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A linguistic excursion: from industrialization to nature via the sports field

Linguistic excursionToday’s entry is going to be rather bitty – though with a long ornithological excursus towards the end that non-bird-nerds should feel free to skip – but I do have what I hope are some interesting word- and phrase-related snippets to share. Some are new discoveries, others welcome jogs to the memory I’ve come across over the last few days.

On stereotype and cliché

I knew that the term stereotype came from printing, but professional cornucopia of knowledge Stephen Fry added some further insight into the matter on this week’s QI (a BBC quiz programme, in case you didn’t know). The term was first used by the French printer Firmin Didot in 1798 and it applied to a process whereby once a page of print had been (manually) typeset in its final format, a mould was made and a single metal printing plate cast from this mould. It was easier and quicker to print multiple copies of any page from this plate than from the original made up of all those small pieces of metal lined up in a frame.

Given that manually setting movable type was a laborious and time-consuming business, printers had discovered that if they had phrases that were frequently reused, it made sense to make a cast of the whole phrase so that it could be quickly inserted in one fell swoop. And these mini-stereotypes, metal strips of interconnected print “characters” representing well-worn phrases, were known as clichés. Some say that the etymological origin of the name is the verb cliquer, meaning “to click”, on account of the clicking sound the metal made as it was poured into the mould.

On jacquard and sabotage

Also on QI, there came a discussion of technical developments including prototypes of the computer and other “programming” systems. The broadcast of the episode almost coinciding with the birthday of Ada Lovelace (born 10 December 1815), mention was made of her work with Charles Babbage, and the discussion turned to developments preceding their work on the Analytical Engine.  The machine made use of punch cards of a kind developed in 1801 by French merchant Joseph Marie Jacquard for insertion in a special patented loom to add a degree of automation to the weaving process by “pre-programming” a pattern into the cloth. To this day we associate the term jacquard with certain ornate types of woven fabric, damask being one example, and it was thanks to the punch-card system that the process of producing these complicated patterns was made very much quicker and more efficient. I remember becoming fascinated by the idea of the Jacquard loom during a visit to the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre (South West Wales) some years ago, but at the time I hadn’t completely cottoned on (geddit?!) to the extent to which the reach of this invention went so much further than producing cloth.

Not everyone, though, was as inspired by Jacquard’s invention as the likes of Babbage and Lovelace. Just as the Luddites in England revolted against the introduction of machine looms a few years later, fearing that their status as skilled handloom weavers would become worthless, their French counterparts were similarly aghast at Jacquard’s innovations and set out to destroy these new-fangled machines. Their weapons of choice? Their wooden clogs – sabots – and thus the word sabotage came into being. Or at least, that was Stephen Fry’s line – Wikipedia suggests that the term might actually go back to Dutch weavers in the fifteenth century, though in a similar scenario.

On throwing people curveballs and knocking them for six

This morning on Twitter, Kellie (@belouise) was asking what a “curveball” was, not in the original baseball sense but in the figurative expression “to throw someone a curve[ball]“. I didn’t know what it meant either – we Brits don’t do baseball or baseball idioms, on the whole – but I did a bit of poking about on t’internet and found out that it basically means to confuse someone or throw them off track by doing something surprising or unexpected. It struck me that in British English we tend to use the expression “to knock someone for six” with much the same meaning, though interestingly the expression is based on the (unexpected) behaviour of the batsman in our case, not of the bowler, and – not so surprisingly – it is derived from cricket rather than baseball.

It is also no real surprise that there are many sport-derived idioms that have developed differently in American English and British English (as well as a lot more that share meaning and form). While translating a text with colleagues recently, I found that while I had written “the ball is in the politicians’ court” (= tennis), an American colleague had written “the ball is in the politicians’ corner” (= baseball again). In the wider context, it is certainly the baseball terms that have come to the fore in the international boardroom, though interesting that phrases such as “to touch base” and “a ballpark estimate” frequently make it onto British-based lists of most hated “management speak” or jargon. Is this due to a knee-jerk anti-Americanization drive, because they sound alien or false when used by a non-American, or simply because a few people use them too frequently in an offhand, cliched manner? I really don’t know and am not going to be the judge of that here.

