Part of the Team

It is no surprise to learn that language defines us – what we are told we are, or say we are, has a positive or negative effect on us. Hence our obsession with job titles.

Years ago when I taught at a large company in Central London I had an eight-o’clock lesson on the Strand, and used to arrive early enough to get a coffee at a branch of Pret a Manger on the corner of Waterloo Bridge. I remember there was a sort of greeting card on the table from the manager which I would study bleary-eyed over my bun and over-priced cappuccino, noting that every morning she and her team got together to think about the best way serve their customers (with coffee, if I may make a retrospective suggestion).

And then one morning I arrived early, a couple of minutes before the shop opened, and there was the manager and her ‘team’ getting together to discuss how best to serve me, and quite clearly not one member of this ‘team’ wanted to be there or had anything to say. They looked lost, tired and bewildered by whatever their manager was telling them, slumped over the tables and wishing they were anywhere but here. She might have thought of her staff as a ‘team’; they quite clearly did not. And she might have thought of herself as displaying ‘leadership’, but if a leader’s followers are trapped in a low wage economy and don’t have any real say in the matter, perhaps it is not leadership but a very tiny tyranny that is being exercised.


And so now one of the gig-economy standard-bearers, Deliveroo, has provided guidelines for how its managers should talk about its riders (read all about it, here). The riders, according to the company, are not ’employees’ but ‘independent suppliers’ (although a number of these ‘independent suppliers’ are hoping to prove they are nothing of the sort in an ongoing courtcase); hence they cannot be employed at an ’employment agency’, rather they must be ‘onboarded’ (?!) at a ‘supply centre’. Riders do not ‘work shifts’; they ‘accept orders at a previously agreed time’; the word ‘shift’ is doubly taboo; managers and riders must talk in terms of their ‘availability’. They also do not ‘clock in’ but ‘log on’.

And so on. The whiff of some idiot lawyer lingers all over this language, of course. The idea that if I do not call you an employee, then you have no rights, even though in your day-to-day actions you clearly work for me and for me alone, is an absurd but nasty fiction, one which covers the progenitors of Uber and Deliveroo in nothing but ignominy (and a considerable amount of dirty money, not incidentally).

The only compensation if you ride for Deliveroo or drive for Uber – and it is it not negligible – is that you will never experience the humiliation of being cast as one of the ‘team’ in someone else’s dream of ‘management’ and ‘leadership’. You are, by definition, ostracised, cast out, on your own, bitter and resentful, litigious and probably ripe for unionisation, if not – who knows? – revolution.


Verbs in th—

My colleague Alice asked me yesterday to come up with some verbs beginning with ‘th’, not including think, for a pronunciation exercise she was contemplating. I suggested theorise, but since the subject of the verb was a cat and a dog, that didn’t work. She went with think as more plausible (although if my cats are not theorising when they look out of the window hour after hour, then I don’t know what they are doing).

I provisionally concluded that there are not that many verbs in th. Think and theorise, and that’s about it. Then I thought of thump. A bit later thrill popped into my head. Then much later, throw. How could I forget throw? Then later still, thrive. Then thwack. Then theatricalise, thin, thicken, thunder, thatch, threaten, thieve, and of course thwump.

By this time I had understood that I clearly do not store verbs beginning with ‘th’ together (although I should point out that when I asked my ten-year-old son the same question at dinner he rattled off half a dozen in short order). The process of retrieval was painfully slow, and probably explains why I’m not much good at crosswords. Words pop up instead by odd association, if I’m lucky, or not at all. And the context is rarely ‘find words in th‘.

Which makes me wonder how I am asking my students to store their vocabulary. I am reluctant to shower them with phrasal verbs (insane!), but I certainly do ask them to think in terms of thematic groups (natural enough) and by commonality of form (not natural at all). Thus perceive and receive and conceive and deceive share a noun in -eption. But is that useful to know? Perhaps if you are cramming for your CAE, but not if actually want to, y’know, speak English.

Or perhaps a bit of cross-training is no bad thing. Group perception and reception and conception, by all means, but also group reception with phone, and perception with public, and conception with immaculate (and perhaps note in passing receipt and percept, and concept). 

But that’s not really how I seem to store my words. I mostly seem to store them wherever there happens to be a scrap of space, on the nearest bit of unlabelled mental shelving. Open a cupboard of the mind, and who knows what lumber will tumble out – which perhaps explains why I had taught my group of first-day students horse-drawn carriage and gregarious within five minutes of meeting them yesterday morning, and why Alice later felt the need to have those same students memorise something about theorising cats thwumping thieving dogs. 


My word of the day is syzygy. You may need to look it up. I did. It has a stress pattern not unlike holiday, is useful if you’re an astronomer, and looks a lot like Hungarian, but isn’t, as far as I know (and in fact it is pretty mind-boggling to consider what the Hungarian translation of syzygy must look like).

Here is an illustration of a syzygy.

Photo: ESO/Y. Beletsky


It’s a real treat for photographers and astronomers alike: our skies are currently witnessing a phenomenon known as a syzygy — when three celestial bodies (or more) nearly align themselves in the sky. When celestial bodies have similar ecliptic longitude, this event is also known as a triple near-conjunction. Of course, this is just a trick of perspective, but this doesn’t make it any less spectacular. In this case, these bodies are three planets, and the only thing needed to enjoy the show is a clear view of the sky at sunset. Luckily, this is what happened for ESO photo ambassador Yuri Beletsky, who had the chance to spot this spectacular view from ESO’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile on Sunday 26 May. Above the round domes of the telescopes, three of the planets in our Solar System — Jupiter (top), Venus (lower left), and Mercury (lower right) — were revealed after sunset, engaged in their cosmic dance. An alignment like this happens only once every several years. The last one took place in May 2011, and the next one will not be until October 2015. This celestial triangle was at its best over the last week of May, but you may still be able to catch a glimpse of the three planets as they form ever-changing arrangements during their journey across the sky. Links Images Three planets dance over La Silla (annotated) Three people, three telescopes and three planets

You’d think a man my age must very nearly be at the end of the language by now, but apparently not. The truth of the matter is, languages are absurdly large data sets. And not only absurdly large – constantly changing. There will come a time, although not in my lifetime, I hope, when syzygy ceases to mean anything to anyone bar a few dandruffed philologists.

