Attack of the 100 Foot Tissue

June 26, 2009

When I upload photos of signs and notices to Sentence first, I don’t mean to mock them but I can’t help having fun with them. A stroll down a supermarket aisle is enlivened by signs such as this one:

Stan Carey - Mamsize mansize tissue

Apparently each 100-foot mamsize tissue is sold singly, which seems about right, but whose mother did they measure? And despite the low cost, I think the market for this product is limited to a certain niche.

(SV is just an abbreviation of the name of the supermarket.)

Historic, historical: usage and advice

June 26, 2009

Although historic and historical have some overlap in meaning, they are usefully differentiated.

Historical, the more general and common word, means of history, of the nature of history, relating to history, belonging to history, occurring in history, and so on. The Oxford English Dictionary was originally called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. We read historical fiction and perform historical research (which, if we are lucky, might become historic).

Nuremberg chroniclesHistoric is used less often, and generally means historically famous, historically important, etc.: the president’s historic speech; preserving historic buildings; a historic moment for the country. Historic can refer to present events if they are obviously momentous enough.

William Safire summarised the distinction thus: “Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic.” Yet the distinction is not absolute. In one sense historic is a subset of historical, so blurring inevitably occurs. Historic sometimes carries the broad meaning associated more strongly with historical, while historical can refer to something (or someone*) historically significant, i.e. historic. These crossover usages are not wrong, but by avoiding them you will help maintain a convenient semantic division.

Once again I find myself agreeing with Merriam-Webster, who after reviewing the historical evidence conclude that “bucking [the trend] may be historically justified but is more likely to interfere with the smooth transfer of your ideas from paper to reader.” This is because some readers – including many English language authorities – insist on keeping the words’ meanings separate. In The Complete Plain Words, for example, Ernest Gowers stresses that their “useful differentiation should not be blurred by the use of one for the other”.

A note on pronunciation: In both words /(h)ɪ’stɒrɪk/ and /(h)ɪ’stɒrɪk(ə)l/ the h can be aspirated or not; if it is not, an is the accompanying indefinite article. When the stress falls on the second syllable, the h is weakened, hence some people’s preference for an: compare a(n) historian with a history. Be aware, though, that this preference seems quaint to some, and that a historic is the dominant modern form.

* According to Loose Talk: The GUBU File by Damian Corless, a presenter of Eurovision said to Ireland’s winner, “Johnny Logan, you are historical!” Unfortunately, I can neither remember this nor find video evidence for it.

[Gratuitous old map image from Wikimedia Commons]

Link love: language (4)

June 18, 2009

Mark Peters writes about mystery-y-ish-y and other strange -y suffixations.

The wonderful Wordnik: no ordinary dictionary. Might not be a dictionary at all. TED Talks video: Erin McKean redefines the dictionary.

kikiClassic music albums re-imagined as Penguin books.

A really important hyphen.

P. W. Joyce explains Irish place names.

The taste of words (like “kiki” and “bouba”, pictured).

Jesse Sheidlower’s review of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

Sometimes behave so strangely“: Diana Deutsch shows how speaking voices sing.

Edited to add: Evolutionary division of labour in the human brain.

Ulysses, Ulysses, soaring through all the galaxies

June 16, 2009

I have never taken part in Bloomsday. Perhaps I should say: I have never deliberately taken part in Bloomsday, though I – like everyone and everything else – could be said to participate tangentially. In the world of Joyce, a connection between any two things is implicit in their existence, and remains only to be spotted, plotted, or forgotted. This was also a legacy of Einstein’s: that no atom could be satisfactorily defined without reference to every other, i.e. to the rest of the universe.

Objectivity never stood a chance.

Infinite interconnection is an idea both beguiling and intuitively true, but long displaced by a default fragmentation. It’s easy to miss or disregard those connections as we go about our daily lives. Were we to afford them our devoted attention, we would surely become infinitely distracted – as we do, momentarily, when our gaze falls on the infinite star map of a clear night sky. The great physicists of the last century rediscovered Indra’s Net, and in Ulysses Joyce mapped it onto a day in Dublin for the perpetual puzzlement of posterity (or at least some of its scholars).

Or did he?

