Wednesday, 8 July 2020


Nu to Yu Thrift Store on Pender Island

I came upon a new word this morning, well, new to me, anyway, like the clothes at the Pender Island Thrift Store.

It was in a column in the Guardian.

In the last few years, Lynn Steger Strong has built a wide audience with her compelling essays ... about the precarity that can coexist with privilege in America, indictments of a country where getting an education or having a child or a long illness can in an instant turn a stable financial situation to an unstable one.

I would have used “precariousness” myself. But a search revealed that “precarity” appears in an article in the Guardian every month or so, and seems to apply particularly to the precarious existence endured by people without job security in uncertain financial times. Another word has arisen to describe this particular social class: the precariat. As Hamlet would have said about both these new words: On horrible, oh horrible, most horrible!

The word “precarious” comes from the Latin adjective, precarius, meaning “obtained by entreaty or prayer”, and I suppose that if you are clinging to a cliff in a precarious position, you may well entreat divine intervention. The word “prayer” itself comes from the same root. But the noun “precarity”, meaning the state of being precarious, is a neologism, not to be found in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary of 2004.

Almost any adjective can form a noun ending in “-ness”, meaning the state of being that adjective, even if it’s a bit cumbersome, like “precariousness”. Less awkward are the nouns ending in -ity like loquacity instead of loquaciousness, or ambiguity rather than ambiguousness. Analogous with these is “precarity” instead of “precariousness”.

The word has found its way into contemporary dictionaries, but only time will tell if it will survive. I don’t think the noun will be used often enough or widely enough. The adjective will always be necessary to describe someone in a difficult emotional or physical or financial position, barely hanging on. It’s a great word — precarious — almost onomatopoeic, its polysyllabicity, with the stress on the long, harsh second syllable, almost reinforcing the meaning. And if we need the noun, precariousness stretches out the predicament — barely hanging on, heart thumping, nails scratching the rock — whereas precarity leaves us unmoved. It's a word without flesh and blood, coined by an academic who likes words to be neat and tidy.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Reading with a Yawn

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!

These are the words that appear on the English £10 note that celebrates the author Jane Austen. It’s a quotation from the most-loved of Austen novels, Pride and Prejudice. Now who could have uttered those profound words?

Of the Bennet family it certainly couldn’t have been Kitty or Lydia, who were quite open about their disdain for any thing intellectual. They would prefer to be chasing soldiers. They take after their mother, who would have discouraged reading as a pastime unlikely to win her girls a husband. Elizabeth would have been the most serious reader, and Jane would have read whatever was prescribed for young ladies, but neither of them would have been crass enough to boast about it. Nor would Mr. Bennet, even though he spent most of his time in the library to escape his wife and three of his daughters. Mary is the most likely candidate, for she is vain, and walks around with a book in her hand. But it wasn’t her. 

Who else could it have been? 

Jane Austen reserves the line for a character who would expect to live in a house with a fine library, but would never have read any of its books. Caroline Bingley is vacuous and vain, a conceited snob. It’s a delicious irony that Jane Austen gives the line to such a shallow character. 

It’s a further irony that the line should appear on the bank note, the government apparently unaware that the author used the line, not to praise reading but to mock the superficiality and conceit of a character who probably didn’t read at all. It’s a classic example of a quotation taken out of context, not in this case from some ulterior motive, but from ignorance. Here is the quotation in context:

Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some enquiry or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, “How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare, after all, there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”

The Guardian, which covered the story at the time, speculated that perhaps a Bank of England employee, given the task of choosing an appropriate line from Jane Austen, found it in a dictionary of quotations, without having read any of the novels.

For another controversial issue of  British currency, see the Oxford Comma.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Errant Balls and Arrant Knaves

A few years ago, as you drove around the very south-eastern tip of Vancouver Island between two of the holes of the Victoria Golf Club, you would pass a sign that warned:

 Beware of errant golf balls

The sign has gone now — perhaps because there was not much you could do to avoid a flying golf ball heading for your windscreen — to be replaced by a less alarming warning against parking your car at the side of the road next to the course.

It always struck me as an unusual word to describe a golf ball that comes out of nowhere and strikes you or your car. It's a word more appropriate for wandering adventurers in days of chivalry, as in knights errant. I mean, it would hardly be a wandering golf ball: its trajectory is straight, if not true. Besides, it is the golfer who errs, not the ball.

But no, this is not an unusual word to describe a ball that is not driven towards the green. It seems that every golf club in the land has regulations about the problem of errant golf balls: what to do about them and how to insure against liability for the damage they cause. Who is responsible? The golfer, the club, or the victim? (Note, in this instance, the use of the Oxford comma!)

Sadly, a word that once had such romantic connotations is now used, more often than not, to describe a ball hit by an incompetent or unfortunate golfer.

More fortunate is one of my friends, Paul, who does rather well out of errant golf balls. His house backs on to the golf course and he collects the errant balls that land in his yard. Occasionally, in an act of arrant errantry, a ball breaks one of his windows, but, to their credit, the golf club replaces it.

The related word, "arrant", comes from the same root, "to err". Both of the adjectives, "errant" and "arrant", describe something that has strayed from the straight and narrow, but in the latter case, very much so, to mean "utter" or "extreme". “We are arrant knaves, all,” says Hamlet, in one of his more misanthropic moments.

To my mind, the arrant knaves in this story are the members of the board of the Victoria Golf Club who reserve this magnificent piece of land for privileged golfers, but fail to provide a footpath around the edge of the course for commoners to re-create themselves on one of the most wonderful parts of the coastline, where the straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca meet. They would argue, of course, that walkers might be struck by errant golf balls, but I for one would take that chance.

Friday, 26 June 2020

A Colonoscopy of Democrats

"The colonoscopy of the vetting is now occurring," said a Democratic official, referring to the Vice Presidential candidate selection process, and speaking on condition of anonymity (CNN, 26/06/2020). Presumably, he meant that the Joe Biden team was in the last stage of their search for a candidate. Insiders believe that four women (Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Val Demings, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms) remain in strong contention. 

The purpose of a metaphor is to create an image to make the meaning more clear. I picture a colonoscopy. The candidates who didn’t make it to the shortlist must have been discarded as negative stool samples, and those remaining are the polyps deep in the bowel of the Democratic Party, to be probed, filmed, sliced and tested by the selection team. But what exactly are they looking for? A cancerous (or communist) cell?

Well might the Democratic official who created this image wish to remain anonymous! It may be the most inappropriate metaphor of the year. What a bummer!

For another inapt metaphor, see the Climate Action   Lens.

Thursday, 25 June 2020


Mount Douglas Park
To walk abroad and re-create yourselves

Moss, mist and mud. Winding trails through shady groves. Sunlight slanting through the trees. Giant cedars, Douglas firs, meadows of Gary oaks, maples, ferns and salal, miners’ lettuce in season. As I walked around Mount Douglas, marvelling at the majesty of this great park, I thought of the governor who set aside this tract of land for the people, and gave it his name. At six hundred and something feet it was only a hill, but they didn't want to insult him. I thought of Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, Stanley Park in Vancouver, Kings Park in Perth, and imagined the others that must have been set aside all over the Empire. It was good public policy.

It was not a new idea, of course. The Romans recognized the importance of “bread and circuses” to keep the masses under control. It was important to keep the people well fed and entertained so that they wouldn’t have rebellious thoughts. According to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar was afraid of one of the conspirators because,

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

But there is another aspect to wellbeing. After Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony, in his funeral oration, swayed the crowd to his side by alluding to a bequest to the people in Caesar’s will:

Moreover, he hath left you all his walks,
His private arbors and new-planted orchards,
On this side Tiber. He hath left them you
And to your heirs forever—common pleasures,
To walk abroad and re-create yourselves.
Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?

Everywhere we go we see people walking in the woods, strolling in a garden, sitting on a rock gazing out to sea. To be contented, we need more than bread and circuses: we need to walk abroad and re-create ourselves, as we do in Mount Douglas Park.

Monday, 22 June 2020

Laid and Lain

When the New York Times makes a grammatical mistake, it’s a subtle one.

When Mr. Ashe died in 1993, he was lain in state at the Executive Mansion in Richmond.

Now the Globe and Mail has been known to confuse the verbs “to lie" and "to lay", but more blatantly:

She (a tiger) was tranquillized, placed in a snare and forced to lay in wait as the famously tardy leader (Vladimir Putin) got to the site.

