‘You’re occupiers. You are fascists. Why the fuck did you come here with your guns?’ This is the widely shared video of an anonymous woman confronting Russian soldiers in Henichesk, in southern Ukraine. ‘Take these seeds and put them in your pocket so, at least, sunflowers will grow on your graves.’ That’s my loose translation of a few lines I’ve seen rendered more literally, if more obscurely (‘so at least sunflowers grow when you all lie down here’). The translators are doing an excellent job, catching almost everything, though the full range and depth of Russian obscenities – which overlap with Ukrainian obscenities – is notoriously hard to convey written down, even in the original. In the 1870s, Dostoevsky described a conversation consisting, entirely, of one ‘unprintable noun’.
Jeremy Deller recently made a poster that says: ‘Cronyism is English for Corruption.’ I’ve been trying to collect the other words that journalists and politicians in England use for it. There are a lot of them. We’ve got revolving doors, outside work, private earnings, temporary secondments and second jobs. There’s lobbying, bias, cash for honours, cash for access, cash for questions. A chumocracy with preferential access, paid advocacy, sleaze, side hustles, a lack of transparency, special treatment, favours in kind, treats and gifts, patronage and not fully declaring an interest. Purges, packed boards and preferred appointees. VIP or high-priority lanes, undue influence, bending the rules, changing the rules. Conflict of interest, actual and perceived. Unenforced procurement protocols.
You won’t hear the word ‘yid’ sung at most Tottenham Hotspur matches. You’ll hear it sung at all of them. If you know which tunes to listen for, you’ll hear it whenever Spurs are on TV. The club has been Jewish-owned since 1982, and its Jewish associations go back to the 1920s. Most Spurs fans aren’t Jewish, but the story goes that when rivals began to target the Jewish minority with ‘yid’ songs in the 1960s, the rest ‘reclaimed’ the word on their behalf. Since then, every Spurs fan, and player, has been ‘a yid’. (I support Spurs and I’m not Jewish, although my father is.) Last week, the World Jewish Congress condemned football fans for using ‘yid’, ‘either as a self-designated nickname or as a slogan against rivals’, because it carries ‘a distinctly pejorative and anti-Semitic message’. It doesn’t always carry it, obviously. The WJC statement itself uses the word seven times.
To mark the 60th anniversary of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michael Gove and Neil Kinnock were interviewed by John Humphrys about the experience of being interviewed by John Humphrys on the Today programme. In the live broadcast from the Wigmore Hall on Saturday, they were happy to go along with the myth of the 8.10 interview and show their willingness to play the game of politics hard and with good humour. ‘Coming into the studio with you, John,’ Gove said, ‘is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom.’ There was laughter from much of the studio audience and applause from some. Not to be outdone, Kinnock said: ‘John goes way past groping – way past groping.’ Cue more laughter. Beyond the Wigmore Hall, there was outrage at Gove’s treatment of sexual violence as an opportunity for a chummy witticism; he soon apologised ‘unreservedly’ for his ‘clumsy attempt at humour’. In the furore, the BBC continued to report that Michael Gove had made a joke about Harvey Weinstein. It’s worth looking more closely at Gove’s queasy analogy (the remark clearly wasn’t off the cuff).
According to the most recent census, English is not the main language of 4.2 million people in England and Wales (7.7 per cent of the population); 726,000 people cannot speak it well and 138,000 speak no English at all. Many of us non-native speakers will at some point have to deal with the justice system, in one capacity or another (my first exposure was as a juror). The right to be tried in a language you understand is guaranteed under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
‘Can you speak Russian? No? So why go to the theatre when you can’t understand a word?’ My challenger (English) was incredulous that I’d asked one of the Russian helpers on the British Council tour, whose mother had been a principal dancer with the Kirov, to find me, if at all possible, a ticket to a play. There was a performance of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, she’d told me. The legendary Alla Demidova would be performing; the director was Kirill Serebrennikov, a daring force in the Russian avant-garde; and it would be taking place in the Gogol Centre, a former warehouse designed in industrial cool with gorgeous Constructivist lettering that makes the word Гоголь look like the limbs of an Alexandra Exter puppet.
The diacritical mark, that puzzling addition to a recognisable letter, arrived in my life at about the age of six, like an insect lighting on the page of a school textbook. Only it happened out of school, in the world of foreign stamps, where I first encountered ‘accents’. My arbitrary collection included a stamp from Hungary commemorating the ‘technical and transport museum’ – Közlekedési Múzeum – and another from Yugoslavia commemorating what I think is a children’s day: ‘Decja Nedelja’ (1957), with a wingless creature fixed to the lid of the ‘c’. French stamps were easy to obtain: on these you could see your first cedilla, even if you didn’t know it. All these marks were mysterious, but mystery gets irritating before long, and mostly I wanted to swat them away.
