Archive for April, 2008

It’s a Mars/Venus Thing

No-one, I think, would describe me as tidy-minded. One look at my home office would prove the point. (The French, incidentally, have a word for the kind of chaos in which I generally work: bordelique. It is derived from their word for a brothel – though why a brothel should be particularly known for untidiness I am not sure. Still, never having been in one, what would I know?)

When it comes to the washing up, however, I am a different person altogether – bordering, I suspect, on the obsessive/compulsive. I should add, by the way, that we do have a dishwasher, but two elderly people do not, in my view, generate enough at one meal to justify switching it on (or is that just the old Puritan coming out?) Anyway, when we are not entertaining, we still wash up the old-fashioned way – in the sink, with a draining rack so that the dishes can dry themselves.

Now, when I wash up, I have to start with a completely empty rack, so that things fresh from the sink do not wet those that are already dry. I arrange the dirty crocks to the right of the sink, in order of size, gather all the cutlery together, and leave the pans on the stove until everything else is done. As each item is washed it is placed in the drying rack according to a predetermined plan – and I get quite upset if there is no place for that last saucer. This ensures that everything is evenly spaced from its neighbour and, as the boffins would say, “the drying process is optimised”. Saucepans, for which the rack is not really designed, are dried by hand,

My wife, however, has a different approach. Things are washed in whatever order they come to hand and are shoved into the rack wherever a bit of space can be found. The result, each time, is a unique creation: an irregular mountain of crocks and pots, plates and pans all jumbled together and delicately poised in a less-than-stable equilibrium.

When I was a boy, we used to play a game called Spillikins. This involved letting a lot of slender coloured sticks fall in a tangled heap, and then trying to extract one stick at a time without any of the others moving. Emptying the drying-rack, after my wife has washed up, is somewhat similar. Can I ease that jug out, without that bowl crashing down on the wine glasses? Is that the plate I want, hiding under the steamer? It can be  quite exciting – or nerve-racking, depending on my state of mind.

I am not for a moment suggesting that her method is inferior to mine. While I am hide-bound by my own self-imposed rules, her mind is free to think of other things – her embroidery, for instance, or where she has left her glasses. My routine probably takes longer, and both techniques achieve the same result in the end. But the two approaches do, it seems to me, illustrate the differences between the male and female minds.

But then, never having been a woman, what do I know?

Borrowing from the Bard

I went to a performance of ‘Hamlet’ recently – directed by Jonathan Miller, in the Bristol theatre-in-the-round where I have myself performed a number of times.  The play, of course, is a marathon – for audience and players – and the title role is huge. Jamie Ballard captured the angst and volatility of the character superbly, though perhaps he lacked that princely quality that would have marked him out as a fine future king, had things been otherwise; and his death – directed by Miller with medical accuracy – managed to make a sublime moment somewhat comical.

What particularly struck me though, as I listened to the dialogue, was how many every-day phrases, that we use so often that they  are almost cliches, are derived from Shakespeare’s text. Phrases such as “in my mind’s eye”, “to the manner born”, “more in sorrow than in anger”, “suit the action to the word”, “I must be cruel … to be kind”, “the primrose path” – all come straight from Hamlet. There are others that we use with a vague awareness of literary connections but without realising we are quoting the ‘gloomy Dane’: “frailty, thy name is woman!”, “more honoured in the breach than the observance”, “the time is out of joint”, “brevity is the soul of wit”, “to hold … the mirror up to nature”, “the lady doth protest too much” – the list goes on. Yet most people think the only line they know from ‘Hamlet’ is “To be, or not to be…”

What a debt we owe to WS!

Two (million) wrongs make a right?

Since I wrote my last post, I have consulted two dictionaries – both of which say that the word ‘dissect’ can be pronounced as ‘dis-sect’ or as ‘die-sect’. What they mean, I suppose, is that both are used and therefore both are considered acceptable. But in my book that doesn’t mean that both are right. Mr Ellis’s argument seems to me to be incontrovertible.

