Category Archives: Words and meanings

What is Furlough?

This coronavirus pandemic is giving rise to a whole new set of phrases and words – like social-distancing, self-isolation, furlough … We are all using them, as nouns and verbs, is if they have been around for centuries. Well, at least in the case of furlough, it has. And it is not, as some have thought, an Americanisation that has sneaked into the good old Anglo Saxon vocabulary to usurp another word that is just as good, if not better: like layoff.

Furlough, during this current pandemic, is being used to describe the means by which an employer can lay off an employee temporarily, with the Government picking up 80% of the salary bill, rather than making them redundant because they do not have sufficient work or money coming in to keep the staff member employed during the lockdown.

Furlough, in the seventeenth century meant ‘a temporary laying off of employees, usually because there is insufficient work to occupy them’ (Collins Dictionary). I doubt though that the Government (i.e. the taxpayer) was quite so generous back then. The word comes from the Dutch – verlof (ver = for, lof = leave) and is related to the Swedish word forlof.

Furlough also meant – and still does – permitted leave of absence from military duty, and was in common use into the nineteenth century, particularly during parliamentary wrangling over the miserly leave allowance of Indian army officers, and again in the first half of the twentieth century which encompassed two world wars.

Admittedly the word has not been on the tips of our tongues during the last seventy years (at least on this side of the pond). Until, that is, this pandemic has brought it whizzing back into the modern lexicon.

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Free Lancing

Among the many worries that coronavirus is causing is the almost complete drying up of work for freelancers – those workers who have gone it alone, proudly independent of any office bureaucracy, but now realising, as contracts collapse, that we are more interconnected than we realised.

How did such workers come to be called freelancers? It seems an odd term for office management consultants, trainers, lifestyle coaches and the like. (Writers, I think, are a different breed – we are used to modest, erratic payment, and long periods without any money coming in at all – or is that just me?).

The term freelancer comes from medieval times. Back then kings and aristocrats had their own armies – men who swore allegiance to the local chief, and fought under his colours. But there were a number of knights who chose not to have allegiance to anybody and, like the modern mercenary, fought for whoever was prepared to pay them good money. That is, they were free to take their lance and fight for a cause / person of their own choosing – freelancers.

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Coronavirus and Other Words in the News.

Coronavirus is making headlines across the world, and all of us are becoming experts – or at least have an opinion (maybe several contradictory ones if you’re like me) on what should be done about it. Most people seem agreed that it has moved from being an epidemic and become a pandemic. But what’s the difference?

An epidemic means the virus is affecting many people simultaneously in a community, or across a particular area – China, say. (From the ancient Greek epidemia – among the people.)

A Pandemic means the virus is affecting persons across a wide geographical area / extremely epidemic / global – i.e. China and just about everywhere else. (From the Greek pandemos – general). If something is endemic, by the way, it means it is present within a localised area / unique to people from that area. (From the Greek endemos – native).

Artist / scientist impression of the coronavirus

We all know – of course we do – that a virus is a group of sub-microscopic entities capable of replication only within the cells of plants and animals. But where does the prefix corona come from? I don’t actually know. The main meaning of corona is the circle of light around a luminous object like the moon. The word comes from the Greek koronis – wreath, and korax – crow. Neither derivation conjures up a particularly attractive prospect in relation to this virus.

One line of thinking for dealing with the virus is for the population to gain herd immunity. Some people have been shocked, understanding this to mean letting the weak die off – a bit like Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’? But it really means, according to at least one immunologist, the process by which vulnerable people are protected by the rest of the population being immune, which thereby prevents the transmission of the infection to the weaker members. There’s plenty of people don’t think this will work and, at my age, I’m not sure what part of the herd I fall into in relation to this theory. So I’m just following instructions about washing my hands, buying an extra packet of pasta, and not stock-piling loo rolls. And hoping for the best.

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A Superfluous Word Can Be Useful.

In recent years, the BBC has received a lot of complaints about interviewees starting every response with the word –‘so’. It has even led to articles in the Times, as well as an editorial. In fairness, the paper didn’t seem to take the problem too seriously.

In all probability, hapless interviewees are just playing for time, gathering their thoughts, or feeling nervous. They’ve been told not to say ‘um,’ ‘well,’ and ‘er’ and, in avoiding these words (and knowing ‘like’ is the domain of the young), they’ve hit on ‘so.’

‘So’ is a relatively new kid on the block, perhaps first used by programmers in Silicon Valley in the 1990s. But there are others to choose from – ‘look,’ ‘sure,’ ‘no problem,’ ‘yeah.’

Apart from ‘so,’ the use of such words is not a new phenomenon – my father used to call one of his colleagues ‘Ah-but Um-well’ (only behind his back, of course) because he would invariably start his entry into a discussion with one or other phrase.

So, what should a writer do about this problem, if it actually is a problem? First, recognise it is not a big deal. It may not be good grammar in a written disposition. But it is an authentic part of everyday speech, and has its place in written dialogue – a verbal tic that helps fix a character’s personality.

No doubt sociolinguists could excuse its use on the grounds that apparently superfluous words often convey subtle meanings. The use of ‘so,’ for example, can denote the speaker’s confidence. I’m feeling very confident today – or at least want to give that impression. So there you go!

(This post is an amended version of one that appeared in November 2017)

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Jargon – a good or bad thing?

We all use jargon from time to time: sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Some even quite obscure terms have become so well known that we don’t realise they are jargon anymore. So when in a Police drama on TV, the officer uses the latin phrase to talk about the villain’s ‘modus operandi’ or just their ‘M.O.’ we don’t need it explained that this refers to their usual way of committing a crime.

