February 4, 2019
by Graham

Slivers or Slithers

I wrote about the confusion between these two words three years ago (here). From the evidence we appear to be losing the word ‘sliver’ completely. I recently offered a slice of cake to a very well-educated person who wanted to accept “just a slither, please”. And three separate examples from newspapers in otherwise well-written and spelt articles:
1. “At most, it should represent a slither of a broad investment portfolio” (recommending the purchase of a company’s shares)
2. “A slice of 1840 fruitcake for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding sold for £1500, while a slither for the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947 …” (ignore the fact that she was still Princess Elizabeth in 1947)
3. (after suffering a cold) “you wake in the morning, and the nostrils are crusted and a slither of air has entered, light at the end of the tunnel.”
None of these three satisfies the definition of the OED’s “something smooth and slippery; a smoothly sliding mass”.

In my usage, sliver is almost invariably a noun (the most recent example given in the OED for its use as a verb is from Rudyard Kipling in 1896), while slither is almost always a verb, although I can live with a slither of snakes.

November 7, 2018
by Graham


Until about two years ago, I had never heard any pronunciation for this Greek name other than that given by all the current English pronunciation dictionaries: /bəˈlerəfɒn/ (with allowances for varying qualities of unstressed vowels). Then I went to a day’s series of lectures on Napoleon, and the lecturer consistently called the ship which took Napoleon into exile on St Helena, “Bellepheron” (and he spelled it that way too). Clearly he had a problem with the name.

Now, this week, in a radio programme about the ending of the First World War, the early twentieth century version of the ‘same’ ship was mentioned, and a reporter called it /bələˈrəʊfɒn/, which set me thinking. It’s well-known that sailors in the nineteenth century called the ship of that time by the affectionate nickname “Billy Ruffian”. Maybe this was because the Navy’s pronunciation was the one I heard this week – the stress pattern is the same, after all. Has this pronunciation ever been reported as the one accepted in naval speech? If so, should it be added to the dictionaries? With the proviso, of course, that it is only used in this context.

October 31, 2018
by Graham
1 Comment

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha

The tragic events of last Saturday in Leicester, when the owner of Leicester City FC was killed in his helicopter shortly after taking off from the centre of the pitch following the match with West Ham United, have also highlighted a discrepancy in BBC policy. While the coverage of Jemal Khashoggi‘s murder clearly led to a diktat from BBC management to use a single pronunciation in all the output (a diktat followed up to the present by the vast majority of BBC broadcasters), the same courtesy has not been accorded to Mr Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Although Radio 4 newsreaders are using one pronunciation – and managing consistency extremely well, especially given the apparent difficulty of interpreting the spelling – just about every sports commentator is using a different one.

I am no longer in a position to judge which of these is a better attempt at the native Thai (and neither is going to be that close), but is it just cynicism on my part to think that Mr Khashoggi was treated in a special way because he, like most of the BBC broadcasters, was a journalist, while Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was ‘merely’ a businessman? I think back to the death of Diana Princess of Wales, when all the evidence pointed to the pronunciation of Althorp being one thing, but the journalists insisted on ignoring the wishes of the Spencer family, when Earl Spencer had recently, including at the funeral, been pointedly critical of the treatment of his sister by the media. In that case, it struck me that the mispronunciation was a deliberate attempt to insult the family. All of the BBC hierarchy at the time will of course deny this as a case of sour grapes because my advice was not followed.

October 16, 2018
by Graham


Until ten days or so ago, the only person with the name Khashoggi who was well-known was the rather dodgy Saudi Arabian businessman, Adnan Khashoggi, who according to Wikipedia was the brother of Mohamed Al-Fayed’s wife, and so uncle to Dodi Fayed who died with Diana Princess of Wales. So far as I can remember, his family name was always pronounced with the final to syllables rhyming with “doggy”.
Now, the tragic events surrounding the death of the journalist Jemal Khashoggi have brought the name to prominence again. What is surprising me is that not only are the BBC Radio newsreaders, almost without exception, pronouncing this ‘-shog-ji’, but so are all the BBC presenters and journalists, both Radio and TV, with one notable exception. This can only be because a directive has come down from on high. Newsreaders are very good at following the recommendations of the Pronunciation Unit, so this is not unexpected, even though I understand that the 1974 ruling that staff newsreaders and announcers must follow those recommendations has now been loosened to a merely advisory situation, but for all the journalists (with one exception) to follow suit can only be because the Controller of Editorial Policy has issued an edict. The one exception is not really surprising – it is Edward Stourton, who doggedly stuck to ‘-oggi’ throughout the World at One on Radio 4, despite his colleagues’ usage. I say this is not surprising, because, as I have mentioned here before, in the 1990s, we used to send to the newsreader at Television Centre a list of names in the bulletin at one o’clock, with our recommendations, and he had someone ring us up to say that he didn’t need them “as he was a linguist himself”. So he speaks, or can at least pronounce, every language in the world, can he? For someone with such an unusual pronunciation as he has (‘sturton’, not ‘stowerton’ or ‘storton’) ought to be aware of the pitfalls that can arise through ignorance of the special circumstance.
I thought that the difference between Adnan amd Jemal’s pronunciation might be that Adnan was Egyptian, in which case, the -g- pronunciation could be expected (cf Gamal – not Jemal – Abdul Nasser, for example), but Wikipedia is clear that he was a Saudi, so the two names should be pronounced alike. Perhaps in the 1980s, we were misinformed, especially given Adnan’s connexion to the Fayed family.
The BBC Director of Editorial Policy could do with issuing more edicts like this!

July 14, 2018
by Graham

Thai cave rescue – some language notes

My regular correspondent in Thailand has sent me the following, which includes IPA script. I hope that it doesn’t suffer the same fate as other of my posts, where the IPA has become corrupted over time.

“Good old BBC. No sooner have they managed to get SE Asia correspondent Jonathan Head to stop saying ‘Pa-TAY-a’ instead of [pʰát.tʰā.jāː] for the world-renowned resort of sun, sea, sewage and sex than they parachute everyone and his mother in to join the media circus surrounding the cave rescue in Northern Thailand. Now the cave complex includes one section that was already dubbed ‘Pattaya Beach’. I heard Head say it once, more or less correctly (we will forgive lapses of vowel length and tone – he’s only been in Thailand for 18 years). Then Philippines correspondent Howard Johnson arrived to take us back to ‘Pa-TAY-a’.

Meanwhile, back in the studio, the consensus was that this was happening in Tham /lwang/ Cave. First, ‘tham’ means ‘cave’. Second, there is no initial cluster /lw-/ in Thai. It’s [tʰâm lǔaŋ]. This is in the province of Chiang Rai, which was occasionally pronounced to rhyme with ‘Ray’. As any fule know, it’s [t͡ɕʰīaŋ.rāːj].”

There is also an interesting myth to do with this cave system. See http://www.newmandala.org/myth-politics-thailands-cave-rescue-operation/.

July 1, 2018
by Graham


For anyone reading this who is not familiar with British TV, the heading is the acronym for the programme “The Only Way Is Essex”, a reality show featuring natives of that county. I have to admit that this is not a programme I have ever watched, but its title is relevant here.
Earlier this year I attended the giving of an academic paper on the subject of Essex speech, given by a PhD student who, I think, comes from Essex. I was rather taken aback to hear the speaker use ‘done’ as the past tense of ‘do’, and ‘was’ as the past tense of ‘be’ in all persons, singular and plural. Then this week, the subject of Desert Island Discson BBC Radio 4 was the crime novelist Martina Cole, who, although she comes of Irish parentage, was brought up in Essex. She too used ‘done’ as the past tense of ‘do’.
I am quite willing to believe that more English speakers, and more English dialects, use these forms than do the usual standard English ‘did’ for the past tense of ‘do’ and ‘were’ as the 2nd person and the 1st and 3rd persons plural of the past tense of ‘be’ (has anyone ever calculated the respective figures?), but, particularly in the case of the student giving an academic paper, I would have expected a bidialectal ability to suit the tone of the setting. I assume that Martina Cole has an editor who would change these forms, so we cannot know whether she writes in Essex dialect or standard English.
Maybe ‘the only way is Essex’, and within a few years these forms will be taught to learners of English as correct, and to forget what is given in older grammars.
And yes, I am aware that in the early 18th century, “you was” is to be found quite regularly in the writings of such literary luminaries as Daniel Defoe and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu indicating that at that time, this had to be considered part of standard English.

May 9, 2018
by Graham


We’re all used to the confusion between the words ‘diffuse’ and ‘defuse’ as verbs, caused by the pronunciation of the latter with the KIT vowel rather than the more etymologically correct FLEECE. If we were to introduce a hyphen into ‘defuse’, and wrote it ‘de-fuse’, we might start hearing it differentiated rather more, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon, especially as other words which used always to have a hyphen are now usually seen without one: ‘co-operate’ is a case in point, leading to a confusion in pronunciation between ‘corporation’ and ‘cooperation’.
This is all by way of an introduction to another confusion which I’ve recently seen in a newspaper article, and here there is no simple way round it. As it occurs in a quotation, I’m not sure whether it is the journalist or the person being quoted who has created it. In a report on the progress of a commercial company, we read of “the illusive trinity of like-for-like growth, unit growth and margin growth”. Does this mean that although the company is reporting all three, their co-existence is simply an illusion, or, which I think more likely, is ‘illusive’ simply a mistake for ‘elusive’?

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)