KJV and ST

April 18, 2015

Wolf Hall, the BBC series, is currently airing on PBS in the United States. I have already read its namesake novel and the latter’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and the TV series is reinforcing two strong reactions that the books provoked in me.

One is the use of language. Perhaps because it is heard and not merely read, the utter modernity of the characters’ English speech is even more striking on TV. I find it somewhat alienating, because it is so at odds with the costumes and setting and habits. It’s almost as if I expect Thomas Cromwell to pull out a mobile phone in order to check in with Henry VIII. What also struck me in the books, though it hasn’t done so yet on TV, is that when a character quotes the Bible he does so in the language of the King James Version, or perhaps that of Tyndale (the main basis of the KJV). In historical reality this is precisely the language in which they would have been conversing, while they would be quoting the Bible in Latin. Tyndale’s translation — written in the common language of his day — was just then being published, and owning it was forbidden. Those familiar with the Bible would know it only in Latin. And while Wolf Hall does not shrink from Latin speech by the characters, such speech does not include biblical quotations.

The King James Version is, in fact, not written in the English of King James (the First of England and Sixth of Scotland) but in that of James’s great-granduncle, Henry VIII. But once the Reformation took hold, the Tyndale translations became the basis of all the later English Bibles, and English and Scottish Protestants accepted its language — which is also that of the Book of Common Prayer — to be appropriately Biblical, including features that were pretty much obsolete in English by the early 17th century; for example, the use of “yes” or “no” only in response to questions in the negative, while questions in the affirmative were to be answered “yea” or “nay”; for another example, the use of “thou” as the singular second-person subject pronoun used between people of equal rank (except on the lowest rungs of the social scale, as still used — in the form tha — in rural Yorkshire). (“You” occurs once, in the Book of Ruth, and it was probably a slip that wasn’t caught.) I have a lot more to say about the linguistic infelicities of the KJV, and I will do so at some length in a later post.

My other reaction is to the portrayal of Thomas More as a highly unsympathetic character. I have no problem with such a characterization per se, nor with his being made a saint by the Catholic Church. The Church’s criteria for sainthood are its own, and concern mainly the person’s significance to its agenda. John of Capistrano, as I have written here, was one of history’s great Jew-haters. No, what bothers me is the fact that in British crosswords of the cryptic variety, of which I have recently become an addict,the clue “good man” is often used to refer to the letters ST. This is not the only such clue; since “St.” can also be the abbreviation of “street”, possible clues are also “street”, “way” or “road”. And we often say “he is a saint” as a way of saying that he is a very good man, but in that case we don’t (except jokingly) abbreviate “saint” as “St.” My point is that ST does not by itself denote a good man (or woman). Some saints have been good, some have been evil, and some in between, while what has historically been the most prominent qualification for sainthood, martyrdom, is neither good nor evil by itself. In fact, a simple acceptance of the fact that both good and evil are inherent in human nature — and on a continuum, not in a dualistic way, sometimes in the same person — obviates many a needless philosophical dilemma. When pro-religion advocates point to the many good things that people have done motivated by their faith, one need only respond by pointing  to the many evil things done with the same motivation as well as to the good things done out of innate altruism.

And so, when I write the letters S and T in their appropriate squares referenced by a clue that contains “good man”, I hope that the gnashing of my teeth reaches the setter’s ears.

House style

April 7, 2015

Last week’s issue of The New Yorker carried an article titled “The System,” by Adam Kirsch, about the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. It ran under the Books rubric because it purported to be a review — but was in fact an uncritical summary, devoid of comparison with other sources — of a book titled KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann, a young German-English academic who is a professor at Birckbeck, University of London, specializing in studying the Nazi legal system. Now, KL — an abbreviation of Konzentrationslager — is the abbreviation designating ‘concentration camp’ that is most commonly found in the documents of the Nazi bureaucracy, but to all non-bureaucrats who were there — whether as inmates or as guards — the universally used abbreviation was KZ, sometimes spelled out phonetically as Kazett (pronounced kah-TSETT). I haven’t read Wachsmann’s book, and perhaps the point of view that he wants to give is precisely that of the administrators, though no such aspect comes through in the “review.”

