Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On the Purpose of Dictionaries

Do not pay attention, child, to the Academics (of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language). They are theologians of language, restricting, confining, limiting, fearing change, without art or imagination. Read the great writers, listen to the great orators, learn from the great communicators, see as great artists have seen. They are the mystics of language, and they will teach you what the inbred pseudo-knowledge of the instructors cannot.

There is an article in El País about the new edition of the  DRAE, which will be published next year. It starts off rather stupidly but in fact it's quite good. It praises it for being 'less sexist', apparently thinking that a dictionary which reflects what some people think language should be and how it should be used is better than one that reflects how it really is and how it is really used. 'Gozar' is still used to mean 'have sex with a woman' and a dictionary that fails to recognize that is not a good dictionary. The editor, Pedro Álvarez de Miranda, states that the point of the new dictionary is to be better, not less sexist, which is a good start. Then the article goes on to acknowledge that language is not what the RAE decrees it to be, and that no one looks at what the Academy has said before speaking or writing. On the whole, as I say, a good article.

The Dictionary has always tried to teach people how it thinks they should speak, and has been largely ignored other than by writers of style manuals and professors of language, who tend to use it as a reference (perhaps because they have to). It does not have anything like the scope of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a magnificent work of scholarship and, like a swimming pool in Bali with pretty young waitresses serving chilled rum as you float by; once dipped into it's hard to get out of.

There are better dictionaries of the Spanish language. María Moliner's is probably the best, and for etymology the six volumes of Corominas are unequalled. The DRAE, on the other hand, is for people who want their homework to get a good grade, or their article to be accepted by a newspaper. A fine and useful work, but with a specific purpose to define what is good and evil in language.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Aboriginal Nimbys

I read this a few weeks ago (here, in the National Geographic), and I think it is worth a few observations from left field.

It is interesting in its assumptions,  both journalistic and anthropological. It starts off with, in fact it mostly consists of, a series of anecdotic little details, probably largely invented, about the lives of the people Michael Finkel was talking to and about. This is what journalists do, they call it human interest and learn it the first day on the job. The fact that a supposed science article is not tabloid journalism is rather lost on this chap, who probably isn't a scientist anyway. He's just a writer, he doesn't seem to have any other relevant background. He has some curiosity, which is something, but too many preconceptions and not enough ability to observe.

What is described is presented uncritically, as good, virtuous, a model for the rest of us. But if you set aside the casual racism which treats Aborigines, in the category of those who live differently and take their traditions more seriously than we do, as simple but exotic animals, and actually see them as people, they come across, as transmitted to us by Michael Finkel, as selfish and arrogant.

They do not live in harmony with nature. That is a silly idea peddled by hippies and believed by the ignorant. Primitive peoples live at the mercy of nature, and survive, to the extent that they do, by holding it off as long as possible. They live as they do because they can't live better.

