September 25, 2015

One of the very first posts I published on this blog, in 2007, was one I titled Glib self-promoters. It was my reaction to hearing the news that Michelle Rhee had just been named Chancellor of the District of Columbia Schools and to having hear her glibly promote herself on NPR.

Four years later I wrote an I-told-you-so post which I titled Rhee-visited.

And now we have among us a glib self-promoter who is Michelle Rhee writ large. She managed to glibly promote herself into the chief executive position of a large technology corporation, a position from which she was fired after a performance that was disastrous for everyone except herself (financially speaking). But while her self-promotion had managed to sway the company’s board of directors into appointing her (it seems that corporate boards, supposedly composed of hard-headed business people, are no less impressionable than school boards and the like), it did not do so with the people of the State of California when she tried to become their Senator.

Undeterred, she now seems to believe that her salesmanlike charms can get her the Presidency of the United States.

Doyle’s accent

September 21, 2015

One of the most entertaining features of the Canadian television series Murdoch Mysteries, about a police detective working in Toronto in the years around 1900, is the appearance of some of the more colorful historical personalities of the period, including Thomas Edison, Emma Goldman, Winston Churchill, Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, in particular, makes several visits to Toronto and becomes friends with Murdoch. He is played by an actor named Geraint Wyn Davies who is (what else?) Welsh-born but who has divided his acting career — much of it Shakespearean — between Canada and England. What struck me was that Davies portrayed the Edinburgh-born as speaking with the standard accent (called RP) of the educated English. I wondered about that. I found out that he went to school, from age 9 to 16, at a Jesuit institution in Lancashire, England, and so it stood to reason that, if only out of conformity, he might have adopted an English accent. (In my own case, when I first came to Los Angeles at the age of 15½, I spoke English with something very much like RP, but it didn’t take me very long to sound like a Californian.) While he went back to Edinburgh for university, he soon thereafter moved to southern England and stayed there for the rest of his life.This information allayed my concerns about Doyle’s accent.

I have just watched the ITV series Arthur and George, starring Martin Clunes (of Doc Martin fame) as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He Clunes, a lifelong Londoner who spoke pure RP as Doc Martin, plays Doyle with a soft Scottish accent (for which he received coaching). There has been a lot of lively discussion in Britain about this aspect of his performance, including some criticism, but several Scots have commented on the seeming Edinburgh authenticity of his speech. But is it authentic Doyle?

There is, in fact a clear answer to this last question: a filmed interview with Doyle (who is the only on camera) is available on YouTube. There is very little that is Scottish in Doyle’s speech; the “long o” (as in ‘Holmes’), “long a” (as in ‘name’) and “long i” (as in ‘time’) are decidedly southern English, though ‘chance’ and ‘look’ sound more northern (Lancashire?). His prevocalic r, however, has a distinctly tapped or flapped quality (one not usually heard in Edinburgh any longer). Whether this is a Scotticism or a vestige of older RP, it’s hard to know.

It’s surprising that neither Davies nor Clunes took the trouble to listen to the recording and adopt its speech features; it’s something British actors are supposedly good at.

Yankin’ Rankin justified

September 21, 2015

Half a decade ago I wrote a post in which I complained about the Americanizing of vocabulary in the US editions of British detective novels, and specifically in those of Ian Rankin. The most appalling example I cited was in The Naming of the Dead, writing that “[a]pparently… not only was every instance of mobile phone replaced by cell phone, but the word mobile itself, commonly used in Britain as an abbreviation for mobile phone, became simply cell,” so that “…[w]hen the text reads ‘he left his cell’ it is not at all clear if the reference is to getting out of the lockup or not taking the mobile phone.”

I was also happy to note that no such “yanking” was done in the following novel, Exit Music, which at the time seemed to be the last of the Rebus novel. Fortunately for us fans, Rankin has continued writing about John Rebus.

I recently read an early Rankin novel, a non-Rebus one titled Bleeding Hearts which was published in 1994 under the pseudonym Jack Harvey. It was not the original edition but an equally British reissue printed in 2000.

An American edition of the novel was published by Little, Brown in 2006. I have not seen it yet, and I don’t know if it was “yanked.” But consider this: a large part of the action takes place in the United States, and many of the characters are Americans. Rankin seems to have paid a lot of attention to the geography of the places where things happen, which is described in overwhelming detail. But he as American, speaking to other Americans, say things like “tin-opener,” “tinned chilli,” “rucksack,” “balaclava” and “the NSC [National Security Council] are…” (He may have mixed up NSC with NSA.) Here’s where some judicious yankin’ Rankin might be justified.


