Instead of a poem…

18 Apr

…I have decided to give you a couple of snippets from The World according to Bertie by Alexander McCall Smith.

First, a statistician observes a passing woman.

Here, approaching him, was a 60-year-old woman, with two point four children, twenty-three years to go, with a weekly income of… and so on. Now there were carbon footprints to consider, too, and that was fun. This woman was walking, but had probably taken a bus. She did not go on holidays to distant destinations, Spain at the most, and so she used little aviation fuel. Her carbon footprint was probably not too bad, particularly by comparison with… with those who went to international conferences on carbon footprints. The thought amused him and he smiled again.

“You laughing at me, son?”

The woman had stopped in front of him.

Stuart was startled. “What? Laughing at you? No, not at all.”

“Because I dinnae like being laughed at, said the woman, shaking a finger at him.

“Of course not.”

She gave him a scowl and moved on. Chastened, Stuart continued his walk…

And on naming places.

Dominica frowned. “Is Madras still Madras? Isn’t it…?”

“Chennai,” supplied James. “For some people it may be, and that’s fine, but we’re talking English, aren’t we?…”

… “But don’t you think it is a question of respect?” asked Domenica. “We went round the world giving names to places that already had their won names. This is a gesture — a sign that we respect the real identity of the places we named incorrectly.”

James Holloway shook his head. “I don’t think it reveals any lack of respect to call Naples Naples instead of Napoli.”

Domenica looked at the ceiling. There was a difference, she thought, but what exactly was it? “But we didn’t impose Naples on the Italians. The name Naples was for our own use, not theirs. We imposed Bombay on India. Now we are saying: we’ll call you what you want us to call you. That’s a rather different attitude, I think.”

James picked up his coffee cup. “Of course, the names of whole people have changed too. Remember the Hottentots? They’ve become Khoi now. Which means that the Germans will have to retire that wonderful word of theirs, Hottentotenpotentatenstatenattentater, which means, as you know, one who attacks the aunt of a Hottentot potentate.” He paused. “But I’m uncomfortable with the deliberate manipulation of language. I think that we have to be careful about that. It’s rather like rewriting history. We can’t go back and sanitise things.”

Now it happens, believe it or not, that I have some sympathy with what James says in the last few sentences. Yet I am also aware, as no doubt McCall Smith is, of the actual meaning of Hottentot: “The word ‘hottentot’ meant ‘stutterer’ or ‘stammerer’ in the colonists’ northern dialect of Dutch” according to Wikipedia, a formation that is parallel in fact to that of “barbarian”. The word Hottentot is hardly desirable any more.

The word “barbarian” comes into English from Medieval Latin barbarinus, from Latin barbaria, from Latin barbarus, from the ancient Greek word βάρβαρος (bárbaros). The word is onomatopeic, the bar-bar representing the impression of random hubbub produced by hearing a spoken language that one cannot understand, similar to blah blah, babble or rhubarb in modern English. Related imitative forms are found in other Indo-European languages, such as Sanskrit barbara-, “stammering” or “curly-haired.” — Wikipedia.

I celebrated my present Scottishness with a wee dram last night of The Macallan, which was 12 years old when PK gave it to me for Christmas about eight years ago! There’s still plenty left in the bottle; I dole it out most sparingly, but can report it hasn’t lost its savour. 🙂


Do notice your bonus today: selections in the VodPod from Keating: the musical.

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Posted by on April 18, 2008 in Best read of 2008, English language, humour, reading, satire, Scottish


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