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Archive for the category “English usage”

Where’s the outrage?

Where’s the outrage?

This is a strange rhetorical question that I’ve been seeing with increasing frequency on the Internet. A Google search showed about 259,000 results.

And it seems strange because if you read what people write about it, a lot of them seem to think that outrages are a good thing, and that they are deploring their absence.

Or people will describe an outrage, giving the details of its exact location, and then ask where it is.

“Police shoot unarmed teenager in Gotham City. Where’s the outrage?”

And the answer, of course is right there, in Gotham City. They just said so.

So it seems that people don’t really know what “outrage” means, and seem to think it means the same as “rage”, but is enhanced by adding a prefix — inrage, outrage, uprage, downrage. Just as people think one can enhance “centre” by putting “epi” in front of it, or “record” by putting “track” in front of it, and some even seem to think that “ultimate” can be enhanced by putting “pen” in front of it.

“Outrage” actually means “the forcible denial of others’ rights, sentiments, etc” or “an act of violence”. When police shoot an unarmed person who is not breaking any law, it is the shooting itself that is the outrage, not the emotional reactions of people hearing or reading about it. An outrage is never a good thing.

But even if it is a malapropism, and if people actually mean “rage” when they say “outrage”, is it a good thing? It is something I’ve seen asked on Christian websites and blogs and social media, and there’s quite a good answer here Where’s the Outrage? | ifaqtheology.

Rage is often the cause of outrages; we often read of incidents of “road rage” where an enraged motorist assaults or sometimes murders another. Is that a good thing?

Time magazine cover, May 29, 2017

Recently Time magazine had a cover showing an Orthodox Church descending on the US White House and assimilating it. Some Orthodox Christians were asking “Where’s the outrage?” about that. Well, quite clearly the outrage was on the cover of Time, but I think what they meant was “Why aren’t more people enraged by this outrage?” And the implication was that they thought more people ought to be enraged by it.

But one of the things we are taught as Orthodox Christians is that we should subdue the passions and control them, and anger, rage, is one of the passions. The way to godliness (theosis) is through bringing the passions under control, and the aim is dispassion (apatheia). So why try to provoke passions in others by asking “Where’s the outrage?”

There are many things in the world that tempt us to let our passions rage unrestrained — Facebook, for example, has recently added an “anger” button which you can click if something enrages you. I try to avoid using it, because it is a temptation to indulge in the passion of unrestrained anger.

If you find the Time cover outrageous, by all means say so, but try not to get enraged by it. One can point out that it displays ignorance and is irresponsible journalism, and hope the errors might be corrected. But indulging in emotional outbursts of anger doesn’t achieve anything. I think that Donald Trump is far more influenced by Pseudo-Evangelical Moneytheism than he is by Orthodox Christianity, so the Time cover is misleading, to say the least. But don’t get all worked up about it, and demand that other people get worked up about it too — to do that is simply to indulge the passions.

And do try to use words like “outrage” accurately (yes, I’m an Orthodox language pedant).



Political correctness

I have always understood the primary meaning of “political correctness” to refer to the subservience of burrowing apparatchiks who try to align their opinions with those perceived to be in power.

A primary example in South Africa today would be ANC members of parliament, and of provincial and municipal councils, who do not dare to criticise Jacob Zuma, even though they may have private misgivings about him.

I believe the term originated in Marxist or Communist party circles, where people might precede some criticism of the party line, however mild, with an ironically self-deprecating phrase such as, “It may not be politically correct to say so, but…”

From there it spread to other groups and other power structures, but with the same general meaning of unwillingness to criticise those perceived to be in power, and an unquestioning adherence to the party line, whatever the party might be.

Then the meaning seemed to become restricted to the use of language.

The Vicar of Bray

The Vicar of Bray

Undoubtedly political correctness did get expressed in language. When South Africa was ruled by the National Party, “natives” became “Bantu” and later “Blacks” (with a capital B), and the politically correct changed their usage in accordance with the approved pattern. When “Native Reserves” became “Bantu Homelands” the politically correct changed their terminology accordingly. The politically incorrect would precede “Homelands” by “so-called”, or would use air quotes when they said it.

The primary example, the paradigm and model of political correctness is the Vicar of Bray.

But now there seems to be a further narrowing down of the meaning of political correctness, especially in the USA, for example in the following article, in which it seems to be defined solely in terms of “offense sensitivity” — The Personality of Political Correctness – Scientific American Blog Network:

The researchers found that PC exists, can be reliably measured, and has two major dimensions. They labeled the first dimension “PC-Egalitarianism” and the second dimension “PC-Authoritarianism”. Interestingly, they found that PC is not a purely left-wing phenomenon, but is better understood as the manifestation of a general offense sensitivity, which is then employed for either liberal or conservative ends.

It’s an interesting article, but I think it is a pity that the term is narrowed down in that way. It seems to leave a gap in the language. If you reduce political correctness to offence sensitivity, what do you call real political correctness?

Syndromes, diseases, disorders and initials

One of the things the Internet makes one aware of is the different ways people in different countries communicate, even when they are using the same language.

OCDpeepsPerhaps it’s just that I don’t get out enough, because when someone posted this graphic on Facebook, I had to ask what OCD people were. As far as I have been able to determine, I am an INTP person, and three-letter initialisms beginning with OC make me think of OCR (Optical Character Recognition), but then comes the D, and I’m wondering what it can stand for, Optical Character Determinant? and how it relates to people.

Of course I am familiar with some diseases commonly known by acronyms or initialisms, like Aids and TB, but when someone posted in a newsgroup that he was COPD, I was flummoxed. I’d heard of the LAPD and the NYPD, but COPD? Colorado?

Someone pointed out that people who suffer from the disease or disorder concerned will refer to it by initials, and that I can understand. What puzzles me is when they expect other people who don’t suffer from that particular ailment to know what the letters mean.

That’s what makes me wonder if it is a cultural thing.

Or perhaps a hypochondria thing.

When we first got interested in family history, about 30 years ago, we went to ask my wife’s grandmother about the family. She had difficulty in remembering their names. She said one of her sisters-in-law had married a Walsh or a Marsh. It turned out that it was actually a Clark. But she could remember what illnesses they suffered from and what colour pills they took.

At various times I’ve suffered from various ailments — pneumonia at the age of four, amoebic dysentery at the age of 5, chicken pox and blood poisoning at the age of 6, measles at the age of 11, mumps at the age of 22, myopia and uveitis at the age of 45, and type 2 diabetes at the age of 65, along with a few bouts of colds, influenza and bronchitis. But none of them was known by initials (at least not by me), so I couldn’t have been really ill. The one that caused me the most suffering was measles. And in pneumonia the cure was more painful than the disease (penicillin injections at 3 am — penicillin was then a relatively new invention).

When I remarked on this on Facebook someone commented that surely I must know what ME and MB are. I didn’t. Or at least I thought that they signified doctors, not diseases. ME is surely Medical Examiner, and MB is the degree my “doctor” actually has — MB ChB, to be precise — Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery — for which he (or she) gets to be called “doctor”. Nobody called me a doctor when I had two bachelors degrees.

None of the doctors I’ve ever been to has referred to diseases by initials, at least not in my presence. I’m sure they do so when discussing such things among their colleagues, who can be expected to understand specialised medical jargon. But what gets me is that some people, like the designer of the graphic about eggs, seem to expect the average peasant yobbo on Facebook (like me) to understand them too.

But the internet is like that. It was on BBS conferences that I first learnt about INTP and EFSJ and things like that. At first it sounded like Scorpio and Virgo and Aquarius, but then I applied for a job, and was sent for a test that showed that I was INTP, and apparently they weren’t looking for INTPs to fill that position, so I didn’t get the job.

From the same BBS conference I learned, from other people in different countries, about ADD and ADHD. I didn’t know what those were, until someone mentioned that Ritalin was commonly prescribed for them. I did know about Ritalin. The headmaster of our son’s school urged that we send him to a child psychologist, who referred him to a child psychiatrist, who prescribed Ritalin. Our son tended to get bored in class, and didn’t pay much attention to the teacher. Ritalin was supposed to cure that. Another boy in his class was disruptive, and he took Ritalin, which was supposed to cure that too. The Ritalin cost a lot of money, but did not make the lessons more interesting, though the teachers swore by it. But it seems that ADD was the new name for what I had been prone to in my youth: DDC (Daydreaming in Class). But not once did the psychiatrist refer to ADD or ADHD in our hearing. All she said was that Ritalin had two opposite effects — it gingered up children who were too passive, and calmed down those who were hyperactive. It seemed that it was a panacea. She did not mention its most important property — the placebo effect it had on the teachers.

I think the biggest problem is HCS — a hypochondriac society.

But since the discussion on Facebook, someone has prescribed a sure cure for my problem: List of abbreviations for diseases and disorders – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

And next time someone tells me they are living with NYPD I’ll sympathise accordingly.


Nouns, adjectives and political allegiance

According to a UK newspaper web side, the way people use language can show how politically “left” or “right” one is:

Quiz: Can we guess your political allegiance –

with three simple questions?: New research published by the University of Kent suggests that the way you use nouns and adjectives is indicative of how right- or left-wing a person is.

If you haven’t already done so, go to the site and do the test, and see how accurate you think it is.

The web site claims to have a simple answer  determined by a simple test, but it actually opens a huge can of very wriggly worms, and raises far more questions than it answers.

leftyWhen I did the test, the page told me “You are a lefty”, and went on to say “Research suggests that left-thinkers tend to use more abstract terms, and are less likely to use nouns.”

That’s OK, in the sense that I do tend to think of myself as more “left” than “right” politically, but the answer, and the reason behind it, bothered me.

If you’re willing to follow my convoluted reasoning, here’s why it bothered me.

I read quite a lot of whodunits, and enjoy watching detective stories on TV. Recently we’ve been watching two crime investigation series we have on DVD — Silent Witness and New Tricks. And one recurring theme in that genre is that if a person is guilty of one crime, they are not necessarily guilty of another. Evidence that shows that they committed one crime is not necessarily sufficient to prove that they committed the crime they are now suspected of committing.

This is an elementary principle of justice: Produce the evidence.

It’s the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning works from the general to the particular: this person is a thief, therefore this person must have committed this theft.

Inductive reasoning works from the particular to the general: evidence shows that this person stole various items on several different occasions, therefore this person is a thief.

Both types of reasoning have their place, but the three questions in the quiz call on us to make a choice between two kinds of judgement: judging people and judging actions.

And it is that, rather than nouns or abstraction, that the quiz tests.

The choice in the answers is clearly between saying “this person is bad” or “this behaviour is wrong”.

And the quiz is therefore clearly prejudiced against conservatives, because it is saying that “conservatives” are more prejudiced than “leftys”.

My answers are also influenced by my Christian outlook. As Christians, we are told “Judge not, that ye be not judged”, and are told to be merciful to others, just as God has been merciful to us. Most Christians pray every day “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Man judges by the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Publican_PhariseeAll this is summed up in the adage one sometimes hears, “hate the sin but love the sinner”.

And that is precisely what the quiz measures — the extent to which you hate the sin but love the sinner.

And what the interpretation of the quiz tells you, categorically and unequivocally, is that “leftys” are Christian, and “conservatives” are not. So just when you are feeling smug about how unprejudiced you are because it tells you you are a “lefty”, it encourages you to become the most prejudiced of all and say, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this conservative (Luke 18:11).

How’s that for a Catch 22?

And that’s only the top layer of the can of worms. Wait till you get further down.

At the level of the quiz, one can quite easily say that it is better to judge actions rather than people. If we are to judge, or condemn, then we are to judge or condemn behaviour, not people. It is what people do that can be condemned, not what people are.

But if you go a bit deeper, it’s actually the other way round. What we are is more important than what we do.

As Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway put it in their book Up to our steeples in politics, “We agree with those who have reminded us in recent years that the Christian faith is indicative (the fact that God reconciles the world in Christ), not imperative (Go to church! Do not drink bourbon! Feed the hungry! Search and destroy!). But we believe that St Paul’s use of “reconcile” calls attention to a special kind of behavior by the Christian toward the world. Behavior which “does” by being, “acts” by living – that is, being and living as God made us in Christ.”

When we look at other people (as the quiz invites us to do, for the most part) we are to look at actions, at behaviour, and make judgements about what the person does rather than what the person is.

But when we look at ourselves, when we confess our sins, it is the other way round. Yes, I should confess that I lied, I cheated, I fornicated, I slandered, I got angry, but the really serious thing, the root of all this, is what I am, alienated from God. The root of the matter is not so much individual sins, but the sinful state, the fallen state, that I have fallen short of the glory of God.

The Publican in the story realised this, the Pharisee didn’t. And the quiz tempts me to emulate the Pharisee.








Is “politically correct” a euphemism for “euphemism”?

Is “politically correct” a euphemism for “euphemism”, or vice versa?

It was reading this that made me wonder The Return of Public Vulgarity by Slavoj Žižek:

It may appear that this disintegration is counteracted by the growth of political correctness, which prescribes exactly what cannot be said; however, a closer look immediately makes it clear how the “politically correct” regulation participates in the same process of the disintegration of the ethical substance. To prove this point, it suffices to recall the deadlock of political correctness: The need for PC rules arises when unwritten mores are no longer able to regulate effectively everyday interactions—instead of spontaneous customs followed in a nonreflexive way, we get explicit rules, such as when “torture” becomes an “enhanced interrogation technique.”

The crucial point is that torture—brutal violence practiced by the state—was made publicly acceptable at the very moment when public language was rendered politically correct in order to protect victims from symbolic violence. These two phenomena are two sides of the same coin.

Obviously “enhanced interrogation technique” is a euphemism for torture, and it is equally obvious that that kind of language is politically correct in the US military. Another example might be “collateral damage”.

Where I get confused is when Slavoj Žižek appears, as in this article, to use “political correctness” as a euphemism for euphemism. Are all euphemisms politically correct? Are all politically correct utterances euphemisms?

I recall seeing, in the Okavango in Northern Namibia back in 1969, vehicles with the letters BT in their number plates. Back then most vehicle number plates had letters indicating the place of origin of the vehicle, and I asked about it, and discovered that it stood for “Bantoe Tuislande” (Bantu Homelands). It wasn’t really a euphemism, but it was certainly political correctness, and an attempt to brainwash the populace into accepting the National Party government’s “homelands” policy by manipulating language.

When the political order changed, much of the politically correct terminology of the old regime became politically incorrect, but some didn’t. “Homelands” continued to be used, with little stigma attached.

CiiticizeOne of the most curious instances of the new political correctness is “former Model C Schools”. “Model C schools” only existed for about 3 years, and were a last-ditch attempt by the National Party to retain school segregation by privatising education for white children. There were originally four models, A, B, C and D, which parents were asked to vote on. They had to do with schools deciding on their own admission policies. Since they were all-white schools, the issue was whether to admit black pupils. Model B was that  schools would continue to be funded by the government, but would be free to decide their own admission policies. Model C was the semi-privatisation one, but they could still decide their own admission policies. Schools that voted to become Model B were nevertheless forced to become Model C a year or two before the first democratic elections, with parental wishes thrown overboard. But people speak of the “Former Model C” schools rather than the former all-white schools. Why? A euphemism? Political correctness?

Another current politically correct euphemism is “previously disadvantaged”. It referred to groups that  suffered from legal disadvantages under the previous regime, like blacks, women, the disabled etc. Twenty years on, however, its has become a mealy-mouthed euphemism, as most of the “previously disadvantaged” are still disadvantaged, and the disadvantaged people born since 1994 were never “previously” disadvantaged. And a few of the “previously disadvantaged” are currently very advantaged indeed.

Part of the problem is that people often speak of political correctness as if it were just about words, and nothing more than a synonym for “euphemism”. But this is false.

Think, for example, of privatisation.

In South Africa, if you are a member of the Democratic Alliance (DA), privatisation is politically correct, but if you are a member of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) privatisation is decidedly politically incorrect, and if you advocate it you are likely to get thrown out.

If you support the DA, you may have heard them advocating the privatisation of South African Airways; but the ANC was prevented from doing that very thing by the EFF, who criticised the deposition of Nene as Minister of Finance. The quickest way to privatise SAA is to run it into bankruptcy and sell it cheap to the Guptas.

And though “enhanced interrogation technique” may be politically correct in the US military, it is politically incorrect in Amnesty International, by that or any other name.


Enablement — a new pondian difference?

I’ve just discovered a new (to me) and hitherto entirely unsuspected difference in meaning of a word on the east and west sides of the herring pond that geographers call the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that in North America “enablement” means something completely different from what it means in South Africa, and to all accounts, the UK. I’m not sure about other parts of the English-speaking world.

Someone posted this chart of virtues on Facebook:

VirtuesI reposted it, with the comment that I was puzzled by “Enablement”, as I could not see where it fitted. I would have said “Altruism” there, perhaps, even though it sounds a bit Ayn Randish.

Evan Kirshenbaum, an American and a respected language fundi, responded, “The notion is being so uncritical that you wind up helping somebody’s self-destructive behavior.

That seemed weird.

It is almost completely opposite to the way I have usually heard the world used. To me, and I’m sure to most South Africans, “enablement” means helping someone to do something for themselves rather than always relying on others to do it for them.

The classic example is teaching a child to tie its own shoe laces.

Tying your own shoe laces is self-destructive behaviour?

The mind boggles.

I’ve mainly heard the term used in the context of community development and political activism.

It meant enabling people to do things for themselves rather than waiting for the government to do things for them.

One of the classic examples was in a handbook for community development compiled by an American friend.

Back in the day (ie about 45 years ago) a deputation from a small rural community in Zululand went see the local magistrate to complain that they had no drinking water.

Magistrate: Why don’t you have water? The government just built a new dam.

Community leaders: “Yes, but we cannot drink the water in the dam.”

M: Why can’t you drink the water?

CL: There is a dead dog in it.

M: Why don’t you just remove the dog?

CL: It is the government’s dam. The government must remove the dog.

Now there are various  sub-texts about power relations in that story that are explored in the manual of community development. I am using the story here simply to illustrate the kind of attitude of dependency that enablement is intended to overcome, and it is the dependency, rather than the enablement, that is seen as self-destructive.

So how did a word get transformed to mean almost its opposite in the space of 45 years?

Update 26 January 2016

I have done some more historical research, and established that the difference is not pondian, in the sense that it has different meanings on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, since both meanings originated in the USA.

The terms enabler and enabling (in the sense I have described) were introduced to South Africa in the mid-1960s by an American Episcopalian priest, Don Griswold, and the circumstances of the introduction were as follows.

The Anglican Bishop of Zululand, Tom Savage, wanted lay people to be more active in the church, and tried by various means to promote “the ministry of the laity”. At some point, presumably on a visit to the USA, he had been introduced to T-Groups, also referred to as Sensitivity Training, Encounter Groups or Group Dynamics. This method of experience-based education in group processes was endorsed by the US psychologist Carl Rogers.

Bishop Savage invited Don Griswold to come to South Africa, and he was the Rector of the parish of Holy Cross in Empangeni, and ran T-Group training at the diocesan conference centre at KwaNzimela. Bishop Savage encouraged all the clergy to take part in this training, and most of the groups were mixed clergy and laity, black and white, male and female, Zulu-speaking and English-speaking. As Bishop Savage had hoped, the training helped to break down barriers between clergy and laity, black and white. The latter aspect of the training was anathema to the government of the day, which appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate these breeding grounds of leftists (a headline in one Afrikaans newspaper was brooines van linkses onthul (breeding ground of leftists exposed) .

Anglican clergy from other dioceses also attended the T-Group training, and so it spread to other parts of the country, and it also spread to other denominations. By 1970 there were ecumenical CELT (Christian Education and Leadership Training) groups in most of the major centres. Some of the lay people who attended were businessmen, who introduced it as work in the form of team-building exercises and so on, so it became quite widespread. Some of those who had originally been trained in the church context set themselves up as management training consultants, and began doing it in purely secular contexts.

T-group and associated forms of experience-based education also introduced new terms (or new meanings for old terms) into the South African church (and later secular) vocabulary. I shall discuss just three of these terms here, but there were others.

  • Feedback. Before T-groups “feedback” had an largely negative meaning. It referred to an often-undesirable characteristic of electronic circuits, the most common example being the howling noise produced in public address systems when the output of loudspeakers was fed back into the microphone. In group dynamics jargon it referred to a response to something someone had said in a T-group, usually not to the content of what was said, but rather to the effect that it had on the group’s interaction. It was later extended to almost any kind of response, usually elicited by saying “Tell me what you think of this.”
  • Facilitator. Each small group in T-group training (see the Wikipedia article for more information on the training method) had a facilitator. The term facilitator was used because the role of the facilitator was not to be a leader or a teacher. The facilitators were not to initiate group interactions, but merely to give constructive feedback to the group on what was taking place, where necessary.
  • Enabler. As part of Bishop Savage’s vision for more active laity in the church, the role of the clergy was defined as being enablers. The clergy were not to be ministers, or do all the ministry of the church themselves. Their task was to enable the laity to do ministry. So enablement goes together with the related term empowerment. The difference between the two terms is that empowerment refers primarily to giving people the confidence to do things for themselves that they had been passively waiting for someone else to do for them, and enablement meant equipping them with the skills needed to do those things. And this conception of the clergy as enablers was introduced by an American, Don Griswold, so it is not a pondian difference.

This meaning of “enabler” and “enablement” was the primary one in my mind until I I saw it in the graphic of the “virtues” shown above, where it puzzled me. And it still puzzles me how a term can come to mean almost precisely its opposite in the space of 50 years or so.

I find it difficult to believe that the negative meaning was widespread when the positive one was introduced, otherwise a different term would surely have been used, to avoid confusion. So there is still a question of how the terms “enabler”, “enabling” and “enablement” came to mean their opposites in popular connotation in the space of 50 years.

Yes, you can probably distinguish them by context, but in the diagram where I first encountered the negative meaning, there are no contextual clues. It just assumes that the negative meaning is primary and that everyone knows it.

Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised, because something similar happened to facilitator.

When I worked in the editorial department at the University of South Africa, someone came to speak to the department about a new task group that had been set up in the university. The person told us, with a perfectly straight face, that the task group was set up to “facilitate conflict”, and wondered why the editors collapsed into helpless giggles.

So what do you think “enablement” means?



One of the most confusing things about different cultures is differences in food, especially when the name used for food in one culture is applied to something different in another culture. Among the most confusing items are cumpets, scones, pancakes, muffins and similar items. I have no idea what the difference between an English English muffin and an American English muffin might be.

This morning Val made crumpets for tea, and so I took a photo. You may not be able to taste them, but this is what South African crumpets look like.

Crumpets or pancakes

Crumpets or pancakes

We both grew up in or near Durban in the middle of the 20th century, and this is how our mothers made them. I suspect that they were taught to do that by their mothers — my Scottish granny and Val’s Cumberland granny. So the recipe, and perhaps the name may originally be northern British.

My mother sometimes used to call them pancakes, but whether you call them pancakes or crumpets, the look and taste are identical.

If you are familiar with these things, what do you call them? And if they don’t look like your crumpets or pancakes, what do yours look like? If you comment, please say where you grew up.


Martinmas: Poppies and corn

Today is the day when people, especially in the UK, tend to wear red poppies in remembrsnce of those who died in the two world wars of the last century.

But in recent years I’ve been repelled by the sight of British politicians appearing on TV wearing poppies in their lapels three weeks or more before the day, in a blatant attempt to curry favour with the voters. And it seems that right-wing politicians are particularly apt to jump on the bandwagon.

Red poppies among the corn (photo by Chris Gwilliam)

Red poppies among the corn (photo by Chris Gwilliam)

Perhaps to counter this my friend Chris Gwilliam posted a picture on Facebook of red poppies where they belong, among the corn, not in the lapels of smarmy politicians. The poppies symbolise the blood shed by the predecessors of those same politicians, and, very often, the blood shed in our day by the very politicians who wear them, who still send young people to fight in futile wars as their predecessors did a century ago.

Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically, 11 November is also the feast day of St Martin of Tours, who could be the patron saint of conscientious objectors, since when he became a Christian he resigned from the army. On being accused of cowardice by his commanding officer he offered to stand, unarmed, between two opposing armies in an impending battle.

On an altogether different tack, the picture of the cornfield reminds me that in American English the word they use for corn is “grain”, and they reserve the word “corn” solely for maize. Looking at the picture, I wondered why I would not describe that as a grainfield rather than a cornfield, since I do also use the word “grain” to describe cereal crops. And I realised that I think of it as “corn” when it is growing in the fields, and “grain” only when it has been milled.

Grain elevators in Koster, North-West Province, where grain is fouind

Grain elevators in Koster, North-West Province, where grain is fouind

So what is seen in the fields in the picture on the left is corn, and what is kept in the grain elevator in the picture on the right is grain, even though Americans might call it corn.



Go figure

I’ve quite often seen the expression “Go figure”, and thought I knew what it meant.

Go figure!

Go figure!

Take, for example, the graphic on the right, which was recently posted on Facebook, referring to current fraud investigations in Britain. I would have thought that that was a classic example of the use of “Go figure”, meaning “Work out the significance or implications of these figures for yourself.”

But I’ve been told by the experts in American English in the alt.usage.english newsgroup that that is not what it means.

As one put it, “It means ‘this is surprising’, ‘I didn’t expect that to happen’.”

And another, “In my experience, it’s always used to express perplexity of some sort about something.”

Now in the example graphic on the right, there is no surprise at all. Britain has a Tory government, which can be expected to implement policies that favour the rich and screw the poor, so there is no element of surprise, and nothing to be perplexed about. It is exactly what one would expect. But I still think that “Go figure” is an appropriate comment, though it seems that most Americans wouldn’t.

I asked my wife what she thought it meant, and she said “Go and work it out?”

So it seems that it is an American metaphorical expression that has been exported, but in at least some places that it has been exported to, it has been misunderstood, and given the literal meaning rather than the metaphorical one.

It seems that the canonical explanation is here AUE: FAQ excerpt: “Go figure”:

This expands to “Go and figure it out”, and means: “The reasons for the fact just stated are unknown and possibly unknowable. You can waste your time thinking about what they might be, if you choose, but you’re not likely to accomplish anything.” (Kivi Shapiro)

“Go figure” comes from Yiddish Gey vays “Go know”. Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yinglish (Penguin, 1989, ISBN 0-452-26534-6), says: “In English, one says, ‘Go and see [look, ask, tell]…’ Using an imperative without any link to a conjunction is pure Yiddish, no doubt derived from the biblical phrase, translated literally: ‘Go tell…’ ‘Go praise the Lord…’ (In English this becomes ‘Come, let us praise the Lord.’)”

Gianfranco Boggio-Togna writes: “The expressions an Italian is likely to use to show bafflement correspond exactly to “go figure”: va a capire=’go understand’ or va a sapere=’go know’. The va a idiom is common in colloquial Italian.”

Are my wife and I the only ones who have misunderstood it, or have others misunderstood it as well?

What is a muffin?

In an online discussion of English usage recently the question of muffins came up. These kinds of discussions seem to recur every couple of years. Last time round it was on scones and biscuits and cookies. Each English-speaking country seems to have its own terminology for such things.

My wife Val putting muffin mixture into muffin pans, ready for baking

My wife Val putting muffin mixture into muffin pans, ready for baking

It just so happened that my wife was making muffins for breakfast today. which made it easy to take photos to illustrate the process. She happened to be making cheese muffins,  which are “savoury” rather than sweet. Americans seem to find it difficult to understand what “savoury” means, so I hope it will help to think of, say, blueberry muffins as “sweet” and cheese muffins as “savoury” (or savory, if you prefer).

These are South African muffins.

They may therefore differ from American muffins, American “English” muffins, and British English muffins, and possibly Australian muffins, New Zealand muffins, Canadian muffins, Indian muffins and muffins of any other English-speaking countries.

They are made in muffin pans, which are sold in shops as muffin pans. That seems to imply that calling them muffins is not un ique to our family, but quite widespread in South Africa.

In many tea or coffee shops you can order muffins, which are sometimes bigger than these homemade ones, but are basically the same shape. They come in various flavours — blueberry, bran, lemon & poppyseed, chocolate chip, carrot, and a number of others.

The homemade cheese ones can be eaten on their own, or you can cut them in half and butter them. Plain ones without cheese can also be buttered and have jam on them.

Val got the recipe from her mother, who wrote down all her children’s favourite recipes in notebooks which she gave to her daughters and a niece. Most of them, including this one, probably came from her own mother, Martha Ellwood, who was born in Whitehaven, Cumberland, England.

Muffins in a muffin pan ready for baking.

Muffins in a muffin pan ready for baking.

Cumberland is in the north-west of England, and so their muffins may be different from those in other parts of England. Cumberland cumpets are certainly different from crumpets elsewhere in England, and resemble Scottish pancakes, so perhaps the muffins are different too.

Cheese muffins, baked and ready for eating, either cut in half and buttered, or plain

Cheese muffins, baked and ready for eating, either cut in half and buttered, or plain

And here, for anyone who wants to try it, is the recipe for Dorothy Greene’s Cheese Muffins:

Dorothy Greene's Cheese Muffin Recipe

Dorothy Greene’s Cheese Muffin Recipe


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