Aussiemandias? Shelley not!

Murdoch Murdoch: Shelley got there first

Who does ‘the shattered visage’, with its frown, its wrinkled lip and its sneer of cold command, remind you of? Yes, Rupert Murdoch is finding out that one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world had described his fate long ago, as Simon Hoggart points out in today’s Guardian:

It’s as if we were all in Shelley’s antique land watching the statue of Ozymandias collapse before our eyes.’

Or, in the word of a succinct letter a few pages later from Alasdair McKee:


Murdoch moments

This Murdoch moment is a gift that goes on giving

This Friday’s Phrase comes at the end of a week of Words of the Day suggested by Powerful People from the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to the Pope. (See them all on the Twitter feed.) Our phrase is a further gift from the Vatican: Simon Tisdall asks has Benedict met his ‘Murdoch moment’?

It seems this Murdoch moment is a gift that goes on giving for those of us interested in language (and why else would you be reading this?). As Alexander Chancellor points out in today’s Guardian, Rupert Murdoch’s own words, that ‘this is the most humble day of my life,’ merit some deconstruction.

Days can’t be humble, only people can; and the authors of this carefully prepared soundbite should be ashamed of themselves for getting Murdoch to utter it. As it is, every paper in Italy translated “humble” as “umiliante”, meaning “humiliating”.’

Rupert Murdoch’s contribution to Word of the Day, incidentally, was hysteria (so unlike anything whipped up by his newspapers, of course).

Entertaining and erudite as ever, Michael Rosen today explores how ‘from James Murdoch to David Cameron, the protagonists in the News International investigation reveal themselves with words’. I shall use ‘actually’ and ‘appropriate’ more circumspectly – or, actually, appropriately – in future.

And to show that we listen to you too: a Word of the Day subscriber submits: “Andy Borowitz had the best line of the day, quoting Rupert:

People have been saying such terrible things about me, I’ve stopped listening in on their conversations.’

International news: American Professor Aaron Pallas shows that this is symptomatic of wider institutional problem. We’re providing fodder for education theorists too – and good reasons to be suspicions of high-stakes testing:

What do the Atlanta test-score scandal and the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal have in common? Both cases are widely publicized instances of wrongdoing, appearing to emanate from the top of the organization, and pressing downward. We know that some individuals were involved in the transgressions, but not others.


How can something be ‘unspeakable’?

This Thursday’s Thought from Word of the Day comes as promised from the Vatican itself (via an intermediary): how can something be ‘unspeakable’ if we can speak of it?

Yes, we managed to secure the good offices of the Holy See – even though the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and James Murdoch all clamoured for today’s word to be ‘hindsight’. So last year, chaps: ‘with hindsight’ was Friday’s Phrase in February 2010. I expect some of them wish they could wind the clock back to then – which is all the more reason for them to subscribe to Word of the Day. (I don’t see any of them on the Twitter followers list….)

Kitchen cabinet feeling the heat: or, is Michael Gove worth less than a bag of washed vegetables?

Is an hour of the Secretary of State for Education’s time less valuable than sixty minutes at the vegetable washing plant? Or, to put it more topically, is Rupert Murdoch ‘drawing Michael Gove into the News International phone hacking scandal?’ That’s the shocking implication of this recent blog post on the Local Schools Network:

Will Michael Gove also be drawn into the sleaze? In 2009, the Conservatives published a list of shadow cabinet ministers’ outside interests. News International were very generous to him, paying £5,000 a month for his services as journalist for one hour a week. That’s £1,250 a week.

It’s not just £1,250 a week – it’s £1,250 an hour, which seems pretty generous pay for a hack. (Hack is used here, of course, as quaint Fleet Street argot for journalist and not implying someone who hacks into phones – though it now seems that in News International these were too often, alas, one and the same person.) Whilst some may take this as a sign that most of us are undervaluing our services to the public by selling them so cheaply, it could be that it’s still not enough for Mr Gove. As an earlier post revealed, Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen is paid £1295.50 an hour as non-executive chairman of a company selling pre-washed vegetables. Surely as a world-class journalist for world-class schools he deserved more?

A more cynical view emerges, predictably, from another (no doubt jealous) journalist. Tom Clark writes in the Guardian that the Prime Minister:

tried to imply an equivalence between Coulson [Cameron’s disgraced communications director] and Miliband’s own press chief, Tom Baldwin, simply because the latter used to write for the NI-owned Times.

So if, in Tom Clark’s words, the Leader of the Opposition ‘has turned up the heat’ on ‘members of the prime minister’s kitchen cabinet’, where does that leave members of the actual cabinet who have taken Mr Murdoch’s shilling (rather a lot of them, too)?

The moral dimension and the Fourth Estate

This Friday’s Phrase is ‘moral dimension’: ‘I hate to sound old-fashioned, but the trouble is that politics no longer has a moral dimension,’ writes Deborah Orr. And now it can be revealed: [Shock! Horror! 72 point black bold type!] it seems that it’s not just politics that lacks a moral dimension but even some members of the Fourth Estate. As our reporter writes:

In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising. Somebody – was it Burke? – called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism. In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs for ever and ever. Fortunately in America Journalism has carried its authority to the grossest and most brutal extreme. As a natural consequence it has begun to create a spirit of revolt. People are amused by it, or disgusted by it, according to their temperaments. But it is no longer the real force it was. It is not seriously treated. In England, Journalism, not, except in a few well-known instances, having been carried to such excesses of brutality, is still a great factor, a really remarkable power. The tyranny that it proposes to exercise over people’s private lives seems to me to be quite extraordinary. The fact is, that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands. In centuries before ours the public nailed the ears of journalists to the pump. That was quite hideous. In this century journalists have nailed their own ears to the keyhole. That is much worse.

[Legal Dept: plagiarism alert: this has been ripped off from Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism.]

[Ed: He won’t sue: we can soon smear him if he tries. He’s an ex-con so we can always buy him off. See if we have his phone number. Run this in our ‘Fearless and Free’ slot. On no account mention socialism.]

Frock ‘literally taken off’ on High Street? What will chaps and chapesses think?

Yesterday’s Guardian featured some worn out words: ‘expressions that have become such clichés that they have lost all meaning’. Aphorist James Geary nominated literally:

Why? One of the great testaments to the power of metaphor, and the malleability of language, is the metaphorical use of the word “literally”…. It’s a worn-out word, though, because it prevents people from thinking up a fresh metaphor for whatever it is they want to describe.

Geary points out, with the kind of detail that lends fascination to the humblest word, that literal

is derived from the Latin verb linire, meaning “to smear”, and was transferred to litera (letter) when authors began smearing words on parchment instead of carving them into wood or stone. Thus, the literal meaning of “literal” is to smear or spread, a fitting metaphor for the way metaphor oozes over rigid linguistic borders.’

Literally was perhaps not so fitting for an item in Glossop Life, ‘a lifestyle magazine for Glossop and the High Peak’ that also dropped through my letterbox yesterday:

Based at the top end of the High Street, her shop is very visible and has literally taken off.’

Sonia’s shop is called Frock – but I’m not sure Glossop is quite ready for a frock to be literally taken off on the High Street. What will chaps and chapesses think?

Chaps? The word has surfaced in two interesting contexts this week. In the Telegraph John Newton (no, not the reformed slave-trader who’s been featured in Word of the Day this week, but the Headmaster of Taunton School) told Michael Gove that he should axe A-level modular exams. Presumably once he’s sorted the teachers’ pensions out – and incidentally, what about MPs sorting out their own rather generous pension arrangements first? Dr Newton praises terminal tests:

You get one chance. That was it. Sorry old chap.

‘Old chap?’ So it’s only the boys at Taunton School who take exams – or perhaps only the boys who fail them? It seems rather a jocular term for the learned doctor (and the Telegraph) to be using for, as the OED says, chap is colloquial – and for young males:

‘Customer’, fellow, lad. (Todd, in 1818, said ‘it usually designates a person of whom a contemptuous opinion is entertained’; but it is now merely familiar and non-dignified, being chiefly applied to a young man.)

It seems this kind of ‘non-dignified’ language is heard not only in the Headmasters’ studies of the more select public (or private) schools but also in the higher echelons of the Civil Service, for on the front page of today’s Guardian we can read an email from an ‘official at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’, whose name, sadly, has been redacted, drawing up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident:

We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this.

Surely a bit too jocular for such a topic, old chap? (Am I right to think that only a chap would write this?) At least it indicates that the chaps wear the trousers (well, not always literally, of course) and a certain sort of chap was being rather too familiar with the nuclear industry.