February 8, 2018
by Graham
1 Comment

So, … again

So, if any of my readers in the UK, or who can otherwise access BBC Radio 4, have not yet discovered John Finnemore, can I suggest that they start with the last in the current series of “John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme”, which went out from 6.30 to 7.00 pm this evening, Around half way through there is a sketch about the word “So, …”. It will be available on the BBC Radio Website for the next week. Previous series also appear to be available on the BBC Radio iPlayer.
For my money, John Finnemore is one of the cleverest and most inventive comedy writers and performers on radio at the moment. He was responsible for the series “Cabin Pressure”, which starred Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole and Benedict Cumberbatch as well as himself. For those who haven’t heard it, it is repeated from time to time on Radio 4 Extra.

February 3, 2018
by Graham

BBC Today programme

On the Today programme this morning on BBC Radio 4, Nick Robinson interviewed my successor in the Pronunciation Unit, Catherine Sangster (who is now in charge of pronunciation for the Oxford Dictionaries) about the problems of pronunciation. This piece arose out of his botched attempt to pronounce some Polish names in yesterday’s programme. What was not said was that when the Today programme is on air, the Pronunciation Unit is not open – if they are still working the office hours that they were when I was working there – which means that Mr Robinson could not ring for help. However, neither was it said that the whole of the pronunciation index, which must be approaching half a million entries by now, if not more, is available 24 hours a day via the database which is accessible on all BBC computer terminals, and which includes an audio possibility. Even if the specific person being interviewed is not already in the system, there are many family names and given names from which the total name might be compiled.
Now I know that the presenters on that programme are incredibly busy, and don’t have much time to consult any sort of help during the transmission, but there are researchers in the ‘back office’ who are setting up the interviews, and finding the interviewees. Why can’t they ask how the interviewee would like their name to be pronounced, and provide a crib sheet for the presenter? This would prevent the sort of embarrassment that Mr Robinson was subjected to yesterday when apologising for his poor Polish pronunciation, and was told “apology accepted”!
The question also arises – why was a previous member of the Pronunciation Unit being interviewed, and not one of the current staff?

January 27, 2018
by Graham

Hear, Hear!

There was a lot of discussion in the early days of broadcasting about what the audience should be called. The first issues of Radio Times regularly placed the word listener in inverted commas, wherever it appeared, although there are exceptions, such as the headings of articles “Lord Gainsford’s Message to Listeners” and “Letters from Listeners” on page 1 (the cover) of the first issue (dated 28 September 1923) – in the body of the magazine, the inverted commas are inserted in the same headlines. Examples from the same issue are ‘… utterances have been winged by wireless to Britain’s huge invisible audience of “listeners”’ and ‘music-lovers who are also “listeners” have a great treat in store’, both from page 3. An exception occurs on page 23, when ‘ … the parents of a little girl who was seriously ill begged the B.B.C. to send out a message exhorting the child, who was an enthusiastic listener, … to be brave in her ordeal.’ Perhaps this is a typo, and the inverted commas were inadvertently omitted? On the same page is an advert for the Efescaphone, which says ‘Listen-in with an Efescaphone’. Another advert on page 30 includes the words ‘It brings the joy of “listening in” … within the reach of every home.’

On the other hand, the word hearer was written without comment: ‘ … you kindly invited your hearers to let you know how we enjoyed these talks.’ (28 September 1923, page 12). The second issue, 5 October 1923, goes to even greater lengths, but is somewhat confused: the verb listen is sometimes in inverted commas, and sometimes not. The discussion must have been continuing within the Company, because on page 53 of this issue, in an article by the Chief Engineer, P P Eckersley, we find ‘… an engineer’s trouble that perhaps is not fully appreciated by “listeners”* in various localities.’ footnote – ‘*I had the Editor rather badly there; he thought I was writing “listeners-in,” to which he objects.’ This insistence on using inverted commas could only draw attention to the word listener, and in issue 4, (19 October 1923), there is a letter to the editor (page 126):

