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Learning a New Language

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Learning A New Language Changes Brain Network Structurally And Functionally

Most of us have wondered questions like what impact does learning a new language has on the brain or is it possible for anyone to learn a new language efficiently? Most people agree that learning a new language positively impacts the brain and it is not something that anyone can do. Turns out it is correct.

Researchers at the Pennsylvania State University have described how learning a new language is beneficial for your brain. The study shows that learning a new language can change the brain network both structurally and functionally.

“Learning and practicing something, for instance a second language, strengthens the brain,” said Ping Li, professor of psychology, linguistics and information sciences and technology. “Like physical exercise, the more you use specific areas of your brain, the more it grows and gets stronger.”

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A World of Languages

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As forests are cleared and species vanish, there’s one other loss: a world of languages

A new report shows a direct link between disappearing habitats and the loss of languages. One in four of the world’s 7,000 spoken tongues is now at risk of falling silent for ever as the threat to cultural biodiversity grows

A Nenets reindeer herdswoman in Russia’s Arctic region. Photograph: Staffan Widstrand/WWF (go to The Guardian and click on picture for graphic depicting global language loss)

Benny Wenda from the highlands of West Papua speaks only nine languages these days. In his village of Pyramid in the Baliem valley, he converses in Lani, the language of his tribe, as well as Dani, Yali, Mee and Walak. Elsewhere, he speaks Indonesian, Papua New Guinean Pidgin, coastal Bayak and English.

Wenda has known and forgotten other languages. Some are indigenous, spoken by his grandparents or just a few hundred people from neighbouring valleys; others are the languages of Indonesian colonists and global businesses. His words for “greeting” are, variously, Kawonak, Nayak, Nareh, Koyao, Aelak, Selamt, Brata, Tabeaya and Hello.

New Guinea has around 1,000 languages, but as the politics change and deforestation accelerates, the natural barriers that once allowed so many languages to develop there in isolation are broken down.

This is part of a process that has seen languages decline as biodiversity decreases. Researchers have established a correlation between changes in local environments – including the extinction of species – and the disappearance of languages spoken by communities who had inhabited them.

Video: Go to The Guardian to see

“The forests are being cut down. Many languages are being lost. Migrants come and people leave to find work in the lowlands and cities. The Indonesian government stops us speaking our languages in schools,” says Wenda.

According to a report by researchers Jonathan Loh at the Zoological Society of London and David Harmon at the George Wright Society, the steep declines in both languages and nature mirror each other. One in four of the world’s 7,000 languages are now threatened with extinction, and linguistic diversity is declining as fast as biodiversity – about 30% since 1970, they say.

While around 21% of all mammals, 13% of birds, 15% of reptiles and 30% of amphibians are threatened, around 400 languages are thought to have become extinct in the same time.

New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world, is not just the world’s most linguistically diverse place, it is also one of the most biologically abundant, with tree-climbing kangaroos, birds of paradise, carnivorous mice, giant pigeons, rats bigger than domestic cats and more orchid species than any other place on the planet.

Today, both its wildlife and its languages are endangered. According to linguist and author Asya Pereltsvaig, the language of Bo is spoken by 85 people, Ak by 75 and Karawa by only 63. Likum and Hoia Hoia have around 80 speakers, and Abom just 15. Guramalum in New Ireland Province had at the last count only three speakers and Lua is almost certainly extinct, with a single speaker recorded in 2000.

Ironically, Lua is now the name of a successful computer programming language.

More than half of New Guinea’s and one in four of the world’s remaining languages are threatened, says Jonathan Loh. This compares with estimates that suggest a quarter of all mammals, a third of all sharks and rays and one in seven bird species are endangered.

Video: Go to The Guardian to see

“There are extraordinary parallels between linguistic diversity and biodiversity,” says Loh. “Both are products of evolution and have evolved in remarkably similar ways, and both are facing an extinction crisis.”

But exactly why there should be such a close link between languages and biological diversity is unclear, even though it was noticed by Darwin. “Places of high diversity, especially tropical forests, have always been known to have high linguistic diversity, whereas tundra and deserts have low diversity,” says Loh. “It is possible in some way that higher biodiversity is capable of supporting greater cultural diversity. The explanation seems to be that both biological and cultural diversity depend on the same environmental factors such as temperature and rainfall.”

Conservationists fear that the loss of species due to man’s activities is accelerating. And linguists say that the wealth of the world’s human languages is now safeguarded by very few indigenous peoples, most of whom live precarious lives in developing countries.

Of the 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, half now have fewer than 10,000 speakers, and these 3,500 languages are spoken by only 0.1% of the world’s population – equivalent to a city about the size of London. These eight million people are now responsible for keeping the wealth of human cultural history alive.

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12th May or 5th Dec?

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Why do Americans write the month before the day?

We explore the possible reasons for this mad anomaly and hear your explanations

Does this look like a typo to you? Image: Corbis Premium RF/Alamy/Mona Chalabi

If you ask an American about the way their dates are formatted, you may get a response as defensive as ‘my jumper is not on back to front, it’s supposed to have the v at the back!’.

But let’s face it, it’s weird. Basic group behaviour shows it’s weird. Despite the variety of date formats used around world, the US is the only country to insist on using mm-dd-yyyy.

Date formats around the world

Image: John Harding/Mona Chalabi

 

This condition is diagnosed as middle-endianness. Seriously. It comes from computer science where bytes are arranged according to their size. If the order has larger ones at the front, it’s known as big-endian and so too are dates formatted with the years first (see the likes of China and Mongolia in the map above).

Even more bizarrely, computer scientists got their inspiration for the term ‘endianness’ from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 epic Gulliver’s Travels.  In the fictional kingdom of Lilliput people have to open their soft-boiled eggs at the small end (it’s a royal decree). While in Blefuscu, eggs are cracked from the other end. Lilliputians are small-endians while Blefuscudians are big-endians. Again, seriously.

Jonathan Swift, like the computer scientists, was basically saying that systems are needed to organise even the most irrelevant seeming of things. As Danny Cohen writes “Swift’s point is that the difference between breaking the egg at the little-end and breaking it at the big-end is trivial… but we insist that everyone must do it in the same way, to avoid anarchy. Since the difference is trivial we may choose either way, but a decision must be made.”

But why did Americans choose the way they did? Actually, the dozens and dozens of chat forums on the topic reveals that people don’t really seem to have an answer. We don’t. If you think you do, post a comment below to let us know. Though it seems that Googlers (most of them small-endians) are far more puzzled by other American choices.

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“make the coffee”

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An A-Z of modern office jargon

Drill down into this guide and you could be talking like a boardroom legend by end of play. Massive yield!

Have you got any idea what on earth they’re on about? Photograph: Alamy/Guardian montage

Annual leave

When even the word holiday is thought to sound too frivolous and hedonistic, so that people on their holidays set their out-of-office autoreply to announce grandly that they are instead on annual leave, then surely we have entered a hellishly self-parodic downward spiral of capitalist civilisation.

Backfill

After someone has been sacked – sorry, transitioned” – they tend to leave a person-shaped hole in the landscape. What do you do with a hole, especially a person-shaped one that reminds you a bit of a hastily dug grave? You fill it in – in other words, you backfill (verb), or address the backfill (noun).

Originally, backfill was an engineering term, meaning to fill a hole or trench with excavated earth, gravel, sand or other material. Now it means “replacement” or “replace”, eg: “We are recruiting for Tom’s backfill” or “We will have to backfill Richard.” Meanwhile, a job vacancy that exists to replace an ex-employee, as opposed to a newly created role, is called a backfill position, even if that sounds more like something an adventurous type might adopt at an S&M club.

Close of play

The curious strain of kiddy-talk in bureaucratese perhaps stems from a hope that infantilised workers are more docile. A manager who tells you to do something by end of play or by close of play – in other words, today – is trying to hypnotise you into thinking you are having fun. This is not a sodding game of cricket. Though, actually, it appears that the phrase originates from the genteel confines of the British civil service, when there might well have been cricket, or at least a very long lunch, on the day’s agenda.

Synonymous with asking for something by close of play is requesting it by the end of the day. End of whose day, exactly? Perhaps the boss is swanning off at 3pm while everyone else will have to stay till 8pm in order to get it done. A day can be an awfully long time in office politics.

Drill down

Far be it from me to suggest that managers prefer metaphors that evoke huge pieces of phallic machinery, but why else say drill down if you just mean “look at in detail”? Like many examples of bureaucratese, drill down has a specific sense in information technology: to follow the hierarchical ladder of a data-analysis menu down through to the individual datum. In accounting software, not only can you drill down, drill up and drill in, but you can even drill around, much as a disturbingly incompetent dentist might, or as old-school Texas oil speculators used to do.

Expectations

Expectations are flexible things, and people will no doubt carry on having them even if the lingo surrounding them is logically complete nonsense. For example, one source reports: “In a team meeting a few months ago, the then-manager said: ‘There’s no reason that all of you shouldn’t get a rating of Exceeds Expectations every review if you all work hard.’ She didn’t like it when I pointed out that if she expected us to exceed expectations, it was then literally impossible for us to do so.” Touché!

It would be good if employees were able to manage the expectations of their managers, but managing expectations usually means something more outward-facing and defeatist: preparing your clients or customers psychologically for the inevitable fact that the deliverables” will be rubbish.

Flagpole, run this up the

Let’s run this up the flagpole! Using this exhortation to mean “give it a try” or “test it” came to prominence in the 1950s Madison Avenue advertising industry. It derived from a yarn that was doing the rounds about the first US president, George Washington. When Betsy Ross presented the new American flag to him, he was supposed to have quipped: “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it.”

The original sense was to test something (eg an ad campaign) in public, or at least in front of the clients, rather than just around the office: a nuance that has since been lost.

Later variations on the theme include: “Let’s cross the sidewalk and see what the view looks like from over there”, or “Let’s put it on the radiator and see if it melts”, or even (so I am assured) “Let’s knife-and-fork it and see what comes out”. (Comes out from where? That’s disgusting.) There seems no end to the forced jollity (and despair-inducing implied exclamation mark) of such constructions.

Going forward

Top of many people’s hate-list is this now-ubiquitous way of saying “from now on” or “in future”. It has the added sly rhetorical aim of wiping clean the slate of the past; indeed, it is a kind of incantation or threat aimed at shutting down conversation about whatever bad thing has happened. This aspect of the phrase proves to be especially attractive to politicians, who like to accuse their critics of being mired in the past. The official pronouncements of Barack Obama’s administration are littered with going forward, or its sibling moving forward, which at the time of writing have been deployed nearly 600 times in the past year in official White House transcripts and press releases.

Photograph: Getty Images/Vetta/Guardian montage

Heads-up

“I just wanted to give you a heads-up on …” is now the correctly breath-wasting way to say “I just wanted to tell you about …”. Its origin, in American engineering and military circles of the early 20th century, is an exhortation for all the members of your squad or crew to pay attention because something potentially dangerous is about to happen. They should literally straighten their necks and raise their heads. So the call “Heads up!” means “Watch out!”

The 1970s saw the invention of the military technology called a heads-up display: crucial information from a fighter jet’s instruments was projected on to the cockpit windshield. So heads-up originated in situations where something hairy was about to happen, or where life-or-death information was being provided to an elite warrior. Naturally, neither of those things is ever true when the noun phrase “a heads-up” is used in the modern office. Time, perhaps, for a heads-down, when everyone takes a quiet snooze at their desks.

Issues

To call something a “problem” is utterly verboten in the office: it’s bound to a) scare the horses and b), even worse, focus responsibility on the bosses. So let us instead deploy the compassionate counselling-speak of “issues”. The critic (and manager) Robert Potts translates “There are some issues around X” as: “There is a problem so big that we are scared to even talk about it directly.”

What if something is more serious than an issue – an incipient catastrophe that might bring down the whole business? You still can’t call it a “problem”. But you can express the very deep way in which you personally care about it by referring to it as a concern.

Journey

There’s something peculiarly horrible about the modern bureaucratic habit of turning everything into a journey, with its ersatz thrill of adventurous tourism and its therapeutic implications of personal growth. Sometimes the made-up journey is a group affair, like a school outing. So businesses infantilise their employees by saying they have all been on a fascinating voyage together, when in fact many of their colleagues have been brutally thrown from the bus. As one infuriated correspondent explains: “The ‘journey we have been on’ really refers to ‘the ongoing cuts and redundancies in the organisation that I work for.'”

Software and web designers will often talk about the user journey, which at least correlates with the metaphor of webpage and interface “navigation”. But the British government also explains the process of claiming disability benefit under the rubric “The Claimant Journey”, which might be thought rather insensitive to those claimants actually unable to travel.

Key

With your key core competencies, you can no doubt achieve the key performance indicators, take on key challenges, and overcome key issues to meet key milestones and placate our key stakeholders, going forward. But why the hell is everything key? Is there some kind of subliminal phallic titillation to the image of key things penetrating the welcoming oiled openings of locks? You can even have key asks, which are not small free-standing shops that sell newspapers or develop film. I’m tempted to start up a locksmithing business that supplies key keys.

Once you start calling so many things key, of course, semantic inflation dissolves its sense almost entirely.

Leverage

The critic Robert Potts reports this parodic-sounding but deathly real example: “We need to leverage our synergies.” Other things you can leverage, according to recent straightfaced news and business reports, are expertise, cloud infrastructure, “the federal data”, training and “Hong Kong’s advantages”. To leverage, in such examples, usually means nothing more than “to use” or “exploit”. Thus, “leverage support” means “ask Bob in IT”; and I suggest “leverage the drinkables infrastructure” as a stylish new way to say “make the coffee”.

The appropriation of this financial metaphor doesn’t quite seem to have been thought through. The verb “leverage” began to be used in the late 1960s specifically for a technique of speculating with borrowed money. So executives who dream of leveraging synergies seem to be unconsciously conveying the message that they are taking a huge gamble that might result in disaster. After all, since the crash, major financial institutions around the world have been carefully deleveraging in order to meet new capital requirements.

It’s also, frankly, a bit foolish-sounding. Give me a place to stand and I will move the world, said Archimedes. He didn’t say he would leverage the “deliverables matrix”.

Matrix

The matrix is everywhere you look in the modern office. You can have an accountability matrix (AKA a responsibility assignment matrix), a functional matrix, a project matrix and so on ad nauseam. Of course, there is even a sub-species of management called – you guessed it – matrix management.

Are all these matrices separate universes of virtual reality in which workers are drugged and asleep in a post-apocalyptic world, with a virtual reconstruction of human civilisation beamed directly into their brains so the evil masters of each matrix can use their bodies as batteries? The truth is not so interesting. What is the matrix? Basically, it’s a spreadsheet.

No-brainer

The phrase “a no-brainer” originated in sport, to describe a physical action in football or tennis that was so well-drilled it required no conscious thought. Its subsequent office adoption to mean “obviously a good idea”, however, is both inverted boast and threat. “This is a no-brainer!” means not only “I did not engage my brain for a second in coming up with this idea”, but also “You should not engage your brain in any attempt to argue with it”. It is thus an announcement and a recommendation for perfect zombie-like stupidity.

Photograph: Rex Features/Guardian montage

Offline, take this

“Hey, can we take this offline?” This is a truly bizarre modern way to say: “Let’s talk about it later or in private.” Oh, I’m sorry! I thought we were human beings in the same room communicating with each other by making noises with our faces! I didn’t realise we were online. Are we all living in the matrix now? And if we just go down the corridor to the coffee machine and talk in pairs, we’ll suddenly be offline? The machines didn’t really think this through, did they, if that’s all you have to do to escape from your prison of virtual reality? It’s a wonder they managed to take over the world in the first place.

Paradigm shift

The term paradigm shift was made famous by Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There, a paradigm is a whole way of understanding the world, and a paradigm shift is a dramatic transfiguration in that understanding. Paradigm shifts are hugely important intellectual developments such as “the Copernican, Newtonian, chemical and Einsteinian revolutions”. Sadly, owing to the widespread phenomenon of linguistic deflation, it has since become possible to call a much less world-shattering change a paradigm shift. One educational article in Forbes ambitiously begins by sketching historic paradigm shifts – the Copernican revolution, Mendelian genetics and the guy who discovered that peptic ulcers are caused by bacteria – and then gets down to business. Now, the author claims, “a discontinuous paradigm shift in management is happening. It’s a shift from a firm-centric view of the world in which the firm’s purpose is to make money for its shareholders, to a customer-centric view of the world in which the purpose of the firm is to add value for customers.” It probably would be a paradigm shift (to an economic epic fail) if firms really were going to abandon all hope of making money, but that is not quite the claim here. Instead, firms are going to pretend that they are not completely self-interested and really care about their customers. In the service, of course, of making more money.

Quality

The ubiquitous business use of quality has become a kind of totem. Now it has been cut loose from having to be the quality of anything in particular, we can all sit around happily chanting that quality is our aim – or, in other words, that we want stuff to be … er, good? The hopeful invocation of quality is magical speech that hopes to conjure into being something that is indefinable but definitely better than flat-out rubbishness.

But the insertion of quality into a business slogan or mission statement is also sometimes camouflage for less sunny intentions. In 2011, the BBC grandly announced that its plan over the next six years would be called “Delivering Quality First”. (Rather than delivering TV and radio programmes first? Or perhaps they meant delivering quality first and garbage later?) But this slogan was merely a cravenly euphemistic sticking-plaster for a programme of mass redundancies. Delivering Quality First actually meant sacking 2,000 workers.

Revert

“Let me revert …” is a common way now of promising to do something. Reply? Respond? Whatever was wrong with those? (To be fair, revert could mean “to return to a person” in medieval times, so it’s not a wholly novel usage.)

While revert is less infuriatingly circuitous than “circle back”, there is still something sonically rather unlovely about it. (Perhaps it is the echo of “pervert”.) I do recommend that if anyone ever promises to revert back to you, you should shout as loudly as you can that this means “get back back”, and then start doing a bad chimp dance with optional hooting noises.

Sunset

This is an imagistic verbing – “We’re going to sunset that project/service/version” – that sounds more humane and poetic than “cancel” or “kill” or “stop supporting”. When faced with the choice between calling a spade a spade or using a cloying euphemism, you know which the bosses will choose. Happily, sunsetting also sounds less smelly than the venerable old mothballing.

Thought shower

The term “brainstorm” is now discouraged, since some people think it’s insensitive to people with epilepsy, on the dubious basis that an epileptic attack is like a storm in the brain. In fact, the National Society for Epilepsy surveyed its members in 2005 as to whether they found the term “brainstorming” offensive, and a large majority said no. Nevertheless, it is more common these days to be invited to a thought shower, which no doubt sounds like a naked romp among Bergman-loving Scandinavian intellectuals only to those with already irredeemably dirty minds.

The more serious problem with thought-showering is that it is rarely effective. According to the author and psychologist Keith Sawyer’s account of brainstorming, “in most cases this popular technique is a waste of time”. Unless thought showers are carefully planned and directed, they tend to encourage group conformity and repress individual creativity. That rather puts the dampeners on things, doesn’t it?

Upskill

Have you been upskilled lately? It’s an odd idea. To say that you will upskill a person seems to figure the subject as a kind of upgradeable cyborg assistant, into which new programs may, at any time, be uploaded so as to improve its contribution to profit. We are thus invited to imagine a glorious ascent of a virtual ladder of “competencies”, the better to forget that upskilling usually means demanding more work for the same pay.

Vertical

Oh, right, the verticals. Yep, we need to “leverage” the “learnings” across all the verticals. I’m totally on board with that. Oh, we need to talk about “content strategy in a difficult vertical”? Sure, good idea! [Sotto voce] What the hell are verticals again?

According to Forbes, a vertical is: “A specific area of expertise. If you make project-management software for the manufacturing industry (as opposed to the retail industry), you might say: ‘We serve the manufacturing vertical.’ In so saying, you would make everyone around you flee the conversation.”

In business, there is a distinction between horizontal and vertical organisation. Apple, for example, is sometimes thought of as a vertical company because it makes “the whole widget” – both hardware and software. Vertical integration can also be a matter of owning the factories that supply your components, and so forth. In consulting lingo, meanwhile, a vertical can just be a new industry that you want to move into, by setting up a separate business unit.

The upshot of all this is that vertical in ordinary office use can almost always be replaced with “market”, which has the advantage of being a word that everyone understands, and the concomitant disadvantage (for the machiavellian jargon-wielder) that it won’t serve to browbeat and intimidate workers.

Oh, you know what else is vertical right now? My middle finger.

Workshop

“We’re going to have to workshop that issue.” Really? Office types who use workshop as a verb probably imagine doing tough things with hammers and saws and vices in a sawdust-strewn shed, so picturing the frustrating immateriality of most modern work as something nostalgically physical and mechanical. But to workshop as a verb is actually a theatrical usage that dates from the 1970s; according to the OED, it means: “To present a workshop performance of (a dramatic work), esp. in order to explore aspects of the production before it is staged formally.” So next time a boss suggests something needs workshopping, gird your loins for the solemn enactment of a brutal revenge tragedy.

X, theory

In the 1960s, the psychologist Douglas McGregor published The Human Side of Enterprise, which outlined two approaches to management. The first approach assumes that people hate working and crave security, and have to be forced with threats of punishment to do what you want. The second approach assumes that people like to make an effort, are better motivated by rewards and are naturally creative.

McGregor called these two approaches Theory X and Theory Y. To my ears, that X makes the nasty Theory X sound rather mysterious and magical, the arena of arcane experts in the fields of physics or vast alien conspiracies (x-rays, X-Files), and so it fits perfectly with the general self-glamorising tone of modern office jargon. But it is also, of course, a boon to compilers of lexicons who otherwise wouldn’t have anything to put under X, so you won’t hear me complaining any further about it.

Yield

Don’t ever say that your plan will “give” or “cause” or “result in” great things; the only verb to use here is yield.

The word probably appeals to management types for two reasons. The first and more obvious is that yield is also a noun in finance meaning the expected income from a bond or other holding. The second reason, I suspect, is an obscurely martial or psychosexual one: because to yield also means to give way or to admit defeat, the thrusting manager who sees everything yielding before him is subconsciously picturing the ground strewn with defeated enemies or willingly passive sex-partners.

Zero cycles

Zero cycles is how many bicycles you have when you don’t have any bicycles. Perhaps you are a sad clown whose entire clown act is about lamenting the lack of bicycles in your clown life. Alternatively, you can speak as though you were a computer that has a finite number of “cycles” of its internal clock to perform calculations within a given time. So you can say, in response to a request that you do some extra work: “Sorry, I have zero cycles for this.” It’s a splendidly polite and groovily technical way of saying: “Bugger off and don’t ask me again.”

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Ten Forgotten Words

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In the end, I collected all the useful but forgotten, and obscure but necessary words I found in dusty, old dictionaries, and arranged them by the hour of the day when they might come in handy for my book about lost words, The Horologicon. Here are 10 of my favourites.

1. Wamblecropt

Wamblecropt means overcome with indigestion. Once upon a time, you might observe that your stomach was wambling a bit. If the wambles got so bad you couldn’t move, you were wamblecropt. It’s the most beautiful word in the English language to say aloud. Try it.

2. Sprunt

Sprunt is an old Scots word (from Roxburgh, to be precise) meaning “to chase girls around among the haystacks after dark”. I would dearly love to have lived in a time and a place where this was such an everyday activity that they needed a single-syllable word for it. Old dialect words give us a glimpse of lost worlds, and sprunt is my favourite glimpse.

3. Groke

Another old Scots word, to groke is to gaze at somebody while they’re eating in the hope that they’ll give you some of their food. The word was originally used to refer to dogs – and any dog owner whose canine friend has salivated beside them while they eat a steak will know why – but it can also be used to describe that colleague who sidles up to you from across the office when you open a box of chocolates.

4. Uhtceare

Uhtceare is an Old English word that refers to anxiety experienced just before dawn. It describes that moment when you wake up too early and can’t get back to sleep, no matter how tired you are, because you’re worried about the day to come.

5. Snollygoster

Snollygoster is a 19th century American word for “a dishonest or corrupt politician”. Or, to take an original definition from the editor of a Georgia newspaper: “a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy”. The only reason I can imagine such a delicious word would die out is that all politicians are now honest.

6. Ultracrepidarian

Ultracrepidarianism is when you give your opinion on a topic about which you know nothing. What makes this word so useful is that nobody knows what it means. Tell someone they are ultracrepidarian and they’ll probably consider it a compliment.

7. Gongoozle

I found gongoozle deep in the Oxford English Dictionary while I was researching The Horologicon. To gongoozle is to stare idly at a canal or watercourse. At the time, I thought it a weirdly precise and unnecessary word, but since then I’ve noticed gongoozlers everywhere. Walk along a riverbank or seafront on a sunny afternoon and you’ll see lots of people happily gongoozling. I realised that I’d been gongoozling for years; I’d just never known the word.

8. Snudge

To snudge is to stride around as though you’re terribly busy, when in fact you are doing nothing. It’s particularly useful for the modern office, especially with the invention of the smartphone. You can snudge around all day without anyone realising you’re checking up on the score in the Ashes.

9. Feague

Feague is a term from around the 18th century that means to put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. Apparently, this was a horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem more lively, which I suppose it would. But it does imply that you should never trust an 18th century horse dealer – especially if you’re a horse, or an eel. I hope you find no use for this word. In 2012, a chap who walked into Auckland City Hospital, in New Zealand, could have saved himself a lot of embarrassment if he had simply announced: “I need to be de-feagued”.

10. Sir Richard has taken off his considering cap

Benjamin Franklin, when he wasn’t inventing bifocals and supporting the American Revolution, collected slang terms for being drunk. This is my favourite one, especially after a hard day’s work. It sums up the feeling of work being over and drinking having begun.

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Rutting & Roaring

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Roar of the rutting stag: why men have deep voices

The behaviour of rutting stags helps explain why men have evolved descended larynges

Horny beast: a red deer stag roars in Richmond Park, London. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It’s the rutting season. From Richmond Park to the Isle of Rum, red deer hinds will be gathering, and the stags that have spent the past 10 months minding their own business in bachelor groups are back in town, with one thing on their minds. A mature male that has netted himself a harem is very dedicated. He practically stops eating, focusing instead on keeping his hinds near and his competitors at bay. If you’re a red deer stag, one of the ways you make sure that your adversaries know you mean business – and that you’re big – is roaring. And you don’t let up. You can keep roaring all day, and through the night too, twice a minute, if necessary.

While female red deer prefer the deeper roars of larger stags, roaring also appears to be part of how stags size one another up, before deciding whether or not to get engaged in a full-on physical fight. Most confrontations are settled without locking antlers. In male red and fallow deer, the voicebox or larynx is very low in the throat – and gets even lower when they roar. Strap-like muscles that attach to the larynx contract to drag it down towards the breastbone – lengthening the vocal tract and deepening the stag’s roar. Deepening the voice exaggerates body size. Over generations, stags with deeper roars presumably had more reproductive success, so the position of the larynx moved lower and lower in the neck. When a red deer stag roars his larynx is pulled down so far that it contacts the front of his breastbone – it couldn’t get any lower.

In human evolution, much is made of the low position of the larynx in the neck. So much, in fact, that it has been considered to be a uniquely human trait, and intrinsically linked to that other uniquely human trait: spoken language. But if red and fallow deer also have low larynges, that means, first, that we’re not as unusual as we like to think we are, and second, that there could be other reasons – that are nothing to do with speaking – for having a descended larynx.

The relative position of the larynx tends to be lower in men than in women, and as far as speaking goes, this may actually be a disadvantage. The human female vocal tract is capable of making a larger range of discrete vowel sounds than the male. It’s safe to assume that the comparatively low position of the male voicebox hasn’t evolved to improve the production of intelligible speech. But when we listen to someone speaking, we gain far more information than is contained in just the words themselves. Even though we may not always be aware of it, we size people up by their voices. The deep human male voice, exaggerating body size just as it does in stags, could have come about because women found men with low voices more attractive – perhaps we could call this the “Barry White effect”.

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Grammar Police

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Remember, that's what we were taught

Remember, that’s what we were taught

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