Drunkorexia and other new words

December 18, 2011

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

architectural myopia

Building design that emphasizes distinctive, attention-getting features over practical concerns or simple aesthetics.

couch commerce

Ordering goods and services while relaxing at home


Eating less to offset the calories consumed while drinking alcohol.

fat-finger problem

The tendency to make errors on a device where the keys or screen elements are too small.

grey-sky thinking

Negative or pessimistic thoughts, ideas, or solutions


The irrational belief that, despite all evidence to the contrary, things will turn out for the best.


An overwhelming amount of email; an email deluge.

no planer

A conspiracy theorist who believes that no planes were involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001


Photography using a smartphone’s built-in camera

two-pizza team

In a business environment, a team of employees that is not too large (and so can be fed with at most two pizzas).

Advertising: all lies and manipulation?

December 18, 2011

H. G. Wells referred to it as legalized lying, while Jerry Della Femina, who worked in the business, described as the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I am referring to advertising, about which I recently heard a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4’s One to One. The person being interviewed by the BBC’s Evan Davis was adman Steve Henry, a member of the British Advertising Hall of Fame. This interview was part of a series of three episodes on people who lie for a living, with Henry sandwiched between a credit card fraudster and a transsexual. Memorable campaigns are discussed including the “Slag of all Snacks” line for Pot Noodle. Henry mentions the lying and how his colleagues expressed great regret that they couldn’t lie more. Of course some of the lies are harmless. Henry cites the case of the Patagonian Toothfish, which is now known as the Chilean Sea Bass. This is part of a fascinating trend where the fishing industry has to convince people to eat unglamorous fish because their traditional catches are fast running out. The orange roughy may not be the world’s most appealing name, but it definitely sounds more appetising than the slimehead. Pollack, once considered suitable for cat food and the primary component of fish fingers when minced, was given a new name by the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. They want to persuade consumers to try “colin and chips as an alternative to cod. The new name, which should be pronounced co-lan, is French for hake. It gives the fish a more sophisticated air. And finally the humble pilchard has been rechristened the Cornish sardine.

I am intrigued by the way you can use language to frame reality. In advertising you see a lot of deliberately vague language. The idea is to make claims that cannot be falsified.  Here are some of the words advertisers like to use:

Adverbs that weaken (e.g. “often”, “probably”)

Numerically vague expressions (e.g. “some people”, “experts”, “many”)

Use of the passive voice to avoid specifying an authority

Modal verbs like “can,” “could,” “may,” and “might,” among others

Henry gives that classic example of the comparative: “Nothing acts faster than Anadin: The fact all analgesics worked at the same speed is beside the point. And there was a chocolate bar which had “New Size” emblazoned across the bar. This was true – it was actually smaller than the previous bar had been!

Then there are those weasel words.* For me natural is a classic weasel word.  In a post I did about the misuse of the word, I mentioned Natural American Spirit, an organic cigarette brand whose slogan is: “Taste nature. And nothing else.” Classic weasel words are helps and fights. A few years there was a Kellogg’s advert showing a photograph of a mother playing with her child, asserts that ”a bowl of cereal may help reduce the risks of osteoporosis” by providing recommended daily amounts of calcium. ‘Up to’ or ‘as much as’ are great for making dodgy numerical claims

Henry and Davis didn’t really talk about another of the keys to success in advertising – creating anxiety among consumers. The period I typically associate with this is the 1920s. After World War I there was a shift from the Puritanical values of hard work and thrift, toward a more consumerist society. Hollywood, with its cult of the beautiful body, was on the rise.  One commentator wrote:

Advertising helps to keep the masses dissatisfied with their mode of life, discontented with ugly things around them. Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones.

A fascinating case study is provided by Listerine. This product has enjoyed a number of different lives. It began as a powerful surgical antiseptic, and then it morphed into a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhoea. However it was when it was pitched as a solution for halitosis that sales took off.  This obscure medical term for bad breath was just what the doctor ordered for Listerine. Their adverts used to feature young men and women, eager for marriage. There was just one problem – their partner’s bad breath. “Can I be happy with him in spite of that?“, one forlorn maiden asked herself. Until that time, bad breath had not been seen as such a social faux pas. But Listerine changed the rules. Other terms that emerged in this period athlete’s foot, dead cuticles, psoriasis and BO. Luckily those men in white coats from the laboratories of the United States had not only identified these new conditions, but — miraculously, it seemed — had simultaneously come up with cures for them. Having said that, I probably wouldn’t want to go back to pre-20th century hygiene levels.

