Friday, March 15, 2013

Joan's jugs

It's interesting to see how meanings are intentionally or accidently appropriated. And sometimes a word seems to have such a circular life, like 'jug'.

It seems so obvious, right?, the connection between liquid dispensers. (And then just to make it all the more obvious, those awful comedies will have some poor actress holding two flagons of beer against her chest when someone says it). Well, apparently, the connection is so obvious that it's been made more than once in history.

According to this book, 'jugs' meant 'liquid holder/dispenser' (the type we all know), or 'tits' because of obvious linking connotations. The time Peter Silverton is talking about is the 17th Century.

More interesting, is he suggests that the original connection was made via an all-name for girls 'Jug', like Tom, Dick and Harry for boys.

Here's the quote:
"...Originally, the word 'jug' was short for Joan, derived the same way Sukie was from Susan and Jack from John... [later becoming a derogatory word for women]... An OED citation from 1569: 'dost though think I am a sixpenny jug?' 
At some point, jug also came to mean a receptacle from which you can pour liquids. As these developments in meaning took place in a time when the written record is scanty, however, it's not clear how a word for women also became a word for a beaker with a spout and a handle. This is where OED makes the breast link, suggesting it's possible that it's an anatomical reference - that the jug we pour from is a word derived from a metonymical use of the jug that is everywoman.
...Then came the next lexical step, in more modern times. The word for the kitchen receptacle was metonymically linked back to the object (the breast) from which is originally derived its meaning. So Joan begat jug (nickname, via contraction) begat jug (everywoman, via generalisation) begat jug (kitchen receptacle, via metonymy) begat jug (breasts, again via metonymy). (Dick is similar. Dick, like Jug, first became a word for everyman, only then becoming a word for something every man has.)"
From 'Five Anonymous Plays'
My thru-penny bit in all this in only to add a Google N-Gram that shows something interesting about how many times the words appear in print. I can only begin to speculate.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


If you have any interest in nature, or science, Douglas Adam's lecture/talk on rare and endangered species has to be watched (or read). It's all free. There's no excuse. Go watch it.

I've watched it myself a few times, mostly because I end up sitting down and forcing it upon people. But today I found my way back to it again through this video I stumbled across.

It's a flightless parrot from New Zealand, called the Kakapo (which apparently is Maori for 'night parrot').

Hutton and Drummond, two ornithologists from the beginning of the last century said this about the Kakapo: "Its intelligence commands respect, and its helplessness sympathy, while its genial nature endears it to all who know it well. It repays kindness with gratitude, and is as affectionate as a dog, and as playful as a kitten."

I love the different attitudes Fry and Adams have for this bird. Fry talks about it with reverence. Adams compares it to a brick.

Not that Adams doesn't have reverence for the birds... their individuality just makes them somewhat absurd from the human perspective. You either have to laugh at them, or cry. Because their story is a sad one.

Adams makes the point that their numbers went down from 100s of 1000s to less than a hundred in the 19th Century. But let me spell out how endangered they are: In 2002, 24 Kakapo chicks were hatched, increasing the population of the species by 37%, bringing the number up to 86 (there was a population increase 2009 bringing the population up to 126). There's so few left, many have been individually named.

Stuffed Kakapo @ Slovenské Národné
Photo: Ben Sweeney
Their story goes something like this: 82 million years ago, what is now New Zealand, broke away from the supercontinent Godwana, isolating the genus. Faced with a slow life and no predators they 'forgot' how to fly, grew larger, and developed long, and complex mating rituals that would take place every 3-4 years (relying on an increase in quantity of foodstuffs for their chicks than a need to over-produce to survive the predators, which didn't est).

Their primary way of dealing with danger was to freeze and let their coloration disguise them. Which works fine when it comes to flying predators, but doesn't work so well when it comes to humans with sticks.

The first Polynesian population on the island decimated the birds numbers, using them for food and destroying forests. Kakapo were a dietary staple for about 2000 years, until the arrival of a sweet potato.

But it was when the Europeans arrived in the mid-19th Century that they really got it hard. It turned out that the Europeans thought it was quite tasty and it then became a staple of their diet.

"By 1934, specimens of the kakapo were installed in museums and private collections around the world. Most major museums had several carcasses. The market was so flooded with skins they were worth only 37p each, and in previous years they were so abundant they were even fed to dogs for meat. With all of these things happening, by the 1930s humans had caused the kakapos' extinction on the north island of New Zealand."

In 1952, New Zealand's government began a conservation effort, but the numbers were so depleted and the areas they now inhabited so remote and difficult to get to, that just 8 birds were found before 1972.

I hear you ask, why didn't the bird flourish in these distant, difficult-to-reach areas?

Humans were not the only invading force. They brought with them a whole range of invading species: the rats on the boats, cats as pets, dogs as hunting companions, and stoats (which were introduced as a population control on another invading species, rabbits, which the Europeans had also brought with them). These creatures all had ample time and opportunity to become go wild, feral and breed outside of human control. To top it all off, 250 red deer were introduced to New Zealand as hunting game. The deer eat the same plants as the Kakapo, and in greater quantities.

All of these animals moved into the areas that humans didn't, and by 1970s they were as pretty much extinct on the main islands. The government chose to relocate them to smaller islands where there were no predators and deer.

