Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘language’


People shouldn’t be mocked or discriminated against because of their names. But I really wonder whether the Tories sufficiently considered the practical drawbacks of putting time-sensitive negotiations under the command of a prime minister whose name is also a month. I was disturbed by this report from the Guardian on a press conference of EU negotiator Michel Barnier:

Barnier says he has never spoken about the need for “sufficient progress” by June, as he did before the December summit.

He says May agreed to the backstop in March. She cannot go back on that, he says.

I fear worse may come…

The meaning of “is”

One of Bill Clinton’s most famous contributions to the political lexicon is

It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.

This was his defense from the accusation of having lied when he explicitly said, of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky,

There is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship.

It was immediately obvious that there was something strange about his somewhat tortured insistence on the present tense, where what he was asked to deny was in the past. Of course, we know that he was trying to be extremely clever in making a statement that was literally true, while seeming to deny an accusation that he knew to be correct.

Now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has spoken out, not in his own defense, but in defense of the president:

“In all of this, in any of this, there’s been no evidence that there’s any collusion between the Trump campaign and the President and Russia,” he said. “Let’s just make that clear — there is no collusion.”

Is he being ironic?

Self-deconstructing clichés: US Supreme Court edition

Part of an ongoing series.

From a report on recent Supreme Court oral arguments about partisan gerrymandering:

Breyer pointed out that all the tests “have slight variations on different themes”

The whole point of “variations on a theme” is to communicate that they are fundamentally the same, with some superficial differences. There is one theme, and all the distinct versions are slight “variations”, What does it mean to be “variations” if they are all on different themes?

For other entries in this series see here, here, and here.

Politically correct snowflakes

Two expressions with interesting histories have collided in recent years. I first heard the term “politically correct” in the fall of 1984, as a second-year student during the dining-hall workers strike at Yale. My one movement-left friend was talking to a comrade about suggestions for supporting the strikers by a certain lecturer. One of them asked “Is he politically correct?” and the other affirmed that he was. There was some smirking going on, and this friend had sufficient self-awareness that I was never sure of this was meant entirely seriously or more tongue-in-cheek. I next encountered the word in the late 1980s, when conservatives like John Silber, president of Boston University (and Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, in possibly the only election in which I voted for a Republican) picked up the term as a cudgel for attacking the Left on campus. Since Silber had attained prominence precisely as an opponent of free speech and academic freedom, there was little attempt at that time to pretend that anti-PC was a stance for freedom. In his campaign book Straight Shooting, Silber presented it instead as a struggle for absolute unchanging truth against fickle academic fashion. Weird, since the current anti-PC movement has fully embraced the extreme moral relativism that it used to ascribe to the Left.

As for snowflake, I think it’s important to remember that it didn’t start as a reference to the fragility of snowflakes, but to their beauty and uniqueness. Liberal writers on child-rearing referred to children as snowflakes in opposition to what they saw as an obsession with molding children into a predetermined image. Each snowflake is individual, and each one is beautiful in its own way. A lovely metaphor. Of course, there were immediately those who attacked what they saw as mollycoddling, rather than slapping some reality into the little brats, suggesting that these “precious snowflakes” were growing up to have an inflated sense of self. And at some point the self-esteeming precious snowflakes acquired the fragility of snowflakes. The self-described tough guys (and gals) of the right could dismiss complaints about their shredding of constitutional norms as the snivelling of “snowflakes”, implicitly unfit for the rough and tumble of real life by their neglectful upbringing.

Muddying the shibboleth

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by words. I like words with complicated history and many layers of meaning, enabling them to encapsulate complicated ideas or sentiments — like the word Abend (“evening”) in Hofmannsthal’s poem “Ballade des äusseren Lebens” (Ballad of the outer life):

Und dennoch sagt der viel, der Abend sagt,

ein Wort, daraus Tiefsinn und Trauer rinnt

wie schwerer Honig aus den hohlen Waben.

And yet one says so much just saying “evening”,

a word from which profundity and pathos drip

like thick honey from the hollows of the honeycomb.

