Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘language’

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.


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.

Friendly warnings

Donald Trump spoke to Republican legislators yesterday, encouraging them in a friendly way to support necessary legislation that would ease 24 million Americans off their dependence on health insurance. Apparently he didn’t threaten anyone:

“He warned us that there are consequences if we don’t come together for us as a party and also for individuals,” Representative Richard Hudson of North Carolina said after the meeting. “He wasn’t threatening in any way. He was just giving us a pretty clear warning.”


The news from Westminster and Holyrood inspires me to adapt a cartoon that I recall from a German newspaper from the days shortly after the opening of the Berlin wall:

Theresa May: We are one nation!

Nicola Sturgeon: We are too!

Maybe this doesn’t completely work in translation. In the original, of course, it was the East German demonstrators who really did shout “Wir sind ein Volk!”, and then the West Germans reply, “Wir auch!” That plays on the ambiguity in the German: “ein Volk” can mean “one people” or “one nation” or “a nation”.

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