C’mon, it’s only 16 years ago!

Oh now I feel old! The topic in the textbook was science, and as a filler I showed the students some science-related movie trailers, starting with the ‘based on a true story’ movies Hidden figures, The theory of everything and The right stuff. Then I showed some science fiction, starting with 2001: A space odyssey. I said ‘How many of you remember 2001’? I was expecting a few hands. I don’t know how old my students are, but I would guess late 20s or even early 30s for some of them. (Others are much younger, possibly late teens or early 20s.) No-one (but me) remembers 2001???? At least they could have said ‘Oh, that was the year I started school’ (as indeed one of my nieces said when I posted on Facebook about this later.)

Then I showed them Back to the future 1 & 2, and 1989’s imagining of 2015 made much more sense to them than 1968’s imagining of 2001. (In general, BttF got more right than 2001.) Along the way I found 10 Things Back to the Future 2 Got Right, 10 Things Back to the Future 2 Got Wrong and a parody by CollegeHumor made in 2015 with the benefit of nowsight. I also tried to find the American talk/comedy show which snared Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd as guests on 21 October 2015, but I couldn’t find it and couldn’t remember whose show it was on. A Facebook friend later told me it was Jimmy Kimmel.

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My Fair Lady

My wife and I are looking at going to a performance of My Fair Lady, currently playing in Sydney. One website says that it stars ‘Downton Abbey‘s Charles Edwards and Anna O’Byrne‘. Don’t recognise those names. Quick interweb search. Charles Edwards played Michael Gregson (a minor character) and Anna O’Byrne … wasn’t in Downton Abbey. Oh, that’s ‘(Downton Abbey‘s Charles Edwards) and Anna O’Byrne’.

“Screw it”

Today I told the man in the coffee shop to screw it.

And he did.

Since last week I have been using a reusable coffee cup with a screw-type lid. Last week I held the lid when I gave the cup to the man, then screwed it back on myself. Today, for some reason, I put the lid on the counter. He made the coffee, filled the cup, picked up the lid and attempted to snap it on, like a disposable cup.

So I said “Screw it”.

Ambiguous eggs

We have just returned from the supermarket, where my wife bought a box of ‘large cage eggs’. I think they are large (cage eggs), but there is the possibility that they are (large cage) eggs. Either way, it’s the hens which are in the cages, so the larger the cage, the better. (Similarly, it’s the hens which are free-range, not the eggs.)

The side of the box gives further information: they are ‘large farm fresh cage eggs’. But are they large (farm fresh) (cage eggs) or (large farm) (fresh cage) eggs?

‘To the egress’

At a railway station in central Sydney, I saw a door marked EMERGENCY EGRESS ONLY. I guess that at least 99% of such doors in the English-speaking world are marked EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY.

Egress is the slightly earlier word, dating from the 1530s. Exit as a stage direction (technically, a verb) as in ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ dates from the 1530s, but from the 1590s it was used as a noun, as in ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances’ and (occasionally) a ‘real’ verb.

From about 1650 to about 1850, the two words were used more or less interchangeably, but then the use of exit grew and egress declined, probably corresponding to the growth in public railway travel. Then in the early 1970s, the use of exit skyrocketed, for reasons I can’t think of, but curiously declined from 2000 to 2008. Most of this was due to the use of exit as a noun; exit really only began to be used as a verb in the 20th century.

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1. Also called pipe organ. a musical instrument …
4. Biology. a grouping of tissues  …
5. penis.

Church musicians with a certain sense of humour, or people with a certain sense of humour who know church musicians, are prone to making jokes about organs. At one time it was possible to buy t-shirts or windcheaters with the words ‘Bach’s organ works’ on the front and ‘and so does mine’ on the back. (Note: JS Bach and his two successive wives produced 20 children between them.)

It is possible for writers from earlier times to make innocent innuendo. During his visits to England, Felix Mendelssohn met and became quite friendly with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. On one visit, Mendelssohn wrote (in a diary or letter):

Joking apart, Prince Albert asked me to go to him on Saturday at two o’clock so that I may try his organ.

ed Derek Watson, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations


Today’s headline ambiguity is brought to you by the letter S. S has three major roles in English – marking plural nouns (the intended reading of this headline), 3rd person present simple verbs (the unintended reading of this headline) and (with an apostrophe) possession.

The intended reading is a noun phrase with a noun phrase modifier and a plural noun. The unintended reading is a clause with a noun phrase and a verb. The unintended reading gains strength by being standard English, while the intended reading is acceptable headlinese but not standard English. In standard English, we would have to talk about ‘Cardinal Pell’s charges’ (that is, the charges against him, not belonging to him).

Either way, the ambiguity continues because charge has multiple meanings both as a noun and a verb.

(Note: I am not commenting on the justice or injustice of the charges, or on His Eminence’s innocence or guilt. I am commenting on the linguistic ambiguity of the headline.)