Monday, July 29, 2013

Good words/Bad deeds

A euphemism, derived from the Greek root eu meaning good, is a nice word for an unpleasant concept.  In itself there is nothing wrong with that just as there is nothing improper to say good words, a eulogy, at a funeral, even if the person buried was a complete scoundrel.  If people describe their relatives as large instead of fat, it expresses sensitivity.  To call the person for whom the eulogy is being delivered the deceased instead of the dead person or the corpse adds a layer of formality that is needed on such an occasion.

However, some euphemisms are slippery linguistic traps potentially to awful acts.  To paraphrase Hannah Arendt in With Eichmann in Jerusalem, the mere act of calling the holocaust the Final Solution allowed ordinary people to commit evil acts.  Sometimes, you have to call a spade a spade.

Some examples of improper, in my opinion, embellishment include the term armed conflict for war.  The fight in Korea (1950 – present) is a war, whether or not Congress declared it, with thousands of casualties on both sides.  Ethnic cleansing is not like cleaning your house; it is genocide and a crime against humanity. Non-consensual sex is sweet-sounding word for rape, which is an ugly and reprehensible crime of violence.  Wanting to kill the Israelis means you want to kill Jews. On the lighter side, being height-challenged adds a sense of ridiculous to the already less than wonderful feeling of being short.  On the same level, having extra face does not take away from the fact that the person is bald, which may make him more or less attractive, but only adds linguistic absurdity.

So, exercise proper judgment when avoiding direct language.  It is okay to save the feelings of your loved ones, but being politically correct could lead to historically wrong behavior.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

England, English culture, and the Middle East

The British government and public have had an intimate part of the marking of the modern Middle East.  London was a controlling factor in the establishment of almost all of its current government structure (aside from Saudi Arabia, which did it the old-fashioned way, arranged marriages with all of the tribes).  Being so involved since World War I with such an irrational, uncivilized group of people has often caused the British to feel like Prof. Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion, without the happy ending but with more than one Liza. 

The basic problem is that fundamentally the Arabs, with subgroups based on religion, national status such as minority or majority, and national tendencies such as Egyptian and Libyan, simply do not behave like the modern English.  They squabble, threaten each other, fight, and kill. They do not see the virtue of a nice cup of tea and cooperation.  Neither did the Gaelic peoples of the British isles not so long ago, but who remembers that? 

The Jews, excuse me Israelis, are even worse.  As long as they were willing to be helpless victims and politely request help, they were sympathetic.  Once they stopped showing respect to their betters and began forgetting their manners (which they never had very much anyway), they were no better than their Arab cousins. 

British sympathy goes with the party showing the most passive state of misery.  Refugees, Jewish or Arab, in miserable camps waiting for a solution from above, especially the magnanimous British government, touch the heart.  Insolent locals taking matters in their own hands and conducting wars and terror are so lacking class.  Israel would have probably never been created if the local Arabs had not fought the British in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  The British did not appreciate the bombing of the King David hotel either.

Whether the British prefer the Jews/Israelis or the Arabs is a question that has probably has been surveyed many times in the past.  Clearly though, the Arabs are much better at providing what the British so desire: good hospitality and proper respect. Among others, Lawrence of Arabia was truly impressed.  A guest at an Arab residence gets a comfortable chair, good food (no cucumber sandwiches), good coffee, and the feeling of being important.  An Israeli household can provide the good food and comfortable chair, but, well, arguing is an ancient Jewish tradition.  The Bible says that Moses even did it with God.  Israelis do not know how to discuss the weather for more than ten seconds, generally summarized by the sentence It is hot today.

The facts and history of the modern Middle East are apparently irrelevant.  In terms of sympathy, no matter how right or wrong either side may be, the issue seems to be “How British are you?”  Looking at the current mess here, this has turned out to be a rather flimsy basis of policy.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Like soldiers, some people are nameless.  This is a sad but true fact.  Generally, these invisible persons are either dead or victims of administration.  However, without or without a known name of birth, they must have a nomenclature.

In English, they are often referred to as John Doe, Jane Doe, and Baby Doe, reportedly after an episode of the television.  Note that the Doe is not a very common last name, fortunately as it is because most people would not want others to think that they been shot and robbed of their identity.  Another way of marking these ghostly persons is the term fnu lnu, standing for first name unknown and last name unknown.  There was an amusing story in the New York Times of people actually searching for pictures of people with the strange name of Fnu Lnu.  Apparently they thought these individuals came from Taiwan or the Philippines. 

The French have M. et Me. Dupont or Durand.  These are also not very common last names.  Other French terms are Monsieur le Monde and un citoyen en lamdaWhy a Greek letter pops up here is not clear to me.  

The Russia language goes with something the most banal of solutions.  A nameless person is иван иваиович иванов [Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov], a name, patronymic, and last name using the most common name in Russia.  This makes perfect sense, but may be a source of annoyance to those so actually named.

Hebrew has a more poetic solution that avoids any confusion with any citizen in good standing.  Instead of using David Cohen or any common name, Hebrew refuses to those silent bodies as פלוני אלמוני [ploni almoni] with the second word meaning anonymous.

I will not take the fifth amendment and instead fully admit that I wrote this column.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Sexy Terms


Anglo-Saxons, especially Americans, are rather infamous in their awkwardness in talking about sex.  See the use of “white meat” in American English to avoid using that erotic word breast.  Nonetheless, like everybody else, it is a part of life and must be mentioned from time to time.

Many different words from various language roots are used to describe the various nuances of sex.  I won’t talk about slang and swear words, which change over time.  Among standard terms, the most formal term is to have sex or copulate, with share a bed with being slightly less direct and cold.  Animals, by contrast, mate, couple with, and promulgate the species.
On a more positive emotional plane, people make love, make babies, get to know each other in a biblical sense (to quote Woody Allen), or, for legal purposes in the past, consummate the marriage.  As an aside, many upper class Victorians newlyweds were so ignorant that they never did.  

For short term purposes, young and not-so-young people sleep with each other (eventually actually sleeping), make hay even if mattresses are made of latex and springs, if you want to be crude about it, get to know each other (grin added), and fornicate, a fancy term for the f-word.

To end on a humorist note, I quote George Carlin: “why is that you can say that you pricked your finger, but not the other way around.”

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

French WTF or Linguistic Philosophy

French and English share an amazing number of false friends, i.e. words that you think you know what they mean because of their similarity with your native language but provide complete surprises.  I have had recently four encounters with words that were extremely misleading to the eye.  They include:

a.      Une radiation
b.      Un event
c.       Un acte de rectification
d.      Une autonomie limitée en temps

Put them together, you might think of a nuclear accident that needs to be fixed by quick government action.

Alas, nothing is farther from the truth. Radiation in this case means being removed from a list, such a Register of Commerce.  The event refers to an air vent for an electrical device.  An acte of rectification is a death certificate. Finally, most laptop users suffer from this autonomie, i.e limited battery life.

To clarify, my reaction to discovering these meanings was WTF or what in the hell is the connection? Looking on the bright side, life would be so boring without these linguistic puzzles.