Extreme Yankin’

November 11, 2015

I have already commented several times on the practice, typical of American publishers, of Americanizing the language in US editions of British books, not only with regard to spelling and punctuation, but vocabulary as well. This is most annoying when it’s done in actual speech by British characters. (Even American writers, when they introduce a British character, usually try to have that character sound like a Brit.)

In the most recent example I cited (here) the practice seemed justified when the overly British speech by Americans in an Ian Rankin novel was properly Americanized, but then it turned out that the same process had been applied to British characters as well.

I have just come across an extreme example of the practice. In his latest novel, Funny Girl, Nick Hornby describes a woman as having “a wasp waist,” and old but not out-of-use term for a very slender or narrow waist. (Google Ngam Viewer shows the expression’s usage to have peaked between 1920 and 1940, but remains at half the peak level.)

In the American edition, however, the wasp waist becomes “a WASP waist,” WASP being an American expression (an acronym of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) denoting a “white, usually Protestant member of the American upper social class” (American Heritage Dictionary).

I can’t see the change having come from autocorrect, since wasp is a standard English word. Could it be that it was a human editor who was unfamiliar with “wasp waist” (though the terms has its own Wikipedia page) and somehow assumed that Hornby was describing an Englishwoman’s waist by reference to an American social class?

The mind is boggled.


Bernie and me

October 18, 2015

The other day an acquaintance told me, somewhat hesitantly, that I reminded him (visually) of Bernie Sanders. The reason for his hesitancy was that he wasn’t sure of my political leanings. When I told him that I was flattered, he was elated, and told me how happy he was to have seen Bernie lawn signs in his neighborhood.

There are a few more things in common between Bernie and me besides a superficial resemblance. We are, more or less, of the same generation (what I once called my gap generation and has also been called the “silent generation”). Like me, Bernie is the son/grandson of Polish Jews. And like me, Bernie calls himself a democratic socialist.

Bernie is said to have stumbled when, during the Democratic presidential debate on October 13, Anderson Cooper asked him about socialism and Bernie, after beginning “We’re going to explain what socialism is…”  did no such thing.

As I have previously written, I have considered myself a socialist for most of my life, my first political hero being Kurt Schumacher. But though I am a scientist used to dealing in rigorous definitions, I think that Bernie’s deep feeling of dismay with economic inequality and his desire for greater fairness come closer to my identity as a socialist than any theoretical discussion might.

So: I’m with Bernie.




Spanish by Hill et al.

October 16, 2015

A few years ago I wrote about some linguistic troubles that the mystery writer Elizabeth George had when she tried to make one of her characters Spanish-speaking. It struck me as telling that, among the many grateful acknowledgments appended to her novel there was not one addressed to anyone who might have helped her with her Spanish.

I have since found that Elizabeth George is, in this regard, far from alone among English-language mystery writers. It is especially striking that Tony Hillerman and Michael Connelly, who have written respectively about New Mexico and Southern California — both places rife with Hispanic people, culture and history — have also been cavalier to the point of ludicrousness when it comes to Spanish. I meant to call attention to some of the blunders at the time I read the books, but somehow didn’t get around to it.

I will make up for it with Reginald Hill, the (English) author of the Dalziel and Pascoe series. His novel The Stranger House is a mystery that involve detective work, but it is not crime investigation by actual CID detectives. Rather, it’s about personal quests by a disparate pair of graduate students: an Australian young woman in mathematics and a Spanish young man in history.

Early in the book the young man’s name is given as Miguel Elkington Madero. Except that his father was Miguel Madero, while his mother is an Englishwoman named Christine Elkington. He should, therefore — following Spanish and not English naming customs be Miguel Madero Elkington. While a recent law allows some freedom in the order of surnames, Miguel was born in the late 1970s, so that Hill’s version of the name is an impossibility.

Another linguistic impossibility is Miguel’s nickname, which is given (also early on) as Mig. Spanish words do not end in -g, except English borrowings ending in -ing (such as párking) which is pronounced /in/ or /iŋ/. The ‘hard G’ sound implied by Miguel’s self-introduction cannot occur in Spanish.

Further on in the book there are at least three howlers. Miguel gives himself a more formal introduction as Miguel Ramos Elkington Madero. What in the world is a third surname doing there? Perhaps Hill thinks that a surname can, as in English, be used as a second given name. While some Spanish-American countries allow plenty of latitude in assigning given names, Spain does not, and Ramos is not a possibility.