Douglas Adam's does a pretty good (and entertaining) job of explaining why the very nature of these birds works against them (a small section from Parrots, Universe, and Everything).

Or better still, here's a documentary devoted solely to the bird.

I spent a lot of today with these birds (digitally, though I'd love to go visit a real one), and the thing that has struck me most about these birds is how people talk about them. The two big names, Adams and Fry, both clearly hold them dear, but there is something unforgiving about Adams' sense of humour. It almost sounds like it is entirely with these birds, and their trusting natures, their complete inability to adapt quickly enough, that their problems were their own fault.

But I don't think it is this. He takes for granted that humans know they are singularly responsible, and I think this silence is louder than pointing it out.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Rights of Dumbledore

Ever since, about 6 years ago, when J K Rowling informed the world about the true nature of Dumbledore, I've had problems with his homosexuality. He's not gay. For me, he's simply not gay.

On a tangential conversation about Gay Pride with my housemate last night, we ended up heatedly discussing Dumbledore.

My argument goes: "I never got that from the character any of the times I read any of the books."

His argument goes: "But he must be, his creator wrote him that way."

And we reach a stalemate. There's not much further you can take an argument when all the evidence has been laid out and sequenced and both sides still believe their arguments are right.

For me Dumbledore's sexuality was not part of the story, and it never will be. But then, the stories began when I was still a child and were finished at the beginning of my adulthood when J K Rowling announced it. I read them in my formative years. Trying to surplant this new information would, for me, be akin to discussing the sexual politics of the Famous Five.

But what about all those people who hadn't reached the end? Did the world of Harry Potter become a richer place for them?

Yes! I'd say it did. All information makes the world of a story a richer place. It's all about internal and external context, as they'll tell you on any literature course.

Whatever my petty problems with Harry Potter characters may be, I have to give it to J K Rowling, it was a brave thing to retrospectively add something that could so radically change people's views. Dumbledore is argueably one of the most loved characters in popular fiction.

Whether or not people read his sexuality into the books, she has put a homosexual role model out into the world for all those people who have little or no contact with open homosexuals. And to top that, she has given the world a gay role model whose sexuality is irrelevant.

Intentional or not, I think that's a commendable thing to do in a world where homophobia is still a norm, and governing powers still submit to those irrational beliefs.

On the 29th of February this year St. Petersburg passed a law to prevent "public actions directed at the propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism among minors". On Friday, just 1 day before World Pride here in London, the Ukranian government is going to vote on legislature that will ban public discussion and publication of information about homosexuality and bisexuality.

LGBT communities are quite lucky in the UK that homophobia is generally frowned upon. That's not to say that homophobia is dead... far from it. But increasingly, homosexuality is becoming viewed as something unremarkable. It's a view that permits Gay Pride in London to be a celebration more than a protest; which is a marvellous thing when you consider that Slovakia's 2nd Pride and Bulagria's 1st Pride were only this year, and subject to counter marches and violent behaviour from extreme right-wing groups.

This Saturday is World Pride here in London, and I think this liberty is something worth celebrating with the world, if not for sexuality, then for the freedom of speech.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Linguistic Pedantry 5

Everyone seems to have thought of the same joke at once: The sequel to Prometheus will be a James Cameron film called Prometheuses. Being the humourless pedant that I am, I just want to point out that this is wrong!

It's not Prometheii either. And nor is it Promethepode, as some geniuses have pointed out.

Prometheus is a Greek word, not Latin, and if you really want to be pedantic about the plural, you should consult the chart:


So, 'to be called ****' would mean that Prometheus would be in the accusative plural, which makes it Prometheas.

Linguistic Pedantry 4

'I walk into an empty room
And suddenly my heart goes "boom"'

Perhaps I'm a bit of a snob, but this always struck me as really lazy lyric writing. Onomatopoeic (spell check?) sounds don't ring true in rhymes, to me anyway, because you can fall back on them whenever. It's like saying, 'I love driving my car, I like the way it takes me far.' Just shove whatever sound fits.

What do you think? I'm curious to hear what other people think about it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Thus David spake, and what he said was disappointing

I went to Prometheus twice (coz I'm sad like that, deal with it) because there were many things I thought were worth appreciating about the film, even if the whole was flawed and the story populated by the most irrational desicisons to the point that when you leave the cinema there should be a bump on your forehead where you've been bashing it on the seat in front at how stupid these characters are. Yes, I went to see it twice, even with this view.

The film hinted at great minds tied together with second hand string, gum and shit. It was these hints at great minds that sent me the second time, not least because there was a big deal made of David being a linguist. Bugger all they made of that, except for one of the most interesting moments in the film. Oooh, the mystery, ooh the secrecy... what did David say to the freshly woken engineer that made him lose his rag?

Nothing much interesting it seems: link to the source of the quote below.
"These are the words that David said to the Engineer:

ida hmanâm aî kya namrrtuh zdêêtaha. gwhivah-pyorn-îttham sas daatrr kredah.

And what does it mean?

Literally it breaks down to:

this man (is) here because not-die he-desires. life_increase_wish to-him you-(can)-give he-believes."
And here there's a hint that much of the linguistics stuff was cut, which probably won't redeem the film, but it might have made it more interesting.