at more or less eye level. “The perfect browser must have one possession ... a ladder; a library ladder” (1937). By the time we make the figurative leap to browsing web pages that image is pretty well concealed, even more so now that browsing a website often seems to mean no more than reading it: you can browse a single page. After all a browser is just a tool for looking at web pages, not sifting through them.

So what did a browser do before Internet Explorer, Netscape and so on? You might guess it was someone or something that browses, but apparently (and counter-intuitively) it meant someone whose job was to supply fodder to animals when their grazing was unavailable.

On the question of vetting things versus doctoring them, I have nothing to offer.

Monday 16 November 2009

“Browse our food”

I love it when a new figurative sense of a word becomes so much more important than its original meaning that an unconscious pun becomes possible. Interestingly, to graze has also taken on a new sense and is still much on our lips¹ today, but still refers to feeding the body rather than the mind. Why did browsing, instead of grazing, come to mean looking through books and now webpages?²

¹ Yes yes, I know
² And why is it good to vet something, but bad to doctor it?

Saturday 14 November 2009

Expert advice

There’s been much talk recently of governments disregarding expert advice. What a shame the police didn’t listen to their expert adviser, the distinguished and much-admired phonetician Stanley Ellis when he told them the infamous Yorkshire Ripper tape was a hoax. At least, he pinned down the hoaxer’s accent to the very village he came from, over 100 miles from where the crimes were committed, and was proved right when the hoaxer was finally arrested in 2005. But this failed to dissuade the police from diverting the enquiry to completely the wrong part of the country, even ruling out the real murderer because he did not fit the profile of the hoaxer.

Monday 9 November 2009

“Minister to meet publishers in bid to save dictionary jobs”

Today’s Scotsman reports that “Enterprise minister Jim Mather is set to call publishing companies to a round-table meeting in a bid to save Edinburgh dictionary firm Chambers.”

Cardigans versus anoraks (one more blast)

One more thought on the subject of the printed dictionary versus its electronic challenger.

As one comment on that Guardian article pointed out, “How the good people who create dictionaries will get paid is an entirely different problem from whether we need this information printed on a page.” However, our expert on faith, philosophy, controversy and understanding appears to be groping towards something relevant when he says that “the very bulk of the book somehow contributes to the effort”. It’s true that a printed volume gives a very immediate and comprehensible idea of the amount of data and work that go into even a medium-sized dictionary. With his much-hated search box, you have no idea of the size of what you’re looking through. The blink of the cursor may seem lazy to him but in fact it searches the text at unimaginable speed. I wonder how many people who use the OED online realise that if they were using the printed edition the first task would be identify which of twenty volumes to heave off the shelf and leaf through.

With a printed dictionary you have some idea of scale, and hence price. Anyone can see that just manufacturing such an object would cost a certain amount, whatever it cost you to compile the text. In the case of an electronic product, the production cost is very small, in fact adding a subscriber to an online dictionary must represent almost no extra cost to the producer, so the fee you charge is going to be very arbitrary. How do you put a price on the lexicographical labour it represents?

Which brings us back to the fascinating question the newspapers seem to be showing so little interest in. Who can say what will happen to the printed dictionary over the next few years? Is it an endangered species, as some people even seem to think those printed newspapers are? Certainly, paper has its limitations when it comes to reference works. But it would be very sad never to pick up a convincingly hefty chunk of well-inked cellulose, riffle through the pages and actually get that physical impression of scale, not only of the richness of the language itself but of the sheer labour and dedication that goes into a making a dictionary.

'The Everlasting Miracle' by ~crystalina~And the hefty tome does have occasional other uses too. I once read a nice anecdote in a newspaper restaurant column whose author had visited a Bangladeshi restaurant and noticed a large copy of the Koran on top of a fridge. How interesting, he immediately thought in his Guardian-journalist way, to see the way religion is an inherent part of the daily life of these fine people. “Well yes,” they agreed when he mentioned it, “but it also comes in very handy if anyone tries to get out of paying the bill. You can’t keep a baseball bat behind the till these days, that’s an offensive weapon, but a Koran…”

Friday 6 November 2009

“The Ultimate Hardcover Book”

So, is free text on the internet putting the published book out of business? And are all hardbacks today so shoddily manufactured?

A firm called Kirkham Motorsports have built a bespoke sports car for a millionaire, made almost entirely of aluminium and so shiny it must be a hazard to other road users on a sunny day. For extra rigidity, the chassis is machined from solid metal known as billet aluminium. As a finishing touch they decided to manufacture (“write” doesn’t seem quite the word) a special commemorative book about the project. The book is of course a very special item too, being made of the same materials as the car: the cover uses 25 pounds of precision-engineered aluminium plate which took 26 hours to machine, tan leather of the sort used in the interior, and the same heat-treated stainless steel screws and bolts used to hold the chassis together. It is, in the old sense of the word, a masterpiece, a virtuoso exemplar of the metalworker’s art. They describe it, and who can blame them, as “the ultimate hardcover book”. You can buy a (very) limited-edition copy for $4,500.

Or you can go to the website and download it free as a PDF file.

I mean, have publishers learned nothing?

Thursday 5 November 2009

Cardigans versus anoraks (round two)

Broadsheet journalists, moved to print by the Chambers closure, have been demonstrating a sometimes comical ignorance of where dictionaries come from. (Apparently they’re left under gooseberry bushes by cardiganed old duffers, which is OK because the duffers who write printed dictionaries are like lollipop ladies, we know and trust them, unlike those faceless geeks in Silicon Valley who are responsible for the electronic sort.)

In a Guardian Online article bemoaning the rumoured “demise of the paper product”, the editor of the Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs & Religions (“Faith, philosophy, controversy and understanding from the ancient world to the present day”) sings the praises of the printed book as “a superb browsing device”. He informs us that
Computers proceed by gathering facts, along with the links between those facts, and then run them through algorithms to try to make sense of the world — or more often than not, to fail to make sense of the world, as they get lost in an infinite tangle.
This stuff goes right over my head I’m afraid. Either it’s so highly metaphorical as to be more or less meaningless, or it’s just, well, nonsense.

He’s presumably trying to put into words the feelgood factor he gets from handling a printed book. Nothing wrong with that of course, speaking for myself I take as much pleasure in a weighty tome as the next man, although in the work context juggling six of them at a crowded desk can be less than convenient. Many people enjoy flicking through the pages of a dictionary, exploring a garden of words, tempted down this path or that by the exotic blooms they happen to spot. But the claim that the printed dictionary beats the electronic sort as a “browsing device” is a pretty tough one to defend.

“Compare the richness of that experience with a spell check facility.” Why, since we’re talking about dictionaries, not spell-checkers, which are mere lists of acceptable words? “An empty box on the screen stares vacantly back at you. The cursor blinks lazily. It offers no help at all. It conveys nothing of the world of words that, with a dictionary, you can hold in your hands.” Curse that lazy cursor!

The second strand of the argument, if you can call it that, is that printed dictionaries are somehow more real than electronic ones.
We humans are embodied creatures. As philosophers put it, we are extended in space and time. That’s no humdrum observation.
Well, if you say so, squire. How a computer screen can be said to be less a part of the “embodied” world, or less conducive to learning, than a piece of paper, I have no idea. A wittier blogger than me would insert here a drole skit featuring a luddite of the ancient world deprecating the soulless invention of writing when knowledge can be passed on so much more pleasantly and interactively by word of mouth — which might actually be a more credible theory than this one. As for me, I’m as lazy as a blinking cursor, so I’ll save time by stealing a cameo instead.

“Books do furnish a room” according to Anthony Powell’s epic A Dance to the Music of Time. I’m inclined to agree, as long as they all fit on the shelves without overflowing onto the floor, but Stephen Fry’s creation, Professor Donald Trefusis, would not. Here is the description of his “librarinth” in The Liar:
Barely a square inch of wood or wall or floor was visible. Walking was only allowed by pathways cut between the piles of books. Treading these pathways with books waist-high either side was like negotiating a maze. […] Trefusis himself was highly dismissive of them. ‘Waste of trees,’ he had once said. ‘Stupid, ugly, clumsy, heavy things. The sooner technology comes up with a reliable alternative the better.’

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Radio 4 Factoid of the Day

The long-running Radio 4 series A History of Private Life by Professor Amanda Vickery finishes this week. Today, describing the rigours of a passage to India, she comments
No wonder the affluent tried to book cabins on the shadier side of the steamer. “Port out starboard home” — “posh”, of course.
Of course! “How interesting,” I could just picture thousands of well-meaning listeners up and down Radio4-land saying to themselves, “I must tell all my friends about that” — and so the misinformation virus propagates itself. But how strange that no-one has ever managed to produce one of the fabled P&O steamship tickets stamped “POSH”. This corny backronym serves as the title of the excellent Michael Quinion’s debunking of language myths, Port Out Starboard Home (Penguin Books 2004, ISBN 0140515348). By the way I also warmly recommend his weekly “e-magazine” and website World Wide Words.