The  village described is a dictatorship in which the tyrant is an old woman. Her right to arbitrarily control what happens and  what people can do is accepted not only by the villagers but also by those outside, who should know better. They appear to do no work, but live from other people's efforts, for which they show no gratitude. They have, they demand, that other people provide electricity for them, but they will not allow mining in their area. No planning process, no quid pro quo. Just the ukase of the matriarch. Classic nimbyism. They demand that others work for them and provide them with things, but it must be other people's land that is spoilt to provide it. And apparently this makes them virtuous. The writer has not thought this through.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Not a story of mine this time, but one by Alfred Russel Wallace, in his great work 'The Malay Archipielago'. The book is mostly a description of his travels around the area of Malaysia and Indonesia, the larger and some of the smaller islands. There is a lot of talk of birds and butterflies and orangutans and other creatures that he hunted, and of the land and the people and the conclusions he drew from it all. I was struck by this anecdote, because it is told in a different style from the rest of the book, as a story. It's not a bad story, and is well told:
The Rajah of Lombock was a very wise man and he showed his wisdom greatly in the way he took the census. For my readers must know that the chief revenues of the Rajah were derived from a head-tax of rice, a small measure being paid annually by every man, woman, and child in the island, There was no doubt that every one paid this tax, for it was a very light one, and the land was fertile and the people well off; but it had to pass through many hands before it reached the Government storehouses. When the harvest was over the villagers brought their rice to the Kapala kampong, or head of the village; and no doubt he sometimes had compassion for the poor or sick and passed over their short measure, and sometimes was obliged to grant a favour to those who had complaints against him; and then he must keep up his own dignity by having his granaries better filled than his neighbours, and so the rice that he took to the "Waidono" that was over his district was generally good deal less than it should have been. And all the "Waidonos" had of course to take care of themselves, for they were all in debt and it was so easy to take a little of the Government rice, and there would still be plenty for the Rajah. And the "Gustis" or princes who received the rice from the Waidonos helped themselves likewise, and so when the harvest was all over and the rice tribute was all brought in, the quantity was found to be less each year than the one before. Sickness in one district, and fevers in another, and failure of the crops in a third, were of course alleged as the cause of this falling off; but when the Rajah went to hunt at the foot of the great mountain, or went to visit a "Gusti" on the other side of the island, he always saw the villages full of people, all looking well-fed and happy. And he noticed that the krisses of his chiefs and officers were getting handsomer and handsomer; and the handles that were of yellow wood were changed for ivory, and those of ivory were changed for gold, and diamonds and emeralds sparkled on many of them; and he knew very well which way the tribute-rice went. But as he could not prove it he kept silence, and resolved in his own heart someday to have a census taken, so that he might know the number of his people, and not be cheated out of more rice than was just and reasonable.
But the difficulty was how to get this census. He could not go himself into every village and every house, and count all the people; and if he ordered it to be done by the regular officers they would quickly understand what it was for, and the census would be sure to agree exactly with the quantity of rice he got last year. It was evident therefore that to answer his purpose no one must suspect why the census was taken; and to make sure of this, no one must know that there was any census taken at all. This was a very hard problem; and the Rajah thought and thought, as hard as a Malay Rajah can be expected to think, but could not solve it; and so he was very unhappy, and did nothing but smoke and chew betel with his favourite wife, and eat scarcely anything; and even when he went to the cock-fight did not seem to care whether his best birds won or lost. For several days he remained in this sad state, and all the court were afraid some evil eye had bewitched the Rajah; and an unfortunate Irish captain who had come in for a cargo of rice and who squinted dreadfully, was very nearly being krissed, but being first brought to the royal presence was graciously ordered to go on board and remain there while his ship stayed in the port.
One morning however, after about a week's continuance of this unaccountable melancholy, a welcome change took place, for the Rajah sent to call together all the chiefs, priests, and princes who were then in Mataram, his capital city; and when they were all assembled in anxious expectation, he thus addressed them:
"For many days my heart has been very sick and I knew not why, but now the trouble is cleared away, for I have had a dream. Last night the spirit of the 'Gunong Agong'—the great fire mountain—appeared to me, and told me that I must go up to the top of the mountain. All of you may come with me to near the top, but then I must go up alone, and the great spirit will again appear to me and will tell me what is of great importance to me and to you and to all the people of the island. Now go all of you and make this known through the island, and let every village furnish men to make clear a road for us to go through the forest and up the great mountain."
So the news was spread over the whole island that the Rajah must go to meet the great spirit on the top of the mountain; and every village sent forth its men, and they cleared away the jungle and made bridges over the mountain streams and smoothed the rough places for the Rajah's passage. And when they came to the steep and craggy rocks of the mountain, they sought out the best paths, sometimes along the bed of a torrent, sometimes along narrow ledges of the black rocks; in one place cutting down a tall tree so as to bridge across a chasm, in another constructing ladders to mount the smooth face of a precipice. The chiefs who superintended the work fixed upon the length of each day's journey beforehand according to the nature of the road, and chose pleasant places by the banks of clear streams and in the neighbourhood of shady trees, where they built sheds and huts of bamboo well thatched with the leaves of palm-trees, in which the Rajah and his attendants might eat and sleep at the close of each day.
And when all was ready, the princes and priests and chief men came again to the Rajah, to tell him what had been done and to ask him when he would go up the mountain. And he fixed a day, and ordered every man of rank and authority to accompany him, to do honour to the great spirit who had bid him undertake the journey, and to show how willingly they obeyed his commands. And then there was much preparation throughout the whole island. The best cattle were killed and the meat salted and sun-dried; and abundance of red peppers and sweet potatoes were gathered; and the tall pinang-trees were climbed for the spicy betel nut, the sirih-leaf was tied up in bundles, and every man filled his tobacco pouch and lime box to the brim, so that he might not want any of the materials for chewing the refreshing betel during the journey. The stores of provisions were sent on a day in advance. And on the day before that appointed for starting, all the chiefs both great and small came to Mataram, the abode of the king, with their horses and their servants, and the bearers of their sirih boxes, and their sleeping-mats, and their provisions. And they encamped under the tall Waringin-trees that border all the roads about Mataram, and with blazing fires frighted away the ghouls and evil spirits that nightly haunt the gloomy avenues.
In the morning a great procession was formed to conduct the Rajah to the mountain. And the royal princes and relations of the Rajah mounted their black horses whose tails swept the ground; they used no saddle or stirrups, but sat upon a cloth of gay colours; the bits were of silver and the bridles of many-coloured cords. The less important people were on small strong horses of various colours, well suited to a mountain journey; and all (even the Rajah) were bare-legged to above the knee, wearing only the gay coloured cotton waist-cloth, a silk or cotton jacket, and a large handkerchief tastefully folded around the head. Everyone was attended by one or two servants bearing his sirih and betel boxes, who were also mounted on ponies; and great numbers more had gone on in advance or waited to bring up the rear. The men in authority were numbered by hundreds and their followers by thousands, and all the island wondered what great thing would come of it.
For the first two days they went along good roads and through many villages which were swept clean, and where bright cloths were hung out at the windows; and all the people, when the Rajah came, squatted down upon the ground in respect, and every man riding got off his horse and squatted down also, and many joined the procession at every village. At the place where they stopped for the night, the people had placed stakes along each side of the roads in front of the houses. These were split crosswise at the top, and in the cleft were fastened little clay lamps, and between them were stuck the green leaves of palm-trees, which, dripping with the evening dew, gleamed prettily with the many twinkling lights. And few went to sleep that night until the morning hours, for every house held a knot of eager talkers, and much betel-nut was consumed, and endless were the conjectures what would come of it.
On the second day they left the last village behind them and entered the wild country that surrounds the great mountain, and rested in the huts that had been prepared for them on the banks of a stream of cold and sparkling water. And the Rajah's hunters, armed with long and heavy guns, went in search of deer and wild bulls in the surrounding woods, and brought home the meat of both in the early morning, and sent it on in advance to prepare the mid-day meal. On the third day they advanced as far as horses could go, and encamped at the foot of high rocks, among which narrow pathways only could be found to reach the mountain-top. And on the fourth morning when the Rajah set out, he was accompanied only by a small party of priests and princes with their immediate attendants; and they toiled wearily up the rugged way, and sometimes were carried by their servants, until they passed up above the great trees, and then among the thorny bushes, and above them again on to the black and burned rock of the highest part of the mountain.
