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29 February 2012

Connoisseur’s Choice #2: an evening in the cellar with Tullibardine

Good whisky, like the English language correctly used, is memorable. Sitting at a long table last night with a dozen other whisky aficionados in the basement of the Vinissimo wine boutique near Kropotkinskaya, I was told by the tastemaster, Yuri, from the site http://www.whiskyon.ru/, that a good whisky is one which, after you have brushed your teeth at night and got into bed, you can still taste as you fall asleep. I felt like saying: I know the feeling.
     But that is usually from an excess of the stuff, and rough stuff at that. Last night we were drinking moderately as we sampled four Tullibardine “expressions” as they are rather inelegantly called in the trade these days. We had three which had been matured in different types of wine cask, and one that was the straight Tullibardine spirit. And it was beautiful—light and airy, yet with a strong, fruity taste. I could have drunk a lot more.
     I have read what whisky writers say about the types of taste they experience. I find it impossible to express taste in words. What I do find is that different tastes provoke different associations in the mind. I am sure that this is different for every drinker, and differs in the same drinker from day to day. Which is part of the endless fascination of malt whisky. Appreciating it is a more a question of psychology than liquid gastronomy, if I might put it like that.
     Last night, I found myself listening with only half an ear to the description of where the distillery is, how it was designed and what the current company structure is, while I was back in my childhood, walking through the hills to Blackford, where the distillery sits, down in the valley beside the A9, half-way between Stirling and Perth.
     My family comes from Dollar and my father, who grew up there and walked the hills when he was young, used to love taking us on the 10-mile hike to Blackford. As I sipped the sacred spirit, I was suddenly up there in the cool wind, on a bright, late-summer’s afternoon, with the sound of sheep carrying across the burn and the first bracken turning a light golden, like the colour of the whisky itself.

Context is king: are we talking of sex or what?

Today’s Guardian carries an article in the Comment section by Ann Widdicombe, the former Member of Parliament, who is famous for at least two things. First, she once said of the Home Secretary in John Major’s government, Michael Howard, that “he had something of the night in him”, which was so poetically apt that, though it was said fifteen years ago, nearly everyone who heard the phrase still remembers it. Howard was a half-Romanian, half-Welsh politician with a pseudo-toff accent who wanted to bring back capital punishment. He was born Michael Hechte, and is now Lord Howard of Lympne—which I always thought was a gland, not a place.
     Ms Widdicombe’s second memorable act was to claim—indirectly, it is true, but a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind old bat—that she had never had sex, which if your middle name is Noreen and you read Latin at Birmingham University is just about believable. I do not think it would be doing violence to the English language to say that Ms Widdicombe, though full-bodied in the popular meaning of the term, is no oil-painting. She has a bossy manner which might be attractive to a certain type of man or woman, but I would guess that in her case it is a wholly above-board sort of bossiness, and therefore nothing to get excited about. To paraphrase herself, there is not much of the night in her.
     But she does have a redeeming sense of humour, as was illustrated when she pranced about like a half-drunk Pantomime dame on BBCTV’s programme Strictly Come Dancing. Nikita Khrushchev, who was “full-bodied” in a different sense of the term, once said of himself that he danced “like a cow on ice”. But he added, referring to his regular humiliation at Stalin‘s late-night piss-ups at the infamous Kuntsevo dacha, “When Stalin says ‘dance’, a wise man dances.” Ms Widdicombe does not have that excuse—so her act of self-abasement in the nation’s living rooms is all the more praiseworthy.
     But it was not visions of Ms Widdicombe’s full body which came to mind this morning when I glanced at her article, it was a grammatical point, namely the importance of context in all reading. Half distracted by memories of last night’s wonderful whisky (see next post, above), I read a sentence out of context and got a shock. Ms Widdicombe’s combination of humour and lack of practical experience of “the night” caused me to wonder if she was not making a mocking reference to sex when she wrote:
“Treated as little more than replaceable inventory, they are forced to perform the same ridiculous, unnatural and sometimes painful tricks week after week, year after year.”
     Who are “they” in this sentence? Might it be married women, or prostitutes, I wondered? Or could it be the sort of man whom women like Ms Widdicombe refuse to have sex with even though they have teased and titillated them by their flagrant and wicked displays of mature but unbridled eroticism in televised dancing competitions?
     I looked back up the page to see what I had missed. No, it turned out that it was neither married women nor prostitutes, nor even frustrated men that the former politician was talking about. It was circus animals, in particular Anne the elephant who “endured 58 years of being hauled around the country before finally being moved to a better environment.”
     Ms Widdicombe, it will be remembered, served a very long time in parliament, which is often described as a circus, but has now retired and moved to a secure environment on Dartmoor. For all her weird moves on the dance-floor, she is a saintly woman, and I entirely support her campaign against the use of wild animals in circuses, where they are “bound with ropes, wrestled, slammed to the ground, shocked with electric prods and gouged with bullhooks.” That sort of treatment is completely inappropriate for gentle creatures like Anne, and ought to be reserved for people like Mr Howard who, let it never be forgot, campaigned vigorously when Home Secretary for the re-introduction of the death penalty. When it comes to violence, context should always be king.

28 February 2012

Common mistakes #3: word order — plus the Queen forgives a fart

It is always reassuring to see experts make a slip in their own area of expertise. Last night a friend lent me a very interesting book about language, called Planet Word. It discusses many subjects relevant to this blog, including the different ways in which people around the world say much the same thing, and the resulting possibilities for confusion.
     I started reading it while drinking my tea this morning. I thought I must still have been half asleep when I read this sentence (p. 158): “We’re in a call centre in Newcastle, one of the boom industries of the twenty-first century.” My first thought was that I had no idea Newcastle was an industry, much less a booming one. Newcastle had always been represented to me by atlases, signs on the A1,  people who follow football and drinkers of Brown Ale as a place, a location, a city. There are many words which describe a large agglomeration of people in an urban setting, but “industry” is not one of them.
     Then I realised that the author, one J.P. Davidson, had made a mistake which is common to many non-native speakers of English. He had ignored the importance of word order in a language which, because it does not, like Latin or Russian, have cases, can be confusing if adjectival clauses are put next to nouns which they are not qualifying. Mr Davidson would have been better to have written: “We are in Newcastle, in a call centre, which is one of the boom industries…”
     After that, I’d better pay Mr Davidson a fulsome compliment or he will soon be scouring this blog for mistakes—which he will surely find. No-one is perfect, not even a Moscow blogger with a pint of tea at his elbow. Planet Word is a very interesting book, especially for people who want to learn to use English in the way the English-speaking world uses the language—as opposed to the way it is taught in language schools and course books. It discusses many other languages, but is written entirely in English—which is a relief to me as I can therefore understand all the jokes.
     However, some of those quoted in this very enjoyable book—notice that compliment too, Mr Davidson?—could be understood in any language. Let us consider the word “fart”.
“In his Brief Lives, the seventeenth century diarist John Aubrey recounts the story of Edward de Vere and his unfortunate deep bow to the Queen [Elizabeth I]: ‘This Earl of Oxford making his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travel, seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, “My Lord, I had forgot the Fart”.’”
     Clearly she had not, or she would have forgotten to mention it. To forget means to fail to remember. She probably meant that seven years’ voluntary exile was enough by way of apology for an involuntary but non-lethal act, and that she had therefore “forgiven” the fart. That is a different thing altogether. After about seven thousand years (by the Orthodox calendar) we have, in a gender-neutral society, forgiven the Devil for feeding apples to Eve. But we have not forgotten.

