Time is on their side – how authoritarian rulers love tinkering with clocks and calendars

April 30, 2017

On August 15th 2015 North Korea went back in time. The government decreed that the clocks be turned by half an hour. So now North Korea has its own time zone, but what is the point of all this fuss? It has to be said that the Pyongyang regime has form in this area. It already had its own calendar – the Juche calendar, whose years are counted from 1912, which was the year in which its founder and “eternal president”, Kim Il-sung, was born. 1912 in the Gregorian calendar became Juche 1 in the new calendar, and we are now in Juche 106. The calendar began to be used on 9 September 1997, which is the day on which the Republic came into being. Curiously there are no pre-Juche years and the years before the Glorious Leader came into the world are based the Gregorian calendar, the most widely used calendar around the world.

I just want to on a quick digression about the Gregorian calendar. It takes its name from Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in October 1582. Britain maintained the Julian calendar, which was 11 days behind for another 180 years. The Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, bringing Britain into line with the majority of Western Europe. The introduction was not straightforward; 1751 was a short year, lasting just 282 days from 25th March, New Year in the Julian calendar to 31st December. The year 1752 then began on 1 January, but it was necessary to synchronise the calendar in Britain with that of Europe. It was necessary to correct it by those eleven days. It was decided that Wednesday 2nd September 1752 would be followed by Thursday 14th September 1752. This led to civil unrest with rioters demanding “Give us our eleven days”.

As we shall see such temporal megalomania is not new. There is long historical tradition of rulers adjusting clocks and calendars as a way of demonstrating political power. King Canute is said to have wanted to turn back the tide. That was impossible, but surely there is no better way for a leader to leave his imprint on the world by altering what is such a fundamental aspect of our daily lives. This is controlling time itself.

The French revolution upended many ideas and it certainly had a significant impact on time: the years, the months and the days of the week were all reformed. Year I, written in Roman numerals began on 22 September 1792, the beginning of the “Republican Era”. The twelve months were each divided into three ten-day weeks called Décades, with the tenth day, décadi, replacing Sunday as the day of rest. That makes 360 days, so five or six extra days, known as complimentary days had to be added at the end of each year. The Republican calendar had the following twelve months, whose names were based on nature, especially the typical weather in and around Paris.

Vendémiaire in French (from French vendange, derived from Latin vindemia, “grape harvest”)
Brumaire (from French brume, “mist”)
Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”)

Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”)
Pluviôse (from French pluvieux, derived from Latin pluvius, “rainy”)
Ventôse (from French venteux, derived from Latin ventosus, “windy”)

Germinal (from French germination)
Floréal (from French fleur, derived from Latin flos, “flower”)
Prairial (from French prairie, “meadow”)

Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”)
Thermidor (or Fervidor) (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July
Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”)

The title of Émile Zola’s novel Germinal comes from the revolutionary calendar and the seafood dish lobster thermidor may well have been named after the 1891 play Thermidor, set during the Revolution.

The ten days had more prosaic names:

primidi (first day)
duodi (second day)
tridi (third day)
quartidi (fourth day)
quintidi (fifth day)
sextidi (sixth day)
septidi (seventh day)
octidi (eighth day)
nonidi (ninth day)
décadi (tenth day)

The Décades were abandoned in Floréal 1802.

The Soviet reform of the Gregorian calendar was very different from the French Revolution’s reforms. They did not do away with the Gregorian calendar. This was probably a good thing as the Gregorian calendar had only been introduced after the revolution. This is why the October Revolution actually took place in November. A lag of 13 days had now accumulated in the Julian calendar. On 24 January 1918 the Council of People’s Commissars issued a Decree that Wednesday, 31 January 1918, was to be followed by Thursday, 14 February 1918. I don’t know if there were any riots, but I suppose they had more important things to worry about. Although if there had been any protests, I am sure Trotsky would have had them all shot.