And when they were near the summit, the Rajah ordered them all to halt, while he alone went to meet the great spirit on the very peak of the mountain. So he went on with two boys only who carried his sirih and betel, and soon reached the top of the mountain among great rocks, on the edge of the great gulf whence issue forth continually smoke and vapour. And the Rajah asked for sirih, and told the boys to sit down under a rock and look down the mountain, and not to move until he returned to them. And as they were tired, and the sun was warm and pleasant, and the rock sheltered them from the cold wind, the boys fell asleep. And the Rajah went a little way on under another rock; and as he was tired, and the sun was warm and pleasant, and he too fell asleep.
And those who were waiting for the Rajah thought him a long time on the top of the mountain, and thought the great spirit must have much to say, or might perhaps want to keep him on the mountain always, or perhaps he had missed his way in coming down again. And they were debating whether they should go and search for him, when they saw him coming down with the two boys. And when he met them he looked very grave, but said nothing; and then all descended together, and the procession returned as it had come; and the Rajah went to his palace and the chiefs to their villages, and the people to their houses, to tell their wives and children all that had happened, and to wonder yet again what would come of it.
And three days afterwards the Rajah summoned the priests and the princes and the chief men of Mataram, to hear what the great spirit had told him on the top of the mountain. And when they were all assembled, and the betel and sirih had been handed round, he told them what had happened. On the top of the mountain he had fallen into a trance, and the great spirit had appeared to him with a face like burnished gold, and had said—"Oh Rajah! much plague and sickness and fevers are coming upon all the earth, upon men and upon horses and upon cattle; but as you and your people have obeyed me and have come up to my great mountain, I will teach you how you and all the people of Lombock may escape this plague." And all waited anxiously, to hear how they were to be saved from so fearful a calamity. And after a short silence the Rajah spoke again and told them, that the great spirit had commanded that twelve sacred krisses should be made, and that to make them every village and every district must send a bundle of needles—a needle for every head in the village. And when any grievous disease appeared in any village, one of the sacred krisses should be sent there; and if every house in that village had sent the right number of needles, the disease would immediately cease; but if the number of needles sent had not been exact, the kris would have no virtue.
So the princes and chiefs sent to all their villages and communicated the wonderful news; and all made haste to collect the needles with the greatest accuracy, for they feared that if but one were wanting, the whole village would suffer. So one by one the head men of the villages brought in their bundles of needles; those who were near Mataram came first, and those who were far off came last; and the Rajah received them with his own hands and put them away carefully in an inner chamber, in a camphor-wood chest whose hinges and clasps were of silver; and on every bundle was marked the name of the village and the district from whence it came, so that it might be known that all had heard and obeyed the commands of the great spirit.
And when it was quite certain that every village had sent in its bundle, the Rajah divided the needles into twelve equal parts, and ordered the best steelworker in Mataram to bring his forge and his bellows and his hammers to the palace, and to make the twelve krisses under the Rajah's eye, and in the sight of all men who chose to see it. And when they were finished, they were wrapped up in new silk and put away carefully until they might be wanted.
Now the journey to the mountain was in the time of the east wind when no rain falls in Lombock. And soon after the krisses were made it was the time of the rice harvest, and the chiefs of districts and of villages brought their tax to the Rajah according to the number of heads in their villages. And to those that wanted but little of the full amount, the Rajah said nothing; but when those came who brought only half or a fourth part of what was strictly due, he said to them mildly, "The needles which you sent from your village were many more than came from such-a-one's village, yet your tribute is less than his; go back and see who it is that has not paid the tax." And the next year the produce of the tax increased greatly, for they feared that the Rajah might justly kill those who a second time kept back the right tribute. And so the Rajah became very rich, and increased the number of his soldiers, and gave golden jewels to his wives, and bought fine black horses from the white-skinned Hollanders, and made great feasts when his children were born or were married; and none of the Rajahs or Sultans among the Malays were so great or powerful as the Rajah of Lombock.
And the twelve sacred krisses had great virtue. And, when any sickness appeared in a village one of them was sent for; and sometimes the sickness went away, and then the sacred kris was taken back again with great Honour, and the head men of the village came to tell the Rajah of its miraculous power, and to thank him. And sometimes the sickness would not go away; and then everybody was convinced that there had been a mistake in the number of needles sent from that village, and therefore the sacred kris had no effect, and had to be taken back again by the head men with heavy hearts, but still, with all honour—for was not the fault their own?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On 'Stringvestites'

