Friday, 30 March 2012

A cool word

One of the pleasures of getting older is hearing the next generation but two still using quaint out-of-date slang like cool, with it and so on, thus showing themselves to be just as old-fashioned now as they once told us we were.

It is pleasant to find them occasionally using words which they believe to be modern but which we know to be around a hundred years old. Here’s one, its use and origin comprehensively explained in the OED:

def, a.
Excellent, outstanding; fashionable, ‘cool’.
slang (orig. U.S., esp. in African-American usage).
Forms: 19- def, def', irreg. deaf. [Prob. alteration of DEATH n., originating in the non-standard Jamaican English pronunciation and spelling def, and the use of the word (in both forms) as a general intensifier (see quot. 1907).

Cf. DEATH a.2 The form in quot. 1979 is often interpreted as being a use of DEF a., and is in fact spelt def in many later transcriptions of the song, including that in L. A. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992). However, in the original published lyrics, the word is spelt death, although the pronunciation on the recording itself is indistinct. This song, one of the most celebrated and influential hip-hop records and one of the first to enjoy international commercial success, may in part account for the enduring use of def within the genre and the strength of its association with hip-hop culture.An alternative derivation def' in quot. 1982.]

[1907 W. JEKYLL Jamaican Song; Story lxviii. 171 ‘I never do him one def ting,’ a single thing. ‘Def’ is emphatic, but is not a ‘swear-word’. 1979 G. O'BRIEN et al. Rapper's Delight (song, perf. ‘Sugarhill Gang’), Someone get a fly girl, gonna get some spank and drive off in a death O.J.] 1981 W. SAFIRE in N.Y. Times Mag. 18 Jan. 6/3 Deaf [sic] a mispronunciation of ‘death’ is the current superlative. (In topsyturvytalk, death is the liveliest and baad-baaader-baaadest is the equivalent of good-better-best.) 1982 in S. Hager Hip Hop (1984) 89 A sureshot party presentation... Thurs. January 21... ‘Aanother def' bet’. 1986 Village Voice (N.Y.) 4 Nov. 24/2 ‘It's Yours’ T LA Rock and Jazzy Jay (Partytime, 1984) Here's the first def jam that made the others possible. 1992 Buffalo (N.Y.) News 23 Aug. G1/2 No self-respecting teen-ager in Buffalo who wants to be def listens to the bubble-gum music on classic hits radio. 1996 V. WALTERS Rude Girls xiii. 277 Yeah, that's a def idea. 1999 Y (S. Afr.) June 75/2 Premier's ‘New York State Of Mind Pt II’ is def, the bombest joint.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

An old trick, but a good one

There comes a point in life when one has ceased to acquire major new skills, and but still have some which need to be perfected: getting out of bed without falling over, for example (or indeed doing anything without falling over).

Many of the skills which I have retained are of very little practical value to me now. Will I ever again need to stand properly to attention? I could, if necessary, because I remember very clearly the instructions for doing it, which I never saw written down but only heard bawled: Headup-chinin-chestout-stomachin-heelstogether-feetatanangleof45degrees-thumbsinlinewiththeseamsofthetrousers-standperfectlySTIW! It’s probably done differently nowadays.

Something else I could still do if asked was rarely called for even at the time. It was called Rest On Your Arms Reversed, and it went like this:

On the appropriate commands, you sloped arms, then presented them (more fun doing this with a sword, but that's another story).

You are now in this position, only in a different sort of uniform (unless you were in the Royal Scots Fusiliers) and without the bayonet, for reasons which will become clear. (Also, the position of his right foot isn't quite correct: it should have been crashed down at a slight angle so that its heel was tucked into the the instep of the left.)

Then comes the tricky bit: on the command Rest...etc., you rotated the rifle forwards through 180 degrees (first moving it away from you to avoid giving yourself a nasty knock with the butt) until the muzzle rested on the toe of your left boot. Then, slowly, one at a time, you made a big circle with each arm, following the hand with your eyes until they (your hands, that is) were clasped over the end of the butt with your elbows still sticking out. Finally, in one quick move, you dropped your elbows and bowed your head, reverently.

How you got back from this position I have quite forgotten. But given a hint or two about that, and a short Lee-Enfield, I would love to play a small part, if called upon to do so, in the obsequies of some royal person, for that is the kind of occasion when this manoevre is—or used to be—carried out. A misty autumn day with a slight drizzle, the Dead March in Saul, the black-draped coffin on the gun carriage....... Great!


Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Scalpels over the Ruhr

Earlier this month I had an operation and a few days in hospital. I did not expect an especially jolly week but I was not nervous, because what had to be done to me was not at all life-threatening, though everyone knows that there is always some risk with operations: if something goes wrong, even little things such as having a mole removed, say, can leave you crippled for life, while clumsy work on an ingrowing toenail can kill you. Anyway, I felt it was unlikely that the sort of emergency that crops up frequently in TV hospital dramas would arise in my case, with cries of "Quick, nurse, intubate!" or, from a worried anaesthetist, a quiet "I say, he's gone rather a funny colour...".

They decided to give me an epidural. I'd had one of these years ago, but on that occasion I also had a general anaesthetic; this time I was fully conscious throughout so that during the operation I could listen to the conversation of the theatre staff, a rare privilege.

They had all courteously introduced themselves to me as they bustled about in the ante-room but I can remember only a couple of the names; there seemed to be at least three surgeons, an anaesthetist, two or three other men whose function I forget, and two female nurses.

From the way they chatted to each other it was clear that here was a happy team with mutual respect; their discussion was of course serious but lightened with an occasional quip. They were not as persistently jokey as some proctologists and colo-rectal surgeons I have encountered, but when you think of where the latter spend their working lives it is not surprising that they acquire huge repertoires of funny stories to get them through the day.

After the introductions the head honcho asked the team to gather round and then proceeded to give them a pre-op chat. None of the team were old enough to have been WWII bomber pilots, but the general tone was very similar to a Wing Commander's briefing, though using different words to describe a very different sort of operation:

Right, settle down, chaps, smoke if you want to.
Tonight, it's Dortmund again. We're going over in two waves: I shall lead the first and Squadron Leader Wilmington the second. The first will drop
incendiaries and the second 5,000-pounders.
Keep your eyes open for fighters as soon as we're over Germany, and there'll be heavy ack-ack over the target.
Weather will be......

...and so on. It was all most interesting and impressive. I would have liked to have joined in with questions or helpful comments, but I was too shy.

[Of course, smoking would not have been allowed in the theatre; you can't, anyway, when you're wearing a mask.]


Thursday, 15 March 2012

A frank and honest report

A despatch from a remote spot from which few journalists have been able to file copy is likely to be accurate, particularly when it is written by someone who has no interest in embroidering his experiences or departing in any way from the whole truth.

Christopher Hitchens' latest report will therefore be widely accepted.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Free OED, but you have to wait

I have written many posts about the mighty Oxford English Dictionary, and this one described a way of getting access to the online version for nothing.

There is another way: simply sign up to the OED Word of the Day and you will be emailed daily with a link to the dictionary's entry for a word or phrase which, for one reason or another, is considered interesting. A recent example is Ps and Qsthe etymology of this is uncertain, and the OED lists seven possibles, likely or unlikely.

But does this mean, I hear you cry, that they will email you the entries for every one of the OED's 600,000 words and 3 million quotations? Well, yes, they will, but it will take them over 750 years, even if there are no new entries (the last quarterly update noted that 1,200 new words and meanings had been added).    


Monday, 5 March 2012

Drained crystals

Watching re-runs of lousy old TV dramas is hugely enjoyable: it is fascinating to see which of them can give nostalgic pleasure and which are even worse heaps of rubbish than one remembers them. Fortunately many contemporary reviews are available on the internet so that it is possible to see what the critics thought of them at the time 

For example, there is a comprehensive archive of Clive James' writing on TV between 1972 and 1982. This is what he had to say about Star Trek

On Star Trek (BBC1) our galaxy got itself invaded from a parallel universe by an alien Doppelgänger toting mysterioso weaponry. These bad vibes in the time-warp inspired the line of the week. ‘Whatever that phenomenon was,’ piped Kirk’s dishy new black lieutenant, ‘it drained our crystals almost completely. Could mean trouble.’

In our house for the past few years it’s been a straight swap between two series: if my wife is allowed to watch Ironside I’m allowed to watch Star Trek, and so, by a bloodless compromise possible only between adults, we get to watch one unspeakable show per week each. (My regular and solitary viewing of It’s a Knock-Out and Mission Impossible counts as professional dedication.)

How, you might ask, can anyone harbour a passion for such a crystal-draining pile of barbiturates as Star Trek? The answer, I think, lies in the classical inevitability of its repetitions. As surely as Brünnhilde’s big moments are accompanied by a few bars of the Valkyries’ ride, Spock will say that the conclusion would appear to be logical, Captain. Uhura will turn leggily from her console to transmit information conveying either (a) that all contact with Star Fleet has been lost, or (b) that it has been regained. Chekhov will act badly. Bones (‘Jim, it may seem unbelievable, but my readings indicate that this man has … two hearts’) will act extremely badly. Kirk, employing a thespian technique picked up from someone who once worked with somebody who knew Lee Strasberg’s sister, will lead a team consisting of Spock and Bones into the Enterprise’s transporter room and so on down to the alien planet on which the Federation’s will is about to be imposed in the name of freedom.

The planet always turns out to be the same square mile of rocky Californian scrubland long ago overexposed in the Sam Katzman serials: Brick Bradford was there, and Captain Video – not to mention Batman, Superman, Jungle Jim and the Black Commando. I mean like this place has been worn smooth, friends. But the futuristic trio flip open their communicators, whip out their phasers, and peer alertly into the hinterland, just as if the whole layout were as threateningly pristine as the Seven Cities of Cibola. Star Trek has the innocence of belief.

Another example is this piece on Kenneth Griffith's documentary about Jesus:

During the course of his career as a maker of documentaries, this compact but variously gifted Welsh actor has been intense about such figures as Napoleon and Cecil Rhodes. Now he was after even bigger game — Jesus Christ. Retracing the journey of the Magi, Kenneth landed in Iran. Immediately he was thrown out. As usual Kenneth interpreted this rejection as an Establishment plot. Kenneth is convinced that the Establishment, everywhere, is out to get him, stifle his voice, ban his programmes, etc. 'I certainly have automatic high velocity RIFLES!' he shouted sarcastically.

Nothing daunted, Kenneth joined the Magi's trail at another point. Ruins of ancient cities trembled in the heat. A caricature stage Welshman darting abruptly out of doorways, Kenneth blended obtrusively into the scenery. He has a high visibility factor, mainly because he is incapable of either just standing there when he is standing there or just walking when he is walking. Standing there, he drops into a crouch, feet splayed, arms loosely gesticulating, eyes popping, teeth bared in a vulpine snarl. Walking, he makes sudden appearances over the tops of small hills.

Kenneth can ask you the time in a way that makes you wonder how he would play Richard III, so it can be imagined that when discussing Jesus he was seldom guilty of underplaying a scene. 'Jesus', he whimpered, ramming his hands deep into his pockets and staring sideways into the camera, 'was... a Jew.' In possession of this and much similar knowledge that the Establishment would like to ban, Kenneth kept moving through the desert, aiming the occasional slow karate chop at a rock. 'Of course all truth', he confided to the camera and a surrounding mountain range, 'is dangerous to all Establishments.' But even while saying this he was positioning himself on top of a particularly inviting mountain. Kenneth's version of the Sermon on the Mount was delivered to all points of the compass.

Spinning, jerking, ducking and weaving, he made you realise just how it was that Jesus attracted so much attention. As the son of a Nazarene carpenter Jesus would have remained unknown. It was by carrying on like a balding Taff madman with St Vitus's dance that he got his message across. 'Blessed are the MEEK!' shrieked Kenneth, climaxing a programme to which I unhesitatingly award, for the second time in the history of this column, that most rarely conferred of all television trophies, the Tin Bum of Rangoon.

This is classy writing. I read all James' TV pieces in the Observer when they first appeared and they are worth re-reading now. A comment in another article he wrote on Kenneth Griffith has stuck in my mind: "Griffith, if called upon, could do Gone with the Wind as a one-man show, including the burning of Atlanta if someone would set light to his socks."

On the evidence of his TV reviews and some of his literary essays—which are also in his archive—Clive James is witty, clever and erudite. But not particularly wise: years ago, he wrote a mawkish and fawning piece as an obituary (entitled, grandly, "Requiem") for Princess Diana, with whom he was besotted, while acknowledging that she was unstable, a liar and occasionally a fruitcake on the rampage; he was hugely impressed that she had enjoyed his company on many occasions, and had accepted his invitation to lunch. 

Oddly, at the same time he was describing Prince Charles as "a man as good and honest as any I have ever met", and expressing agreement with the view that he will make a great king.

He has a sharp eye for pretentiousness but not his own: Private Eye once devoted a whole Pseuds Corner to him, a rare distinction.