I think we shouldn’t overstate the case against advertising as it merely reflects human tendency to accentuate the positive and cover up the negative. It’s not just filthy lucre which engages in this kind of spin. We all engage in advertising. When we write a CV we seek to present ourselves in the most positive light.  The same thing happens with dating; the majority claim to be a lot richer, taller, slimmer, and better-looking than average.  Politics is full of it too. However, we are not passive recipients of adverts. We are becoming increasingly aware of the games advertisers play. You can lie and get a sale but if your product doesn’t satisfy your consumers, you won’t get repeat business. The industry is evolving and consumers are more media-savvy than they used to be. Advertisers will have to find new ways to get through to us.


*Evan Davis pointed out the origin of the term weasel words; the weasel sucks the contents of the egg through a tiny little hole leaving the egg apparently intact when in reality it’s empty. Curiously an article in the Buffalo News attributes the origin of the term to William Shakespeare’s plays Henry V and As You Like It, in which the author includes similes of weasels sucking eggs.

Pseudoetymology:Shakespeare, kangaroos and fornication

December 10, 2011

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. This journalistic aphorism also seems to be apt in the world of pseudoetymology, popularly held but false beliefs about the origins of specific words or expressions. Truth is the first casualty in popular etymology! In his book The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker had a faux etymology of the word etymology. The word is formed from the Latin “etus” (“eaten”), the root “mal” (“bad”), and “logy” (“study of”); it means the study of things that are hard to swallow. With the invention of the Internet this type of material has found a new channel. I will look at why this type of story has become so popular later in this post. But first I wanted to furnish you with some of my favourite examples.

I must also admit that I have fallen for some of these in my time. For example I reproduced the famous Bernard Levin quote about the linguistic influence of Shakespeare. This quote is rather misleading as Shakespeare probably didn’t actually invent many of these words and expressions; his works merely reflect the first recorded use. Geoff Nunberg claims if we could google Elizabethan English as thoroughly as we can the modern language, we’d probably discover that Shakespeare didn’t invent 90 percent of these words. What’s more it is Milton and not Shakespeare who introduced the most words into the English language. According to Gavin Alexander of Cambridge University, who has trawled the entire Oxford English Dictionary, Shakespeare with 229 neologisms, trails John Milton (630), Ben Jonson (558) and John Donne (342 words) as a coiner of new words and phrases. Anyway it would have been a bit strange If Shakespeare had filled his plays with hundreds of completely new words; His audiences would probably have been lost.

And when it comes to words and expressions there are plenty of old chestnuts. My first example is rule of thumb. One story doing the rounds is that in English common law a man was allowed to discipline his wife provided that he beat her with a stick no thicker than his thumb.  This is not true, although the exact origin of the phrase is uncertain. It could be connected to the thumb as a measurement device or in the use of the thumb in a number of apocryphal “rules.” One suggestion is that it comes from beer brewing before the invention of thermometers, when brewers would use their thumbs to measure the temperature of the beer. This is just speculation. The phrase also exists in other languages, for example Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, or in the variant “rule of fist” in Finnish, German and Dutch. The fact that it also exists in Persian would suggest that it goes back a long way.

And staying on legal questions, does testify have its origins in the testes (testicles)? According to my trusty Wikipedia the origin is in the Indo-European roots of *tre- meaning ‘three’ and *sta- meaning ‘stand’. A witness was thus ‘a third person standing by’. From that came the verb testificare ‘to bear witness’, which evolved into Middle English testify in the fourteenth century.

I’m sure you’ve heard the one about the word kangaroo being the product of a cultural misunderstanding. The story goes that when they were asked to identify the mysterious marsupial the natives replied with ‘I don’t know’ in their language. The real story is somewhat different. In eighteenth-century Australia there were at least 700 Aboriginal tribes, speaking as many as 250 different languages. Kangaroo or gangaru comes from one of these, the Guugu Ymithirr language of Botany Bay, where it means the large grey or black kangaroo, Macropus robustus. As the English settlers moved into the interior of Australia they used this word to refer to any old kangaroo or wallaby. When the Baagandji people, who lived 2,250 km (1,400 miles) from Botany Bay and didn’t speak Guugu Ymithirr heard the English settlers using this unfamiliar word they assumed that it meant ‘an animal that no one has ever heard of before’. Since they had never seen them before, they used the word to describe the settlers’ horses.

Many tall tales revolve around acronyms, which, given their prevalence today, are in fact surprisingly modern, not really coming into existence until the last century.. What is less surprising is that the majority of the early ones were military – the armed forces do love their acronyms. AWOL, absent without leave, is generally considered the first one. Although it has its origins in the American Civil War, it only began to be pronounced as a word at the time of the first world war The big explosion of their use came with the Second World War as a number of new technologies emerged. It was in this period that the term acronym was coined by the military. They were not only technological though. One of the most famous is SNAFU, which in its polite form is rendered as Situation Normal All Fouled Up.

