Wednesday, January 25, 2012


On the other hand, misappropriation (i.e. jokes) can increase the educational power of words. In Filthy English, Peter Silverton tells a story about his tutor trying to teach his class the functions of the hypothalmus in the brain. "It controls the four f's. Which are? Feeding, flight, fight, and... sexual behaviour." In this case the suggestion of a taboo word in a classroom makes it all the more memorable.

In biology, some of the easiest taxonomic classifications to remember are the ones that play on a common name or word. If I told you there was a genus of slime-mold beetle called Agathidium, I can imagine you would simply nod your head and agree, and promptly forget the word. But if I told you that there were species in this genus called bushi, cheneyi, rumsfeldi, and vaderi, named respectively after Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Darth Vader, I believe you would be more likely to remember them.

And Miller and Wheeler, the biologists responsible for Agathidium bushi, are far from the only ones who do this. The biologist Erwin called a genus of beetle Agra so that he had a whole order of puns to use: phobia, vation, cadabra. Marsh did the same with the genus braconid Heerz: lukenatcha, tooya...

Taxonomists who play with names like that may have been doing so with mischeivous intentions, but they inadvertently make the academic nature of their work more accessible to laymen. As Richard Fortey has pointed out, taxonomy by nature appeals to a certain sort of mind.

Misappropriation of words is all very amusing, a bit like the antiques restorer who adds dirty imagery into china paintings. You could call it innappropriate if you are very conservative about the correct use of language. But much more wonderful and amusing is when it happens by accident. Or when it is expropriated, so that the words of someone else (ancestors?) become seemingly meaningless names. Unlike finding two meanings for a word, you find two words with one meaning, like a little butter spread on too much bread.

There's a great name for this unnessesary use of extra words: it's called a pleonasm, which sounds to me like a steam-punk engine the belches out pointless strings of words. From the Latin 'pleonasmus', from the Greek 'pleíōn' meaning 'more', from the Indo-European 'pelǝ-' meaning 'full'. It seems that the meaning of this word over-flowed.

The name Rock of Gibralter refers specifically to (surprise, surprise) the giant rock in the middle of the peninsular known as Gibralter; but, what does Gibralter mean? The word is a heavily palatized form of the Arabic name for the island, Jabal Tariq. Tariq is a person, and Jabal is 'rock of'. If Tariq was still alive, perhaps he would be honoured to know the mountain has been named after him, twice!

But we all know that English speakers are particularly good at doing this. The first example that jumps to mind is the River Avon. Close on it's heels are the River Tyne, and the Humber Rivers in Canada. 'Avon', 'tyne' and 'humber' are all derived from proto-Celtic words for water flows.

If I were to tell you that an '-ey' on the end of word is an old Saxon suffix meaning 'island' would you be able to spot the redundant island names up north?

My personal favourite mountain names are the trio of mountains called Pinnacle Peak (Arizona), Mount Pinnacle (Virginia), and the beautifully understated Hill Mountain (Wales). Though redundant names for mountains and rivers seem to be fairly common (Loch Lochy, Laguna Lake, Lagos Lagoon, Pendle Hill, Summit Peak, Table Mesa), they are fairly understandable as original meanings become obscured in an evolving language.

Much more confusing is the continuous use of redundant phrases and collocations. Such as those redundant pairings in legal terminology that were left over from the the Norman conquest of Britain. It had been necessary for terms to be paired in French and English because not everyone spoke French. Then we find ourselves left with phrases such as 'aid and abet', and 'cease and desist'.

There's a list of them here that makes for fairly entertaining reading. When you consider that people qualify an acronym with a word from the acronym, it does make you wonder why bother using one word when two will double the quality.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Game Theory of Thrones

Written for the Foyles blog.

(Note: I only talk about the premise of Game of Thrones. No spoilers here.)

I love the 'Brief Introduction To' series. Unsurprisingly it does exactly what it says on the tin. They don't take long to read, and you inevitably feel a lot smarter at the end. The last one I read was A Brief Introduction to Game Theory, which led onto some wider reading, and I decided to test what I learned in the geekiest way I could think of.