O’er the land of the unfree

August 26, 2015

My fellow Americans, it’s time to change the words of our national anthem.

I don’t know what Francis Scott Key, born on a plantation in Maryland, meant when he referred to his nation as “the land of the free.” According to Wikipedia, he seems to have had a conflicted relationship with slavery. He owned slaves, but freed some of them; as a lawyer he “represented several slaves seeking their freedom in court (for free), as well as several masters seeking return of their runaway human property.” One source is quoted as writing “Mr. Key convinced me that slavery was wrong–radically wrong.” But he actively opposed abolitionism and “remained […]  a strong critic of the antislavery movement until his death.”

But this is, by American standards, ancient history. At present, the United States has the greatest number of unfree people — those in prison — in the world, in both absolute and relative terms. “Land of the free” sounds like a bad joke.

Besides, o’er the land of the unfree, with the extra syllable, fits the music better.

A few questions

August 18, 2015

I have a few questions for Donald Trump.

  1. Has he ever seen the Sesame Street episode about Ronald Grump? (It was made in 1994, when his son Eric was 10 and might have watched the show.)
  2. Has he read the New Yorker article about the cross-border tunnels dug by the Mexican cartels? (Surely they would make his vaunted wall a monument to futility.)
  3. Has he ever taken a survey of how many of the service employees in the hotels bearing his name (whether or not they are actually his) might be illegal immigrants? Do they earn the kind of wages that might attract American workers?

I expect no answers, of course.

On second thought, these and similar questions about Trump can be subsumed under one: Does Donald Trump know anything?

His political rise may well signal the second coming of the Know-Nothing Party.

Giant-ego men vs. competent women who happen to be beautiful

August 15, 2015

Take your pick.

Donald Trump vs. Megyn Kelly

THE CELEBRITY APPRENTICE -- Episode 912 -- Pictured: Donald Trump -- Photo by: Ali Goldstein/NBCmegynkelly

José Mourinho vs. Eva Carneiro:


Jose-Mourinho--chelsea n_chelsea_fc_eva_carneiro-4998475

In both cases, a very successful man with an oversized ego angrily attacked a competent professional woman, who happens to be quite beautiful, for doing her job.

I happen to be a fan of Eva Carneiro; I watch Chelsea matches for two reasons: to see the lovely Dr. Eva and to see (hopefully) Chelsea lose. I am not a fan of Megyn Kelly, but I respect her. And I despise both men.




Of the French

August 15, 2015

In cryptic-crossword clues, “of the French” is usually translated as the sequence DU or DES, since the French words du and des can both be translated as “of the” — the former in reference to a singular masculine noun, the latter to a plural of either gender. For singular feminine it would be de la, but I don’t recall ever seeing DELA so clued.

I don’t mean to write about crosswords, however, but about the fact that for a year or so (1791-92) following the French Revolution, when France was a constitutional monarchy, Louis XVI’s title was changed under Constitution of 1791 from King of France and Navarre (Roi de France et de Navarre) to King of the French (Roi des Français). The same style was adopted later by Louis-Philippe (1830–1848), and an analogous one (Emperor of the French) by both Napoleons. Only under the Bourbon Restoration (1815–1830) was the old style revived.

Moreover, every time that France has been governed as a republic it has been as République Française (French Republic), not, say, République de France. It seems as if the use of the demonym rather than the toponym made the regime seem less autocratic and more “popular.” But, as the royalist historian Guy Augé has pointed out, the change to Roi des Françcais was a “curious and unconscious return to the expressions of Medieval Latin.” In fact, the Old French Rei des Franceis was a meant as a literal translation of Rex Francorum, a title that had been used continuously until about 1190 and intermittently — alternating with Rex Franciae — thereafter. I have found only one instance of Rei des Franceis in an official document; it dates from 1266, a time when such documents in anything but Latin were extremely rare.

Rex Francorum (King of the Franks) was originally a tribal title, first used in the 5th century by Clovis I, at a time when Germanic warrior tribes moved around Europe and their rulers governed whatever territory they happened to conquer. Clovis ruled over much of what is now France (the French consider him to be their first king), but divided his kingdom among four sons, every of whom was also called Rex Francorum, and so it went on for the next several centuries when the kingdom was repeatedly reunified and redivided.