27 February 2012


The Voice of Russia continues to take an unusual position on current affairs. A correspondent alerted this blog to an item posted yesterday on the station’s website, entitled Farewell to Political Winter. It mainly described the anti-Putin protest staged in Moscow last Sunday, in the course of which tens of thousands of protesters wearing white ribbons and other white garments made a ring round the Kremlin by standing shoulder to shoulder all round the 16-kilometre Garden Ring road. This was known as the White Ring, and was described by the Moscow Times in these terms:
“It was a festive atmosphere, and its success may provide a boost for the opposition's plans for further demonstrations after the March 4 election. People smiled and spoke with strangers or wore home-made costumes (see post 21 February, Common Mistakes #2), like pensioner Tatyana Kulyagina, 59, who came in a hat she had made herself with models of a riot policeman and Vladimir Putin and others perched on top. ’It has been much more successful than I expected,’ said Alexander, a member of the Solidarnost opposition movement as he handed out white ribbons near Tsvetnoi Bulvar. ‘I expected far fewer people. It is a wonderful atmosphere.’”   
     The Voice of Russia had a different take. This is an edited excerpt from the story (full text at http://english.ruvr.ru/2012_02_26/66956473/ ):
“The riot’s participants did not manage to cover the whole Garden Ring… As far as the riot had not been sanctioned by the authorities, the participants did not chant any slogans. Some people on cars who were driving by expressed their solidarity with the rioters with signals of their cars’ horn, and the rioters answered with whistles. An 18-year old girl called Olga says that she came to this riot because she had learned about it from the Web… ‘I realised from what I saw that the [December] election results were falsified. What I felt of this can be qualified as nausea. After that, I became interested in politics. I believe that if you don’t support the current authorities, it is your duty to take part in riots of protest…’ Participants of the other riot, called ‘Farewell to political winter’, were probably more passionate, though also not aggressive. The riot was organised by a movement called the Left Front. This Sunday, many Muscovites were celebrating Shrovetide. In Russia, Shrovetide traditionally is the holiday of parting with winter and welcoming spring. That is why the riot’s organisers named it ‘Farewell to the political winter’. Like the White Ring, this riot has not been sanctioned by the authorities either, but its organisers ignored the ban. The place where the riot was to take place, the Revolution Square in Moscow’s centre, was encircled by so many police cordons that only a small space which could hardly hold 1,000 people was left to the rioters.”
     The motto of the story of these two stories is surely UTFD—a variation on RTFI. Every Do-It-Yourself enthusiast who has erected his flat-pack shelf unit upside down, or assembled a new mirror with the glass facing the wall, knows that before starting work you should Read The Fucking Instructions. In the case of Russian web editors, when it comes to English-language texts, the same idea ought to be adopted only with the words Use and Dictionary substituted for Read and Instructions. UTFD, товарищи!

Connoisseur's Choice #1: the car maybe German, but the language is English

It may be a fifty year-old Porsche but it is still a gentleman (see 24 February, Confusing Words #3). Its design is as elegantly understated as a well-crafted English sentence. It is short, neat, well-organised and has the verb (i.e. the engine) in the middle. It has no environmental value. It is simply beautiful and would, I am sure, have been fun to drive, just as elegant English prose is fun to read aloud.
     Written English, unlike Russian, works best when it is simply the spoken word tidied up. Too much formality changes it from чопорный to пафосный (see same post). Then it is no longer a gentleman.
     I mention this since it reminds me of one of the best books ever written from the point of view of the proper but still exciting and evocative use of the language. It is The Chequered Flag by Douglas Rutherford, and is available at this link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/chequered-flag-Douglas-Rutherford/dp/ In its own field, this book is the connoisseur's choice.