Consider the following excerpts from a couple of language aptitude tests: Test 1 The questions in this section are based on an invented language, called Dobla. Read each group of examples carefully, paying particular attention to different forms of words and working out what information they convey (just as in English there are differences between e.g. cat and cats, or beckon and beckoned). Word order in Dobla is different from that of English and is not entirely fixed; it is not a reliable guide to the meaning of sentences. Note also that Dobla has nothing corresponding to English the and a(n), so that tine can mean either ‘the maid’ or ‘a maid’. You are advised to work through the questions in this section in the order in which they are given, as the later ones may presuppose information or vocabulary supplied in the earlier examples.
In the brave new world of know-biz, universities now issue ‘tone of voice’ marketing-correctness drills to staff charged with handling the ‘brand’. The comms and marketing wonks who write them face a tough challenge: to pander to their institution’s special-snowflake syndrome, while spouting the same commercial cobblers as everyone else.
How many languages do you speak? Last week Jakub Marian, ‘a Czech mathematician, linguist, and musician currently living in Germany’, blogged his guesstimate of the figure for the typical person in each European country. Expectedly, the British are near the bottom of the heap; only the Hungarians do worse. It’s debatable whether this is cause or effect of the anglosphere’s hegemony (well, perhaps not that debatable, though it’s hard not to like the theory that puts its triumph down to Britons’ refusal to learn anyone else’s lingo). The Brits bounce back, though, if the question is what percentage of a given country’s population speaks English, at around 95 per cent.
'We tortured some folks,' Barack Obama admitted the other day, in a speech hailed as an unflinching mea culpa for the post 9/11 'enhanced interrogation' programme. It's not the first time Obama has reached for the F-word. In a speech in New Britain, Connecticut, earlier this year, Obama addressed the spiny question of the US's yawning inequality. 'There are folks at the top who are doing better than ever... we understand that some folks are going to earn more than others.' Happily, the president was battling to make sure 'hardworking folks' got a rise. They included the good 'folks who are cooking the meals of our troops, or washing their dishes, or cleaning their clothes. The country should pay those folks a wage you can live on.'
Commentary on the turmoil in Ukraine often focuses on the division between a Russian-speaking east and a Ukrainian-speaking west. Ethnolinguistic lines, the argument goes, explain the pro-Moscow v. pro-EU camps, pro-protest v. pro-Yanukovich. But the situation is more nuanced than that. The closest thing Maidan has to a leader is the boxing champ Klitschko, who struggles in Ukrainian and whose Russian is far purer than President Yanukovich’s. Its first martyrs are an ethnic Armenian from Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk and a Belarussian Ukrainian resident. Its violent front line appears to be multilingual.
It’s unclear how Mustafa Kemal Atatürk came by his name (he tacked on ‘Father of the Turks’ after 1934; it’s still illegal for anyone else to use it), but as for romanising his initials, the story goes that he tried spelling it first with a Q, then with a K – and deciding that he preferred the latter, banned the letter Q from the alphabet.
As the story goes, an Oxford philosopher is asked by his wife to watch the soup while she’s out of the room. She returns to find him staring fixedly at the broth, as it bubbles all over the hob. The joke is on the prof, at once other-worldly and too literal-minded to follow a simple instruction (as Bernard Williams remarked, what would he have done if his wife had asked him to keep an eye on the soup?). But what does it say about the word literally, if a simple task like soup-watching can be cocked up by taking it too literally?
In February the German president, Joachim Gauck, called for English to be adopted as the official EU language, partly to make the UK feel more loved now that David Cameron’s committed himself to an in-out referendum. Another candidate might be Latin, Europe’s lingua franca for over a millennium, but the ancient Romans are not thinking of leaving the union. This has its serious side, as the EU’s 23 languages (to become 24 when Croatia joins) contribute to a democratic defici; as with Belgium, in some ways the EU in microcosm, failure of accountability is often put down to the lack of a common language.
We should all use language carefully. That is an obligation on the literate. But carefully doesn’t mean fearfully. There is a danger that concern about insensitive use of language can be cynically used to muddy reasonable debate about political issues, and close down criticism. The Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, David Ward, has been under pressure and finally apologised for saying at a Holocaust Day ceremony: I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza. Ward failed to specify that the Jews he was talking about are those who agree with destroying the livelihoods of Palestinians, building Israeli settlements on much-reduced Palestinian land, and with Israel retaliating incommensurately against Palestinian provocations, rather than considering and dealing with the reasons for them. Ward’s statement doesn't seem to me to refer to me or anyone else who is Jewish and does not support Israeli policies in Palestine. He was wrong; he shouldn’t have conflated ‘the Jews’ with ‘Israel and its supporters’ – or, to put it another way, me with Netanyahu. But that doesn't mean he didn't have a legitimate (if naive) point, that the memory of what the Jews went through ought to give Israeli politicians pause for thought before subjecting other groups to persecution. As a Jew I've thought so with great sadness myself, while understanding that the argument about Israel must be a political one.
‘We’re tormented with Americanisms,’ the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, complained last week. ‘We need to liberate our language from foreign words.’ He is drawing up a list of 100 words which he would like it to be illegal for broadcasters, writers and academics to use in public. Fines and unemployment could face anyone caught saying café, bar, restaurant, sale, mouton, performance or trader. Some of the words have come into use since the fall of the Soviet Union; others have been around for decades, if not centuries. ‘There are perfectly good Russian words you can use,’ Zhirinovsky says. ‘Why say boutique when we have lavka?’ (Lavka is usually translated into English as something like ‘stall’.)
I took early retirement from my last university job about a dozen years ago. One of my reasons was the way in which my post as head of the history department had become ‘managerialised’. I had mercifully forgotten the horrors of this until I recently stumbled on a copy of one of my memos to my colleagues. Here it is. (I’m not sure of the date.)
There are never many readers in the British Library between Christmas and New Year, so it may not have been the best time to open a new front in a philological campaign. But small piles of bookmarks appeared in the library locker room one morning last week, promoting the use of the word hu. Pronounced with a short vowel sound, as in ‘huh’, hu is ‘the stylist’s choice in epicene pronouns’ and ‘performs flexibly as a subject, an object, and a possessive epicene; for it is declension-free’. The sales pitch was followed by a few examples:
Royal occasions offer the pleasure of mass atavism, including the revival of antediluvian words and attitudes. As journalists and newsreaders constantly drool, Catherine Middleton is a ‘commoner’. When her wedding was announced, the word turned up in the Mail and the Telegraph, even – though in bet-hedging scare quotes – in the ‘liberal’ Guardian. The overseas press has been at it too. The other day, France 24 told its viewers that the prince was to wed a roturier; the Corriere della Sera said that he was marrying a borghese. It reopens neighbouring semantic fields, notably the use of ‘common’ to mean ‘not distinguished’, ‘vulgar, of plebeian origin, nature (derog.)’, as in ‘a common prostitute’, ‘common as muck’ and so on.
Why should I worry me about the last white rhino leaving the planet, or the loss of a language that no one speaks any more? To tell the truth, I’m not sure. All loss is loss and needs noting, but do I really care apart from theoretically? Philologists and linguists will care that Ayapaneco, an indigenous Mexican language, is dying out, but since it’s the first I’ve heard of it, it would be dishonest to say I minded specifically about its passing. I’m never sure about museum-making.
Every so often postal workers get called up to the front of the office for a ‘huddle’. This usually involves the manager standing by the front doors, issuing a long-winded statement from head-office about procedures, while the rest of us stand about feeling restive because we are getting behind with our work. The word, as it applies to a management technique, seems to come from American football – those close-in, head-down strategy discussions in the middle of play. We used to have office announcements.
On a South West Trains ‘service' out of London Waterloo the other evening, a barrage of announcements. The guard, the steward and an automated recording repeatedly informed passengers – sorry, 'customers' – where the train was going, where the buffet car was ‘situated', and that there were special 'quiet zones', with blue stickers on the windows, where mobile phones should be switched off. As if mobile phones were the only things that could disturb the quiet. There was a blue sticker on my window. There didn't seem to be any way to switch off the endless announcements. It reminded me of the Sistine Chapel, where angry young men in uniforms yell Silenzio! over the murmur of the disobedient crowd.
One of my wisdom teeth is coming in, and my dentist is on holiday. It’s my own fault: he’d warned me to have them taken out, and I hadn’t listened. On Monday, while waiting until I could take the next ibuprofen, I emailed intelligentdesign.org: ‘How do you account for wisdom teeth?’ The blessings of suffering?
I looked for mentions of wisdom teeth in fiction. Up came the novels of Ian McEwan: a wisdom tooth extraction provides a suspected criminal with an alibi in Saturday, and in On Chesil Beach, when the boy kisses the girl, ‘he probed the fleshy floor of her mouth, then moved around inside the teeth of her lower jaw to the empty place where three years ago a wisdom tooth had crookedly grown until removed under general anaesthesia.’
An OuLiPian(ish) challenge: Think of a word of more than three letters* that, however many letters you remove from the end of it, is still a word (e.g. ANTICS: a, an, ant, anti, antic, antics). Then write all the words out in order and punctuate them to make a (more or less) meaningful sentence. A: an ant, anti-antic, antics. Are there any others? Or is this as it were a hapax legomenon? *Three letter ones are relatively easy: A, an 'and'. I, in inn. O, on one. Etc.
In the current issue of the LRB, Slavoj Žižek argues that Italy is leading the way as the West descends into authoritarian capitalism. One of the ways that Berlusconi maintains his grip on power, as Žižek says, is by fostering fear of immigrants. 'Our governments righteously reject populist racism as "unreasonable" by our democratic standards, and instead endorse "reasonably" racist protective measures,' Žižek writes. In one respect, when it comes to 'reasonable' racism, Brown's Britain has the edge over Berlusconi's Italy. The threat of compulsory ID cards for freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons and other British citizens seems to be fading (more to do with the need to save money than with an upsurge of libertarian feeling in the cabinet).