April 15, 2013
by Graham
1 Comment

Penthesilea and satyrs

Melvyn Bragg trailed this week’s In Our Time (on the Amazons) on Radio 4 this morning (Thursday 11 April) at 8.30 pronouncing these two words as /penθəˈsiːlɪə/ and /ˈsætaɪəz/.

I was interested to learn what he was going to say in the actual programme, when confronted with three Greek scholars. On the first mention of the name, he repeated /penθəˈsiːlɪə/, but then asked if this was correct. His guest was very kind, and said that there were two spellings, and that this was the pronunciation of one of them. They then both went on with /penθesɪˈl(e)ɪə/, which is the only stress pattern I can find in most dictionaries, British or American. However, the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation does give /penθəˈsɪlɪə/ as an American pronunciation, so perhaps Lord Bragg has picked it up there at some time.

I was not aware of the word satyrs being used in the programme, but perhaps I wasn’t listening carefully enough.

April 3, 2013
by Graham

Pronunciations new to me

Just a couple of pronunciations I’ve come across recently that I’d never encountered before:

1) /ˈdiːtrɪtəs/ (Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times, on Broadcasting House, Radio 4, Sunday 31 March 2013)

I’ve heard /ˈdetrɪtÉ™s/ quite often, but never the version from Mr Evans. OED, LPD and EPD give only second syllable stress: /dɪˈtraɪtÉ™s/, but the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation accepts /ˈdetrɪtÉ™s/ as an American pronunciation (with flapped second /t/).

2) /ˈbɪsɪkl/ (Alexander J Ellis, Early English Pronunciation Volume IV, page 1166, in a section on words beginning with bi-: “When the accent falls on the bi-, we usually have (bi·) [IPA /bɪ/] as bicycle, biparous (bi·sikl bi·pɐrÉ™s) [IPA /ˈbɪsɪkl ˈbɪpÉ™rÉ™s/]. In Ellis’s defence, he was writing in 1873-4, while the OED’s earliest example of the word is from 1868 (Daily News, 7 September, where the  word is spelled “bysicle”), only 5 years before, so that Ellis had quite possibly rarely if ever heard it. I wonder if he changed his pronunciation when this vehicle became more popular?

March 20, 2013
by Graham


I’ve been working with a group of archaeologists and historians on the local manorial rolls, which are remarkably complete. We are all amateurs, and have called in a professional palaeographer to translate the medieval Latin. There is one word which even he has failed to translate, and it is one which is very clearly written and so cannot be being misinterpreted. It occurs in the reign of Hanry VIII and the whole entry reads as follows:

“A day is given for all the inhabitants to adequately repair the stokes by the next Feast of St John the Baptist under pain of forfeiting to the lord 6s 8d. And the same day to make metonille under pain of 6s 8d.”

Is there anybody out there who can suggest what this may mean – or better still who knows what it means? Please?

March 3, 2013
by Graham

Multilingual education and prejudice

Almost all the British papers have carried the story this week that Gladstone Primary School in Peterborough has not a single native English speaking pupil out of 450. Predictably the story as run by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express is slanted towards the anti-immigration lobby, but the reason I mention it here is that the Mail, although not the Express, or any other report that I can find, talks about European and Asian languages (many of which are named, including Dari), but adds “and four African dialects”.

Is this purely ignorance on the part of the author, Andrew Levy, or is it a way of subliminally introducing racism – that the linguistic codes used in Africa are not worthy of the designation “language”?

Linguistically there is no reason for distinguishing between the two groups of languages. I had thought that the use of “dialect”, to mean an obscure language spoken in out of the way places, had died out by now, but I was obviously mistaken.

All the reports, including the Mail and Express ones, do point out that the school has been given a good report following the latest visit by Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools.

February 27, 2013
by Graham


A headline in the Daily Mail reads “Richard III’s ancestors demand a York burial”. Really? How have they got in touch? Through a ouija board?

The article begins “The living descendants of King Richard III have joined the campaign to demand that his remains are reburied in York.”

So the writer of the article, as opposed to the sub-editor writing the headline, knows what is “up” and what is “down” in genealogy. However, the sentence is still wrong, because to the best of my knowledge, Richard III has no “living descendants”. He had one legitimate child, who died before Richard (who was himself only in his early thirties when he died). There were also at least two illegitimate children of whom, again, at least one pre-deceased Richard. The current disputants are actually descended from Richard’s sister. If anyone wants to claim that this is a distinction without a difference, consider whether your own brother or sister’s children are your descendants. I don’t think we want to go there!

The online version of the Daily Mail story has changed “ancestors” to “descendants”, so one cheer for semi-accuracy.

February 25, 2013
by Graham


I’ve just been listening to Nick Robinson’s programme about the BBC and the General Strike of 1926, and noticed that he referred to “listeners-in” throughout. In fact this was something that Reith thoroughly disapproved of. In 1924 he had written a book called “Broadcast over Britain, in which we find

“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.” (page 162)

February 12, 2013
by Graham

A crooked pronunciation

We’ve all come across words that when read quickly can appear to have one pronunciation, but in fact have a totally different one, because the wrong one shows that the structure of the word has been misread. Two famous such words are “misled” and “underfed”, pronounced /ˈmaɪzÉ™ld/ and /ÊŒnˈdɜːft/ respectively. Because they look like perfectly well-formed past tenses, small children may well misinterpret the division of these words into their constituent parts as ‘misle’ and ‘underf’ + past marker, instead of ‘mis’+’lead’ and ‘under’+’feed’.

Well, I was surprised this morning to hear the well-respected Julie Meyer, CEO and founder of Ariadne Capital, say on the “Today” programme, that the reputation of the banking industry had gone /ˈɔːri/. Again, the word is a perfectly well formed adverb or adjective, like many others that end in ‘-y’, but it has nothing to do with ‘awe’: the structure is ‘a’+’wry’.

February 9, 2013
by Graham

Radio 3

So Patricia Hughes has died, aged 90. She was one of the team of fairly eccentric announcers that Cormac Rigby gathered for Radio 3, and who were some of my first colleagues and ‘customers’ when I joined the BBC. Most of them have gone now – Robin Holmes, blind in one eye, who at least twice put Radio 3 off the air as he knocked his coffee cup over into the works, Victor Hallam, Donald Price, Tom Crowe, who although he sounded immaculate on air, used to give a fair impression of a hedgehog as he snuffled his way through our card index when preparing his scripts. All now, sadly, dead, including Cormac, who left the BBC to become a Catholic priest. Of the older generation of that team, only Peter Barker is still with us, although his mellifluous voice hasn’t been heard on air for many years now.

Tempus fugit.

February 2, 2013
by Graham
1 Comment

New words for BBC News

The unfortunate pollution in the English Channel (at least that’s where it’s assumed to be), that has caused the oiling of several hundred seabirds, means that two new words have been added to the vocabulary of BBC Radio News. Friday (1st February)’s 5 pm bulletin included “goo” and “gloopy”. The presenter of the “PM” programme seemed a little taken aback by this ‘descent’ into the vernacular – he commented on it about 15 minutes later.

January 21, 2013
by Graham
1 Comment

Is’t confusing?

The tragic events in Algeria have once more brought the words Islamist and Jihadist (should they be capitalized or not?) into the news.

Two things strike me – first, where is the stress on Islamist? The ‘rule’ in English is that the suffix –ist does not change the stress position of the stem to which it is added, so bal’loonist, ‘physicist, ‘naturalist (stressed one, two, or three syllables before the suffix, respectively). For Islamist, this, then, gives the alternatives ‘Islamist and Is’lamist, depending on how the individual pronounces the word Islam. I’ve heard both from BBC newsreaders and journalists, with a preponderance of initial stress – one Radio 4 newsreader changed from second to first syllable stress between bulletins during the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4 one morning. To my ear, initial syllable stress sounds more euphonious, but that is a totally unscientific observation, and inadmissible as evidence! Jihadist, on the other hand, is always stressed on the second syllable, in conformity with the ‘rule’ stated above – at least that is what my ears have been telling me, although maybe someone can give me a contrary example? The confusion (if that is what it is) over Islamist is not helped by the frequent use of the word Islamic, which is stressed on the penultimate syllable in accordance with the normal treatment of adjectives ending in -ic. (There are exceptions, such as catholic and lunatic, but most ‘exceptions’ are nouns rather than adjectives – arithmetic, arsenic, rhetoric.)

Second, what is the meaning of –ist? Bear with me while I make an apparent digression.

When the OED 2nd edition was first published, I was struck by the number of obscure words mentioned on the spines of the twenty volumes: Volume I: A to Bazouki; Volume II: BBC to Chalypsography; Volume IV: Dvandva to Follis. I took down volume 1, and looked at Bazouki. This was described as an error for bouzouki (and bazouki doesn’t appear in the online version of OED3). The preceding entry was bazoum – jocular for bosom. One of the examples was from the ”Washington Post’ (spelt ‘bozoom’ in this case), which also included the word titism. Needless to say, I looked up titism (after all, the first rule of lexicography is that every word used in a definition should itself be defined). There was no such entry. As it was presumably being treated as a nonce word (i.e. created for this specific newspaper article), this was understandable. But neither, under -ism, was there any definition that covered (if you’ll excuse the word) such an occupation(?), attitude(?) or whatever.

Now you can see where I’m going with this. –ist is in the same situation: there is at present no definition of this suffix which accounts for titist, or even sexist or racist. The definitions so far given are

1) Forming a simple agent noun derived from a Greek verb in -ίζειν, and often accompanying an English verb in -ize.

2) Designating a person who practises some art or method, or who prosecutes, studies, or devotes himself to some science, art, or branch of knowledge (the meaning of Jihadist).

3) Designating an adherent or professor of some creed, doctrine, system, or art (the meaning of Islamist).

4) One whose profession or business it is to have to do with the thing or subject in question.

The online OED says that the entry for –ist has not been fully updated, and was first published in 1900. I think we can assume that when the letter -I is reached, this lack will be addressed.