The myth of linguistic purity

April 24, 2016

Language can not be legislated; it is the freest, most democratic form of expression of the human spirit.  Sociolinguist Ilan Stavans, in Spanglish: tickling the tongue

A translator being outraged at the evidence of the evolution of our language is as absurd as a botanist chastising a plant for changing its colour. If the change offends us, we should reflect on the ideological presuppositions underlying our reaction. Nataly Kelly, a marketing executive and co-author of Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World


In a recent interview in English PEN, Turkish writer Elif Shafak talked about her creative process:

I write my novels in English first. Then they are translated into Turkish by professional translators, whose works I admire and respect. Next I take the Turkish translations and rewrite them, giving them my rhythm, my energy, my vocabulary, which is full of old Ottoman words. Many of those words came from Arabic and Persian, and they have been plucked out of the Turkish language by modernist nationalists in the name of purity. Critical of this linguistic racism, I use both old and new words while writing in Turkish.

What really interests me are her comments about linguistic racism. The idea that languages are pure is surely one of the most ridiculous pieces of nonsense that you will ever hear. I love the title of John McWhorter’s short engaging history of English, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. McWhorter is celebrating the opposite of the Turkish obsession with purity. He seems to be arguing that English is a Creole, with no pejorative meaning intended in the word. You can see my review of the book here.

One linguistic phenomenon that has attracted the opprobrium of Spanish and English purists is Spanglish. The Oxford Dictionaries online define it as “a hybrid language combining words and idioms from both Spanish and English, Both the English Only movement and the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language seem to frown on it. However, I have just checked the definition in the Academy dictionary and it is pleasantly neutral. According to Wikipedia, it was the Puerto Rican poet Salvador Tió who brought the term into English. He originally called it Espanglish or Inglañol. But Spanglish has become the term we use in English, but Spanish has maintained the initial e. The late Octavio Paz argued that that Spanglish was neither good nor bad, but abominable. Paz may not have liked it, but Spanglish is not unique, but rather a typical example whenever two or more languages come into contact.

According to the 2010 census, there are over fifty million Hispanics living in the United States. This number represents 12.5% of the overall population, which means that the Latino community is the largest minority in the United States. Latinos have not followed the same pattern as those 19/20th century German, Jewish or Italian immigrants with respect to the English language. By the second or third generation, their grandchildren already spoke English, and German Yiddish or Italian tended to be a topic of nostalgia. Latinos are a very different. This may be because many of them have come from just across the border, as is the case with the Mexicans. A Mexican living in Arizona or Texas will have a different attitude to their linguistic heritage than a Scandinavian living in Minnesota in the 19th century would have had.

Now I want to look at Spanglish in greater depth. I found a fascinating PowerPoint presentation on the internet by Gerald F. Murray, a University of Florida anthropologist. Murray argues that Spanglish is not a mish-mash of English and Spanish.  It is neither English nor Spanish, but a dialect of Spanish. In terms of basic phonology, morphology, and syntax it is Spanish, but it uses borrowed words from English. These words have to fit into the Spanish structures. He shows three ways in which this happens:

1) Code switching between Spanish and English in the same sentence or conversation.

In linguistics, code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation. Here is an example used by Murray

 “Hi, Marta.  This is Pablo.  ¿Cómo va todo? Oye, te quería preguntar,  are you free this evening a eso de las ocho?  There’s a movie on campus que me parece que va a ser muy interesante. If you can join me, me das una llamadita.  Call me mejor on my cell phone, que voy a estar afuera.  Hope to hear from you. No me dejes de llamar.”

Unlike Pidgins and Creoles, this is usually done by fully bilingual people when talking to other bilinguals. It creates a sense of solidarity in the speakers and has come to define a sense of unique identity. A linguistic analysis of Spanglish: relating language to identity by Jason Rothman and Amy Beth Rell is another invaluable resource. They cite one Hispano, Miguel, who describes his feelings towards Spanglish:

Spanglish is a cultural symbol, which represents la mezcla which Is California culture … I enjoy speaking it because it shows my diverse identity. I’m not just a Hispanic and I’m not just an Anglo-American – I’m mixed and Spanglish represents that identity.

But he knows when not to use it:

Sometimes, if I attempt to speak Spanglish to non-Hispanics, even if they speak a high level of Spanish, they either react in confusion or they mock me, acting as if I didn’t know the word whereas I switched only because it made more sense to me [and so in general I don’t]. I also avoid Spanglish with non-Spanglish speaking Hispanics, a.k.a. Hispanics who despise the ‘improper use’ of Spanish.

