Monday, May 22, 2006

Odds and ends

Friday and the weekend brought a great number of booky things to my attention, and, being easily bored, and definitely unemployable these days, I had nothing better to do than refer to them here. Please be aware, however, that although there is much here that is trivial and inconsequential, there are other things that aren't. A bit like life in general.

The Word Detective

My daughter-in-law pointed me to The Word Detective, a web site dealing in words and language. It discusses the kind of issue that Jeanette Winterson touched on in her Times column last week, such as giving up the goat. You can, if you wish, subscribe to the full service, for $15 a year I believe, but there's quite a lot of free info.

Just as a test, I looked up what the Word Detective has to say about gender-free pronouns (see the Epicene Epic). Somewhat to my surprise, I found a discourse which was both scholarly and amusing. The gist of it:

"Every doctor should have their own pager" is correct.... Consider three points.

First, the use of the normally plural "their" to refer to a singular noun ("doctor" in this case) was common in English until the late 18th century. Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Anthony Trollope, Walt Whitman and George Bernard Shaw, among other literary luminaries, all used this construction. It was only when self-appointed Victorian grammar reformers decided very late in the game that English should be modeled on the structure of classical Latin that the "singular their" was banned.

Secondly, as explained by linguist Steven Pinker in his book "The Language Instinct" (HarperCollins, 1994), "doctor" and "their" in our sample sentence aren't really an antecedent noun and its pronoun -- they are a "quantifier" and a "bound variable," respectively, and don't have to agree in number. Pinker's explanation of the difference is lucid, fascinating, and much too long to go into here, so go buy the book. Yes, it's in paperback.

Lastly, there simply is no other solution acceptable to the vast numbers of people who actually speak the English language. The re-emergence of this use of "their" is natural, logical, and confuses no one. It is not sloppiness and it is not ignorance. It is a positive example of our language evolving to encompass a new social awareness, in this case the somewhat belated recognition that not everyone enjoys being referred to as "him."

To get that sort of thing on a regular basis, it might even be worth paying $15 a year.

Now Homer is really cross

While I'm on the subject of obscure grammatical niceties, here's some detective work cum scholarly research that I did recently.

The Times, when borrowing from The Simpsons and quoting Homer's annoyed grunt, writes it as 'Doh!' As in Mary Ann Sieghart's column, 18 May: 'Two recent news items contend for my newly instituted Doh! prize.'

However, I was pretty sure that I had more than once seen this annoyed grunt written as D'oh! So I went looking. Sure enough, the official Simpson version is D'oh! See the learned article on Wikipedia, which gives the origin of the expression and shows two screenshots to confirm the spelling.

The Oxford Dictionary authorities have also recognised that this expression needs to be included. The Concise Oxford Dictionary, tenth edition, 2001, lists doh as an informal exclamation, 'used to comment on a foolish action', without any indication of its source. However, press reports from 2001 indicate that the new entry in the online version of the Oxford dictionary was definitely related to Homer. See, for instance, the CNN report, and the BBC report.

As a further however, however, if you do read those two press reports, which are presumably based on the same Oxford press release, you will see that the BBC spells the magic word D'oh!, while CNN spells it Doh! (As does the Times, mentioned above.)

I can't actually find an access point to the Oxford online service, which is available to subscribers only. And as this is clearly a major point of scholarship, I turned to that outstanding authority on the use of the English language in American newspapers, namely The Slot. Here I entered D'oh into the search facility, and found that the boss man, Bill Walsh himself, has used the expression. Which, coupled with the evidence of Simpson screen shots on Wikipedia, is good enough for me.

In the 1950s, the question of whether to use Hapsburg or Habsburg was considered a major test of scholarship. And I am now inclined to take the same view about D'oh! Variants are employed at your own peril.

It is clear, from the above, that both the Times and CNN have got this all wrong, and someone definitely ought to write and tell them so. But it won't be me because I'm far too busy to get involved in such trivial matters.

Computers have more sense than people -- in this case, a lot more

Mark Rayner -- author of The Mozart Net, in which Wolfgang Amadeus gets his sprouter snipped off (look, I just report this stuff, I don't make it up, OK?) -- has kindly pointed me to an article in The Onion.

The Onion reports how 'a courageous young notebook computer [based at Brandeis University] committed a fatal, self-inflicted execution error late Sunday night, selflessly giving its own life so that professors, academic advisors, classmates, and even future generations of college students would never have to read Jill Samoskevich's 227-page master's thesis.'

