February 9, 2016

It occurred to me, as I was riding a stationary bike at my gym this morning, that there have been three times when I have been deeply disappointments by decisions made by political leaders whom I had admired.

One was a long time ago, in the summer of 1950, when President Harry Truman gave General Douglas MacArthur the go-ahead for crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea, plunging the US into another three years of needless war. Truman realized his mistake, and tried to make up for it by firing MacArthur, but it was too late.

The second was in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter allowed Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the deposed Shah of Iran, to come to the United States for medical treatment — a decision that led to the Iran hostage crisis and ultimately the election of Ronald Reagan.

The third was in 2008, when Barack Obama decided to forgo public financing of his campaign and opened himself up to Wall Street. The consequences are still with us.

These disappointments seem to be happening at 29-year intervals. What will happen in 2037? I will then be 102 years old (my mother’s age now). Best not think about it.


February 2, 2016

I don’t know if there is a special name for those writers, mainly English, who transcribe sounds as though RP (Received Pronunciation), especially its non-rhoticity, were the only way that English is spoken.
They include the lexicographers who give the RP value to pronunciations but write it not between brackets — […] — as befits a phonetic transcription but between slashes — /…/ — as though it were phonemic.
They include cryptic-crossword setters for whom geyser, geezer and Giza are necessarily homophones.
They include all those who write hesitation sounds as er or erm and nut uh or um, and who transcribe sardonic laughter as har-har not hah-hah.
They include the bureaucrats, British and Burmese, who put r into Burma and Myanmar. In Burmese these are two variants of the same name, and neither has anything like an r sound in it.
And they include A.A. Milne, who, despite his partly Scottish ancestry, chose the transcribe the bray of his eponymous donkey as Eeyore instead of Eeyaw (the American version of which would be Heehaw).
So I will make up a name for them: I will call them arrhoticists.

More on Saudis

February 2, 2016

The English historian Suzannah Lipscomb, in her BBC Documentary Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home, frequently  uses “the Tudors” to mean the people of Tudor England, not just the Welsh family that ruled over them. But the reference is meant to specify the historical period in which they lived, as distinct from English people at other times. I doubt that she would refer to her present-day compatriots as “the Windsors.”

In a like manner, “the Soviets” is often used to mean the people of the Soviet Union and not to the councils (ranging up to the Supreme Soviet) which governed them.

But it is quite common to see and hear the people of “Saudi” Arabia, and not only members of the royal family, called Saudis. Much of the time, when discussion focuses on the effects of the regime on the people, this designation may be justified, although I think “Saudi Arabians” would be better (as would Soviet Russians if the discussion is restricted to Russians). But in general, just as I wrote recently about the name of the country, I think they should be called just Arabians. The other inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula — the Yemenis, Kuwaitis etc. — have demonyms of their own.

Sicilian terrorism? Islamic mafia?

January 22, 2016

In preparing for an upcoming trip to Sicily, I have been struck by number of places in the island — streets, squares, schools, stadiums even the Palermo airport — that are named for Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the magistrates who so bravely prosecuted the leaders of the Sicilian Mafia and who were killed in what can be justly called acts of terroristm: Falcone by a motorway explosion, Borsellino by a car bomb.

Once upon a time it was not necessary to modify “Mafia” with “Sicilian.” Mafia-like organizations in other parts of Italy had their own traditional names — Camorra, Ndrangheta — and those in other countries had designations of their own (e.g. “the Mob” in the US, with its specifically Italian-originated segment also known as “la Cosa Nostra”). But these days one hears so much of Russian, Albanian and other “mafias” that it does become necessary to say “Sicilian Mafia.”

But I’ve never heard any objection to this designation as being somehow insulting to the Sicilian people, or to Sicily as a place. It is well known that most of the Mafia’s victims have been Sicilians, including the aforementioned Falcone and Borsellino.

It seems strange, then, that many well-meaning people object to the term “Islamic Terrorism” as insulting to Muslims or to Islam.

In fact, criminal gangs like al-Qaida, Daesh (aka IS, ISIL or ISIS), al-Shobab, the Taliban and Boko Haram — who may at times be in conflict with one another but pursue the same cause — are reminiscent of the various “families” (cosche) that make up the Mafia. They are motivated by (Sunni) Islamic fundamentalism in the face of the West and other forms of Islam, similarly to the way the cosche were originally motivated by Sicilian patriotism in the face of the centralized Italian state and those Sicilians who favored it. And in both cases the ideology has served as a cover for the recruitment of criminal-minded young men with predictable results.

So let’s not shrink from calling Islamic terrorism what it is.

(Saudi?) Arabia

January 7, 2016

Saudi Arabia has been in the news a lot lately. And what I hear in oral news reports is, first, a variety of pronunciations of “Saudi” (/sɔːdiː)/, /’sdi:/, /sa’u:di:/) and, second, a certain laziness in giving the kingdom its full name, so that one hears “the Saudis” or just “Saudi”, which is actually an adjective. It reminds me of the time when Madagascar was officially called République Malgache (as a calque of République Française), which was translated into English as “Malagasy Republic” and led American journalists to call the country “Malagasy”.

Why is the name of the ruling dynasty an integral part of the country’s name? Shouldn’t the UK, then, be called the United Windsor Kingdom? Well, dynasties change, don’t they?

Jordan is officially the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, but we don’t call it “Hashemite Jordan”. In fact, the Arabic names of the two Arab kingdoms are exactly parallel: Jordan is Al-Mamlakah al-Urduniyah al-Hashimiyah and Saudi Arabia is Al-Mamlakah al-‘Arabiyah as-Sa’ūdiyah, which is officially translated as “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” but could just as well be “Saudi Kingdom of Arabia”. So why don’t we just call it “Arabia”?

A possible answer may that the kingdom does not occupy the whole land known as the Arabian Peninsula, or simply Arabia. But, as I have written before, the name of a state — especially when preceded by “Republic (or Kingdom or United States or Grand Duchy) of…” — is often the same as that of a larger territory that it’s a part of (a usage known as synecdoche). The Republic of Ireland (which officially often calls itself simply “Ireland”) does not occupy all of the island of Ireland, only a large part thereof (five-sixths), just as Saudi Arabia occupies a large part (two-thirds) of the peninsula. The Republic of Macedonia (pace the Greeks) occupies only a small part of historic Macedonia, and of course the United States of America is a small part of what is geographically known as America, which has been pluralized to “the Americas” in order to differentiate it from “America” as a synonym for the US. (In Dutch, going the other way, de Nederlanden (the Netherlands) was singularized to Nederland when Belgium split off.) There are a good many other examples.

Besides, the Arabian Peninsula is rarely, nowadays, referred to as Arabia, anyway. If necessary, it could also be called “the Arabias”, since in Roman days the peninsula was divided into three regions: Arabia Deserta, Arabia Felix, and Arabia Petraea, and there are many historical references to “the three Arabias”.

So, for myself, I will henceforth refer to what is now the Saudi kingdom (but may in the future be transformed into another, hopefully better, regime) as Arabia. My decision will probably influence people no more than does my calling the Czech Republic simply Czechia, though I’m far from alone in this last regard.


Birtherism reborn?

January 6, 2016

For some time now I have wondered why the “birthers” of recent years — those who questioned Barack Obama’s birth in the United States and hence his eligibility for the presidency — did not apply the same criterion to Ted Cruz, about whose birth in Canada there is no doubt. Cruz’s status as a “natural-born citizen of the United States” is based on the American citizenship of his mother. But then, to my knowledge, no one ever questioned the citizenship of Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother, so that, by the standard applied to Cruz, Obama’s hypothetical birth in Kenya should be irrelevant.

Well, leave it to Donald Trump. According to a headline in the Washington Post, “Trump says Cruz’s Canadian birth could be ‘very precarious’ for GOP.” In his usual weaselly way, “Trump said he was providing a candid assessment of his leading opponent rather than initiating a personal attack and reviving the ‘birther’ debate that he once led against President Obama. He repeatedly said he is hearing chatter on the topic among voices on the right. ‘People are bringing it up,’ he said.”

We’ll see where this goes.


January 4, 2016

Yesterday’s game between Everton and Tottenham, last weekend’s final EPL match, was an exciting (enthralling, the commentators said) contest that ended in a 1-1 draw. After the game the camera lingered on the many friendly handshakes and hugs between members of the opposing teams, and especially on the long arm-on-arm walk off the field by Everton’s Romelu Lukaku and the Spurs’ Jan Vertonghen. It so happens that they are both Flemish-speaking Belgians and teammates on Belgium’s national team. But it’s the whole post-game show of friendship, with hugs and jersey exchanges, and the sportsmanlike behavior during the game, with friendly pats following fouls and helping hands for getting opponents up from the ground, that makes soccer such an endearing spectacle.

All that is unthinkable in American sports, and especially football. Here opponents are enemies, not friends, even if professional players on opposing teams had been teammates in college. The gridiron is not a playing field but a battlefield. The quarterback is often referred to as a field general. The University of Miami’s tight end Kellen Winslow II was famously quoted as saying, when he stood above an injured opponent, “I’m a fucking soldier.”

While soccer fans sing, a capella, such songs as You’ll Never Walk Alone or When the Saints Go Marching In, American football fans sing “fights songs” accompanied by military-style marching bands. Texas A&M’s song is actually called War Hymn, and other fight songs urge the teams to “fight on for ol’ SC” or to “march into the fray” or to “mow ’em down”.

The militaristic nature of American football, especially the NFL, is well known and has been copiously commented on; for a few examples, see here, here, and here. It is one of the reasons why I have come to dislike the game.


December 30, 2015

I have known a good many loving, caring, devoted couples whose members don’t share many of their tastes or interests, or what I like to call their aficiones (to put it simply, an afición is what one is an aficionado of).

My wife and I are not among those couples. We discovered when we first met that we already had a surprising, given our different backgrounds, number of aficiones in common, and we have since then managed to infect each other with some of those that we had not shared to begin with.

One of my contributions has been to turn my wife into an aficionada de fútbol. Rare is the weekend morning that we don’t spend some time on the living-room sofa, watching a live broadcast of a soccer game in the EPL. Yes, the EPL!

The Guardian recently published a list of what it considered the 100 best players in the world. It turned out that of those one hundred there were 28 each in the EPL and in La Liga, the Spanish first division. But in Spain almost all of the players involved were either with Barcelona or with Real Madrid, with only a few on other teams, in England they are pretty well spread out among several teams. And while La Liga used to call itself La mejor liga del mundo (they have recently replaced that slogan with The best together, in English), it has always been dominated by Real and Barcelona, with perhaps one other team (lately it’s been Atlético) challenging them, and games other than El Clásico are rarely interesting. The German Bundesliga has similarly been long dominated by Bayern Munich, with the wildly inconsistent Borussia Dortmund occasionally competing with it, and the French Ligue 1, where once upon a time Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse and Monaco were competing powers, has of late been tyrannized by Paris Saint-Germain. Only Seria A, in Italy, shows some of the same unpredictability as the EPL, but nothing quite like the current situation where the defending champion Chelsea is hovering a few points above the relegation zone while Leicester City, promoted to the EPL only in 2014 and finishing that season in 14th place, is now tied for the lead with Arsenal.

Another aspect of the EPL is the rarity of very one-sided games. Today’s match, for example, was between Liverpool, a historic power (currently in 7th place), and Sunderland, next to last in the standings and probably relegation-bound. It was a close, hard-fought match with Liverpool barely eking out a 1-0 win.

But what we enjoy the most is watching so many of the great international players that we see in the Wolrd Cup and the Euro. You will not see any England players in any other European league, but the EPL has enough French, Spanish and Belgian players to make pretty decent national teams for their respective countries. Here are some lists, with goalkeepers first and other players listed at random.

France: Lloris; Koscielny, Flamini, Giroud, Martial, Schneiderlin, Sagna, Mangala, Cabaye, Sissoko, Sakho, Zouma, Debuchy, Payet, Nasri, Clichy, Rémy

Spain: De Gea, Adrián; Arteta, Azpilicueta, Fàbregas, Mata, Navas, Cazorla, Pedro, Diego Costa, Bellerín, Monreal, Moreno, Silva, Herrera

Belgium: Courtois, Mignolet; Aldeweireld, Vertonghen, Dembélé, Chadli, Kompany, De Bruyne, Fellaini, De Laet, Origi, Lukaku, Mirallas, Benteke

The two great South American soccer powers are well represented as well.

Argentina: Romero, Speroni; Agüero, Demichelis, Zabaleta, Otamendi, Ulloa, Lanzini, Lamela, Rojo, Fazio, Zárate, Coloccini, Fernández

Brazil: Gomes; Fernando, Fernandinho, Willian, Oscar, Ramires, Coutinho, Firmino, Gabriel, Leiva, Allan

Not to mention the many great African players, whose countries I am not always sure of. (Nor am I always sure whether a European-born African plays for his birth country or his ancestral one — think of the Ghanaian-German Boateng brothers.) And there are even players from exotic places such as Japan, Korea and the United States.

So, while we can now watch Bundesliga games on Fox Sports without paying extra, and if we chose to do that we could also watch Spanish and Italian soccer on beIn, we are quite happy with the EPL. Or even the BPL, if you insist on calling it that.


December 21, 2015

I have just watched an exciting match between two of England’s best soccer teams, Arsenal and Manchester City. But if someone unfamiliar with the game were to tune in and try to determine what was going on by looking on the fronts of the players’ jerseys, they might think that it was a contest between teams representing the two competing airlines of the United Arab Emirates, Emirates (Arsenal) and Etihad (Man City). It is not that either team is owned by the respective airline. But it may surprise Americans to learn that in Europe corporate influence on professional sports is far more extensive than in the US and goes well beyond stadium naming rights. We don’t, after all, see the San Francisco 49ers or Giants players to show up with “Levi’s” or “AT&T” emblazoned on their uniforms.

Sometimes that stadium’s name and the company advertised on the jersey are different. Bayern Munich’s stadium, for example, is named for Allianz (the insurance giant), while their jerseys feature T-Mobile. In other cases the stadium keeps its old sponsor-free name, but the jerseys still act as billboards: Emirates (again) for Real Madrid, Milan and Paris Saint-Germain; Qatar Airways for Barcelona: Jeep for Juventus; Chevrolet for Manchester United; and so on.

Several professional clubs in Europe actually are or were owned by local companies, and carry their names: Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), Philips Eindhoven (Holland). The reason that Volkswagen’s team, VfL Wolfsburg, doesn’t carry the company’s name is that it doesn’t seem necessary: everybody knows what Wolfsburg stands for.

And then, of course there are the leagues themselves. Spain’s major league, commonly called La Liga, is officially Liga BBVA, named for Spain’s second-largest bank. And in England the Premier League is officially the Barclays Premier League, similarly named for the country’s second-largest bank.

Outside of England, however, we call it the English Premier League, or EPL. To get information about it on Yahoo or Google, you can enter either EPL or BPL. And as long as EPL works, I choose to forget about BPL.

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.



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