May 19, 2016

On Saturday, May 28, two soccer games with similar names will be played. One is called The Championship playoffs final. The other is the Champions League final. Which is more important?

Well, “The Championship” is the name euphemistically given to what is the top division of England’s Football Leage, which is actually the second division of English soccer, because the first division, the English Premier League (alslo known as Barclays Premier League) is a separate organization from the Football League. And the playoff is a tournament, among the third- to sixth-place finishers, meant to choose the third team to be promoted into the Premier League (the top two finishers get promoted automatically).

The Champions League, on the other hand, is not a league but also a tournament among the very top teams throughout Europe and those parts of Asia covered by UEFA. The winning team is usually honored as the greatest team in Europe, if not in the world.

But which is more lucrative? Well, the winning team in the Champions League earns €15 million and the losing team €10.5 million. So, winning is worth €4.5 million, for a team which is likely to be valued at several billion.

And The Championship? It has been reported that promotion to the Premier League may be worth as much as £200 million, even if the team stays in the top league for only one season.

So, there’s more than one way to measure importance.


May 19, 2016

The Associated Press story reporting on yesterday’s death of the historian Fritz Stern includes this information:

He was born in the former German province of Silesia (now in Poland) to a prominent family that had converted from Judaism to Christianity. But the Sterns felt increasingly menaced by Hitler’s reign and left in 1938 for New York…

Why “but”?

Apparently someone at AP thought that there was a contradiction between conversion to Christianity and being menaced by Hitler. That is, they are confusing Judaism — a religion — with Jewishness as an ethnic or “racial” category. To Hitler, of course, it was only the latter than mattered. In other words, his regime persecuted Jews, not only those who also happened to be Judaists.

A common confusion, to be sure.


May 6, 2016

A few weeks ago I published a post titled “Cities,” and just the other day one titled “M Cities.” Here I go again, with “City.” And they have nothing to do with each other.

In the Unites States, on forms that require someone to fill in their address, the space for street address is almost invariably followed by “City, state, ZIP code.” There is one big exception: federal tax forms, in place of “City,” have “City, town or post office.” But state tax forms, at least in California and New York, have the usual “City.”

This has never been a problem for me. All the places where I have lived in the US have been cities, and in every one of them the name of the post office has been the same as the name of the city. So that there has never been any doubt about writing Los Angeles, New York, Berkeley, or El Cerrito.

But there are many possibilities where this might not be the case.

First of all, many Americans do not live in cities. They might live in incorporated municipalities that are not called “city” but town, township, borough or village — the federal “town” is, I suppose, a stand-in for any of these — or in unincorporated areas. The post office serving such an area may or may not have the same name as the corresponding locality; sometimes it is, in fact, that of a nearby city, possibly leading a correspondent to believe that the person lives in the city in question. A case in point is the unincorporated area of East Los Angeles, whose addresses are listed as Los Angeles.

Next, there is the case of large cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, that have annexed nearby localities which nevertheless have kept their postal names. In New York, only Manhattan addresses have New York, NY as the “city”; otherwise it’s Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island, or any of the various district that make up Queens. In Los Angeles, the districts of the San Fernando Valley, the western area (West Los Angeles and Westwood) and the harbor area (San Pedro and Wilmington) have their own post offices. Addresses in Hollywood can be either “Hollywood” or “Los Angeles”, and the ZIP-code areas of the separate city of West Hollywood overlap with those of Los Angeles, leading to further confusion. I have often found in online searches for my mother’s house, located in Los Angeles, listed as being in West Hollywood because of a shared ZIP code. Similarly, when I lived in the Thousand Oaks district of Berkeley,  whose ZIP code is shared with the nearby village of Kensington (I call it a village — it’s an unincorporated area with some limited self-government), I would sometimes get mail addressed to me as though I lived in Kensington. (One time this created confusion with a tax return: Kensington is in a different county from Berkeley and, since at the time the two counties had different locations for mailing tax returns, some clerk at the Internal Revenue Service confused ZIP codes with counties and informed me that I had sent my return to the wrong place.)