One of the most basic elements of game theory is that the result of a game is the pay-off. There are too many types of pay-off, and too many that are specific to individuals and individual circumstances to be listing them here. But the list of pay-offs are usually bracketed by the two extreme solutions, becoming King (literally or metaphorically) or becoming dead. This is called a zero-sum game. Chess is a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is essentially a game that has a clear winner and a clear loser. It's called a zero-sum game because the value of loss and gain together is always zero. (In a chess example, one side wins (+1) and one side loses (-1), which added together gives you zero.)

In the case of Game of Thrones, becoming King usually entails being murdered. As Cersei Lannister proclaims: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." Game theorists love diagrams, so here's a brief diagram:

The column represents one player, the row represents the other. It is clear from this diagram, the odds of winning don't seem to be great. As one of my friends so eloquently put it: "It takes a particular type of mentality to want to run a country, because you always lose. Even if you win, you lose." This is an open game, where the players have individual drives, the rules are not fixed, and the pay-off is not the same for all participants. The possible outcomes are not as simple as 1 and 0. For this we need to be able to name the pay-offs and quanitfy them.

So, it's clear from the offset that this is a game to the death. The two characters you may well presume are important in the prologue are dead and gone by the end of their warm-up chapter. Then in the first chapter Mr. Martin introduces us to the family who, for want of a better and pragmatically short description, are good: the father figure explains to his son the importance having to behead your enemies yourself in the name of honour and responsibility.

You may be asking yourself how a family that teaches the necessity for beheading can be 'good'? If you've read the book, maybe you're also very conscious of the fact that very little this family does is morally good. But they are okay, honestly... but only relatively. Locked in a pitch black and deep dungeon, the smallest glimmer of light seems bright. This book tries very hard to show us that good and bad are fantasies and redemption can only be seen in motive and success. Every character is playing their own game.Very Hobbesian so far.

There's Ned Stark, a man motivated by family values and powered by honour, and his wife, Catelyn Stark, a woman with disparate motivation and far too much drive. Both of them believe in reciprocation as the best method to get through life. Their idea of societal reciprocation is very feudal, so therefore fairly unethical, but the story is primarily one of the upper classes, so let's gloss over this point.

Let's take a moment to look at what the basic games are. There are three basic types of game: the zero-sum, the positive-sum, and the negative-sum, which respectively result in one winner and one loser, both sides winning, and both sides losing. There is a difference between the type of game being played, and the result of the game being played. You can play Monopoly with the intentions of winning, but end up finishing the game with no clear winner.

Ned tries to find the middle ground for every problem (positive-sum), while Catelyn spends a lot of time trying to right wrongs in the 'eye for an eye' fashion (negative-sum). However, you cannot simply judge someone on the game they play, that would be the same as judging Nigella Lawson on her cooking methods and not what came out the oven in the end. We have to look at the fact that between them they strike the metaphorical match that burns their world out of recognition, and that they bring about game-changing strategies in their initial refusal to play the titular game.

The problem with these two is that they are playing for emotional gain, while almost every other character is geared towards material gain. You can't play a game of chess while trying to make the other side agree to stick to their side of the board, can you? The aim of the game has been forced upon you. Which points to the most important characteristics of the rules in their world: honour and shame. And shows us why the Starks are the best in human life that their world has to offer, since their stakes are virtuously honourable and shameless.

The other central family, the Lannisters, on the other hand have such a huge, disjointed family with so many immoral twists and turns between them that their fight for honour is merely an indignant shield from a world of judgement. Their stakes in this game of thrones are actually higher because they have no common virtues with which to bind them and only supports of conspiracy holding them up. Triumphalism and resentment powered by shadenfreude. For the Lannisters, there are no self-imposed rules, only a direction towards success. They embody almost every relationship that characterises a zero-sum society: resentment, mistrust, envy, humiliation, shadenfreude, and lies.

Because the Lannisters are not a close-knit group who play the game in and amongst themselves, as much as against the other families, they are essentially playing a negative-sum game in the eyes of the Starks. They will never win as a family, only as individuals.

But how do you give value to their actions? While this is clearly a zero-sum game (in that there is only one crown, so only one winner), not everyone involved is playing with that as their desired pay-off. Lord and Lady Stark just want to settle down to the fire-side life in their winter castle.