Cliché watch #1: an environmentalist writes…

The clearest indicator of inadequacy in writers, or the desire to deceive, is the use of clichés. Cliché is a tool,  like the magician’s enormous handkerchief, which is used to mask real thought. It is deployed in an attempt to persuade by invoking a sort of “group think” which appeals to the sheep in society (быдло, as Russians say). This technique was explored to its limit in the Soviet Union under its senior tutor, Joseph Stalin. Though he used violence as well, the method worked almost as well under his successors when violence was largely abandoned—such is the corrosive effect on the collective mind of unrelenting cliché.
     Russians have an advantage over the English-speaking world in that they have direct experience of the power of large-scale lying, and are able to see, unlike most of us, that the modern art of using clichés as a mask for thought is a pale but nonetheless insidious version of that process.
     In the politically correct West, the environmental movement is the biggest purveyor of deceiving clichés outside mainstream politics—where lies are arguably unavoidable. Much of the humour of people like Rory Bremner and publications like Private Eye is political and usually involves de-constructing polticians’ clichés.
     A good example of an environmentalist using cliché to stimulate fear in order to increase his influence over the minds of non-experts occurs in today’s Guardian. It carries an article by Bill McGuire, who is Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College, London, entitled, “Climate change will shake the earth”. Professor McGuire writes: (I have put the clichés in italics)
“The world we inhabit has an outer rind that is extraordinarily sensitive to change. While the Earth’s crust may seem safe and secure, the geological calamities that happen with alarming regularity confirm that this is not the case. Here in the UK, we only have to go back a couple years to April 2010, when the word on everyone’s lips was Eyjafjallajökull – the ice-covered Icelandic volcano that brought UK and European air traffic to a grinding halt. Less than a year ago, our planet’s ability to shock and awe headed the news once again as the east coast of Japan was bludgeoned by a cataclysmic combination of megaquake and tsunami, resulting – at a quarter of a trillion dollars or so – in the biggest natural-catastrophe bill ever.”
Taking the clichés one at a time:
     “The world we inhabit” – Professor McGuire means “the earth” but puts it in this way to invoke cosy, English visions of a place of human habitation, when in fact he is making a point about science. The fact that the earth is inhabited is irrelevant to the physical process he is describing.
     “Extraordinarily sensitive to change” – he means “vulnerable” but uses the words he does in order to invoke the fear of change that I presume he thinks—if so, rightly in my view—the Guardian-reading public will respond to. It also enables him to get in the word “sensitive”, which has obvious benefits in this context.
     “Safe and secure” – this is another invocation of the English suburban cliché about  life in a Safety First society. A more popular view amongst Russians, I suspect, would be that it is an over-regulated one which wants to shackle the rest of the world with its own self-imposed limitations.
     “Alarming regularity” – once again the use of a word that suggests fear, when in a scientific context the author could just as well have said “regulalry”.
     “The word on everyone’s lips” – this is just cliché for the sake of cliché. It does not tickle any “environmental conscience centres” in the brain—to use a cliché myself. It is gratuitous waffle—there: another cliché. Professor McGuire could have left this out altogether.
     “Grinding halt” – this is a misuse of the phrase—perfectly legitimate in the context—“grinding to a halt”. Halts are not “grinding”; it is the process of arriving at them that is.
     “Shock and awe” – this is a phrase used by the American armed forces in connection with the invasion of Iraq, and is well-known in that context. It is wholly inappropriate here since it implies deliberate, punitive action when, as everyone knows, “the planet” does not have a mind of its own. Only extreme Protestants think of insensate matter as being able to punish people in the way this phrase suggests. But environmentalism, it should never be forgotten, has many uncomfortable parallels with Calvinism.
     “Bludgeoned” – this is word is wrongly used. To bludgeon something is to use a blunt instrument. However disastrous the tsunami and earthquake were, it seems to me to be cheap to use words thoughtlessly in connection with a tragedy in which so many people died.
     “Cataclysmic combination of megaquake and tsunami” – this is the cliché of exaggeration, and is cheap too.
     “The biggest natural catastrophe bill ever” – this could, in different circumstances, have been taken as a joke since loss of money is not so important in most people's minds as loss of life. But environmentalists—especially those who favour population reduction in the interests of  “nature”—rarely take the human element into account in their attempts to balance the interests of people and their beloved environment. Not only that, they do not joke. They are too Biblical for that. Nonetheless, the critic might want some comparisons: how expensive was the Pompei
     The Biblical point is important in that one of the ways environmentalists try to hoodwink the public is by implicitly claiming prophetic authority. That is why they avoid jokes. Either that, or because it takes a person without any sense of humour to think of their own pronouncements in Biblical terms.
     At any event, I have always liked Robert Graves’s point that in the Bible there is not a smile from Genesis to Apocalypse. Graves was on my mind the other day when I read about a party held in London sometime in the 1960s to celebrate the opening night of a play based on his novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Graves had recently published a “biography” of Christ and was considered to be an authority in the field of Biblical scholarship, as he was in the classics generally. During a lull in the conversation, he turned to the prominent Scottish politician who was sitting next to him and said loudly enough that everyone could hear, “Of course, Jesus Christ lived to the age of eighty, went to China and discovered spaghetti.”

26 February 2012

British hypocrisy #1: wasting paper/saving trees

One of the hardest things to teach Russians is when, in what way and to what extent it is polite to practise the black art of hypocritising—if I may call it that. The same is true in the other direction. Westerners in Moscow often find it difficult to know when they may and may not wear bright coloured clothes in the Metro or sing or crack jokes in public without causing offence to the person they are with. Both sides find many of the other group’s rules baffling. I came across a good example this morning.
     How many times have you seen a line at the end of an email saying somethign like: “Please consider the environment, and print this email only if absolutely necessary”? It can be bad form in those circles in the English-speaking world that feel they have the responsiblity for saving the planet to waste paper. Envelopes have to be re-used, and excessive packaging is frowned upon. Reducing paper consumption is essential if we are to halt the onward march of man-made climate change.
     On the BBC website this morning one of the lead stories was the launch of the Sunday Sun, the newspaper which is going to replace the News of the World after Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation had to close it following serious allegations of phone hacking and other offences against established news-gathering etiquette.
     “About three million copies are believed to have been printed,” the BBC said, “and the company hopes well over two million will be sold.”
     Those figures mean that, in order to maximise sales, the company is prepared to print up to a million copies more than might actually be sold. The first issue has 92 pages, which means that the waste paper being so casually mentioned is equivalent to 92 million emails (given that emails are about half the size but printed on one side only). The same will happen next week, and the week after, and the week after that. Obviously the company will, in time, get its print run down to a number closer to its actual sale, but there will always be many more printed than sold so as to make sure stocks do not run out anywhere they might be wanted. Nett nett, the waste of paper is, and will continue to be, colossal.
     And this happens on the other six days of the week with the daily Sun, which always prints more than it sells, as does the Guardian, the Times, the Daily Record and a hundred other papers throughout Britain. The same happens in America, and Australia, and Brazil and the whole world, including Russia. The idea of saving trees by re-using envelopes in the context of that level of waste is so silly it amounts to a form of self-deceiving hypocrisy. Yet the BBC makes no mention of this.
     I make no criticism. I merely remark that, from a Russian point of view, it is noticeable that most respectable Britons think it reasonable to be sniffy about wasting paper in private, on a small scale, where others can see what they are doing, and infer where their heart lies—“I’m saving the planet”—while ignoring ways in which the non-electronic media do exactly the opposite. Why re-use envelopes, why bother to save copying paper when a single one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers is pulping the equivalent of 92 million emails a week?
     There is no logic to this, which is why the etiquette is so hard for outsiders to understand. Learning when to try to appear to be attempting to save the planet from alleged global warming, and when you may feel free to ignore the planet’s future is one of the key arts it is necessary to calibrating your perceived hypocrisy level in the interests of social acceptability.
     Though this is a broader issue than use of language, there are many ways in which this problem crops up in connection with the use of English. I will be covering them as I come across them in future posts. It is a minefield for the outsider who has not been brought up to understand the rules. Is it any wonder that so many Russians find this so hard to get right?

25 February 2012

Presidential Elections and "mind-boggling snarls"

The weekend before Russia votes for its “new” President, it is amusing to recall a previous controversial election, for the presidency of the United States in 2000. I am in the final stages of reading Strobe Talbott’s excellent memoir of his eight years as President Clinton’s senior executive in charge of US-Russia diplomacy, entitled The Russia Hand. Though published in 2002, it is still highly relevant to relations between the two countries today. As one of the most intelligent and intelligible books I have read on the subject, it is on a par with George Kennan’s famous Memoirs, though more interesting in one sense as after communism, people like Talbott were able to see so much more. The account of the in-fighting he witnessed between the Russian government and Army is fascinating.
     Right now, however, the paragraph below is worth recalling. One of the aspects of etiquette which many Russian officials have yet to absorb is that you don’t gloat about your friends’ misfortunes or cock-ups. Gloating was not part of the Tsarist armoury of diplomatic weapons; it came in with the three poisoned dwarfs: Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. It appears to have outlasted the death of the system they created. In the light of events in Russia on 4th December (the allegedly rigged Duma elections), it reads particuarly sourly today.

      There is one language point here, which is the use of the word “snarl”. To snarl is to growl with bared teeth. Dogs do it; gangsters do it; Russian generals do it, according to Stobe Talbott. Traffic gets “snarled up”, which means it is something less than grid-locked but in more than a mere traffic jam. However, to say that the election was in a “snarl” would have been totally misleading if the context were not so clear. Better to have said “however mind-boggling the snarl up” and avoided the potential for confusion.
     Incidentally, getting back to Common Mistake #1 (9 February), Talbott records Boris Yeltsin as saying to Bill Clinton, in connection with NATO enlargement, that he did not want enlargement to include former Soviet republics in the near future. Yeltsin went on: “I understand that maybe in ten years or something, the situation might change, but not now. Maybe there will be a later evolution. But I need assurances from you that it won’t happen in the nearest future.”
     That conversation took place in early 1997. The Baltic states joined NATO in 2004. Strobe Talbott is today President of the Brookings Institution. Bill Clinton is the husband of the American Secretary of State. And Boris Yeltsin is, as we say in English, “kicking up the daisies” or, as I gather they say in Germany, “looking at the potatoes from underneath.”

24 February 2012

Confusing words #3: posh/Porsche/Putin

At a multi-national meet-up near Pushkin Square the other night, I fell into conversation with an earnest, friendly Russian who was, like so many older people in this country, still living in the cultural afterglow of socialism. He illustrated an aspect of that in the sense that he was keen to analyse nations in terms of stereotypes. I said I thought it self-evidently silly to think in categories of that sort. “Just look around the room here and see how different all the Russians are,” I said.
     In true Soviet style he ignored me and carried on. But, as was also the case from time to time with Soviet-era people, he had something unusual to say. It started because he wanted to know why I did not speak “like a Scottishman”.
     “How do you think Scotsmen talk?” I asked.
     “Scottish men very like Russian men.”
     “And what are Russian men like?”
     “He is brutal, loudly, noisy and he like parties. Everybody think British man is gentleman, reserved, strict, old manners, чопорный, we say. In our society I can see practically nobody who can be described as чопорниый. I do not know English word for this.
     “Maybe ‘posh’?” I suggested.
     “Who is ‘posh’?”
     “I don’t know, Prince Charles, perhaps; David Cameron?”
     “I see.”
     Then I added, just for devilment, “Jeremy Clarkson?”
     “No,” snapped the smart девушка behind the bar who had been following our conversation with rapt attention. “That’s Porsche.”
     My Soviet friend was not put off his stride by the laughter that erupted around us. He went on to tell the growing crowd that Germans were “punctual”, Swedes were too free in the matter of sex and the French were “selfish”, which I thought an interesting observation.
     “And Americans?” I asked.
     “Aggressive, and they want to rule the world,” a loud voice said from the fringe of the circle. He was, of course, American himself. High five!
     That seemed to silence my Soviet friend, so I asked him, “You say you do not see any чопорный Russian men around. What about Mr Putin? He’s reserved, strict, et cetera, is he not?
     “He is not чопорный; he’s пафосный.
     Pafosny is a word normally translated as “pathetic”, in a sense related to “pathos”, rather than in the more commonly used sense implying feebleness or uselessness. I did not see the Prime Minister as being pathetic in either sense, so I asked my friend how he defined the word.
     “You are not cool, but you think you’re cool,” he said. “You show you are rich and smart and beautiful, but you’re not, at least not smart. That’s пафосный.
     “So he probably owns a Porsche?”
     “Many of them. Like your Jeremy Clarkson.”
     “Jeremy Clarkson may be rich and smart,” I said, “but he’s hardly beautiful.”
     “That doesn’t matter,” the девушка said, “if he have so many Porsches.
     I print this little exchange since it occurs to me that it was a perfect illustration of several aspects of the pafosny/non-pafosny conversational dilemma.

Confusing words #2: efficient/effective in British drinking culture

On 21 February, the Voice of Russia website published an article entitled “Drinking as Hallmark of Today’s Britain”. The author, Sergei Sayenko, focused on Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent announcement of measures aimed at reducing the level of alcohol consumption, especially amongst the young. Apparently there are going to be American-style “drying-out cells” and new laws on the minimum price for alcohol in shops.
     “The second measure would make alcoholic (sic) practically unaffordable for younger people,” comments Mr Sayenko, who appears to have advance knowledge of the new pricing levels. Leaving aside the amusingly appropriate misuse of the word “alcoholic” (presumably he meant “alcohol”, but the word kinda fits in a tipsy, poetic sort of way), Mr Sayenko goes on to make a real mistake: “I doubt that either of these measures would be efficient enough to help solve the problem of alcoholism in the UK.”
     The word “efficient” is wrongly used here. Efficiency is a measure of output relative to input, so that a worker can be efficient by producing more in a shift than other, less-efficient workers with similar equipment, or one engine can be more “fuel efficient” than another if it gives more power for the same amount of fuel consumed.
     What Mr Sayenko undoubtedly wanted to say was that “neither measure would be effective”, which means it would (not) work well.
     He repeats the mistake twice in his piece, writing, “Increasing alcohol price at retail outlets are (sic) unlikely to be efficient either. An alcoholic could always go to a pub and buy a glass of beer or something stronger at the old price…. One of the measures which could prove to be efficient would be a properly organized public awareness campaign.”
     The small mistake here is that in the first of those two sentences, Mr Sayenko seems to think the subject governing his verb is “outlets” (plural) rather than “price” (singular). But more importantly, he has used “efficient” when “effective” would have been correct in both cases.
     There is also a larger give-away. Where did Mr Sayenko get the idea that in Britain alcoholics go into pubs and—even weirder thought—buy glasses of beer! Some of my best friends are alcoholics, and they all either sit at home in their conservatories or book-lined studies drinking whisky, brandy or super-accelerated crème de menthe, or they huddle behind the skip on the pavement opposite the pub drinking Buckfast or White Lightning. Either class of drinker would feel vaguely insulted to be thought of the as the sort of person who sits on a bar stool making fatuous conversation about football, politics and house prices.
     I assume from this that Mr Sayenko has not had much experience of British pubs. But I hope he is still able to enjoy a drink himself occasionally. Putting on the old deer-stalker, Sherlock Holmes-style, I would guess that he is not an alcoholic because alcoholics generally make mistakes inconsistently, and he uses the word “efficient” wrongly every time in his piece.
     He has not made efficient use of the editing services at the Voice of Russia, and thereby reduced the effectiveness of his argument. This is not the first time I have had occasion to make this point about his organisation. Much more of it and I will be compelled to initiate a “properly organised public awareness campaign”, which will kick off with a post on this blog entitled: “Sloppy Editing as Hallmark of Today’s Voice of Russia.”

22 February 2012

In the news: Putin’s uncertain use of the word “luxury”. But can any word be used with total precision?

Prime Minister and current presidential hopeful, V.V. Putin, has talked in public, as part of his campaign for supreme office in Russia, of taxing “luxury”. Presumably he thinks that will endear him to those in the country who do not live in luxury. But what, exactly, does that word mean?
     Chatting last night with an American friend who is a prominent Moscow patent lawyer, it occurred to me that though vagueness is lamentable, precision in any language other than mathematics is impossible. Language is, after all, just a set of conventions for evoking intended sense.
     What does the Prime Minister think of as “luxury” when he is sitting in the study of his modest property at Novo-Ogaryovo deciding which oligarch most deserves to be taxed? And is his idea of luxury the same as that of “prestigious consumption”, which he has also talked about? When does simple consumption tip into over-consumption? Luxury for me, in the simple opulence of my панельный дворец in Khimki, can often mean nothing more than lying quietly in a deep, hot bath with a mug of strong tea and a good book. For a hippopotamus living on the banks of the Limpopo, it might be something similar, only without the tea and the book. But would the Prime Minister consider either of those to be “prestigious consumption”?
     It is entirely possible that he does since, as is well-known, he was born in poverty. The word “luxury” might still convey to Mr Putin something similar to that which the plutocratic Yorkshiremen described in Monty Python's famous “Chateau de Chasselais” sketch. One lived with his extended family in a hole in the ground covered with a tarpaulin; one in a shoe-box in the middle of a road; and a third inhabited a rubbish-tip and was woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over him. “Looxureh!” the fourth declared contemptuously. He had really had it tough, having lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank.
     Different people, it would seem, have different ideas of what constitutes luxury. We cannot be sure of what Mr Putin means by the term, or indeed what the voters in non-luxury Russia understand by it. Yet if taxation is to be based on law, some sort of generally accepted definition has to be arrived at. The alternative is injustice or corruption, or both.
     If precision is important, it is alarming to read that Mr Putin recently wrote: “Owners of expensive houses [what is “expensive” in this context?] and cars [ditto] should pay more tax [than whom? than when?].” How vague is that! Some commentators have criticised the Prime Minister’s proposal as, in the end, coming down to nothing more than: “Hey, moneybags! Give us some cash or we’ll take it from you!”
     But is that entirely fair? How far can objections to vagueness be pushed? Precise meaning is very hard to achieve in any language, as the language of patent lawyers shows. It comes closer than any other to precision since so much money depends on it. The longest patent applications can run to many thousands of pages. I asked my lawyer friend if he knew of a very short one. This is what he dug up. It is a claim cxoncerning a new form of mechanical pencil. See if you can visualise it after reading the whole text:

A mechanical pencil, comprising: a tubular body having an end-to-end axial channel; a hollow bottom cap at a bottom end of said tubular body having a top opening and a bottom opening; a tip element positioned inside said bottom cap and protruding downward through said bottom opening of said bottom cap; a clamping means extending from said axial channel of said tubular body to said tip element, said clamping means having two clamping pieces laterally joined to form a cylindrical body having an end-to-end axial channel and two opposing indentations on the circumference of said cylindrical body, two balls inside said two indentations, and a spring between said cylindrical body and said tip element, and a tube into which said cylindrical body is threaded; a sliding means inside said axial channel of said tubular body above said clamping means, said sliding means having an end-to-end axial channel capable of holding a lead; and a top cap at a top end of said tubular body, said top cap having a through hole at a top end of said top cap for threading said lead into said axial channel of said sliding means; wherein said balls of said clamping means is confined by said tube of said clamping means to squeeze said clamping pieces to hold said lead; when said top cap is depressed, said spring is compressed and said balls roll into to a section of said tube which has a larger aperture to release said clamping pieces so that said lead is able to drop; when said top cap is released, said clamping pieces are pushed back into said tube by said spring so that said balls roll out of said section and again squeeze said clamping pieces to hold said lead; when said lead is not extended out of said tip element and said tip element is pressed, said spring is compressed and a segment of said lead is advanced into said tip element; and, when said tip element is released, said spring pushes said tip element downward and, due to the friction between said tip element and said lead, said segment of said lead is pulled downward by said tip element as well.

Well? What exactly is it that is being described? Believe it or not, this text is the fruit of the labour of some of the most highly-paid, highly-trained and highly-sought after writers of precision prose in English anywhere on the planet. Yet it is harder to understand than Vladimir Putin's concepts of luxury and prestigious consumption.
     As my friend and I sipped our champagne and nibbled goujons of cod with home-made (see yesterday) tartare sauce, he quoted from memory the bit about the “top cap at top end of said tubular body with said balls rolling into said tube so that said lead drops when said cap is released and a segment of said lead is released into said cap element.”
     When I stopped laughing, it occurred to me not only that intelligible language can never be entirely precise but, more worryingly, that we were having the conversation in circumstances where we ought, on any reasonable definition of the general standard of living in said Russia, to be potentially subject to said tax on said prestigious consumption which headed, as the said evening progressed, from said ordinary luxury to towards said over-consumption. Enough said.

Brief boobs #2: “drastic reduction in the standard of English”

The phrase above comes from the BBC website, in the same article as the one discussed in the post immediately below: “Is English or Mandarin the Language of the Future?”  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17105569)
     “Political commentator” Ong Kian Ming is quoted as saying, “We’ve seen a drastic reduction in the standard of English in our country, not just among the students but I think among the teachers as well.”
     Generally speaking, it is quantities etc. that are “reduced” not standards. Standards “decline” since that implies an impersonal process rather than one which is the result of someone somewhere taking a specific decision to “reduce”, for example, the quantity of fat in ordinary milk, which might result in a “decline” in the standard of milk sold—if you like the creamy sort of brew which used to bubble into the pails of headscarfed maidens sitting in dilapidated milking parlours amidst the urine and excrement which used to give dairies such a distinctive smell. Strangely, the quality of the milk frothing warmly in the pail between the milkmaid’s knees was higher from a nutritional point of view before modern standards hygiene were adopted in order to reduce the levels of disease (and, as a side-effect, kill off the milkmaids—in a metaphorical sense, of course).

Brief boobs #1: “Independence from the British”

The phrase quoted above comes from the BBC website, in an article posted today entitled “Is English or Mandarin the Language of the Future?”  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17105569)
      The article includes this sentence: “Since independence from the British in 1957, the country has phased out schools that teach in English.”
     It should read: “Since independence from Britain in 1957...”, because independence is a political state of relations between two political entities. “The British” is not a political entity, while “Britain” is. 

21 February 2012

Common mistakes #2: “home-made”

The article on the Voice of Russia website about Dmitri Rogozin’s speech concerning the need to “acquire” foreign electronic technology for the Russian defence industry which I discussed in the previous post—see immediately below—did not mention the headline. I left that for a separate post as it has nothing to do with the article, though it should have.
     The station’s web editors headed the piece: “Russia must possess home-made microelectronics – Rogozin”. This will be a source of embarrassment to Rogozin if his English is any good. If not, he will soon be wondering why foreigners are sniggering behind his back again. Is this further proof that the West regards Russia with contempt?
     The point is that in conventional usage “home-made” means something made in the family potting shed, where the garden tools are kept, for “potting out”  the chrysanthemums and tomatoes every spring. During the rest of the year, a half-mad, wannabe inventor comes home from his dreary job in the Ministry of Pensions or the Council Cleansing Department, has a quick tea, and disappears down the path to the rickety shed where he also keeps a soldering iron and a couple of pairs of pliers. Squinting through his bottle-bottomed spectacles, he cobbles together electronic gadgets that he thinks of as prototypes for inventions that will stun the world, make his fortune, and liberate him from his status as a bureaucratic serf. His sad-eyed wife sits alone indoors, patiently watching television, while the children are up in their rooms making other sorts of electronic connections on Facebook.
     The thing to remember is that “home-made” mean деревенский, and then some! The idea that the Russian Minister for Defence Procurement is advocating a sort of potting-shed approach to technology research might seem amusing to the cynics at home, but it will be seen aboard as yet another humiliation for the remnants of a state which sent Gagarin into space and which, according to my Stalin-era English-language textbook, invented the telegraph, the combine harvester, the electric lamp, “the mechanical spinning mill”, the first steam engine “for industrial purposes”, the electric arc, the aeroplane and much else besides.
     If you don’t believe me, click on the image below (to expand it) and read. It comes from Учебник Английского Языка, by Shevaldishev, Suvorov and Kondorf, and was published in Moscow in 1952. (Incidentally, five lines from the bottom of the right-hand page you will see that the phrase “the nearest future”—see post for 9 February—was in use sixty years ago.)

     What the editors at the Voice of Russia should have written was “Russia must possess home-grown microelectronics industry - Rogozin”, or “domestic microelectronics industry” or “its own microelectronics industry”. Even a “home-made microelectronics industry” would not have been so bad, as at least that implied some sort of large-scale programme. But “home-made microelectronics” is a disaster, especially as microelectronics can no more be done with pliers and a soldering iron than brain surgery can be performed using a knife and fork. It kinda makes Rogozin’s point for him: it’s all gone to pot with the bottle-bottomed specs and the blobs of solder. For all the good they are doing, the Voice of Russia implies, Russian scientists might as well be out in the potting shed smoking the pot they’ve hidden from their wives amongst the tomato plants and the chrysanthemums.

Dmitri Rogozin, Karl Lagerfeld and the roots of crime

According to Google, one of this blog’s most popular posts has been the item about Dmitri Rogozin (though not so popular as the one about Karl Lagerfeld, who is presumably felt to be groovier and poovier). I therefore thought it might be worth drawing attention to a statement the Russian defence procurement supremo made yesterday which was reported on the Voice of Russia website. (http://english.ruvr.ru/2012_02_20/66524698/)
     Russians often complain that people in the West keep them at arm’s length, or worse. This article illustrates why some might want to do that. Etiquette is not only a matter of politeness, it can also be a matter of perceived integrity.
      Mr Rogozin’s made a speech at Komsomolsk-on-Amur in which he claimed that a key technique for upgrading Russia’s armed forces should be copying (which in the context of patent protection means stealing) foreign electronic technology.
“Possessing internationally competitive home-made microelectronics is not only a matter of national pride,” he said, “but also of national security. Indeed, no-one knows what is contained inside the imported microchips that we integrate into some of our latest weapon systems. To ward off potential dangers from this, Russia must start producing the necessary microchips itself as soon as possible…  According to Prime Minister Putin, importing microelectronic elements is admissible only inasmuch as it enables Russia to acquire latest technologies. These technologies must be deciphered and reproduced at home. Importing military technology en masse is completely out of the question.”
     There is a language point here too. To say that “no-one knows” what is inside the microchips Russia imports is obviously untrue. The people who made them know, as Rogozin appears to concede when he says they pose “dangers”. These dangers are not likely to be due to universal ignorance, but rather to the fact that the makers know something the purchasers do not.
     Rogozin should have said, “We don’t know what is contained inside the imported microchips.” At which point the attentive reader would immediately ask: if he and his engineers do not know what is inside them, how can they “decipher and reproduce” them?
     Standing back a bit, one wonders why anyone might think “national pride” would be satisfied by stealing technology, rather than, say, buying it or licensing it in the accepted manner. Leaving aside mental illness, theft is normally motivated either by poverty or, as in this case, by technological inadequacy. It implies contempt for both the owners of the technology and the normal rules of international trade. Why should one not keep such people at arm’s length?
     But perhaps the more interesting question is: why they are like that in the first place? Once again, Karl Lagerfeld seems to have made a valid point on a related subject. In a recent interview in the magazine Vice, he said he preferred prostitution to loving sex.
I personally only like high-class escorts,” Herr Lagerfeld explained. “I don’t like sleeping with people I really love. I don’t want to sleep with them because sex cannot last, but affection can last forever. I think this is healthy. For the rich, this is possible. But the other world, I think they need porn. Frustration is the mother of crime.”

20 February 2012

Dangerous metaphors #1: "boomerang penis"

Talking of sex, as we were in the previous entry, the paragraph pictured below (from today’s Guardian) has a classic example of an uncontrolled metaphor which is more confusing than descriptive. This is a habit to avoid if you want to invoke intended rather than unintended sense in the mind of the reader.
     Ignore Michael Parkinson’s “beautiful” vasectomy and look at the first sentence in the second paragraph, which describes an “outrageous” line from the cover of an early number of the women’s magazine, Cosmopolitan. Ask yourself, what exactly is a “boomerang penis”?

So what, then, is the phrase “a boomerang penis” really supposed to mean? Could it be one that is shaped like a boomerang in the sense that it has a kink in it? Possibly, but in cross-section a boomerang is nearly flat, and has a carefully crafted groove along its length for aerodynamic effect. That sounds more like the sort of penis that Salvadore Dali would have painted than anything the editor of a British lifestyle magazine might have encountered in the mid-1970s. On the other hand, though modern boomerangs are fashioned out of light wood, historically they were made of bone. Perhaps that was what stimulated the imagination of the writer.
     In fact, I suspect that the governing image was probably the common one, which denotes something that is thrown away but returns, often with unpleasant results for the thrower. An insult, for example, is said to “boomerang” when it comes back to damage the reputation of the person who uttered it.
     Another clue is that boomerangs were used by aborigines in Australia to kill birds. Back in the days when Michael Parkinson could still have used a vasectomy, “bird” was a common slang term for “girl”. As Cosmopolitan was written for women, the “handling” of something that flies up into the air, kills an edible object in flight, then floats down to earth to the detriment of the person who had handled it, could be a much darker image of the horror of sex in a hot country when examined from a female point of view, even without any kangaroos being involved.
     My man on the Songlines tells me that the smallest recorded boomerang was just 4 inches (10 cms.) long, but in recent years larger and larger ones have been made. The biggest one ever to achieve lift-off was nearly six feet (almost two metres) in length. That ought to have been enough to terrify even the most ravening editor of Cosmopolitan, and persuade her to control her metaphors before they came back to bite her, boomerang-style.