The fact that acronyms began to appear in the 20th century should alert us to the false etymologies that claim that some words began as acronyms. The typical examples you hear include tip (To Insure Promptness), posh (Port Out Starboard Home), cop (Constable on Patrol),  golf (Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden) and shit (Ship High in Transit). They are all nonsense.

And then of course we have fuck. This word presents a lot of difficulties to etymologists because by its nature it was used far more extensively in common speech than in easily traceable written forms. The OED states that its origin is uncertain, but that the word is “probably cognate” with a number of native Germanic words whose meanings involve striking, rubbing, and having sex.

This type of vacuum provides an excellent opportunity to slip in a factoid or two. Recently a student of mine came out with one: fuck is an acronym of Fornicating Under Consent of King. There are whole edifices built around this. Here is on of my favourites. It is the Middle Ages and the Black Death is wreaking havoc onBritain’s population. Uncontaminated resources are scarce and towns are trying to control populations Many towns require that their residents ask permission to have children. Couples that want children are required to first obtain royal permission through a local magistrate or lord. They then place a sign somewhere visible from the road in their home that said “Fornicating Under Consent of King”, which eventually is shortened to FUCK.

Looking up the word in a good dictionary would have been sufficient to debunk any of these tall tales. They are the lexical equivalent of the conspiracy theory. Cecil Adams of the wonderful Straight Dope website has an excellent rule of thumb: the cuteness of the story is in inverse proportion to the likelihood of its actually being true. So why do we do it? We love a good story. We seek to impose order on a chaotic world. We also need to recognise the difficulty of the enterprise. There are a lot of times when it’s just impossible to know when a word or phrase was first used. Reality is often messy and  stories fill this gap. We are storytelling apes. They have a hold on people that mere truth can’t attain. You are not especially popular if you try to disabuse someone of these myths. I can sympathise with this feeling as these creation myths are funnier, more colourful and more memorable than the real explanations, which I have to admit I find confusing and often forget. That’s enough for this week, so goodnight and sleep tight*

* In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase “goodnight, sleep tight”.


Further reading

Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths.   Michael Quinion

Dodgy etymology: niggardly

December 10, 2011

Last week when I was doing my post about the n-word I saw how bad etymology can have more damaging consequences. The word niggardly is a word which lends itself to misunderstandings. One famous case some ten years ago involved David Howard, a white aide to Anthony A. Williams, the black mayor of Washington, who used “niggardly” when referring to a budget, apparently upsetting one of his black colleagues (identified by Howard as Marshall Brown), who interpreted it as a racial slur and lodged a complaint. As a result, on January 25 Howard offered to resign the Mayor took him up on it. However, after pressure from the gay community (of which Howard was a member) there was an internal review into the matter, and the mayor offered Howard the chance to return to his former position. Howard turned that down but accepted another post with the mayor instead.

There is one problem with this outrage – the word niggardly, which means “stingy” or “miserly, has its roots in the Old Norse verb nigla, “to fuss about small matters”. This is where we get the word niggling, as in a niggling injury. It has nothing to do with the word nigger. The best riposte to such nonsense came from Julian Bond, who was then chairman of the NAACP:

“You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding”,

This explanation was not enough for some people. One  outraged Washingtonian had a rhetorical question: “Do you really think [that Howard] didn’t notice he had to pass ‘nigger’ before he could get to the ‘dly’?”  In print, too Howard got some flak. Julianne Malveaux understood that the words had different roots, but she was still annoyed: He should understand “that perhaps there are other ways to indicate a tightness in a budget—that one might say parsimonious, frugal, or miserly.” Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post asserted that “when the subject of race is at hand… the only dictionary that counts is the one that gives meaning to human experience.”

Soon after the Washington incident there was a similar case involving the use of niggardly by a professor teaching Chaucer at the University of Wisconsin. The professor compounded his “crime” by continuing to use it even after the student, Amelia Rideau, told him that she was offended. She complained to the faculty:

I was in tears, shaking. It’s not up to the rest of the class to decide whether my feelings are valid.”

I did a quick search of my blog and in three and a half years I have not used the word once. I would probably prefer parsimonious, and I think one should try to measure one’s words. The controversial writer Christopher Hitchens admitted that he may have  had second thoughts about using it in public.

It was while giving a speech in Washington, to a very international audience, about the British theft of the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon. I described the attitude of the current British authorities as “niggardly.” Nobody said anything, but I privately resolved—having felt the word hanging in the air a bit—to say “parsimonious” from then on.

I do think is necessary to measure our words when we speak But I hate this kind of ignorant censorship. These days there seems to be a lot of mileage in being offended, but that will be a subject for another post.