On eagles, hawks and kites

Moving away from contentious issues, it seems to be a fact internationally acknowledged that birds of prey have good eyesight, and this fact has given rise to its fair share of idiomatic expressions, some dating back to ancient lore. An observant or scrutinising person can be described as having eyes like a hawk or keeping an eagle eye on something, and in German you can use either Falkenauge (= hawk, falcon) or Adlerauge (= eagle), or related phrases, to get the same idea across; I’m sure many of you reading this could provide further parallel examples from other languages, too.

My heart did a little skip the other day, though, when I discovered that a Welsh expression for this seems to be llygad barcud, i.e. “eye of the kite”. Now, eagles are extremely rare in Wales – the golden eagle, once a native species, has not been resident for over 400 years and sightings are thus extremely rare, and the white-tailed eagle seems also to be only a rare visitor. It may in fact be that neither was ever really prevalent in the area, so that the absence of these species from everyday expressions would not be that surprising. Kites are a rather different case in point, having been present in Wales for longer than anyone knows, though not without their challenges, as I’ll explain in a moment.

To backtrack a bit first: in English folklore and literature the kite traditionally suffered pretty bad press, being considered nothing more than a trouble-making scavenger: Shakespeare, for example, has King Lear refer to his daughter Goneril as a “detested kite”. In Scotland the situation was no better as they were legally labelled as vermin in the 15th century. Not the stuff of noble idioms, then. Nor any surprise that the red kite was extinct in England and Scotland well before the end of the 19th century (with reintroduction only from 1989: see here).

I really don’t know how the red kite was viewed historically by the people of Wales – maybe someone else can enlighten me on this – but it is certainly the case that various individuals made efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to prevent its extinction. They managed that, though only just – by the 1930s the population had continued to decline to an estimated <20 birds. What did happen, though, was that the local population became fiercely protective of these birds – not least against the efforts of egg thieves – and the red kite took on an almost mythical status that I can still remember from my childhood. Mid Wales was a place of hallowed pilgrimage for those seeking the last habitat of the UK red kite.

The situation has much improved since then and has been mirrored elsewhere in the UK through reintroduction programmes. In Wales, though, the red kite remains a symbol of triumph over adversity and has widely been used as an icon representing wildlife in the region. In a poll run by the RSPB and the BBC in Wales in 2007, the red kite was the clear winner: “an astonishing 36% of voters picked the red kite as their favourite bird, putting it way ahead of the robin – which came second with 15% of votes – and the barn owl in third place with 11%.”

I still feel a sense of exhilaration when I see a red kite – or even a pair of them – circling overhead, and all of this is why I was so pleased to find an expression that ennobled this lovely bird.

Thank you if you’ve taken the time to read this far – that’s all for this week. :)

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Filed under History, Intercultural & interlinguistic

Jean(s) Eyre

With apologies to Charlotte Brontë…

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. Or at least: not without changing clothes first, which I dutifully did.

My favourite jeans had finally given in that crucial place, having suffered from too rigid a restraint, and I was quietly despondent that drear November day. I set forth nonetheless, in a quest for a solution. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature. Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.

I entered one shop, and on seeing a suitable pair, I tried them. Lo and behold, they fitted, quite perfectly, and I was left sensible that this was no usual situation for a woman of my kind.

Reader, I purchased them.

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Filed under Domestic, Up close and personal

Landlocked seahorse

20121202-231517.jpg

I love passing this colourful fountain up in the woods between Freiburg and Günterstal – you may be out for a leisurely Sunday walk in a hilly, landlocked area so far from the sea, but if you carried on far enough along the path, you could end up in Santiago de Compostela. It makes you think differently about distance, purpose and effort!

