Friday, October 14, 2016

The awkwardness of "Awkward"

I've come across another word that describes itself. 

Stare at awkward long enough and I think you'll agree with me. What an awkward word,  with that wkw in the middle. It turns out to be a combination of the Middle English adjective “awk” and the directional suffix “-ward.”

It seems  “awkward” was coined in the 1300's in Scotland and northern England, where it meant “turned in the wrong direction”.  The word "awk" meant the wrong way round, backhanded. Other possible meanings are sinister, ominous, perverse.

Here’s an example of the sinister/ominous meaning of "auke" from Philemon Holland’s 1600 translation of Livy’s history of Rome and the Roman people. In this passage Livy refers to those who disparage the Roman practice of augury:

Now let them mocke on and scoffe at our religions. Let them deride our ceremonies. What makes matter (say they) if those pullets pecke or eat not? What if they come somewhat late out of their coupe or cage? What if a bird sing auke or crowe crosse and contrarie? How then?

And here's a late example from 1674, where perhaps perverse is meant. It's in a scientific treatise from the 17th century clergyman Nathaniel Fairfax: 

What we have hitherto spoken, will seem to have less of auk in it

That is, what we have hitherto spoken, will seem less perverse.   Fairfax was keen to use native English words only, and I suspect that by 1674, having “less of auk in it” already sounded old-fashioned, or dare I say, awkward.  (I have more on Nathaniel Fairfax and the context of this quotation in an appendix.  It interests me because of a connection to the history of science. He seems to have been exploring some of the thoughts that gave rise to calculus at about the same time.)

For an early instance of "awkward", there's the Middle English poem Pricke of Conscience (1340): the world thai all awkeward sette (they turned the world all awry).

A bit of etymology

“Awk” is Scandinavian in origin.  Its equivalent in modern Swedish is “avig”. Suppose you were to put a shirt on back-to-front, this in Swedish would be “att ha skjortan avig”, literally to have the shirt the wrong way.  There's a German word "Abweg" meaning the wrong way, which looks as if it ought to be related, but so far as I can tell it isn't. 

I can't account for why,  but it tickles me that the “ward” in awkward has something to do with direction, as in northward, onward, backward, inward, and so on. We can perhaps think of awkward as equivalent to the non-existent word wrongward.

My Shorter Oxford Dictionary tell me that the suffix ”-ward” gives the meaning of having a specified direction, and is connected with the Latin verb vertere (to turn). I find that an especially fruitful piece of etymology as it helps us to think of “–ward” as having the meaning turned in the direction of.  So: turned in the direction of in, turned in the direction of out, turned in the direction of north, etc.  Then there's "toward", and the interesting case of "untoward". In Middle English there was a word “fromward”; which in Old English apparently meant "about to depart; doomed to die; with back turned."

“-ward” can in principle be added to any location, to suggest progressing or pointing towards that place.  As in she raised her eyes heavenward.  Or this sentence from H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898): In the road that runs from the top of Putney Hill to Wimbledon was a number of poor vestiges of the panic torrent that must have poured Londonward on the Sunday night after the fighting began. And in a recently published legal history of New York we find: It was not until the colony became a state that the pendulum of emigration and settlement swung New Yorkward.[1]

I thank the excellent Grammarphobia blog [2] for calling my attention to the awkwardness of “awkward”. It puts me in mind of the opposite case, the mellifluousness of “mellifluous”.  A curiosity I had something to say on back in May.

“Awkward” and “mellifluous”  are autological words, words that describe themselves – or so it seems to me.  

[1] Courts and Lawyers of New York: A History, 1609-1925, Volume 1 (2010) by Alden Chester

[2] The blog is the source of many of the foregoing quotations and I've even plagiarized the title of this post from it. You'll find more information in an email from the blog editors reproduced in the appendix.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

But why did it feel that way?

Soon after the news of the Brexit vote came out, I wrote a piece describing what it felt like. Shock, disbelief, a country I don't recognise, these were some of my thoughts, which seemed to be shared by many of those with whom I am in contact in England, by Guardian columnists, and the like. Since then, I've been puzzling firstly, why these thoughts ... and secondly if they are the right thoughts. 

What were we voting for, we who voted Remain? It's perhaps presumptuous to say “we” because there will be many different we’s but I'm going to make a stab at saying what the we that I belong to voted for.  And the first thing to say is that it was neither the dull economic arguments often put forward by the Remain side; nor was it a vote for the EU that actually exists – the EU that wants to crush the Greek people and hand power to the corporations through TTIP.  Read George Monbiot on this theme: “I’m starting to hate the EU. But I will vote to stay in.”

No, not for what the EU is but what it should be. Equally, for what sort of country Britain should be. A connected and inclusive nation, not an angry island on the edge, in the words of the Guardian editorial two days before the vote. 

This montage encapsulates what I was turning my back on when I voted Remain.

And why was the Leave result so devastating? It appeared to be a vote for the Farage poster that encouraged voters to turn their backs on refugees, for a murky blend of xenophobia, nationalism, humble patriotism, and nostalgia for an imaginary lost age, a rainbow where the malignant merges into the stupid and the stupid merges into the naïve. The racist abuse “go home we voted Leave” that has followed the result, strongly reinforces the point.

Now for the hard bit

Those then were the thoughts that motivated a Remain vote and greeted the result. And up to here was easy enough to write. But what follows has been through several drafts and I'm not sure I've got it right yet. Since the vote there's been another analysis. That the large proportion of working class Leave votes in post-industrial Britain, if you’ll allow me to use that phrase, was a howl of anguish against the status quo. Why vote for what is, when what is is crap. I had a message from England after the vote along the lines of, “Is something good going to come out of all this.  I don't see what it is yet” ... and maybe this is it, that the dispossessed have found a voice. But if so they’ve used it to say the wrong thing. Life is bad! Let’s do what the right wing of the Conservative Party wants and see if that helps!  In the words of Fintan O’Toole writing in the Irish Times, it's a Downton Abbey fantasy rebellion of toffs and servants all mucking in together.

But I'm being dismissive again and I didn't intend that. Lisa McKenzie’s Guardian article “Brexit is the only way the working class can change anything” is worth a read. Writing a week before the vote, she says working-class people are sick of being called ignorant or racist because of their valid concerns. Hmm. What do I say about this ... let’s try: undeniably the Leave campaign was directed to the ignorant and racist. £350m a week for the NHS forsooth! So like it not, the burden of proof is on those who voted Leave.

Stupid to be taken in by this?
But the referendum is a chance for the marginalised working class to have their say, goes the argument. No explanation though of how voting Leave will help, or lessen precarity [1] and fear. Indeed the architects of Brexit hope to undermine workers rights many of which are based on European law. See a TUC report from February, UK employment rights and the EU.

Granted, in precarious employment, it's hard to enforce rights. And in no employment, impossible. But handing over to libertarian free marketers? What kind of answer is that? The drift of McKenzie’s article, and similar ones I've seen, appears to be things are so bad they couldn’t be worse so let’s take a punt on leaving the EU, it might be better, who knows. That may not be stupid or racist, but it is reckless. A recklessness born of desperation, it will be argued. Here I stop. I ought to have said something about the various studies contradicting the the view that immigration is the cause of falling wages. If my essay appears incomplete, I can only apologise.

[1] Apparently I haven't been keeping up, because “precarity” is the new word for the effects on workers of neoliberalism.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Jupiter over Death Valley

To Ballingeary near Cahir, Co Tipperary, on Wednesday to give a talk on a few curious facts about the universe to an ICA meeting (Irish Countrywomen’s Association). An appreciative audience. I showed them some arresting graphics of the relative sizes of the Earth and the other planets - but nothing I produced could match an image which I have just come across showing what Jupiter would look like in our sky if at the same distance as the Moon.


It's as if seen from Death Valley, California, by space artist Ron Miller. At the Moon’s distance (c. 240,000 miles, or 386,000 km) Jupiter appears about 1,600 times larger than the Moon, shown for comparison in the next image:

Jupiter is our solar system’s largest planet, two and half times as massive as all the other planets together.

Miller's images were published in The Atlantic, along with Saturn and the other planets, each hovering over Death Valley

And here’s a link to Ron Miller’s other work.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Brexit referendum - what it felt like

The safety pin - a hastily improvised symbol to oppose post-referendum racism

If you live in Britain and especially in England you won't need to read this because you will know it, and have felt it yourself.  But for those elsewhere I just want to chronicle some of the shock and disbelief that greeted the Brexit referendum. It was on Thursday 23 June, the result coming early on Friday morning. Hard to remember this was only 7 days ago, so much has happened since.  Yesterday I heard an elderly Englishwoman on the radio describing her reaction on Friday morning.  She said it was the most shocking news since the declaration of the Second World War.  A New Statesman columnist wrote “I woke up in a country I do not recognise.”  And myself here in Ireland?  Well, I was so angry and upset that day I couldn’t bring myself to contact anybody even though there were various people I ought to have been in touch with on unrelated matters.

Here are some comments I had from friends over the following couple of days, directly or through Facebook … “Heartbroken, where has my country gone?” … “Terrible. I'm ashamed and embarrassed to be English, and I'm angry and upset” ….  “Feeling gutted, upset and as if living in another country” …. “Cannot believe that Britain has been so *** stupid. Very depressed” … “We had a party here yesterday for our local old friends and they are all very depressed”.  
Two days later in the European soccer championship Iceland faced England and beat them 2:1. I was delighted.  Seeing the England flags and hearing the England supporters singing God Save the Queen turned my stomach. I'm not normally a follower of football; but I know some English people who are, and they had much the same response to the Iceland match as me.  All those I've quoted are English, so far as I know anyway. (I'm stressing English because Scotland voted clearly to remain in the EU, so did Northern Ireland. Wales followed England, why I ask myself.)  

I'm recording all this partly for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand, and partly for my own benefit to come back to in years to come.

Something I should like to do and maybe shall in the next few days, is to analyse just why I and so many others feel this way. I've been sucking my pen wondering what to write next. Won't comment on the current political situation in Britain as it's moving too fast.  But one thing does need mentioning, and that’s the reports of racism unleashed by the Brexit vote. 

There's a 6-minute interview worth listening to, from a Canadian radio programme called As it happens.
It's a young British woman named Singh.  She describes racist incidents witnessed in the past few days. The referendum she says, has emboldened people to be racist. They don't feel ashamed to come and hurl this abuse at you like they maybe would have felt before,  they feel they now have a democratic mandate for it. “Go home we voted Leave”.  In a similar vein, here are some reports of racism collected from Twitter over the past few days; all directed against those perceived as being of Muslim heritage - so, absurdly, the racists either don't know or don't care that the referendum was about Europe not Asia or North Africa:-

This evening my daughter left work in Birmingham and saw a group of lads corner a Muslim girl shouting “Get out, we voted leave”. Awful times.

We were accused of bringing sharia law in whilst distributing Remain leaflets yesterday in Southampton

Just arrived at 78% Muslim school. White man stood making victory signs at families walking past. This is the racism we have legitimised.

My 13-year old brother had chants of “bye bye you're going home” at school today. He insisted it was “a joke” but it worries me.

Maybe it's to soon for analysis. Maybe when history comes to be written it will emerge that this spike is post-referendum racism was very localised and short-lived.  I hope so but the signs are not good. There's a Facebook group worth a look called Post Ref Racism.

Linguistic postscript re the word “Brexit”.  Everyone is using it so I've fallen into line, though I resisted it as long as I could.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Fervently hoping for Remain

Well, 24 hours from now the count will be on. I've sent in my postal vote to Remain in the EU, having voted against in the 1975 referendum

At that time I viewed the Common Market as it then was as a club for capitalists, and though the argument can still be made, now is neither the time nor the place to rehearse it. I hope that when I come to look over these words in a year’s time,  I shall find my predictions null and void: but if it's a vote for Leave, I fear not just God Save the Queen being sung in the streets - which I shall be mercifully spared - but a resurgence of fascism both in Britain and across Europe.

Staying in the EU was always going to be a hard sell to those of us on the left according to Billy Bragg writing a few days ago on Facebook.

The treatment of Greece and the threat of TTIP suggest that the European Union is little more than a neo-liberal cartel. He quotes Jeremy Corbyn being merely “7.5 out of 10” in favour of remaining within the EU. [1]

A turning point?

And he refers to the Jo Cox murder last Thursday as a turning point.

Is he right to do so? Not widely known before she died, and certainly not to me, this young Labour MP seems to have been murdered in the name of 'Independence for Britain'. She had a passionate belief in the European Union as standing for international cooperation, and had engaged in international humanitarian work in Darfur, Syria and Afghanistan, advocating for the UN-initiated, but dormant, concept of a Responsibility to Protect.

Since her death, says Billy Bragg, none of us on the left can be in any doubt who will be emboldened by a victory for Leave.  Viewed from over here in Ireland, my comment is this was never in doubt, with or without that murder, but no matter. The referendum is a battle for the soul of our country, says Bragg. If we win, we will have to work hard to address the genuine problems that mass immigration causes. We will need to build schools, hospitals and union membership. We will need to give a voice to the forgotten and the marginalised so that they can have some control over their lives and communities. And we will need to reform the EU to make it more about people and less about profits.