The Franks, like the other Germanic peoples who invaded various parts of the Roman Empire, came to constitute a warrior caste that governed their territory, and Rex Francorum meant, essentially, something like warrior in chief. The territory that they ruled came to be called Francia. In the 9th century, under Charlemagne, a distinction began to be made between western (Occidentalis) and eastern (Orientalis) Francia, the latter being the land inhabited mainly by Germans. The division became official at the Treaty of Verdun (843), in which a middle kingdom (Francia Media) was also created, but this soon thereafter became known as Lotharingia. During most of the 9th century several of the Frankish kings (east and west) also held the title of Roman Emperor, which was the primary title they used, and those who didn’t usually called themselves simply Rex so as not to limit the extent of their reign, in contrast with the fact that in reality their actual rule did not extend beyond their immediate fiefs while their vassal dukes and counts became more and more independent.

In the 10th century the imperial title became a monopoly of the Eastern kings, who stopped using any reference to the Franks; the first of these emperor-kings, Otto I, was not a Frank but a Saxon. Now only the Western kings, beginning with Charles the Simple, used the title Rex Francorum, and by the 11th the term Franci (Franks) lost its ethnic significance and came to mean all those who were vassals of those kings, if only in name. Normandy and Catalonia, for example, were at the time a virtually independent duchy and principality, respectively. The former’s dukes were, of course, ethnic Norsemen, and the latter’s princes — known as Counts of Barcelona — were of Visigoth descent. Nevertheless, in the Bayeux Tapestry the Normans conquering England are called Franci, and in the Poem of El Cid francos refer to Catalans.

By the 11th century the name Francia, previously confined to Latin documents, passed into the vernacular as France. Before that, France had another meaning. In the 9th century the counts of Paris were also called Duke of the Franks (Dux Francorum), and the territory of which they were overlords — Paris and some counties surrounding it — was also called Francia. It is much more likely that a term will be adopted into the vernacular if it corresponds to everyday experience, and the denizens of this region came to call it France, alongside the demonym franceis (modern Français), to contrast it with neighboring regions such as Normandy and Champagne; the larger Francia was not of much importance to ordinary people. This usage survives in place names, such as Roissy-en-France (the home of Charles de Gaulle airport) as distinct from another Roissy which is in the old county of Meaux, at the time a fief of the counts of Champagne, and in the division of geographic formations such Vexin to the west into Vexin français and Vexin normand, and Brie to the east into Brie française and Brie champenoise. But in the 11th century Franceis came to be the French equivalent of the Latin Francus, and was used retroactively in the Song of Roland, interchangeably with Francs, to refer to Charlemagne’s Franks fighting in Spain.

Note, however, that all these references to Franks or Franceis are to fighting men, from knights to dukes, and not to commoners. The title Rex Francorum (or Rei des Franceis) continued to carry the meaning of leader of the warrior caste, not of the common people. The change to Roi de France meant that the king ruled over all the people of his territory, including the increasingly important merchant and artisan classes of the cities, which struggled with the crown for autonomy throughout the later Middle Ages. This is just the opposite of what the French revolutionaries thought.



July 31, 2015

In the two years since I wrote about the ubiquitous — and, in my opinion, unnecessary — prefix uber, it use seems to have diminished considerably, probably because the word now inevitably evokes the name of the company offering ride “sharing” via smartphone.

When I first read about Uber, I thought it would be pronounced “yoober”, as would be normal with English words beginning with an open-syllable U (utopia, use, urine, uvula…). But once I heard it talked about, it was invariably as “oober”. Since I couldn’t see any immediate connection with über, I concluded that it is meant to be read as a Latin word.

In Latin, uber can be an adjective meaning ‘fertile’ or a noun meaning ‘(female) breast’. For that matter, I don’t quite see what either one has to do with transportation.

But I look forward to the day when some app will be created that outclasses Uber, and will be referred to in English-language media as the über-Uber. Or, in real English, super-breast.

Brat’s end

July 15, 2015

No, I don’t mean Congressman Dave Brat, about whom (or rather about whose name) I wrote last year. Instead, I am referring to an essay I wrote some nine years ago, in which I characterized Greece as “the spoiled brat of Europe.” I wrote:

Examples of what Greece has managed to obtain by throwing tantrums include admission to the European Union despite its non-contiguous location, admission to the Euro zone despite not meeting the stipulated fiscal criteria, and a ban on calling ‘feta’ the common white cheese of the region when it is not made in Greece.

But perhaps the biggest such tantrum has been about the fact that a country to the north of Greece, formerly a part of Yugoslavia (and before that of Serbia), chose, on attaining independence, to call itself the Republic of Macedonia.

But now it seems that Greece’s knack for getting away with spoiled-brat behavior has come to an end. I feel very sorry about the hardships that the people of Greece (whom I prefer to call, as I explain in the cited essay, the Grecian rather than the Greek people) are suffering and will continue to suffer as a result of the constraints imposed upon them by the political and financial authorities of Europe. But it was the Grecians who elected the governments whose irresponsible actions have led to the present situation.

The spoiling of Greece has a long history, going back two centuries. In order to get the major European powers’ help for securing independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greek leaders played two different parts: to Russia they were the embodiment of Eastern Orthodoxy; when addressing the West, they took on the mantle of ancient Greece (and, for the first time in a millennium and a half, began to refer to themselves as Hellenes rather than Romaioi, that is, Romans). This ploy coincided with the tide of Philhellenism that was began to sweep over Western Europe in the late 18th century, making waves in Britain (with Lord Byron a famous disciple), France and especially Germany. King Ludwig I of Bavaria was so enamored of everything Greek that he changed the spelling of his kingdom’s name from Baiern to Bayern because the y made it look more Greek than the i, and offered his younger son Otto as the first king of Greece installed by France, Britain and Russia.

While German Philhellenism, at least in its political form, may have cooled when Otto was overthrown in favor of a Danish prince married to a Russian princess, in France and Britain it continued unabated to the present day, and Greece’s political leaders learned that with enough whining they could get what they wanted, even membership in the very Western EU with which they had little cultural or economic affinity. When this happened, in 1981, Germany — at the time under Social Democratic rule — went along. But since then global capital, with the German financial empire as one of its pillars, has taken over the world. Profligate spending on such trifles as pensions, healthcare and education for the people is behavior that the system will not tolerate. And so the brat is spoiled no more.


June 12, 2015

In my last post, I noted how Google Maps gives  accurate information on public transportation, both local and long-distance, in Spain, Italy and Germany, but fails to do so with regard to train travel in Belgium and France. In Belgium, the information is found readily (and reliably) on the website of Belgian Railways (NMBS/SNCB), in Dutch, English, French and German. In principle it should be the same with French Railways (SNCF), but it didn’t quite work out that way with regard to a trip from Amiens to Paris.

A previous consultation of the website had shown that a train listed as Intercités 2014 was due to leave at 11:05 and arrive at the Gare du Nord at 12:29. This seemed to be an ideal connection, and when we arrived at Amiens on the preceding day the electronic timetable at the station did in fact show that train.

I had thought about getting our tickets for the train right after our arrival from Ghent (with a train change at Lille), but since the ticket office (nowadays called espace de ventes) was to be open till 21:30, we decided to do it later. When we got to the station at 8 in the evening, however, the office was closed; a printed sign on the door said that “for exceptional reasons” (unspecified) they would be closing at 19:30.

We decided to try the automatic ticket machine. The train in question was listed as having only first-class seats available, at a price more than twice of second class, but in any case the machine would not accept our American debit card. Since ticket office would open at 05:50, we could easily postpone the purchase to the morrow.

Meanwhile, checking the SNCF site on my smartphone, I found that the train we wanted was not listed at all  on the reservations page, while the timetable page had it departing at 11:35.

When I got to the station (a short walk from our hotel) the next morning at 7:30, there was as yet no sign of life at the espace de ventes. I asked around, and was told variously that the office would open at 7:45 and 8:00. It was actually opened (reluctantly, it seemed) at 8:15, and I got the second-class tickets I wanted with no problem. The train, though officially an Intercités, was in fact composed of TER Picardie cars, second-class only. I wonder what we would have done with our first-class tickets, had we bought them from the machine!

A check of the SNCF website today shows the train listed, with an 11:20 departure (but still a 12:29 arrival), on both the reservations and timetable pages. Perhaps the slower time when we took it was due to track work, and perhaps the inconsistencies in the electronic information were due to a system malfunction. I have generally had good experiences riding French trains (except during strikes), and I hope that what happened last month (which, in any case, did not affect the travel itself) was a fluke.


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