What this blog is for and about

I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

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24 September 2012

Food for thought: a readers' challenge

To celebrate the fact that this blog has just passed 50,000 unique pageviews since it started seven months ago, I thought a meal would be the right thing to have since, if music is the food of love, then food is the love of the blogger.
     But food terms, like most others in English, can have double meanings. Russians should be aware that the word “vegetable” can be applied to a mentally subnormal (or “challenged”) individual, one who is not capable of rational responses to life. For that reason, it can also be used as an insult.
     The best-known example of that was in the television comedy, Spitting Image, when Mrs Thacher was seen entertaining the members of her Cabinet to dinner.

     “Would you like to order, sir?” the waitress says to the Iron Lady, who is dressed in a suit.
     “Yes, I’ll have the steak.”
     “How would you like it?”
     “Oh, raw, please,” the Prime Minister says.
     “And what about the vegetables?”
     “They’ll have the same as me.”

So today's question is this: Can you spot the vegetable in the picture below:

You can see the clip in question by clicking here.

YOU can win a invitation to our next whisky tasting for the most amusing application of this slang use of the word vegetable to current affairs, within Russia or without - to the usual email address.

21 September 2012

Cleggy Riot: if love means never having to say you’re sorry, what does this clip tell us about truth and beauty?

Who would you rather vote for?
Are apologies becoming a disguised form of electioneering?
Do you think the guy performing in the unsanctioned musical demonstration featured in this revealing clip should get two years in jail for his blasphemous song? He takes the sacred word “sorry” and makes a mockery of the ritual of repentance (which alone can bring absolution). Should he be sent to prison? What verdict might Mr Justice Patriarch Kirrill hand down?
     Equally important is the question: Why did young Nick not brush his hair before going on television? Do you think he would have looked more trustworthy if he had been wearing an orange bag over his head?
     For Russians, I should explain that Nick Clegg is the leader of the Liberal-Democrat Party and Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He therefore occupies a position of public trust. Despite this, he says, “When we’re wrong, we hold our hands up. And when we’re right we hold our heads up”, while carefully omitting the rider: “When the next election comes, we’ll go tits up.”
     What do you think of the performance? Does it reveal a criminal misuse of language? Is it essentially, in the natural and ordinary meaning of the word, deceptive? Would two years in Butyrki prison cure Mr Clegg of his habit, and enable him to repay his debt to the society that trusted him once?
     Trust is one of the most important issues in language etiquette. Apologies should be genuine. These days, in the political world, sorry seems to be the easiest word. It’s a sad, sad situation, and it’s getting more and more absurd, not least because the real question Gospodin Clegg is asking, but which he is too dishonest to articulate openly, is the one that lies at the heart of democracy: What have I got to do to make you love me?

18 September 2012

Etiquette issues #6: slang and humour. How Mr Putin and Michael Dell once had a full and frank exchange of slightly patronising views, and how they were creatively misreported by the specialist press

A reader from Washington DC has written to query my comment on slang in American journalism in the post on 4 September (about the way the Financial Times reported the Berezovsky-Abramovich trial). Let me therefore clarify things by saying that, in my view, slang is fine in polite writing so long as it contains an element of humour. Without that, it merely looks cheap and, well, slangy! So, far from criticising the American approach, I think it works well because it is so often suffused with a cheeky “democratic” type of wit.
     Last week I came across a wonderful example of this in a news story which has a Russian angle and which I hope will make my point. It might also help Russians to understand why slang (and swearing, even more so) has to be used very carefully if it not to sound off-key. This is hard for a non-native speaker to get exactly right and therefore it should be avoided in most situations.
     The story in question concerns Mr Putin—is there any story about Russia which does not?—and an exchange of views he had with Michael Dell of Dell Computers, which happened at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland in January 2009. I missed it at the time, but was interested to read about it when the issue was revived recently in the scholarly publication, Russian Review, which has devoted a whole edition to papers about Soviet science (including a fascinating study of the official misinformation surrounding the Soviet space programme).
     The introductory article is headlined: Technology Defines Everything, a reference to Stalin’s famous human resources slogan, Кадры решают всё – cadres decide everything. In it, the editor makes a post-Soviet parallel, which begins by describing the spat at Davos.
     Given that this ends up as a media issue, the public images of the dramatis personae are important. The American computer press sees Mr Dell as having few outstanding attributes beyond being a multi-millionaire super-nerd, unlike Mr Putin, whose personal qualities are legendary and widely publicised. As Russian television audiences know, he flies tanks, scuba-dives for ancient Lada parts under the Black Sea, teaches navigation to cranes and rides rare Siberian tigers with his shirt off—all while running the largest country on earth almost single-handedly, equipped with nothing more than a tranquillising dart-gun and cupboard full of spare voting papers. If there is a shadow in this glowing portrait, it is that he does not suffer fools gladly, nor gentry like Mr Dell.
     What happened at Davos was that, at a public forum, Gospodin Dell asked Superman a  “rambling and confused” question, as the Russian Review put it, which started with a lot of nice-to-know-you flannel, and ended with this: “How can we, as an IT sector, help you broaden the economy as you move out of the crisis and take advantage of that great scientific talent that you have?”
“You know, the trick is, we don’t need any help,” Putin replied, according to the simultaneous translator. “We are not invalids. We do not have any limited capacity. People with limited capacities and abilities should be helped. Pensioners should be helped. Developing countries should be helped…” and so on for five minutes. (The interview can be seen here, and a transcript of Putin’s actual reply, in Russian, here.)
     The simultaneous translation is not very accurate. It looks to me as if Putin was talking more politely than he sometimes does and being relatively constructive, though still trying subtly to deflate what he perceived as Mr Dell’s pretence of being king of the IT world. But  Putin’s problem is that he is not accustomed to the sort of debate in which it is often better to say less rather than more. A politician with wider experience of the waffle-sphere would probably have replied briefly: “If you really want to help, Michael, it’s very simple. You set up in Skolkovo.”
     That would have left Mr Dell’s “rambling and confused” question hanging in the sweaty conference air, embarrassing him.  But instead, Mr Putin gave the opportunity for the American press to embarrass him by misinterpreting his words, and focusing on his comment that Russia has great strengths in mathematics and a high reputation for software production. Even though Putin said nothing derogatory about Dell, we suddenly had the germ of a Hollywood situation. With a bit of creative script development, we could have one speaker attacking another. Action! Circulation! Cash!
     So that is what the American press did. And because its comment was witty and “street” sounding, it carried conviction—however misleading it might have been in actual fact. The examples that follow show the art of deploying slang to maximum effect.
     Business Insider, for example, headlined its report of the meeting thus:
     Putin to Michael Dell: Any Moron Can Build a PC
     The paper concluded by commenting: “Touchy, touchy. Especially considering how we can’t recall using Russian software for anything since Tetris.”
     Since Dell’s headquarters are in Dallas, the Dallas News got in on the act, and headlined its report:
     Vladimir Putin puts the smackdown on Michael Dell at Davos
     The piece started: “Note to self. Do not ever offer to help Russia with building their IT structure.” The writer commented that Mr Dell’s question was “apparently the equivalent of insulting Putin’s mother.” He ended by saying, “It’s hard to tell from the video how much of the insult was intended and how much was lost in translation, but Putin clearly isn’t inviting Dell to open a factory on Volgograd.”
     Wired disagreed with the last point and headlined its article:
     Putin Smacks Down Dell: Nothing Lost in Translation
     CruchGear went one better:
     Russian PM Putin Punks Michael Dell at Davos re: Russian IT
     The humour really kicked in with CNET News, which headlined its report:
     Dude, Putin is so not getting a Dell
     Which rather nicely captured the almost camp nature of the way in which both men were, to an extent, posing. But Channel Register won the prize for the most off-the-wall headline:
     Vladimir Putin bitchslaps Dell-boy: “We don’t need any help. We’re not invalids.”
     I have nothing to add to any of that, except that this blog is entered from a computer called an IRBIS, which I think is a Russian brand. I am not bothered either way. It was cheaper than the other offerings in the Khimki Mega mall when my old системиый блок got terminal stomach cramp two years ago and died on me. My IRBIS has been a trouble-free electronic serf ever since. And the software inside it, of course, is largely American.
     So it’s Putin back to front, really. But that’s life, innit dude?

15 September 2012

Urgent! Everyone should go to the Moscow Village Fete this afternoon

I received this notice on Facebook five minutes ago:

David Morley posted in The 7th Annual Moscow Village Fete
 David Morley 15 September 12:10  
I have 5 kgs. (minus a bit) of aged GOUDA cheese to go with the wine today (only for grown-ups!). Brilliant. Tastes a bit like a mature cheddar. Made in the Moscow region specially for the event by our very own British Business Club cheese-maker, Jay Robert Close, from his own milk, from his own cow. You can taste and then buy a chunk! Bring a bag! 

I recommend everyone get over there immediately (see Facebook page for details) since it is real British weather forecast for this afternoon.

But there is a language point: is the cheese really made by Jay Close "from his own milk". He is, after all male. Perhaps Sir David really meant to say that Jay's was made "from the milk of his own cow."
     I sincerely hope so, because the last time I tasted the cheese it was excellent and I ate a lot of it. I would not like to think I was eating something made with, shall we say, unexpected raw materials.

10 September 2012

Lord of the Wings?

VladVlad Baggins goes east, soaring with Gandalf and the cranes as he seeks the Undying Lands in order to find Peace in Our Time

09 September 2012

Statements of the obvious #9: Ivan Lendl on golf

So Ivan Lendl (Andy Murray’s coach, and ex-world tennis Number 1) is “having a ball playing golf”, as the Independent in London tells us in the middle paragraph pictured above.
     What is so amazing about that? Everyone who plays golf “has a ball”. Indeed it is hard to imagine playing the game without a ball. How might that work? You step up on the first tee, select the appropriate club and address the space where the ball would normally be sitting on its peg, waiting patiently for onward transmission down the centre of the fairway. Then what? Do you hit an air shot? Or pretend you are playing virtual golf, or head for the 19th for a well-earned pint of beer without bothering with the intervening eighteen holes?
     No, when heading out to the golf course you just make sure you “have a ball”.
     The same is true of rugby. Try playing that without a ball. Likewise with tennis, croquet or billiards—or even sex, as Goebbels presumably discovered from personal experience (unless, of course, he was actually female). As every British schoolboy who has spent time in the locker room after games knows (but perhaps Russians don’t, since they seem to prefer sport to games, so I will repeat it):

     Hitler had only one big ball.
     Rommel had two but very small.
     Himmler had something similar,
     But poor, old Go-balls had no balls at all.

(To be sung loudly and in company to the tune of Colonel Bogey)

06 September 2012

Homeless animals and hopeless editors: do YOU care?

Homeless impala in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Just out of shot, to the right, crouching behind a bottle of 15-year old
Glenfiddich, is a lion (well camouflaged by the colour of the drink)
which is about to euthanize the most lunchworthy of them.
Would these beautiful animals not be better off
 in a Shelter for the Homeless?
(Photo. Paul Allen)
Anyone who wants a laugh on a grey day in Moscow, when there’s no-one smiling in your Metro carriage, should go online and look up the Voice of Russia. There you are sure to find something to amuse you. My “blogger’s pick” of the recent output is a piece about International Homeless Animals Day.
     We start with the customary criticism of the United States: “America standing by itself has an estimated 5 to 7 million animals that are brought into shelters, and unfortunately 3 to 4 million of those are euthanized.” America “standing by itself”, eh! And animals “euthanized”?! Knowing the Voice of Russia, I expect that word soon to be used in a different context as a synonym for “rejuvenated”.
     But to show balance we have: “On the other end of the globe, the number of stray animals in Moscow, Russia is horrendous. Up to 100,000 dogs and 200,000 cats are left to fend for themselves, often hunting one another in the process to stay alive.” Since when do spherical objects like globes have “ends”, as see-saws, lines or stories do? And what is a “process to stay alive”?
     Further down we read: “Numbers though are not needed to confirm this, only a set of eyes.” A “set” of eyes? Most people have a pair, but perhaps the Comrades at Novokuznetskaya are talking to higher beings in possession of a third eye, like Hindus, Gnostics and Rosicrucians. It is supposed to be a station with international appeal, after all.
     “Dozens of video footage can be found on youtube.com…” Dozens of footage? Not “lots of footage”, “dozens of feet” or even “thousands of coverage”? More amazing still, many of these animals are “known for their street smarts”.
     Reading on, we learn that “In the Ukraine, stray dogs are also a problem, yet report after report has shown that they are being poisoned to death.” Yes, poisoned to death. That’s real, Ukrainian-style poisoning for you, none of the namby-pamby sort of poisoning we go in for in the soft and sentimental West, where the dogs wake up the next morning with a hangover and a desperate desire for a bowl of water.
     The last paragraph is more of a sermon than anything else. “As advanced as we have come to be, giving animals the treatment they need, no matter where they are from is one key to this day of recognition and awakening. Giving to an animal in turmoil can be seen as a stroke of luck... Taking tiny steps to assist with the overpopulation may just be the perfect dose of medicine for society as a whole.”
     Gosh! At all ends of the globe, national radio stations employ people with functioning sets of eyes to euthanize any text which is in turmoil with dozens of unreadability. Not here, it would seem. This, perhaps, is the real meaning of Russian exceptionalism. Standing by itself, Russia is the only country whose international radio station uses a language with 100,000 words from which it is able to make 200,000 mistakes, despite copy-editors, style managers and Executive Producers hunting each others’ street smarts all over Novokuznetskaya in order to stay alive.
     What should the caring lingua-blogger do to help save the country we like from the broadcasters we have? My “tiny step” will be to throw open the doors of the Ian Mitchell Shelter for Hopeless Editors and offer a few lessons in basic English. It may not be “the perfect dose of medicine for society as a whole” but it might help to reduce the damage to Russia’s international reputation which the Voice of Russia inflicts every day of the week.

05 September 2012

Pussy Riot

I have now been asked by so many people what I think about the Pussy Riot case that I feel I ought to comment. As this is a language rather than a political blog, I will concentrate on the linguistic aspect of the matter. The first and most important point in that respect is that I am not even sure what the name means.
     What actually is a pussy riot?
     Perhaps the most polite way of explaining my question would be to ask: what is the opposite of that type of riot?
     Is it a puppy riot or a cocky riot?
     What do readers think?

04 September 2012

Back in the New SSR (Slightly Smaller Russia), pursued in print by my old friends Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich

Lady Gloster (right) showing the Queen round the court building
 in which the Berezovsky-Abramovich case was heard last year.
(Photo: Paris-Match)
After three weeks in Scotland and three in Spain (of which more later), I am back in a rainy but always intriguing Moscow with some good news for Russians struggling to write English to an acceptable standard. You should never forget that most of the English-speaking world cannot write English perfectly either. You are not alone!
     A good example comes from one of the most respectable, and usually well-written, newspapers in Britain, the Financial Times. The main news last weekend was the judgement in the Berezovsky-Abramovich case. I have followed this story closely ever since I spent a fascinating two days in the Commercial Court in London last October listening to Abramovich giving evidence. I described this experience in an article in Passport magazine in January (see pages 27-9). One of the main points I made concerned the amount of money to be made by the London legal community doing the work that the Russian courts do not seem to be trusted to do for some of the wealthier citizens of this country, and that all this is happening at a time when the Legal Aid budget for ordinary English litigants is being squeezed.
     It was therefore nice to see the Financial Times making the same point in an article last Friday, entitled “Exporting Integrity”. It was less nice to see how badly written the piece was. There are many language lessons to be learned so I am reproducing the article below, and beneath it drawing attention to some of the more obvious mistakes and examples of sloppy logic and inelegant style. The shame of it is that the FT was making a very good point: why should billionaires take advantage of state support for the court system? (I have italicised the words I draw attention to below.)

Exporting integrity     
In England, as a 19th-century judge once observed, justice is open to all – like the Ritz hotel. It is an analogy that might strike a chord with some of the world’s richest men, who have taken to availing themselves of the English courts rather as visiting plutocrats might a luxury hotel. Boris Berezovsky’s High Court feud with Roman Abramovich, which ended this week, set new records for litigants’ largesse. The two Russian oligarchs ran up costs of £100m, making this the most expensive lawsuit ever brought in Britain.
     Some argue that these cases should not be heard in England in the first place. Often they have only a tenuous connection to the UK, involving events that took place in third countries. Mr Berezovsky’s case, for instance, involved a tortuous dispute about the proceeds of assets acquired in the notorious Russian “loans for shares” deals in the 1990s.
     But at a time when demand for Britain’s other big service industry – the City – is waning, we should welcome the chance to adjudicate such vendettas, this is not just for their value to historians of post-Soviet turmoil or as pure public theatre. London’s status as the favoured destination for the litigious super-rich is a big money-spinner. Estimates suggest that more than 60 per cent of the case load of the High Court’s commercial division now comes from Russia and eastern Europe. And while it is true that a large chunk of the earnings that this generates goes to a few lucky lawyers, they do at least pay tax.
     There is a caveat, however. At a time when fiscal austerity is squeezing legal aid, foreign litigants must be seen to pay their way and not drain resources from an already overstretched court system. Providing Mr Berezovsky with a Ritz-style service should not condemn the average Englishman or woman to the legal equivalent of a flop house.
     At present, court fees in high-value commercial cases do not cover the cost of the service – especially in the High Court and Court of Appeal, where hearings are generally longer and judges more senior. The government should press ahead with plans to raise fees for those making the biggest financial claims – which would include much of the international commercial litigation in London. The legal industry complains that higher fees could drive business to other jurisdictions, but for the Berezovskys and their like, they are a fraction of the total bill.
     Just as the UK expects foreign students to pay full whack for access to its universities and hospitals, so it should demand a fair price for access to a professional and transparent legal system that many countries view with envy. Justice must be blind. It should not, however, be blind to the value of the service it offers.

Taking the italicised points in order:

  •      “High Court feud”: a feud is a long-running dispute which is not resolved by a single event like a court judgement. The whole point of the word is to suggest that there is an irrational quality to it, and the whole point of proper court proceedings is that they draw a dispute to a conclusion on purely rational grounds. It should have been “High Court dispute”, or possibly “battle”.
  •      “litigants’ largesse”: the litigants in this case spent a lot on lawyers, but it was not “largesse”. That word implies generosity, like tipping the shoe-shine boy $100. I am sure that neither Berezovsky nor Abramovich added to their costs by tipping their barristers or solicitors. The correct word should have been “extravagance”, which expresses the idea of liberal expenditure without the connotation of careless celebration which “largesse” carries.
  •      “costs of £100m”: how does the FT know? It should have written: “costs which have been estimated at £100m”.
  •      “events that took place in third countries”: what “third” country was involved? There was only Russia and England. It should have been “other” countries.
  •      “‘loans for shares’ deals”: the deals came as a result of the loans for shares scheme. This point is, I accept, arguable. But I think it would have been more accurate to have written: “deals resulting from the loans for shares scheme”, especially as the point at issue in Berezovsky’s case was not any deal with the government so much as his deal with Abramovich after the two of them had taken advantage of the staggeringly inept scheme (from a public finance point of view) by which the Yeltsin government tried to raise money in the mid-1990s.
  •      “adjudicate such vendettas”: courts in Britain do not deal with “vendettas” which, like feuds (see above) are conflicts which survive all attempts at resolution. Courts adjudicate “claims”, which is a completely different, and strictly limited, matter. Doubtless Berezovsky and Abramovich will continue their feud, and Berezovsky will pursue his vendetta, long after this case has been resolved.
  •      “pure public theatre”: why “pure” public theatre? Why is a court more “purely” theatrical than, for example, a theatre? And how can a court case have, as the first part of the sentence says, “value” when entry to the court is free, as is all public reporting of it?
  •      “Estimates suggest”: “estimates” cannot “suggest”. “Experts” can suggest, or estimate. The FT would have been better to have written: “It has been estimated that more than 60%…”
  •      “caveat”: though caveat is a verb, as in “caveat emptor” (buyer beware!), it is commonly used as a noun these days, as in “There are several caveats”, meaning there are several warnings about problems likely to arise. The point about oligarchs getting full-service courts at less than full cost is a criticism, not a warning. The word “caveat” is wrongly used here.
  •      “large chunk”: this is an inappropriate colloquialism in an article of this nature. It would have been better to have written “most of the earnings…”
  •      Taking the second colloquialism next, out of sequence: the same is true, lower down, of “flop house”, which in any case is not the opposite of “the Ritz hotel”, as the context suggests the writer thought it to be. “Holiday Inn” might have been better counterpoint since “flop house”, as Russian readers might not realise, is an old-fashioned slang term for a brothel. If English magistrates run brothel-like operations, what does that imply about Lady Gloster’s court? Nothing very flattering, I fear, which would be totally unfair to an excellent judge. I doubt the FT, especially in its leader columns, which is where this article appeared, would want to be associated with such an impolite innuendo.
  •      And finally on colloquialisms: “full whack” in the last paragraph: why not “the full cost”? Is this sort of thing an attempt to imitate American journalism, which is often even in respectable publications, more colloquial than its English equivalent? If so, it is not very successful because American colloquialisms tend to be amusing as well as “democratic”.
  •      “they are a fraction”: “higher fees”, which the writer proposes for the future are not “a fraction of the total bill” for “the Berezovskys and their like” since a proposal cannot be described in the present tense. Proposals are, by their nature, future events, not current ones. This should have been written: “higher fees… would still be a fraction of the total bill.”
  •      “it should demand a fair price”: what is a “fair” price for court services, or indeed anything? What the writer was trying to say, in his or her not very articulate way, was that the UK should charge all litigants the “full cost” of access to English courts, especially in complex commercial cases. 
  •      Finally, what on earth is a “transparent legal system” in the context of “blind” justice? It would seem the writer wanted to say this: the international “view” of “blind” justice is that it is “transparent”. But on what possible view can blindness be transparent? We all know that panes of glass cannot see, but what has that got to do with court fees for foreign oligarchs? If I had been the sub-editor on duty last Friday evening at Canary Wharf, and in possession of a stout ruler or cane, I would have given the writer of this disgracefully illiterate piece a full whacking, of the sort he might have enjoyed in the local flop house.
     Before leaving the subject of this fascinating case, I suggest that any readers interested should read Lady Gloster’s Executive Summary of her judgement, which is posted (transparently?) on the Court website. You will notice that Berezovsky claims he pays tax in Russia (and therefore presumably does not pay it in Britain). Oh yeah? Pull the other one, Boris!
     You will also read, at paragraph 34, just what her Ladyship thought of the diminutive plaintiff. In a long career of reading legal judgement, I have never come across so coruscating a description of a litigant as this. And, unlike the FT, Lady Gloster writes as elegantly as she looks. My only regret is that I shall never be a fly on the wall when she gets Berezovsky alone in her room, equipped with a stout ruler or cane, and gives wee Boris a full-service flop-house whacking, as I am sure she thinks he deserves. That’d be something to tell the grandchildren!