The Meaning of Liff: A selection

December 10, 2011

A Liff is a common object or experience for which no word yet exists. The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd humorous dictionary which uses place names to describe some of these meanings. Liff is in fact a small hamlet northwest of Dundee in Angus, Scotland. Here is a selection of my favourites:

ABILENE (adj.) Descriptive of the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow.

ABINGER (n.) One who washes up everything except the frying pan, the cheese grater and the saucepan which the chocolate sauce has been made in.

ACLE (n.) The rouge pin which shirtmakers conceal in the most improbable fold of a new shirt. Its function is to stab you when you don the garment.

ADLESTROP (n.) That part of a suitcase which is designed to get snarled up on conveyor belts at airports. Some of the more modern adlestrop designs have a special ‘quick release’ feature which enables the case to lip open at this point and fling your underclothes into the conveyor belt’s gearing mechanism.

AHENNY (adj.) The way people stand when examining other people’s bookshelves.

AINDERBY QUERNHOW (n.)  One who continually bemoans the ‘loss’ of the word ‘gay’ to the English language, even though they had never used the word in any context at all until they started complaining that they couldn’t use it any more.

AINDERBY STEEPLE (n.)  One who asks you a question with the apparent motive of wanting to hear your answer, but who cuts short your opening sentence by leaning forward and saying ‘and I’ll tell you why I ask…’ and then talking solidly for the next hour.

AITH (n.) The single bristle that sticks out sideways on a cheap paintbrush.

BANFF (adj.) Pertaining to, or descriptive of, that kind of facial expression which is impossible to achieve except when having a passport photograph taken.

BECCLES (pl. n.) The small bone buttons placed in bacon sandwiches by unemployed guerrilla dentist.

BLEAN (n.) Scientific measure of luminosity : 1 glimmer = 100,000 bleans. Usherettes’ torches are designed to produce between 2.5 and 4 bleans, enabling them to assist you in falling downstairs, treading on people or putting your hand into a Neapolitan tub when reaching for change.

BOTLEY (n.) The prominent stain on a man’s trouser crotch seen on his return from the lavatory. A botley proper is caused by an accident with the push taps, and should not be confused with any stain caused by insufficient waggling of the willy.

BRISBANE (n.) A perfectly reasonable explanation (Such as the one offered by a person with a gurgling cough which has nothing to do with the fact that they smoke fifty cigarettes a day.)

BRYMBO (n.) The single unappetising bun left in a baker’s shop after four p.m.

BURBAGE (n.) The sound made by a liftful of people all trying to breathe politely through their noses.

CHICAGO (n.) The foul-smelling wind which precedes an underground railway train.

CORFU (n.) The dullest person you met during the course of your holiday. Also the only one who failed to understand that the exchanging of addresses at the end of a holiday is merely a social ritual and is absolutely not an invitation to phone you up and  turn up unannounced on your doorstep three months later.

CROMARTY (n.) The brittle sludge which clings to the top of ketchup bottles and plastic tomatoes in nasty cafes.

DIDCOT (n.) The tiny oddly-shaped bit of card which a ticket inspector cuts out of a ticket with his clipper for no apparent reason. It is a little-known fact that the confetti at Princess Margaret’s wedding was made up of thousands of didcots collected by inspectors on the Royal Train.

DIBBLE (vb.) To try to remove a sticky something from one hand with the other, thus causing it to get stuck to the other hand and eventually to anything else you try to remove it with.

DREBLEY (n.) Name for a shop which is supposed to be witty but is in fact wearisome, e.g. ‘The Frock Exchange’, ‘Hair Apparent’, etc.

DUGGLEBY (n.) The person in front of you in the supermarket queue who has just unloaded a bulging trolley on to the conveyor belt and is now in the process of trying to work out which pocket they left their cheque book in, and indeed which pair of trousers.

DUNBOYNE (n.) The moment of realisation that the train you have just patiently watched pulling out of the station was the one you were meant to be on.

DUNGENESS (n.) The uneasy feeling that the plastic handles of the overloaded supermarket carrier bag you are carrying are getting steadily longer.

DUNTISH (adj.) Mentally incapacitated by severe hangover.

EPPING (participial vb.) The futile movements of forefingers and eyebrows used when failing to attract the attention of waiters and barmen.

EPSOM (n.) An entry in a diary (such as a date or a set of initials) or a name and address in your address book, which you haven’t the faintest idea what it’s doing there.

EVERSCREECH (n.) The look given by a group of polite, angry people to a rude, calm queuebarger.

FINUGE (vb.) In any division of foodstuffs equally between several people, to give yourself the extra slice left over.

