26 February, 2013

Changing Language

I recently read a text book about the origins of English words. Completely fascinating. It caused me to think about something i had thought about previously, words which have changed or emerged in mine own lifetime. It is possibly easier for me than for the average person to notice such new words or usages, because i have lived in several place over my life, and have returned to where i started from many years ago, where i first learned the language; changes are evident to me because the people around me now have a slightly different usage to mine. I have noticed, in particular, three changes.
One of these is a specific word which has clearly changed its meaning since i last lived here. Cheers used to be a word used before you take a drink, with almost no other usage. Now it is used ubiquitously, as a generic conversation-ending; at the end of serving or being served in a shop, typically you hear, “Thanks, cheers, good-bye”, all three. It took me a while to learn to feel comfortable with it, but now i say “cheers” to most of my customers at one point or another.
The second word seems to me to be a development of a previous word which is now almost never heard, if used at all. To whine is to make a, perhaps high-pitched, complaining tone as you speak. It appears that this word has been changed, and now one hears of people whingeing about this or that. The usage does not seem to carry so much meaning about the tone of the voice during the action as whining did, rather there is more emphasis on the fact of it and, on many occasions, the unjustifiability of the complaint.
I remember exactly where i was when i first ran across this word. I was living in the US at the time, outside a tiny village in New York State called Virgil, and i obtained some British software for my computer; within the documentation was a section about feedback, with the word whingeing defining that which would not be accepted. I took it as a misprint, laughed, and moved on. It appears that the joke was on me, as the word is surprisingly popular here, now that i live in the UK again.
In all probability i could use the word, add it to my vocabulary, and do so in such a manner that those talking with me or reading my writing would not realise that it is not a natural part of that vocabulary. The problem is that i would realise, i would feel awkward, artificial even, using it, and it would not feel natural to me. And one of the central things that i aim for it naturalness in my speech and writing (the latter being largely the same as the former, except on paper or screen, as i am not one who dramatically changes patterns of word usage between writing and speech), so using it would not feel honest.
The silly thing about this prejudice, if that it the best term for my feelings towards whinge, is that when we first moved here, as i implied above, i felt similarly about using cheers but, as i say, it has now become a firm part of my vocabulary. I can only feel my way to an understanding, but i suspect that the difference is that the latter is a word i already knew and was capable of using, if in different circumstances, whereas the former is not. To me it feels like a new coining, which i disapprove of. I suppose you could say that the previous five hundred words have been me whingeing about it.
The third change might be related to the second, in that it is a spelling and pronunciation change similar to whingeing. When i grew up, in the UK and then in Canada, and throughout the two decades i spent in the US, the present participle of swing was swinging; indeed, it still is, i think, in a sentence such as, “My son is swinging from the rafters” ~ which could well be true, though i hope it isn't. It appears to have picked up a different spelling and pronunciation, though, when the subject is finance and government; under these circumstances one hears or sees sentences such as, “The Chancellor is being forced to make swingeing cuts to that budget” ~ which seems to be consistently true. Where did that extra e come from? Why is it there? What was wrong with swinging? I cannot answer these questions.
Three changes, then. One i have adopted and use daily; one i dislike and don't use; and one i don't use because i never talk about the limited topics it is used for. What changes in your language have you noticed over the years?

23 February, 2013

Discipline is good?

Isabel Marris, ed.

A relatively old book, dating back to 1911; a collection of essays, as the title indicates, which were originally published as individual pamphlets, as far as i can tell, probably over a series of years. The general theme, as can be surmised from the title of the collection, is the relatively poor quality of the upbringing of the current generation of young Britons, how that contrasts with the past, and the deleterious effects this lack will have on the national and imperial life. The essential complaint is that children, largely boy children but girls also, are not being taught the value of discipline, both self and imposed from the outside, and are less able to understand the duty they hold towards their parents, elders, leaders, and nation.

As i read, there were two thoughts that came continually to me, with variations, and provide the background to my enjoyment of the essays. First, as anyone surely would, i related the complaints to those of the present day; allowing for the differences ~ no Empire today, and physical punishment almost completely done away with, the assumed natural superiority of Britons specifically, Whites generally, to other peoples no longer an active (though certainly passive) ingredient in society ~ many of them could have been written or published in 2011 rather than a century earlier. I forget who it was first said it, but every generation takes pleasure in pointing out the shortcomings in the raising of the two following. Second, i kept on remembering that the children whose lack of discipline and duty is decried in these essays became the adults of my grandfather's generation, the adults who defeated Germany twice in forty years; i wonder, then, what will become of the generations currently being raised with so little discipline and duty.

A point of real interest in the essays is the scope of the authors; the publishers of the original series managed to get a good cross-section of the top of society, including a variety of churchmen, civic leaders, peers, soldiers, to write for them; in addition there is an appendix of supporting blurbs from a huge number of people, Churchill and Baden-Powell and Conan Doyle among them, people who were willing to have their names listed as adding their support to the central message of the pamphlets and the means suggested for retaining Britain's greatness in future generations. Such an enterprise simply would not be possible today ~ were it desirable ~ and that fact alone, i believe, shows that some of the fears of the authors have been realised, as society is fragmented, the individual is far more important than the country or community or, even, family, and internal and external discipline, while admired, are hardly practised.

19 February, 2013

Pros and Cons

James P. Hogan

I'm still in two minds about Alien Sky, completely unable to decide if i enjoyed it or not; silly me.

Points in favour: The gradual understanding of the past history of Terra and the links with Venusian history and origins; the developing relationship/love interest between the two chief protagonists; the way Hogan slowly develops and reveals his plot, allowing the reader to make the occasional satisfying leap ahead of him and his characters.

Points against: The names ~ petty of me, but i found them difficult, more so than many other SF names i have come across; the sub-plot about the Venusian Progressives, and that of Jenyn, the primary antagonist, if there is such a thing; the chapter of nothing but prosaic explanation Hogan found necessary towards the end, rather than allowing his plot to develop and be revealed through action and conversation; the cavalier fashion in which Hogan treats the current understandings of science, cosmic history and stability, evolution, and assorted other foundational beliefs of current culture.

Overall, i think this is a bit more hard science-ey than much SF i have read and enjoyed ~ Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, for example ~ and perhaps that shows in my feelings of ambivalence. Nevertheless, i have finished it, and will not run a mile if i come across Hogan again, which surely makes it at least a qualified success for me.

15 February, 2013

Aaarrgh, and me parrot!

Stephan Talty

Bought this because i thought it might be a popular history of pirates that would do as a gift for JAG; in fact, it's a bit more, and i greatly enjoyed it myself. I had never before fully realised the difference between men such as Henry Morgan and the more notorious pirates of the next century such as Captain Kidd and Blackbeard. I knew that Morgan was the successor of such as Drake, privateers attacking the enemies of their country with the license of the monarch; that is, i knew it in theory, assuming that in practice Morgan was qualitatively different. The huge leap of differentiation, however, seems to be between the latter generation of privateers and the Kidds and Teaches of still later, men who had absolutely no legal justification for their actions. This book is only about Morgan's generation, so neither the latter men nor the former enter it; Morgan, however, is clearly a man who, to a certain extent, respects the laws of his country, and fights against, however bloodily and at whatever human cost, those to whom he is directed. I have learned from this book, about buccaneers, about the organisation of the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean, or North, Sea, about Morgan's contemporaries. Thus it is a success for me, because i am always willing to go back to an author who has taught me.

07 February, 2013


Susy Gage

The next in the series of Early Reviewers' books that i have had from or through Library Thing, all of them lately being e-books rather than real ones, this has been a struggle to read. Partly that struggle has been because of the format: It is nearly a year since i started reading on my kindle, and i shall probably write a snippet about the experience in the nearish future ~ certainly i have been thinking about it recently ~ so i'll not go into it here.

The novel is about a mystery at a university and one of its constituent parts in California in the present day. I suppose that there might be interest here for graduate students at or graduates of such an institution, but i find it difficult to think that there is any for people who do not fall into either of those rather limited categories. Buried, somewhere, deep within the book, is a good mystery plot, i'm quite sure, begging to be dug out and told; unfortunately, this is not the book which told that story effectively.

The plot itself is confusing, difficult to follow, with information either thrown at the reader in apparently no order with no real purpose, or withheld grudgingly leading to non-comprehension. Indeed, having finished the book, i would be hard pressed to actually define the mystery, count the murders ~ or deaths, not even sure if they're the same thing ~ or retell the main events.

Some of the characters do have their own personalities, but they are not attractive to read about, and the traits given them do not always make sense within the purposes of the narration; the lead character, for example, Lori Barrows, eschews motorised transport methods, but no real reason is given, either within her life or the needs of the plot, and since two of the places she has lived are the hills of LA and the snows of Quebec, bikes and roller blades are not the most useful tools for her.

A further problem i had with the book, alluded to above, is that of location. Because all the characters are on the staff or student body of the Superior Technological Institute very much of the language and the activity revolves around it or is tied to it, and i found this distracting. A simple example: “Buboes” is a word used for certain students; it may have been defined, but if so it was in such a way that i do not have that definition, all that i have is what i have gleaned from the usage (which is, of course, really how we learn words) by which i can say that they are of a lower class or grade, that they are more “cannon fodder” than anything else; what i cannot say is whether they are undergraduates or graduate students, or anything else about them. I find it discomforting that an author can allow this to happen in her book.

Overall, and in the end, by my sole criterion this novel is not a success ~ i will not read another book based simply on the fact that it has the name Susy Gage on the spine. This is unfortunate as i really believe that she could probably write very well, and i might then miss out. The difficulties of A Slow Cold Death, however, have been too great. If this is her first published novel, as i suspect, her editor or publisher did not do her any favours in letting it be; she would have been better served had they said, “Susy, you have great potential; now put this to one side, and go write your second book” or possibly, “There's something here, Susy, but it needs serious editing; here's a list of potential issues, come back in six months with them resolved.”