And then we have neighboring cities where an area of one city is served, for the convenience of the Postal Service, by a post office located in the other city. An example of this is half a mile from my house, where San Pablo Avenue divides El Cerrito on the east from Richmond on the west, but both sides of the avenue are served by the El Cerrito post office. There are thus businesses on the Richmond side that not only have an El Cerrito address but even put “El Cerrito” in their names, but are not in El Cerrito.

Also, the eastern portion of the Berkeley campus of the University of California lies within the city of Oakland, but of course the university’s installations in that area, including the Lawrence Berkeley (sic!)  National Laboratory and the Lawrence Hall of Science, carry the university’s Berkeley address and are thought of by most people as being in Berkeley.

In the United Kingdom, the Royal Mail has created the concept of “post town” to cover all addresses, it being understood that the post town is not necessarily the same as the actual town (or city or borough or whatever) where the address is located. How about “postal city” to cover the same need in the US?







M Cities

May 5, 2016

Cities whose names begin with M (primarily Madrid, Manchester, Milan and Munich and occasionally Marseille and Monaco) have historically fielded power teams in European soccer; of the 60 European championships played to date, almost half (29) of the winners have represented these cities. But  this year’s semifinal was the first in which all four teams where from M cities: Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Bayern Munich. And the final, between the two Madrid clubs, will be played in Milan!

Catalanisms in Mexican Spanish?

April 25, 2016

The San Francisco Bay Area has numerous streets and institutions nutamed Alemany, Portola and Serra, and a few named Alberni, Palou and Yorba. These are all Catalan surnames belonging to bigwigs (political and ecclesiastic) during the Spanish and Mexican domination of California. (Palou and Serra were Majorcans, the others Catalonians.) Elsewhere in Mexico, however, one is hard put to find Catalan surnames; they are nowhere near as common among Mexicans as they are among Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. It appears to me, from what I have managed to find out from reading, that until the nineteenth century Catalans who went to the Indies to make their fortune tended to return home once they had made it and so did not leave many descendants in those countries that were no longer under Spanish rule. In Wikipedia’s listing of  Mexican people of Catalan descent, most of the names belong to people who are twentieth-century immigrants from Spain or their immediate descendants.

But, oddly enough, Mexican Spanish seems to have more elements that correlate with Catalan than any other variety of Spanish besides that spoken in Catalonia itself. Here are some examples.

Nomás, seemingly a calque of només, is the common word for ‘only’, not solamente or solo.

Estimado/a, like Catalan estimat/da, is usually used for ‘dear’ in the salutation of a letter, not querido/a.

Mande, almost the equivalent of Catalan mani’m, is the usual response to hearing one’s name called or to not catching what was said, not or cómo.

Almuerzo is, as in Catalonian Spanish, the equivalent of esmorzar, a mid-morning snack, and not lunch as elsewhere.

I would need to know more than I do about the presence of Catalan-speakers in Mexico during the formative era of Mexican Spanish before I could say that these are indeed Catalanisms. Hence the question mark in the title.


Spain and Syria

April 22, 2016

Yesterday I heard a radio interview with Adam Hochschild, the author of a recently published book about American fighters in the Spanish Civil War. Hochschild pointed out the great disunity among the various factions supposedly fighting on the Republican side — Stalinists, Trotskyites, anarchists, Catalonian and Basque separatists, and others — as being among the factors (aside from the lack of international support, except by volunteers) that led to their defeat by the highly unified nationalists led by Franco.

The nationalists were, of course, rebelling against the Republic, the legitimate government of Spain.

In Syria it is Bashar al Assad who is, technically, the legitimate head of state. But he is a ruthless dictator very much in the Franco mold, and the various rebel groups fighting his forces can be readily likened to the anti-Franco groups in Spain. And, like the letter, they are spending as much energy fighting one another as they are Assad. Similarly, they receive only token support from governments that would be expected to favor them, be they Western democracies or Sunni autocracies, while Assad receives substantial support from Putin much as Franco did from Hitler and Mussolini.

Marx was wrong. Here we have tragic history repeating itself as tragedy, not farce.


April 11, 2016

A little over a year ago I published a post in which I proposed a simple rule for comparing the prices of things across the years.  I call it the “one-hundred rule” because it postulates that, at least since about 1900, prices — in US dollars — have been increasing a hundredfold in 100 years. It corresponds to an annual inflation rate of 4.73%, and also means that prices double every 15 years. I have found that it works quite well for such disparate products and services as postage, coffee, hamburgers, hotel rooms, cars (at least from the time that they were in general use) and even houses in rural England (with reference to Downton Abbey).

Some products or services, however, cannot be compared over a long time span.  As I noted in the post, the price of a Model T Ford automobile dropped considerably in the decade after its introduction, as car ownership gradually became the norm, and the formula works only from the later point in time (1925).   Similarly, a telephone call nowadays is a very different process from what it was half a century ago.

And while the formula works reasonably well with respect to bouroadly based housing costs, it fails spectacularly when it comes to housing in cities. A personal example: in 1966 (exactly half a century ago) my then-wife and I bought a small house in Berkeley (California) for $16,900 and sold it six years later for $22,300. This is a factor of 1.32, and 1.04736 = 1.32 — perfect! But according to the rule the price should now be ten times what we paid, that is, around $170,000. Instead, it is estimated at between $700,000 and $800,000. Yikes!

What has happened is that city living in early-21st-century America is not what it was in mid-20th century, and though the house is physically the same (there is no record of any expansion), it no longer represents the same thing. In the 1950s and 1960s middle-class Americas, on the whole, didn’t like living in cities. The very rich, of course, had their mansions and town houses as well as their country homes, but the middle class opted for something in between, which was the suburbs. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which was designed in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, reflects the attitude of the time: what it does is connect the urban core that includes downtown San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley (where the University of California is) with the suburbs (including those that are within the legal city limits); what it does not do is facilitate movement among various parts of the metropolitan area that don’t happen to lie along the lines going through downtown Oakland and San Francisco.It is, in other words, not a metro like those in other big cities around the world, but a commuter railroad comparable to the RER in France, the S-Bahn in Germany or the Cercanías in  Spain, with the big difference that the European systems are integrated with their countries’ mainline railroad networks, including high-speed trains, while BART is not integrated with anything; it doesn’t even use standard railroad gauge.

The absence of a true metro makes Bay Area living more cumbersome and more dependent on driving.  (While Washington has something called Metro, it’s also a radial system like BART.)

The change from a time when “inner city” was a pejorative to the present situation, when it is desirable enough to have caused a hyperinflation in urban housing costs (except in places like Detroit), may have occurred some time around the 1980s, when air travel got cheaper and more Americans traveled to Europe, discovering the tree-lined boulevards with bicycle lanes, the sidewalk cafés (hitherto banned in the US for supposed health reasons) and other pleasures of city living. But, as a result of planning decisions made in an earlier age, convenient public transportation is not one of them.

Bernie’s Jewishness

March 9, 2016

At the Democratic presidential debate in Flint last Sunday, a woman in the audience was inexplicably called on by CNN to ask what I can only characterize as a stupid question: about the candidates’ relationship to God. Bernie Sanders’ answer was all about moral principles, with no mention of Judaism. Perhaps as a followup, Anderson Cooper then asked Bernie about published reports that he had been reticent about his Jewishness. Bernie’s response was that he was proud of being Jewish, and it was framed entirely in terms of family and history, with no reference to God or religion.

I was very happy to conclude that Bernie is just like me in yet another respect (besides what I wrote about here): he is a Jew but not a Judaist (as I have discussed here). That I am an atheist, while Bernie seems to be some sort of deist who identifies God with morality, is not really relevant to this point.

The conflation of Jewishness (ethnicity) with Judaism (religion) is something I am sensitive about. It is very common in the West (where ethnic nationality is not generally recognized), not least among many Jews themselves. And so, while several media reports about the debate had misleading references to “Bernie’s Judaism,” there were at least two stories in right-wing Jewish media (here and here) with the headline “Bernie Sanders is not a Jew.” These media represent what my hero Uri Avnery calls the “national-religious” tendency, which is becoming ever more dominant in Israel, and which reminds me of the “national-Catholicism” (nacionalcatolicismo) of Franco’s Spain.

I have no problem with Israel being a Jewish state (though not, as Bibi Netanyahu would have it, a “Jewish nation-state”). Israel’s neighbors are, after all, officially Arab states: they are all members of the Arab League, and two of them (Egypt and Syria) have “Arab Republic” as part of their official names, even though both countries have substantial non-Arab minorities. Just like Israel, they are not nation-states in the Western mold (in which nationality is essentially identical with citizenship), but national states (as are typical of east central and eastern Europe) with a dominant, ethnically defined, nation (for which the state is the homeland) and recognized national minorities. (I have written a number of essays on this subject,)

And so, back to Bernie: he is a Jew just like me, not as some national-religious fanatics would define it.


February 29, 2016

It seemed strange. Leonardo DiCaprio, last night’s winner of the best-leading-actor Oscar for his role in The Revenant, appeared in the clip shown from the movie (which I haven’t seen) to have the linguistic skill to have mastered an indigenous American language. But when, in his thank-you speech, he named the director with whom he must have spent many months in close contact, he could not pronounce the word Iñárritu; ignoring the tilde and the acute accent, he came out with something like “innerEEtoo”, which sounds more Star-Wars-ish than Basque.

When the director won his award, he was presented as Alejandro G. Iñárritu, which is how he has been credited for the past couple of years; before that he used his full name in the Spanish fashion, Alejandro González Iñárritu. But nowadays he is often referred to (for example, in the latest issue of the The New Yorker) even more simply as Alejandro Iñárritu. I wouldn’t be too surprised if this eventually becomes his credit name; middle initials aren’t all that frequent in Hollywood, and then mainly if the first and last names are rather common (Edward G. Robinson, Michael J. Keaton…).

If that happens, then he wouldn’t be the first Hispanic artist (I mean one from a Hispanic country, not a “Hispanic American”) to drop his very common paternal surname (of the type ending in -z)  in favor of his more uncommon maternal one. Antonio Banderas was originally José Antonio Domínguez Banderas (though he used the shortened from the beginning of his career). Pablo Ruiz Picasso became Pablo R. Picasso and then Pablo Picasso. (Picasso, incidentally, is an italianized form of the Spanish Picazo, taken on by a maternal ancestor who served in the navy of the Kingdom of Naples, under Spanish rule at the time.)

The -z names, mostly ending in -ez but occasionally in -az (Díaz) or -iz (Ruiz) are originally patronymics; they are often glossed as “son of” but there is nothing in the form to indicate that, and they have from the beginning been used for daughters as well; for example, the daughter of Rodrigo Díaz El Cid were named Cristina and María Rodríguez. (Note: I am writing these names in the modern Spanish way, with an acute accent on the penultimate syllable; these would not have been there before 1900 or so, and I think it’s anachronistic, for example, to write — in English — the name of the New Mexico senator Dennis Chavez, whose family had been American for many generations, as Chávez.)

The -z ending seems to come from the Goths, who spoke a Germanic language, and in all likelihood represents the -s possessive common to all Germanic languages. These names are therefore equivalent to English surnames like Williams, Davis and Jones, typically native to southern England and Wales, as distinct from the Scandinavian-influenced -son names in northern England and Scotland.

While the -z names are, along with García, among the most common in Hispanic countries, one rarely finds them on the jerseys of soccer players from those countries; one is much more likely to find a given name or a nickname, such as Raúl (González), Alexis (Sánchez), James (Rodríguez), Pedro  (Rodríguez), Chicharito (Javier Hernández). Míchel (Miguel González) and many others.  In Spain, many footballers (like their Brazilian counterparts) like to be known by their nicknames (Isco, Koke, Juanfran) even if their surnames are not of the common type, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in Hispanic America.

Hispanics have a strange relationship with their surnames. I will have more to say about it.


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.


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