I recently wrote- rambled would be more like it- about nonce words, because of something I heard watching ‘Are You Being Served’. Well, Mrs Hickory and I like a bit of old-fashioned British comedy, so we returned last night to Mr Humphries and co., and there was he was in a sailor costume, explaining how he had had to fight off the attentions of a number of people including a ‘*stringvestite’. My linguistic antennae twitched.

From the context it appeared to mean a working-class homosexual who doesn’t look like one. Those who remember that particular piece of ill-conceived clothing, or were forced to wore one, as was my case, are unlikely ever to forget it, but I don't remember any association with homosexuality. The Urban Dictionary's definition doesn't seem quite right, but of course it's probably a much more recent use of the term.

*Google knows almost nothing else about the word, but I have found some comment on its use in the series. There is probably no subject that someone is not prepared to make an idiot of himself over in the Guardian, and there is certainly no subject in or out of this world that doesn't have dedicated Internet forums. Here Matthew Parris is quoted at length, speaking more intelligently (scroll down to the end). Neither sheds much light on John Inman's use of the word, but their reactions to it are interesting in themselves. I don't call Stuart Jeffries an idiot, by the way, or Mathhew Parris intelligent, because I agree with one or disagree with he other. Matthew Parris gives a personal interpretation of the character of Mr Humphries, and some similar characters and performers, from his memories of being a secret homosexual in the 70's. He doesn't claim that everyone should share his experience or accept his arguments, he just explains how it was for him. The Guardian writer, on the other hand, appears simply to tell his readers what they want to hear. He might be right, and Matthew Parris wrong, but he hasn't helped us to understand anything.

When a footnote becomes longer than the entire post, some editing may be required. Stopping is also a good idea.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Hill of the Apocalypse

Partly inspired by the writings of St John (What he was inspired by is still the subject of debate):

The man had reached the hill by cutting through the bushes with a machete. The last half mile had taken him nearly two hours. As he began to climb his shirt clung to his body and sweat dripped from the brim of his hat and ran down his face into his nose and mouth. The vegetation on the slope was sparser but the track was steep and now there was no shade from the blistering sun. He climbed with a rhythm that never changed, despite the burning in his throat and in his legs. Until reaching the top he would look only at the path in front of him, the next step, the next rock, the next branch which might trip him or cause him to stumble or twist an ankle. He had no need to think of anything at all, as long before he had instructed his will on what it had to do, and it was doing it perfectly.

His reasons for climbing the hill were no longer human reasons. The man had grown with the hill as part of the landscape. He had lived much of his youth, and part of his adult life, not in its shadow, but aware of its presence. He had always wanted to climb to the top, at first because it was there, it appealed as it would appeal to any adventurous child. Then he had created dragons in the thicket and castles on the summit and had wanted to find them and show he was not scared. Then it had challenged him, rising sometimes into the clouds, mocking his dreams with its proud impossibility. Then it had ceased to matter. He had left those thoughts behind and the hill became a landmark so he knew how close he was to home, a view to enjoy when he rested and raised his eyes, something to forget was there.

But all this had changed, because he had changed. The man now knew that the answers to everything he had ever failed to understand, to all the questions he had never thought to ask, the doubts he had not put into words, or had never consciously recognized as existing, were on the mountain. It had slowly been revealed to him that from the summit of the hill he would see such things as would give meaning to his life, to the world and to his place within it. He would no longer care that he was mortal, that he would not be remembered, that he was, in any human sense, a failure.

Once he had climbed the hill he would have knowledge of his rightful place in creation, an understanding that no one else would share, he would see things that nobody had seen or would ever see, and they would make him more important than all of those who were unaware of his existence.

He would know. He would know why he was born, why he existed, why only he was truly conscious, why he, who was obviously the centre of the world, was not recognized as such by the lesser beings, automata almost, with whom he came into contact. He would know this and understand it, and be satisfied.

So he had chosen a day, some time in the future, in early summer, to allow him to prepare everything, he had determined that nothing would stop him from keeping that promise, that appointment with himself. No illness or injury, no circumstance of the weather, no event in his life that others might tell him must be attended to, no act of God or the Devil would keep him from climbing the hill and finding the answer.

He prepared himself physically, walking many miles, always during the heat of the day, seeking out steep rocky paths and losing his way so he had to navigate by the sun and the distant landmarks. He learnt to do whatever he had to do, to observe whatever he had to observe, to think whatever he had to think, no more, no less. To give up, to be tired, to feel weak, was not only impossible, it became inconceivable. It could not happen.

He had eaten the food that soldiers eat when they march, that wrestlers eat when they train, that athletes eat when they run long-distance races. He had made his body sleek and strong, his muscles hard and tough, his skin resistant to the rays of the sun, the biting wind, the chilling rain, the stings of the insects and the rubbing of boots and clothes.

His mind was a diamond, hard and bright and uniform, a single structure, every facet flashing the same thought. It was a pool, clear and blue, rippling and drifting, but every drop the same, and the whole was the same as the drops. Nothing occupied his mind but his task, his dream.

The toughest of machetes had been daily in his hands. He had destroyed a number of them during this period by hours of hacking at the broadest and strongest of branches in the thickets about the village. His arms acquired the power to cut their way through forests at will, without tiring. His legs could carry him for miles up the steepest hills and the roughest rocks. His heart could desire nothing but to climb the hill and observe his life and his fate and his purpose in the context of the entire world.

He knew what he would see from the top of the hill. He could not have described it or explained it until he had climbed the hill, but he knew it. It was unclear in his head, foggy as he tried to make it out, but he knew it. He already knew it. The visions were already in his head, and it was only the meaning of them that was missing. The hill would reveal their meaning.

And so he climbed, cutting his way through and up the thickness of the bushes and trees which had not been penetrated by any creature larger than a rabbit for many years, hundreds of years perhaps. Nobody ever had need to go there, and so no one ever did. The seekers of silence and beauty, the few poets and philosophers the land had produced, the shirkers, the young lovers, all those who climb hills for no reason, had found other places from which to look out over the world, easier places to reach, of comparable beauty, they told themselves. There was no need to fight your way up this impassable hill.

He reached the summit. The world was below him and before him. It was beautiful, it was clear. The purpose of his life was there, clear and certain. The explanation for everything he had been and had experienced, and everything he would be, and would one day be no more, was there. It was perfectly transparent and terribly simple to understand. He welcomed understanding and peace.

He saw what he had been, what he could have been, what he should have been, what Ihenever was and never could have been, and why he did not become those things. You should not need to stand on a mountain to find such things, for they are not beneath you but within you. But the mountain helps you to understand what is too close to see.

He had not opened his eyes; he had not even raised them, and he would not. He had no need to see what he knew was before him. He only had to be on the summit to understand. He knew now that he would never again open his eyes, and that he would not leave the hill. This world had nothing more that he needed.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Rey Muerto, Rey Puesto

Hickory, the hedgehog who is the symbol of this blog and at times its inspiration, even a 'contributor' on occasions, has died. A week ago he suddenly started walking with difficulty, almost dragging his back legs. The next day he had trouble moving at all, and was clearly not a happy creature.  

We took him to the vet, who immediately realized, from the colour of his skin, that he was anaemic, probably because of liver trouble, and the smell of his urine indicated he had serious kidney trouble too.  There seemed to be no point doing analyses, waiting for the results, trying something that would almost certainly achieve nothing more than prolong his suffering. The poor lad was very ill and old and unhappy and was not going to recover. He could only continue to be scared and in pain. You wonder if it might have been worth a try, but it was surely not. So I gave the order to have him put down. They use the gas before the needle, and he will have felt nothing.

If we had been at the farm, or been able to go there, I would have buried him in one of the places where there are alot of those beetles he liked so much, a kind of dung beetle, but here there is nowhere to do it, so he will be 'recycled' organically.

'Hickory' was his bloggging pseudonym, by the way; he was known to us as Crispulito, and that's how he will remain in out memories.

I don't know if there is a Heaven for hedgehogs- on the whole I should think not- but in any case the point is moot as I'm sure the old lad isn't there. He had no time for asceticism and no concept of right and wrong, as far as I could tell.

He was nearly six years old, which is a respectable age, and he was in good form almost until the end., but still you don't expect it to be so sudden. We shall miss him for many reasons. As he prepared to eat a beetle, in the moment between seeing or smelling it, knowing it was under control, opening his mouth and finally crushing it with his jaws, his face expressed pure pleasure, glee in fact, There was a touch of evil in that look If he had had the right kind of larynx, I'm sure he would have cackled.

We shall never again hear his soft footfall, and the first crunch of the evening, as he came into the living room at about 9 o'clock, to run around our feet and begin the task of spending the night searching for food and drink. He never seemed surprised that it was always there, always varied, always the things he liked, always sufficiently spread around the house to make the hunt more fun. I think he just assumed that that was how things should be. He deserved no less. A hedgehog knows his place, and it's above you.

The title of the post means something like, 'The King is Dead, Long Live the King'. Mrs Hickory, unwilling to contemplate a life without hedgehogs, immediately contacted a breeder in Granada, and we have a baby female, who will be known for blogging purposes as Galatea. There will be photos.