In fact, Kirsch persistently uses the abbreviation KL when referring to concentration camps in his article, or at least probably did so in the version that he submitted. In the printed version the abbreviation appears as K.L., with periods, just as SS appears as S.S. This is because the New Yorker’s house style dictates that abbreviations which are not acronyms (such as NATO) carry periods: N.G.O. not NGO, and so on. This sort of makes sense if the abbreviation consists of the initials of individual words. But this is not the case in German, in which the abbreviated words are single compound nouns (SS, similarly, stands for Schutzstaffel). In fact, it would be a reasonable rule that an abbreviation that is borrowed from another language should be left as is. But the New Yorker’s tyrannical and famously quirky house style allows no deviation.

[I should add here, for the sake of honest reporting, that in some typed documents from concentration-camp administrations the abbreviation does appear as K. L., as seen below; but this comes from an office (Häftlingsschreibstube) manned by inmates, not necessarily German, and is not standard German practice.Transportlisten]

One of the joys of being self-published is the freedom from adhering to a publisher’s house style. I enjoy this freedom in this blog and in my novels published on Amazon Kindle. And when my book Plasticity Theory was reissued by Dover Publications, it was my own PDF of the book that was printed, since Dover, being a reprint specialist, has no house style of its own. It was a very different matter when dealing with a first-tier publisher for a mechanics textbook that I recently wrote with a colleague. While the copy-editors nominally consulted us about some changes, they made a great many more without any such consultation, and the book as it came out was in many ways (though, I hope, not in its substance) a disaster. We were able to persuade the publisher to issue a second edition, in which we took care to make everything conform to house style as much as possible. Our contract for the new edition has just been approved, and all I can do now is hope for the best.

More calf to the board

April 5, 2015

I wrote a post the other day about word-for-word mistranslations of the titles of some novels by Mario Vargas Llosa. I didn’t mean to limit myself to MVL, but I ran out of time. So I would like to add a few more.

Let me start with a very famous one: Gabriel García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad, known in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

OK, cien does mean ‘one hundred’ or ‘a hundred’. But Latin cultures don’t treat numbers as precisely as Germanic ones. The Spanish Golden Age is known in Spanish as el Siglo de Oro, which, as the Wikipedia article makes clear, “does not imply precise dates and is usually considered to have lasted longer than an actual century.” In a famous bolero titled Cien años, the singer declares “y si vivo cien años, cien años pienso en ti” (‘if I live a hundred years, for a hundred years I will think of you’) without ever implying that exactly 100 years are meant, only a long time. On the other hand, in English ‘one hundred’ sounds even more precise than ‘a hundred’, which allows a little slack in popular usage.

And soledad does mean ‘solitude'; it also means ‘loneliness’. In English these are very different states, the former being one of dejection and the latter one of freedom. It would seem clear from reading the book that GGM’s soledad as a characteristic of the Buendía family is loneliness, accompanied by sadness.

And so, what would be a good translation of the title? In the 1955 song Unchained Melody there appears the line “A long, lonely time”. I think this would convey the intended meaning perfectly.

Of course, the mother of “calf to the board” translations is the title under which François Truffaut’s film Les Quatre Cents Coups released in English: The 400 Blows. This word-for-word mistranslation has been discussed for a long time (as in Wikipedia), but I would like to add that one possible clue to the origin of the idiom “faire les quatre cents coups” is precisely the fact that the word coup has a great many meanings besides ‘blow’, especially in the form coup de followed by another noun, and that quatre (like Spanish cuatro or Italian quattro) doesn’t always mean ‘four’ but can mean ‘a few’, and so quatre cents means ‘a few hundred’, that is, a lot; and so faire les quatre cents coups means doing a lot of the things that can be called coup.

And as long as we’re at the movies, let me bring up a retitling that is a non-translation: Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos was released in the US as Cria! Now, this word means absolutely nothing in English, and it can’t possibly be a Spanish word, because in Spanish an exclamation mark after a word or phrase requires an upside-down one before it. The Spanish word cría, with an acute accent on the i, as a noun means ‘litter’ or ‘baby animal'; but in the title it’s the singular imperative of the verb criar meaning ‘raise’, ‘rear’, ‘bring up’ or the like. Cría cuervos means ‘Raise ravens’ (the title under which the film was released in the UK), and just as to someone who knows French “les quatre cents coups” brings to mind the full phrase “faire les quatre cents coups“, so to someone who knows Spanish (as explained here) it is an anapodoton for the saying Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos.

