Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Girolles and chanterelles

Recently in the Financial Times:
I first came across girolles and chanterelles in a French context as, it seems, have most British cooks working today. In French, the distinction seems simple. A girolle is an apricot-coloured mushroom with an unmistakable vaulted cap, whose gills run down to a thick stem below. It has a rich and meaty flavour and a good texture. A chanterelle in Europe is generally either a chanterelle grise or a chanterelle jaune, indicating whether its stalk is indeed grey or yellow. The stalk is thin and hollow and the cap is usually brown and quite delicate. Chanterelles tend to collapse easily when cooking and have a delicate, much less robust flavour than a girolle.
This broad distinction between the two types persists now on British menus and the French girolle has infiltrated the language and become accepted use, usurping the previous English habit of calling a girolle a chanterelle... It looks like we will just have to let the rather less euphonious girolle enter the language – as though one had a choice ...
So it seems there is still a field of human endeavour - and not the least - where French still dictates to English rather than vice versa.

The French are of course renowned for their culinary skills and the English-speaking peoples - to use the Churchillian phrase - renowned for their lack of them.

But not even the most entrenched of prejudices can resist the power of the anglophone media and publishing industries. In a Vienna bookshop recently I noticed that a large majority of the cookery books and wine guides on display were translations of British writers.

That translations from English should hog foreign bookshelves in particular subjects may be ascribed to the fact that English-speakers lead the way in those domains. But the equal dominance of translations from English in a field where the opposite has generally been the case makes you wonder to what extent the pre-eminence of English-speakers in various other walks of life may be due to the English language itself and the power and influence of its media rather than to the talents of those concerned (earlier post).

Seeing the prominent coverage being given in France, Italy and Spain to the case of the British child who went missing in Portugal, it's hard to imagine a missing French, Italian or Spanish child getting anything like the same media attention in any country other than their own.

Not only is what English-speakers do more noteworthy than what others do, so too is what is done to them.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


What if?

Counterfactual history is about working out what the consequences would have been if a particular historical event had had a different outcome. What if Hitler had been assassinated, what if Kennedy hadn't, that sort of thing.

Counterfactual may is this sort of thing:
Helmet may have saved cyclist: police
... where the unfortunate cyclist was killed:

Police say a bicycle accident that killed a man could have been avoided if he had worn a helmet
In contrast to this more time-honoured usage:
Helmet May Have Saved Local Motorcyclist’s Life, Police Say
... where the victim survived:
A helmet may have saved the life of a local motorcyclist who was thrown headfirst into the side of a truck that struck him Saturday morning, Temple police say ...
He was taken to Scott & White hospital where doctors determined the only injuries he suffered were bruises, abrasions and possibly a wrist fracture, police said.
Sometimes counterfactual may can stray into the realm of counterfactual history. What for example, if President McKinley had not been assassinated:
The newly-developed X-ray machine was displayed at the fair, but no one thought to use it on McKinley to search for the bullet, which may have saved his life
Or if the Titanic had not hit that iceberg:

Ninety-five years later, the key which may have saved the luxury liner is up for auction
Now linguistic innovation per se is not something to get excited about, I realise, but developments such as counterfactual may are clearly problematic for those of us whose work involves figuring out what people are trying to say.

Perhaps to distinguish the two uses, at least in the written language, it would be helpful if this counterfactural use could be combined with another thriving innovation, as illustrated here:
What suggestions/improvements would you have that may of made the Titanic stay afloat?

Sunday, September 16, 2007



From Wednesday's International Herald Tribune:
The British and the Irish can still down a pint of beer, walk a mile, covet an ounce of gold and eat a pound of bananas after the European Union ruled Tuesday that the countries could retain measurements dating to the Middle Ages.

Under a previous EU plan, Britain and Ireland would have been forced to phase out imperial measurements by 2009. But after a vociferous anti-metric campaign by British EU-skeptics and the London tabloid press, EU officials decided that an ounce of common sense, which equals 28.34 grams of common sense, suggested that granting a reprieve was better than braving a public backlash.
It's often a safe bet to append "the Irish" to "the British" in EU matters but it doesn't work in this case. In Ireland, miles and pounds were abolished in favour of km and kg some years ago and nobody seemed bothered. Only the trusty pint of plain still clings on as a relic of the old ways, and even that is probably now defined in terms of milliliters.

Anyhow, now that "British EU-skeptics and the London tabloid press" have succeeded in rescuing one small corner of Europe's diversity from the forces of homogenization, perhaps they'll be minded to mount an equally "vociferous" campaign in defence of our beleaguered linguistic diversity.

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