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Quick mango and lemon cake

Yesterday I found myself needing to produce a cake fairly quickly and at short notice. I’ve probably mentioned before that I’m not much of a one for baking, and as usual I spent far too long leafing through cookery books and magazines, only to find that I couldn’t find a recipe that I really fancied and that matched the ingredients I had. The one “must-use” ingredient was a very ripe mango that was getting dangerously close to the point at which it would suddenly become not very appetising any more, but all of the (not very many) mango baking recipes I could find were either very complicated, too rich for my taste, or a bit odd sounding (mango and chilli cake, anyone?).

I ended up having to improvise on both the recipe and the final list of ingredients, though the final result was a great success. And now it’s time to write it down before I forget…

Ingredients

1 ripe mango
1tbsp cornflour
a handful of raisins
a dash of lemon or lime juice
150g self-raising flour (or plain flour with a generous teaspoonful of baking powder)
150g soft butter or margarine
125g sugar (I used fine light cane sugar)
150g ground nuts (I used half almonds, half hazelnuts)
1tsp ground cinnamon
½tsp ground nutmeg
½tsp ground allspice
1 egg
zest of 1 lemon

 

Method

1. Peel and dice the mango, mix with the raisins, cornflour, lemon or lime juice and set aside.

2. Mix the other ingredients thoroughly and divide this mixture roughly in two.

3. Spread half the mixture in the bottom of a greased, loose-bottomed 18cm diameter cake tin.

4. Pour the mango mixture in on top of this, and spread it around a bit.

5. Add the other half of the cake mixture on top of the mango, distributing it as best you can. I put it on in small clumps, and the finished cake had quite a pleasant bumpy look to it – like a thick, almost solid sticky streusel topping.

6. Bake at 180°C (fan 160°C) for about 50 minutes. Check it after about 30 minutes, and if it is looking too brown, cover in foil.

7. I left the cake in the tin to cool, which probably helped to conserve some moisture. It was certainly easy enough to remove it from the tin.

Variations on a theme

  • I love the combination of mango and root ginger, so next time I might add some finely grated ginger either to the cake batter or to the fruit mixture. Having said that, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a cake recipe that asked for fresh root ginger (instead of stem ginger or ground ginger) – is there a good reason for that, I wonder?!
  • The cake would probably work well with any softish fruit; I might use a bit more sugar (say, 150g total) for the cake mixture if using a fruit that was more acidic than mango.
  • I’d love to try the recipe with a fresh dark cherry filling, and grated dark chocolate instead of the spices.

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Great British Food Revival: sardine beccafico

This last week we’ve watched several episodes of the current BBC series Great British Food Revival, and it’s been GREAT fun as well as very informative and mouthwatering watching all the different chefs’ fresh takes on forgotten or out-of-fashion ingredients. The (half) episode on sardines was one of the most interesting so far in that it celebrated this wonderful little fish that is plentiful off Britain’s shores but whose image was marred for many of my generation by it being presented most frequently in tinned form, as pilchards. I was lucky to rediscover it in its fresh form at some point in the mid-1990s but I have to admit that I’d more or less forgotten it again since.

We decided fairly spontaneously that we really NEEDED to get hold of some proper sardines and cook one of the recipes from the programme this weekend. All the Mediterranean-inspired recipes suggested by Giorgio Locatelli sounded great, but we decided that we’d have a go at the sardine beccafico, just because it struck us as more different and unusual than the other recipes included.

First catch your sardines: well, we’re lucky that we have some shops with really good fish counters here (which really doesn’t go without saying in Southern Germany!), but as (bad) luck would have it, we weren’t able to get hold of any fresh sardines. A 500g container of whole frozen sardines would have to do, so into the fridge it went to defrost. The recipe called for 4 medium-sized sardines (and the ones in the picture acompanying the recipe are certainly very sizeable), but instead we had about ten rather itty-bitty ones, which made filleting them a bit fiddly, but we managed it in the end.

I became rather less enthusiastic once it came to assembling the stuffing. The ingredients suddenly struck me as a pretty odd mixture, and after blending my olives, capers, almonds and lemon juice I was left with a rather grey, slimy sludge that tasted quite odd. And the next batch, including raisins, pine nuts, anchovies, parsley, orange juice and some smuggled-in garlic turned out a very unfetching beige and tasted really very strange indeed. All this was mixed with a load of breadcrumbs and I had the distinct feeling that my concoction could best be used to stick some bricks together.

But I soldiered on and stuffed my sardine fillets as instructed, and actually assembling the dish was a lot less fiddly and messy than I’d expected. The fish rolls went into the oven for all of about 8 minutes total, and meanwhile we prepared a green salad and some crusty bread to accompany them.

The end result was – not forgetting all the misgivings and challenges that had crept in during the preparation – actually pretty tasty, and quite different from anything else I’ve cooked. For me, oily fish HAS to be served with something acidic, and from that point of view the strong citrusy taste of the filling was an excellent foil. Overall, though, the citrus taste was probably too dominant (for our tastes at least) in that you couldn’t really detect the normally quite punchy taste of a lot of the other ingredients olives, anchovies, capers etc.). Admittedly, we did use fairly mild, not overly salted olives and anchovies, but even so…

We’ve decided that we’ll definitely use this recipe again, but we want to try it with some different elements next time:

  • some more substantial kind of fish fillets, maybe herrings or mackerel
  • more garlic and maybe some finely chopped shallots in the stuffing, to make it more savoury – the increased cooking time needed by more substantial fish would mean that this could also have a chance to cook through better
  • a bit less citrus: juice and zest of a both a lemon AND an orange was slightly overpowering overall, though we are slightly conflicted as to which of these to leave out
  • this same (modified) stuffing, maybe with a little parmesan or feta added, would also make a great crust for baked white fish
  • depending on the choice of fish, a punchier choice of herb such as thyme might work really well

By the way, I did take a picture of the finished dish, but as it wasn’t a patch on the one you can see on the BBC website I decided not to include it. You can view my latest Flickr uploads via the right-hand sidebar, though ;).

 

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“Aha!” and “D’oh!” in the kitchen

This is my trusty cooker – it must be well over fifteen years old by now, but it’s still going strong (touch wood…). And it’s looking better today than at any time since I moved in with it. The reason? I found out from M yesterday that you can take off the twiddly knobs to clean them and the front panel. In fact, he prised them off with a kitchen knife and put them to soak in soapy water overnight. A quick wipe and towel-dry this morning and they were ready to put back on – good as new!

To think that all those years I’d tried to give them the occasional scrub in situ with an old toothbrush, a task I hated and always avoided for as long as possible as it never removed all the grot and tended to spread it around a fair bit, too… I now feel a mixture of embarrassment and delight at having discovered this “new” labour-saving feature.

I’ll never claim to be a domestic goddess, but please, please tell me I’m not the only person to have been so ignorant for such a long time of a basic mechanism of a household appliance!

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Less is more… is even more

This summer has had its fair share of annoying or less successful aspects, but it’s seen me make an important realization in my social life, one that’s going to make life a lot calmer and more enjoyable.

I’m no longer interested in fitting in to some big social group with all its intrigues, dramas and abrasions. Give me the company of a couple of people I really want to spent a given day, evening or weekend with, and I’ll show you a happy, satisfied life.

It works for me, at least, and I’m lucky to have discovered a number of like-minded people in this. I’m already thoroughly enjoying doing more with them and am looking forward to the rest…

This isn’t about cutting people off – not in the least. I just want the chance to interact with them in a different way. I’ve always been a small-group person rather than a big-group one, and I think finally I’m happy to admit that and make the most of it.

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Filed under Domestic, Up close and personal