A contradictory undertaking

February 24, 2011


Will this lead to a state of limbo?

No play, no plurals

May 12, 2010

I should know better than to be surprised by the language used on signs, but the phrase “Ball sports is prohibited” struck me as a remarkable singularisation.

Did the parties responsible start with “The playing of ball sports…” before deciding to reduce the word count? Whatever the explanation, at least this time there’s a minimum of gobbledegook.

The limits of pruning

April 12, 2010

The perimeter of a garden not far from where I live was lined, until recently, with mature evergreen trees. They numbered about a dozen: tall, beautiful, and busy with songbirds and various other life forms. Then they were gone, leaving only a series of pitiful stumps. It happened virtually overnight; the following day, the stumps were reduced further, almost to ground level. (See photo; click to enlarge.)

I’d like to give the landowners the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard to think of a justifiable reason for their decision. Even if they had one, it’s still a great shame. Anyway, the company employed to fell the trees and remove the timber had a curious sign, and you know how difficult it is for me to resist writing about curious signs.

That “TREE CARE” is obviously and wildly misleading needs no emphasis or elaboration. “Tree Pruning In Progress” made me wonder if there was a sense in which pruning could mean chopping down. I grew up with the idea that pruning was a kind of cultivation: removing dangerous, dead, or superfluous growth, usually to serve a plant’s best interests — essentially a modest and beneficent reduction of the organism. This kind of pruning is visible and audible as I type (see photo, left).

So off I set for the dictionaries. Here are some relevant findings:

Oxford English Dictionary: 1. Cut down, shorten or abbreviate by cutting, esp. by removing superfluous or unwanted matter. Also, remove as superfluous or unwanted. Marston’s text—judiciously pruned… 2. Trim (a tree, shrub, or plant) by cutting or lopping dead or overgrown branches, twigs, or shoots, esp. to increase fruitfulness and regular growth. Freq. followed by down. Prune the plants . . . down to the last active growth. 3. Cut or lop (dead or overgrown branches, twigs, or shoots) from a tree or shrub, esp. to increase fruitfulness and regular growth. Freq. followed by off, away.

Merriam-Webster: transitive verb 1 a : to reduce especially by eliminating superfluous matter <pruned the text> <prune the budget>; b : to remove as superfluous <prune away all ornamentation>; 2 : to cut off or cut back parts of for better shape or more fruitful growth <prune the branches>; intransitive verb : to cut away what is unwanted or superfluous.

Macmillan: 1. prune or prune back: to remove parts of a tree or plant, for example to make it grow better. We’ll need to prune back the branches this year. 2. to get rid of something that you do not need or want, especially in order to reduce the size or cost of something. Companies must continually prune costs to stay competitive.

American Heritage Dictionary: Transitive. 1. To cut off or remove dead or living parts or branches of (a plant, for example) to improve shape or growth. 2. To remove or cut out as superfluous. 3. To reduce: prune a budget. Intransitive. To remove what is superfluous or undesirable.

It seems, then, that chopping down trees can, at a stretch, be described as pruning. But it’s rather misleading because in a botanical context the word carries the chief and plant-friendly sense I mentioned in paragraph 3 above. And then there’s that phrase “TREE CARE”, which is laughably inaccurate, at least in this instance. It’s the kind of care I associate with organised crime (They took care of Louie, huh?)

Two euphemisms in seven words is an impressive count — more impressive than the paltry 10% tree cover Ireland currently claims, very little of which comprises native species. Call me a tree hugger if you wish — I’ve called myself worse — but I’d like to see more signs like this:

And fewer stumps and eyes of Sauron:

Some Irish-tree-related links: Tree Council, Native Woodland Trust, Notice Nature, Irish Wildlife Trust, Crann, and Woodlands of Ireland.

Grammar to go

March 26, 2010

I saw this sign through the door of a fast food restaurant in Galway:

The use of double negatives to express a single negation (I didn’t do nothin’; I can’t get no satisfaction) is sometimes criticised for being illogical. But although double negatives (aka negative concord) are not Standard English, they’re not illogical; indeed, they are a common feature of some other languages and some non-standard English dialects. So the original construction wasn’t necessarily wrong — just ill-judged. On balance I prefer the revision, if only because it shows a degree of care for clarity that’s unusual in such signs.

Punctuation in these contexts is often piecemeal or entirely absent. In the example above, there are various ways to imagine it. The lines read like bullet points, but we could make prose (if not music) with a well-placed dash, semicolon, comma or full stop. Too many marks might seem fussy, whereas the hands-on amendment has a certain honest charm. If the management are as conscientious about the taste of their special sauce as they are about the readability of their signs, business should be good.

[more signs]

Rare “rere” rears its head in Ireland

March 7, 2010

Here is an unusual spelling: rere for rear. The word probably derives from the Old French rere, rier, from Latin retro (back, behind). The Oxford English Dictionary describes rere as obsolete except in combinations, but this is untrue: it’s a standard variant form in Hiberno-English and is not uncommon on the island, especially in architectural, geographical, and property-related contexts:

to the rere of dwellings on the north side of Rochestown Road (Irish Statute Book)

an old jaunting car proceeding at a slow pace at the rere of the hearse (Offaly Historical & Archaeological Society)

the raised courtyard to the rere of the Irish Film Centre (Archiseek)

At the rere was a massive stone wall (Galway Advertiser, 1883)

they received an allowance of bread or a biscuit, and were dismissed by another door in the rere of the building (The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847)

There is rere service access. (MyHome.ie)

he keeps his ware house at the rere of his late dwelling-house (Kilkenny Archaeological Society)

return to the hill at the rere of the house (“The Poteen”, from the Dublin Penny Journal, 1832)

This small selection disproves the OED‘s assessment. Many more examples are to be found in both historical and contemporary texts.

Two related notes:

(1) The idiom in the post title, rear its head, is a vivid phrase meaning appear, and is often used to refer to something unpleasant, especially in the form rear its ugly head. The simple form first reared its head around the time of Milton; rear its ugly head came later.

(2) If you happen to be reading this over a midnight feast — rare meat and eggs, perhaps — you could name your meal a rere-supper, a now-archaic term for a (usually sumptuous) late supper. I should warn you, though, that this practice is inadvisable not just for mogwai but for people too: beware of rere sopers!

Edit: On Twitter, @psneeze tells me he was “taught to use it in primary school (late 70s) to distinguish it from rear as in to rear children” [italics added].

[more signs]

Crisis = clanger + hypothesis

August 30, 2009

There is a much-repeated linguistic canard that the Chinese word for crisis combines the characters for danger and opportunity. It doesn’t really, but the popularity of this misconception testifies to its inherent appeal. We like to imagine that our often self-inflicted disasters have solutions that will propel us into a better future, solutions embedded in the very structure of these disasters and echoed in an ancient language we don’t understand.

It’s a nice idea.

Consider this photograph:

Stan Carey - Pharmacy - we are, therefore we care

The loss of a letter C from the façade of this pharmacy suggests the activity of vandals, gravity, or an audacious magpie. One hopes that the other letters are not in danger of theft or collapse, and even if they were this would not constitute a crisis. But there is an opportunity here. If you’ll indulge me:

Already the accidental result makes a kind of crude existential sense:

We are . . . WeCare

Incorporating the green medical cross as a plus symbol also works:

We are [and] WeCare

Or they could go all out and replace the cross with a therefore symbol (.·.), thereby transforming their name into a compelling slogan:

We are, [therefore] WeCare

…albeit a slightly pretentious one readable only from certain angles. Not alone would this recall one of the founders of modern science (on which at least some modern pharmaceuticals depend), it would also make unexpectedly good syntactical sense.

(I have heard that Descartes’s inspiration for his catchy line was an angel who visited him in a dream, but it would probably be best if I didn’t get into the implications of that here.)

[more signs]

It’s all cut up. Uh huh huh.

August 21, 2009

Today’s signs inadvertently boast avant-garde literary credentials. (Wait, come back!) This quality is, of course, imputed by yours truly; the enjoyment of many signs requires a certain whimsical contrivance.

The strangeness of these summer sale signs, or more properly posters, is easily overlooked. On first glance they appear entirely unremarkable:

Stan Carey - summer sale sign

Yes, the bold colours and unfussy font effectively convey key information: a summer sale is taking place, and some items are available at 40% of their former price – or “up to 60% off”, as it is conventionally expressed. Cynical shoppers ignore the percentage, since it might refer only to a handful of undesirable items; moreover, the bigger the sale, the greater the rip-off the rest of the time. (There’s that cynicism.)

But from an aesthetico-linguistic point of view, the posters are a delight. See how the two key words were presented: “Sum Sale mer”. How wonderful! Had someone in the store’s marketing department been studying Dada or practising cut-up writing? Was the store selling anti-nuance cream?

Probably not. But the possibility brightened an already bright and sunny summer’s day – an especially pleasant thing to think about after three days of almost incessant Irish rain.