Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘language’

True friends and False friends

This week’s Spiegel has a headline quote from Emmanuel Macron:

Ich bin nicht arrogant… Ich sage und tue was ich mag.

I don’t know whether everyone does this, but whenever I read a line translated from a language that I know well, I subliminally translate it back. Often you find, particularly in news reports, that lazy translators have used false — or at least dubious -cognates. For example, I vaguely remember a quote from an English source referring to a leader being irritated by protests getting translated into irritiert, which actually means confused.

In this case, my own subliminal process stumbled over the cognate tue, meaning “I do” in German — so Macron said “I say and do what I want”, but “I kill” in French. Which immediately mapped onto another language giving me a momentary flash of Oscar Wilde’s famous line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the things he loves

It would have been pretty interesting if Macron had actually quoted Wilde to say “Je tue ce que j’aime”.

As for the other part, it’s probably a pretty good bet that if you find yourself insisting “I’m not arrogant”, you’re probably pretty arrogant. Speaking of which, I recently came across these videos of Donald Trump actually (and apparently unironically) acting out the classic punchline of the guy who boasts about his exceptional humility:

In the second one he manages to innovate beyond the obvious comedy of boasting about humility, by going one step farther and ridiculing the interviewer for being too stupid to be able to appreciate his humility.

Intimate English

Der Spiegel posted a little quiz for people to test their colloquial English skills. Some of the questions strike me, as a native English speaker, as somewhat off. For instance, the first question is:

Sie kennen einen Geschäftspartner aus dem Privatleben und machen Ihre Kollegen darauf aufmerksam. Wie sagen Sie es – ohne unfreiwillig Gerüchte über Ihr Intimleben zu streuen? [You know a business associate from your private life, and want to mention this to a colleague. How do you say it — without unintentionally arousing scurrilous rumours about yourself.]

  • I know him privately.
  • I know him a bit better.
  • I know him personally.

The second one is obviously anglicised German. The third sounds like you’re saying, I’ve actually met him, rather than knowing him by reputation or having heard him give a talk. The first one sounds like something I might say, even if in reality I’d be more likely to say something slightly more specific about the context from which I know him: He’s my neighbour, I know him from the rabbit-breeding club, we do hang-gliding together, etc. But their favoured answer is #3, and about #1 they have this to say:

TMI – too much information. Da hätten Sie auch gleich ausplaudern können, dass Sie die Person schon mal nackt gesehen haben. Ihre achtlose Bemerkung klingt auf jeden Fall so, als wollten Sie ein wenig mit einem intimen Geheimnis prahlen. Doch das will niemand wissen. Jemanden privat zu kennen, bedeutet im Englischen, sie/ihn in einer vertraulichen Weise zu kennen, die in der Öffentlichkeit nichts zu suchen hat. Nur als Tipp: “Private parts” im Englischen sind die Geschlechtsteile. Sagen Sie deshalb “I know him personally”, und Sie werden garantiert nicht missverstanden.

You might as well have blurted out, that you’ve seen this person naked.* Your careless comment certainly sounds, in any case, as though you wanted to boast of an intimate secret. But no one wants to hear this. To know someone privately means, in English, to know him or her in a confidential way that has no place in public discussion. A tip: “Private parts” in English are the sex organs.

*Which, in a German context, actually doesn’t necessarily mean that you know him well, but only that you’ve been to the same beach, or possibly the naked swimming hours at the local pool.

It takes a thief

Speaking to her fellow Conservatives this week, a “contrite” Theresa May said

I got us into this mess, and I’m going to get us out.

Ummm… Is this a common hiring policy? Is there any circumstance under which you’re looking for someone to lead a project and you say, “How about Theresa? She fucked everything up last time. That makes her just the person to make it go well this time.” Because she has the best inside view of the faulty decision procedures that caused all the trouble, or something.

It’s a bromide that is usually applied to a situation where the “mess” demands some unpleasant and unglamourous labour or expense to clean up — e.g., you misplaced the envelope with the club’s collected membership dues, so you need to go find it, or work out a new fundraising scheme, or replace the money from your own pocket. No one wants to do it, but it’s your job because it’s your fault. Applying it to remaining prime minister is just bizarre.

But this is all part of the way British politics is less about the effective deployment of power than the effective deployment of clichés. Of which Theresa “Brexit means Brexit” May is an unchallenged master.

Overqualified

On the BBC website there was this article about increasing dissatisfaction among university students in the UK, as measured by their response to a survey question about whether their studies provided “good value for money”, and questions about their happiness and wellbeing. I was struck by this sentence:

Young women and gay students at university are particularly likely to feel unhappy.

Why “young women” and not simply “women”? I’m willing to bet that they are not basing this on a distinction in reported happiness between younger and older female students. Those who are gay are referred to simply as “students”. Most students are, in a general sense, young, but why is this emphasised for the women? Why are the women not referred to as students? I feel like there is some invidious stereotyping going on here, but I can’t quite put my finger on what is irritating me.

Exponential vernacular

Like most mathematicians, I think, I’m irritated by the way “grows exponentially” has come into common parlance as a synonym for “grows rapidly”; whereas exponential growth in mathematics may be fast or slow, depending on the current level of the quantity. This has even crossed into technical discussions, as when I heard a talk by a cancer expert who objected to standard claims that cancer mortality increases exponentially through adulthood — which it does — because the levels actually stay low through the 50s, and so only “increase exponentially” after that point.

Anyway, I was under the impression that the vernacular application of this mathematical concept was fairly recent. So I was intrigued to find the cognate concept of “growing geometric”  popping up in Evan Thomas’s Nixon biography, on the Watergate tapes. In the context of cancer. Used correctly! It’s quite a famous part of Watergate lore, where John Dean refers to Watergate as a “cancer… close to the presidency”.

We have a cancer — within — close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now, because it’s compounding.

With escorts like these…

It’s been reported that a passenger tried to force his way into the cockpit on a passenger flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Two US Air Force fighter jets then “escorted” the plane to its destination. It’s an interesting choice of words, because one ordinarily thinks of an escort as being on your side — your escort protects you, or raises your status. A fighter escort is usually protecting a group of bombers. In this case, though, the presumably unstated purpose of the escort was to shoot down the passenger plane if it seemed to become dangerous. Awkward.

Good words

There has been a lot of reporting on this recent poll, where people were asked what word first came to mind when they thought of President Trump. Here are the top 20 responses (from 1,079 American adults surveyed):

idiot         39
incompetent   31
liar          30
leader        25
unqualified   25
president     22
strong        21
businessman   18
ignorant      16
egotistical   15
asshole       13
stupid        13
arrogant      12
trying        12
bully         11
business      11
narcissist    11
successful    11
disgusting    10
great         10

The fact that idiot, incompetent, and liar head the list isn’t great for him. But Kevin Drum helpfully coded the words into “good” and “bad”:

What strikes me is that even the “good” words aren’t really very good. If you’re asked what word first comes to mind when you think of President Trump and you answer president, that sounds to me more passive-aggressive than positive. Similarly, you need a particular ideological bent to consider businessman and business to be inherently positive qualities. Leader — I don’t know, I guess der Führer is a positive figure for those who admire that sort of thing. Myself, I prefer to know where we’re being led. If we include that one, there are 4 positive words, 4 neutral words, and 12 negative. (I’m including trying as neutral because I don’t know if people mean “working hard to do his job well”, which sounds like at least a back-handed compliment, or “trying my patience”.)

Rejecting Voltaire?

Emmanuel Macron’s election speech was reassuring. Intriguing that he took his long walk to the podium with the European anthem playing, rather than the French. One thing that disappointed me: He rejected fear, lies, division, fatalism, all good things to reject, but I just can’t get behind

Nous ne céderons rien à… l’ironie…

I don’t see how he can claim to be defending the values of the Enlightenment.

The word he used at the beginning interested me:

Je sais qu’il ne s’agit pas là d’un blanc-seing.

I’ve never heard the word blanc-seing before. It’s funny that we use a french phrase, carte blanche, for the same thing.

Petard erection

A NY Times report on Trump’s first 100 days quotes senior Obama aide Ronald Klain

If Trump finds himself hoisted on the 100-day test, it is a petard that he erected for himself.

Does one erect a petard? I think not. Really, is it too much to ask, that a flack decorating his political bromides with Shakespeareana actually know what the words mean?

Worst mathematics metaphor ever?

I’ve come to accept “growing exponentially” — though I once had to bite my tongue at a cancer researcher claiming that “exponential growth” of cancer rates began at age 50, because earlier the rates were just generally low — and didn’t say anything when someone recently referred to having “lots of circles to square”. But here’s a really new bad mathematics metaphor: the Guardian editorialises that after Brexit

Europe will be less than the sum of its remaining parts.

“More than the sum of its parts” or “less than” is something you say when you’re adding things together, and pointing out either that you don’t actually get as much extra as you’d think or, on the contrary, that you get more. That you get less when you take something away really doesn’t need much explanation and, in any case, it’s not about the sum of the parts. Whether the remains of Europe are more or less than the sum of the other parts seems kind of irrelevant to whatever argument is being suggested.

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