Addressing fellow socialists who are tempted to vote Leave, he says that if we do, none of this will be possible. If the libertarians triumph, what's left of our welfare state will be sold to the highest bidder and our workplaces – already the most deregulated in Europe - will be stripped of their meagre protections. The Tory Party will be reborn as shiny suited free market zealots. At the same time the forces of division will be emboldened and anyone doesn't fit in with their warped idea of who does and who doesn't belong will have a life of misery. But if Remain wins, then we will have momentum and the chance to utilise it while the Tories tear themselves apart over Europe.

Everything Bragg says is true, I've no doubt about it. At the end of his article, someone comments that if it was a choice between Weimar and the Third Reich, we would be campaigning for Weimar without hesitation, and I have the feeling there's some parallel to what's happening now.

[1] George Monbiot made a similar argument in the Guardian on 10 February 2016: "I’m starting to hate the EU. But I will vote to stay in."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

In time of war

The image is a directory of post offices printed by the Reichspostministerium in Berlin in July 1944.  It contains information on how to properly address mail with the correct postal code.  I'm intrigued that at the height of the Second World War they would do such thing.  Only ten months to go before Hitler’s suicide. The book contains a map of all the postal districts in the Grossdeutch Reich, at a time when some of these districts, in the Baltic states, were already in Soviet hands. [1] 

And here's another puzzle.  Postcodes were introduced in Germany on July 25, 1941. This was a world first. Unless you count the London postal districts (NW1 etc) introduced by Rowland Hill in 1856. 

Though on reflection I suppose you could say that the German postcodes contributed indirectly to the war effort by making postal workers more productive, thereby releasing some of them for war work.

Let’s accept that.  But how would you justify choosing 1944 to bring out a new edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary?  You could, I suppose, argue that it made civil servants more productive when they were writing memos, though the case is far fetched.  The Shorter Oxford consists of two big tomes, hardly a work to be consulted when you're in a hurry.  So it can only be a matter of pure scholarship, and hats off for that. Were German universities doing the same sort of thing in 1944 I wonder? I've browsed through the German dictionaries at University College Cork and on the web, and the best I could come up with is the Duden spelling and style dictionary published in 1941. It's the official spelling rules in the German Reich and Switzerland, published by the Bibliographisches Institut Leipzig.  

Second World War dictionaries. My Shorter Oxford was not actually printed during the war but the Duden was.

I mention the 1944 edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary because it's the one I have on my shelf. It's a 1962 reprint bought second hand in Bristol in 1967.  I took it down recently to see if the word access is listed as a verb, or only as a noun. As I expected it's listed as a noun only. An example from about 1530 is given “At our access to the pope’s presence” (access here meaning entrance).

From this I infer that in 1944 you couldn’t access something, though today you can. 

Nor in 1944 could you highlight the fact that access used only to be a noun, as the word highlight doesn't occur in the main listing, only in the addenda added in 1956.  I have more to say in this subject but first I need to get my ducks in a row.  An expression I've only ever used once before and I vowed never again, but I've broken my vow.

I started with the postal directory issued by the German post office in 1944, and I'll finish with a couple of postage stamps in my collection issued in April 1945, showing that the post office continued doing what it does to the bitter end.  

The stamps shown above were the final issue by the Reichspost, issued on April 21, 1945. They were commemorative stamps, celebrating the assumption of power by the Nazis, the date being the 12th anniversary of that event.  The stamps were placed on sale in Berlin only, for a few days before the fall of the city to the Soviet Army.

The stamp on the left features a Storm Trooper / Military Police Officer (SA).   The stamp on the right features an Elite Storm Trooper (SS).  Here are some other rather fine stamps issued by the Reichspost earlier that year.:

The grey stamp at the left was issued on January 6, 1945 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of municipal l
aw in Oldenburg. Wow! The pink one was issued in February 1945 to commemorate the proclamation of the Volkssturm (People's Militia) in East Prussia to fight the Russians.

But back to those final stamps. They were delivered on April 21 to six Berlin post offices only. Four of the six post offices seem to have been abandoned on or before the day the stamps were issued, the fifth post office closed on April 25, and the last Berlin post office closed on April 28. The city was overrun on May 2.  It seems that none of these post offices were accepting or delivering mail during this period.  Moreover stamp collectors have been unable to find any authenticated franked copies of these final stamps.  Some apparently franked copies do exist, but philatelists believe they were not used for postage, but are manufactured souvenirs, for sale to occupying troops and personnel after the capitulation. [2]

[1] For more on the post office directory with maps, see USM Books
[2] Source for postage stamp information: Stamp Collecting World

Monday, May 16, 2016

Yellow is not yellow

Image from
The word “long” isn't long, but the word “short” is short.  And riddle me this: “multisyllabic” is multisyllabic, and "pentasyllabic" is pentasyllabic, but “unisyllabic” isn't unisyllabic. On the other hand, “word” really is a word, “noun” really is a noun, and “unhyphenated” really is unhyphenated.  This all began with the verb “to verb”.   Some people critique verbing and would like to elbow it out of the language. I'll blog about that another day; for now let me just  highlight that “to verb” is an instance of itself, like “word” and “noun” - and noticing this, I began to wonder what other examples exist, and is there a name for a word describing itself. 

It turns out there is.   Words that describe themselves are called “autological,” sometimes “homological”.  [1]

Autological words I've already used are “multisyllabic”, "pentasyllabic", “unhyphenated”, “word”, “noun”, and “to verb”.  All those words are instances of themselves.  As I suppose is “mellifluous”.

“Yellow” is not yellow

Most words are heterological, that is to say their meanings don’t apply to them.  “Long” is heterological because, as I noted at the top,  it's not a long word.  Likewise, the word “yellow” is not actually yellow, nor is the word “square” a square. [2]

Autological words seem to have a devoted fan base, and you’ll find lots of websites devoted to them.  Indulge me while I mention a few more:   “erudite” is erudite, “obfuscatory” (designedly unintelligible) is obfuscatory,  and “recherché”  (rare, exotic, or obscure) is recherché.  “Terse” is terse, “twee” (impossibly cute) is twee, “prefixed” is prefixed,  “adjectival” is adjectival, "pronounceable" is pronounceable.  All of these I've found elsewhere, but one I've come up with myself is “noun phrase” which (if I remember my school grammar correctly) is a noun phrase.

I won't weary you with any more.  Henry Segerman  collects them. He has a list of clearly autological words, and a separate list of more doubtful cases.  “Meaningful” is a doubtful case. Yes it has meaning, but is that enough?  Surely to be meaningful you need an above average amount of it (which I don't think “meaningful” has).  Judging from the internet evidence, coming up with autological words is meaningful to many people.


I'll end on a couple of curiosities. “Hellenic” is Hellenic, “English” is English, and “Afrikaans” is Afrikaans. But we must beware of being too quick to suggest others in this category.  Is “Hebraic” Hebraic? “Swedish” certainly isn’t Swedish; nor is “German” German or “Dutch” Dutch, see the following table.  Very few  languages call themselves what English calls them.  Afrikaans and Portuguese are rare exceptions.   As are Indian languages - so far as I know, “Hindi”, “Urdu” and “Gujarati” are respectively Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati. 

My last curiosity is this: does "heterological" describe itself?  If so, it’s autological, because that’s what autological words do, they describe themselves.  But wait!  If "heterological" is autological, then it doesn't describe itself.  Which makes it heterological; so it actually does describe itself, meaning it's autological. Welcome to the Grelling-Nelson Paradox.  The link is to a Wikipedia article which I don't entirely follow. For example it casts doubt on whether “autological” is autological, which to my mind is indisputable.

Finally a thank you to Pat O’Conner & Stewart Kellerman of the grammarphobia blog.  It's to them I turned when I first noticed that “to verb” and “word” are instances of themselves, and I wanted to know if there were other examples of this phenomenon, and is there a name for it. They sent a full reply from which most of the foregoing, and the notes below, are culled.


[1] The adjective “autological” originally had to do with self-knowledge when it first entered English in the 18th century. It came from the rare 17th-century noun “autology” (self-knowledge or the study of oneself), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a new meaning emerged in the early 20th century, the OED says, when “autological” was used to describe a word, especially an adjective, “having or representing the property it denotes.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of the word is from a paper by F. P. Ramsey published in 1926 in Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society: “Let us call adjectives whose meanings are predicates of them, like ‘short,’ autological; others heterological.”

[2] See article by the linguist Arika Okrent : I've used several of her examples.