Calf to the board

April 2, 2015

Not quite by coincidence, I recently read Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, El héroe discreto, just as the English version was coming out amid critical hoopla. The title of the translation is, unsurprisingly, The Discreet Hero. A literal translation, to be sure. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Well, yes and no. I have done some translating in my life, and I have always believed that the title should bear, more or less, the same relationship to the content in translation that it does in the original. Does it, in this case?

I would guess that the English-speaking reader, on seeing a novel titled The Discreet Hero, would assume that it’s about a character who in some way — perhaps ironically — embodies the two qualities named in the title. But in fact this novel is about three such characters. The reader would then wonder: which one of them is the discreet hero? Don Felícito, Don Rigoberto, or Don Ismael?

What about the reader of the original? Well, someone familiar with Spanish literature would know that the title is a conflation of two classic titles from the Spanish Baroque, El Héroe and El Discreto by Baltazar Gracián. The former (1637, The Hero) is “a criticism of Machiavelli, drawing a portrait of the ideal Christian leader”, while the latter (1646, The Complete Gentleman) “described the qualities which make the sophisticated man of the world” (descriptions from Wikipedia). Neither embodies what we nowadays think of a heroism or discretion, but then Gracián was known for his highly idiosyncratic way with words, and in any case what matters is the titles, not the content. Probably not that many people nowadays have read the books, but it’s generally known that they are didactic treatises of a “how-to” variety.

By basing the title of his novel on these classic titles, Vargas Llosa lets us know that he has written a didactic novel, showing us by means of three entertaining examples that one can be brave without being reckless and discrete without being timid. If I had been the translator I would have tried to make the title reflect this. Perhaps How to Be [or Being or On Being] a Discreet Hero, or Discreet Heroes, or maybe, à la Jane Austen, Heroism and Discretion.

Word-for-word translations that don’t convey the intended meaning are famous from the world of menus (for example here). My favorite, which I encountered in Spain in the 1980s, is “Calf to the board” as a translation of ternera a la plancha (which means grilled veal or beef). But they are not what one would expect in the world of literature.

Let’s look at another Vargas Llosa novel, La Fiesta del Chivo, tiled The Feast of the Goat in English. If you scan the title word by word, la does indeed mean ‘the'; fiesta may be translated as ‘feast’ (though in a very limited sense); del means ‘of the'; and chivo means ‘goat’, though also in a limited sense. ‘Goat’ as the name of a species, with no reference to gender, is cabra, and chivo means very specifically a billy-goat. Note that the word is capitalized in the title, implying that it’s used as though it were a proper noun, and El Chivo was in fact one of the nicknames given to Rafael Trujillo (around whom the novel revolves) on account of his notorious randiness. ‘The Billy-goat’ would have been an adequate translation, since “as horny as a billy-goat” is a common English expression. But just plain ‘goat’? No way.

How about fiesta, then? It can, of course, mean ‘feast’ in the sense of a periodic religious holiday, but not in the sense (far more common in English) of a large and sumptuous meal. The title The Feast of the Goat would, I believe, evoke a banquet at which goat is served, or perhaps a religious ritual at which a goat is worshiped or sacrificed.

Needless to say, the book is about none of the above. It’s about a party (by far the most current meaning of fiesta) that is supposed given by the Billy-goat and to which the novel’s female protagonist is invited, except that she turns out to be the only guest and is duly raped by the dictator. The Billy-Goat’s Party would have perfectly conveyed the meaning of the title in relation to the book.

But then there is the case of another Vargas Llosa title that was not translated literally, and should have been. La tía Julia y el escribidor was rendered as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Now, escribidor means ‘scribbler’ or whatever other word one might use for a bad writer. ‘Scriptwriter’ sounds like someone who might be a bigwig in Hollywood or on television, but in this book the character writes silly scripts (yes) for a provincial radio station.

Then there is the mystery, which I’ve never solved, of why Vargas Llosa’s first novel, La ciudad y los perros (‘The City and the Dogs’), was published in English as The Time of the Hero. Perhaps, the book being by a heretofore unknown author, the translator felt freer  But then I never actually read the book.


March 10, 2015

With the possible exception of some Chelsea fans, hardly anybody likes to be called a racist. But these days it’s very easy to be called a racist, if only facetiously, when one expresses an opinion that members of a given ethnic or cultural group are more prone to certain kinds of behavior than those of other groups. I’ve done it myself (facetiously). There’s no need to give examples.

Of course I don’t want to be called a racist. I have experienced racism in its crudest form — that of the Nazis toward the Jews — and I don’t want the term to be trivialized. But like many other people I have found by observation that different ethnic, national or religious groups do in fact exhibit characteristic traits of behavior, some laudable and some not.

Whether such groups constitute “races” is a matter of semantics. Among northern Europeans and their descendants it’s common to use race in  a genetic sense, whether defined by skin color as in North America, or just by ancestry as in Europe; the Jews and the Gypsies constitute races, and to the English even the Irish were a race. In southern Europe the equivalent term (e.g. raza in Spanish) has more of a cultural connotation. Hispanics in the United States often refer to themselves as la Raza, though according to the U.S. Census they may be “of any race”. The term la Raza originated among Spanish intellectuals of the so-called Generation of 98, marked by Spain’s loss of its overseas empire in the wake of the Spanish-American war, and was intended to replace Spain’s position as the metropolis of an empire by that of the motherland (la madre patria) of all the peoples that had inherited its language and culture, be they European colonists, indigenous Indians or Filipinos, or exiled Jews; all of these make up la Raza. The greatest among these intellectuals, Miguel de Unamuno, wrote a poignant article, shortly after Hitler’s rise to power, insisting that la Raza had nothing to do with the Nazis’ biological concept or race.  Even Hitler’s friend Franco, who wrote the screenplay of a film titled Raza, meant it only to denote an ideal of what it means to be a Spaniard.

But because “race” is such a controversial term, perhaps it’s best to follow the practice of most contemporary American anthropologists and avoid using it. In my mind, what determines typical group behavior is the group’s culture, not its ancestry, and the group’s members can be expected to share in these characteristics only of they are brought up in its cultural milieu.

I thought that I would substitute the word “culturist” for “racist” to designate someone who makes generalizations on people’s behavior on the basis of ethnicity. But “culturist” already has a number of meanings: one is “cultivator”; another is “advocate of culture”. On the other hand, the unabridged Merriam-Webster has the word culturalist, defined as “one that emphasizes the importance of culture in determining behavior”. Maybe “emphasizes” is a bit strong; if we simply substitute “believes in” we get the definition of a word that pretty much describes what I mean to say.

And so, if I’m ever called a racist for saying that such-and-such is typical so-and-so behavior, I will say, “No, I’m a culturalist.”

Of course, there is also an obscure philosophical school called culturalism. I don’t know anything about it, so I don’t know if I’m a philosophical culturalist.


Realistic money

February 5, 2015

Last Sunday, in the latest Downtown Abbey episode shown in the United States, Mrs. Patmore revealed that she had come into some money, with which she was going to buy a house in nearby small town or village (whose name, like Cervantes, I don’t want to remember, since it’s probably just as fictitious as Downton). And how much money was that? £300.

Well, I wondered, what does that mean in today’s pounds?

When a news story recounts a monetary transaction that took place in the past, there is usually a parenthetical note saying “x in today’s dollars”. But, according the website MeasuringWorth, there are quite a few ways of calculating the relative worth of money over the years, ranging from the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in the US and the Retail Price Index (RPI) in the UK — the most commonly used measure, often called the “real price” — to the GDP per capita index (called the “income value”), with several others in between. Of course standards of living have varied greatly over the years, and some things that may have been a luxury in the past are now within almost everybody’s reach. MeasuringWorth gives the example of the Ford Model T, which was introduced in 1909 at the price of $850 and would cost almost two years’ wages of a typical worker. By 1925, however, the price was $290, and car ownership was beginning to be the norm in the US. For this price, the 2012 values “range from $3,800 (the real price) to $19,000 (the income value).” Obviously, it’s the latter one that is much closer the price of a new entry-level car, even if the car bears little resemblance to the Model T. In 2015, a Ford Fiesta is advertised at around $15,000 to $16,000 but the actual price, with everything included, is around $18,000 to $19,000. Now the ratio of 18,500 to 290 is very nearly 64, and a 64-fold increase over 90 years is equivalent to a doubling every 15 years, since 2015 − 90 = 6 × 15 and 64 = 26.

For some time I have found the rule of a doubling every 15 years to be a handy guide to a realistic (not “real” in economists’ terms) measure of inflation. Going back to the time when I became an adult, about 60 years ago, I remember that a first-class postage stamp was 3 cents and a cup of coffee 10 to 15. Today first-class postage is $0.49 and a cup of brewed coffee (except in specialty cafés) ranges from $1.50 to $2.50. Now 60 = 4 × 15 and 24 = 16. Note that this factor works quite well for both coffee and postage.

