Literary Connections

Conversation and news on matters literary and educational

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.

Michael Gove's new photo in the Telegraph

Flattering for Mr Gove: but not for the Telegraph, for all the mortar boards on view

The Telegraph has now found a much more flattering photograph of the Education Secretary – but its proofreading has, alas, not improved since (with sorrow) we drew attention to its deficiencies some time ago here and here. There has also been some debate amongst the anguished (but usually polite) commenters on the Telegraph site about the quotation: is it a turkey, is it Spider-man or is it the Bible? Meanwhile, Steve Bell seizes on the image to portray the Education Secretary as a mortarboarded Spider-man in today’s Guardian.

Not far below the warmly lit portrait of a cloistered Michael Gove we read:
Telegraph typo 25 June 2011
Oh dear – and this in the paper of Simon Heffer. As if that weren’t bad enough, the awkwardly worded quotation came in for scrutiny. Telegraph_Reader wrote:

Perhaps Gove was being purposefully daft, but I think the quote is actually from the Bible, or a paraphrase thereof. A quick google suggests I am probably thinking of Luke 12.48:
From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.’

Purposefully daft or not (perish the thought!), Mr Gove (or his clever-ironic speech writer) would seem to have been thinking of the final lines of the film of Spider-man:

Peter Parker: [voiceover] Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? I’m Spider-man.

Perhaps the conversation next day in the Department went something like this:

Mr Gove, you read English at University – please tell us who found that quotation for you and we’ll sack them. And we’ll have at word with the Telegraph to make sure they send the intern who checked the story back to her parents in the Home Counties.
Goodness, those Telegraph readers know too much! I was just trying to inject a little wit and a populist touch for the journalists and to amuse the Headmasters – not easy, you know, an assembly of Beaks can be quite scary!
Yes Minister – sorry, Secretary of State – but someone’s pointed out it’s rather like the parable of the talents in the Bible. Possibly uncomfortable reading, that book; you know: ‘Blessed are the poor, the meek shall inherit….’
No, stop – meek, that’s just right! I’ve just reminded teachers they should meekly accept paying more and working longer for reduced pensions! And look: even today’s Guardian approves of my style: ‘Striking rhetoric from Michael Gove‘.
Ah yes, sir, but I suspect that may also be the rhetorical device of irony – or just an old-fashioned Guardian pun. And I fear Steve Bell is now drawing you as some kind of cross between Spider-man, a bat and Mr Gradgrind. I’m not sure the PM will see this as good PR, as he’s wont to say.

Cookery books

Nourishing the soul or the body?

An education that does not provide the tools and the hunger to read beyond the narrow confines of a subject is, in the wider sense, no education at all.

John Newton, Headmaster of the independent (yet also public) Taunton School, fears that students’ literary diet is as bad as the convenience foods too many of them eat. Writing in The Telegraph this week, he adds that ‘current students are no longer inclined to read tougher texts; they are encouraged to read what takes their fancy rather than what nourishes the soul’. The sub-editor seems taken by this culinary metaphor, for the article is illustrated by a photograph of old cookery books. The same books in fact, including (the no longer very) Modern Cookery that illustrated the report, back in March, of Michael Gove’s 50-book challenge to students – and noted here at the time as a rather odd choice of image. Still, who are we to argue with the illustrious ones of the Telegraph and the noble Doctor Newton (no mere ‘Headteacher’ he)? So I’ve used the same image too – I’m sure they won’t mind, it keeps costs down for everyone.

It does nonetheless strike me that the Head is over-egging the pudding when he goes on to write:

The arts have always been an area where the mind should run free within proper limits. Now candidates work like automata. We are seeing the persecution of the independent learner; the reader who imbibes a range of classic texts simply because they are beautiful in themselves is a rare species.

Ah, the pursuit of beauty! How exotic – but, of course, only ‘within proper limits’. Who (even in North Korea) could disagree with that? Especially when we read his approving comments on the International Baccalaureate and the Pre-U, very largely taken by independent schools, where (of course) students ‘enjoy an education which leads to a fulfilled appreciation of what great minds have produced’. No doubt Michael Gove will soon share with us his own list of the works by great minds that all students should read. Except, of course, when they are roaming free, reading round the subject and seeking out fresh culinary delights in Modern Cookery.

(The alert reader will have noticed that I have eschewed the hyphen in ‘overcook’ but used it in ‘over-egg’. Pussyfooting again….)

I’m excited to bring you a lunchtime update on my previous post. I’ve just got round to reading Terry Eagleton’s splendidly splenetic article about Grayling’s private university in Tuesday’s Guardian. There (at the foot, appropriately, of column two), is today’s word – hyphenated! But it’s also on a line break, so it’s ambiguous. The online version settles it – and is worth quoting for its own sake:

If education is to be treated as a commodity, then we should stop pussyfooting around. I already ask my students at the start of a session whether they can afford my £50 insights into Wuthering Heights, or whether they will settle for a few mediocre ideas at £10 a piece.