Often I seem to be the last to notice that a word has changed its vernacular usage, and then I see all at once several appearances of the “new” meaning. One example is this report in The New Republic on the NY gubernatorial campaign of Cynthia Nixon:

If nothing else, perhaps she’ll run a strong enough campaign to make the Democratic Party reconsider its credentialism shibboleth.

I have no opinion about the political candidacy, and I never saw Ms Nixon’s television show, but I grieve for the word shibboleth.

Its original meaning is a word whose proper usage marks someone as belonging to the in-group. (It was the word for a ‘stream’, and the Gileadites in a civil war between Hebrew tribes narrated in chapter 12 of the Old Testament book of Judges used it as a watchword, since the opposing Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the initial consonant correctly. Rather like the story of American troops in WWII in the Pacific identifying Japanese in the dark by demanding they pronounce the word lollapalooza.) There is plenty of scope for applying this concept in the debates over political correctness and social justice warriors. But I guess it is doomed to become just a fancy synonym for a petty requirement. It is probably beyond saving.

The original story:

Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives from Ephraim, you Gileadites—in the heart of Ephraim and Manasseh.” Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

Fannee Doolee likes college professors but she doesn’t like scientists

When I was a child, there was a regular feature on the program Zoom called “Fannee Doolees”: Riddles about the titular character who liked some things, but didn’t like other very similar things, interspersed with the question “Why do you think that is?”. Listeners could send in their own suggestions, to show they’d figured out the pattern, like: Fannee Doolee likes sweets, but she doesn’t like candy. Fannee Doolee likes batteries, but she doesn’t like electricity. The trick was, FD likes only words that have a double letter in them. So naturally I thought of this when I saw this plot (pointed out by Kevin Drum) from a paper on political partisanship by political scientist Larry Bartels, showing the results of a survey that asked for a favourability rating on a zero-to-ten scale for various groups and institutions, separated between self-identified Republicans and Democrats.

Screenshot 2018-03-20 21.59.44

Looking at this it really jumped out at me that Republicans have widely divergent views of “college professors” and “scientists”. Scientists are well up in the positive zone, about equal with Jews, and Republicans themselves, whereas college professors are well down into negative territory, next to gays and environmentalists. They also like wealthy people, but they don’t like Wall Street Bankers. Fannee Doolee is definitely not a Republican.

Weirdly, Republicans say they like men and women both more than they like Republicans.

Don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?

I’ve had a number of conversations with Europeans that made me realise that many Europeans actually believe in the British self-image, that they are by nature calm and pragmatic. I may be wrong, but I think Americans — in common with Canadians and Australians — tend to have a more clear-eyed view of Britain, a nation so much in the grip of their ideologies — even as they flit from one to the other — that they can’t even recognise them as ideologies. Since the Thatcher reign the obsession has been market liberalism.

If there’s one thing the British excel at, it’s marketing, and they have marketed their own image brilliantly. It’s only with Brexit that the scales are falling from the eyes of the Europeans. One foreign academic who I was talking with today on the picket line said, in her first years in the UK she was constantly stressed because British colleagues would never keep to any agreement. If you try to appeal to the fact that something was agreed, even that it’s written down in a contract, you’ll be told how petty and unreasonable you are being. “Reasonable” is a favourite power play, because only the in-group knows which of the vast number of rules a “reasonable” person has to follow.

Anyway, I just happened to be reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, written at a time when the British were marketing a different self-image, and came upon this passage:

“Mrs. Gould, are you aware to what point he has idealized the existence, the worth, the meaning of the San Tome mine? Are you aware of it?”

“What do you know?” she asked in a feeble voice.

“Nothing,” answered Decoud, firmly. “But, then, don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?”

“Well, what of that?” asked Mrs. Gould.

“Simply that he cannot act or exist without idealizing every simple feeling, desire, or achievement. He could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale. The earth is not quite good enough for him, I fear.”

It reminds me obliquely of when I came upon the odd passage in Holinshed’s Chronicles, where he remarks with pride how easily Englishmen pick up other languages, contrasting it with the incapacity of foreigners to learn English:

This also is proper to vs Englishmen, that sith ours is a meane language, and neither too rough nor too smooth in vtterance, we may with much facilitie learne any other language, beside Hebrue, Gréeke & Latine, and speake it naturallie, as if we were home-borne in those countries; & yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other meanes, that few forren nations can rightlie pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especiallie the French men, who also seldome write any thing that sauoreth of English trulie.

Hum and buzz

Apparently there’s been low-frequency hum intermittently plaguing the residents of Windsor Ontario in recent years. It may be due to blast furnace operations on a nearby island. The report in the NY Times goes on to discuss similar complaints that have arisen at other locations. When the Taos tourism director describes her town’s troubles, which have since subsided, metaphorical noise collides with real noise:

“I have never heard the Taos hum, but I’ve heard stories of the Taos hum,” she said. “There’s not been a lot of buzz about it in the last few years.”


Twenty years ago I had a short visit from a college friend* who had just discovered the technical utopia. Completely enthralled. The Internet was going to upend all power relations, make all governments irrelevant, make censorship impossible. I was fascinated, but I did ask, How is The Internet going to clean the sewers?

But there was something else that intrigued me. He was very much on the nonscience side as a student, but he had just been learning some programming. And he had discovered something amazing: When your computer looks like it isn’t doing anything, it’s actually constantly active, checking whether any input has come. The user interface is a metaphorical desktop, inert and passive until you prod it, but beneath the surface a huge amount of complicated machinery is thrumming to generate this placid illusion.

I thought of this when reading The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. The European Union is complicated. For instance, in EU governance there is the European Council and the Council of the European Union, which are distinct, and neither one is the same as the Council of Europe (which is not part of the EU at all). There is a vast amount of work for lawyers, diplomats, economists, and various other specialists — “bureaucrats” in the common parlance — to give form and reality to certain comprehensible goals, the famous “four freedoms” — free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. The four freedoms are the user interface of the EU, if you will, and the

There’s a lot of legacy code in the EU. In the absence of a further world war to flatten the institutions and allow a completely new constitution to be created, EU institutions had to be made backward compatible with existing nation states. There is a great deal of human work involved in carrying out these compatibility tasks. When people complain that the EU is “bureaucratic”, that’s more or less what they mean. And when they complain about “loss of sovereignty” what they mean is that their national operating system has been repurposed to run the EU code, so that some of the action of national parliaments has become senseless on its own terms.

Some people look at complicated but highly useful structures with a certain kind of awe. When these were social constructs, the people who advised treating them with care used to be called “conservatives”. The people who call themselves Conservative these days, faced with complicated structures that they can’t understand, feel only an irresistible urge to smash them.

* German has a word — Kommilitone — for exactly this relationship (fellow student), lacking in English. Because it’s awkward to say “former fellow student”.

Commands in German

Republican Party finance chairman and casino magnate Steve Wynn has been outed by the Wall Street Journal for systematically sexually abusing women on a Weinstein scale. But one of the creepier details of the story (from Kevin Drum’s quote, since the WSJ article is paywalled):

Some said that feeling was heightened at times by the presence in a confined office space of one or more of his German shepherds, trained to respond to commands in German.

I remember talking many years ago with a German colleague, who felt it was unreasonable that Germany still, after fifty years as a stable democracy, still was expected to be specially on guard against any hint of fascist or racist tendencies. I pointed out that, no matter what the Germans themselves may think, fascists and racists the world over look to Germany for inspiration. I don’t really want to think about what it means that the Jewish Wynn, leading ally of the white nationalist president, has been living out Nazi stormtrooper sexual fantasies.

(Just to be clear. I can’t see any signs in Wynn’s wikipedia entry that he otherwise has links to German culture or language. The article also says that Wynn’s original name was Weinberg. This isn’t a pattern I’m comfortable following up. It makes me think of a perverted form of the old Cold War era joke about a State Department conversation about plans for an upcoming cultural exchange. “The Soviets are sending over two Jewish violinists from Odessa. And in return, we’re sending them two of our Jewish violinists from Odessa.”)

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