19 February 2012

"A good bonk"

In the late 1980s the barrister, author and playwright, John Mortimer (author Rumpole of the Bailey), came to Moscow to help produce some Shakespeare plays at the Arts Theatre. He describes his experiences in his autobiography, Murderers and Other Friends. The passage below, beginning with “I am translating this short story”, illustrates yet another of the perils that await the non-native user of English.

The first Russian to email me with a correct definition of the phrase in question will have his or her name entered in the draw for that bottle of Glenfiddich.
     For non-Russians, most of whom can be expected to know what a good bonk is: the most amusing account of a comparable encounter in Russia will also go forward to the draw for the whisky which is still produced by the Grant family in the valley of the deer (glen fiddich is the anglicised version of gleann fiadh which is the “valley of the deer” in Gaelic).

The perils of waffle #3

This piece, by a Mr Viktrovich (or is it Mr Kovalenok? see piece immediately below), starts with an unusually constipated sentence, which calls for analysis and correction. 
     “Under the conditions of markets globalisation” would be better written: “In a global market”.
     What are “food stock markets”? “The food market” perhaps? How does a food “stock market” different from the food “market”? The phrase “stock market” is generally used as a synonym for the “stock exchange”.
     Why is the word “Retail” in the fourth line capitalised? Mr Viktrovich appears to have German tendencies, though of a different sort from Mr Andrey (see below). Germans use capitals with most nouns, perhaps to add emphasis or the appearance of importance. English does not do this. “Retail” here is not a proper noun, so should not be capitalised in the middle of a sentence.
     “Foodstuff production” should be simply “food production”. “Foodstuffs” is a generic noun which has no singular (You cannot talk of “one foodstuff”), and it cannot be used as an adjective, at least not if you do not want to sound too деревенский.
     This is such a constipated sentence, that I would like to suggest a shorter version which, I think, still conveys the full sense of Mr Viktrovich’s text.
In a food market that is globalised from production to retailing, product safety has become an important issue.
     Is that not clearer? If  “quality” really is “an absolute priorityl”, then I would have thought Metro Cash & Carry might have taken the trouble to consult language.etiquette@gmail.com before going into print. But there's always a next time.

The perils of waffle #2

This point is a simpler one, but illustrates the same lack of attention to logic as noted immediately below. The piece begins: “Both food and non-food retail sectors...” Why not just say, “The retail sector” or, better still, “Retailing”? Food and non-food retailing comprises all retailing. The whole population if the world can be completely described by the phrase: “Me and non-me”. The simple word “Everyone” says everything that that phrase says.
     And a point of style rather than logic: strange name “Chulakhvartov Andrey”! Has he not got it the wrong way round? Or does he think he is in the army? When writing in English-language publications it would perhaps be advisable to try to sound less militaristic, or German (delete as applicable). Armies are so last century. This is the dawning of the Age of the Acquisitus…

The perils of waffle #1

I am sure that Mr Salmatov is a good and kindly man, whose career has been completely untainted by corruption, incompetence or admiration for the wrong leader at the wrong time. However, I cannot help drawing attention, in the public interest, to what seems to me a typical example of an official who has not had his words proof-read before publication.
     In the opening sentence of his article, as shown above, he says that “domestic trade and been one of the fastest growing sectors of the Russian economy, surpassing many other industries in its growth rates.” Well, obviously! How could it be one of the “fastest-growing” if it its growth rate did not surpass those of other industries?
     And the statement that “domestic trade…. surpassed many other industries” is without meaning. “Trade” is trade, and “industries” are industries. One involves exchange, and the other production. To talk about them in this way is not comparing like with like. To say that British trade is bigger than the steel industry is nonsensical. It is like saying, “Yesterday was warmer than trousers.”
     I post this notice solely in order to illustrate the perils of going into print without having your text edited professionally by me and my team of grammar hawks at language.etiquette@gmail.com

17 February 2012

A picture is worth a thousand words

Anyone wishing to get an idea of the size and composition of the Russian Pacific Fleet would perhaps be misled by this photograph from the website of the Voice of Russia radio station. Is the sailor with the binoculars looking for that fleet, or is he part of it? And which Russian naval chart puts the Gulf of Aden in the Pacific? Or does the Russian Indian Ocean Fleet not exist? Perhaps it consists entirely of submarines?
     The wittiest answer to any or all of these vital questions (Mail me at language.etiquette@gmail.com) will be put into the draw for the bottle of Glenfiddich which will be raffled shortly. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a good bottle of whiksy is worth a lot more than a thousand roubles!

Etiquette issues #1: verbosity

The opening paragraph of this article in the journal Canadian-American Slavic Studies is a classic of the type of academic verbosity which is common to most countries, but perhaps more so in America than elsewhere. It is especially interesting since Charles Halperin, from the University of Indiana, is a brilliant scholar of medieval Russia who generally writes clearly and interestingly. His book, Russia and the Golden Horde: the Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History, is a classic which I am glad to have on my bookshelves. However this essay was written when he was just beginning his academic career, and it shows.
     This is the paragraph in text form:
“Specialists in medieval Russian history often have to contend with an aggre­gate source base of such paucity that it is quite understandable that they should devote relatively massive amounts of time to articulating principles of source criticism and to evaluating interpretations of specific texts as sources about par­ticular problems. Sometimes—more cautiously one might say rarely—such an ob­session with sources entails too narrow a definition of historical problematica. In at least the one case with which this article will be concerned, stepping outside a narrow debate about sources to pose a broader but unasked question induces an uneasy emotion hyperbolically described as akin to insisting that the emperor has no clothes.”
     Apart from the unnecessary elaboration of the language, there are several specific grammatical points:
1.       What does “relatively massive amounts” mean? Why not just “a lot”?
2.       Is it “sometimes” or “rarely”? Perhaps he simply means “occasionally”?
3.       How can you answer an “unasked” question? An “unspoken” one is one which is not stated explicitly but is understood to exist, but an “unasked” one means that no-one has asked it, and therefore it must be asked first if it is to be answered. Otherwise, I might say “25”, and no-one would understand unless I first said, “What is five multiplied by five?”
4.       What are “historical probelmatica”? (I presume this is the plural of “historical problematicum”. What on earth is that?) At least, how do they differ from “historical problems”, a phrase which everyone understands?
5.       “Hyperbolically described as akin to insisting” is meaningless as, if you look closely at that sentence, the word which “hyperbolically” is qualifying is “akin”. How can a word which means little more than “like” be used in a “hyperbolical” way?

Trying to tanslate his paragraph into comprehensible English, without losing any of the points I think he wanted to make, I came to this. 
There are so few sources for medieval Russian history that respectable specialists have to spend a disproportionate amount of time describing how they evaluate particular texts. Occasionally the carry this process too far. An example discussed below … [There I had to give up. I am honestly not sure what the final sentence means. Who is the emperor? Is Professor Halperin saying that it is impossible to ask rational questions about so narrow a source base, or does he mean that he will end up criticising himself to the point were he can no longer write about this subject?]
    Writing may be good or it may be bad, which means it may convey its meaning clearly, concisely and vividly, or it may not. But if it fails to convey any meaning at all then it is not “writing” but mood music in verbal form. That may be appropriate in certain circumstances, but not in an academic essay.
     Here, by contrast, is an example of mood music which is so clearly written that it makes perfect sense, even without punctuation. There is not a word wasted, nor any doubt about what the author is saying, even when some words, like “stole a kiss” and “turn of a mile” , are used in an unconventional way. It is the opposite of verbose. The author is another Charles from the mid-West of America, though he is better known as “Chuck” Berry. He is a more competent writer than Professor Halperin—and he can play the guitar, too.

     Riding along in my automobile
     My baby beside me at the wheel
     I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile
     My curiosity running wild
     Crusin' and playin' the radio
     With no particular place to go....

16 February 2012

Russians should liberate the smiler within

Russia may not have as many aircraft carriers as the United States, but Russian people have one priceless advantage over Americans, namely a sense of humour. Time magazine has posted a piece today which makes this point for me. It is entitled: “Is this the funniest YouTube video of all time?”
     Click on the link and you will see a weakly slapstick film of a man banging his head on a ceiling fan while trying to get hold of a tomato. The narrative beneath this begins:
“As if Google didn’t have enough to work on — that business of being the world’s most recognizable search engine would be plenty to keep them busy — it turns out the company also has a comedy algorithm. And they’ve just used it to let us in one* of the great, unanswered questions of our age: what’s the funniest video on YouTube?”
A comedy algorithm? Yep, that’s right: jokes by formula.  Only in America. They will be challenging the Germans soon, which could be very worrying. Spike Milligan, the writer of the immortal Goon Shows (which you can still hear on the BBC Radio Comedy channel via the internet), once said: “The German sense of humour is no laughing matter.”
     Half the charm of Russians is that they do have a sense of humour, unlike the people who Time magazine is writing about today. The flip-side of this is that half the strength of America is that it is prepared to admit its failings in this and most other respects without having a fit of “patriotic” censorship—which is the Russian vice.
     The timeless truth (no pun intended) which lies behind this apparent paradox is that so much humour is connected with hinting at matters which we do not wish to discuss openly, or admit freely. The grievous British tradition of lavatorial humour is an embarrassing case in point. Here are two examples which would be censored in both Russia and America, and quite rightly so.

     A fart, a fart is good for the heart.
     It sets the mind at ease.
     It warms the bed on a frosty night
     And drives away the fleas.

     Beans, beans musical fruit,
     The more you eat, the more you toot.
     The more you toot, the better you feel:
     Beans, beans for every meal.

     Russians are inclined to write in  a formal way, for fear of being thought деревенский (rustic), hence the “patriotic” censorship. In my view, that is a mistake. Laughs may be for the pub, but a smile in an email is, like a picture in a news story, worth a thousand words. The problem is, that humour is the hardest thing to get right in a language which is not your own. So keep reading this blog!

*Yes, that is copied correctly. A proof-reading error from Time! That sentence  should read: “…let us in on one of the great unanswered questions…”

15 February 2012

Confusing words #1 – constraint/restraint

Yulia Latynina opens her column in today’s Moscow Times with this sentence:  
“While the Russian authorities are, for the time being, using kid gloves to deal with the opposition at home, they have not shown the same constraint in South Ossetia.”
What she should have written, correctly, was “the same restraint in South Ossetia”.
     Constraint is something which comes from outside. “We are constrained by a lack of resources…”   Restraint, by contrast, comes from within: “We are restrained by a guilty conscience…”
     You can “show restraint” by deciding to be lenient, or you can “have a constraint” on your actions as a result of some outside limitation.
     Though easily confused, these two words have rather different meanings.

14 February 2012

Words you do NOT need to know: “Philematologist”

My friend John Harrison, the Moscow-based painter and part-time climatologist, sends me a script from his radio programme “Climate Change”, which is broadcast weekly on the Voice of Russia (www.ruvr.ru/english). He talks about everything from vulcanology to global warming. The subject this time is kissing which, on one view, could be said to combine the two.
     I learn many interesting things from his script, but perhaps the most astounding fact is that in the good ol’ U.S. of A. people actually spend their time making physiological studies of the act of kissing. Sheril Kirschenbaum of the University of Texas is, apparently, “the scientific queen of kissing”. 
     I am sure Professor Kirschenbaum (as I take her to be: all American university staff above the janitor seem to be professors) is a good and kindly person. But one of the many things Russians could learn from Americans (by reverse inference) is that activities like the scientific study of kissing are a waste of waste life’s precious essence. I am with Dostoyevsky here. He appreciated that there are certain things which are simply not knowable, and that to study them is a form of blasphemy in that to do so reduces the beautiful to the commonplace, usually by means of statistics.
     I suggest that “philematology”, which is the word someone has coined for the study of kissing, is one of these blasphemies. I have lived a long life without ever feeling the need to use the word, just as I have managed to survive many moons without appreciating that a kiss uses 6.4 calories a minute, and that French kissing exercises all 34 muscles in the face. Cool.
     But none of this says anything about Jimi Hendrix’s approach to the act, which seems to me much more interesting. Professor Kirschenbaum tells us that kissing allows people to sample “a section of a potential partner’s genome called the major histocompatiblity complex (MHC). The MHC is a code for the immune system.” So we use kissing to select future partners.
     Hendrix, as we all know, said, “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.” Despite his enormous lips, most people at the time did not take this literally, thinking of it instead as a beautiful metaphor for transcendence. But were we right? Professor Kirschenbaum’s work suggests the mundane possibility that there may have been a more functional and commonplace purpose at work here, even if the doomed singer was unaware of the fact. Hendrix sung those words just three years before he died. Might that  kiss in Purple Haze have really been a subliminal attempt to make an exploratory exchange of his major histocompatibility complex with God’s, given that “the sky” could be taken as a metaphorical synonym for The Almighty? Professor Kirschenbaum does not say.
     Probably she is too young to remember Jimi Hendrix. But John Harrison is not. Neither am I. We often work together. Yet he has never once kissed me, nor even, so far as I am aware, attempted to. That is another mystery of life which I think Dostoyevsky would allow me to refrain from investigating too closely.