2)  Importation (and adaptation) of English vocabulary items into Spanish.

Here are a couple of ways in which Spanglish words are typically created:

A) A gender marking vowel – a or o is added when the English word is short, and ends in a consonant or cluster that cannot end a word in Spanish.


brekas  brakes

carpeta  carpet

marketa  market

rufo  roof

troca truck.

yarda, yard, garden,

B) You can add ar or ear to form verbs. Examples:

chequear to check

cuitear to quit a job

lunchear to have  lunch

molear  to shop in the mall

parquear to park

rentar  to rent

taypear  to type

3) Calques:  literal translation of English terms using existing Spanish terms but giving them a meaning they do not have in Spanish

llamar para atrás   to call back

está para arriba de ti  It’s up to you.

correr para gobernador  to run for governor

vea tu paso  watch your step

The idea that imported words contaminate” a language is preposterous, something that Donald Trump might come out with. Murray does a fascinating comparison of two paragraphs:

  1. My uncle, aunt, and cousins are really my favourite relatives.  They constantly invite me to elegant and expensive restaurants. They encourage me to inspect the entire menu before deciding on a selection. I generally order beef or poultry but occasionally I prefer a vegetarian plate.
  2. My father’s brother, his wife, and their children are great folks.  I love the places where they always take me to eat.  They tell me to take my time, find out from the waiter  being cooked, and ask for whatever I want.  I almost always ask for a hamburger or fried chicken but sometimes I ask for a meal that doesn’t have any meat in it.

What is the difference between them? As you may well have guessed, every single noun and verb in the first passage has been imported into English from French.        In the second passage, however, every word is of Germanic origin, with no borrowings. Is their something wrong with the first passage because its words are not sufficiently pure? Should we, like the Turks have done rid ourselves of these infidel French words?

When it comes to linguistic protectionism, the Académie Francaise is in a class of its own. This council, which was set up in 1635, is entrusted with preserving the French language and writing an official dictionary. The 40 writers and artists are known as the immortals, although dinosaurs would be a better term for this bunch of ageing linguistic reactionaries.

As someone who believes that language is a bottom-up emergent phenomenon I have very little time for academies. But the French Académie, with its futile ongoing crusade against English linguistic contamination, is one of my bête noires. It is the antithesis of the glory of Spanglish or Ebonics. They may have adopted the internet, but their ideas have definitely not evolved. On the academies website you can find a section called Dire, Ne pas dire” (To say, Not to Say”). You can find it here. They have a part dedicated to Anglicisms.


Vous trouverez le document en pièce jointe


Vous trouverez le document en attachement


 Le professeur est absent. – Quelle bonne nouvelle ! 


Le professeur est absent. – Cool, trop cool !


Chercher des parrains, des mécènes


Chercher des sponsors


Une voiture d’époque


Une voiture vintage

I don’t necessarily approve of all linguistic innovations, but we don’t need organisations like the Academie to protect language- Luckily, French is a wonderful language and it can survive, despite having these guardians. Well into the second decade of the 21st century isn’t it time that we stopped fearing language contact and accepted that change is inevitable. Words such as contamination, invasion and purity should have no place in a debate about language.


Multicrastinating and other new words

April 24, 2016

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

black elephant

An unlikely but significant risk that everyone knows about, but no one wants to discuss.

clone town

A town or neighbourhood where the main shopping area is dominated by chain stores, thus making it look identical to the shopping areas in many other towns.


A person who stands on the left side of a busy escalator, thus blocking those who would walk up or down.


The forward curve of the upper back caused by constantly looking down at a smartphone or similar device.


Procrastinating by performing multiple non-work tasks simultaneously.


A good-looking woman or man who supports or engages in terrorist activities.

peak paper

A time when global paper production and usage reaches a maximum, after which it declines irreversibly.


A political movement in which a wealthy individual offers ideas and policies that appeal to the common person.


Nostalgia for an unrealized future that was predicted in the past.


The unconscious tendency to allow yourself to do something bad after you have done something good.


Travelling to locations that have been featured in movies, TV shows, or other media.


Members of the elite who are crude or who lack good breeding or taste.


A workplace or workforce that is ridiculous or worthy of mockery.

A primer on Indian food

April 17, 2016


I really didn’t realise what I was letting myself when I began researching this article. I have been to hundreds of Indian restaurants, but I had no idea of the sheer scale of Indian cuisine. This was rather naïve I suppose. India, which is larger than the whole of Europe (excepting Russia), is, after all, the second most populous country in the world. Luckily, I had the invaluable assistance of Alan Davidson’s The Oxford Companion to Food 2nd Ed, a one-million word encyclopaedia of food.

The Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Christianity, and especially Islam, have an important presence in the country. And although 250 languages have died out in the last fifty years, people in India presently speak in 780 different languages according to a study published in 2013. The geography, from the snowy Himalayas to the coconut palms of the tropical south provides for a great variety of cuisines. Indeed, Wikipedia lists 37 different regional cuisines. I was going to do an historical overview, but in the end I will just do a survey.

The basics

However, I do want to try to seek out the common strands. Cereals are at the heart of an Indian meal, with savoury dishes added as accompaniments and to provide flavour. There is a strong vegetarian component lentils and pulses generally, and vegetables are staples. This vegetarianism has in its origins the doctrine of ahimsa or non-violence first set forth in the Upanishads, a 9th century BC collection of texts that contain some of the central philosophical concepts of Hinduism. Buddhism and Jainism developed the idea. Dairy products such as yoghurt, ghee, panir and kheer are very popular. In fact, India now has the world’s biggest dairy industry in terms of milk production. But it is the spices, especially ginger and garlic, but including coriander turmeric, fenugreek and cumin and many others, that make Indian cuisine so distinctive. Traditionally, meals in India were eaten while seated either on the floor or on very low stools or cushions. At the centre is the thali (platter) with its central pile of rice or bread surrounded by small containers of savoury accompaniments. Food is most often eaten with the right hand rather than cutlery.


Although now part of India, Goa was a Portuguese possession for four and a half centuries. This led to a fascinating mix an intriguing mix of Latin influences mixture with those of the Hindus and Muslims. It may have been a small territory, but its position as a gateway Portugal’s empire in the East and as centre of East–West trade, gave Goa, an importance quite disproportionate to the small size of the territory. The best known example of the Portuguese Indian collaboration must be Vindaloo. Originally a pork stew, the addition of various spices gave it that Indian touch. Goan chouriço sausages are Portuguese chouriços, but with an Indian masala. The ingredients include pork, pork fat, chilli, garlic, ginger, cumin and turmeric and they are filled into pig intestines.

Moghul cuisine

Moghul is the Indian version of Mongol. The Mongol Empire was by far the greatest force in Asia in the Middle Ages. See my post Genghis and the original Khan Academy. It was the Moghuls who over a period of two centuries introduced Persian dishes to India. There was a blend of Persian and Indian flavours. This legacy survives today. The Indian food that most of us are familiar with is this northern cuisine. All of these have a Moghul origin:




Pilaf and Biriani dishes


Tandoor dishes;

And those rich dishes with almonds and pistachios are likely to be of Moghul origin, as are sweet rice dishes flavoured with saffron.


The British were in India from 1612 to 1947 resulting in a great deal of influence. I will look at a few of the dishes or foodstuffs regarded as typical of Anglo-Indian cookery. Mulligatawny soup came about due to British requirement for soup as a separate course, something unknown in India. The name is a corruption of the Tamil milagu-tannir, “pepper-water”. The basic recipe for mulligatawny was always with some chicken or mutton, fried onion, curry powder, and stock or water. Another dish from this period is kedgeree. It was an Indian dish, but was adapted to British tastes with flaked smoked fish, hard-boiled eggs and even cream being added.  It has now become a British breakfast speciality. The long-term impact of Anglo-Indian cookery on English cookery apart the popularity of curry dishes and of chutneys was not that great. It was not until the arrival of Indian restaurants in Britain, in the second half of the 20th century, that the influence grew.


