February 17, 2020
by Graham


Jim Daley (https://www.jimdaleywrites.com/) has written an interesting piece on the discovery of a piece of birch gum chewed by someone in Denmark 5700 years ago. At the end of the piece he says, by way of light relief, “Fortunately, no one has yet tried to coin the word gumomics.”
And yet that is precisely what Mr Daley has done. Or has he? The website “digestinternational” covers the same story, ending with the words “Fortunately, no one has yet tried to speak the word gumomics.” Whoever is the originator, I’ve now perpetrated the same neologism, and perpetuated it for all time on the Net.

February 14, 2020
by Graham


We’re all going to have to get used to this, apparently, odd name in the coming months as Pete Buttigieg tries to become the next president of the US.
I think it’s an interesting case, not because the name itself is odd – if you come from Malta, where the name originates, it is distinctly NOT odd, but because despite Americans’ well-known difficulty with languages other than English (some might say even with English!), Mayor Buttigieg has managed to retain an approximately Maltese pronunciation for himself.
How many English speakers with no knowledge of Maltese would arrive at the pronunciation -jejj for the final syllable? And I suspect that most would also use the STRUT vowel in the first syllable rather than the FOOT vowel which seems to be Pete’s preference.
There are very few words in English – and those abbreviations – in which a final -g is pronounced as if it were a ‘j’: veg (as in “meat and two veg”), Reg (short for Reginald, or with lower case r-, for “register” and words of the same group); marg (short for “margarine”, which some older pedants insist should be pronounced with /g/ in any case). There may be others, but not many. So to get the general public to pronounce -gieg as ‘jejj’ is quite an achievement. Of course, what is missing is the ‘correct’ Maltese spelling, which has a dot placed above the ‘g’ in both places (Buttiġieġ). I suspect that Mayor Buttigieg, or his father’s family, abandoned that as a sophistication too far.
Paul Auster, in his novel 4 3 2 1, tells the story of a Jewish immigrant family. The patriarch of the family, on the way over from Europe, is advised by a fellow traveller to choose a name with prestige when he gets to Ellis Island – something like Vanderbilt, or Rockerfeller. However, when confronted by the imimigration official, and asked his name, the man can’t remember what he was told, and says, in Yiddish, ‘Ikh hob fargessen’, at which the official writes down “Ichabod Ferguson”. The first American Mr Buttigieg obviously had better luck!

January 23, 2020
by Graham

What is Rudy Giuliani’s job?

Alec Bamford has reported:

“Anyone with lingering doubts about the BBC’s blatant left-wing bias should have been listening to Gary O’Donoghue’s reporting on the impeachment story in the World News on the evening of 21 January.
Before he corrected himself, O’Donoghue clearly described Rudy Giuliani as ‘Trump’s personal liar’.
This is an outrage. Trump lies perfectly well by himself and it is scandalous for the BBC to suggest that he requires someone to do it for him.”

December 17, 2019
by Graham


Cheops is the well-known name of the Egyptian Pharaoh whose tomb is the Great Pyramid at Gizeh. This is actually the Greek form of the name, and in modern times he has had his name ‘re-egyptianized’, if I may coin such a word, as Khufu. The pronunciation of the Greek version, in English as given by every one of the standard pronouncing dictionaries, is ‘key-ops’, as in “most important operations”.
Cheops is now the name of a satellite sent up today by the European Space Agency (ESA), from French Guiana, to study exoplanets. Every commentator I have heard mention the name so far has used the pronunciation ‘kay-ops’. Why? This is the French pronunciation. Does that mean that the ESA is now using French rather than English? Even so, why should English speakers use a French pronunciation instead of the one that has been familiar to English speakers for probably two hundred years? When I first heard it this morning, I thought the spelling must be something else, perhaps ‘kayops’, an acronym for some obscure project, and it was only when I saw the name written down that I realised what was meant (it does stand for some obscurely named project, obviously made up to fit the name “Cheops”).
I wonder if the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit has sanctioned the use of the French pronunciation, or whether BBC News has gone ahead with this ludicrous version without consulting them (which in my experience would be par for the course).

August 15, 2019
by Graham

Greta Thunberg

Since this teenager became world famous, I’ve heard her name pronounced in several ways by BBC journalists and announcers. I don’t know how she herself pronounces her name, as I’ve never heard her say it, and I’m no longer in a position to find out easily, but certainly, only one of the at least four ways that I’ve heard can be right.

I don’t expect journalists to be able to speak Swedish – the only one from the last quarter of a century who comes to mind as a Swedish speaker is Kate Adie, whose degree from Newcastle University was in Scandinavian Studies. There may be others. However, since they are unlikely to know anything of the language other than the imitation of it perpetrated by the Swedish chef in The Muppet Show, I should have thought that they would admit their ignorance and ask somebody – in the case of BBC journalists, the Pronunciation Unit. They don’t even have to ask any more, as the whole of the pronunciation index is available to them in a couple of clicks on whichever electronic device is their favourite.

I’ve heard the initial ‘TH’ pronounced as if it was English, as if the whole name was a portmanteau word composed of the first part of ‘thud’ and the last part of ‘fun’; or to rhyme with ‘boon’, again with the initial sound of ‘thud’. But Swedish has no ‘th’ sounds (and in this it is like the majority of European languages), so the ‘h’ is purely decorative – as it is quite often in English names as well: Thames, Thomas, Trentham, immediately come to mind.

Even when the ‘h’ is ignored, I’ve heard journalists make the first syllable rhyme with ‘fun’.

Perhaps Ms Thunberg has made her wishes known, and when she speaks Engish (which she does very well), she calls herself ‘thun-burg’, but that doesn’t excuse those who are pronouncing it differently.

I’m not advocating a totally Swedish pronunciation – this would mean pronouncing the second syllable with completely alien phonotactics, but consistency ought not to be out of reach. Ms Thunberg is going to be around for a very long time and it would be nice for broadcasters to respect her name a little more.

July 25, 2019
by Graham


As I sit sweltering in a heat of the high thirties Celsius, I’ve become very aware of the French word for heatwave – canicule. When a friend asked me its etymology, I turned to my trusty Larousse Dictionnaire étymologique. This is what it says:

“de l’ital. canicula, petite chienne, désignant l’Etoile (ou Chien) de Sirius, dont le lever héliaque coïncide avec le solstice d’été, calque du gr. kuôn, chien.”

Obvious, really – it’s what we call the dog days, which they’ve specialised to mean a heatwave. This is all very well, but when I told my local italian barista that I’d discovered a new italian word, she told me she’d never heard of it! The Italian for a heatwave is far more straightforward – ‘ondata di caldo’. And when I went to my bilingual Italian-English dictionary, there is no such word as canicula.

So, why does Larousse believe it’s Italian? I don’t know, but certainly what we’ve got at the moment is rather more than a “little bitch”!

April 5, 2019
by Graham

Hindemith and Violas

This is unusual – I’m not commenting on pronunciation or usage this time, but asking for help. I’ve been asked to provide a translation of the German-language instructions to performers for the programme of our local Music Club, where we are about to have a recital of viola and piano works. Mostly, it’s straightforward, because the terms used have their equivalents in Italian, and from there to English is a very small step.

However, Hindemith poses me a problem. His Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 25 No 4, is in three movements, marked
1. Sehr lebhaft. Markiert und kraftvoll
2. Sehr langsame Viertel
3. Finale. Lebhafte Viertel

What does ‘Viertel’ mean in this context? It can’t be “quarter” as the work is in three movements, but might it have something to do with the speed of the crochets (quarter-notes)? I’ve translated the first movement as “Very lively. Emphatic and forceful” (I suppose the Italian would have been ‘marcato e con forza’), but even for that, if anyone can come up with a better version, I would be pleased to see it.

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; however, in my absence on leave, my deputy was instructed by the then head of Libraries and Archives, whose qualifications were more suited to managing premises (which had been his previous post), to issue the ‘wrong’ pronunciation as our advice, with the not very veiled threat that she would face serious consequences if she refused, and a member of the BBC department of Editorial Policy asked me why we should take any notice of the wishes of a member of the effete (his word) aristocracy.