Non sequitur

What? Seriously, what?

A number of local councils in Britain have banned their staff from using Latin words, because they say they might confuse people. Several local authorities have ruled that phrases like “vice versa”, “pro rata”, and even “via” should not be used, in speech or in writing…Other local councils have banned “QED” and “ad hoc”…

Assuming this is real and not a Daily Mail scare story dressed up as journalism (which it manifestly sounds like, except that it’s on the BBC website) this is crazy. Surely no-one seriously believes that “vice versa” is an obscure latin phrase. It’s an English phrase; who cares about its etymology? Next someone will suggest banning “cul de sac” because it’ll confuse non-French speakers. Or “margarine”. Half our language is appropriated from elsewhere, and it seems meaningless to tag a few key phrases and mutter darkly “those are foreign”.

Even leaving aside their derivation, are these phrases really obscure and elitist? I don’t speak a word of latin, but I know perfectly well what all these examples mean, yet according to the Plain English Campaign “the ban might stop people confusing the Latin abbreviation e.g. with the word ‘egg’.” Because, you know, that one always confuses people. Why not just go the whole hog and ban words of more than two syllables?

I find this all very surreal because this kind of “PC gone mad” story is normally anathema to me. Usually the journalist has ridiculously mischaracterised a fairly sensible decision, and it’s the press facing my ire not the bewildered subject of the story. In this case the councils are not imposing an outright ban, merely “discouragement”, but on the face of it I still can’t understand what they could be thinking.

Okay, I’m taking a few deep breaths and disengaging rant mode. On a tangentially related note, the godlike Stephen Fry talks lengthily, wisely and poetically about the beauty of language and the insanity of trying to freeze it in place on his new improved blog. An oasis of common sense.

Free Rice

I’m finding the Free Rice word game strangely compulsive. It’s a multi-choice word definition game that adjusts to your vocabulary level so it’s always just on the cusp of knowledge and instinct. I can reach a vocab level of 45 47 briefly, but tend to lose it with wrong answers. The game seems to be a very effective fundraising tool.

While I’m here, this is a lengthy but satisfyingly logical dissection of why homeopathy shouldn’t be excluded from normal standards of evidence. [Via]

And if that’s too heavy for you then–look! Cute cat! Sadly, most of the time she looks more like this.


West Wing viewers may be interested to read a recent entry on World Wide Words concerning the origins of the acronym POTUS. Fascinating.

(The site is run by Michael Quinion, whose book Port Out, Starboard Home I’ve mentioned before and would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone with an interest in the origin of words and phrases; not least because it devotes a lot of time to satisfyingly debunking the urban myths that grow up around words and phrases. This makes it feel a great deal more authoritative than other similar books which still trot out these myths as if they were fact.)

By any other name

A good title can lend a sense of poetry and importance to even the least poetic and meaningful of things (and a Shakespeare quote has particular gravitas, a fact well-known to writers of bad novels and potboiler TV episodes.)

I was moved to thinking this by watching a trailer for a new two-part noir drama with the wonderfully evocative title of Low Winter Sun. It may be rubbish for all I know, although the Radio Times likes it. But with a title like that who cares?

To DNA or not to DNA

There’s a new Police poster around Sunderland (and possibly elsewhere) warning of the potential penalties for keying a car. Apparently you could be “DNA’d”. Yes, “To DNA” is now a verb. As is “To key” now I come to think of it. Not sure about that apostrophe either, although “DNAd” would look even stranger.

Other random things I have failed to mention recently:

The new Snow Patrol album is quite alarmingly anthemic, but has quite a few strong tracks amidst its blatant commercialism. I’m still making up my mind about it.

Pearl Jam’s new album cements in my mind that I really don’t like a good 50% of their material, and am unclear why I continue buying their stuff.

Bones is getting increasingly enteraining as the snark levels increase between the regulars. The opening credits are really annoying though, since they randomly fling actors names at you accompanied by images of entirely different actors. You’d be forgiven for thinking David Boreanaz was actually called Jonathan Adams.

The West Wing is really hard to watch with a 3 second lip-synch delay, but this week’s US episode was still very entertaining. I think it’s the series finale next week.

Speaking of which, I’ve obtained (via the pixies, don’t you know) the Veronica Mars S2 finale but we haven’t got round to watching it yet. I’ve been enjoying this show a lot recently, despite the stop-start vagueness of the season arc.

Woo! Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut. 50 minutes of extra footage and apparently a good deal more coherent from a character standpoint, this is Ridley Scott’s original cut of the film, not some cobbled together kitchen-sink-for-the-sake-of-it version. I liked the theatrical cut so we’re definitely after this. It’s due September 11th in the UK, a memorable date if nothing else, but it’s out on 23rd May in the US, and the UK art is not a patch on the US art.

In Scotland? Visit the scenic Torchwood House and its famous observatory. More information at Nicely done.


My sister was supposed to be visiting this weekend but Ticketline managed to take the money for the rail tickets from her account and fail to actually deliver the tickets, or have any record of her order. This wasn’t helped by the fact that they ask you not to ring them unless your tickets still haven’t turned up the day before you travel, leaving no time to resolve the problem. So now my sister is visiting in a few weeks time instead! This may be for the best as a nice relaxing weekend seems like a good plan after a fairly stressful week at work, and it’ll give us the opportunity to see V for Vendetta into the bargain.

It also gives me the chance to mention the many things I’ve heard, read and seen over the last few months without bothering to write about them.

Books, Music and Films, oh my…

Balderdash & Piffle

Just caught Balderdash and Piffle on BBC2. Having seen the adverts I wasn’t sure if it would be a panel show, a documentary, or something else. It proved to be one of the BBC’s beloved part-information, part celebrity waffle shows, with a mildly irritating woman presenting it.

The programme barely scratched the surface of the material, and the presenter appeared strangely bemused by the OED’s insistence on actual printed evidence for when words were first used in a given context. (The OED people didn’t do a very good job of explaining, to be fair). But it’s still a subject which has an inherent appeal because language is something we use every day without stopping to wonder how recent – or ancient – is much that we take for granted. It’s really hard to go wrong with the subject matter.

I must confess I’m increasingly fascinated by language and etymology. It’s a topic I haven’t really studied (my English degree barely even covered semantics, let alone etymology), but I’m increasingly reading up on the subject at a ‘popular science’ level and finding it highly absorbing.

Last year I read (aka nicked off my wife) a book called Port Out, Starboard Home which explains the origins of phrases and, equally importantly, debunks the invented and erroneous explanations that have arisen over the years. For example, “Posh” is not an acronym for “Port Out, Starboard Home”. And “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” is apparently not derived from the brass plates used to stack up cannonballs; it is in fact literally referring to a brass monkey’s most treasured possessions, with early variants being “talk the tail off a brass monkey” and “hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey”. Sometimes phrases go right back to Latin, while other phrases can be traced to a specific modern date or person; or shown to have been used in print before the event which allegedly inspired it. I highly recommend the book (released in America as Ballyhoo, Buckaroo and Spuds), which is both accessible and convincingly authoritative on the subject and even goes so far as to debunk explanations trotted out by other similar books. If you’re interested there’s a related website, World Wide Words.

I’m also reading a fascinating book on the alphabet called Letter Perfect (formerly Language Visible; what is it with language books changing their names?) which among various bombshells made me realise that, in English, ‘J’ and ‘V’ weren’t officially recognised as letters in their own right until Webster’s American Dictionary in 1828. And prior to the late 19th Century the name of the letter ‘J’ was pronounced “Jye”, not “Jay”. (Why yes, I’m up to the chapter on ‘J’, why do you ask?) What’s especially fascinating is that the shapes, sounds and even sequence of many of our letters can be traced right back to the very first Semitic alphabet around 2000 BC. Whole civilisations have consciously appropriated the same system of letters, which has trickled its way down to us through the centuries. This may be elementary stuff to anyone who’s studied the subject, but it’s the kind of thing I just enjoy learning.

It has to be said, having waffled off the topic, that the BBC TV programme really did a very poor job of conveying these things – especially the ways language changes and the dizzying historical perspective – but at the same time programmes on the subject are few and far between and I’ll certainly be tuning in next week.