For the last three decades, the Big Mac Index has been a popular measure for synchronic purchasing-power comparison between currencies. But it can also be used diachronically within a given currency. The Big Mac was introduced by McDonald’s in 1967 in a few locations at $0.55, but by 1970 it was popular worldwide, and cost an average of $0.60 in the US. Today it is said to average $4.80 — a factor of 8. Now 2015 − 1970 = 45 = 3 × 15, and  23 = 8. Bingo!

Doubling in 15 years corresponds to an annual inflation rate of about 4.73% (since 21/15  = 1.0473). But this rate also means that the value of money decreases by a factor of 10 over 50 years (since 1.047350 ≈ 10), and by a factor of 100 over 100 years. This last is a convenient, easy-to-remember result, and I like to call my formula the one-hundred rule.

For other time periods the following results hold: 1.6 over 10 years; 2.5 over 20 years; 6.35 (6 can be used, since this is not an exact measure) over 40 years; and 40 over 80 years.

The rule I have described applies, of course, only to the US dollar, which for at least the last century has been the global hallmark of monetary stability. In countries with fluctuating currencies prices for most commodities are usually set in dollars (even in countries nominally hostile to the US, such as Cuba and Iran) and converted to the local currency on a day-by-day basis. What about the pound sterling, then?

The simplest way to deal with the problem of non-dollar currencies is to convert to dollars according to the rates of the comparison years. Until 1940 the pound held fairly steady at $4.86. Now it’s at $1.50. Since the episode takes place in 1924 or 1925, we have to multiply the 90-year inflation factor of 64 by 4.86/1.50 = 3.24, getting around 200 (there is no point in using anything but round numbers). This means that Mrs. Patmore’s £300 is now worth around £60,000. Is it possible to get a three-bedroom house in a North Yorkshire village for about that amount?

Here’s what I found on Zoopla after searching for 3-bedroom houses in North Yorkshire and discounting Middlesbrough, a big city where the real-estate market seems to be depressed:


Skelton-in-Cleveland is, according to Wikipedia, a small town rather than a village, but with a population of around 6,000 it’s close enough. I rest my case.




Multilingual label

January 27, 2015

The eminent sinologist Victor Mair, a frequent contributor to Language Log, likes to post about linguistic oddities to be found  on signs, labels, menus and the like that are written at least partly in East Asian Languages, especially when Chinese characters are involved.

I have before me a box of cookies of the type called mandelbroyt in Yiddish (literally ‘almond-bread,’ sometimes anglicized as mandelbread). They are pretty much the equivalent of what are known as biscotti in North America and cantuccini in Italy, one of many instances where an Italian culinary term is used with a different meaning from what it has in Italian (latte, gelato, prosciutto, marinara, pepperoni…).

Here is the label, with some cookies in the background (the box is made of clear plastic):


The label seems to be bilingual. The Hebrew characters on the second line do, in fact, represent a translation of the English on the first line (kehilla is a Hebrew word meaning ‘community,’ and specifically, at least historically, the organized Jewish community of a city). But a translation into what?

Reading from right to left, the first two words,  השגחת קהילה, mean ‘supervision of kehilla’ in Hebrew. So far so good.

The next character, ד, is a one-letter word pronounced [də] and meaning ‘of,’ but in Aramaic, not Hebrew!

It’s a rule of Hebrew writing, by the way, that one-letter words (mainly prepositions, conjunctions and articles) are attached to the following word. This is not the case if the letters represent abbreviations, but then they must be followed by a period or an apostrophe; most notable are the abbreviations ’י  and ’ה  representing יהוה (Yahweh, which of course must never, never be pronounced).

Now, what follows ד is לאס אנדזשעלעס, which is Los Angeles; but it is transcribed in Yiddish, not in Hebrew, in which it’s  לוס אנג’לס. In the Los part, note that Hebrew uses ו (vav) and Yiddish א (aleph; strictly speaking it should be אׇ) for the vowel represented by o. In Angeles, Yiddish has ע (‘ayin) for the vowels represented by e while Hebrew does not show them. And, finally, for the “soft g” ([dʒ]) sound Hebrew uses ‘ג, while Yiddish uses the trigraph דזש (something like dzsh).

So this simple-looking label is in fact quadrilingual!


January 23, 2015

When I first read about the car-sharing entity called Uber, I assumed that the name would be pronounced as Yuber, in accordance with the usual English way of pronouncing word-initial “long u“: union, usage, uterus, utopia,… But I’ve never heard it pronounced as anything but oober, which makes me think that this is how the company calls itself, and that the name is meant to be interpreted as Latin. Now uber as a Latin adjective means ‘fertile’ or ‘productive’ and as a noun it can mean something like ‘fertile ground,’ but by far the most common meaning is that of ‘(female) breast’ or ‘teat.’ Why a company whose goal is to transport people would call itself that, I don’t know.

And whenever I think of Latin, I think of the many terms used to denote a person of (at least partly) sub-Saharan African descent, especially in America. Such people have been called darkies, Negroes, colored, black, Afro-American, African-American, and in the more distant past also Moors, Abyssinian, and Ethiopian. The geographic inaccuracy of the last three designations doesn’t really matter, any more than the actual color described as black (or, for that matter, white; chessboards and chessmen are not always strictly black and white either). Of course, negro is just the Spanish or Portuguese word for  black.

But then there is the Latin word for black: niger. This, two was commonly used in English to designate people in or from Africa from about the end of the 16th century onward (as was pater for father — it must have been a kind of affectation by educated Britons). Around the end of the 18th century some (but not all) writers began adding a second g, presumably in order to insure a pronunciation closer to the Latin one, rhyming with bigger and not, at least in English, with tiger (though Robert Burns rhymes nigger, vigour and tiger).

And, around the same time as the spelling change, the Latin word became offensive, both in the mouths of those saying it and in the ears of those hearing it. What is it about Latin?

Incidentally, the word nègre plays a similarly offensive role in French, but perhaps not to the same extent. The English version of Jean Genêt’s play provocatively titled Les Nègres  was given the inoffensive title The Blacks. (Conversely, black is now an OK word in French for referring to people of African origin or descent.)


January 7, 2015

Yesterday (January 6, 2015) was, according to the media, a momentous day for California. A hole was dug that represents Jerry Brown’s long-time wet dream: the groundbreaking of the California High-Speed Rail line. I will call it CHSR for now, though I’m sure that in time a more speaker-friendly moniker will be made up.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Jerry Brown. I liked him in the 1970s as Governor Moonbeam, and I like him in the 2010s as Mr. Pragmatic, a role he prepared for in the 2000s as mayor of Oakland and Attorney General.

I also like high-speed rail. 25 years ago I rode the Tokaido Shinkansen from Kyoto to Osaka, and since then I have ridden the TGV in France and the AVE in Spain several times. But, as far as I remember, in none of those trips did I simply go from one high-speed rail station to another. For example, when a few years ago my wife and I traveled on the AVE from Zaragoza to Barcelona, we first took a bus from Jaca that took us directly to the intermodal Delicias station Delicias(where the bus station is integrated with the rail station), and after arriving at Barcelona Sants it was a simple matter to go to another track and board a suburban train (Cercanías/Rodalies) to Barcelona Estació de França, from where we had a pleasant walk to our hotel.

What I am saying is that in the countries that have working high-speed rail lines, these lines are part of an integrated rail system that includes long-distance lines, regional lines and suburban lines, and bus lines as well. California has no such system, and none is being planned, as far as I know. There is a hodgepodge of individual rail lines with little or no connectivity, the nearest thing being Amtrak’s bus service. Even when several lines meet at the same station, the frequency of trains is so low (some run only once a day) and their punctuality so abysmal (since most passenger trains share tracks with, and give way to, freight trains) that making connections is, for the most part, out of the question.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the only station where our suburban system (BART) connects with other rail lines is Richmond, a location that’s convenient for me (I live in El Cerrito) but not for the bulk of Bay Area residents. And, of course, Richmond is not along the planned route of CHSR. If I am still around when CHSR is complete, as is its full extension to the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco (scheduled for completion in 2029 — I was born in 1935 — and we know what scheduled completion dates mean in California), then I could, in principle, take BART to Embarcadero, walk to Transbay and take CSHR to Los Angeles. Otherwise I might have to go to Richmond and take the Capitol Corridor to the San Jose Diridon station — a 54-mile (87-km) trip that takes an hour and three quarters. High-speed rail indeed!

The planning of a high-speed line that is not an integral part of an interconnected system reminds me of a similar situation in North American soccer.

There is an organization, called Major League Soccer (MLS), which functions as the Division I equivalent of the likes of the Premier League, La Liga and the like. There is also a Division II North American Soccer League (NASL) and a Division III USL Pro. But, unlike most other soccer-playing countries, these entities don’t form a league system, with promotion and relegation as a key ingredient (though there has been some “self-relegation” from NASL to USL Pro). The system of promotion and relegation is what makes it interesting to follow games in the lower divisions and those involving low-ranking teams  (at least for people who are not fans of the teams). Without it, one quickly loses interest. Since its lousy record over the past two seasons I have not followed the team that, by dint of geography, I should be a fan of — the San Jose Earthquakes. (I have actually been a fan of the LA Galaxy, partly because I grew up in Los Angeles and partly because their star was my namesake Cobi Jones [the fact that I write my name Coby is an arbitrary choice on my part], though my loyalty faded when he retired and David Beckham joined the team.)

There is also the matter of MLS’s name. With sports leagues in the English-speaking world, if the word league is part of the name, it generally comes at the end (no need to give examples), even when the “league” is not actually a league but a tournament (e.g. Champions’ League). Why does MLS have it in the middle?

My guess is that Major League Soccer is a calque of the very prestigious Major League Baseball (MLB). But MLB is, at least historically, an umbrella organization for the two major leagues, the American League and the National League, which until 2000 were separate legal entities; it was only then that MLB actually became a league.

MLS was formed well before that, in 1995. But then it isn’t really a league either, at least in the conventional sense of “an association of teams or clubs that compete chiefly among themselves” (American Heritage Dictionary); the “teams or clubs” of MLS are not entities that are voluntarily associated with one another, but units of “a single-entity structure in which teams and player contracts are centrally owned” (Wikipedia) by it. So perhaps Major League Soccer should be read as “Major-League” Soccer; a soccer organization that wants to look like a major league but isn’t really.

The Wikipedia article also notes that “one aspect that had alienated fans was that MLS experimented with rules deviations in its early years in an attempt to ‘Americanize’ the sport.” It isn’t just rules deviations; it’s the fact that a 20-team “league” does not, as do other such leagues, play a standard home-and-home schedule of 38 games with the winner as champion, but follows other American sports in dividing itself into “conferences” with post-season playoffs for the championship, and not allowing (as I mentioned above) relegation and promotion. Since real soccer fans like me can follow European and Mexican football on television, it’s no wonder we feel alienated by MLS.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s columnist Jon Carroll wrote in his column today that, as he was riding the TGV, “[he] thought: Wasn’t this supposed to be our future? Wasn’t the United States supposed to produce the best ideas in commercial transportation? Those are rhetorical questions.”

Perhaps smilar questions can be asked about professional sports organizations.



Graph and gram

November 22, 2014

A telegraph is a device or system for sending written messages over long distances. The technology is called telegraphy, and the printed message itself is a telegram.

If the logic of Greek grammar were to be followed, this kind of relationship would hold in general for compounds in which the final element is derived from the Greek verb γράφειν meaning ‘write.’ But it doesn’t. In the technology called photography, it’s the printed result that’s called a photograph, not the device (which is called a camera).

An epigraph is an inscription, or (in literature) a motto or quotation at the beginning of a book or chapter; an epigram is a short, witty saying or poem.

A radiograph is an x-ray photograph; a radiogram is (in American English) a telegram sent by radio.

A pentagram (or pentacle) is a five-pointed star. The word pentagraph is not found in most dictionaries, but it’s found in Wikipedia and means, by extension from digraph, “a sequence of five letters used to represent a single sound (phoneme), or a combination of sounds, that do not correspond to the individual values of the letters.

The best-known example is the German tzsch, which stands the simple sound /tʃ/ (represented in English by the digraph ch), as in Nietzsche. The usual German way of representing this sound is the tetragraph tsch, itself a combination of t and the trigraph sch representing /ʃ/ (in English the digraph sh).

In French, the pentagraph eaulx is one of the many ways of representing the simple sound /o/ a the end of proper names, as in Meaulx, in addition to the tetragraphs eaux and ault (as in Renault) and numerous trigraphs (auxaudaut) and digraphs (os, ot, od); there are probably others. Sometimes one even finds a simple o, as in the case of the actor Jean Reno. But that would be too simple for French; Jean Reno is originally a Moroccan-born Spaniard named Juan Moreno. (Of course, there are many French people with Italian or Spanish surnames ending in o, like the former director of the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello, or the current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo.)


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