When you discover that Samoskevich's thesis was entitled A Hermeneutical Exploration Of Onomatopoeia In The Works Of William Carlos Williams As It May Or May Not Relate To Post-Agrarian Appalachia, you begin to understand the full horror of what the computer had to cope with, and its suicide becomes entirely understandable.

In recognition of this noble act, faculty and staff of the Brandeis English Department will gather at the Brandeis IT center Friday to honor the computer (a Dell Inspiron) with a Purple Hard Drive, an award which is traditionally given to computers that die at least 100 pages into a dangerously boring thesis.

Oh yes. All of which proves, as I said in the heading, that computers have a great deal more sense than humans.

If only, dear Readers, if only I could bring myself to believe that there aren't actually quite a lot of Eng Lit grad students who are working, right this minute, on theses which are at least twice as silly and twice as useless as Jill Samoskevich's, what a happy man I would be.

Nightcap Syndication

Tim Worstall is a blogger, economist and writer who is good enough to get articles in the Times now and then. He also edited 2005: Blogged, to which the GOB contributed, and is therefore by definition a Good Chap. (Sales so far 3,414, by the way. Not at all bad, in my view, but Tim seems disappointed.)

Tim is one of many who have remarked on the vagaries of getting reviews posted on Amazon, so he and some mates have decided to do something about it. The result, still in beta, is Nightcap Syndication.

Tim says this:

Anyone and everyone is free to submit a review on any subject or object they desire. Authors can (if they identify themselves) review their own works. We would very much like people to add in a link to Amazon (or anywhere else they desire) so that if someone does indeed purchase then the reviewer gains something. So we're asking that links go to the reviewer's commission account, not ours.

We don't expect people to necessarily write new reviews: something that has been posted elsewhere is fine. In fact, we assume that most entries on the site as a whole (reviews being only one part of it) will actually be blog posts from elsewhere that are simply cross posted. Links back to home blogs and all that sort of stuff very much encouraged.

More re those lists

C E Petit, Esq., m'learned friend who runs the Scrivener's Error blog, tells me that he too has serious doubts about the NYT choice of the best novels of the last 25 years. Even more pertinently, he adds:

I find it interesting that advances in the sciences and advances in the arts tend to be made not by the "avant garde," but by the classically trained artist (literature, film, music, painting, whatever) who brings the rigor and skills of classical training away from the constipation of the classical repertoire. In US letters, anyway, speculative fiction is getting more and more under-the-table influence on high-end literature, although both communities threaten to the death anyone who points that out.
I agree with this diagnosis. And it has not gone unnoticed by others. Dave Langford, in his monthly Ansible newsletter, regularly points out that many writers, publishers, and critics, would rather have their right hand chopped off than admit that they have anything to do with science fiction. Consider, for instance, this nonsense, reported in Ansible 225:

Mariella Frostrup interviewed Joanne Harris of Chocolat fame on BBC Radio 4's Open Book, about the new Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition of Something Wicked This Way Comes [by Ray Bradbury]. Jimi Fallows reports: 'Harris kicked off by expressing regret that SWTWC was being printed under the fantasy label, as it is much closer in content to real fiction.... The fantastical element of Bradbury's work was discussed with much earnestness to protect his reputation as an author, culminating in this devastating aside from Frostrup: "Some people even refer to him as a science fiction author, however erroneous that may be." It's still available to listen on line, and well worth it for the particular emphasis of disdain that Mariella lavishes on the sf word.'
Fortunately, there are honorable exceptions to this foolishness: and Margaret Atwood is definitely one.

Oh, the perils of libel

Perusal of Scrivener's Error led me to notice his comments on a report on Miss Snark's blog. Seems there was some aggrieved party who published a book via AuthorHouse which seriously bad-mouthed his ex-wife, who was the romance writer Rebecca Brandewyne, no less. Brandewyne sued, and, not surprisingly in the described circumstances, won handsomely.

Moral: don't try to get your own back on an ex-wife, or anyone else, by writing a book. Not even if you disguise it as a novel. It could cost a great deal of money.

So far there are 37 comments on Miss Snark's piece.


Speaking of libel, as we just were, the name Carter-Ruck is one which will produce a shiver down the spine of most UK publishers and newspaper editors. The man himself, Peter Carter-Ruck, is safely dead now, but he was not much loved or admired when he was alive. He was a famous English libel lawyer, very quick with a writ, and the source of many a problem for those who write. A couple of years ago I wrote a review of his memoirs, and noted that even his obituarists (normally a very polite bunch) were brutally frank about his shortcomings.