The Irish answer: he did and he didn’t.

le brocquy joyce 23 detailConfession no.2: I have not read Finnegans Wake. At least, not from start to finish, not yet. I read Ulysses only last year, so I’m catching up slowly. This is no place for a book review, but I’ll put on record that I loved every exasperating cascading serenading page of Joyce’s masterpiece. When I finished it I raided the Joyce corner of my mother’s bookshelf for Joyce-related essays, memoirs, and biographies. So I am on a course leading to Finnegans Wake, but before it there is Richard Ellmann’s biography, which I have more than half a mind to begin reading today. It’s either that or the reissued 1922 text of Ulysses.

[Image: Image of James Joyce (detail) by Louis le Brocquy, 1978; oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm.]

This post was originally intended to be a long and careful tribute to Joyce – “that bizarre and wonderful creature who turned literature and language on end”* – but instead it is medium-sized and extemporaneous. The post title, by the way, refers to a French–Japanese cartoon my sister and I were enchanted by in the 1980s.

1980s, 1880s, 3080s, it’s all the same and it’s all in bloom.

If you are interested in taking part in the general merriment of Bloomsday, the James Joyce Centre website has information aplenty; if time and geography are against you, here is a short recording of Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake. (After 8½ minutes you can beginagain.) The accent and musicality of his speaking voice are a delight, and there is accompanying text here, if you wish to read along.

I leave you with a poem:

Invocation to Joyce

Scattered over scattered cities,
alone and many
we played at being that Adam
who gave names to all living things.
Down the long slopes of night
that border on the dawn,
we sought (I still remember) words
for the moon, for death, for the morning,
and for man’s other habits.
We were imagism, cubism,
the conventicles and sects
respected now by credulous universities.
We invented the omission of punctuation
and capital letters,
stanzas in the shape of a dove
from the libraries of Alexandria.
Ashes, the labor of our hands,
and a burning fire our faith.
You, all the while,
in cities of exile,
in that exile that was
your detested and chosen instrument,
the weapon of your craft,
erected your pathless labyrinths,
infinitesmal and infinite,
wondrously paltry,
more populous than history.
We shall die without sighting
the twofold beast or the rose
that are the center of your maze,
but memory holds the talismans,
its echoes of Virgil,
and so in the streets of night
your splendid hells survive,
so many of your cadences and metaphors,
the treasures of your darkness.
What does our cowardice matter if on this earth
there is one brave man,
what does sadness matter if in time past
somebody thought himself happy,
what does my lost generation matter,
that dim mirror,
if your books justify us?
I am the others. I am those
who have been rescued by your pains and care.
I am those unknown to you and saved by you.

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni.

* Description by Richard Ellmann in the preface to the revised 1982 edition of his biography of Joyce. I edited the post to include the quote and this footnote.


7 day indoor market opening soon further info contact

June 11, 2009

Stan Carey - further info

A little punctuation, well chosen and well placed, goes a long way. So does consideration for your readers, even if you’re only writing a publicity notice to stick on a window.


Stan Carey - íoc & taispeáin, with Tironian et

The Tironian et is quite rare, except in some Irish typefaces. See here for more examples of its various forms, and here for my earlier post about ampersands. Note also the dotless Irish ι.

[Click for more]

When I find myself in terms of trouble

June 10, 2009

The complex (or compound) preposition “in terms of” is much censured – sometimes with good reason, sometimes not. In this post I’ll examine some of the ways the phrase is used and some of the criticism it has provoked.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the expression to the mid-18C; its early use seems to have been chiefly mathematical or otherwise technical. In fields with precise figures and relationships, such as physics, statistics, engineering, and accounting, “in terms of” – typically coupled with verbs like measure, describe, define, or state – can easily be put to good literal use. As Bryan Garner writes in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, “in the sense ‘expressed by means of,’ the phrase is quite defensible”:

All local four-vectors at the same event in space-time can be expressed in terms of the same set of basis vectors. (I.R. Kenyon, General Relativity)
In a system that encodes information in terms of patterns of activity . . . (Charles Legg, Issues in Psychobiology)
[T]he behaviour of a motor car is to be explained in terms of interactions between fundamental particles (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker)

From the 1940s and 1950s on, the phrase’s general popularity soared, and it’s now used widely and non-literally as “a useful particularizing device” (Robert Burchfield), and as “a vague all-purpose connective” (Hans Paul Guth). I’ll deal with the former usage first. Here, the complex preposition introduces a specification, clarification, or elaboration on a generality, and is widespread in all kinds of contexts. I plucked the following examples from the British National Corpus:

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