The tiger, had she not been tranquillized, would have protested that she had been forced to lie in wait.

And even the BBC, in a blazing headline:

Hong Kong protesters laying low following mass arrests

No, the protesters were lying low.

Just to remind you of the difference between the two verbs: “to lie” is intransitive, i.e., it can’t take an object, you can lie down, but you can’t lie something down. For that you need the transitive verb “to lay”. (Hens lay, course, seemingly intransitively, but they lay an egg. “Egg” is always understood.)

I lay my towel on the beach, and I lie on the towel.

And the principal parts can be laid out as follows:

Today, I lie on the beach; yesterday, I lay on the beach; in the past I have lain on the beach.

Today I lay my towel on the beach; yesterday I laid my towel on the beach; in the past I have laid my towel on the beach.

Now, to return to that great American tennis player, Arthur Ashe: the verb is “to lie” (in state), and the past participle is “lain”. We could say that he has lain in state, but not was lain in state, because the verb is Intransitive, and cannot exist in the passive voice. Nor could we say that he was laid in state, because lying in state is something you do but you can’t have done to you. He could be laid to rest, but not laid in state. It’s a very complicated explanation, but with a very simple solution:

When Mr. Ashe died in 1993, he lay in state at the Executive Mansion in Richmond.


And in case you need an explanation of the active and passive voice: 

With the verb in the active voice, the subject does something to the object: 

The boy kicks the ball.

In the passive voice, the object becomes the subject and has something done to it:

The ball is kicked by the boy.

The passive voice is to be avoided. Avoid the passive voice, where possible. But that’s another story.

Friday, 19 June 2020

The Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma is the most controversial punctuation mark of all. It is the comma before “and” in a series of items, and for that reason is also called the “serial” comma. It became known as the Oxford comma because it was prescribed by the Oxford University Press. When it was rumoured that the OUP was dropping the Oxford comma, one punctuation fanatic tweeted, “Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals.”

A Google search reveals just how controversial it is. See for yourself. Some institutes and style sheets advocate its use; others oppose it. It’s the one punctuation mark grammarians would go to war over. It’s a simmering dispute, and every so often it boils over.

One of the most recent disputes was over the wording of the slogan on the new British 50p coin. 

Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations

Never mind the absurdity of the slogan itself: Brexit has hardly encouraged peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations. Quite the contrary! But critics were as opposed to the punctuation as much as the message. It should have read, say the proponents of the Oxford comma,

Peace, prosperity, and friendship with all nations

The author, Philip Pullman, was particularly vexed: "The 'Brexit' 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people," he tweeted.

Some style books insist on the comma before the “and”; others say Never! Some students were taught at school always to apply the Oxford comma; others, the opposite.

Who is correct? Well, there is one rule for commas that prevails over all others: use a comma (or not) to make your meaning clear. Let’s apply that common-sense rule.

What the slogan is advocating is peace with all nations, and prosperity with all nations, and friendship with all nations, equal weight being given to peace and prosperity and friendship. But with the Oxford comma the slogan might seem to advocate peace [pause], and prosperity [pause], and friendship with all nations. The meaning is skewed, and the use of the Oxford comma is not only unnecessary, but wrong, to my mind.

Take an even simpler example:

Tom, Dick and Harry


Tom, Dick, and Harry

Adding the Oxford comma places unnecessary emphasis on Harry. It is wrong. We might wonder, why Harry?

(Now proponents of the Oxford comma will disagree with every thing I have written so far. To their ear, the comma is necessary. But they will agree with what follows.)

On the other hand, in a longer sentence with a series of groups of words, the Oxford comma is often neccesary to ensure all the items are given equal weight and the last two do not lump together:

For breakfast, I had juice, bacon and eggs, and coffee.

That example is clear cut, but even in this sentence from the Globe

Indeed, the organization’s mandate is one of coordination, policy articulation, technical leadership and research and monitoring.

 Isn’t a comma necessary after “leadership”?

In brief, usually, in a series of words the Oxford comma is unnecessary, and often wrong; and in a series of groups of words, the Oxford comma is correct, and often necessary. But there are always exceptions, and only a careful reading aloud will tell you whether to apply the comma or not.

But you can be sure that within the next year or so you will read of a new controversy over the use of the Oxford comma.