These tall tales about language are incredibly persistent. You hear them retailed on Radio 4 all the time, and often by people who frankly should know better, in this case an academic historian, who you might think would try to avoid making foolish assertions without a shred of evidence. It didn’t take the Apollo missions to convince the general population that the Earth was not flat and that there was no Man in the Moon, but when it comes to language, for some strange reason, even the most intelligent and erudite people simply switch off their brains.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

The definition of erudition

Dictionaries and other reference books are a well-worn not to say clichéd symbol of knowledge, so it is no great surprise that whoever designed the “Listen Again” web graphic for Radio 4’s quiz programme Brain of Britain chose a photo of a shelf of chunky non-fiction tomes (below).
What is slightly odd is that the image should show a shelf of five books no less than 40% of which is made up of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. This is, as the title implies, a publication aimed at learners of English as a foreign language. Yes, two copies of the same title, one a slightly more modern edition than the other — and it’s the old edition that the listener’s hand is reaching for. Of the five works available, that one must surely be the least useful in, well, almost any context really.

Monday 2 November 2009

Cardigans versus anoraks

Me, trying to be positive for once? It couldn’t last. As I opined the other day, one of the most interesting things about dictionaries is the attitudes of the general public to them, and I can’t resist taking up some of the frankly odd ideas aired in the English broadsheets recently.

It is truly sobering to see how little clue the people that write for these newspapers have about dictionaries and where they come from, as we can see from this bizarre remark in that Times article I mentioned:
It seems curious at a time when provenance and traceability are gaining in stature, from the food we eat to the wood we build with, that language is allowed to travel in the opposite direction, with its semantic history and the defining of its meanings outsourced to anonymous, unaccountable parties in Silicon Valley or whoever else elects to throw up a dictionary site.
If writing a dictionary were no more than part of the process of “throwing up a dictionary site”, what would all the fuss be about? We could all dash one off in a weekend, whereas in reality a new dictionary often demands centuries of person labour. So where do these online dictionaries come from? Could it be that they too are the work of lexicographers, whether or not it ends up on paper between hard covers? But computers and search engines come from Silicon Valley, so that must be where online dictionaries come from too, and the Gatesian geek stereotype hardly matches up with that of those familiar old cardiganed duffers we know to be the authors of proper dictionaries, so something’s not right.

Is it important to know the names of the people who drafted the text? It’s only recently the contributors started to get a mention in the front of “their” dictionaries. Do we know these people from Adam, and how exactly are they accountable? If “provenance and traceability” are important in a reference work, perhaps what you want is actually a wiki. On the much despised Wikipedia, every fact is (supposed to be) tied down with a reference to a reliable external source, and every single change to every single one of millions of articles there and on sister sites such as Wiktionary can be viewed and traced to its author (admittedly in the form of a screen name or sometimes an IP address) by simply clicking on the “History” tab.

Most striking of all, to me, is the way this shows yet again the enduring iconic power of the book as an object. Even in this electronic era when journalists spend their whole day in front of a screen, some of them still seem to feel proper information is only found stamped on a piece of dead tree.

And more on that in a bit.

Sunday 1 November 2009

“The demise of the paper product”

It was Robert McCrum in the Observer, tipped off by commenters on his blog, who finally broke the deafening silence south of the border on the subject of the Chambers closure and its implications. Now the Observer’s sister paper the Guardian has finally weighed in. An actual opinion piece about dictionaries, would you believe, not specifically about the Chambers closure but prompted by it. And it’s by someone who, if not quite a lexicographer in the normal sense, has at least worked on a reference publishing project so will have met some dictionary people. It may not exactly be expert comment or analysis, that’s still too much to hope for, in fact it’s really just a vague, ill-informed rant about how electronic dictionaries are no fun and should not be allowed to replace printed ones. But at least it’s people (journalist and commenters) discussing dictionaries, however subjectively and irrationally, in the light of the shocking news of the closure of one’s Britain’s oldest and best-loved reference publishers.

As you can see, I’m trying hard to be positive for once.

PS: The petition to “Keep Chambers in Edinburgh” is still available at