In a manuscript supposedly written in Spanish, the line ‘Father, forgive me’ is written as Padre me perdona, which means ‘Father forgives me.’ The correct Spanish is, of course, Padre, perdóname.

And Christine Elkington is said to be know in Spain as Donna (not Doña) Cristina.

In his author’s note Hill thanks two Australian editors for helping him get things “right about matters Australian.” There is nothing equivalent about “matters Spanish.” And it shows.



Chelsea musings

October 16, 2015

Perhaps because so many English female names, especially in their diminutive form, end in unstrssed /i/ (“ee”) — Mary, Margie, Betty, Lizzie… — since first half of the 20th century almost any name (place-name or surname) having such an ending has been potentially a female first name: Ashley, Brittany, Chelsea…

For reference, when I was a graduate student at Columbia, one of my professors was named Shirley Quimby (male, born 1893). The actor Leslie Nielsen was born in 1926.

A few such names have resisted being feminized, for example Bradley and Stanley, perhaps because their abbreviated forms (Brad, Stan) have a strong masculine association; thus, for example, Bradley Manning, on becoming a woman, took the name Chelsea Manning.

“Chelsea Manning” has a certain assonance with Chelsea Morning, the Joni Mitchell song that was enormously popular around 1970, about the time that Bill Clinton met Hillary Rodham. It is well known that it was the song that inspired them to name their daughter Chelsea. But there are female Chelseas born well before Chelsea Clinton; for example the writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (born 1942). Chelsea Morning, by the way, was inspired by the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan (where Joni Mitchell was living at the time), which in turn got its name from the district (formerly borough) of Chelsea in London, over the centuries home to many celebrities from Anne of Cleves and Sir Thomas More to Mary Quant and Mick Jagger by way of J. M. W. Turner, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien and Ava Gardner.

Perhaps the most famous entity bearing the name Chelsea is not a person but the Chelsea F(ootball) C(lub), a club not located in Chelsea but in the neighboring (to the west) district of Fulham. At the time of the club’s founding, in 1905, Fulham was a working-class area which already had a football club (Fulham FC). The new club’s adoption of the name of a tonier neighboring district is reminiscent of the way Sarah Lawrence College, located in the working-class city of Yonkers (near New York), gives its address as being in the tony village of Bronxville.

My own relation to Chelsea FC is one that I hinted at previously: I would watch their games in the hope that (1) the team would lose (something that didn’t often happen last season, when they won the League title convincingly), (2) one of its players would be injured, not severely, but enough to have the lovely team doctor, Eva Carneiro, come out onto the pitch. Alas, in the wake of the incident referred to in that post, Dr. Carneiro is no longer with the team.

In that incident, one of the team’s top players, the Belgian international Eden Hazard, was injured in stoppage time of the season’s first game, with the scored tied 2-2 with Swansea FC in stoppage time. The referee called the medical team (Dr. Carneiro and a physical therapist) to the field, with the result that Hazard had to get off the field — a fact that angered Chelsea’s coach, the arrogant and misanthropic José Mourinho, enough to shout what may have been filha da puta (literally ‘daughter of the whore,’ in effect the female equivalent of ‘son of a bitch’) at the doctor. (Eva Carneiro, despite her name, is not Portuguese but a Gibraltar-born daughter of a Spaniard and an Englishwoman, but she is said to know the language.)  Mourinho claimed that the words had been filho da puta, supposed an impersonal curse word equivalent to ‘son of a bitch,’ and his claim was upheld by Portuguese linguists, so that no disciplinary action was taken against him, though he was urged to apologize to Eva Carneiro (which he of course didn’t do) by the President of the Football Association. In fact, he suspended her from further action with the team, despite her having followed the referee’s order. But then Mourinho is no great respecter of officials — he has just been fined £50,000 for having made a derogatory remark about a referee. Needless to say, his reaction to the fine was not gracious.

I will miss Eva Carneiro, but I am enjoying Chelsea’s current record of two wins, two draws and four losses — good for 16th place. And tomorrow morning, while I will mainly focus on Everton vs. Man U, I will check in on the Chelsea vs. Aston Villa game and cheer on Brad Guzan’s team.





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 “yankin'” 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.

Addendum: I have now seen the American edition, and in fact “tinned chilli” became “cans of chili” and “rucksack” is now “backpack.” But not only when spoken by Americans, but by Brits as well. So it’s back to the same old yankin’.



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.





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