Learners of a language obviously like to look for easy wins, rules which govern many cases, high frequency words and expressions, and so on. And English, the international language, is especially vulnerable to creole and pidgin and simplification. It is not unreasonable to consider a world of many Englishes, some of which are spoken by native speakers, but some of which are stripped down versions for international interactions of one sort or another, not unlike George Orwell’s Newspeak.

It would set a bad precedent, however, to give up on the particular. It’s got nothing to do with pride in the language, or doom-laden syzygies of ego, obscurantism, and defensiveness. The particular, the detailed, the sharp end of anything, is very often where the interesting stuff is located. Focus on a detail – of a language, a text, an argument, a phenomenon – and you will pretty quickly end up saying something about the whole.

I rest my case.


I was buttonholed in the corridor by a colleague (TP) yesterday who was looking for a synonym for selfish which has positive connotations. A good sort of selfish. Selfish with a dash of élan vital, a bit of panache, a streak of good sense. Something along those lines.


élan vital… Satan blasting Job, William Blake 


We couldn’t really think of one. There are plenty of self-compounds, some of them of a positive cast. Perhaps one of those. Self-knowing, self-contained, self-possessed, self-reliant? But no, all of those are a bit wide of the mark.

Can it be that selfishness is a quality we only name in disapprobation? I don’t know. You might think that there was no positive spin to be put on evil, or spiteful, or vindictive, or deranged ,but these are all, from a certain perspective, energetic, proactive behaviours; you might recast a consistently deranged and spiteful individual as gleeful and demonic, and go on to enjoy his company (until, at any rate, he turned his demoniacal glee in your direction).

I suppose in the same way you might come to regard a selfish individual as a supremely focussed, unsentimental, no-nonsense sort of person. You might regard them as a lone-wolf, an individualist of the clearest water, a visionary, even. But that would be to add other qualities to the mix.

It all depends on the context, I suppose. And your politics. Unlike the adjective form of tortoise, which someone also asked me yesterday, and which I shall now go and look up.

Orange Lutes, and other Important Questions

What did we call orange things before there were oranges? The fruit came to the knowledge of the English relatively late, and it is from the fruit that we name the colour, so in a pre-orange (fruit) world, what did we call an orange thing?


Orange Lute – Frans Hals, Clown with a lute


Before I answer that question, I should point out that an orange was originally a norange – hence the Spanish naranja (from the Arabic, which had it from the Persian, which had it from the Sanskrit – naranga – which had it, probably, from the Dravidian). A norange can easily become an orange in a predominantly oral culture through a process known to linguists as juncture loss or false splitting. (other examples of false splitting being a lute, from the arabic al’ud, the adder, formerly a naddre, the apron, formerly a napron, and a nickname, formerly an ekename – eke being an antique word for also).

So, what was an orange thing before there were oranges (or noranges)? Either they were simply assimilated, by a sort of process of false colour-splitting, to red (a red deer, or a robin redbreast), or they were (in Anglo-Saxon) yellow-red (ġeolurēad) or yellow-saffron (ġeolucrog) (what was said before there was saffron, or for that matter red, is not recorded).

So there we go. The colour-spectrum is of great interest to students of linguistics, as evidencing the power of language to split the world by naming it (hence Welsh speakers, those false-splitters, divide the grey-green bit of the spectrum along different lines from English speakers), and false-splitting generally is of great interest to pedants and bores; and so while I am clearly neither, I am tempted nevertheless to put a lesson together for the benefit of my students.


Passenger Emergency Intercom Unit

Borges in 1951

Borges in 1951

I read a travel book many years ago in which the writer, Paul Theroux, takes a train journey from Boston to Patagonia, stopping for a couple of weeks in Buenos Aires to pay a visit to the great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges, who was bilingual in Spanish and English, was nearing the end of his life at the time, and was blind, and he asked Theroux to read to him from the works of Kipling, since he particularly liked Kipling. He kept stopping Theroux as he read in order to point out this or that felicity, and in particular he noted examples of nominalisation  – the characteristic of English to make noun phrases from other parts of speech – remarking over and over, you cannot do that in Spanish, and marvelling at the potential for compactness of the English noun-phrase.

As it happens I was in Boston myself over the weekend, and saw the following notice in English:

Passenger Emergency Intercom Unit at End of Carriage

Which was also presented in Spanish (and I provide my own literal-minded transliteration):

System of the Intercom for the Passengers in Case of Emergency Situated at the Extreme of the Carriage

And I thought of Borges. You cannot do that in Spanish. Not only is the noun phrase ‘Passenger Emergency Intercom Unit’ more economical that the sequence of prepositional phrases qualifying the head-noun sistema in Spanish; it also very neatly permits the dropping of the verb is situated or located, or even the adjectival situated or located, since no ambiguity arises, as it would in Spanish.

My travelling companion noted drily that Passenger Emergency Intercom Unit at End of Carriage is not exactly a felicitous or beautiful phrasing, and I suppose I agree; and I also freely admit that Spanish can probably do things no other language can (I also like the Spanish estrema for the English end, for example). But there you go. That is English in a nutshell. Economical, paratactic, swift, and effective.