Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Butterflies: entomology and etymology

It's that time of year when summer seems so distant. Let's have a little glimpse of it with the ongoing discussion at the Guardian's Letters page of the many nice words in different languages for "butterfly": see Buttervogel, pinpilinpauxa, bimbi: the global butterfly effect goes on and on. At insects.org, Butterfly etymology covers even more: but the etymologies are sometimes biologically problematical. Are they interested in butter; or milk-thieves, as in the German dialect "Molkendieb")? Are they seen as little old women, as in the Russian бабочка ("babochka")? In Wilhelm Oehl and the Butterfly at OUPblog, Anatoly Liberman offers a different theory: that in whatever language, these pretty stories are just folk-elaborations on simple onomatopoeic words for the butterfly's wing-flapping.

Anatoly Liberman - here's his regular Oxford Etymologist blog - is the author of Word Origins ... and how we know them (Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN-10: 0195161475) which looks rather fun. Targeted at the lay reader, it discusses etymologies but, crucially, also the processes by which etymologies are discovered (and created): an antidote to the genre of cut-and-dried etymologies of newspaper columns and popular books (and, of course, the Internet - you may have received the ghastly "Life in the 1500s" e-mail).

Perhaps if someone explained to them that, compared to the drama of words, Hamlet is a light farce, they might develop a more informed attitude toward philological research and become students of historical linguistics rather than gullible consumers of journalists' pap.

You can sample Word Origins ... and how we know them at Google Books. At first acquaintance, I like the quirky style and iconoclasm, as in Chapter 5 ("in which people take the cause of word origins in hand, or Folk Etymology") or Chapter 11 ("in which history pretends to raise its veil, or Coinages by Known Individuals").
- Ray

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Ghost Stories

It used to be a tradition, one that unfortunately dwindled, to have atmospheric and very English ghost stories on late-night BBC television on Christmas Eve. A few are findable on YouTube, however.

One, part of a series produced in the 1970s by Lawrence Gordon Clark, was The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens (part 1 / 2 / 3 / 4) filmed at Birchen Coppice Cutting and Tunnel Mouth, Kidderminster, Worcestershire. Many others dramatised MR James' Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (Gutenberg ETexts 8486 and 9629). They included Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, filmed as Whistle And I'll Come To You (parts 1 / 2 / 3) and Number 13 (parts 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5). The Woman in Black is very much in the same vein; based on Susan Hill's 1983 novel, the TV film was by Nigel Kneale (see parts 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8 / 9 / 10 / 11).

That reminds me: check out The Incredible Robert Baldick (PDF), an extended article, archived at The Mausoleum Club, about Kneale's little-remembered The Incredible Robert Baldick: Never Come Night. Broadcast in October 1972, it brought Kneale's frequent "ancient evil" theme to a Victorian setting, producing an effect rather like an MR James story with more technology and action (Baldick is a scientist-investigator with his own private train). It was a pilot episode for a series that never came about, due apparently to scheduling issues, various BBC internal politics, and the possibility of legal action by a Robert Baldick Jnr who objected to the use of his father's name (it's hard to see why, since Baldick in the story is a thoroughly positive character). See YouTube again for a clip from the programme.
- Ray

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Medical and Dickensian: 2008

As last year, I recommend the British Medical Journal's Christmas issue for its usual combination of the strange and mildly morbid. This year, for instance, we have Festive medical myths, a Frankincense: systematic review, Rugby (the religion of Wales) and its influence on the Catholic church: should Pope Benedict XVI be worried?, Churchill’s flu poem, Reappraising Florence Nightingale, A symphony of maladies (occupational diseases of musicians), Fantastic feeding funnels (a look at a rather specialist motif in art, such as that of Bosch and Kahlo), and Please, sir, I want some more (a look at the dietetics of Oliver Twist in the workhouse).

The last piece is nicely revisionist. Rather as hostile commentators like "Jack Nastyface" - Jack Tar: book launch - exaggerated the ghastliness of shipboard food, it appears that Dickens, angry about his own deprived childhood, exaggerated the poverty of diet in the workhouse. He perhaps wasn't even so traumatised by working in a blacking factory, if the story that he wrote advertising jingles for Warren's Jet Blacking is true (see A twist in the tale, Guardian, 1 November 2003). It's not the only example of Dickens' misinformation about social evils: for instance, John Sutherland has commented about the the older Magwitch in Great Expectations - a model capitalist at that - being under threat of death at a point some years after the real-world abolition of the death penalty for returning transportees. This brings me to Scrooge – the Sequel (1) ("Ebenezer Scrooge has been transformed into a kind and charitable man. But can it last?"): this is the first episode of John Sutherland's ongoing story in the Guardian. A Christmas Carol sequels have been done before - see the addendum to Noir and the North Kent Marshes - but given Sutherland's background in witty and deeply informed academic litcrit, his Guardian version looks worth following. I'll link to installments as they're added.

Scrooge: the Sequel (1)
Scrooge: the Sequel (2)
Scrooge: the Sequel (3)

On a medical-meets-Dickensian theme still, the Dec 23 episode of the BBC's Holby City hospital drama was, interestingly, also based on A Christmas Carol.

- Ray

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Felix: "Nothing propinks like propinquity"

Felix Grant recently introduced a Growlery post, Picture perfect, with the aphorism "nothing propinks like propinquity" - that is, nothing engenders a relationship (of whatever sort) better than proximity. The background is interesting. As Felix says:

*Exactly who "they" [who say it] are, in this case as in many others, is unclear. My mother used to say it before I started school in September 1956. The phrase is often attributed to George Ball, a US Undersecretary of State in JFK's and LBJ's administrations, but his first recorded usage of it is in the 1960s. Ian Fleming used it as a chapter title in Diamonds are forever, published (London: Jonathan Cape) in 1956; but I am fairly certain that my mother has never read any Ian Fleming, and Fleming seems, in any case, to be quoting.

Just so. Ball is widely quoted as using the aphorism - later called the "Ball rule of power" - concerning the political value of closeness to the President (Walter Mondale is also credited with its use in that context in the mid-1970s). Fleming, in the chapter of the same name in Diamonds are Forever, put the words into the mouth of Felix Leiter, as he says goodbye to the still-bickering Bond and Tiffany Case.

"And you've got your plane to catch. You can go on fighting at twenty thousand feet. Get a better perspective from there. May even decide to make up and be friends. You know how they say." He beckoned to the waiter. "Nothing propinks like propinquity."

But where did it come from before that? A number of unspecific citations - the spelling varies ("propinks", "propinqs", "propinques") - call it "an old saying", "a modern saying", and so on. A couple specifically credit PG Wodehouse (Sarah Bradford, 1984, and Petronella Wyatt, 1999) but although Wodehouse clearly relishes the word (see Right-Ho, Jeeves) there's no sign of this specific quotation, so it looks like a "Hillfinger". The same goes for Frank Welsh's 1982 attribution to "the immortal words of Groucho Marx".

There are a number of precursors, "nothing ... propinquity" sayings to exactly the same effect:

There is nothing like propinquity to intensify friendship
- New Outlook, Alfred Emanuel Smith, 1918

Nothing breeds interest like propinquity
- A Heroine of Reality: A Novel, Percy Vincent Donovan, 1903

"nothing fosters a passion like propinquity"
- Arthur's Home Magazine, 1892

As Miss Edgeworth says, Cupid desires nought so favourable as propinquity
- A Midshipman in Love, Harvardiana, Vol III, No II, October 1836

"Miss Edgeworth" is an allusion to the novelist Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) who repeatedly stressed the role of "propinquity" in cementing relationships (as in the 1809 Tales of Fashionable Life - see quotation), and that seems to be the root of the saying. But there's no sign pre-Fleming of the specific form, so he wins the Internets for the first solid citation. However, it'd be nice to find the coiner of propinking.
- Ray

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Re-colouring the past

A bit of a non-bibliophile and vanity post (I'll get to that bit) but it does spring from something currently in print. This week's Radio Times - 13th-19th December 2008 - has an interesting article by Jon Wilde, "Re-colouring the past", about the recolouring of "Room at the Bottom", a 1969 episode of Dad's Army. The article's not online, but there's an equivalent at The Guardian (Unscrambling an army of colours, Charles Norton, 11 December 2008). The restored episode is to screen on Saturday 13 December, BBC2, 8.25pm.

The RT's explanation of how this was achieved wasn't quite clear, but I was interested to find source, the Wiki of the BBC's Colour Recovery Working Group. The section An examination of source material explains that the episode was originally filmed in colour video format, but archived to monochrome 16mm film by "telerecording" (i.e physically refilming by pointing a movie camera at the colour output on a big TV screen) and only the archive remains. Sometimes, however, telerecording was done without subsequently filtering the colour signal, so the mono film shows the position of the RGB phosphor dots on the colour screen as an overlay of artifacts ("chroma dots") whose pattern contains partial information about the original colour signal. With plausible assumptions, this makes digital colour recovery possible. Techie details here and here.

The actor Ian Lavender stresses in the RT article that this is restoring material to its original coloured condition. He expresses the common view that the more radical process of colourising originally b&w film is "cultural vandalism" (a phase previously used by the Writers Guild of America West on the same subject - see the Museum of Broadcast Communications). Others think it legitimate creation of novel value-added material. In between those extremes, accurate restoration of originally-coloured material seems pretty uncontentious.

This leads to the vanity bit: a few years back I wrote an article which may be of related interest on the whole topic of historical photo and video colourisation: The colour of the past (Scientific Computing World, July/August 2005). It's not just computer-geeky, I promise: there's plenty of historical interest such as Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii's remarkable early colour photos (see The Empire that was Russia for a taster); Don P Mitchell's reprocessings of the equally remarkable (and largely forgotten) Venus images from Soviet landers; Mark Simpson on "The Colour of Whiteness" (the cultural effects of the development of colour photography); and a box-out by The Growlery's Felix Grant on the world's oldest known photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's iconic image View from the Window at Le Gras, c. 1826.
- Ray

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Exeter riddles

Exeter Riddle, image by Tom Jolliffe, used under
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Just dug from the archive: The Riddle of the new Exeter Statue. The Michael Fairfax Exeter Riddle sculpture marking the city centre redevelopments is now over three years old. An eight-sided bladed spike in polished stainless steel, it has on each segment a riddle from the 10th century Exeter Book (Codex Exoniensis). Here are a couple of lists of the riddles or enigmata: TechnoZEN ignores the fragmentary and uncertain ones; this Kenyon College compilation by the Kalamazoo Riddle Group goes into the subtleties. A number of the riddles such as (numbering scheme varies) Riddle 23 and 43 are double-entendres.
One of the riddles on the sculpture isn't exactly well-chosen for modern readers; the one with the section

The capital G suggests my name and Æ, R, and O assist it so do H and I. I am called what these six characters clearly spell out".

The answer - a magpie - makes no sense in modern English, but in Anglo-Saxon one name for a magpie is agu (hence "a G" suggests it) and in the original manuscript the six characters are embedded in a different script: the Futhark runic alphabet. As this page on Nordic Magic Healing mentions, these can be arranged into higoræ, the feminine of higora, another Anglo-Saxon word for a magpie or jay (see A Grammar of Iconism, page 149).

The reason I mention the Exeter Riddle is that I finally made the effort, during Christmas shopping, to find a little-noticed further riddle on the High Street. This one is embedded as a twisty trail of metallic script in the granite pavement outside the Guildhall (see Google Maps). Click on the image to enlarge; the composite was stitched with AutoStitch then, as it's not terribly easy to read on a photograph, the image run through colour deconvolution to increase the text contrast.

click to enlarge

Conjure with me: three letters
of the alphabet, or two and one, or one.
Run me backwards and I would seem to be unchanged,
but that would be an uphill task of course.
My name speaks of former times
while I am still current:
though what current can be still?

This riddle is by the poet Richard Skinner, and originally appeared in The New Exeter Book of Riddles (Enitharmon Press, May 2002, ISBN-10: 1900564319), a book of commissioned modern riddles commemorating those in the Exeter Book. Richard's riddle was selected by Exeter City Council to be incorporated into the pavement as part of its environmental enhancement programme. As the book blurb says, subjects range from the traditional to the modern such as DNA and a getaway car.

What can I tell you? Though your quarry
lies exhausted at the bottom of an exhausted quarry,

to follow that lure
will almost certainly end in failure.
While I did indeed sink

like a stone among bottles, cans, a fridge, a sink,

a slab of marble granite
or slate I'm not


Why would a hostage's hand hacked off with a hacksaw
weigh on me now like a blood-spattered ingot

from that 24-Hour Bank, I who once cut such a figure
in its drive-up window? Go figure.

- from Rune, Paul Muldoon


Through frost and snow and sunlight, through rain and night and day I go back to where I come from, I pass all things, yet stay.

- Brian Patten

Grab the beast by the horns. Wrestle it down the narrow streets till you break its will to skitter its own way. Subdue it. Burden its rib-cage. Let your children ride. And then let it stray. Who cares? They'll send a herdsman to round it up at the end of the day.

- Stuart Henson

Spoiler: solution to Richard Skinner's riddle here; Brian Patten's here; and Stuart Henson's here

- Ray

Tuesday, 2 December 2008


Via sourcing a book - Bonzo: The Life and Work of George Studdy (Paul Babb & Gay Owen, Richard Dennis, 1998, ISBN 090368523X) - I ran into a nice site: George E Studdy and Bonzo the Dog about this cartoon dog whose heyday was in the 1920s-30s. Unlike some cartoon creations, Bonzo didn't much outlive his creator, although his depictions are going strong on the memorabilia circuit. He did, however, give his name to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, whose work is still popular and whose family tree of musical and comedy influences could be blogged in all directions: see Sir Henry at Rawlinson's End; Crank (1 / 2 / 3), the Late Show tribute to Viv Stanshall; and so on.

I've mentioned the Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a couple of times (see Rider Haggard and HG Wells adaptations). I didn't make the connection at the time, but now I recognise poor old Bonzo as the failed experiment H-216 dead on Dr Moreau's slab in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 2. The Moreau page at Damian Gordon's League of Leagues site identifies various other animal characters in that segment, including those from The Wind in the Willows and a number of others I'd scarcely heard of, such as Toby Twirl.

Nobody knows where the dog's name "Bonzo" - thought up in 1922 by Bruce Ingram, Studdy's editor at The Sketch - came from. However, the name appears to have been quite a popular meme inthe previous couple of decades. Puccini's Madame Butterfly has an Uncle Bonzo; this because the Italian "bonzo" (English "bonze") is an archaic name for a Buddhist priest deriving from a Portuguese import from Japanese (an unusual etymological path deriving from the Portuguese being the sole Western trading contact with Japan in the Shogunate period in the late 1500s). There was a Colonel Bonzo, a main character in Pemberton and Fleming's 1908 play The Woman of Kronstadt (based on the novel serialised in The Windsor Magazine and Munsey's Magazine in 1897-8), as well as one in the 1913 play The Shepherdess Without A Heart and Sylvanus Cobb's 1892 novel Ivan the Serf.

"Bonzoline" was also a patent composite plastic formulation for billiard balls from the late 1800s - see The Global Snooker Centre - leading Punch to postulate the Bonzo in a spoof article about billiards:

Ivory balk held the field until the opportune discovery of the bonzo in the forest of Swami by the late Sir H. M. STANLEY. The explorer came suddenly upon a huge herd of them in a clearing. The creature is practically all tusk, the merest thread of body with several hundred-weights of the hard glistening material attached to it. No sooner did the bonzos see STANLEY than they made a huge break for cover a happy augury. The herd, however, moved but slowly owing to their wealth of bonzoline (as it is now called), and it was an easy matter to round them up and secure them. Bonzo ranches now cover the Swami district and large fortunes are being made. Not only are the bonzo's tusks (which, we ought to explain, it drags behind, having insufficient strength to carry them) useful for billiard balls, but excellent false teeth almost like real, are made from them too, and the best professionals wear no others. Ex-President ROOSEVELT also keeps a set by him, in case of accident.
- Punch, April 26, 1911, p.309 (Internet Archive)

Interestingly, Ingram/Studdy must have been well aware of the term "Bonzoline", as it's used in a number of the Bonzo captions such as the one for this picture ("Bonzo shows the Bonzolines how to do it" - where "Bonzoline" appears to refer to other Bonzo-type dogs) and others mentioned in the sketch list at Studdying with Bonzo ("The Bonzolines 'have a couple'" and "The Bonzoline has a sweet tooth"). If I had to bet on an inspiration, I'd go for Bonzoline.

However, one could speculate forever. I'm sure it's coincidence that "Bonzo" could be read in some kind of semi-Latin as bon zo (= good animal), or that there was a Creole proverb "Bon chien pas janmain trappé bon zo" (= "a good dog never gets a good bone"). But whatever the origin, it was an inspired choice for Studdy's characterful little bull terrier pup.
- Ray

Addendum: Julie Heyward just sent us a YouTube link: Bonzo in Tanked. Thanks!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Finnish folk roots

This is mostly not about books, but lately I've been getting into Finnish music. Finland has a very strong folk tradition. But it's one with a very intimate relationship with modern musical forms, a seamless connection in a way that doesn't seem to be sideline hybrid music into genre (such as "folk-rock" or - like the much under-rated Wurzels in the UK - "comic"); folk groups happily experiment with jazz, scat and electronica. Modern dance forms have readily evolved from folk forms, such as the jenkka and the letkajenkka (based on a schottische); and there's humppa (an astonishingly fast foxtrot style named after the German "oompah" band). The cult band Eläkeläiset ("The Pensioners") are hilarious performers of the latter, who do humppa cover versions of pop and and heavy metal: at YouTube, for instance, Humppamaratooni (Whiskey in the Jar, dubbed over the Metallica version) and Humppa Arvoitus (Nik Kershaw's The Riddle) and Ryhtivaliohumppaare (ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man) are representative.

EARWORM WARNING (Dec 2nd). Follow the asterisked links at your own risk! Ievan Polka is immensely catchy: so much so that there's a strong chance of your getting an earworm that lasts for days, as I've just found. I guess this is why it became an Internet meme. (If you've read the "Tenser, Said The Tensor" section of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, you'll know what I mean).

Moving away from the comic extreme, MetaFilter just mentioned *** Ievan Polkka (Eva's Polka) ***, a horribly catchy tune going way back (trad. arr. Eino Kettunen, 1930). But the MetaFilter version is *** this one *** sung a capella by the Finnish folk quartet Loituma. For whatever reason, Ievan Polkka has blossomed into an Internet meme via the strange decision to use it to back an animated manga character spinning a leek. Go figure.

Loituma themselves have done variants: see *** their MySpace page *** for "house" and "remix" versions, and YouTube for this *** upbeat pop version *** (an example of what I meant by Finnish folk grading seamlessly into mainstream). But the highlight there is a more reflective piece, Missing Him (called Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi on YouTube), a beautiful love song in close harmony backed with the kantele (Finnish zither). The lyrics, along with other songs from Loituma's album Things of Beauty, are here. It'd be a pity if Loituma's other work were buried by the very Internet hit that brought them to notice; their second album is In the Moonlight - full track here of Salaisia kyyneleitä (Secret Tears), which has a very Eastern European flavour.

Missing Him (the standard title - Jos Mun Tuttuni Tulisi - usually translated as If the One I Know Came Now) is Finland's most famous poem:

Should my treasure come
my darling step by
I'd know him by his coming
recognize him by his step
though he were still a mile off
or two miles away.
As mist I'd go out
as smoke I would reach the yard
as sparks I would speed
as flame I would fly;
I'd bowl along beside him
pout before his face.
I would touch his hand
though a snake were in his palm
I would kiss his mouth
though doom stared him in the face
I'd climb on his neck
though death were on his neck bones
I'd stretch beside him
though his side were all bloody.
And yet my treasure has not
his mouth bloody from a wolf
his hands greasy from a snake
nor his neck in death's clutches:
his mouth is of melted fat
his lips are as of honey
his hands golden, fair
his neck like a heather stalk

The words are late mediaeval, and were among those incorporated into the Kanteletar, the body of folk lyrics and poetry collated by Elias Lönnrot in parallel with his work compiling Finnish folkore into the epic Kalevala. The oldest known printed version was that noted down by the musician and ethnographer Giuseppe Acerbi on a trip to Lapland in 1799. In the mid-1800s, a Stockholm civil servant, Carl Gustav Zetterqvist, was so taken with the poem that he wrote around internationally and solicited 467 translations (they weren't published, but reside in the Elias Lönrot Collection, Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki). As with any orally transmitted text, there are variants such as these two, Finnish and Karelian, of a shorter version, the one Goethe translated in 1810 as Finnisches Lied.

Käm' der liebe Wohlbekannte,
Völlig so wie er geschieden:
Kuß erkläng' an seinen Lippen,
Hätt' auch Wolfsblut sie gerötet;
Ihm den Handschlag gäb' ich, wären
Seine Fingerspitzen Schlangen.

Wind! o hättest du Verständnis,
Wort' um Worte trügst du wechselnd,
Sollt auch einiges verhallen,
Zwischen zwei entfernten Liebchen.

Gern entbehrt' ich gute Bissen,
Priesters Tafelfleisch vergäß' ich
Eher, als dem Freund entsagen,
Den ich Sommers rasch bezwungen,
Winters langer Weis' bezähmte.

The poem also appears on Arctic Silence by Merja Soria, another exponent of vocal/kantele arrangements of ancient Finnish songs. A few samples, though not including Jos Mun Tuttuni Tulisi, are here. If you like this taster of Finnish folk music, there's more at Etno.net, more or less the experimental wing of the Sibelius Academy of Music, where Loituma originated. See the recordings list: for musicians and groups marked "F" there are samples; for those marked "E", full tracks are available for download.
- Ray

Addendum: I'd wondered what "Loituma" means in Finnish. Tuulikannel at YouTube kindly checked it out: apparently it's the name of a lake in Karelia.

Addendum #2: I just saw (25 January 2009) that a new Ready Brek TV ad is using a version of Ievan Polkka.

See also:

Willows competitions update

From Academi (and elsewhere), Toad's Brave New World, a competition by The River & Rowing Museum

"to re-frame Kenneth Grahame’s famous book for the 21st Century by creating a short story (under 4,000 words) in a contemporary riverside setting which reflects a drastically changing world"

Ideas given include online dating, the credit crunch, environmental change, and so on. It's stressed that

"Entries don’t have to be about the River Thames, they can be about World Rivers and even mythical and fictional rivers. The brief is wide open for interpretation!"

Again, this looks interesting, though with a minor limitation that - looking at the small print in the entry form (PDF) - the readership for the story is age 5-16.

Meanwhile, the winner has been announced of the The Wind in the Willows Cover Competition, which asked young artists to illustrate the cover of the Vintage Classics centenary edition. The entry by Harry Jones was deservedly the winner, but all of the top four have very sophisticated composition (see the Times slideshow). Winners have also been announced for the Kenneth Grahame Society's competition to write a sequel, prequel or countertext to Wind in the Willows. The anthology will be published around March 8th 2009 (the 150th anniversary of Kenneth Grahame’s birth).

See the previous posts Wild at heart and Something wild for background.

- Ray

Addendum: you might be amused by my attempt, inspired by examples found for the Lurid classics post, at a pulp-style WITW cover.

The promised anthology from the Kenneth Grahame Society Competition came out a few months later than expected. The Society has also removed the discussion forum from its website.

The Kenneth Grahame Society Forum finally closed. It existed for about two years, and it had some interesting discussions and information. However, it was only used by a very small minority of the membership, and it often remained dormant for months at a time. At the 2009 AGM in Oxford it was agreed that the Forum, in such a dormant state, was no great credit to the name of Kenneth Grahame, and the decision to close it was approved. We would like to thank everyone who contributed postings to it over the years. All the information on it has been saved, and some of that will be repackaged and placed on the main website during forthcoming updates to the website.
Clare and I will admit to feeling a trifle miffed at not getting anywhere in this competition; mine (a countertext that retold Heart of Darkness as a post-apocalyptic river journey with Kim Newman style intertextuality) was trying a bit too hard to be clever, but Clare is regularly placed in writing competitions, and I thought her story (which used the WITW setting for a parable about xenophobia and global warming) could be faulted: it was heartwarming and stylistically impeccable. Honestly, it's not just sour grapes - the Society's handling of the anthology seemed a bit peculiar. The delay in publication, they explained on the now-defunct forum, was because some of the entries they'd chosen to anthologise weren't up to anthology standard, and needed work in collaboration with the Society to revise them. Seems to me that they shouldn't have been chosen, then ...

Addendum: I decided, rather than let my story languish on my computer, to post it here. See the update Wild at Heart.

- Ray

Friday, 21 November 2008

All at sea

Another film adaptation: The African Queen (Penguin edition left, original published in 1935) vs. The African Queen (the 1951 film). I've just read it, and it's good: not great literature, but a well-told adventure and romance with (as is usual) interesting diferences from the film. Charlie Allnutt is a Cockney in the book; he's 30 and Rose Sayer 33 (Bacall and Bogart were 44 and 52 when the film was made). There are minor plot differences too, mainly surrounding the sinking of the Königin Luise; the film, I think, is an improvement dramatically. However, the chief surprise for me - though the detail ought to be have been in plain sight - was that the book is by CS Forrester, author of the Horatio Hornblower series.

I didn't encounter the Hornblower books until quite late; my early teen reading included the melodramatic saga of a seafarer on the other side of the fence, Dr Syn, the creation of actor and author Russell Thorndike. I'd probably hate them now, going by the chronology at The Life and Times of the Rev. Doctor Christopher Syn, Parson, Smuggler, and Sometime Pirate. Christopher Syn is a respectable vicar whose wife Imogene is seduced and elopes with his friend, and so Syn becomes a pirate and stalks the pair around the world for a couple of decades (the books have the essentially sexist assumption that Imogene is a passive victim in the affair). Twice in his career, Syn murders almost his whole crew by blowing up his ship when he wants to quit piracy for the time being. He is, is at the least, an antihero. Hornblower is definitely more clean-cut, and the prototype of many fictional English naval heroes of the Napoleonic period. Check out Novels of Nelson's Navy for a list of the rather varied bunch: for instance, the rather neurotic Hornblower (based on Lord Nelson and Thomas Cochrane), the ultra-confident Ramage, and the tough but intellectual Jack Aubrey (also based on Cochrane).

Hornblower's influence, however, extends outside historical genre fiction; in Ansible's Hornblower in Space, Dave Langford discusses the many overt homages in science fiction. For instance, there are A. Bertram Chandler's Captain Grimes, David Feintuch's Nicholas Seafort, and David Weber's Honor Harrington series (space opera featuring a female Hornblower, with added homage to Nelson in losing an arm and eye *). Hornblower was also an influence in the characterisation of Star Trek's Captain Kirk (see C.S. Forester, Hornblower & the Hotspur) and Captain Jean-Luc Picard (see Becoming Picard). As another example of genre-crossing, Chris Roberson's Set the Seas on Fire - see interview - looks quite interesting as a novel that's more or less "Horatio Hornblower meets H.P. Lovecraft".

Langford mentions in particular Weber's "manic determination to keep space warfare tactics as similar as possible to nautical ones" by constructing the physics and technology so that, for instance, starships have to fire broadsides through a limited number of gaps in their shields. Much the same applies in the late Barrington Bayley's excellent The Fall of Chronopolis, in which Time Fleets sail the "strat" (the substratum of unrealised events underlying time), materialising to battle face-to-face at assigned "trysts" according to strict rules of engagement; ships, when damaged, "sink" into the strat.

While these are extreme examples, a general tendency toward naval trappings for interstellar craft runs through science fiction. At some level, while it might be silly to expect historical naval uniforms, this is logical. A large spacegoing craft would have similar concerns to a terrestrial ship - a habitable craft surrounded by a hostile medium, with necessary infrastructure for propulsion, steering, defence, chain of command, etc. However, such setups often make assumptions that are archaic even now, such as need for a large crew and even the general effectiveness of "battleships" (see Starship Combat Tactics for an analysis of this, and the necessarily strange assumptions required to explain ship-to-ship combat observed in the Star Trek and Star Wars canons). NASA's Starship 2040 is NASA's extrapolation of how a commercial spacecraft would be organised in reality. It looks rather different, with a far smaller crew and most of the infrastructure handled by computer. **

Hornblower has attracted a certain amount of parody. Inside SF, there's Harry Harrison's Captain Honario Harpplayer, who is colour-blind and unable to recognise that a press-ganged crew member is a green-skinned alien. Outside: the Mr Blowhard of Stephen Leacock's 1911 Soaked in seaweed: or upset in the ocean - one of his genre parodies in Nonsense Novels (Gutenberg E-text 4682) - may well come from the same stable, although I think Leaock wasn't on top form for this story, being clearly hostile to the genre, as suggested by the ending:

I fell ill. I died. I buried myself.Would that others who write sea stories would do as much.

- Ray

* Yeah, I know. Nelson didn't lose his eye. He lost the sight in his right eye at the siege of Calvi, but it wasn't disfigured and, contrary to general myth, fostered by the film That Hamilton Woman, he didn't wear an eyepatch. See The Telegraph and Fortean Times.
** Seriously interestingly, World War I battleships actually had computers. See the Argo Aim Corrector at the technology section of The Dreadnought Project, and also The Mechanical Analog Computers of Hannibal Ford and William Newell (PDF).

P.S. By coincidence, the Guardian books section just had a brief editorial In praise of ... Erskine Childers. If you're into nautical things, his The Riddle of the Sands (Gutenberg Etext 2360) is a classic for various reasons: its attention to detail, its role as an early pre-WWI invasion novel, and some say the first modern thriller.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Science bad and good: a review

Whether specifically applied to science or not, books that educate about rational thinking, and critique irrational/dishonest thinking and its practitioners, have a very long pedigree. Robert H Thouless' classic Straight and crooked thinking springs to mind, as do Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics, Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science and Science : Good, Bad, and Bogus, and Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time.

There's always room for topical reanalysis, however, and this is the thrust of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, the spinoff book from his Guardian column of the same name. It concentrates mostly on bad science in relation to UK-based medicine and health: partly because Goldacre is a UK doctor; partly because this is a major arena of conflict between science and what's pejoratively called "woo". The material will be familiar to regular readers, who probably follow the Bad Science website too. But the newspaper pieces are necessarily short, and easily read as a series of loosely connected "whack-a-mole" episodes. The book corrals the moles, so to speak, drawing together and analysing recurring themes so that (in the words of Sir Iain Chalmers, Founder of the Cochrane Library) you can "become a more effective bullshit detector".

A brief tour by chapter: 1) "Matter" (detox methods). 2) Brain Gym. 3) The Progenium X-Y Complex. 4) Homeopathy. 5) The Placebo Effect. 6) The Nonsense du Jour (primarily about claims of nutritionists). 7) Dr Gillian McKeith PhD. 8) 'Pill Solves Complex Social Problem' (the Durham fish oil trials). 9) Professor Patrick Holford. 10) Is Mainstream Medicine Evil? 11) How the Media Promote the Public Misunderstanding of Science. 12) Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things. 13) Bad Stats. 14) Health Scares. 15) The Media's MMR Hoax. 16) And another thing.

The first three chapters start with the fish-in-a-barrel stuff as an appetiser: claims containing factual errors that are trivially debunkable (e.g. "detox" methods that demonstrably make the stuff claimed to be extracted from the body, or Brain Gym's claim that "processed foods don't contain water"). Then Goldacre gets to "the meat", first using the currently controversial homeopathy as focus to introduce some core tools for deciding if a treatment works - blinding, randomisation, and meta-analysis - before moving on to an extensive discussion of the strength of the placebo effect.

The next three chapters move on to the claims of nutritionists, beginning with general problems - such as cherry-picked data, invalid extrapolation to humans from test-tube results, and outright invention - then analysing the claims of Gillian McKeith and (via the Durham fish oil trial) Patrick Holford as modern, contrasting examples (one theatrical, one scientific in style) of a long-standing type of media health guru. Goldacre is not exclusively batting for the mainstream medical side; chapter 10 covers the similar and varied ways the pharmaceutical industry massages data to promote particular drugs.

The final half a dozen chapters attempt to identify causes for the general mess, and Goldacre points to two factors. One is human cognition (as a side effect of cognitive mechanisms dazzlingly successful in rapid processing of our world, the human brain - however clever - simply is wired to be hopeless at analysing statistics and other complex data). The other is the media, where standard story formats such as "formula for the perfect <whatever>", "maverick against the system", "miracle cure" and "hidden scare" almost always misrepresent science. The Daily Mail’s "ongoing mission to divide all the inanimate objects in the world into those that cause or cure cancer" gets a mention, as does the spate of tabloid MRSA stories based on tests by a completely unreliable expert, the late Dr Chris Malyszewicz. Another media story, discussed in detail, is the recent MMR/autism scare, where such factors produced a national media-propagated health-endangering myth that persisted long after the peer debunking of Dr. Andrew Wakefield's minority view. The book finishes with an exhortation for scientists to get involved, and not to get suckered into media-distorted versions of their work.

I admit I'm a regular at the Bad Science forum, and long since sympathetic to Ben Goldacre's view of things; it's hard to see the book as has having much surface appeal to enthusiasts of alternative medicine. However, I strongly recommend it to those readers, as Goldacre's approach is not as antagonistic as might be expected. Unlike the black-and-white pro-science authors of many books of this sort, he's thoroughly open to finding territories in common. For instance, he views "detox" procedures as a manifestation of an ancient, human and positive form of psychological cleansing ritual, that only becomes scammy when pseudoscientific fixtures are bolted on. Likewise, he regards the placebo effect as a fascinating, powerful and positive effect; again, only wrong when used unethically, such as prescribing a placebo for dangerous conditions such as malaria where it as no effect. His strongest criticisms of alternative medical belief systems are in areas such as their general hostility to evidence-based procedure and critical self-appraisal, and the egregious habit of chilling factual criticism by legal threats (expect a future out-take, removed from the book pending now-settled legal action, on exactly this point in relation to Matthias Rath).

Lack of critical self-appraisal applies also, of course, to newspaper and television; Bad Science mentions, for instance, various media refusals to reevaluate their MRSA scare stories even when eminent microbiologists pointed out problems with the methods of Dr Malyszewicz. The media is the main villain of the piece, with its immense power to influence public perception, coupled with its entrenched capacity for failure to 'get' science (perhaps due to persistence of the syndrome of CP Snow's 'Two Cultures' - newspapers sideline their specialist science writers, so front page scientific/medical stories are written by non-scientists). The book's overall flavour is cheerfully acerbic, but shot through with a sympathy for the human condition. People, in Goldacre's view, are emphatically not stupid; but they make better decisions about their health when not wilfully misinformed. Bad Science attacks those misinformers, not the believers.

Bad Science, Ben Goldacre, Fourth Estate, 2008, ISBN-10: 0007240198 ISBN-13: 978-0007240197.

- Ray

Monday, 17 November 2008

All the Rage

Via the greycat blog: All the Rage. This is an approximately monthly PDF-format zine, "an entertaining, poorly-designed, non-trendy response to lifestyle magazines" where "content has had to come before style", with highly eclectic coverage (imagine a more bijou version of things magazine or Cabinet) based on themed issues (Games, Heroes & Villains, Monsters, Dreams, and so on). See the All the Rage category at greycat for a regular summary of contents. PDF being a universal print format, its creators suggest that you "print it out and leave it somewhere when you've finished".
- Ray

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Madding adaptations

Having just finished the Tamara Drewe book (see the earlier post, Tamara Drewe - it was in the library, and I was too impatient to wait for Christmas) seems a good excuse to look at another book / film / film trio, Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (Gutenberg EText 27) and two adaptations, John Schlesinger's 1967 version (probably the one most familiar) and Nicholas Renton's 1998 TV version.

In this case, they both have major merits. The Schlesinger pulls out all the stops visually and atmospherically, through the many recognisable Dorset locations - see the IMDb list - and its wistful soundtrack integrating thematically pertinent English folk, (such as The Bold Grenadier) and minor-key English pastoral score by Richard Rodney Bennett (also see YouTube - ignore the idiosyncratic animation). On the downside, I think Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene was miscast and the role misinterpreted, making her a smug tease rather than inexperienced; and the plot, though excellently adapted by Frederic Raphael to maintain the flavour of the novel and include some of the more distinctive dialogue, excised a deal of storyline in favour of clear-cut interpretation. For instance, the film shows Gabriel Oak wading in on minimal acquaintance to ask Bathesheba to marry him, making her refusal unsurprising; but in the book they actually have much more of a history (Bathsheba saved his life from smoke suffocation after he fell asleep in a badly-ventilated hut). Another omission was the fate of Boldwood, whose death sentence is commuted on grounds of insanity, following a petition, after the extent of his obsession is revealed. The 1998 version (if you don't mind Japanese subtitles, there are clips on YouTube - search for "FFTMC") is an altogether more low-key treatment, but incorporates much more of the text and considerably more subtle characterisation. For example, it follows the book in showing Bathsheba maintaining her composure after Troy is shot

"Gabriel." she said, automatically, when he entered, turning up a face of which only the well known lines remained to tell him it was hers, all else in the picture having faded quite. "Ride to Casterbridge instantly for a surgeon. It is, I believe, useless, but go. Mr.Boldwood has shot my husband."
- Far from the Madding Crowd, Gutenberg EText-No. 27

as opposed to her instant hysteria in the Schlesinger, notable for its 30+ consecutive utterances of "Frank" (this must be a record). I think the Renton wins on intelligence and authenticity to text; Schlesinger on emotional punch in conveying the "partly real, partly dream-country" nature of Hardy's Wessex.

That said, it's open to discussion whether authenticity to text is an automatic merit; an adaptation is a derivative work, and can do as the adapter likes, which may be an improvement. (In modern context, I can think of the Inspector Morse TV series, whose depressed intellectual hero is far more iconic than the rather seedy Morse of at least the early Colin Dexter novels; and the culturally-allusive and Oscar-winning Shrek animations compared to William Steig's naive and cumbersome picturebook).

Which text anyway? Far from the Madding Crowd first appeared in 1874 as a anonymous Cornhhill Magazine serial illustrated by Helen Paterson Allingham (see the Thomas Hardy Association site, or The Victorian Web for a detailed commentary); Hardy made major revisions for the 1895 book edition, and more in 1901. The term "Wessex", for instance, made its first brief appearance in the 1874, but Hardy later expanded references as it grew as a brand - see Hardy perennials).

While skimming, I noticed one such Wessex reference that I haven't previously seen explainaed, at the opening to Chapter 50:


GREENHILL was the Nijni Novgorod of South Wessex; and the busiest, merriest, noisiest day of the whole statute number was the day of the sheep fair.

This refers to Nizhny Novgorod, trade centre of the Russian Empire, which similarly had the annual Makaryev Fair. As the paper Hardy's "Pedantry" mentions (CH Salter, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Sep., 1973), pp. 145-164) the use of such erudite allusions got Hardy a deal of stick from critics. William Sharp (Thomas Hardy and his novels, 1892) called him "in point of diction the most Latinical writer we have had since Dryden and Milton". Argument about Latinisms is nothing new, then.

I'd quite forgotten I have a copy of Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage (RG Cox, Routledge, 1970) which collects contemporary reviews of Hardy's works. Much of the 1995 edition is viewable at Google Books, and the Far from the Madding Crowd reviews make interesting reading. Although the novel more or less cemented Hardy's reputation, the general tone of reviewers was to praise the originality of setting and scenario, but criticise the style. The unsigned Athenaeum review noted the "penny-a-liner" phraseology and Hardy's habit of putting astonishingly erudite language into the mouths of supposedly illiterate countrypersons

"Yes." continued William," they pranced down the street playing "The Girl I Left Behind Me." so 'tis said, in glorious notes of triumph. Every looker-on's inside shook with the blows of the great drum to his deepest vitals, and there was not a dry eye throughout the town among the public-house people and the nameless women!"

RH Hutton, in The Spectator, echoed this view that Hardy's rural characters are uniformly too erudite for belief:

The whole class of hoers, sowers, ploughmen, reapers &c., are – if Mr Hardy’s pictures are to be trusted – the most incredibly amusing and humorous persons you ever came across, full of the quaintest irony and the most comical speculative intelligence.

Andrew Lang, in Academy, spotted this too, further noting that the country folk in the story had "not heard of strikes, or of Mr. Arch". This comment deserves more analysis, in that "Weatherbury" is based on the real-world Puddletown, only a couple of miles from Tolpuddle, home of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Despite the authenticity of detail in many respects, the Far from the Madding Crowd novel doesn't appear to be socially and politically savvy. While Hardy's Wessex is anything but idyllic - personal tragedies abound - it does embody a very recognisable stereotype of the timeless countryside to which Hardy adaptations, particularly the 1967 film, do tend to play. As I've said before - see Views of the countryside - it's a very English yearning, and I think Hardy played a strong role in fostering it. Wessex as "partly real, partly dream-country" goes deep.

- Ray

Monday, 10 November 2008

Flight of the Phoenix

Plate from The Flight of the Phoenix: click to enlarge.

Watching the 2004 Flight of the Phoenix (a remake of the 1965 film) night prompted me to re-read Elleston Trevor's 1964 novel The Flight of the Phoenix.

The book and two films make an interesting comparison. Robert Aldrich's classic 1965 b&w 1 film was a more or less direct adaptation of the novel, with the exception of turning the aircraft designer Stringer into a German, Heinrich Dorfmann, using the already typecast Hardy Krüger. This was a clever move, using the German stereotype of analytical thought and efficiency in contrast with the grizzled pilot Towns' aviation-by-instinct, as well as introducing still pertinent tensions about German post-war success. The remake turned the character into "Elliott" - a character one might diagnose as somewhere on the autism spectrum, which is more or less as Stringer is in the book too. Otherwise, while by no means a bad film, the 2004 remake dropped into a number of standard Hollywood formats, such as the switch to American characters (multiracial cast and token woman) and the urge to sanitize (nobody ever looks terribly dehydrated, and some of the darker personal incidents are removed, such as the injured man who commits suicide to conserve water for the other survivors, and the mutinous Sergeant Watson who laughs at his officer's death). Add to that the urge to embroider the story with exciting incidents (deadly sandstorms, lightning, explosions, marauding horsemen, a scary cliff, etc); and the general desire to tell the backstory and detail the post-rescue outcome. The book, in contrast, begins in mid-flight

The wind had flung the sand thirty thousand feet into the sky above the desert in a blinding cloud from the Niger to the Nile, and somewhere in it was the aeroplane.

and ends simply with the Phoenix landing at the El Araneb garrison

Out of the desert there came seven men, and a monkey.

Elleston Trevor (born Trevor Dudley-Smith, and working under a variety of pseudonyms) is little known now, but was astonishingly prolific. His other best-known works are the "Quiller" espionage series, but I think The Flight of the Phoenix is still the most iconic. It's a good example of a book that makes what's basically an engineering story - complete with diagram, above - gripping through powerfully emotional character interaction. The historical/political context of the story (US/British post-WWII oil exploration teams in the Sahara in the days of the Kingdom of Libya, when Britain had a 20-year concession to maintain military bases) is of course long gone, though perhaps there are equivalents elsewhere of the "Goolie Chit" mentioned in the book.

I'd often wondered, as it was before the days of CGI, whether the Phoenix in the first film was actually an aeroplane that could fly. It was (though actually two). The first, called the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, crashed, leading to the death of the pilot Paul Mantz; flying sequences were completed using a North American O-47A painted to resemble the first. See The Final Flight of the "Phoenix" at the generally interesting aviation history site Check-Six. Talking of aviation history, the book and first film mention - when Stringer/Dorfmann argues why his design should work - the history of self-powered heavier-than-air model aircraft prior to manned flights, particularly the work of Henson and Stringfellow. More background at Flying Machines.

P.S. The Flight of the Phoenix is dedicated to "the great Wally Thomas". This was a bit of a bibliographic puzzle until I found an auction lot description

TREVOR Elleston, The Flight of the Phoenix 1964, dw., an uncorrected Proof Copy of The Flight of the Phoenix mole's Castle 1950 with presentation inscription to Marilyn Thomas (daughter of Wally Thomas), signed by author and THOMAS Wally, Life In My Hands, 1961 reprint, dw with a Thank you letter for Princess Grace o Monaco dated 1961 (Elleston Trevor, Wally Thomas and Princess Grace were acquaintances)

which identifies it as referring to Wally Thomas, author of the 1960 autobiographical Life in my hands, which tells of his rehabiliation at St Dunstan's after losing his sight and hearing during his work in bomb disposal.

1. I stand corrected (thanks, Scot). I've seen it any number of times, and can'timagine how I thought it was black and white. See the intro on YouTube.

Addendum: I've no evidence, but it seems a strong possibility that the novel was inspired by the Lady Be Good incident, when a American B-24D Liberator bomber crashed in the Libyan desert through a navigation error in 1943 - the survivors died of thirst - and the virtually intact aircraft wasn't rediscovered until 1958. The 1964 review of the novel in Air Pictorial: Journal of the Air League, Volume 26, noted the similarity of scenario. See the post Sole survivor (9th March 2011) for more on this.

- Ray

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

"Latin ban": nothing to see, folks

A Telegraph story - Councils ban 'elitist' and 'discriminatory' Latin phrases, now copied worldwide - had various academic bloggers aerated a few days ago. It's bonkers to ban Latin said Mary Beard; Anti-Latin P.C. poppycock said Geoff Pullum at Language Log; "gibbering idiocy" said Language Hat at Banning Latin.

Skip to the key analysis: Anatomy of a manfactured controversy from Gareth Rees, who rightly suspected both the facts and the agenda, and identifies the ingredients: a reactionary polemicist and selective reportage of Bournemouth City Council's initiative
"... to encourage plain, appropriate and easily-understood language. This includes considering whether or not various phrases, including jargon and Latin, are appropriate for the particular audience that the information is aimed at".
- Use of Latin words - Inaccurate reporting in recent national media, press release, Bournemouth City Council
If you like English peppered with Latin (or even more peppered, since it already is), check out Carmen Possum; and the intro to Umberto Eco's Baudolino, whose central character tells his story in an English (Italian in the original) mixed with Latin and various European languages of the 12th century.

P.S. While reading around this topic, I ran into a fine example of recency illusion (not to mention, lack of linguistic research) in a Times piece in the same vein as the recent Telegraph one:
So we are solving the difficulty in a natural way. Instead of inventing a funny neutral pronoun, we are bending another "rule" of grammar. We say: "Why should anyone plan their own funeral?" "Every child must bring their own picnic." "We don't want anyone to hurt themselves." "It must have been someone who wanted to clear their conscience." We are busting the old rule of agreement of number between the parts of a sentence. We do it to avoid the clumsiness of "his or her". We do it for fear of being exposed as a male chauvinist. We do it because it is politically correct. And it is becoming correct. That is the way language changes.
- A new sex-neutral pronoun would make it easier for anyone to speak their mind, Philip Howard, The Times, May 10, 2002
See (again) Everybody loves their Jane Austen on the antiquity and ubiquity of singular "their" as a genderless construct in English.

- Ray

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Hillfinger quotes

I propose a term - "the Hillfinger" - for a false celebrity quotation.

Terms already exist (misquotations, spurious quotations) but I think it needs something more eccentric (like the "mondegreen" for misheard song lyrics, and the "Mountweazel" - see Mountweazels and other fictions - for deliberate copyright traps in maps). Why "Hillfinger"? Because a false celebrity quotation is a fake designer label product, akin to the fake designer products imitating, say, Tommy Hilfiger jeans that are given away by misspellings like "Hillfinger".

I hadn't realised until yesterday how major the phenomenon is, during discussion at a Language Log thread, Did Plato say this?. This concerned a quotation, found in many variants, generally credited to Plato:

The wise talk because they have something to say; fools talk because they have to say something

Extensive searching finds no such attribution. Quite by coincidence, Mrs Ray asked me about an alleged Gandhi quotation:

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

and this morning the Language Log thread raised another, this allegedly by Ruskin:

"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort"

Same problem. Maire Smith wrote there: "I've been looking for a source for over a year now and haven't found a thing".

Hillfingers are astonishingly rife. Arnold Zwicky, who raised the subject at LL said "There's a huge tradition of folk quotation, almost entirely removed from scholarship". Faith, commenting, said: "There are a million of these things and librarians spend our days trying to debunk them", citing the Jefferson Library's Spurious Quotes page, the Institute for Intercultural Studies page about its own motto, which even they accept probably wasn't said by Margaret Mead, and the Plato FAQ showing the "Only the dead have seen the end of war" (quoted in Black Hawk Down) also to be apocryphal. Here's another one: Lincoln never said that by Thomas F. Schwartz at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency site.

For writers, a simple rule to follow is: even if it's in a dictionary of quotations, don't quote unless you've actually verified it's in the work cited. Otherwise, you may easily be propagating a Hillfinger.

As to the quotations mentioned above, again it's feasible for anyone these days to use Google Books to trace quotation origins. Just use the "text1" "text2" date=yyyy-yyyy format or similar, bearing in mind the possibility of variants, to search on key phrases within a date bracket (e.g. wise "say something" "something to say" date:1900-2008. By an iterative search, adjusting dates, you find where a quotation took off. On that basis:

Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they would like to say something.

Via collective search at Language Log: first appeared in 1903 credited to Anon in Proverbial Wisdom: Proverbs, Maxims and Ethical Sentences, of Interest to All Classes of Men by Abram N. Coleman, and credited to Plato in A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, 1908. Perhaps evolved from a statement in Elements of Rhetoric, Richard Whately, 1858.

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

There's no traceable atttribution to Gandhi for this one, beloved of counter-culture and alternative medicine proponents. It became popular post-2000, but the oldest modern quote is in the 1993 Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, which cites a variant to the Labour politician Tony Benn ("First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you"). Then there is a sole quote for 1914: "First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you". Guess who? Not Gandhi but an American trade union speech: General Executive Board Report and Proceedings [of The] Biennial Convention, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, 1914.

"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort"

As Maire Smith said, not Ruskin. It appears in many variants, but the general expansion in this Hillfinger tracks to the 1940s on the American industrial-technical circuit.

The Internet is a major factor in the propagation of Hillfingers, mainly through the many sites such as QuoteDB or BrainyQuote that offer online quotes of unknown provenance, with no mechanism for dispute or correction. Probably most of these get their data from the open source user-contributed Wikiquote. Its brief - see What is Wikiquote? - explicitly includes the aim of accuracy via research ("Where possible, we try to cite sources: preferably those in which the quotation first appears, otherwise notable attribution of the quotations. We try to find those quotes which are misattributed, clearly label them and research how the misattribution came about"). The reality is, unfortunately, that people just add quotes indiscriminately. Wikiquote's Gandhi page, for instance, has a long "unsourced" section with little sign of analysis, despite the existence of an excellent site, Epigrams from Gandhiji, where S. R. Tikekar gives checkable origin data for a large corpus of Gandhi quotes. (There's a project for someone).

26 November 2009: the italicised section above is now outdated. I'm pleased to see that Wikiquote has more or less formalised rules that unsourced quotes arent permitted: see the new post, In praise of Wikiquote.

- Ray

Addendum, Nov 29th 2008. A further exercise for the reader: track down attribution for the Gandhi quotation cited in this Prince Charles lecture.

It was a question from a newspaper correspondent back in the 1930s that drew from Mahatma Gandhi one of his pithiest responses. During his visit to Britain he was asked what he thought of Western Civilisation, to which he replied, "it would be a very good idea."

Of course it's generally attributed, but citations never say which newspaper, and a look at Google Books finds no instances of the story until the late 1960s, two decades after Gandhi's death and after he had become a countercultural icon.

Addendum: see Tracking bee story for a Hillfinger attributed to Einstein.

Addendum 2: Unreal Nature just cited a New Yorker article, Notable Quotables by Louis Menand, reviews the Yale Book of Quotations, discussing in detail the phenomenon of misquotation (it concentrates on mutation for maximum pithiness rather than misattribution). See also Looking at Language: Get the Quote Right!, an article on the same topic by Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. This is a particularly good source; any credible book of quotations should cite exactly where the quotation came from. One the other side of the coin, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (Paul F. Boller, John H. George, Oxford University Press US, 1989) looks good too.

- Ray

Monday, 3 November 2008

Notes and Queries

I had an interesting little task today: answering a question by a friend of one of Mrs Ray's friends, who suspected anachronism in Andrew Davies' use of the phrase "You're cramping my style" in the current BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit. The author of the Assorted Ramblings blog had the same concern - see The language of the classics (02 November 2008 @ 06:44 pm post). It turned out to be pretty easy to debunk this as an example of "recency illusion"; the OED alone cites it back to 1819

c. Phr. to cramp one's style: to restrict one's natural actions or behaviour.

[1819 LAMB Let. 7 June (1935) II. 250, I will never write another letter with alternate inks. You cannot imagine how it cramps the flow of the style.] 1917 A. WOOLLCOTT Let. 2 Sept. (1944) 26, I think the very fact of a censorship cramps one's style. 1919 Punch 9 Apr. 283 (caption) Cramping his style. 1923 Saucy Stories 1 Nov. 124/1, I always go out with Edith... Edith never cramps my style.

but Google Books finds many more examples, showing it to be well established in the fully modern sense pre-1920, and even earlier (e.g. 1800-1900) applied to handwriting, physical or literary style ("cramp", then as now, means "constrain" in this sense) such as

"freed from that dry severity of ratiocination which never fails to cramp the style of ordinary mathematicians, when writing on theological subjects."
- Horsley's sermons, The Quarterly Review, William Gifford, John Taylor Coleridge, John Gibson Lockhart, William Macpherson, William Smith, John Murray. Published by J. Murray, 1813

and even down to the early 1700s, in an anonymous poem congratulating John Dryden on his translation of Virgil and taking a dig at earlier Dutch translators, particularly Joost van den Vondel:

The heavy Dutchmen, with laborious toil, Wrested his sense, and cramp'd his vig'rous style.
- To Mr Dryden on his Excellent translation of Virgil, The Works of Virgil: Containing His Pastorals, Georgics, and Aeneis By Virgil, John Dryden, Knightly Chetwood. Translated by John Dryden. Published by Printed for J. Tonson, 1721

It's probably even pre-1700, since Dryden's The Works of Virgil came out in 1697, and the anon poet wouldn't have waited 20+ years to write a fan letter. Of course, this doesn't quite resolve the problem. If a usage grates with the audience because it's widely perceived as an anachronism (even though it isn't) should a writer risk using it? Difficult: I'm with historical precedent all the way, but it's a somewhat political decision if the writer isn't solely in charge of the choice. See the Comments for further discussion.

In a similar vein to the above excursion, I've enjoyed linguistics blog Language Log's etymological detective threads such as Did Plato say this? (tracking an apparent fake attribution of an epigram to Plato), Every little (bit?) helps (another back-tracking of an apparently modern expression), the previously mentioned Giveth and taketh, and Mumfordishness: an appeal (who was Mumford?).

Where did people go to get historical-etymological questions answered before Google Books and web forums like Yahoo Answers? Notes and Queries. This is not its modern relative in the Guardian (interesting though that is) but the far more venerable journal described in A Victorian virtual community (Patrick Leary, Victorian Review, Vol. 25: 2 (Winter 2000) 62-79. In comparison with Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet (which argues a convincing analogy, technologically and culturally, between the Internet and telegraph), Leary likens the 1849-founded Notes and Queries to the Internet forum ("N&Q provided access to an unparalleled flow of textual information within a community defined by the terms of that exchange" - and to be blunt, those terms were sheer geekiness of interest ("minutiae about old manuscripts, obscure incidents, forgotten customs, and local lore"). It's rather at the level of Cecil Torr's Small talk at Wreyland, and it's unsurprising that Torr's books were advertised in the journal and frequently cited.

It's wonderful stuff. The 1849-1869 editions are digitised here at the Internet Library of Early Journals; and some, in more convenient plaintext format, are at Project Gutenberg. The journal Notes and Queries, its flavour not much altered, does still exist as a subscription journal from Oxford University Press (home page here, from which you can access a full archive of contents lists).

- Ray