There are some grammarians who believe jargon is ‘a bad thing’ in all circumstances. Jonathan Meades, for example has criticised cricket commentators on the radio for using terms like silly mid-off, gully, leg spin, googly … It’s true I haven’t a clue what these mean, but I’m not a cricket fan. (Golf terms are equally unintelligible to me). But, for the intended audience, these words and phrases are quick and descriptive ways to convey to the listener what is actually happening on the field. If explained in ordinary language, the game would have moved on so far as to make the explanation irrelevant. Most listeners would understand because they know and love the game, aspiring cricket enthusiasts would soon find out, and for the rest of us – so what?

Meades believes jargon is used to ‘keep us in the dark, and obscure inconvenient truths.’ I can think of a few politicians who are keen on that kind of thing, but jargon – in sport, in the work setting, in many hobby groups, eases communication between colleagues and fellow enthusiasts. It is specialised, but inclusive for those in the gang.

It is quite wrong to use jargon for wider, more general audiences; and it is unfriendly and smacks of exclusivity if used to baffle new team members etc. However, having explained what an elevator pitch* (or whatever) is to the new intern, why get bogged down in verbiage? Life’s too short.

* An elevator pitch is the essence of your argument boiled down to be no longer than the length of a trip with your captive audience in a lift. Come to think of it, if you are my sort of age, it’s quite likely the intern would be explaining this one to you.

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Time to Give the ‘Mrs’ a miss?

What is the appropriate honorific for a woman? Mrs? Miss? Ms? Mx? None at all?

The debate is not a twenty-first century phenomenon. It has been going on since the end of the nineteenth century at least. According to the academic, Amy Erickson, ‘Ms’ was suggested as a suitable equivalent to ‘Mr’ in 1901, but never caught on.

Samuel Johnson, when compiling his dictionary in the mid eighteenth century, was untroubled by the relationship between the married status of a woman and her title, be it Mrs or Mistress/Miss (a bit like the French madame / mademoiselle, where the latter tends to denote youth rather than the married state). However, in the Victorian and Edwardian era, ‘Miss’ started to be a term of preference for unmarried, but upper class and socially ambitious, women. As the twentieth century progressed though, attitudes became more ambivalent.

The feminist, Sheila Michaels, who died in June 2017, started to champion the use of ‘Ms’ for all women, during the 1960s. But it wasn’t until she was heard on a New York radio programme on feminism and talked about the use of ‘Ms,’ that she attracted the attention of the better known feminist, Gloria Steinem. Ms Steinem went on to create the feminist magazine ‘Ms’ and the rest, as they say, is history (or, as she didn’t say, herstory).

It wasn’t too long before Government departments and banks, were accepting ‘Ms’ on their forms instead of Miss or Mrs, though the New York Times style guide didn’t acknowledge the term until 1986. Late in the twentieth century, the debate moved on to the acceptance, or otherwise, of the term ‘Mx’ for all, including men.

Writers beware! We should be careful not to transfer twenty-first century sensitivities to characters   set in the past. Most Victorian or Edwardian schoolmistresses, felt no stigma when given the title ‘Miss,’ and cooks of the same era, whether married or not, were usually referred to as ‘Mrs.’

Incidentally, Sheila Michaels is also credited with promoting the terms ‘feminist’ to replace ‘women’s liberationist,’ and ‘sexist’ instead of ‘male chauvinist pig.’ But in 2020 there has been a return of the use of the term women’s liberation and a preference for the word misogynist rather than sexist has been around for some years – at least on Twitter. Language, as has often been said, never stands still.

This post is an updated version of a post that appeared in September 2017.

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You Are What You Say.

Did you know that you can identify where a new-born baby comes from by the sound of its cries? So says Jane Setter in Your Voice Speaks Volumes. Not that we should be surprised by this as farmers reckon they can tell where cows come from by the way they moo. And sheep by their baas for that matter. Another thing Setter has researched is the way boys and girls speak differently, even before puberty. Generally girls talk more softly and with a higher pitch. This is particularly marked in Japanese children.

And it’s not just pitch and timbre post puberty: women are more likely to be seen as social climbers if they try to modify their regional accents and talk with ‘received pronunciation’ (RP), in a way that men aren’t.

A recent survey of corporate bosses showed that they viewed the tendency of young women to ‘uptalk’ – i.e. lift their voice at the end of a phrase – as a sign of uncertainty, insecurity, and emotional weakness. So naturally less suitable for the next promotion than the deeper voiced young man she was up against. (Although, in fact, young men ‘uptalk’ just as frequently as women).

Posh men have used ‘vocal fry’ – a lazy drawl – for centuries to show (at least in their own minds) effortless intelligence and superiority (think Jacob Rees Mogg). More recently some women have adopted the same mannerism – and are criticised for talking with such an affected and ugly verbal tic. Misogyny runs deep and wide!

When writing we use five vowels (six if you include ‘y’), but when speaking we use around twenty vowel sounds – any one of which can give away where we were born, our sex, social class, education, and age. It’s a frightening thought, especially if you are trying to fit in with a different social group – at work, or with new in-laws, for example. And a challenge for the writer who wants to accurately pinpoint the social status and location of a character through their speech.

But systematic forensic vocal analysis can help solve crime. The most gruesome example of this was the ability to track down the terrorist known as Jihadi John who provided video footage as he beheaded his victims. He covered his face in each video but analysts were able to identify him as a university educated Londoner whose parents had moved to the city shortly after his birth.

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