Monday, May 20, 2013

Words And Such

First of all, Happy Victoria Day, fellow Canadians.

Which salutation does not, by the way, have anything directly to do with Victoria, the Capital City of the Canadian Province of British Columbia, although both hearken back to the lady who was Queen of England from June 1837, until her death in January 1901:

Photograph of Queen Victoria, 1882

More correctly, Victoria was the Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. She was also, in the time of her reign, Empress of India. Things now are not what they were in Victoria's day, of course.  In December 1922, twenty-six of Ireland's counties left the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, after a bloody uprising, and formed the independent Irish Free State. (The six counties of Northern Ireland, or Ulster, remain part of the United Kingdom, in spite of all the blood that has been shed over the issue since 1922.)

India exited from the British Empire in 1947 and also became an independent state. Which, of course, was not an entirely happy occasion: at about the same time, what had been 'India' under the British Raj was partitioned into India and Pakistan, with massive bloodshed and hardship; up to 12 million people were displaced, and perhaps as many as a million killed.

Traditionally, Victoria Day was celebrated on May 24th, the old Queen's actual birthday. It is now a federal Canadian public holiday; but for convenience, it is now celebrated on the last Monday before May 25th, which gives Canadians the opportunity for a 3-day long weekend coinciding with the soon-to-start summer season, a time when lawns are mowed, and flower beds regenerated for the warmer months that hopefully lie ahead. I say 'hopefully' because May this year, in Ottawa, has been a long string of chilly disappointments. 

Growing up in Newfoundland, which did not become a part of Canada until 1949, I was compelled by tradition to take the "Queen's Birthday" very seriously. When I was a young boy in grade school, there was a chant that started up in the days before May 24th, and it went like this: "The 24th of May is the Queen's Birthday, and if we don't get a holiday, we'll all run away." In those long-ago pre-Confederation days, Newfoundland was a quasi-independent country. Not yet a province of Canada, and not really independent, the island had something called a Commission of Government, run essentially from Whitehall in London. Any reader curious about this pseudo-democratic anomaly can read about it here:

Alternatively, and this is the route I recommend, the reader can get hold of my first two Inspector Stride Mysteries, Undertow and The Rossiter File, where the system is described in the context of fictional murders that take place in the island's capital, St. John's.

But on to some of those other things I noted in the title of this post.

Yesterday, I watched part of the final round of the PGA event that used to be known simply, and elegantly, as The Byron Nelson, but is now, because of evolving sponsorship, The HP Byron Nelson  Championship. The 'HP' in the title being 'Hewlett Packard', not the tasty steak sauce originally developed and marketed in England. And 'Byron Nelson', for the golfing novice, was one of the greatest golfers of all time, right up there with Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan; and, for that matter, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Today, Nelson is probably best known as having had the longest string of victories in PGA history; a total of eleven consecutive wins in 1945, and a total of 18 victories that same year. Those are records that will likely never be approached, much less broken.

But this part of my post is not really about golf. It is about words. (How the mind does wander!) One of the resident wits on PGA telecasts is the Northern Irish (former) golfer, David Feherty. The title of his semi-autobiographical book says it all, or almost all: Somewhere in Ireland a Village Is Missing an Idiot. Yesterday, as the tournament leaders were moving towards the 72nd and final hole, Feherty noted that it is quite alright to make a verb out of the noun, golf, while at the same time wondering how many other sports can be so-treated. In recent decades, we have embarked - in English, anyway - on a course of making verbs out of many nouns. It is quite alright these days to 'action' something, for example, even if such actioning causes language purists to blanch and moan.

It is quite alright for one to play tennis, of course, but one does not go 'tennising'. Similarly, one can play hockey, baseball and basketball, all reasonably healthy activities, if one is careful about body contact, but 'hockeying', 'baseballing', and 'basketballing' are not kosher. One can go footballing and cricketing, though. I won't be too surprised if three newly-created verbs appear in the lexicon sooner rather than later.

And that got me moving towards some pet peeves regarding words. I have, for example, lost count of the number of times I have seen in print that someone was "lead" to a place or a conclusion. (Very heavy word usage, I am inspired to note.) This is one of those pesky examples where the spell-checker does not help at all.

Another irritation is the misuse of the word "acronym". An acronym is by definition a string of letters that refers to, say, an organisation, and which can be spoken as a word. NATO, for example, is an acronym; so are SNAFU, FUBAR, UNICEF, SEATO, AIDS, RADAR and INTERPOL. UN, for United Nations, though, is not an acronym; neither are USA, IRA, BBC, CBC, ABC, CBS or NAACP; not in this writer's opinion.

I suppose I am excessively crotchety, but I even get irritated when the word "shrapnel" is misused. But I think, for my peace of mind, I had better get used to that. Originally, shrapnel referred to metal balls or bullets contained in an exploding artillery shell, specifically designed to inflict as much injury and death as possible on enemy troops. It was named for its inventor, Major-General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842), an English artillery officer. Nowadays, though, shrapnel is used to describe all sorts of things that are scattered about by an explosion, or even an accident; fragments of metal, glass and even plastic are routinely described as shrapnel. The bits of metal and nails that killed and injured so many at the Boston Marathon were also so-described.

One new use for the word that I do like, however, applies to loose change of little value. As in the following exchange:

Q: "Do you have any money on you?"
A: "No, just shrapnel."

A few other irritations.

"She feels badly about that." No, she does not; she feels "bad". Feeling badly would require the use of her hands to actually feel something. For movie fans, this is beautifully, and hilariously, illustrated in a Kirk Douglas film from 1949, A Letter To Three Wives. You can watch it here:

How many times have you seen bacteria and criteria misused as singular nouns? As in "an important criteria", or "a dangerous bacteria". Somewhere along the way, the singulars, "criterion" and "bacterium" seem to have dropped out of the language. I am almost tempted to say that I feel very badly about that.

Here I will add that, because my Inspector Stride books are historical - set in the late 1940s - I have to be careful that the words I use fit the language of the time. In my third novel, I originally referred to an ailment, Parkinsonism, that afflicted one of the characters as "the elephant in the room that was never mentioned." Only to find that the phrase dated from 1959. Parkinson's disease, or Parkinsonism, though, dates back to 1877.

A very useful site to check the etymology of a word or phrase is:

Today, reading a column in the New York Times, I became aware of the website, Wordnik:

This one is new to me. I have been browsing its content, and I can already tell that it might prove to be as great a time-user as FreeCell or Spider Solitaire. I have to love a website that introduces me to words like animadversion, demantoid, and cribriform. I see many happy, if not really profitable, hours ahead of me in the very near future.

1 comment:

John R. Corrigan / K.A. Delaney said...

Great post. Not sure if Feherty still writes monthly columns. If so, check them out. Very funny.