‘Dear Sir,
Why are owners of receiving sets called “listeners-in” or “listeners”? The term, “listener” is applicable to one who listens to anything and by any means, but as applied to listening by wireless the term is surely an expedient. We are often told that wireless is in its infancy; are we to wait until it reaches maturity before the so-called “listener-in” receives his baptismal name?
I consider that the most appropriate term for one who listens to radio transmissions is “Radiaud”. Like all new words, it will sound strange at first; but after it has served its apprenticeship it should find its place in our dictionary, and the foreigner who is studying our language will there discover the difference between the man who is listening to the street corner orator and a member of the vast unseen audience.
Yours faithfully,
H. Hyams,
Hon. Secretary Hornsey and District Wireless Society.’
(I suspect that ‘Radiaud’ is a misprint for ‘Radiand’, which would make more sense.)

Perhaps as a result of this letter, the practice of singling out the word listener was dropped in the next issue (no. 5, 26 October 1923), but nobody seems to have told the advertisers, because on page 144, Burndept Ltd, plugging the Ethophone V Broadcast Receiver, reprint copy from a previous issue, complete with inverted commas, entitled ‘”Listening” Amidst the Eternal Snows’. And on page 186 (6 November 1923), an advert for the Berkeley Easy Chair, made by H J Searle and Son, Ltd, says it provides ‘ideal conditions for “listening-in”.’ The editor must have been caught napping in issue no 7 (9 November 1923), because on page 216, we read ‘Mind you listen-in on Armistice Day …’ which contradicts what Eckersley had written on 28 September (see above).

Reith clearly wanted to settle the question once and for all: ‘An objectionable habit is to refer to the listener as the listener-in: this is a relic of the days when he actually did listen in to messages not primarily intended for him; now he is the one addressed, and he accordingly listens. Only the unlicensed listen-in.’ (Broadcast over Britain p.162)

January 15, 2018
by Graham
1 Comment


I can claim no expertise in either the languages or the peoples of the area of the Bay of Bengal littoral. Today, 15 January 2018, the BBC has been highlighting the plight of the Rohingya people with a series of broadcasts, which started with the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, and went on until the 10 pm news on BBC1 TV tonight.
Perhaps they will eventually sort out, among other things, the pronunciation of the name. Compared to the other difficulties the Rohingya are facing, this is of course trivial, but it must be puzzling to the audience to hear commentators on the spot and in London using multiple pronunciations. It is the last two syllables that seem to cause the trouble. Mishal Husain, reporting from Bangladesh, is consistently saying /…ˈhɪŋgə/. Charles Carroll, the newsreader, like his Radio 4 newsreading colleagues over the past months, has said /…ˈhɪndʒə/. At least one of the experts interviewed preferred /…ˈhɪŋgjə/.
It may well be that all these pronunciations are ‘correct’ in one or other of the languages spoken in Bangladesh or Myanmar, but it would be more helpful to the listening and viewing audience in Britain if a single one could be established as the “English” way of saying it. I assume that the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit is recommending the pronunciation used by the newsreaders. Wikipedia suggests three pronunciations (/roʊˈɪndʒə, -hɪn-, -ɪŋjə/), but does not say anything about how they arrived at them.
It is probable that there is no way of referring to these people in a non-political way. This would not be the first time. During the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, there was no neutral way of talking about the Albanian-speaking province of Kosovo (Serbian spelling, stressed on the first syllable) or Kosova (Albanian, stressed on the second syllable) and its capital Priština (Serbian, first syllable stress) or Pris(h)tina (Albanian, second syllable stress). Also the name of the Gulf Wars of the 1990s and 2000s neatly sidesteps the question of calling the gulf in question either the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf.
We seem to be stuck with the spelling “Rohingya”, although, again according to Wikipedia, they call themselves “Ruáingga” ([rʊˈɜiɲɟə]). There is a long article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rohingya_language on the Rohingya language.

November 14, 2017
by Graham

Historians and “historians”

This post has very little to do with language.
My opinion of Emma Dabiri, mentioned in my last post, has nose-dived since I wrote that. I’ve now watched the last of the series of ‘Britain’s Lost Masterpieces’, which featured a painting found at Hospitalfield, an arts centre near Arbroath. For a start, she consistently mispronounced its name, adding a final -s which is totally unwarranted. But unforgivably, she said that it was built as a hospital attached to the Benedictine Abbey of Arbroath, but that “the monks were chased away by Henry VIII”.
Ms Dabiri calls herself (or at least she is billed as) a ‘social historian’. To me, this means that she has studied history, and later specialized in social history, having gained a solid grounding in the general subject. She may be Irish, and so not have gone through the British education system, but if she is to make programmes about British history, then surely it behoves her to gain some knowledge of the subject before making such crass errors on screen. I’m sure that 5 million Scots will agree with me.
It is perhaps symptomatic of British education at the moment that noone on the production team spotted the error, and got her to correct it.

November 10, 2017
by Graham
1 Comment

Whose benefit?

We appear to be in danger of completely losing what I consider to be a useful distinction between two phrases, one of which seems to be disappearing.
Earlier this year, a cyclist, Charlie Alliston, riding an illegal bicycle (it had no rear-wheel brake) knocked over a pedestrian, Kim Briggs. Blaming her for the accident, he tweeted “Hopefully it is a lesson learned on her behalf.” When Ms Briggs later died, Mr Alliston withdrew the tweet. Leaving aside any legal question, my interest is in the meaning of the tweet. My understanding of “a lesson learned on her behalf” is that someone else learned the lesson for the benefit of Ms Briggs. The entry for “behalf” in the online version of the OED has not been fully updated since 1887, when it was originally published, but example sentences given from the 18th and 19th centuries (obviously the most recent available at the time) confirm my interpretation. Equally clearly, however, Mr Alliston intended the meaning “a lesson learned on her part”, i.e. by Ms Briggs herself, and the fact that Mr Alliston withdrew the tweet after her death seems to imply this. He may just have made a mistake in the heat of the moment.
However, since then I have heard other, supposedly well-educated people also use the expression “on behalf of” or “on X’s behalf” in the same way. For instance, Emma Dabiri, the social historian partnering Bendor Grosvenor in the second series of BBC’s “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces”, said, in programme 3: “Lely took time out in 1656 to pay a visit to Charles junior [i.e. the future Charles II], then in exile in the Netherlands. It was a shrewd move on Lely’s behalf.” (listen from about 32 minutes 50 secs). Clearly the meaning here is “on Lely’s part”.
Consider these two sentences:
1) This needs careful team work on the part of the singers.
2) This needs careful team work on behalf of the singers.
Sentence 1 means that the singers need to work carefully together in order to benefit themselves. Sentence 2, on the other hand, means that some other group needs to work carefully together in order for the singers to benefit. What a shame if we introduce ambiguity into the language by losing the first of these expressions.

May 24, 2017
by gpointon

A pre-internet troll

In sorting through a box of miscellaneous papers the other day, I came across this letter, which the recipient, a BBC newsreader, gave me at some point (it is undated). I have replaced all names with initials, for obvious reasons. The address from which it was written is limited to the name of the county.

“Dear ZY,

This is to tell you that I think you have a revolting voice – very unpleasant timbre, too high pitched for a male newsreader, sounds like a young child’s.

Some time ago I wrote to XW, who suffers from the same problems, and asked him to tell you and VU.

Since then the worst of all, TS, has come back from what I hoped was the dead.

The very second I hear your voices or an announcement saying you’re about to begin, I switch off as I don’t want to be sick.

I keep hoping something will happen soon to all of you so the news can be read by people with pleasant voices.”

[signed illegibly – of course!]

No comment is necessary.

April 12, 2017
by gpointon

A sad time

I had started to think that someone in the BBC hierarchy had issued an edict that the Syrian president’s name should be pronounced by all journalists in accordance with the Pronunciation Unit’s recommendation, with stress on the first syllable of his family name: ASSad. This was because I was hearing not only Jeremy Bowen (Middle East Editor) and Lyse Doucet (Chief International Correspondent), who have both spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and clearly know the subject inside out, pronouncing it this way – as they have been doing for as long as I can remember, but also Jon Sopel (North America Editor), who will be constantly hearing other pronunciations (including the strange ‘aSHAAD’ from the Trump administration yesterday) from Americans around him, and John Humphrys, who seems to have come round to it in recent days. However, my hope seems to have been misplaced: Sophie Raworth, presenting the 10 o’clock news last night, and Sarah Montague and Nick Robinson on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, after a single occurrence of ASSad, reverted to type with multiple pronunciations with stress on the second syllable, even when immediately following a speaker who managed to get it right.

The fault doesn’t only lie with the people we hear on radio and television, but must be traced back to their editors who cannot distinguish between the needs of written and spoken journalism. All written media outlets have a style guide which, among other things, specifies which spellings of contentious names will be used in their publications. One of the most notorious was Qaddafi (or was that Ghaddafi, Gaddafy, or something else?) Surely it behoves the editors of the spoken media to maintain the same standards in speech? The BBC does have a style guide, but does the most recent version of it even mention pronunciation? I’m not talking about standardising pronunciation to the extent of demanding a single accent from its speakers, but that names be standardised in order not to confuse the audience. Why shouldn’t editors and producers be under the same cosh as Radio 4 (and Radio 2, Radio 3 and World Service) newsreaders that they WILL follow the recommendations of the Pronunciation Unit? This is a policy decision made by what was then called the Board of Management of the BBC; it was published and I have never seen an official amendment to it. If there has been one, I should be very pleased to see it.


February 2, 2017
by gpointon

Mistakes or Neologisms?

Whenever I hear a word that is new to me, or is used in a new way, I now take the precaution of looking in the OED before claiming in these posts that it is either a mistake or a neologism. Two usages have come to my ears this week which have sent me scuttling in that direction, both heard on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme.

The first was on Tuesday, when Emma McNally, organiser of the Women’s March in London on Sunday 29 January 2017, was interviewed. She used the word ‘precarity’ /priˈkarɪti/, which was completely new to me. My immediate reaction was that this was a neologism to replace ‘precariousness’, which is what she seemed to mean in the context. I didn’t have immediate access to the OED, but a handy iPhone gave me several on-line dictionaries which defined it as “a term used by sociologists to refer to the spread of contingent work and insecure employment within the labour market. The term is also used to refer to the subjective condition of those who experience insecure work.” (quoted by Oxford Reference website from A Dictionary of Human Resource Management). So my initial feeling was correct, but if it has been coined to cover a meaning in sociology which may be called part of the sociologist’s professional jargon, then ‘precariousness’ is still probably the better form to use in a general situation. The OED itself does not yet have an entry for ‘precarity’, with any meaning.

Second, this morning (2 February 2017), John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, twice said that MPs who voted against the Labour Party’s leadership in the Brexit vote the night before would have to “wrest with their consciences”. I’m becoming used to people saying ‘wrestle’ when they mean ‘wrest’, but this is the first time I’ve heard the opposite.

Also in this morning’s ‘Today’ programme, the BBC’s political journalist Ian Watson said that some Labour whips had “flaunted” their leadership’s instructions by voting against the same Bill.

And there was more to come: Melvyn Bragg, and at least two of the contributors to his ‘In Our Time’ programme about Hannah Arendt, called her /əˈrent/, with stress on the second syllable, a pronunciation I can’t find given for her in any of my reference books. I know that speakers of US English often stress ‘foreign’ names automatically on the last syllable, possible because it “must be” more authentic, but these were all British English speakers, and ought to have known better. Where did they get this from? For the record, /ˈɑːrənt/ is the only pronunciation given by the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation.