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Archive for the tag “usage”

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.


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.



Grammarly issues

Grammarly is an automated proofreader and plagiarism checker. It corrects up to 10 times as many mistakes as other word processors (from the Grammarly blurb).

I was reading an article about plagiarism: Olive Tree Genealogy Blog: Personal Opinion About Copyright and Plagiarism Online. At the bottom of the article was an ad for Grammarly that invited me to “Check Your Writing For Plagiarism And Correct Grammar Errors Now!”

I thought I would try it, to see how well it lived up to its claims, and posted a paragraph from an article that I had written for a scholarly journal, and later placed on the web, where it was plagiarised.

Here is what Grammarly reported:

GrammarlyAt first glance I thought it was saying that I had spelt “issue” wrongly. On looking more closely, I saw that it was referring to commonly confused words, and then thought that it was saying that I had confused “issue” with another word. Then I realised that Grammarly had made the common error of confusing “issue” with “problem”, and I take issue with that.

So it was saying that there were problems (which it chose to call “issues”) with my text, but it did not say what those problems were. It then offered me a 7-day “free trial”, after which I would presumably be expected to pay for its vague and unhelpful advice. Thanks, but no thanks.

So what is the problem with Grammarly?

  • It told me that there were errors, but did not say what those errors were, and which part of the text they were in.
  • It told me that there was a prob… sorry, “issue” with plagiarism, but did not tell me what it was or where it was. If someone has plagiarised my text, I would like to know, because people have done it before.
  • It says it has generated a word-choice correction for my text, but doesn’t tell me what it is.

For what it’s worth, here is the paragraph I asked it to check:

In Western Europe and in North America, however, there were witch hunts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which thousands of people accused of witchcraft were executed after a legal trial. In most societies, and at various times, the most favoured method of killing witches was to burn them to death. The fear of witchcraft and sorcery seems to be endemic to human society, though the killing of suspected witches seems to be epidemic rather than endemic. Terms like “endemic” and “epidemic” are normally used of physical diseases spread by germs. I use the metaphor deliberately, because I believe that witchcraft and witch hunts can be seen in theological terms as aspects of a spiritual sickness, as I hope to show in this article.

The MS Word spelling checker has flagged “witch hunts” and “societies” in this text. I know that “witch hunts” is sometimes written conjunctively as “witchhunts”, but I chose not to do so, and tried to ensure that the spelling I used was consistent throughout the article. I’m not sure if that was the word choice for which Grammarly generated a correction, because it didn’t tell me.

What else? MS Word suggested that “thousands of people was executed” would be better than “thousands of people were executed”. I chose to exercise my right to veto that one. Grammarly said there were two “issues” of passive voice. MS Word usually gets its knickers in a knot over the passive voice, but it didn’t utter a squeak in this instance.

For what it’s worth, the title of the article is Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery and you can find a copy on the web here.

But I am less than impressed by the less than informative analysis of Grammarly, and I don’t think I’ll be missing much if I forgo the 7-day free trial. I have no doubt that my writing could be improved, but Grammarly seems unlikely to be helpful there. The MS Word spelling and grammar checker seems adequate for my purposes, and is much more informative.


There are some words that are quite meaningless, because they can mean just about anything. Words like “unit”, “module”, “aspect” and “facet”, for example. The latest word to join this rapidly expanding group is “franchise”, and that is why I wondered about this tweet that I saw on Twitter this morning:

Has any of the print media written a story about an ‘inexperienced’ CEO being appointed to lead a franchise this morning? Yes No Maybe?

Perhaps there is something that preceded it that would explain what it means, but I’m left puzzled. In the last five years or so, “franchise” has been increasingly used of sports teams. Why, I don’t know.

NandosLogoI tend to think of “franchise” as referring to a retail chain of shops under a common name that sell something. So one has Nandos and KFC that sell take-away cooked chicken, Wimpy and McDonalds that sell hamburgers, and so on. The “restaurants”, if they can be called that, are individually owned, but they have the same decor, use the same recipes, and sell stuff for the same price, at least in any one country where they operate. The have a licence to operate, a “franchise”, from the owner of the brand name.

nandos1But I find difficulty in seeing how this applies to a sports team, like the Dolphins, the Sharks, the Titans, Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs or Mamelodi Sundowns. I know that these teems sometimes have sponsorships from commercial firms — at one time Mamelodi Sundowns were being called “Ellerines Sundowns”. But the term “franchise” implies that there is a Mamelodi Sundowns team in every city, all wearing the same outfit in their games, and that somewhere there is a big Sundowns CEO who manages all these franchisees, and admits new ones once they have learnt the culture of the franchise.

If you refer to the Titans as a cricket team, you know they play cricket. But if you refer to them as a “franchise”, they could be selling fried chicken or hamburgers or pizza for all anyone knows.

So just as “unit” can refer to anything from an electric locomotive to a kitchen cupboard to a group of soldiers, “franchise” can now mean anything, or, more likely, nothing at all.

Bacon butties

This morning we had bacon butties for breakfast.

Bacon butties

Bacon butties

The first time I ate a bacon buttie was when I was a student in Durham in the 1960s, and someone offered me one. I’d never heard of a “bacon boetie” before, which what I thought I’d heard her say. I later found that it was spelt “butty” or “buttie”. Some people apparently pronounce it differently, but I pronounce it the way I first heard it, in north-east England. How do you pronounce it?

But bacon butties made pleasant eating, and we’ve had them in our family ever since.

A couple of years later I was in Namibia, and there was a similar food item, but with salami instead of bacon. It was a called a Brötchen, a salami Brötchen. So that’s what I called it. So you have bacon butties and salami Brötchens. You don’t have salami butties and bacon Brötchens.

In a recent discussion on English usage the names for food came under discussion, and it was interesting to see how much variation there is. I had learnt two local names for similar kinds of food, but in two places very far apart.

What surpriswed me in the discussion was that Americans would regard both of them as a “sandwich”. And this revealed an interesting difference in what kinds of food are regarded as a sandwich in different parts of the world.

In the USA, apparently, anything between two pieces of bread, regardless of the shape, size or consistency of the bread is a “sandwich”. A hamburger is a “sandwich”. A hot dog is a “sandwich”. In my dialect, I would never dream of calling a hamburger or a hot dog a “sandwich”. A sandwich is always made with two slices of bread cut off a loaf, and evenly cut on both sides.

A buttie is not a sandwich, though you can make a buttie from a flat slice of bread, as well as with a roll (as in the illustration above). But if you make a buttie out of a slice of bread, you use one slice of bread, butter it, put bacon, or chips, or whatever on it, and fold it over. That’s a buttie, not a sandwich. A sandwich is made of two slices of bread.

If I go to a cafe and ask for a tomato sandwich, nothing more needs to be specified, except that they might ask “brown bread or white”.

But in America, “sandwich” is far too wide a term. They might ask whether you want a sub, hoagie, po’boy or hero (whatever they may be). Actually I did once see a “hero” advertised at Steers in Auckland Park. I ordered one just to see what it was, and it turned out to be a very ordinary steak roll. You didn’t need a heroic appetite to consume it. It tasted pleasant, but heroic it was not. Nor was it, in my dialect, any kind of sandwich. It was a steak roll.

So if you’re travelling far from home and are hungry, and feel like eating a sandwich, make sure the local meaning of “sandwich” is the same as yours, or you may get something you don’t expect.


Cummer gain?

In Rawbone Malong’s book on Sow Theffricun Ingglish, Ah big yaws?, “Cummer gain?” is something Woozers (WUESAs – white urban English-speaking South Africans) say when they mean “Would you mind repeating what you just said? I didn’t quite catch it.”

In recent discussions on the alt.usage.english newsgroup there has been quite a lot of discussion on the different ways speakers of different English dialects pronounce words, causing people to say “Cummert gain?” or its local equivalent.

extrememakeoverOne of the examples I gave was from the TV programme Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where the house of a poor but deservi ng family is renovated, and when they return and see their renovated house they all exclaim, almost without exception, “Oh my GUARD!”

Well, that’s what is sounds like to me.

Either Americans say this a great deal, or the renovatees on the TV programme are coached to say it by the producers. I suspect it may be a little of both. After all, Americans seem to be in the habit of abbreviating it to OMG, so it must be a fairly common saying among them.

The objection, of course, is that they are not actually saying “Oh my GUARD” but “Oh my GOD” — “God” may sound like “guard” to speakers of non-American dialects of English, but it doesn’t sound like that to Americans.

So how do you explain “god” to Americans who pronounce it like “guard”?

Or how do you explain other words with the short “o” vowel, like “hot”, “cot”, “rod”, “sod”, “dog” and many others.

One way of doing so is through the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), where, we are told, this particular sound is represented by a kind of backwards a — ɒ. You can read about it here.

Because it is difficult to type that on most keyboards, an Ascii IPA has been developed, in which it is represented as [A.] — a capital A with a full stop after it.

The problem with that is that one of the examples given in the Wikipedia article implies that the Afrikaans word daar is pronounced like English hot in Limpopo province. I’ve not heard that, ever. It also says that in South African English, uncultured version, park is pronounced like pock, as in pockmarked. I’ve never heard that either. I have heard some people pronounce park like pork, as in “Pork the cor”, but that is a different vowel from the o in “hot”.

So it seems that there are limitations in phonetic alphabets as a way of describing the pronunciations of different dialects of English, or other languages. But the Web provides a solution.

There is a nice international pronunciation site,, where you can listen to different people pronouncing words in various dialects of various languages, and you can also add your own if your own language or accent is not adequately represented there. You can listen to my pronunciation of various words here, and if you click on the words, you can hear how other people pronounce them.

One of the most useful phrases for illustrating the vowel we have been discussing here, is “hot dog”, and I invite other English-speaking South Africans to add their pronunciation of “hot dog” to the file.

In South Africa we have 11 official languages, and if you speak any of them as your native language, please add it to the pronunciation files. I’d like to hear how Afrikaans speakers, especially those from Limpopo province, pronounce daar, and I don’t think that even if you say Daar doerrrrr in die bosveld you will get anything that remotely resembles the “o” in English hot. But I’m open to being convinced, so if you normally pronounce it like that, please convince me.

I would also be interested to see how the IPA represents the Zulu “u” in umuntu, and how native speakers actually say it. It is similar to some English sounds, like the oo in book, in Woozer English (which is quite close to, but not identical with, the black urban English-speaking South African English popularly called the “Model C accent”). But the u in umuntu is not identical with the oo in book, which, I suppose, is why they stopped spelling Zulu as Zooloo.

So whatever your accent or variety of  English, go to the Forvo web site and add to the sound files. And if your language is not English, you can add to those sound files too. It seems to be pretty good in Russian, too. I’m glad about that, because one of the difficulties I have with Russian is that the stress always seems to fall where I least expect it.

New Year or New Year’s?

Do you say “New Year” or “New Year’s” when referring to the first day of January?

In a discussion forum for English usage, it appeared that Americans prefer “New Year’s”, while most other English speakers (including me) prefer New Year, and feel that there is something missinjg in “New Year’s” that makes us want to ask “New year’s what?”

We will happily say “New Year’s Eve” or “New Year’s Day” or “New Year’s resolutions” (not that I’ve ever made any, or thought of doing so, but I know some people do). But I don’t ever use “New Year’s” on its own.

I suppose there’s no particular logical reason for that. I use other possessives on their own, where people would understand what I was referring to by the context. “Let’s go to Fred’s” would be understood as Let’s go to Fred’s house, or Fred’s restaurant, or whatever.

But I never, ever say “I’ll see you after New Year’s.”

In my dialect “New Year’s” must always be qualified by “Eve”, “Day”, “Resolutions” etc., and sounds incomplete without one of those things.

So what do you say?

Please answer the quiz question, and perhaps make a comment, indicating which part of the world you live in, and which form seems more natural to you, and why.

Detestable neologisms: “curate” as a verb

About a month ago, in the course of a discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup I became aware of “curate” being used as a verb, and since then I’ve been seeing it in lots of places.

To me a “curator” was someone in charge of a museum or art gallery, and seeing it in other contexts just looked very weird.

I read this page on a blog that referred to “curating” a dictionary: Crowd-sourced dictionaries and rare portmanteaus | Sentence first: “For more of my thoughts on Urban Dictionary, and why professionally curated dictionaries are in no danger of displacement, you can read the rest here.”

I queried it, and the author said it had been expanded in meaning, as he explained here: Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome? | Macmillan:

Lately the word curation has been used to refer to the collecting and posting of links on the internet, a curator being someone who does this. Some find it a bit of a stretch, and they have a point. But this often happens to job titles: they get stretched, puffed up, inflated – Subway workers are sandwich artists, cleaning staff are surface technicians, and hairdressers are design directors.

I had hitherto thought that the correct neologism for such a person who collects and posts links on the Internet was “blogger”.But, hey, if it will impress people, I hope you enjoy reading my curation and the links that I have curated above. It is obviously a new trend in the curatosphere.

The dictionary reference made me think of Samuel Johnson, as he must have been the first-ever curator of an English dictionary, and he says:

CURATOR one that has the care and superintendence of any thing.

The curators of Bedlam assure us, that some lunaticks are persons of honour.

That fits in pretty well with the current meaning of “manager”.

But I still feel that referring to Samuel Johnson as the “curator” of the first English dictionary doesn’t fit, and that “compiler” would be a more accurate description.

There are some neologisms, like “curate”, and extensions of the meanings existing words, like “curator”, that I feel compelled to resist. Not that it will stop other people using them, but I will continue to blog, rather than curate, and invite people to read my blog rather than read my curation.

On second thoughts, I think I may use “curator” to take the mickey, and refer to the CEOs of companies as “curating directors”. Perhaps they’ll be flattered.

Can an android understand ubuntu?

I really wish that software and online service marketers would choose unique names for their products and services, rather than ordinary words.

Three of the worst offenders that come to mind are Ubuntu, Android and Diaspora.

The problem is that these are also ordinary words, and this causes endless problems and confusion when using search engines, and make it very hard to find what you are looking for.

There was a novel published a while ago, Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick. But since a cellphone operating system was named Android, I wonder how many people know the real meaning of the term. Perhaps that was why, when the book was made into a film, the title was changed to Blade runner.

Today I wrote a review of the book The elegance of the hedgehog and posted a review of it on my other blog here. I noted in my review that the book gives some valuable insights into the meaning of ubuntu, and announced the posting of the review on Twitter. It was almost immediately (and possibly automatically) retweeted by someone who specialises in Linux documentation. Now I have no objection to Linux fans reading my blog posts, but they might be a little disappointed when they do not find what they were looking for.

Some names are unique and OK. It is very unlikely that anyone will mistake Facebook or Pinterest for anything else. Fortran, Algol and C, C+ and C++ were OK for computer languages, but Pascal, BASIC and Ada were not. Perhaps it would help if search engines were case sensitive by default, so that they could distinguish between Android and android, Ubuntu and ubuntu. But that might not help with “diaspora”, which is often capitalised in normal use as “The Diaspora”. Actually I believe that the Diaspora social networking site has been renamed, which might solve that problem.

Android is one of the worst offenders, because not only the operating system itself, but its various versions have been named with ordinary words, which will no doubt cause confusion to people looking for recipes for making gingerbread. At least the authors of the Ubuntu distro of Linux used improbable noun-adjective combinations for their versions, though it does get me to wondering whether karmic koalas dream of electric sheep, and perhaps tell the time with a clockwork orange.

The Ubuntu disambiguation page on Wikipedia can help to sort out some of the confusion, as can the Android disambiguation page. But that doesn’t help with search engines, and one wonders about the intelligence of the people running Google, one of the most popular search engines, in choosing the name “Android” for their cellphone operating system.

An android is something that resembles an adult male human being, but isn’t. What, I wonder, is something that resembles a sheep and isn’t? Ovoid? No that means eggshaped. Agnoid?

And when it comes to Blade Runner, would Pascal take a wager on a race between electric sheep? Would he have foreseen correctly that Pistorius wouldn’t win an Oscar? And would it have made a difference to Ada’s engine if he had?

Words and how we use them

As a former editor and proof-reader, one of the things that interests me is words and how people use them, and so I foujd this list of links to language-related articles very interesting, and the easiest way of keeping it for future reference was to copy the whole thing. Hat-tip to Link love: language (47) | Sentence first.

Is malarkey Irish?

The world’s oldest message in a bottle.

Grammar gotcha” and political speech.

Vices of modern prose (from a century ago).

Briticisms in American English.

When foreign words and native accents meet.

Linguistic advice for pseudo-Elizabethan romancers.

A short history of Wow! from 1513 to now.

Literature vs. traffic (art installation).

Why handwriting matters.


Is funner grammatical?

Dialectal differences in sign languages.

An immodest proposal to reform the English writing system.

Noah Webster’s designs for American orthography.

France ≠ twirling a moustache: how British sign language is changing.

Good debate on language rules, usage, and authority.

Mononymy: when people use just one name.

How the Beatles used and influenced the English language.

Non-singular only is not debatable.

Are some languages faster than others?

A dictionary of Demotic Egyptian has been published.

Translating Finnegans Wake into Chinese.

Booklet on the recently expired Cromarty fisher dialect of Scots (PDF).

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