Curry, which comes from the Tamil word kari, entered the English language in the 1680s. In India it referred to a spiced sauce. The traditional South Indian kari does not have a fixed set of ingredients, but a typical mixture was and remains the following, all roasted and ground to a powder: kari patta (curry leaf); coriander, cumin, and mustard seeds; red and black pepper; fenugreek; turmeric; and oftentimes cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. In India this mixture is almost always freshly prepared. It was during the Raj that the British, in the name of convenience, created commercial ready-mixed curry powder. In 1747 Hannah Glasse published To Make a Currey the India Way’, said to be the first curry recipe in English,

The curry house

The colonial relationship between Britain and the Indian subcontinent is undoubtedly behind the rise of Indian restaurants in the UK. In the 18th century, thanks to employees of the British East India Company, curry began to appear on coffee house menus. In 1810, the Bengali entrepreneur Sake Dean Mahomed, opened the first Indian curry house in England: the Hindoostanee Coffee House in London. Veeraswamy’s, the oldest surviving Indian restaurant in London, opened in 1926. And in the 1930s and 1940s cheap curry houses began to spring up. It was given an English twist, with the emphasis on emphasized meat and sauce and often served with chips. What was lost was the sophistication and complexity of vegetable and pulse dishes. Although since the 1980s there has been a greater appreciation of the variety and subtlety of Indian cuisine. At the same time we have seen the emergence of an “English” curry.


The name refers to both the cuisine of Baltistan in the far north-east of Pakistan and the wok-like utensil which is the main piece of equipment used by Balti cooks. There are other theories: one dictionary of Anglo Indian terms claims it comes from the Portuguese word “balde” meaning bucket. Be that as it may, until the last quarter of the 20th century Balti food was virtually unknown outside Baltistan. Apparently it was the chance arrival one immigrant, Mohammed Arif, who claims to have opened, the first Balti restaurant, called Adil’s, in 1977. It has now become a mass phenomenon all over the U.K. especially in Birmingham.

Rowan Atkinson – Drunk English in Indian Restaurant

April 17, 2016

Here is a classic Rowan Atkinson sketch:

And thanks to Jeremy Harding for sending this link:

How was it for you?

April 10, 2016

How we became obsessed with rating, ranking, reviewing and measuring.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Mark Zuckerberg could have been expelled when an early version of Facebook, which ranked girls on how hot they were, brought down the university’s server because of the high level of traffic. He was accused of breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy by creating the Facemash website. After a disciplinary board hearing the future billionaire was put on probation and required to see a counsellor.

We love ranking things. In his first novel, High Fidelity, Nick Hornby tapped into this obsession. The protagonist, Rob Fleming, was obsessed with making top-five lists: most memorable split-ups, in chronological order, Best Films of All Time and even Bands Or Musicians Who Should Be Shot If It Came to the Musical Revolution. But now thanks to the IT revolution we have all become like Rob Fleming. We rate, we rank, we review, we measure and we also track. We do it to ourselves, our friends, the companies we purchase products from and also the places where we eat, drink and sleep.

The growth of e-commerce in particular, has led to an explosion of rating. The online auction and shopping website, eBay was one of the pioneers of this way of ranking people. It was obviously important for the fledgling website to establish trust; you were buying from complete strangers, so you wanted to know if you were you going to ever see your money again or get your package delivered. And in the sharing economy of Airbnb and Uber trust is a vital component too. Indeed, the Uber rating system isn’t one-way. Customers also get rated. You’re more likely to be a courteous passenger if you know getting a bad score might result in you being cut off from the convenience of Uber in the future. These systems don’t always work well. The Uber driver who went on a random shooting spree that killed six people in Michigan last month had an Uber rating of 4.73. However, this phenomenon is not limited to the online world. Dr. Harold Shipman, who may well have been murdered more than 200 of his patients, was described as a wonderful GP by many of the families of his patients.

Research carried out by Consumer Business Research at Deloitte UK has shown that 81% of consumers read the customer reviews, on e-commerce and websites. This is not just a passive activity. 40% of consumers post reviews. I don’t tend to write reviews. Recently I bought an e-reader from the Spanish company Energy Sistem (sic). As well as coming without a built-in dictionary, it had serious battery issues. I just took it back to the shop. I didn’t write one of those scathing online reviews recommending that you never buy any of their awful products.

Companies have become vey needy in recent years. You go to IKEA and as you leave the store, they have this smiley-button based system:

ikea smiley

Buy online and you are asked to rate the experience.  A similar thing happens if you phone you telephone company. It’s all too much. As Anne Karpf pointed out in the Guardian: “If I have a transcendental experience with a bin liner, my supplier will be the first to know. But otherwise, forget it.”

One thing is writing reviews about products, but the rating is invading the personal sphere. Peeple is a mobile app allows you to rate people. The slogan for this app is “Character is destiny” and according to its website, the objective is to turn character into a new form of currency.  There are three criteria for evaluation: professional, personal and dating. After a storm of criticism about potential cyberbullying and harassment when the company announced the plans for the app in September 2015, the service became opt-in; people could only be rated if they had registered with the service. The five-star-rating system also went to be replaced by Positive, Neutral or Negative. You can write a negative review, but unless the person on the other end approves it, it won’t appear on their profile. The app was finally launched just over a month ago, and is available for download in the US and Canada.

China has a more sinister use of rating people. Sesame Credit trawls data from social networks and online purchase histories, to give people a score for how good a citizen they are. In reality this seems to mean how obediently citizens follow the party line. As the video above explains, “If you post pictures of Tiananmen Square or share a link about the recent stock market collapse, your Sesame Credit goes down. On the other hand, Share a link from the state-sponsored news agency about how well the economy is doing and your score goes up.” Users whose friends have low obedience scores could also lose points.

We need to put all this into some kind of context- less than sixty years ago China was in the grip of the Great Leap Forward, which was followed soon after by the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, there is something insidious about this attempt at promoting social obedience.


If you are interested in this subject, check out this ABC Radio National podcast, Future Tense, Rate, rank, review and measure.

Technological Solutionism

April 10, 2016

Evgeny talks to Tom Standage of the Economist about technological Solutionism, the belief, prevalent in Silicon Valley, that every problem has a solution based in technology. His latest book is To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism

Here he is at the RSA talking about his previous book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.

The aristocrats of crime

April 3, 2016

I have an unhealthy interest in con artists. There is something that draws me to these aristocrats of crime. I love the colourful language. For the practitioners we have such names as con man, swindler, grifter, swindler hustler, scam artist, flimflammer and mountebank. What do they do? The names of the tricks are also very evocative: Three-card Monte, The Magic Wallet, The Gold Brick, The Green Goods, Banco, The Big Store, The Wire, The Payoff and The Rag are just a few of the ways humans have found to deceive each other. Of course, these tricksters can destroy people’s lives, but there is something irresistible about them. I am not the only one, though, given the popularity of books and especially films about scams.

Such cons have been with us throughout history. Indeed other animals also engage in deceptive behaviour. There was a famous trick known as the Spanish Prisoner, which goes back until at least the 16th century. And although I haven’t looked into it, I’m sure the ancients must have had their scams.

The use of the term confidence man seems to go back to 19th century New York. Here is an extract from the “Police Intelligence” section of the New York Herald describing the arrest of one William Thompson:

For the last few months a man has been travelling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;” the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped, and the last that we recollect was a Mr. Thomas McDonald, of No. 276 Madison street, who, on the 12th of May last, was met by this “Confidence Man” in William Street, who, in the manner as above described, took from him a gold lever watch valued at $110; and yesterday, singularly enough, Mr. McDonald was passing along Liberty street, when who should he meet but the “Confidence Man” who had stolen his watch. Officer Swayse, of the Third Ward, being near at hand, took the accused into custody on the charge made by Mr. McDonald. The accused at first refused to go with the officer; but after finding the officer determined to take him, he walked along for a short distance, when he showed desperate fight, and it was not until the officer had tied his hands together that he was able to convey him to the police office. On the prisoner being taken before Justice McGrath, he was recognized as an old offender by the name of Wm. Thompson, and is said to be a graduate of the college at Sing Sing. The magistrate committed him to prison for a further hearing.

I bring all this up because have just finished reading The Confidence Game. The author Maria Konnikova does not set out to provide a definitive history of the con. And this is not an exhaustive taxonomy of all the possible confidence tricks. What it is is an exploration of the psychological principles behind the behaviour of confidence tricksters and their victims. The book itself is structured like a con. Here is Konnikova’s introduction:

From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves.

Who are the con artists? In an interview Konnikova said that one of the books that’s considered the con-artist bible is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, a self-help classic. In fact, there is no definitive make-up, but the dark triad of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism tend to be important. The funny thing is that many of these people seem to be exceptionally talented and could have been successful in more legitimate fields. I don’t think it’s just about greed. There does seem to be some kind of power rush in being able to fool people and in getting them to do what you want.

What about the victims? I like to think of myself as a sceptic, but it is a big mistake to think that we are immune to such trickery. One factor is trust. Generally, as I pointed out in a previous post, trust is an important ingredient for successful societies, but with con artists, we can come unstuck. We also like to think we are above average. Other people will be fooled, but not us. We have a positivity bias, a belief in our own exceptionalism. We will come out on top in the end. We deserve a break. Confirmation bias, the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions plays a big part in victimology. And then we have cognitive dissonance the desire to avoid holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. Of course we could change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours, but this can be too painful, so instead we try to justify or rationalise them. Ultimately very few con artists actually end up in court – the victims are often too embarrassed to come forward.