There are two ways of measuring the pay-off (if you're interested in the lingo, the number given to pay-off is 'utility', and the two ways of measuring utility are 'ordinal' and 'cardinal'). The first is for games where the outcomes are ranked, rather than measured as in - the voting system of England is measured by first past the post. The second is for games where the ratio between results is important. For example, the alternate vote means that the proportion of representatives in parliament directly reflects the ratio of results.

Ed and Catelyn Stark don't want to play the zero-sum game; they have family values, so losing isn't an option. The best they can manage is the only option. Because everyone else is playing a zero-sum game we require the second way of measuring pay-off. The way this is usually pictured is with each players move being a lottery. The chances of success in each move are measured as a percentage, with the sum of all choices equal to 100%. This following is going to be a very basic way of looking at it, pretending that this is a game of one move and skipping past the equations and algorithms that economists use to figure this type of thing out:

Let's say the point of being a King is to gain possession of a pie, and possession of pie is equivalent to the amount of satisfaction in the games conclusion. If this is too silly and you need to visualize it as having a real value, imagine it as a huge golden pie. As King you can't hoard the pie, you need to reward others with pieces of pie. But to remain King you need to hold onto a majority of pie. So the King wins at least half.

Let's say the whole pie is split into 10 pieces. The King automatically gets 5 pieces. Lord and Lady Stark will require a King who gives them enough pie to chase their family dreams, and so their proportion of pie is dependent on how much everyone else receives. If a Lannister becomes King the remaining half pie will be consumed in internal family squabbles, along with a will and purpose to destroying their ideological enemies, the Stark family. Failing that, the Lannisters require a King who would give them at least 3 pieces of pie, therefore more satisfaction than the Starks. The Starks require a non-Lannister King who would permit them at least 2.5 pieces of pie, so that everyone is equally satisfied by the existence of this King.

Trying to picture a non-zero-sum game can be a bit of a headache, which is why people so often wish political descisions could be solved in a boxing ring, and wars fought by leaders on a paintball site. Unfortunately this is the sort of idealised vision of the world that relies on the idea that everyone is playing co-operatively, and one thing that Game of Thrones underlines so well, is that the game played for power is not fair and most certainly non-co-operative. Of course, a book about feudal lords and ladies arm-wrestling over territories might not be such entertaining reading.

An honour/shame society is by nature a zero-sum society, reducing, as it does, the pay-off to win (honour/1) and lose (shame/0), suggesting that while the proverb, "War is the sport of kings," may be true, for everyone else it's a matter of saving face.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


There is a wonderful little poem in Roald Dahl's Matilda. A little boy proves he has learned to spell a four syllable word by memorizing this poem. It goes: "Mrs. D, Mrs. I, Mrs. F. F. I., Mrs. C., Mrs. U., Mrs. L. T. Y." To which Mrs. Trunchball has the delightfully barbed response: "Why are all these women married?"

I've never forgotten this poem, from the moment I first read it. There is a certain genius in its simplicity and ability to teach, the way it uses the natural necessity to remember names and patterns. It is much easier to remember a word that has two meanings, as anyone who has learned a second language can confirm; It is much harder to memorize words in the beginning when you only know how to use each one in only one situation.

When you first start to learn a new language it is unavoidable that your usage is reduced to direct subsitution. For example, when I first set out on the learning Dutch boat, I learned straight away as many of the words we shared. Like Michel Thomas' French method, the best thing to do with a new language is see how much of it you have in common. I learned that the Dutch also use the word 'pen', 'computer', 'bank'. And one day I was listening to a Dutch song about the mundanity of life, when the singer says 'hangende op de bank', which I took to mean 'hanging on the bank'. What on Earth does that mean? I asked myself. Is it a euphemism for the sort of depressive emotions that bureaucracy causes?

The Dutch, I have since discovered, also call a sofa 'een bank'. Over time I also learned that 'een bad' is a bath, 'elk' is every, and 'een broodje aap' (a monkey sandwich) is an urban legend. False friends, like these first two examples, are the bane of every second language learner, and it is easy to misappropriate them. Idioms such as the third example can make language impenetrable, sometimes even to speakers of the same language, and it may seem surprising to know that this is partially intentional.