FIUNARY (n.) The safe place you put something and then forget where it was.

FROLESWORTH (n.) Measure. The minimum time it is necessary to spend frowning in deep concentration at each picture in an art gallery in order that everyone else doesn’t think you’ve a complete moron.

GLORORUM (n.) One who takes pleasure in informing others about their bowel movements.

GOLANT (adj.) Blank, sly and faintly embarrassed. Pertaining to the expression seen on the face of someone who has clearly forgotten your name.

GREAT WAKERING (participial vb.) Panic which sets in when you badly need to go to the lavatory and cannot make up your mind about what book or magazine to take with you.

GREELEY (n.) Someone who continually annoys you by continually apologising for annoying you.

HAPPLE (vb.) To annoy people by finishing their sentences for them and then telling them what they really meant to say.

HASTINGS (pl.n.) Things said on the spur of the moment to explain to someone who comes into a room unexpectedly precisely what it is you are doing.

HATHERSAGE (n.) The tiny snippets of beard which coat the inside of a washbasin after shaving in it.

HEATON PUNCHARDON (n.) A violent argument which breaks out in the car on the way home from a party between a couple who have had to be polite to each other in company all evening.

HEVER (n.) The panic caused by half-hearing a tannoy in an airport.

HIDCOTE BARTRAM (n.) To be caught in a hidcote bartram is to say a series of protracted and final goodbyes to a group of people, leave the house and then realise

HOFF (vb.) To deny indignantly something which is palpably true.

IPING (participial vb.) The increasingly anxious shifting from leg to leg you go through when you are desperate to go to the lavatory and the person you are talking to keeps on remembering a few final things he want to mention.

KALAMI (n.) The ancient Eastern art of being able to fold road-maps properly.

KELLING (participial vb.) A person searching for something, who has reached the futile stage of re-looking in all the places they have looked once already, is said to be kelling.

KENTUCKY (adv.) Fitting exactly and satisfyingly. The cardboard box that slides neatly into an exact space in a garage, or the last book which exactly fills a bookshelf, is said to fit ‘real nice andkentucky’.

LAMLASH (n.) The folder on hotel dressing-tables full of astoundingly dull information.

LINDISFARNE (adj.) Descriptive of the pleasant smell of an empty biscuit tin.

LOWTHER (vb.) (Of a large group of people who have been to the cinema together.) To stand aimlessly about on the pavement and argue about whether to go and eat either a Chinese meal nearby or an Indian meal at a restaurant which somebody says is very good but isn’t certain where it is, or have a drink and think about it, or just go home, or have a Chinese meal nearby – until by the time agreement is reached everything is shut.

MELCOMBE REGIS (n.) The name of the style of decoration used in cocktail lounges in mock Tudor hotels inSurrey.

MILWAUKEE (n.) The melodious whistling, chanting and humming tone of themilwaukee can be heard whenever a public lavatory is entered. It is the way the occupants of the cubicles have of telling you there’s no lock on their door and you can’t come in.

MOFFAT (n. tailoring term) That part of your coat which is designed to be sat on by the person next of you on the bus.

MOTSPUR (n.) The fourth wheel of a supermarket trolley which looks identical to the other tree but renders the trolley completely uncontrollable.

NAD (n.) Measure defined as the distance between a driver’s outstretched fingertips and the ticket machine in an automatic car-park. 1 nad =18.4 cm.

NANHORON (n. medical) A tiny valve concealed in the inner ear which enables a deaf grandmother to converse quite normally when she feels like it, but which excludes completely anything that sounds like a request to help with laying the table.

NANTWICH (n.) A late-night snack, invented by the Earl of Nantwich, which consists of the dampest thing in the fridge, pressed between two of the driest things in the fridge. The Earl, who lived in a flat in Clapham, invented the nantwich to avoid having to go shopping.

NAUGATUCK (n.) A plastic sachet containing shampoo, polyfilla, etc., which is impossible to open except by biting off the corners.

NOTTAGE (n.) Nottage is the collective name for things which you find a use for immediately after you’ve thrown them away. For instance, your greenhouse has been cluttered up for years with a huge piece of cardboard and great fronds of gardening string. You at last decide to clear all this stuff out, and you burn it. Within twenty-four hours you will urgently need to wrap a large parcel, and suddenly remember that luckily in your greenhouse there is some cardb…

OZARK (n.) One who offers to help just after all the work has been done.

PITLOCHRY (n.) The background gurgling noise heard in Wimpy Bars caused by people trying to get the last bubbles out of their milkshakes by slurping loudly through their straws.

QUEDGELEY (n.) A rabidly left-wing politician who can afford to be that way because he married a millionairess.

RAMSGATE (n.) All institutional buildings must, by law, contain at least twenty ramsgates. These are doors which open the opposite way to the one you expect.

SCONSER (n.) A person who looks around then when talking to you, to see if there’s anyone more interesting about.

SHOEBURYNESS (abstract n.) The vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else’s bottom.

SOLENT (adj.) Descriptive of the state of serene self-knowledge reached through drink.

SPOFFORTH (vb.)  To tidy up a room before the cleaning lady arrives.

THEAKSTONE (n.) Ancient mad tramp who jabbers to himself and swears loudly and obscenely on station platforms and traffic islands.

TODDING (vb.) he business of talking amiably and aimlessly to the barman at the local.

TUAMGRANEY (n.) A hideous wooden ornament that people hang over the mantelpiece to prove they’ve been toAfrica.

WINKLEY (n.)  A lost object which turns up immediately you’ve gone and bought a replacement for it.

WOKING (participial vb.) Standing in the kitchen wondering what you came in here for.

WORKSOP (n.) A person who never actually gets round to doing anything because he spends all his time writing out lists headed ‘Things to Do (Urgent)’.

WRABNESS (n.) The feeling after having tried to dry oneself with a damp towel.

WYOMING (participial vb.) Moving in hurried desperation from one cubicle to another in a public lavatory trying to find one which has a lock on the door, a seat on the bowl and no brown steaks on the seat.

A Disquisition on the Etymology of a Word That Is Often Used as Racial Slur

December 4, 2011

To hear nigger is to try on, however briefly, the thought that there is something contemptible about African Americans and thus to be complicit in a community that standardized that judgment into a word. Just hearing the words feels morally corrosive. None of this means that the words should be banned, only that their effects on listeners should be understood and anticipated. Steven Pinker


I have just finished reading a fascinating book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard University. The title of the book is explosive and created a lot of controversy when the book came out in 2001. The author defended his choice of title saying he wrote books to be read and that the title is an important role in getting people to buy his book. He argues that he was hardly going to call the book “A Disquisition on the Etymology of a Word That Is Often Used as Racial Slur”. Actually I quite like the title, which is why I nicked it for my post.

In the book Kennedy looks at the N-word, showing how the word has evolved through time. He also examines a number of legal cases and the dangers of adopting what he considers an over-censorious attitude. I will not be doing a review of Kennedy’s book, but rather using it as a starting point for a discussion of this emotive topic.

Nigger, which comes from the Latin niger, is an ethnophaulism. This is defined by Wiktionary as an ethnic or racial slur typically utilising the caricature of some identifiable feature of the group being derided. These nicknames generally refer to physical features. No other American ethnophaulism carried so much wilful hatred, repulsion and contempt. Used as a noun, verb or adjective it served to portray blacks stupid, dirty, lazy and worthless.. Nigger is used as a verb meaning to wear out, spoil or destroy. Niggerish is an adjective for an indolent and irresponsible manner. The term nigger has even been extended to other groups as in Sand nigger for Arab. Here are a few more expressions I found on the net:

nigger in the woodpile – a concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way.

nigger luck – exceptionally good luck, emphasis on undeserved.

nigger-rigged – any object that was “repaired” using either substandard or wrong parts altogether.

nigger rich – deeply in debt but ostentatious.

nigger steak – a slice of liver or a cheap piece of meat.

nigger stick – a police officer’s baton.

nigger tip – leaving a small tip or no tip in a restaurant.

nigger work – demeaning, menial tasks.

Kennedy also looks at the use of nigger as a term of endearment or revindication by African-Americans. The classic example is the rap group N.W.A. (short for Niggaz Wit Attitudes.) This can be a bit perplexing as the Jackie Chan character in Rush Hour discovers to his cost; he nearly sparks a small riot when regales the black patrons of a Los Angeles drinking establishment with “Whassup, my nigger?” And there was also the famous spat between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarrantino over the use of nigger in Jackie Brown. I would defend Tarrantino’s right to use the word in an artistic context. But in everyday life it would seem rather foolhardy for white people to use a word with such ugly connotations. Presently we shall see some examples of what can go wrong.

Kennedy cites the case of Keith Dambrot, a white basketball coach at Central Michigan University. Having heard his players use nigger to motivate each other he asked permission to use the word, consent for which was apparently given. The expression he used was: “You know, we need some tough niggers on our team.” In the court case he claimed that he wanted it to connote “a person who is fearless, mentally strong, and tough.” However Dambrot was sacked and lost the subsequent court case. It does seem s a harsh punishment. LeBron James who played under coach Dambrot did not think he was racist.

Our own football has been no stranger to such controversy. The most recent case involves John Terry, the captain of Chelsea and England. The cases I am going to focus on come from the previous decade. In 2004 the coach and TV pundit Ron Atkinson, thinking his microphone was off, said that Chelsea player Marcel Desailly was “what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger.” Atkinson apologised and resigned from ITV and The Guardian newspaper fired him. I don’t know what possessed Atkinson to blurt that out. The fact that he thought he was off air is no justification. Looking into men’s souls is always a complicated business, but I don’t think he is a die-hard racist. As a manager he was a pioneer in introducing black players into English football at a time when stereotypes about them were rife. Carlton Palmer, who played under Mr Atkinson at Sheffield Wednesday, defended his former manager:

I’m black and I’m sitting here and I’m gonna stand up for Big Ron not because he’s a friend of mine, I’m standing up for him because I know what he’s like as a bloke… If we’re going to deal with racism then let’s deal with the bigger picture of racism not about a throwaway comment that wasn’t meant in that manner.”

Spain had its own famous incident involving former national coach Luis Aragones in 2004. In an ill-judged attempt to motivate José Reyes in training Aragones invoked Thiery Henry:_

Tell that negro de mierda [black shit] that you are much better than him. Don’t hold back, tell him. Tell him from me. You have to believe in yourself, you’re better than that negro de mierda

I don’t necessarilly think that the eccentric Aragonnes is a racist. However, I would add is that when Spain played England at the Bernabeu soon after there were some vile racist incidents in which a number of black players in the English squad were greeted with jeers and monkey chants whenever they touched the ball. The fact that Aragones could not find it in his heart to condemn this repulsive behaviour is in my opinion far worse than what he said on the training ground.

The book which has most often been in the eye of the storm is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the n-word appears 215 times. However, this year thanks to those kind folks at NewSouth Books you can read Huck Finn without the word nigger, which has been replaced by slave.  Linguist John McWhorter is rightly disdainful of such attempts to sanitise works of literature:

Yet NewSouth Books would seem to be creating a baby-food version of Huckleberry Finn, with the n-word replaced by “slave” because of feedback from teachers who claim the book has become “unteachable.” I see. Eighth-graders are too unformed to understand the difference between someone calling someone else the n-word and an author using the word in an ancient book to reveal characters as ignorant. Interesting, given that the same eighth-graders hear the same word used by rappers daily and understand the difference between that usage — as a term of endearment — and the epithet one.

strongly oppose censorship. Many other great works of literature also portray attitudes that are reprehensible and offensive. The portrayal of Jews in The Merchant of Venice And Oliver Twist immediately comes to mind. Surely it is the job of the teacher to put the work into its historical context. To give students a sanitised version or even ban it outright seems a crime.

I think there has been incredible progress in just a few decades and it is now considered beyond the pale to employ this epithet. But it is necessary to distinguish between an inappropriate or ignorant use and those peddling hatred. Trying to lump everyone into the same category is a huge error. What Kennedy calls the eradicationist agenda to ban all uses of the word could be counterproductive, sending the word underground and making it more powerful. Words don’t disappear because we are told not to use them. Perhaps hip hop has the right idea trying to take the word away from the racists. I agree with what Andy Rooney, of the American TV programme 60 Minutes, said reviewing Kennedy’s book:

The best way to get rid of a problem is to hold it up to the bright light and look at all sides of it, and that’s what Kennedy does in this book.”

Kennedy’s book certainly provoked a heated debate, especially within the African-American community. This conflict is embodied by the dispute between Kennedy and his Harvard colleague, Dr. Martin Kilson. The latter has said of Kennedy that as a public intellectual he was a fraud. And that was one of the nicer things! In a scathing review he accused Kennedy of wanting to assist white Americans in feeling comfortable with using the epithet nigger. Here is what Kilson said in one of his opinion pieces:

We have long been convinced that a central weakness of the African American body-politic is its tolerance of enemies within the ranks, men and women who are allowed to circulate with impunity – and are even accorded praise – while behaving with a depraved indifference to the interests and “sensibilities” of the community.

I find that quote a bit chilling. It seems to be implying that African-Americans should have one voice. This strikes me as a kind of racism too – surely there should be a plurality of voices within the black community.

Relaño on racism in Spanish football

December 4, 2011

Here is an excellent editorial from Alfredo Relaño written in 2008 after England demanded that a friendly scheduled for 2009 not be played at the Bernabéu:

England says that they don’t want to play at the Bernabéu, because of the racist chants heard in that stadium against Ashley Cole in the last match between our two nations. At first, in the heat of the moment, we find their attitude offensive, but, on reflection, we should give it some thought. Are we racist? Perhaps we are, without knowing it, like that character of Molière’s who spoke in prose without realising. What about the English then, you will ask, and with reason. Well, the English are the English and we are who we are. They were responsible for awful behaviour in their day and found themselves in a multiracial society before we did.

That’s why we must give their reproaches some thought, even if they are exaggerated, like this one. For me, the game has to be played at the Bernabéu or not at all. If they don’t want to play, then we don’t play, and we’ll say no more about it. But we have to think about this. Here we don’t think we are racist but we speak without thinking: “Tell that black shit that…”. We use expressions like “deceive like a Chinaman”. We call those who are overly jealous “moors”. We use the word “judiada” (Jewry) to talk about a treasonous action. We mistrust those who are different. When we were all alike we didn’t notice it. Now we are beginning to realise.

People always say to me: “we are not racist. We only jeer the black players from other teams, not our own black players”. Well, perhaps that is to be more fanatical than racist, but it is still racist. When you call someone black with the intention of insulting them (I’m not even going to go into doing monkey chants) it’s because you perceive being black as worse than not being black and that is racism pure and simple. It’s another matter altogether that we don’t see it as racism and that those who went through the same problems earlier have to tell us to make us notice. They had to bear that burden before and now seek for us to bear it as well. They may overdo it, as the English FA are doing now, but we must not waste the opportunity.

Here is the original in Spanish.

Taleb’s aphorisms

December 3, 2011

Here is a selection of aphorisms from The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

To bankrupt a fool, give him information.

Academia is to knowledge what prostitution is to love; close enough on the surface but, to the nonsucker, not exactly the same thing.

In science you need to understand the world; in business you need others to misunderstand it.

Those who think religion is about “belief’ don’t understand religion, and don’t understand belief.

Don’t talk about “progress” in terms of longevity, safety, or comfort before comparing zoo animals to those in the wilderness.

They will envy you for your success, for your wealth, for your intelligence, for your  looks, for your status—but rarely for your wisdom.

The characteristic feature of the loser is to bemoan, in general terms, mankind’s flaws,  biases, contradictions, and irrationality without exploiting them for fun and profit.

Since Cato the Elder, a certain type of maturity has shown up when one starts blaming the new generation for “shallowness” and praising the previous one for its “values.”

Most people fear being without audiovisual stimulation because they are too repetitive when they think and imagine things on their own.

Asking science to explain life and vital matters is equivalent to asking a grammarian to explain poetry.

To mark a separation between holy and profane, I take a ritual bath after any contact,  or correspondence (even emails), with consultants, economists,Harvard Business School professors, journalists, and those in similarly depraved pursuits; I then feel and act purified from the profane until the next episode.

Restaurants get you in with food to sell you liquor; religions get you in with belief to sell you rules (e.g., avoid debt). People can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics.

The Web is an unhealthy place for someone hungry for attention.

The twentieth century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the twenty-first will be that of the technological one.

Social media are severely antisocial, health foods are empirically unhealthy, knowledge workers are very ignorant, and social sciences aren’t scientific at all.

Writing is the art of repeating oneself without anyone noticing.

For pleasure, read one chapter by Nabokov. For punishment, two.

Hard science gives sensational results with a horribly boring process; philosophy gives boring results with a sensational process; literature gives sensational results with a sensational process; and economics gives boring results with a boring process.

A good maxim allows you to have the last word without even starting a conversation.

With regular books, read the text and skip the footnotes; with those written by academics, read the footnotes and skip the text; and with business books skip both the text and the footnotes.

Literature comes alive when covering up vices, defects, weaknesses, and confusions; it dies with every trace of preaching.

Corollary to Moore’s Law: every ten years, collective wisdom degrades by half!

The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control and, what’s worse, the opposite.

Medieval man was a cog in a wheel he did not understand; modern man is a cog in a complicated system he thinks he understands.

The role of the media is best seen in the journey from Cato the Elder to a modern politician.”‘ Do some extrapolation if you want to be scared.

Trust people who make a living lying down or standing up more than those who do so sitting down.

The rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist an imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one.

I find it inconsistent (and corrupt) to dislike big government while favouring big business but (alas) not the reverse.

They read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall on an eReader but refuse to drink Château Lynch-Bages in a Styrofoam cup.

They think that intelligence is about noticing things that are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns).

There are designations, like “economist,” “prostitute,” or “consultant,” for which additional characterization doesn’t add information.

The main difference between government bailouts and smoking is that in some rare cases the statement “this is my last cigarette” holds true.

Public companies, like human cells, are programmed for apoptosis, suicide through debt and hidden risks. Bailouts invest the process with a historical dimension.

What organized dating sites fail to understand is that people are far more interesting in what they don’t say about themselves.

One of the problems with social networks is that it is getting harder and harder for others to complain about you behind your back.