The book has a cast of characters. Some of them are old favourites: Bernie Madoff, who was the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, Frank Abagnale, who was played by Leonardo Di Caprio in Catch Me If You Can, and Victor Lustig who twice sold the Eiffel Tower to unwitting investors.

There were others I hadn’t heard of, though. Here is my selection:

Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr.

Demara almost makes Frank Abagnale look like an amateur. Under a series of stolen identities Demara worked as a civil engineer, a doctor of applied psychology, a child-care expert, a cancer researcher, an assistant prison warden, a philosophy dean at a Pennsylvania college and  both a Trappist and Benedictine monk. But his greatest hit was as a doctor on a Royal Canadian Navy Destroyer during the Korean War. Demara who had a prodigious IQ and a photographic memory went into quarters with a medical textbook to do a bit of cramming. Yet, he somehow managed to save the lives of all of the men, including performing major chest surgery. The ensuing fame made it hard to keep on fooling people. There was a biography, The Great Imposter, followed by a film of the same name, with Tony Curtis in the eponymous role. He even managed to con the author of his biography, Robert Crichton.

Samantha Lyndell Azzopardi

In 2010 she appeared as Dakota Johnson (this alias was based on an American  actress who would later go on to star in the movie Fifty Shades of Grey) in a Brisbane police station claiming that she was fourteen and had been sexually abused by a relative. She was given shelter and food.  She told her support group that all she wanted was to go back to school and finish her education, just like any normal teen. On further investigation the police discovered that Azzopardi was already wanted for identity fraud in Queensland. She was charged with two counts of false representation, one count of intention to forge documents, and one count of contravening directions. She was convicted, but her sentence was just a five-hundred-dollar fine. She continued her alternative and it was in 2013 that she ended up in Dublin.  This young Australian woman led the Garda to believe, for a time, that she was a vulnerable teenager a victim of human trafficking. In reality she was now 25 years old with a history of more that forty false identities in her past. This was not the end of her exploits. The following year she appeared in Canada under another name. The “success” of Azzopardi is for Konnikova an illustration of the power of a good story.

Oscar Hartzell, (1876–1943)

This American con man managed to persuade many people in North America to join him in a fraudulent lawsuit against the British government for a share of the fortune of Sir Francis Drake. He hit upon the scam in 1915 after a couple of small-time grifters tried to convince him to part with his money. They had promised that they could turn his mother’s $6000 into a cool $6 million. Hartxell, however, had bigger plans. Claiming to be distant relative of the legendary seaman/pirate/hero, Hartzell got in touch with Iowans who had the surname Drake. He told them that the estate of Sir Francis had never been paid to the heirs. Having gathered interest for over three centuries, it was now worth $100 billion. As well as $500 for every dollar they invested in the scheme, the inheritance would include the whole city of Plymouth in England. In 1924 he set himself up in London in order, he claimed, to carry out negotiations with the British government. The curious thing about the scam is that the victims continued believing him, thwarting attempts by the Iowa state legislature to act. This refusal to accept reality continued even after the UK Home Office informed the American embassy that there was no unclaimed Sir Francis Drake estate, and an FBI investigation confirmed that Drake’s wife had inherited his estate in 1597.

Sylvia Mitchell

Fake psychic is a tautology. Nevertheless, Mitchell is an example of the worst of this “profession” One client, Debra Saalfield, was feeling particularly vulnerable when she saw Mitchell – she had just lost her job as a ballroom-dancing instructor and a boyfriend. Mitchell told her that she had been an ancient Egyptian princess in a past life and that her problems stemmed from having been too attached to money in her royal life in ancient Egypt. The solution would be to experiment parting with that money. Saalfield wrote a cheque for $27,000. She did not get it back. Mitchell was convicted of conning clients for tens of thousands of dollars, and in November 2013 she was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison.

My favourite films about scams

April 3, 2016

Here is an alphabetical list of ten of my favourite films about scams:

  1. A Fish Called Wanda
  2. Catch Me If You Can
  3. The Adversary (France – El Adversaire)
  4. House of Games
  5. Nine Queens (Argentina – Nueve Reinas)
  6. Paper Mask
  7. Paper Moon
  8. The Boiler Room
  9. The Sting
  10. Trading Places