Tag Archives: language

Week 3 – final edits and the aesthetics of space

You may remember that I posted last July about a writing project I’d decided to take on. Well, just six months on, week 3 of this year saw me doing the final edits on the print-ready PDF of the whole thing before it went to press a few days ago – yay! It’s hard to believe how fast it’s all gone, the sheer volume of work and effort that were involved, the amount I’ve learned and the new skills and responsibilities it’s brought. I can’t wait until it finally comes out – I think the publication date is in March (watch this space…).

Any writing project brings with it serious considerations about use of space. In the academic writing I did in the distant past, word counts and style sheets were the all-important units of measurement. Writing for the commercial educational sector brings further constraints, most significantly the need to plan content for each page of each chapter in detail before you’ve even started, and the need for your units to fit onto the page format of the final product. For the first publication of this kind I did, I didn’t really know in advance what kind of space per page was going to be available and this led to much agonizing cutting of material in the latter editing stages (and given that this then had a knock-on effect for the solutions section and the glossary, it was all the more of a headache as a result). For another project, where limited space was a major and deliberate feature, the template I was given to insert content into was so detailed that it more or less automatically generated a WYSIWYG final format and I could see immediately where I needed to economize. This latest project has been somewhere in between these two extremes. While the document template took into account page size/layout and roughly managed things like font size and spacing for the different types and functions of text on any given page, there was still a lot of guesswork regarding how much space various other essential non-textual elements might take up.

Most significantly, this publication was to have lots of full-colour pictures, ranging from thumbnails to double-page spreads, and these in fact accounted for many of these unknown quantities regarding space. The necessity for me to think of the illustration aspect at all times really added a further major layer of planning to the whole project and one that proved at least as complex as the generation of text “content” – and this, I think, was the biggest eye-opener of the whole experience. In many instances I could just indicate where I wanted a photo of what, and someone else would later have the task of sourcing suitable images, but I was also given a list of stock photo sites I could use to source particular images if I wished to do so. I think this combination of perceived freedoms gave me a bit too much ill-founded confidence at first: it was tempting to think the world was my oyster and that I would find a photo of anything I damn well wanted via the powerful search engines each stock photo provider offered, or that writing “please insert photo of x here” would be the end of the matter. Wrong. Big fat wrong.

It was only when I was part of the way through the project that I started actively trying to select my own choice of images for inclusion, having decided that since I do have ideas about what sorts of photos I like and what I don’t, I might as well exercise this choice. And it was at this point that my naivety became blatantly obvious – no, you cannot simply find a picture of this or that brand, this or that paid tourist attraction, or this or that celebrity on stock photo sites, or at least not for any kind of commercial use. This set me into a spiral of despair at first as it necessitated rethinking a number of activities I had planned to base around just these kinds of pictures. Ultimately, though, it led to me having simply to think rather more creatively about how to adapt to the constraints I’d discovered, and although the frustration at not finding a picture of this or that did continue to the end, I think it’s true to say that rather more good ideas were born of this restriction than were nipped in the bud by it. [Insert pithy quote about adversity and creativity here :)]

Needless to say, it was quite something to receive the “semi-final” PDF version of the final document, all typeset, in full colour and with all the photos, for detailed proofreading and final tweaks. What needed to be changed at this stage wasn’t generated so much by mistakes – almost all of these had been nit-pickingly spotted and eradicated earlier – or by the desire to reformulate something more impressively / simply / effectively, but rather by aesthetics and more immediate, measurable considerations of space and spacing. This sentence needed to be shortened so that it didn’t run on to a second line or have such an awkward line break, or that item should be deleted or moved so that there was enough space for the picture / map / diagram; here something needed to be moved up or across a bit, while there some colour-coded items needed to be swapped around so that the overall impression was better balanced visually. It was quite a different kind of scrutiny and editing dictated by often very different considerations from what would govern a purely text-based entity, but I have to say that I enjoyed this challenge a great deal.

So now my work is done, and I can breathe a big sigh of relief. Thanks to all those who suffered and stoically put up with my periodic moaning, groaning and gnashing of teeth during this whole project. You know who you are.

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Filed under Books & reading, Work stuff

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

Random interlinguistic thoughts for the week

I don’t seem to have a concrete topic to write about this week, but I have been saving some snippets of thoughts about language, especially connections or contrasts between languages, that have occurred to me while in the shower, through overheard conversations or just in the course of everyday activities.

1. There’s a hole in my bucket

One of this week’s mundane but important tasks was to repot several large plants and trees that seem to have accumulated in the flat. We needed to make some drainage holes in the bottom of a galvanized metal pot, and M set to work at this, humming away (as you do). And it was at that point that I had what Germans call – and I love this term – an Aha-Erlebnis (“aha experience”), as I realized he was humming the tune to “There’s a hole in my bucket”, which I remember very clearly from childhood. Except, of course, that the muttered fragments of text that were audible were German.

It turns out that the song is in fact in all likelihood of German origin, the earliest known version being attested from around 1700 – I really hadn’t imagined it was that old. It later became known as “Heinrich und Liese” (Henry and Liza in the English version, of course) and was widely believed to be a folk song from Hesse. Interestingly, it may have entered English through Pennsylvania Dutch, as versions were collected in some mid-20th century collections of Pennsylvania Dutch folk songs.

It wasn’t until about 1960 that the English version became popular – notably through Harry Belafonte’s recording of it with Odetta, which reached no. 32 in the UK singles chart in 1961. Oddly enough, while I hadn’t imagined the song’s history to go back as far as 1700, I was also surprised at how recent an addition it is to the English-language repertoire of nursery rhymes and so on.

 
Daisies 1

2. Daisy

No, I’m not going to regale you with the story behind another childhood song here (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…”) – this time it’s the word itself that interests me. Or more specifically, the name of this flower in different languages.

The English name is, I guess, pretty “meaningless” (in the sense of not having an obvious, substantial semantic component) to the casual observer – it has a feminine quality, not just because of its association with a flower but because it doubles as a girl’s name. It was only when I learned the Welsh name for it that I had another of those Aha-Erlebnisse – it’s widely known as llygad y dydd, which translates literally as “eye of the day” (which is, incidentally, the exact English term Chaucer used for it), shortened to “day’s eye” and hence the cognate of the English name.

The other languages whose words I know for the same flower have rather different names for it. In standard German it’s a Gänseblümchen (literally: little goose flower), this name coming, apparently, from the fact that it tends to be found in areas where the grass is short, and in olden times such suitable habitats would often have had their grass kept short by e.g. geese grazing on it.

The French word for the larger ox-eye daisy, marguerite, has something in common with the English word “daisy” in that it doubles as a girl’s name. What I didn’t know until very recently, though, was that the English girl’s name Daisy was, in former times, most frequently a nickname for a girl called Margaret. Ordinary daisies, it seems, are called pâquerettes in French, in connection with the fact that they tend to make their appearance around the time of Easter (Pâques).

3. Out(ge)sourced language

German is full of anglicisms these days, especially in areas such as advertising, fashion, telecommunications and marketing. I’m sure you can work out why some people in these areas might find it cool, impressive or whatever to pepper their sentences (if they manage sentences, that is) with this foreign jargon. Other people’s sensitivities can flare up, though, when more everyday language becomes noticeably affected.

I used to try to avoid unnecessary anglicisms when speaking in German, but at some point you realize you’re fighting a losing battle if you try to avoid them altogether, and I’m not keen to sound stilted, old-fashioned, snobbish or foreign for avoiding these words. Plus languages have always borrowed from one another; it’s an inevitable element of language change.

However, I continue to find some of the English words that have been adopted into German to be really rather awkward, even embarrassing to use, especially the verbs that you can conjugate as if they were German verbs. One example that I heard used numerous times on a talk show at the weekend was the verb outsourcen, especially the past participle outgesourced. Now that’s just yucky. As it happened, the host and about half the guests on the programme seemed rather uncomfortable using it, too, so I did find myself wondering why they bothered.

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