Needless to say, I am disappointed (or should I say ‘die-sappointed’?).

But no doubt the modernists will tell me that, in language, there is no such thing as right and wrong . . .

Dissecting English pronunciation

Whenever I hear someone pronouncing the word ‘dissect’ to sound like ‘die-sect’, I remember Mr Ellis. He was my first biology teacher. He had crinkly grey hair, small round spectacles and a fastidious manner. As he demonstrated the use of a scalpel for the first time, he said:

“Now remember, boys, I am about to dis-sect this earthworm. Not die-sect. There are two esses, because the prefix is ‘dis’, added to the Latin root ‘sect’ and the word means ‘to cut apart’. On the other hand, you bisect an angle (pronouncing it ‘buy’) because the prefix is ‘bi’, meaning two – as in bicycle – and therefore the word means ‘to cut in two’. And there is only one ‘s’. So: never let me hear a boy talking of ‘die-secting’. Understood?”

Though there is much that Mr Ellis taught me that I have long since forgotten, that lesson stuck. My school,as it happens, has a medical foundation and has turned out many doctors over the years (I nearly became one myself). Yet I constantly hear intelligent people, including eminent surgeons, pronouncing the word ‘die-sect’. Perhaps they never had the advantage of studying under Mr Ellis. But I bet they wouldn’t say ‘die-sappear’ or ‘die-satisfied’.

My Ellis, incidentally, could be bitingly sarcastic. On our first lesson with a microscope, we studied samples of pond-water. I was excited when I found what I was sure was a one-celled organism. I stared down the eyepiece at it, and was convinced I saw it move.

Mr Ellis loomed up behind me. “What are you looking at, boy?” he said.

“I’m pretty sure it’s an amoeba, sir,” I replied.

Mr Ellis peered into the microscope, then straightened and addressed the whole class. “First rule of microscopy: make sure you know what you are looking at!” he said. “This boy has just spent twenty minutes contemplating an inanimate piece of sludge.”

Sixty years on, I still squirm . . .

English as she will be spoke?

Readers of this blog (and there are one or two, it seems) will be aware that I am prone to moan about changes in our language. I don’t mean that I agonise (or even agonize) over the long-standing differences between US and ‘English’ English. What upsets me is the way words are so often badly spelt and wrongly pronounced; the way words acquire new and illogical meanings (I am of a generation that still thinks ‘cool’ refers to temperature, that ‘sucks’ is what a baby does, and that ‘I’m good!’ is an assertion of moral rectitude, not of general well-being); and the way that the grammatical rules I grew up with are now, for the most part, ignored.

Yes, well, of course – I realise that I am just an old diehard, spitting in the wind; that, however much I deplore what I see as the devaluation of our rich linguistic heritage, the language will continue to evolve and change. I shall soon be dead and gone, and no-one will give a damn what I think today.

What I hadn’t realised, though – until I read a recent article in “New Scientist” magazine – was that my grumbling is, in fact, maintaining a fine old tradition. Fifteen hundred years ago, elderly Romans were complaining that Latin – once the lingua franca of the whole known world – was being debased and corrupted. What they didn’t appreciate was that their language was actually dividing into different channels which, in time, would emerge as separate tongues such as French, Spanish, Italian and Rumanian – languages which, to a large extent, are mutually unintelligible, in spite of their common root.

And that, it seems, is what is going to happen to English, eventually. Already there are many millions more people who use English than there are native speakers; and in different parts of the world it is evolving in different ways. The English of Singapore is already distinct from the English of Delhi; that of Nigeria, or the Phillippines, is different again. And it may well be these non-native speakers who will determine the language’s future. The little off-shore island where Shakespeare scribbled will be largely forgotten.

The academics all have their own theories as to what the changes will be, and how long they will take. But one thing is certain: I shall have stopped grumbling long before . . .