Crime report

January 4, 2018

About a year and a half ago I wrote about my favorite series (plural) of detective novels, and I included the Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke with the ones I thought were finished (the last one having been Light of the World, in 2013). I am happy to report that I was wrong. I just learned that a new novel in the series — titled, of all things, Robicheaux — has just been published. I rushed to put a hold on it at my library, and I’m looking forward to reading it soon.

Meanwhile, over the last couple of months I have caught up with the latest Rebus by Ian Rankin (Rather Be the Devil) and the latest Bosch by Michael Connelly (Two Kinds of Trush), as well as what seems to be the onset of a new series by Connelly, featuring a woman detective, Renée Ballard (The Late Show) and written entirely from her point of view (in free indirect style). In addition I read the latest by Tana French (The Trespasser), featuring two detectives carried over from her previous book (The Secret Place)  but written entirely from the point of view (in first-person narration) of the female partner, Antoinette Conway.

Differences in narrative style aside, I was struck by some of the similarities between the latter two novels. In addition to having French first names, both detectives are tall, hard-boiled, rough-talking single women in their thirties; both work the night shift with male partners, are treated unsympathetically (or seem to be) by the other men on their squads, and venture outside their working hours in order to pursue their cases. In both cases the murderer is himself a detective, discovered (by good detective work and a ruse involving a senior detective) after another detective had been a suspect.

The Trespasser came out some nine months before The Late Show. Could the former have inspired the latter?

I have long believed that John Rebus was, in some way, an inspiration for Harry Bosch. The first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, came out in 1987; the first Bosch, The Black Echo, in 1992. Both men are war veterans (Rebus in Northern Ireland, Bosch in Vietnam) and around forty when the series begin. Both are mavericks who often get in trouble with their superiors and get denied promotion or demoted. Both have unsteady relationships with women, each being married once with a resulting daughter (though the circumstances are vastly different). Both work well with women partners. Both are forced to retire but continue working cases voluntarily. Both series abound with local color of Edinburgh and Los Angeles, respectively.

And in both of the recent novels the women detectives are, at last, referred to by their last names, just like the men, unlike, say, Peter Robinson’s (Alan) Banks and Annie (Cabbot) or Elizabeth George’s (Thomas)  Lynley and Barbara (Havers).


Happy holidays!

December 24, 2017

In English, there are two-word phrases that have different meanings, depending on which word is stressed. The meanings may even be opposite: a near-miss is “almost a miss” — that is, a hit that is close to being a miss — while a near miss is a miss that is near (close to) the target but is still a miss.

For another example, a French major is an officer in the French army, while a French major is an undergraduate student of French language and literature.

And, more relevantly, a wish of “a happy new year” is one for the whole upcoming year (as in the song We wish you a merry Christmas), while “happy New Year” (or “New Year’s”) refers to the celebrations around New Year’s Day.

I have always interpreted “happy holidays” to be, primarily, shorthand for “merry Christmas and happy New Year”, though other holidays people may celebrate around the season — Boxing Day, Saint Stephen’s, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Epiphany — may be implied obliquely. (The inclusion of Hanukkah is iffy, since it often occurs well before the Christmas season, and there is no Jewish tradition of “happy Hanukkah” wishes.)

The insistence of Fox News, Donald Trump and the Christian right on the replacement of “happy holidays” with “merry Christmas” is not so much the end of a nonexistent “war on Christmas” but the beginning of a WAR ON NEW YEAR and, secondarily, on such Christian (especially Catholic) holidays as Saint Stephen’s and Epiphany as well.





December 20, 2017

As a PBNN (primary but not native) anglophone (with English being, chronologically, my fourth primary language) I have an instinctive tendency to compare aspects of English with corresponding ones in other languages that I know.

In particular, I have observed that English is relatively looser with prepositions than other languages, and that there is a good deal of variation in the use of prepositions for specific meanings.

I learned early on that wait on and wait for are verbs with distinct meanings. And yet the use of the former with the meaning of the latter is quite common, and seems to be quite old, at least in some regions (the OED gives a citation from 1694).

I also learned that, while for sale means ‘available to buy’, on sale usually means ‘for sale at a reduced price’. But I often see notices from performance organization announcing TICKETS ON SALE NOW, though upon checking I discover that they are sold at the regular price.

And then there is the American sportscaster’s on, as in “he’s got twelve wins on the season”, where standard English would have “over the season” or “in the course of the season”.

But on isn’t the only preposition that seems to be replacing others. There are two shifts that I have noticed recently, though they may be older than I think.

One: nowadays I usually here announcers on classical-music stations describing a composition as being from, rather by by, its composer. This, interestingly enough, brings English in line with German (von) and Romance (de/di), though it may be a coincidence.

Two: I often hear or read about an organization being based out of such-and-such a place, rather than based in it. This seems strange, since I interpret based as meaning ‘having its base’, and a base would be in a place, not out of it. My guess for this shift is as follows: if an entity has agents operating away from its base, such agents are often referred to as operating out of the location of the base, and based out of is a conflation (a frequent phenomenon in English) of based in and operating out of.



December 19, 2017

Every so often, some American on the left side of the political spectrum gives Donald Trump grudging credit for something positive. Recent examples include Stephen F. Cohen, in The Nation, acknowledging the Trump administration’s moves toward better relations with Russia, and Daniel Wirls, on The Conversation, writing that “Trump’s right about one thing: The US Senate should end its 60-vote majority.”

When I first heard that Trump announced the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I had similar feelings. After all, I thought, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel: it’s where all of its government institutions are, and isn’t that what a capital is? I’ve always been bothered by journalists using Tel Aviv as a synecdoche for Israel, especially when the government was meant. And so I thought that Trump’s “recognition of reality” was to the point.

But then I head a second thought. Maybe it’s too much to insist on one city being the capital of a country. Look at the Netherlands: for all practical purposes the capital is the Hague, and yet the constitutional capital is Amsterdam. In fact, Wikipedia has a list of countries with multiple capitals, and while Israel is not on the actual list, its situation is discussed in the section following it.

Since all the foreign embassies to Israel are in or around Tel Aviv, we might call this city the diplomatic capital, and acknowledge Jerusalem as the political capital.

I know, “political capital” has another meaning, but that’s English for you!



December 14, 2017

During the past ten days there has been storm of contention on Language Log (see here, here, here, here and here), involving sometimes angry exchanges of posts and comments, around the use of singular they — not with reference to an indeterminate person of unknown sex, as is by now generally accepted, except in the stodgiest circles, or even of known sex, as found in Shakespeare — but (as discussed a few years ago by Mark Liberman) referring to a particular person of known gender, and even more specifically to a person identifying as non-binary. The storm was started by Geoff Pullum’s statement that for him “singular they is ungrammatical with a personal name as antecedent.” He added,

I don’t want to offend anyone. But it’s a bit much to expect me to start saying things that are clearly and decisively ungrammatical according to my own internalized grammar. I’ll do my best, but it will be a real struggle.

Despite the disclaimer, numerous people took offense. I have criticized Geoff Pullum on occasion, but I never came anywhere near the vehemence that was expressed in these posts and comments.

It may very well be, however, that if the use by young people as described by Mark Liberman expands, some day they will become the default third-person singular pronoun, just as you has become the second-person one.

What this means in the future (I don’t expect to be around for it) is that, just as with you, people will struggle to find an alternative to plain they as the plural pronoun. Will the Irish say theys? The British they lot or them lot? Southern Americans they-all? Or will the putative “General American” they guys or them guys take over?

Any bets?

Yellow ribbon

December 8, 2017

Las Sunday, as my wife and I were watching Manchester City achieve its second consecutive 2-1 victory with a late winning goal (in the previous game, that goal, by Raheem Sterling, came in the last five seconds of stoppage time), we noticed that Pep Guardiola, City’s Catalonian coach, was sporting a yellow ribbon on his lapel. We were both intrigued, and Pat quickly looked it up in Wikipedia, to discover that “the yellow ribbon started being used in late October 2017 by Catalan separatists as a symbol of the two members of the secessionist organizations ANC and Omnium accused of rioting, sedition, rebellion and embezzlement, and imprisoned to avoid destruction of evidences or escape” and that “Pep Guardiola, notorious follower of the separatist cause, has been seen wearing it”.

I find Pep’s advocacy of Catalonian independence puzzling, though it’s in keeping with the hundreds of estelades displayed by the fans of FC Barcelona, where Pep spent most of his career as a player and achieved fame as a coach.

For I can’t help wondering what would happen to Barça — or, for that matter, to the other Barcelona football club, RCD Espanyol — if Catalonia were to become independent?

In theory, it might be possible for these clubs to remain in the Spanish league system, analogously to the way Canadian teams play in Major League Soccer and Welsh teams in the English league system. (Wales is not independent in the political world but it is so in the soccer world.) But these are agreements between the soccer federations of friendly neighbors. Considering that the very basis for any possible Catalonian independence is hostility toward Spain, this possibility is null.

Since the putative referendum of October 1, many hundreds of businesses have moved their corporate headquarters out of Catalonia, dealing a heavy blow to the region’s economy. But football clubs are not like the movable franchises of North American sports, where the Cleveland Rams can become to Los Angeles Rams and, after moving to Indianapolis and Saint Louis, the Los Angeles Rams once again. They are firmly established local institutions, and none more so than those that are not “clubs” in name only but are true membership organization, of which Barça is one of the few remaining examples (Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are others, with the Green Bay Packers as the only American instance).

And so FC Barcelona would, in the event of independence, become the leading club of a strictly Catalonian league. (La Lliga?) Could it still be one of the world’s iconic entities, with its team colors worn by young and old around the globe? Not likely. No team outside Europe’s Big Five (England, Germany, Italy, France and Spain) can nowadays attain (or, in all likelihood  retain) such a position. Catalonia’s population is less than those of Portugal, Greece, Belgium or the Netherlands. But the days when teams like Porto or Benfica or Sporting or Panathinaikos or AEK or Anderlecht or Ajax or PSV or Feyenoord could reach the late stages of the Champions League (or, before that, the European Cup) seem to be over. The last time such a team appeared in the final was Porto (coached by José Mourinho) in 2004 (they won). This year Porto is the only one from this set of leagues  to have made into the knockout phase.

And who would replace Real Madrid as Barcelona’s archrival? It could only be its derby rival,  RCD Espanyol.

This club has had its present name only since 1995; before that it was RCD Español. The initials RCD stood for Real Club Deportivo (royal sports club), the title having been granted by king Alfonso XIII; it was then Catalanized to Reial Club Deportiu, though deportiu is not actually a Catalan word — the correct word is esportiu — but keeping the initials was deemed more important than linguistic purity. The club was originally founded in 1900 (as Sociedad Española de Foot-Ball) under the leadership of the son of an Andalusian-born physician and politician who, as rector of the University of Barcelona, was notorious for his opposition to the Catalan language. The club, though at first composed mostly of Catalans (of the upper class), thus became a symbol of Spanish nationalism in Catalonia in the same way that FC Barcelona became one of Catalanism.

What, then would be the role of Espanyol in an independent republic of Catalonia? It would certainly no longer be royal, to be sure. Would it still be espanyol? If so, in what sense?

I don’t know.




When Harry met…

November 29, 2017

In all the media frenzy around the engagement between Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle, I have yet to see a reference to the recent movie King Charles III, in which a fictionalized Prince Harry falls in love with a black woman. The play that the film was based on was first produced in 2014, well before Harry met Meghan.

Looks like life imitating art, innit? To be sure, the woman in the play (Jessica Edwards) is working-class English black (and a republican to boot), while Meghan Markle is glamorous American blackish. And the fictionalized Harry gives up Jess in order to remain a royal, while the real one is going to marry Meghan. But still…

On Catalonian independence – 3

November 6, 2017

As the Catalonia crisis evolves, the vindictive actions of the Spanish government toward the leaders of the independence movement become ever more reminiscent — mutatis mutandis — of those of Philip V, mentioned in my previous post. The main difference is that those imprisoned in 1714 were not separatists (independentistes) but Habsburgists (austriacistes) who favored Archduke Charles of Austria as the prospective king of Spain, since they feared that his French rival Philip would take away their historic self-government, as indeed he did, not only in Catalonia but in the other lands of the Crown of Aragon (Aragon proper, Majorca and Valencia) as well.

A specific reminiscence of those times is the revival by the separatists of the pejorative botifler, originally used for the pro-Bourbon faction, to designate anti-independence Catalonians.

Another parallel: then as now, the initial impulse for Habsburgism/separatism came from the region around Vic. In our day, the first two towns to declare themselves “Free Catalan Territory” (on September 3, 2012) are in that region. And, historically, the Habsburgists were also known as vigatans; it was an assembly of landowners and lawyers from that region that sent two representatives to Genoa in 1705 to negotiate an agreement with a representative of Queen Anne that would provide England’s support for the Catalonian cause. Perfidious Albion, to be sure, broke the agreement in the Treaties of Utrecht in 1713. But some sympathy for the cause persisted (see here and here), and today most of the journalism sympathetic to the independence movement is to be found in the British press.

It remains to be seen what happens if the independence movement once again wins a majority in the parliamentary elections called for December 21. Will Rajoy emulate Philip by trying to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy?




On Catalonian independence – 2

November 1, 2017

In my previous post I mentioned that the Popular Party of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy does not enjoy much support in Catalonia. Rajoy’s administration is regarded by many, perhaps most, Catalonians as especially unfriendly to their land, and the greatest Catalan of our age, the bilingual singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat, has called it “factory of separatists”.

This, too, is reminiscent of the dynastic past. In the War of the Spanish Succession most of Catalonia sided with the Habsburgs, and one result of the eventual victory (in Spain) of the Bourbons, in the person of Philip V, in 1714 was a policy of repression in Catalonia, including especially the banning of the Catalan language from official use and the abolition of Catalonia’s institutions. A petty example of this policy is Philip’s closure of all the universities in Catalonia and the opening of a new one in the small city of Cervera, which had been pro-Bourbon.

Indeed, the same Catalonian nationalists who regard 987 as the beginning of Catalonian independence consider its end to be in 1714, and the date of the final defeat, September 11, is the National Day of Catalonia.

But what was this independence? According to Spanish nationalists, after all, it never existed. Let’s look into the matter.

What may have become de facto independent in 987 was a set of counties ruled by Borrell II. In the Frankish kingdom (Francia) the counties (pagi) had been established around 800 by Charlemagne as administrative units. each headed by a governor (comes or count) named by the king, and supervised by roving royal commissioners (missi dominici).  This system continued in the western kingdom (Francia occidentalis) that split off in 843, but toward the end of the 9th century the power of the kings waned and the counts came to name their own successors, usually their sons, thus establishing the feudal dynasties of Europe. The first count of Barcelona to do so was Wilfred the Hairy (878-897), starting what came to be known as the House of Barcelona. He was the direct ruler of several neighboring counties as well (in particular, those of Osona and Girona were never again to be separated from Barcelona), and was accepted as overlord by others.

This kind of rise to prominence of one count over the others in a given region happened elsewhere in the kingdom. Often these counts took the name of the whole region as their title, so that the counts of Troyes and Meaux became counts of Champagne, and in several cases they became dukes, as those of Burgundy (originally counts of Autun). But the counts of Barcelona (like those of Toulouse) were content with their original titles, along with a listing of all the additional domains that they ruled.

The first reference to Catalonia as a geographic entity dates from early in the 12th century. It was recognized as a legal entity a little later in that century, after the counts of Barcelona had become simultaneously kings of Aragon. Since the 14th century it has been referred to as a principality (principatus).

Now, “Prince of Catalonia” was never used as a monarchic title in Spain (though it was used in legal texts); it was understood that “count of Barcelona” meant that. In the listing of the many titles held by the kings of Aragon, it came directly after the list of the kingdoms and before the titles (such as duke and marquis) that technically ranked above that of count. But elsewhere in Europe the title was used; the Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain), for example, called himself as Fürst zu Cat[h]alonia/princeps Cat[h]aloniae in documents issued in his non-Spanish dominions.

Catalonia, then, was a monarchy of sorts that was in personal union with the kingdom of Aragon and later with the other kingdoms that those rulers acquired (Majorca, Valencia, Sicily etc.), and ultimately also with that of Castile, first with Ferdinand the Catholic upon his marriage to Isabella (until her death) and, for good, beginning with Charles V.

Charles and his Spanish Habsburg successors are known in Spain as the House of Austria, with de Austria being their formal surname, used in particular by illegitimate but recognized offspring who are mistakenly called “of Austria” in English, like this one.

The Spanish Habsburgs continued — as did their Austrian counterparts — the ancestral Habsburg policy of leaving their various domains as self-governing entities. And Catalonia maintained its laws, language and political institutions until they were replaced by the Bourbons, whose French tradition was the opposite — one of centralized rule. This explains Catalonia’s choice in the War of the  Spanish Succession.

But can Catalonia be said to have been independent during those centuries of personal union?

No one would deny that in our days Canada, Australia and New Zealand are independent countries, even though they are all monarchies in personal union with the United Kingdom. But then, nowadays the British monarch reigns but does not rule; the actual governing is done by the parliaments and governments of the respective countries.

It was different in the centuries before the 20th, when monarchs actually ruled, and the constituent units of a personal union, for all their internal self-government, were not really free to adopt policies that were independent of the ruler. And so, Catalonian autonomy — yes. Independence — not really.

On Catalonian independence – 1

October 28, 2017

It’s a common trope among Catalonian* separatists (independentistes) to describe Catalonia’s relationship to Spain as one of colony to empire (see here, for example). It’s no coincidence that the movement has replaced the official flag of Catalonia (the senyera, 1) with a lone-star version (estelada, 2) that is modeled on the flags of Cuba (3) and Puerto Rico (4), former colonies of Spain.

senyera estelada-01211439 cuba  puerto-rico-flag

 (1)                     (2)                        (3)                    (4)

But I think that a better model for the relationship is that between a vassal and a suzerain in the feudal system of medieval Europe. Indeed, Catalonian nationalists (not necessarily separatists) celebrated 1987 as the millennial of Catalonia’s first independence because of what did not happen in 987: Count Borrell II of Barcelona did not pay homage to his overlord Hugh Capet, king of the Western Franks, when the latter was  unable to give him military support against the invading Moors.

The present situation, with the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, dismissing the government of Catalonia and replacing it with appointees from his own political party, is reminiscent of what happened in Austria in 1276, when the emperor Rudolf I (of the house of Habsburg) dismissed Ottokar II (who was also king of Bohemia) from the dukedom of Austria and placed the lands under direct imperial administration, to be governed by his sons.

Of course, the originally Swabian Habsburgs remained as rulers of Austria until 1918. Rajoy, on the other hand, has promised to hold new elections in Catalonia on December 21, and it’s unlikely that his party (the modern equivalent of a medieval dynasty), the Partido Popular, will do any long-time governing there, not being very… popular in Catalonia: it got 8.5% of the vote in the last election. Most of Catalonia’s center-right vote goes to the main nationalist party, formerly Convergència and now PDeCAT.


*I prefer to use “Catalonian” rather than “Catalan” when referring to the territory (the so-called principality) of Catalonia; I use “Catalan” for the language, culture and ethnicity, both inside and outside this territory. I like to make this distinction whenever the English language allows it, as with Somali and Somalian, Slovak and Slovakian, and even Greek and Grecian. This way I can talk, for example, about Catalonian Catalan as distinct from the Balearic and Valencian varieties of the language. What’s more, the French sculptor Aristide Maillol and the Valencian writer Joan Fuster considered themselves Catalans, but they were not Catalonians.