Well, Carter-Ruck's firm continues under the famous name, and it continues, it seems, to be quick with a writ, particularly when defending its own name. On Mabatha News Network, Dr. Sahib Mustaqim Bleher describes a case in which Carter-Ruck are taking objection to comments made on the internet.

Dr Bleher sees the Carter-Ruck action as over-sensitive and, moreover, as an attack on the freedom of speech -- one which, in principle, poses a threat to the internet.

Well, these issues are certainly worth thinking about. They are not simple, even in theory, and in practice are severely complicated by variations in the law from country to country. English law is particularly harsh in relation to libel, and this has given rise to a phenomenon known as libel tourism.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the latest case, highlighted by Dr Bleher, it is certainly true that those with enough money to pay for the likes of Carter-Ruck can make life very difficult for anyone who wishes to criticise them. As the investigative journalist Craig Unger remarked, 'They don't have to win, just tie you up in court forever.'

WanderingScribe doubters

My note last week about the WanderingScribe blog has attracted a number of commenters, some of whom are as doubtful about the enterprise as I was. And one person has gone so far as to set up a whole new blog -- The Truth about WanderingScribe --- which expresses, shall we say, severe reservations about the reliability and veracity of what is on offer.

A blog about a blog? Is this a first? Probably not, but I can't think of another one.

Golden Rule Jones

Golden Rule Jones, a book blogger of considerable age (in blog terms) and standing, has moved. The link on the blogroll has been changed, and he's now on Typepad. Mr Jones is English-born and Chicago-based, and he's still putting out some interesting stuff. Not surprising, considering that he once played Rugby for Leeds and had a verse play produced; not many people pull off that combination.


Would you be surprised to hear that a woman who presents herself at various times as an agent and publisher is actually a convicted fugitive felon? What do you mean, No of course not? Have you no faith in human nature? Details on the Scamhunters blog; and a lot more on Absolutewrite.

The Captain's (b)log

Captain Picard, of the Starship Enterprise, has been writing an online version of his log for over a year now, and I've only just noticed (link from Blogger Buzz). Quite how such an important online resource escaped my notice is a mystery. The latest entry reveals that a vital part of the engineering of the Enterprise has broken down: it's the laundry machine.

How the music industry got it all wrong

The fact that the music industry made just about every mistake that you could think of, when dealing with the internet phenomenon, is a point which has often been made. However, last Friday's BBC Money Programme produced a valuable half-hour summary of the whole sorry mess, complete with an update on how UK bands are finding fans without benefit of major companies in the middle. I for one found it enthralling.

You can read about the programme here, and the programme itself claimed that you would also be able to watch it online, but I can't discover how. You may be cleverer.

The only problem is, how can this knowledge/experience of what happened, and is happening, in the music business be transferred to the world of fiction? Or non-fiction, for that matter. T'ain't easy to see how it might happen, since the main problem is to produce something which makes listeners/readers go Wow! And making readers go Wow! just seems to be harder than doing it for listeners.


Anonymous said...

This page has the link to watch the programme (available until 26th May):

Anonymous said...

On the correct spelling of "Doh!", or "D'oh!" ... perhaps those who prefer the former are not misquoting the Simpsons but correctly recalling the much older Jennings school stories by Anthony Buckeridge? "Doh!" sans apostrophe was a frequent expostulation of the books' irascible master Mr. Wilkins. (Who in times of stronger emotion would also resort to the explosive "Corwumph!")

PS: Thank you for another mention of Ansible.

JodyTresidder said...

There is an interesting variant on "d'oh!" in the recently published Nick Hornby - "A Long Way Down." One of the novel's would-be suicides, teenager Jess, uses "der" - with the same meaning: ["My mum and dad are always going on about how soulless those places are, and I'm like, Der. That's the point").] Though I think it's made clear this is an uncertain phonetic rendition of Jess's speech by a non-streetwise older character. (In my native NZ a "der" was the childhood slang for someone who was obvously "thick". Which is probably too much information on this topic.)

Peter L. Winkler said...

"A blog about a blog? Is this a first? Probably not, but I can't think of another one.

There was a blog called Anti-Bookner that attacked a website called Bookner.

Anti-Bookner is now gone. I haven't bothered to check on Bookner itself.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to the wanderingscribe tribute site at

The more people that read it, the better.


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