He’s clearly underselling himself: today’s edition of the paper reveals that Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen (currently in the news for matters from which we shall avert our gaze) is the non-executive chairman of a company, AB Produce plc, selling pre-washed vegetables. ‘The register of members’ financial interests records that he is paid £7,773 monthly for six hours work.’ I make that £1295.50 an hour, which is probably rather more than Terry Eagleton gets, even (as Simon Jenkins points out in an equally acerbic piece in the paper) ‘as “excellence in English distinguished visitor” to America’s private Notre Dame Catholic university. There he gives three weeks’ teaching per semester for an undisclosed sum.’ Jenkins tuns the knife in the man he dubs ‘the Kropotkin of our age’ (Jenkins must have had a luxury education too), saying ‘moral consistency has never been a Marxist strong suit’. It’s a safe bet that this is a lot more than the hourly rate of AB Produce’s vegetable washers. Why, it would take him a mere 42 hours to pay for a whole degree at Grayling’s New College of the Humanities!

There’s nothing academics like more, of course, than a good scrap with their colleagues. So immediately underneath Jenkins’ article today, Giles Fraser, formerly lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford and now Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, writes about yesterday’s blog post topic, Archbishop of opposition. With the skill of a true philosopher, the Reverend Doctor manages to spear both Ian Duncan Smith and A C Grayling with one blow:

The “quiet resurgence of the seductive language of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor” needs a proper kicking. Perhaps our atheist intellectuals are too busy setting up their private universities to get stuck into the fight.

Still, as the old saying goes, fine words wash no parsnips.

This Friday’s Phrase is pussy-foot. To hyphenate it or not? Here’s an example found in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1916 (The Daily Democrat from Woodland, California):

He pussyfooted all right. He declared in grandiloquent style for undiluted Americanism, but he had nothing to say about hyphenism.

Of course, to hesitate over this is mere pussyfooting – not something Prime Ministers and Archbishops have time for.

Which reminds me that yesterday’s tweet and blog post have become today’s Guardian headline for the turbulent priest. I’d like to say it was because this blog is so influential that it’s read throughout Westminster, but I suspect the mundane truth is that the wording was so apposite that even a journalist on a proper paper couldn’t resist.

Meanwhile, back in the OED, I’m both disappointed and intrigued to discover that hyphenism has nothing to do with lexicography but ‘the state of being a hyphenated American; the attitude or conduct involved or implied by this.’ Wikipedia offers some enlightenment that explains why this would be an issue in Woodland in the middle of the First World War:

Hyphenated American is an epithet commonly used from 1890 to 1920 to disparage Americans who were of foreign birth or origin, and who displayed an allegiance to a foreign country. It was most commonly used to disparage German Americans or Irish Americans (Catholics) who called for U.S. neutrality in World War I. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was an outspoken anti-hyphenate.

This particular issue may have faded into the mists of history (though divided loyalty still seems a hot topic to some American politicians), so how about adopting the term anti-hyphenate for those in favour of email rather than e-mail and other stylistic simplifications? That’s still stirring up debate – see Think hyphens aren’t contro-versial in The Guardian and Substuff‘s tweet yesterday:

‘Keep an eye-out for all our latest reviews.’ What is the reasoning behind that hyphen?

On this, it’s time to stop pussyfooting: I’m definitely an anti-hyphenate. I think.

Thomas à Becket, Canterbury Cathedral

Beware the fate of turbulent priests! Stained glass window of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, from Wikimedia Commons

This Thursday’s Thought (and Word of the Day) is: ‘Why is a supposedly peaceable archbishop firing a broadside?’ Turbulent priest, beware the fate of your famous predecessor! (‘Downing Street hits back at archbishop’s broadside‘).

Supplementary question: Is Bono the new James Joyce? The Guardian embellishes an article in its print edition this week entitled ‘Why Bono should welcome his Glastonbury reckoning‘ with this gnomic quotation:

Pullguote over five
lines in here
here herey
herey herey
type over text

Herey, herey, indeed! Or, as letter writer John O’Dwyer comments: ‘Surely the lyrics of an unreleased U2 song, showing that Bono is a genius and the true heir of James Joyce.’

Shooting the dead dead

Dead innocent: Telegraphic tautology, or - a fatal error mars a tragic tale


St Pancreas

Station or secretion? 'Spectacular' holiday advertisement in the Guardian on 9 April

Thanks to the excellent Substuff and Peter Melville in today’s Guardian for these comic – and tragi-comic – clangers from two of our finest quality broadsheets. The Grauniad retains its (now surely undeserved) reputation for typographical infelicities – but the Telegraph, that home of grammatical rectitude and Simon Heffer? What will become of us? And with the Telegraph’s recent crime against chidren still fresh in our minds!

‘You couldn’t make it up’ update, 14 April: Today’s Guardian carries a confession about their own report on the trial that featured in the Telegraph article shown here:

In early editions, the photo caption that accompanied a report of the jailing for life of two members of an east London street gang convicted of the murder of a girl of 16, Agnes Sina-Inakoju, contained the solecism that she “died 36 hours after being killed”. As the text made clear, she died in hospital 36 hours after being shot.

It’s always encouraging when others take in an interest in topics here, so I was naturally delighted when somebody on Twitter called CricketBooks signalled that my previous item had been read by retweeting it. Just shows the importance of having a catchy headline, eh, Prime Minister, even if it had very little to do with the substance of the article (something you must have had some experience of when you were at Carlton TV).

Seamus Milne in today’s Guardian considers the wider significance of David Cameron’s statement in Islamabad that prompted yesterday’s post here:

The reporters who heard David Cameron tell Pakistani students this week that Britain was responsible for “many of the world’s problems … in the first place” seemed to think he was joking. But it’s a measure of how far Britain is from facing up to its own imperial legacy that his remarks were greeted with bewildered outrage among his supporters at home.

Milne added, tartly, that the Prime Minister spoke ‘with a modesty that eluded him in the buildup to Nato’s intervention in Libya’. Hey, let’s not be churlish. After all, if we wanted to be pedantic, we could point out the Guardian originally headlined this article ‘Ignoring its imperial history licences the west to repeat it.’ Good grief, who would imagine that you’re writing in the country that, Peter Oborne declared, gave the world ‘the English language and, last but not least, the game of cricket’? So let’s leave this with a question mark in the title, and at the end. Will this now be picked up by someone promoting driving licences? (But only, of course, where British English spelling prevails: Pakistan, India and – to be balanced – the disputed territory of Kashmir still?)

That David Cameron is a right tease: let him off on his travels and he says all kinds of things. I don’t know, he needs a public relations minder with him. (What do you mean, public relations used to be his job? You’re having me on!) Today’s Guardian, under the punning headline I’ve stolen for my title (sadly not used online), reports:

Cameron later sparked controversy about Britain’s imperial past by claiming it was responsible for many of the world’s problems. He made his remark as a semi-jocular aside at the end of a question and answer session at a university in Islamabad.
Asked what Britain might be able to do settle the war in Kashmir, he replied: “I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.”

Semi-jocular? You need to watch that sense of humour Dave. I mean, just imagine if folk get hold of the idea that people responsible for the issue aren’t the ones to clear it up:

Ah yes, Miss, I know the classroom’s a bit of a mess. but we can’t clear it up because we’re the ones what done it, see, and we only do untidy. I mean really, have you ever seen us leave a foreign country tidy? Look at that Kashmir, Miss – such a mess they still haven’t sorted it out 60 years later!

As for what the Daily Mail and the hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade might make of the idea that criminals can’t possibly be expected to make restitution – well… Already Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph has told us bluntly:

Sorry, but it’s not right to apologise: The Prime Minister’s mea culpa over the conflict in Kashmir is neither welcome nor wise… He could have pointed out that we gave Pakistan (and indeed the rest of the world) many splendid bequests: parliamentary democracy, superb irrigation systems, excellent roads, the rule of law, the English language and, last but not least, the game of cricket.

This article is rather bizarrely accompanied by a series of images, including ‘David Cameron, a life in pictures’ and ‘Top Right-wingers: 25-1′. Are those the odds on a coup, or the way the paper counts down to the very top, rightmost right one? Ah no, it’s the cricket score: right wingers put in to bat, 25 quangos for one wicket – that careless David Laws out for a duck. Well, it’s better than being out for a duck house, innit?

Three Cups of Tea

Refreshing the mind

It’s good to see that David Cameron’s short visit to Pakistan included the promise of ‘£650m of additional aid to train teachers, build new schools and provide text-books’. Perhaps he might like to ensure that those who commission this work read Three Cups of Tea, commended here – and already ‘required reading for US high command’ (see, we told you)?

It seems that David Cameron and his foreign Office advisers have realised that a good public relations exercise in India last year was a disaster over the border – or, to use the Guardian’s metaphor, ‘put British relations with Pakistan in the deep freeze’ (yes, it gets pretty cold in the North-West Frontier, I can tell you).

I wonder whether the British Prime Minister found time, amidst the defrosting, to mention another thorny issue in Pakistan: the notorious blasphemy laws, mostly recently highlighted by the assassination of Pakistan Cabinet Minister Shahbaz Bhatti? There’s more about Shahbaz Bhatti and Pakistan on the Christian Solidarity Worldwide site. Given the UK government’s new-found enthusiasm for freedom in countries such as Libya, the Prime Minister will doubtless be keen to encourage Pakistan to act on the latest UN resolution on religious defamation.

Breaking news: Tory PM says tax the rich: at midday today, the Guardian posted a report headlined: David Cameron tells Pakistan: raise more tax from the rich. To show this is no repeat of his PR (and arms sales) trip to India, our Prime Minister tells Pakistan like it is, based on tough lessons learn back home: ‘Pakistani fiscal position was a serious one because “too few people pay tax. Too many of your richest people are getting away without paying much tax at all – and that’s not fair”.’ Dave, you are a true man of the people, even if it takes a trip abroad to give you the courage and vision to speak your mind!