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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22 April 2014

BBC language and the cause of Peaches Geldof's death

This clip from the BBC about Peaches Geldof's funeral, ends by saying, “Her cause of death remains unexplained.”
     No cause can be “unexplained”. It is the death which is “unexplained”. The “cause” is unknown. An unexplained cause is one which you know, but which you do not understand. That is not the case in this instance. 
     What help is there for civilised society if the BBC cannot use English properly?

20 April 2014

What's the difference between fakes, forgeries and counterfeits in the worlds of European art, African drugs and Chinese painting production?

“The healer is a feeler” - a definition of an African tribal healer from this fascinating programme about the difference between these three words: fake, forgery and counterfeit.
     You will hear the authenticity of fetishes discussed from the moral, practical, aesthetic and commercial points of view in the same breath as art—including an account of a Chinese village where art students mass produce Van Goghs, before proceeding to Matisse, who is the second easiest artist to counterfeit, forge or fake—depending on your definition of the terms. Listen to The Forum. I would be surprised if you are disappointed.

19 April 2014

Best joke in the book: Bertrand Russell splits a side

Bertrand Russell: never judge a wit by his moustache
Judging by what I was told when I worked in the editorial department of Ведомости, where I tried to persuade the staff to write in way which readers might find more appealing, jokes are not considered good form in serious writing in Russia. That is not the case in Britain. There, any writing that is completely devoid of wit is suspect. And the occasional open joke is welcomed, even in books like Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (see previous two posts).
     I was not going to add to what I had said about that marvellous book, but I could not resist making a point about the desirability of wit when writing in English as a result of what I read with this morning’s tea in connection with Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution and natural selection. 
     In a chapter on the currents of thought in the nineteenth century, Russell describes the lingering influence of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment philosopher, Helvetius, who believed that genius was often a matter of pure chance. “If Shakespeare had not been caught poaching, he would have been a wool merchant,” Russell writes, with reference to the story that Shakespeare went to London only after having been convicted of killing deer on the local squire’s estate at Stratford. 
     Darwin, naturally, came to disagree with Helvetius since evolution was a matter not of chance but of continual, though unconscious, adaptation to circumstance. Russell says, “Thus from age to age deer run more swiftly, cats stalk their prey more silently, and giraffes’ necks become longer.”
     He then proceeds to describe the illogicality at the heart of Darwin’s otherwise conventional Victorian liberalism due to its egalitarianism. Darwin lived in an age when the vote was being given to working men. But he knew that nature is not egalitarian so, referring to Piltdown Man who was then believed to have been the “missing evolutionary link” between apes and humans, Russell wittily stretches logic to its extreme and makes his point in a way which few readers are likely to forget:

“The doctrine that all men are born equal, and that the differences between adults are due wholly to education, was incompatible with Darwin’s emphasis on congenital differences between members of the same [animal] species… There is a further consequence of the theory of evolution, which is independent of the particular mechanism suggested by Darwin. If men and animals have a common ancestry, and if men developed by such slow stages that there were creatures which we should not know whether to classify as human or not, the question arises: at what stage in evolution did men, or their semi-human ancestors, begin to be all equal? Would Pithecanthropus erectus, if he had been properly educated, have done work as good as Newton’s? Would the Piltdown Man have written Shakespeare’s poetry if there had been anybody to convict him of poaching? A resolute egalitarian who answers these questions in the affirmative will find himself forced to regard apes as the equals of human beings. And why stop with apes? I do not see how he is to resist an argument in favour of Votes for Oysters.”


16 April 2014

Heroism and other loaded words you should be careful of

John Locke, the philosopher of happiness
whose followers made the modern world,
in part by demystifying
the potentially nasty concept of noble heroism.
Reading further in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (see previous post for links) I came upon another quotation which seems to me to cast an informative light on events in Russia today. 
     Russell is discussing Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, which was taken up by idealists and transformed into something nasty—and eventually Nazi—and contrasting it with John Locke’s humdrum but more down-to-earth approach to happiness, which culminated in British utilitarianism and the United States Constitution.
     This is what Russell says about the impulse to noble heroism:
“The sort of ethic that is called ‘noble’ is less associated with attempts to improve the world than is the more mundane view that we should seek to make men happier. This is not surprising. Contempt for happiness is easier when the happiness is other people’s than when it is our own. Usually the substitute for happiness is some form of heroism. This affords unconscious outlets for the impulse to power, and abundant excuses for cruelty.”
     The language point is that non-native speakers of English should be very careful about how they use loaded words like “heroism”. They might seem impressive in a language whose speakers worship power, but can sound not very polite in another culture where suspicion of power and cynicism about those who exercise it is predominant. This is how it has been in the whole English-speaking world for centuries, especially the three that separate us from the time of John Locke.


15 April 2014

Bertrand Russell and the wee guy with the short name who is supposed to be our hero these days

Reading in bed this morning with my tea, while a grey dawn broke over the grey rooftops of Flotskaya Ulitsa, I came upon a strangely prescient passage in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy—the wonderful book, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
     Though it was written in 1946 (or at least published then—I am adopting Russell’s habit of extreme precision!), it somehow seems to foresee the development of Russian political culture in the second decade of the twenty-first century, seventy years after the time he wrote. Was the man clairvoyant?
     Certainly Russell was a sex maniac, or something close to it. Perhaps that helps one see into the future. I must try it one day and see if I can read the markets, or predict how far the current Russian fad for campy, gun-toting, post-modern fashism is likely to go. All reasonable offers considered.
     Russell was raised by his grandmother, a ferocious Scottish Presbyterian who specialized in emotional repression and religious fanaticism. Russell, perhaps predictably, turned out to be a libertine atheist. But he was also a gifted mathematician, whose theories are still influential today—or so I am told by people who understand these matters.
     What I do know about him is that he was the first of the Western intellectuals to visit the Soviet Union and see it for what it was—a brutal, blood-thirsty dictatorship, completely devoid of the spirit of tolerance. Since tolerance (especially of failure) is necessary for experiment and creativity, the three year-old regime, he thought, was doomed to ultimate failure. He published The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (which I have here in Moscow) in 1920, when people like H.G. Wells were still enthusing over their latest interview with Lenin. And that was ten years or more before Bernard Shaw and the Webbs returned from Moscow to pronounce socialism the wave of the future. So it was not only in pure mathematics and number theory that Russell saw straight to the heart of things.
     Here he is in his History describing the semi-philosophical force which emerged in eighteenth century Europe in opposition to the Protestant liberalism which had taken root in England and Holland in the seventeenth century, and to which we owe the modern commercial world. (I have abridged it slightly for clarity.)
“A new movement, which has gradually developed into the antithesis of liberalism, begins with
Rousseau, and acquires strength from the romantic movement and the principle of nationality. In
this movement, individualism is extended from the intellectual sphere to that of the passions, and
the anarchic aspects of individualism are made explicit. The cult of the hero, as developed by
Carlyle and Nietzsche, is typical of this philosophy. Various elements were combined in it. There was dislike of early industrialism [and] a nostalgia for the Middle Ages, which were idealized owing to hatred of the modern world… There was vehement assertion of the right of rebellion in the name of nationalism, and of the splendour of war in defence of ‘liberty’. Byron was the poet of this movement; Fichte, Carlyle, and Nietzsche were its philosophers.
     “But since we cannot all have the career of heroic leaders, and cannot all make our individual will prevail, this philosophy, like all other forms of anarchism, inevitably leads, when adopted, to the despotic government of the most successful ‘hero’. And when his tyranny is established, he will suppress in others the self-assertive ethic by which he has risen to power. This whole theory of life, therefore, is self-refuting, in the sense that its adoption in practice leads to the realization of something utterly different: a dictatorial State in which the individual is severely repressed.”
     For anyone wanting to understand how the English language can be written with both wit and clarity, I could not recommend Russell’s book too highly. It has the additional benefit today that, due to liberal commercial internationalism, it is available (free) in pdf form on the internet. Download it now, before the wee guy we now think of as the local hero stops tolerating public access to such examples of literary creativity.

13 April 2014

Another useful English idiom beautifully explained in a single picture

“Singing from the same Hymn sheet”

What, dear reader, do you think they might be singing?
    (Answers in a pleasing baritone, for preference.)

07 April 2014

Grandpa’s Knob: what separates Americans from the rest of the English-speaking world

Reading quietly in bed this morning with my pint of tea, I suddenly found myself convulsed by such uncontrolled spasms of laughter that the neighbours were soon hurrying in to see if they needed to call a doctor, or if the was any flood risk to the occupants of the flat below from split sides.
     The cause of the attack was the paragraph heading reproduced below from The Quest, Daniel Yergin’s excellent follow up to The Prize. After 600 pages of severely Protesto-Talmudic fact about the entirely humour-free history of the modern international energy industry, I spotted a joke. Of course, I immediately realised that it was not a joke, but yet another example of what separates Americans from the rest of the English-speaking world, from Aberdeen to Woomera, namely the absence of any genito-urinary innuendo in the way Americans use the word “knob”.
     The mental image of a group of sturdy renewable energy pioneers climbing up “Grandpa’s Knob” to site a huge wind turbine there was what caused my sudden descent into hysteria and all concerned citizens within earshot running to my bedside, some equipped with respirators and smelling salts, others with chloroform pads. One even brought an old, Stalin-era straight-jacket.
     By now I have probably ruined the joke for you. Sorry. But consider the possibilities of continuing it with one of our esteemed American friends. Ask him or her if he or she has ever climbed on top of ascended “Grandpa’s Knob” and see what happens. “Did you ascend by the North Face?” I can see him or her maintaining a bemused, Protesto-Talmudic po-face while every other English-speaker in the room cracks up, though hopefully not as wildly as I did if only out of compassion for the only “knob head” in the room.

04 April 2014

Am I mad, old, stupid or simply out of data?

How many exabytes has the Mona Lisa?
I came across the paragraph quoted below in a serious business magazine the other day and began to wonder if I will ever feel at peace in a world which publishes this sort of stuff.
     This is not so much a language point as a cultural one, though perhaps the two are interrelated. However, English-speakers are more vulnerable since this type of linguistic emptiness is being invented in English, and is steering the minds of English language-speaker in its own direction, irrespective of the culture they originally come from.
     Over time, the influence of language on people is almost as much as that of people on language. The evolution and interaction of thought and language has always been a question of give and take, steal and repossess. But still I shiver with a sort of cosmic cultural loneliness when I read stuff like this. Is there anyone there, I wonder? Or did a computer write it?
In 2007, 300 exabytes (one billion gigabytes) of data of stored data were estimated to exist of which 7% was analog (paper, books, photographic prints, and so on.) Digital data expands quickly, doubling a little more than every three years. By 2013 it is estimated that the amount of stored data in the world was around 1200 exabytes, of which less than 2 percent is non-digital. The speed and volume of Big Data have prompted some analysts to use readily available data to make real-time “nowcasts” ranging from purchases of autos to flu epidemics to employment/unemployment trends in order to improve the quality of policy and business decisions. The Billion Prices Project (BPP), launched at MIT collects more than half a million prices on goods and generates reports that are more accurate and timelier than official statistics. Big Data is also being used by businesses in budget forecasting, reducing costs and improving profitability.
     After reading this, I thought I would start a new course for my students in the business world entitled: “How to say nothing without leaving the page blank”. Anyone want to sign up right now? A discount for early booking? The first class essay will be on the topic: “How many exabytes has the Mona Lisa?”

03 April 2014

In business communication, culture is at least as important as language

Tsar Nicholas II (left): he did it his way
(and look what happened!)
Readers who think that the only obstacle to communication with foreigners is their lack of ability to speak another language should reflect on the interesting series of national clichés presented in a book by Richard Lewis and entitled, When Cultures Collide. 
     It is a study of the  negotiating styles of businessmen from 25 countries all around the world. You can read a summary of it, with some interesting diagrams to illustrate Mr Lewis’s conclusions at this link.
     It goes to show just how important language etiquette is (hence this blog)—but that is not my main point here. Rather, I am intrigued by the fact that there is no description of Russian negotiating methods (or Irish, for that matter, but perhaps we already know how to behave in pubs). So how would one fairly characterize them?
     There are some modern clichés, usually involving gangsters and/or variants on the theme of Mr Putin’s approach to Western leaders like George W. Bush when he once (with some justification in Dubya’s case) said it was like dealing with “mad people wielding razor blades”. Another cliché which is becoming equally dated is that of the Russian oligarch whose approach to a deal echoes that of Stalin, who simply counted the tanks. “How many divisions has the Pope?” the Great Leader and Teacher famously said when asked in 1935 whether it might not be a good idea to encourage toleration of Catholics.
     But it is not my sense that either of these represent mainstream practice in Russia, either today or yesterday. Some Russians undoubtedly admire brutality in others but they are rarely brutal themselves, unless they feel they have an overwhelming numerical and material advantage, as oligarchs or OMON do in Moscow, or the army did in Chechnya or Afghanistan. It is more usual to encounter a negotiating style which some people would call foxy, “oriental” or “хитрый”, and other a “subtle” or “perfidious Albion” approach.
     In that respect, I think the Anglophile Tsar, Nicholas II, gave us a more authentic example of the natural Russian method when his tutor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, recorded him in 1899 as saying, “Why are you arguing? I always agree with everyone and then do things in my way.”


01 April 2014