In May of 1929, Yuri M. Larin proposed a radical change to the week. He eventually got Stalin’s support. On August 26, 1929, the Council of People’s Commissars (CPC) decreed that all productive enterprises were to transition from the traditional work week interrupted by a weekend, to a continuous production week. The idea was simple divide all workers into shifts. The uninterrupted week, the nepreryvka, would apply not only to factory workers, but to retail and government employees too. With factories and stores open and producing 24 hours a day, every day of the week, productivity was bound to soar. Alas with so much in this planned economy, it didn’t turn out that way, and On June 26, 1940, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet restored the seven-day week.

On 16 March 1940 World War Two was in the phoney war stage. In Spain General Franco had been in charge of the whole country for less than a year. On this day at 23:00 Spain changed from Greenwich Mean Time to 00:00 Central European Time. Two years later the change of time zone was made permanent so as to be in line with what had become Nazi-occupied Europe. So thanks to the Generalissimo’s affinity with Nazi Germany Spain has been in the wrong time zone for seven decades. It is the farthest West of all countries on CET, a time which they share with countries as far east as Poland and Hungary. This has created the Galicia problem. For example one day in mid-December the official sunrise time is 8.56am, which means that children begin their school day in complete darkness. Curiously, Spain’s Iberian neighbour Portugal adopted CET under the Cavaco Silva government in 1992. It was a fiasco with negative effects on academic performance, sleep habits and insurance companies reported a rise in the number of accidents. To add insult to injury, there were not even any savings on energy. In 1996 the experiment was abandoned.

India and China have something unusual in common. Despite their size, the each has a single time zone. In comparison, the United States, a country of similar geographical area to China, has four major time zones, each separated by an hour. What I understand is that people just have different schedules. After independence in 1947, the Indian government established IST (India Standard Time), which is five and a half hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). GMT is now considered another time zone, whereas UTC is not a time zone, but a time standard that is the basis for time zones worldwide. No country or territory officially uses UTC as a local time.

For nine years Venezuela enjoyed Chavez time. In 2007 the darling of the left, Hugo Chavez turned the clocks back by half an hour in 2007 to move Venezuela into its own time zone. According to the Economist it was to allow a “fairer distribution of the sunrise” but also ensured that the socialist republic did not have to share a time zone with its great foe, the United States. Like North Korea, Iran Afghanistan and Burma have their own time zones.

And then we have Turkmenistan. On August 10, 2002, the government of the central Asian country passed a law to rename all the months and most of the days of week. The names come from a number of Turkmen national symbols. These are described in the Ruhnama, the Book of the Soul, a bizarre mixture of autobiography, self-help and dodgy history. The names were chosen according to, as described, a book written by Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first president for life.  Wikipedia has a handy summary: The months include

Türkmenbaşy (January) Meaning: “The Leader of Turkmen”, the adopted name of Saparmurat Niyazov, president of Turkmenistan

Baýdak (February) Flag – the Turkmenistan flag day is celebrated in February on Niyazov’s birthday

Gurbansoltan  (April)– The name of Niyazov’s mother.

Ruhnama (September) Niyazov’s book, defined as a spiritual guide for the Turkmen nation.

Niyazov also changed the days of the week, but he  died in 2006. and two years later the cabinet of Turkmenistan restored the old names of the months and days of week.

This is the end of my brief tour of how autocrats have sought to leave their mark on time. I hope you enjoyed it and I will be back on 18 Floréal CCXXV or Dynçgün the 7th of Magtymguly if you prefer.

Where do country names come from?

April 23, 2017

I was listening to the BBC’s Word of Mouth podcast this week and they had a fascinating feature on how countries got their names. It was a very informative programme, which made me want to investigate further. Some of these origins are pretty straightforward; France is the land of the Franks, Poland of the Poles, Uzbekistan of the Uzbeks and Thailand of the Thais. However, some are more interesting.

Some places got their names after real or legendary people:

Bolivia Simón Bolívar

Colombia Christopher Columbus

Éire (Ireland)             Éire (Ériu), a Celtic fertility goddess

El Salvador Jesus (literally, The Saviour)

Israel Jacob, who was also called Israel in the Bible

Mozambique             Mussa Bin Bique

Philippines    King Philip II of Spain

Saudi Arabia             Muhammad bin Saud

Wikipedia also has some interesting dependent territories named after people:

Bermuda        Juan de Bermúdez

Cook Islands             Captain James Cook

Falkland Islands Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount Falkland

Martinique     Martin of Tours

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands George III of the United Kingdom and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich

Virgin Islands Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins

The programme also looked at certain controversies or curiosities regarding names. For the Dutch, Holland is just a region of the country. Indians call their country Bharat and the official transliterated name of the People’s Republic of China is: Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo. China takes its English name from the state of Quin, a western Chinese kingdom during the Zhou dynasty. The programme also cited the theory, which I first heard on QI, that America is not named after Amerigo Vespucci, but Richard ap Meryk, whose name is anglicised to Richard Amerike or Ameryk. He was a fifteenth-century Anglo-Welsh merchant, royal customs officer and, sheriff of Bristol. I remain sceptical, but it is an interesting theory. I also learned that Pakistan’s name is a semi-acronym: the P is from Punjab; the A from the Afgania province; the K from Kashmir; the S from Sindh, and the -Stan from Baluchistan. They also featured what must be the most misleading name in the atlas. The Viking Erik the Red managed to persuade 500 Icelanders to go to barren, frozen land, where they set up two colonies. In a brilliant piece of marketing he had called it Greenland.

There are a lot of inaccurate folk etymologies. Brunei is one example. According to legend, Brunei was founded by Sultan Muhammad Shah. Upon discovering the place he is said to have exclaimed Baru nah, which is loosely translated as “That’s it!” or “Eureka”, from which the “Brunei” was derived. It sounds funny, but a more credible theory is that Brunei comes from the Sanskrit bhūmi, which means ‘land’.

Venezuela means ‘Little Venice’, and was so named because it reminded explorers Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci of the Italian city. The connection does seem somewhat tenuous, although more apt now after years of misrule, the country does seem to be sinking fast.

The Oxford dictionaries blog has an A-Z of country name origins. Here is a selection:

Andorra The name Andorra comes from a local Navarrese word, andurrial, meaning ‘shrub-covered land’. It has also been suggested that the country took its name from Arabic al-Gandura, ‘the wanton woman’, a legacy from the Moors.

Argentina The name Argentina is said to have been coined by Spanish explorers who, when they first came to the region, noticed the silver ornaments worn by the natives. Thus the word is from the Spanish argentine, ‘silvery’, and means ‘(Land of) the Silver (River)’.

Japan The name means ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ and is a reference to Japan’s location east of China. It comes from the Chinese pronunciation of ‘Jipen’, from the Chinese characters rì, ‘sun’, and bĕn, ‘origin’.

Liberia Liberia is from the Latin liber ‘free’ – the same root of the word liberty – and is so called because it was founded in 1822 as a settlement for freed slaves from the US, and proclaimed independent in 1847.

Madagascar The name Madageiscar originated with explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century as a result of hearsay and misunderstanding. He never visited the island and mistook the Italian version of the Arab name for Mogadishu, Mogadiscio, on the Somali coast to refer to the island which he called Madeigascar.

Nauru The island’s name may be derived from anáoero, ‘I go to the beach’.

New Zealand The name New Zealand comes from the Dutch province of Zeeland, ‘sea land’.

Panama Panama is named after the capital, Panama City, which is said to mean ‘(Place with) an Abundance of Fish’ – though some believe it comes from a Cuna phrase panna mai, ‘far away’.

Sierra Leone Sierra Leone means ‘Lion Mountains’ from the Portuguese sierra, ‘mountain chain’, and leão, ‘lion’. However, there are no lions here, even if there once were.

Solomon Islands The islands were named by the Spaniard Àlvaro de Mendaña de Neira (1542–95), inspired by Inca stories of islands 600 leagues to the west of Peru that had been the source of the gold that adorned the court of King Solomon.

Spain Spain may come from the Punic span or tsepan, ‘rabbit’, which were numerous in the peninsula, or from the Punic sphan,‘north’, since it was north of Carthage – or it may come from the Basque ezpaña, ‘lip’ or ‘extremity’, a reference to this south-western area of Europe.

Zimbabwe Zimbabwe means ‘stone enclosure’ or ‘stone dwelling’ from the Bantu zimba, ‘houses’, and mabwe, ‘stones’.

The programme featured Avalon, as an example of a fictional country. They could have included more. I am currently watching the second series of The Man in The High Castle, which of course has its origins in a Philip K Dick novel. After the Axis victory in WWII the Greater Nazi Reich, a fascist puppet state on the East coast, is created. And the coming week an adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale will be shown on Hulu. So Gilead, a Christian-fundamentalist theocracy will become more famous. Some 500 years ago Thomas Moore invented Utopia. The name was a Greek pun meaning both no place and good place. Hollywood gave us Freedonia in Duck Soup and Bacteria, a satire of Italy under Mussolini in The Great Dictator. And finally I remember Qumran from the original Yes Minister series of the 1980s. The hapless Minister of Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker is on a visit to this oil-rich sheikdom located in the Persian Gulf. Hacker is not looking forward to “five hours of orange juice” and so a communications room is set up near the reception, which will contain illicit liquor. Then Hacker is periodically called to the room with messages from Mr Haig, Mr Walker from the Scotch Office, Mr Smirnoff of the Soviet Embassy, and a delegation of teachers.

The examples we have seen have been from books films and TV shows. But the New York Times actually invented a Central Asian country Kyrzbekistan, instead of Kyrgyzstan. The mockery directed at the paper on social media was unceasing:

Rumour has it that #Kyrzbekistan has been given the go-ahead to enter Eurovision 2015.

 Austranians don’t like Kyrzbesistanis ever since they have sided with Luxemstein in the United States of Amigos question #Kyrzbekistan

I suppose, if all nations are “imagined communities”, the NYT making one up just took that to its logical conclusion. #kyrzbekistan

You can’t just will a country out of existence… Stand up for #kyrzbekistan!

This concludes my journey into the origins of country names. I will conclude with a map about country etymologies that featured on the internet. I think I may have seen it already on Facebook, but it makes a lot more sense now. This is definitely one for the geography geeks. However, there are some errors on the map, so this would not be appropriate for a university thesis. i recommend clicking on the full -size version once you have opened it up.

How many countries are there?

April 23, 2017

Here is a nice complementary video from CGP Grey:

My favourite podcasts #2

April 14, 2017

In 2008 I did a page listing my favourite podcasts, which I subsequently updated. Now though, there are just so many podcasts that I have decided to a new page. Here are my new choices:

99% Invisible

99% Invisible is a Radiotopia production, which looks at unseen and overlooked aspects of design, architecture, and activity in the world. Presenter Roman Mars goes into the things that you don’t normally think about such as McMansions, Ouija boards, Freud’s couch, barcodes and revolving doors. The length of the shows is kind of on the short side, especially with ads and credits, but I suppose it’s better to be left wanting more.

All in the Mind

ABC Radio Australia’s All in the Mind examines the mind, brain and behaviour, and the fascinating connections between them. The presenter, Lynne Malcolm looks into such topics as dreaming, depression, addiction and the psychology of conspiracy theories. If you find the workings of the human mind fascinating, this is the podcast for you.

Freakonomics Radio

If you want a show just focussed on economics, then I recommend Planet Money. Freakonomics has become more wide-ranging, but I do enjoy it. The economist, Steve Levitt now appears rarely, so it is Steve Dubner, who features mainly. Some of my favourite episodes have been Bad Medicine, In Praise of Maintenance, Why Uber Is an Economist’s Dream, and The Economics of Sleep.

 Hidden Brain

In The Hidden Brain Shankar Vedantam uses psychology and storytelling to look at the unconscious biases that shape human behaviour.  Topics have included boredom, slanguage, losing face, the perils of power and the science of deception.

Moral Maze

The panel take a current news issue and look at the moral background to the question. Topics have included selfie culture, political discourse, virtue signalling and fake news. Host Michael Buerk does a great job.

Open Source with Christopher Lydon

This show’s host, Christopher Lydon, is credited with creating the first podcast ever recorded in July 2003. I can’t remember when I first started listening to Lydon’s program The Connection, but I used to love Lydon’s interviewing style. He then got involved in a contract dispute and he left. I did rather lose touch with his career but recently I have started listening again. His interviews deal with the big ideas in culture, the arts and politics.

Pop Culture Happy Hour

NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour is a lively look at books, comics, films, music television podcasts etc. The panellists delve into pop culture themes and topics such as Oscar documentaries, Justin Timberlake, the S-Town podcast, memes and the TV show, The Americans.

Social Science Bites

Social Science Bites is a podcast by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, who are also behind the Philosophy Bites podcast. For the last five years social scientists have been presenting their perspectives on humans and society. Each 20-minute podcast includes a downloadable written transcript of the conversation. Topics have included: race, violence, the happiness industry and behavioural economics. They have some very prestigious and insightful speakers such as Steven Pinker, Paul Seabright, Danny Dorling and Robert Schiller. With its March 2017 Gary King Big Data Analysis podcast, Social Science Bites reached its 50th episode.

The Allusionist

This is the perfect podcast for word nerds. This is another Radiotopia production. Programmes have included features about romantic novels, the political lexicon and puns.

The Food Chain

I am not particularly into food podcasts, but I like the BBC’s Food Chain which looks into the economics, science and culture of what we eat. It has looked at such topics as vegetarianism, bottled water, junk food and food fads.

The Human Zoo

The Human Zoo is a BBC podcast Michael Blastland, the man behind the More or Less podcast, and Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick University and looks at the fascinating area of psychological research, especially those hidden human biases. If you like Daniel Kahneman, this is the podcast for you.

The Long View

This programme, which is presented by Jonathan Freedland, uses history to compare to current, showing that there is nothing new under the sun. For example, a medieval blood libel is compared to fake news, Donald Trump’s border wall to the 1840s Great Hedge of India and modern military drones to the Nazi V1 and V2 weapons.

The Philosopher’s Arms

The conceit of the Philosopher’s Arms is to look at philosophical conundrums in front of a live audience in a pub. The term “pub philosopher” may have a derogatory connotation, but I have become a fan of the abovementioned drinking establishment and its much-loved landlady, Gladys. Host Matthew Sweet and guest philosophers look at the prisoner’s dilemma, moral disgust, free will and more importantly, is a Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit.  But remember: think responsibly.

Word of Mouth

I love language podcasts and this BBC podcast, which was created by the Irish writer and broadcaster, Frank Delaney. It is now presented by children’s novelist and poet, Michael Rosen. Topics have included Roald Dahl’s language, taking turns in conversation, inventing brand names and PR – How Not To Do It.

There are many more I could have mentioned – Serial, S-Town, and You Must Remember This spring to mind but I didn’t want to make the list too long. Indeed while researching this week I discovered that the satirical magazine Private Eye also has a podcast, Page 94. Where will I find the time?

Language humour

April 2, 2017

This week on Facebook I received one of those selections of grammar Jokes that often does the rounds. Even though I had many of them before there were some new ones too. So, I thought I would trawl the web and find my own selection. Here they are:

A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.

I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it. Groucho Marx

Question: Who led the pedants’ revolt?

Answer: Which Tyler.  Anonymous

I before e… except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbour.

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


To who?

It’s to whom!

Don’t you know the Queen’s English?

Why, yes, I’d heard she was.

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his English class one day… “In English,” he said, “A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

I used to be structuralist, but now I’m not Saussure.

Pedantic, I? Alexei Sayle

I’m not anti-semantic, some of my best friends are words.

The past, present and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

Why should you never date an apostrophe?

They’re too possessive

Did you hear the one about the pregnant woman who went into labour and started shouting, “Couldn’t! Wouldn’t! Shouldn’t! Didn’t! Can’t!”? She was having contractions.

What happened when the verb asked the noun to conjugate?

The noun declined.

That woman speaks eight languages and can’t say no in any of them. Dorothy Parker

What do you say when you are comforting a grammar nazi?

There, Their, They’re

What is Grammar?

The difference between knowing your shit, and knowing you’re shit.

Word Crimes

April 2, 2017


As regular readers of my blog will know, I am not a grammar purist. Nevertheless, I did enjoy “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Word Crimes. And here’s a bonus Weird Al number: