Centring around phonetic alphabets

March 11, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about idioms and alphabets, specifically centre around and “SaypU”.

In Centring around a usage disagreement, I discuss the phrase centre around and the regular complaints that it’s somehow wrong or illogical:

Centre around has been in use for about a century and a half, and no one seemed to mind it until the 1920s. Then someone cried foul, or rather illogic, and since then many have found fault with its apparent contravention of mathematical propriety. Nowadays it’s a regular source of annoyance, some of it extreme: one reader said seeing it in an article sent her “screaming to Strunk and White”. I worry for her blood pressure.

Critics object that a centre is “technically a single point” (Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage) and you can’t physically centre around something. But if centres were single points, city centres would be impossibly crowded.

The problem lies with the tension between mathematical logic and idiomatic usage. (You can guess which side I’m on.) I’m also interested in what motivates people to say centre around, and I touch on that later in the post.

Do you use the phrase, avoid it, like it, hate it, or have no strong feelings either way?

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Next: Can shared alphabets foster peace? follows up on a recent BBC report about a new phonetic alphabet, SaypU, whose creator hopes it can make the world more peaceful and harmonious. Historically this is nothing unusual:

Moral and political aspirations have motivated inventors of languages and other communication systems for centuries. Esperanto is perhaps the most famous. Its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof, was an idealist who felt the “heavy sadness” of linguistic diversity and believed it was “the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts”. So he created Esperanto to foster communication and understanding between people of different languages.

But would speaking the same language really make people more inclined to get on? . . . [T]here’s no reason to assume greater communicative overlap would engender significantly more kindness and mutual consideration among people.

The post looks briefly at whether the project measures up in practical terms, and throws the IPA and Douglas Adams into the mix.

For older articles, see my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Scott Kim’s symmetrical alphabet

October 18, 2012

As a child I used to draw things like animals and people using only the letters in their names. I would stretch and contort each word’s curves to evoke the shape of what it referred to. It’s a game I’m sure many have played. And I liked drawing faces that were also faces when you turned the page upside-down – like this matchbox set, but simpler.

So you can imagine the appeal ambigrams held. There’s an example above, or see Wikipedia for a basic introduction. I think I first encountered these shapes, also known as inversions, in Douglas Hofstadter’s books. They involve an artfully contrived symmetry whereby a word can be rotated, reflected or otherwise shifted but remains readable.

I recently came across the beautiful ambigram below: a perfectly symmetrical mirror alphabet from puzzle-designing wizard Scott Kim.

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It’s immediately recognisable as the modern Latin alphabet, but the ingenious warping and blending required to make it symmetrical gives it a striking, quite exotic appearance. Ambigrams are “so purely visual,” Kim has said: “You can explain them in words, but it’s like describing a dance.”

The symmetrical alphabet is available as a poster, and you can see more of the artist’s ambigrams, many of them animated, on his page of inversions. The image is copyright © Scott Kim, scottkim.com, and is used with permission.