Saturday 19 November 2011

On being ignorant

A correspondent from the UK writes to say he has encountered a use of ignorant in an active sense. In this use, to say that X 'is ignorant' is to mean 'X goes around ignoring people'. He has the impression that this is a working-class usage, and wonders what I think about it.

Well, this is a new one on me, for any class level. I know that there was an overlap of meaning between the adjective/noun (14th century) and the verb, when this finally arrived (early 17th century). The present-day active sense of ignore ('intentionally disregard') is much later (18th century) and, interestingly, was dismissed as erroneous by Johnson and others. The OED has a lovely quotation from 1854 when the Earl of Carlyle apologises for using the word in this way: 'Mr. Finlay says that the modern Greeks wholly ignore (I beg pardon for the use of the word) the whole period from Alexander the Great to Lord Palmerston.'

I've not come across a correspondingly active sense for 'ignorant'. The OED makes no mention of it, nor does the Urban Dictionary. I've never heard anyone say such things as 'X is a very ignorant man' meaning 'X ignores people'. But my correspondent has friends who use it in this way. It would be good to get a sense of whether this is at all common anywhere and to find examples in writing. Are there any out there? If you've come across it, remember to give details of where and when.

Monday 14 November 2011

On reading me loud and clear

A correspondent, having encountered such usages as 'Do you read me?' and 'I'm reading you loud and clear' in radio interaction, wonders what is meant by 'read' instead of 'hear'. It's an interesting example, as these are well-used expressions used in films and television where radiotelephony is a part of the plot, but they must seem odd to learners of English. For a start, the collocation of read and loud is unusual. And if it's radio, what is being read?

The interpretation is clear enough. The question asks about the quality of the signal being received. The response affirms that the signal is of good quality. The expressions are part of the jargon of two-way radio communication: read has been used along with copy ('Do you copy?'), receive, and other conventions, such as Roger (acknowledging receipt of the message). As radio is the medium, we might have expected a different form of words: 'Do you hear me?' and 'I'm hearing you loud and clear', where the collocations are normal. So what motivated read?

I've not been able to find a source which explicates the point. The usage has been around since 1930, according to the OED. (Receive in this sense is a little older; copy in this sense is not recorded in the OED.) My suspicion is that it was the ambiguity in hear which led to the search for alternatives. 'Do you hear me?' can actually have a negative interpretation, expressing attitudes ranging from mild insistence to aggressive rudeness - 'Are you listening to me?', 'I'm not going to say this again'... - the effect being reinforced by the absence of any facial expressions which might soften the force of the language.

But why read? Presumably it was motivated by the visual display on the receiving equipment, which would show a point of origin or frequency of the signal. This would often be the name of a place or a set of letters and numerals. But even if it were simply a waveform, then there was ample precedent for applying the verb in this way. Read had already been widely used in a range of senses other than that of interpreting conventional written language, as in to study, observe, or interpret something ('reading thoughts/my mind/ my heart/ the road...'). It seems to have been a natural development. As I say, I haven't found a source in the 1920s or 1930s which explicitly discusses this use of the verb, so if any reader is aware of one, do let me know.

Loud and clear was a collocation long before radio telephony. The first recorded use of it is in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-glass: 'I said it very loud and clear; I went and shouted in his ear.' That's how it stayed, resisting prescriptive criticism (that it should be loudly and clearly). And it remains the number one choice, beating the phonetic alphabet alternative (Lima and Charlie) and the fascinating 'I read you five by five'.

This was a response (also not in the OED) where the first number indicated the strength of a signal and the second indicated its readability. Each was rated on a scale from 1 to 5: signal strength went from 'loud' through 'good', 'weak', and 'very weak' to 'fading'; readability went from 'clear' through 'readable', 'unreadable', and 'distorted' to 'having interference'. So, if you read something '5 by 5' you could hear the signal well and also understand what was being said.

The origins of the expression are unclear, though it seems likely that it's another of those expressions based on parts of the body. One commentator suggests that it began with early pilots having to communicate with a controller, before taking off, by signalling with their hands, and showing with their fingers the quality of their radio reception. Plausible - but again, it would be nice to find a written source.

Saturday 12 November 2011

On 'I asks' in Sherlock Holmes

 A correspondent writes to ask about a construction he came across in a Sherlock Holmes story, 'The Red-Headed League'. He noticed 'that on one occasion Watson adds suffix -s to the first person singular verb in the present simple tense'. Why, he asks, would an educated man use such a construction? Is he referring to himself in the third person?

This is the quotation: 'Spaulding, he came down into the office just this day eight weeks, with this very paper in his hand, and he says: "I wish to the Lord, Mr. Wilson, that I was a red-headed man." "Why that?" I asks.'

The story is being narrated by Dr Watson, but it's actually not Watson talking at this point. It's Wilson who's narrating. So the question is whether Wilson would be likely to use such a construction.

We are given the following description of him by Watson: 'Our visitor bore every mark of being an average comonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow.' We also learn that he began as a ship's carpenter and now works as a pawnbroker. So it seems quite in character that he should use such a form.

This isn't the third person, though. It's the first person with an -s ending - a widely used regional dialect feature in English, both in Victorian times and today, and common in local London speech, especially in narrative discourse. We also hear such forms as 'I goes', 'I sees', and so on. It's a dramatic use of the present tense in narrative. The rest of the time people say 'I asked', 'I observed', and suchlike.

Conan Doyle does use nonstandard speech in his writing - for example, John Rance's speech in 'A Study in Scarlet': 'I was a-strollin' down ... them two houses... won't have the drains seed to...' - though it's not his stylistic forte. I find the usages rather stilted and tokenistic. But there are only hints of demotic speech in 'The Red-Headed League'. Mr Wilson has a few colloquial turns of phrase typical of the businessman trying to rise in society, such as 'never was such a fellow for photography', 'as true as gospel', 'a pawnbroker's business is mostly done of an evening', '[he] took to coming in only once of a morning', 'he... would come cheap'. 'I asks' is a clear instance of a nonstandard usage, in this story, but it's the only example, and it does stick out like a linguistic sore thumb. Which, I suppose, is why my correspondent noticed it in the first place.

Thursday 3 November 2011

On skyfall

A correspondent from BBC Radio 4's Front Row calls to ask whether I have any views about the name of the new James Bond movie, Skyfall. Had I ever heard the word before?

I certainly had. Thanks to various children, I am aware of characters in Transformers universes with this name, and I recall an adventure fantasy from the 1980s which had a planet called Skyfall. And there was a striking use by W H Auden, in the charade (his first dramatic work) he wrote in 1928 and dedicated to Cecil Day Lewis, 'Paid on Both Sides', which has the vivid lines:

Though heart fears all heart cries for, rebuffs with mortal beat
Skyfall, the legs sucked under, adder's bite.

But apart from this, the coinage seems a somewhat predictable compound. Other words ending in fall in English are unremarkable - rainfall, snowfall, waterfall, and suchlike, alongside figurative extensions such as pitfall, landfall, and shortfall. It does lend itself to cosmic invention, though: a quick search on Google produces starfall, moonfall, planetfall, sunfall, and others. So skyfall is in good company. But we'll have to wait and see what motivates the title in this case.

I'm wondering if it's 'James Bond meets Chicken Licken'. You remember him? An acorn falls on his head, and he thinks the sky is falling down so he rushes off to tell the king? Maybe the new Bond baddy is Foxy Loxy in disguise.