Self-deconstructing clichés: Polymeter edition

For earlier editions of this occasional series, see Weight-loss edition, Supreme Court edition, Europe edition, Bill of Rights edition, open door.

I remember very clearly when the figure of speech “the mother of all X” came into English. It was during the first Gulf War, and Saddam Hussein gave a speech threatening the US-led alliance with “the mother of all battles” should they have the temerity to attack. I recall how the phrase was so strange that an area expert spoke on television, explaining that this was the literal translation of a somewhat flowery Arabic expression, used to evoke an exceptionally strong superlative.

Because, the thing about mothers is that they are a) important, and b) unique. Which makes it surpassingly odd that Trump propagandist and still-congressman Devin Nunes some time ago, in the context of Trump’s first impeachment trial, referred to the allegations against the president as

“one of the mothers of all conspiracy theories” to imagine that “somehow the president of the United States would want a country he doesn’t even like … to start an investigation into Biden.”

To paraphrase an old saying, “a victory has a hundred fathers, but a conspiracy theory has a hundred mothers”, apparently.

WHO’s on first?

I’m all in favour of naming Covid variants after Greek letters — not least because there is a fixed number of them, so when we teach omega presumably we know we’re finished. Clearly, though, people at WHO recognised that alphabetical order needed to be superseded when the next major horror was due to be designated Nu. I’m sure the WHO was seeking to head off the following awkward conversation a few months from now:

Have you heard the news about Covid?

What’s that?

About the new Covid variant?

Sure. I had it a couple of months ago.

You can’t have had it a couple of months ago. It’s new.

Nu. That’s what I said. It knocked me out for a week.

That’s the old variant.

Wait, the nu variant is old?

That’s right.

Hold on a minute. How many variants have you got?

Well, you got your alpha variant, your delta variant, then your nu variant, and then this here variant that got discovered just recently.

It’s pretty new isn’t it. Kind of like a new variant.

Oh, no, the experts on TV say it had twenty different mutations from the nu variant.

So if I came down with this… novel variant, and I went to the hospital, and they sequenced the virus, could they tell me which variant I have?


And what would they tell me?

They’d tell you you have the new variant. No reason to keep it secret.

And if it’s not that one?

Then it’s probably the nu variant.

But it’s the old variant.


Called the new variant.

WHO calls out that.



Possibly we misheard Michael Gove

From The Guardian today:

Gove has been subjected to a lot of mockery for supposedly having dismissed the value of (economic) expertise during the Brexit referendum campaign, but perhaps he was misquoted. Maybe what he really said was

people in this country have had enough of exports.

Industrial heritage

There’s a tiny lake in Oxford, Hinksey Lake, between a park and the railway tracks, somewhat used for recreation. I was there recently for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I found there were new signs warning people away from swimming — too little avail, as far as I could see — because of the danger of industrial waste dumped below the surface. I could think of many things you might call such a location, such as a “hazardous waste site” or “industrial trash dump”. But in Oxford they call it a “site of industrial heritage”. Sounds like something you might want to make a point of visiting.

Neanderthals and women

The article seems to have good intentions, but this headline in today’s Guardian is the most sexist I’ve seen in some time. It sounds like the men were hard at work “creating language”, and some women helped out with some testing, and maybe brought snacks. Also some Neanderthals came by and lent a hand. And apes.

Anglophone exceptionalism

Guardian film reviewer Peter Bradshaw does not like the new French film Deception, directed by Arnaud Desplechin, based on one of Philip Roth’s many pseudo-autobiographical novels. And one of the things he really doesn’t like about this French film is that… it’s French.

Desplechin doesn’t change any nationalities. His Roth is still supposed to be American, and the object of his love is still English. But Desplechin casts French people, speaking French. Denis Podalydès plays Roth and Léa Seydoux is the English actor.  So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated.

C’est pas vrai! A French director cast French actors in his film, and let them (I’m trying not to hyperventilate here) speak FRENCH! How could this be allowed to happen? He seems to have gotten the Hollywood rule, that European characters (of whatever nationality) are always supposed to be played by British actors, exactly backward!

Could you imagine a critic commenting on a film by a British or American director set in a non-English-speaking country, that complains that the director cast British or American actors speaking English, which completely misses the nuances of dialect differences?

Spielberg doesn’t change any nationalities. His Schindler is still supposed to be Moravian, and his antagonist Amon Göth is still Austrian. But Spielberg casts British people, speaking English. Liam Neeson plays Schindler and Ralph Fiennes is the Austrian Nazi.  So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated.

I mention this particular example because I do recall seeing a German review of Schindler’s List that did complain about the dialect issue, but only as an issue about the dubbing by the regular German representatives of those particular British actors, speaking their regular high German. No one would have suggested that an American director really should have made his film in German to begin with.

Auto-antonyms: Drawing a line

The BBC is being scourged for having been — 25 years ago — once insufficiently open and honest with its rightful liege lords (in this case, the then Princess of Wales). Apparently they tried to trick her into giving an interview, though the BBC says it has a handwritten note from her saying she didn’t mind, and she would have done the interview anyway.

In the course of discussing this Diana’s brother is quoted saying “he ‘draws a line’ between the [BBC] interview and her death two years later.” It’s an interesting phrase, of a rare sort that I call auto-antonyms. The same words might mean two diametrically opposite things. I think he means to say that the two events are causally connected — as though by a straight line. But he could also mean that even though one event followed the other, he considers them to be completely separate — to emphasise which he would draw a (dividing) line between them.

Jack and the Beehive

It suddenly struck me that the English word beanstalk and the German word Bienenstock (beehive) sound powerfully like cognates, even though they are not. There are quite a lot of faux amis between English and German, and they are usually cognate, even when the meanings are radically different — as between the English fabric and the German Fabrik (factory), or the English stuff and the German Stoff (fabric). They have a common root, from which they have evolved differently. Even the bizarre Gift meaning “poison” started out as something given, a dose of medicine (dosis also from the Latin root for “given”).

But beanstalk and Bienenstock are both compound words made up of parts that both seem like they could be cognates, but actually are unrelated. That beans and bees are unrelated is unsurprising. It took me a bit of work to convince myself that stalk is etymologically unrelated to Stock, which is indeed cognate to the English stick. The roots are quite different: Stalk from Old English stale, meaning a handle or part of a ladder; Stock originally a branch or a treestump, presumably then a stump that houses bees, either naturally or agriculturally.

A problematic false Italian friend

For some reason I’ve been reading a lot of Italian epidemiology reports lately, and my Italian isn’t very good. So I found myself at first assuming that counts of “ricoverati” cases were those who had recovered. And that made it really confusing that this document estimates the median time from “ricovero in ospedale” to death (4 days). I had to look it up to discover that ricovero actually means hospitalised (and more generally, sheltered).