One of the prime purposes of language is the role it plays in social cohesion. Being the primary human tool, before the computer it was the only tool that permited such a neat and complex exchange of ideas. Because humans share a common set of drives there are a number of ideas that can be exchanged with relative ease using only physical language - such as gestures. But smaller groups (countries, towns) have their own, more complex, common ground, therefore their own understandings. Where an individual will appropriate a word for their own purposes, it's use can only be relevant if there are a group of people that have a similar interpretation of the word. Which is why vocabulary in industrialised areas tends to be larger: there are more intersecting social groups, which produces more linguistic appropriations.

An extreme example of this would be the slanguage, Polari. The reason I call it slanguage is because while it was slang and retained grammatical structures from the primary language of the speakers, it took on an almost specialist vocabulary. A form of slang developed by performers and later adopted by the queer community, it was a mish-mash of vocabulary from English, back-slang, rhyming slang, Italian, circus and theatre lingo, Gypsy and Yiddish.

But then, just as much as language can be used to draw communities closer, it can equally be used as for social exclusion. The development of slang being one such example; what better way to make a group exclusive than to misappropriate words. Can teenagers think of a more effective way to develop bonds with each other while blocking out adults than by developing their own slang? Is their any other reason that legal terminology is so arcane other than to keep the profession closed? What was the purpose of Polari in queer culture before its popularisation on the radio? Why is French Verlan so widely used?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


In the beginning was a word, and the word was 'pǝtḗ'. It meant father, and you can still see it in words like 'paternal', and 'pater noster'. These words entered English via French, which formed in French from the Latin 'pater'. Not much of a change for 2000 years. Another word that started it's journey in the same place is 'property', from the Latin 'propri', meaning 'one's own'. The connection between paternity and property is not immediately obvious, but someone, somewhere back in time must have thought that there must have been a worthwhile relationship between the two ideas because they both share the Indo-European root 'pǝtḗ'. It does not seem an appropriate connection in this day and age of political-correctness and gender equality. Why should property be of the father?

Talking of appropriate, composed of the elements 'ap-', 'propri', and '-ate', an appropriate example is needed: My behaviour at the dinner party was appropriate to my personality. And an example of my behaviour: Without much forethought, I appropriated my host's dialect to shameful comic effect. It is a pity that inappropriate does not sound right as a verb.

We have here a word that has a handful of meanings, none of which seem particularly related to it's original use of its root. It can mean 'suitable', or 'belonging to something', and as a verb, 'to take for oneself', with hints of thievery to boot.

I think that 'to appropriate' is one of the most accurate verbs we have for explaining the historical distribution of words. When a word moves from one language to another it is called a loan-word, which I believe gives the impression that the speakers offered it. And we know this is not really true. How often have you asked permission from someone to use that really useful word you just heard them use? More likely you'd say, "Great word. I'm gonna nick that off you." And more realistically you just go ahead and use it, building up your own understanding, your own uses. You give it your own context. You appropriate it. And this is exactly how the evolution of language works.

It's very difficult to completely impose a language on a population. The population will only ever take what is most useful to them. As the Normans discovered when they conquered England. Technically England then became a bilingual society, where French was the language of administration and English the language of day to day living. But the English clearly found uses for certain French words outside of admin. A prime example: you farm the English cows, calves, deer, hens, sheep and swine, but eat the French beef, veal, venison, poultry, mutton and pork. You give a French cordial welcome to virtual strangers, but a hearty English welcome to your friends. You admire the French language, but wonder at the English.

Roughly 30% of the English vocabulary comes from French, and a vast number of those words are even spelled the same way. It is one of the most useful tricks Michel Thomas has for learning French, in learning to pronounce this third of English in a French manner.

For sure, language is appropriated fittingly. But are words appropriated in an appropriate way?

This may at first sound like a bit of a silly question, however, if it is phrased once more, but in the negative, perhaps it will be a little more fun: Are words appropriated in an inappriopriate way? or, Are words inappropriated? After all, we are all aware of the existence of taboo words, even if some of us do deny them so much existence. And maybe this is just scratching the surface, since taboo words are not the only form of language that is considered wrong.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Withering Heights

Last night I paid £12.50 (£12.50!!) to go and see the most recent film adaptation of Wuthering Heights. While thinking that £12.50 was far too much to pay for something that offered so little in the way of enjoyment or useful lessons (the only lesson I walked away with was the usual one that style needs substance to be worthwhile), it did give me a lot to think about.
"TV frame, incongruous mise-en-scene, poor casting and dodgy racial politics - any one of these could sink a film, but all four together is a very tough sell. The biggest sin, however, is to take Wuthering Heights and imbue it with absolutely no passion at all. The moors look suitably wild, and there is a strong sense of mud, but beyond that there are few positives to take from this film." IMDB 
By the end of the film I found myself feeling particularly sorry for Catherine's brother, Hindley. Far from the usual framing of the story in which Heathcliff is seen to develop dangerous sociopathic/psychopathic tendencies in reaction to his mistreatment, he is already displaying them at the open of this film. Which, ignoring Hindley's use of racist slurs to beat him down, almost makes his treatment of Heathcliff excusable (in terms of plotting, not acceptable) in that his treatment would change the circumstances but likely make no difference on Heathcliff's behaviour towards others. And I think this undermines the self-fulfilling prophecy issue of hatred breeds hatred that made the original story so morally engaging. Which is also a neat way of side-stepping the racist issue. So, why use of a black Heathcliff if you are going to make it slip by without notice? (The awful acting and lack of character in all quarters might have helped there as well).

Linguistic Pedantry 1

This morning, one of my 'friends' on Facebook updated their status: "To faced lying whore!"

I've been thinking about the dynamics of this sentence since then and trying to make sense of what she meant.

We begin with a preposition, 'to', as in 'towards'. The past participle of 'to face' is now rendered as an adjective modifying the noun in the phrase. And the gerund 'lying' modifying it further. The problem with the adjectived 'faced' is that it does not have the same semantic values as 'to face'. To better make meaning of it the  verb requires the copula, and it becomes 'to be faced'. As a transitive verb it requires an object. If it took an indirect object the subject would be adjacent to something. But it is not indirect, so the subject must be in possession of a face.

The preposition and the exclamation mark on either side of the noun phrase are clear indications that this is intended as an imperative statement, and not a pejorative declaration, which it clearly would if she had meant to use 'to's homonym 'two'. We are being told to go to the reclining prostitute who is in possession of a face.

Which leaves me with just one question; Does she know any prostitutes who are unfortunate enough to not have a face?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Nice And Accurate Prophecies Of Agnes Nutter

Happy New Year everybody! We made it, survived yet another year, and, boy, have we had a lot to survive from over the past year: worldwide economic collapse, revolution in the East, the nose-dive of the European currency, the axing of benefits and jobs, city-wide riots, and the end of the Harry Potter film-franchise.

Well, we have made it this far. But this year we have the epic, galactic alignment to survive next, the gravity of which will rip our planet to shreds.

What's that you say? Nonsense, you say?

Shame on you skeptics. How can you not see the evidence passed down in the annals of ancient wisdom?

Okay, maybe it is nonsense. The Mayans had absurd ideas about the history of time, just like every ancient culture. Their's may have been a fraction closer to the truth than others. They believed in cyclical time, the passing of ages, which doesn't seem too absurd in light of the way we divide Earth's history into named ages. According to the Mayans there were three ages before ours, each lasting about 5,125 years. In terms of time scale their ideas about the age of the world was not as realistic as the Hindu's, but miles closer than Ussher's prediction of 6,000 years ago, on Sunday, October 23rd, at 6pm (which was based on close analysis of biblical events). For the Mayans, ours is the fourth age, the age of the humans, and the calender they set for this age is due to run out in December 2012. Veritably the end of the world.

The Mayan calender was a Long Count calender, conveniently based upon their choice length of time for each age. Obviously their mathematics was limited by a certain number of euphemistic fingers on which to count. They counted a certain number of days, which became a certain number of months, which became a year. But they didn't stop there: a certain number of years became an age. Presumably a certain number of ages became a countable... something.

If they had just set a calender with infinite counting abilities, perhaps we would not have a handful of such loud akceptics declaring the end of the world. It's nothing more than an ancient form of the Millenium Bug. And the human race survived the millennium with the most modest of mishaps, relatively speaking. Then again, if it was not the Mayan's calender that formed the basis for the 2012 prediction, perhaps it would be something else.

I am quite looking forward to the end of the Mayan calender. It will mark the dawning of a new age, one that I feel has more spirituality, more cultural connotations attached to it than the turning of the second Julian millennium. As well as this, there is no better reason for pouring a nice glass of wine and throwing a dinner party in celebration of having survived the end of the world. Again.

I like to think that this is what Manuel The Great did when he took the bricks out of his window in 1174 to find that the world still there, and not nearly as hot as the solar flares from the sun were predicted to have made it.

It seems that this alignment of the celestial objects tearing the world to shreds is a prediction as old as heavenly geometry. The prediction that had Manuel The Great bricking up his palace windows was made by one John of Toledo who noticed the known planets would all be in the same sign at the same time. The logical conclusion he drew was that the power of this would cause the sun the bellow out fiery balls of death. Albert Porta made a similar observation and conclusion for December 17th 1919 when six planets lined up before the sun.

On a related note there is a perfectly wonderful word for planetary alignment. Sadly it only applies to three celestial bodies: Syzygy. One 'y' for each body.

Please allow me to take you on a brief tour of the history of the end of the world. It will by no means be a comprehensive exploration of poor predictions, more of a pre-amble through the ones I think are interesting.

A great many catastrophic dates seem to be nice round numbers. The year 500, the year 1000, the year 1500, and the year 2000. Nice round numbers stemming from the birth of Jesus Christ. For reasons I can't begin to fathom a nice round number is the perfect marker for the Second Coming. If the Second Coming fails, then the next good number will be 33 years later, the age of Christ when he died.

Christ's return at the dawn of the second millennium was overshadowed a little by the possible destruction of modern society at the hands of the Millennium Bug.

William Miller, a Baptist preacher, destroyed his reputation by predicting the end of the world to be October 22, 1844. He had raised so many hopes, that when people found they were still alive on October 23, the event became known as the Great Disappointment.

The Watchtower magazine has predicted a few dates for the Rapture in its time, including 1914, '15, '18, '20, '25, '41, '75, and '94. Now famously, Harold Camping predicted the Rapture on May 21 last year, followed by the Apocalypse six months later. Atheists celebrated, but sadly for him the four horsemen of the Apocalypse did not crash their parties.

And here lies the danger of believing in a literal Bible. The stories were clearly intended as instructive lessons than accurate historical texts. But this has never stopped scientists looking for scientific answers in it.

Bad predictions by bad science does not necessarily imply a bad scientist though. Not only did Isaac Newton, the giant whose shoulders on which more recent scientific giants have been standing, make a prediction that the world would end in the early 21st Century based on his own understanding of Biblical Chronology, but he had a similar theory to Ussher about the age of the Earth.

Newton's protégé at Cambridge University, one William Whiston, was a formidable mathematician, and like his mentor, a catastrophist and believer in a literal Bible. He saw Halley's comet in 1680 and 1682, along with most of the world, and understandably took it as a sign/precursor for inevitable doom. The recent understanding of comets' periodicity allowed for a certain minor hysteria relating to knowing precisely when the sign would return. Still, it was not quite a 'great' disappointment.

Less of a disappointment will probably be any of the horrible ends that current science is able to predict for us. Apophis could very well hit our planet square in the Atlantic Ocean. I'll let Neil DeGrasse Tyson explain that one:

There's robots, ice age, gamma rays, viruses, giant volcanoes, global warming, cyber-warfare, nan-technology, nuclear holocaust...

The frequency of predictions, and the readiness that they are lapped up with, about the end of the world suggests something sad to me, that perhaps people believe the world should end, or that it deserves to end. A series of unfortunate events followed by the only thing that the human race can call home going ka-blooey. It strikes me as a very defeatist thing to read in symbols, and maybe this is the reason Newton kept mum about his own prediction.

Or are they believed in so vehemently because the idea of an end without a bang is not an end with dignity. Personally I think T.S. Elliot's own prediction is more comforting (and more lyrical): "This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper."