999th post – A tale of two cities

I have occasionally pondered the similarities and differences between these two cities (shown above as close as I can to the same scale). I think there are more differences than similarities. Both are the biggest city in their country, but Seoul comprehensively so and Sydney only just (and is projected to be overtaken by Melbourne sooner rather than later). Seoul is the capital of South Korea, but Sydney isn’t the capital of Australia, even though many people around the world think or assume it is. As a result, Sydney (and/or Melbourne) dominate economically and culturally, but not politically (at least at the national level; they dominate their respective states). 

Geographically, both sit between the ocean and mountains. Even though South Korea is overall more mountainous, Wentworth Falls (at the far left of the Sydney map) is higher in elevation than Bukhansan. It’s just that Bukhansan is located comparatively much closer to its city. (Also, Mount Kosciuszko (the highest mountain on mainland Australia) is higher than Hallasan, and Mawson Peak (the highest on an outlying territory) is (just) higher than Mount Baekdu.) Both are at similar latitudes (Seoul 37ºN and Sydney 33ºS), but Seoul’s weather is dominated by the Siberian high and East Asian monsoon, meaning very cold winters (with snow) and very wet summers (with occasional typhoons) while Sydney’s is more equable, very rarely getting super-cold or super-hot (at least towards the coast; my inland suburb is more variable, and one day a few years ago a suburb near here was the hottest place on the planet). 

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Extraordinarily unique

Wikipedia’s article on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan quotes “US officials” describing it as “extraordinarily unique”.

Some style guides advise or prescribe against any modification of unique. Either something is the only one of its kind, or it’s not. It can’t be (for example) very unique. While modifying unique is probably best avoided in formal contexts, there can be no doubt that many people say or write it informally and normally. Google Ngram Viewer shows not (by far the most common), very, as, most, so, quite, rather, somewhat, almost and probably unique. Some of these are (probably) more acceptable, and others less so. 

Extraordinarily unique isn’t on Ngrams’ top 10 results (its usage is about one-tenth that of probably unique), but a general Google search shows about 391,000 results, starting with blind auditions on The Voice, the Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Villa Bismarck on Capri.  

It might just be possible to describe something as extraordinarily unique if it’s extraordinary as well as unique – a whole level more unique than anything else. Australia has many unique animals, but the platypus is extraordinary. Anyone familiar with jerboas will accept the kangaroo, but when the first samples of dead platypuses (?platypi, ??platypodes) arrived in England, the experts there thought someone here was playing a practical joke on them. But “except for its size and exaggerated security measures,” Bin Laden’s compound “itself did not stand out architecturally from others in the neighbourhood.”

Google’s autocomplete

I don’t know how Google’s autocomplete works, but it’s not really helping calm nerves at this time. Are these based on real searches by real people?

Just for comparison:

I also don’t know if they tailor those results to my current location.

Actually, Australia is wider than the moon, but I’m not sure who would ask about which two hemispheres (of Earth) Australia is located in, unless it’s the southern and eastern hemispheres.


Sometimes I find things of linguistic interest in unexpected places. The cafe near my house sells bottles of Burgundee Creaming Soda. That would usually be ‘Burgundy’ (indeed Pages for Mac autocorrected it), but possibly they changed the spelling to avoid getting a strongly-worded letter from the body in charge of geographically-based drink and food names in France. Or maybe they really did originally call it Burgundy Creaming Soda and really did get such a letter. Either way, they could argue/could have argued that burgundy refers to the colour of the liquid, not to any attempt to pass it off as coming from that region of France. (Pages for Mac also changed burgundy to Burgundy.)

But no-one in Australia is going to believe that Bundaberg brand Burgundy Creaming Soda is made in France. Bundaberg is a regional city in Queensland, and the Bundaberg Brewed Drinks Company is well-known for its range of soft drinks. In fact, the city is even better known for its rum, which I have just discovered is made by another company. If you ask for a ‘Bundaberg’ at an Australian pub, you will probably get rum. If you ask for a ‘Bundy’, you will certainly get rum. 

(As an aside, we wouldn’t expect boeuf bourguignon to be made in Burgundy (I ate it in Paris), but there are strict laws about Burgundy wine. Even so, dictionary.com lists ‘often lower-case’ burgundy as ‘any of various red wines with similar characteristics made elsewhere’.)

At the top of the label is the instruction ‘Invert bottle before opening’. And open it upside-down? Please invert and revert (or maybe evert, or maybe even convert) the bottle before you open it. 

Latin vertō, vertere, versus (turn), has given rise to a large number of English words (Wikipedia lists 120). Those in the form prefix + vert are: advert, avert, controvert, convert, divert, evert, extrovert, introvert, invert, obvert, pervert, revert and subvert. Closely related to these are words ending in –verse: adverse, averse, converse, diverse, inverse, multiverse, obverse, perverse, reverse, transverse, traverse and universe. In some of those words, the idea of ‘turn’ is more obvious; in others, less so. Most of the other words on Wikipedia’s list are derivatives of those, though there are some which aren’t (divorce and vertebra, for example). 

Mountain high

Yesterday was Australia Day (because it fell on a Saturday, the public holiday is tomorrow – Australians love long weekends), and was quite hot, so I didn’t want to over-burden the students. For the last half hour, I found a Youtube video called 101 Facts about Australia, which I won’t link to because it isn’t very good. If I’d prepared sooner, I might have found a better one. Among other things, it stated (ha!) that Australia has eight states, and named one of them “Southern Australia”. Actually, there are six states and two major internal territories, and one of them is “South Australia”. 

It mentioned Australia’s highest mountain, which the presenter mispronounced (everyone does anyway, but he mis-mispronounced it). He also said, and the caption read, “7,310 ft” (2,228 m). I said “You students from Nepal and China may be amused by how small our mountains are”. One Nepalese student said “That’s almost as high as the Himalayas. They are 8,000.” I said “That’s 7,000 feet, not 7,000 metres”. She seemed to know what feet are in this context.  

The major Himalayan mountains are almost 4 times taller than Mt Kosciuszko (Mt Everest is almost exactly 4 times taller) . It gets on lists only because it is the tallest mountain on the continent. Maybe. If the island of New Guinea is considered as part of the continent (which it geologically is), then the highest mountain is Puncak Jaya, in Indonesia’s Papua Province.

And Mt Kosciuszko isn’t the tallest mountain on Australian territory.  That’s Mawson Peak (2,745 m), on the desperately remote external territory of Heard Island. 

PS Just to confuse things, another state is “Western Australia”, sometimes incorrectly referred to as “West Australia”. “Southern Australia” refers to a wider and slightly vague geographical region which includes southern Western Australia, southern South Australia, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Tasmania. “Northern Australia” includes northern Western-Australia (also called “north-west Australia” or “North-West Australia”), the Northern Territory and Queensland.

the bottom of the harbour

Yesterday I walked around the Circular Quay and Rocks area of Sydney Harbour. A bonus was a full-sized cruise ship at the Overseas Passenger Terminal. A second bonus was that I found (on the terminal’s website) that it was due to depart in 40 minutes, so I positioned myself on the footpath above Circular Quay station (where I’d been several hours before).

One of the reasons Sydney (first the settlement/town then the city/metropolitan area) is where it is, is that there is deep water right up to the shoreline – deep enough for the sailing ships of 1788 and, it turns out, for the cruise ships of the 21st century.

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“He’d run them all”

I’ve read a few books by Sir Terry Pratchett, but I’m not a big fan. I know of one Discworld novel titled The last continent, in which the ?hero Rincewind  is magically transported to the continent of XXXX” (pronounced Four-ex), loosely based on Australia.

Today I was reading through the synopsis and quotations, for no particular reason. My eye was caught by this one:

Rincewind had always been happy to think of himself as a racist. The One Hundred Meters, the Mile, the Marathon — he’d run them all.

Haha. Race has two meanings, athletic and anthropological, which are unrelated. In real life, racist can only mean “a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to others”. It does not mean “someone who takes part in an athletics competition” (though Wikipedia notes that Rincewind “spends most of his time running away from bands of people who want to kill him for various reasons. The fact that he’s still alive and running is explained in that, although he was born with a wizard’s spirit, he has the body of a long-distance sprinter.”)

In particular, my eye was caught by “he’d run them all”. This is perfectly ambiguous between “he would run them all” and “he had run them all”. Grammatically, the first is an infinitive verb (compare “he would swim them all”), and the second is a past-participle verb (compare “he had swum them all”). This ambiguity is possible only with the two small groups of verbs in which the infinitive form and the past-participle form are the same: come, become and run; and burst, cost, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, set and shut (with perhaps a few others).

I have previously posted about saying to a student “I wish you’d come on time”, in which the same ambiguity arises. 

498th post – Last day as English language teacher

Today is my last day as an English language teacher, after more than eleven and a half years at a language college, provincial government high school and university in South Korea and language colleges in Australia. I am making this move for a wide variety of reasons, related to the ESL sector in general (an Australian student visa requires attendance at classes for 20 hours per week, so most teachers are engaged for 20 hours per week, and there is very little opportunity to advance to a full-time position), the college and colleagues (some classes at some colleges are run as courses – the students start at the same time, do the course, and finish at the same time, but our English classes have been ‘start and finish when you need to’, and I’ve had to share a small office with up to four other people of various degrees of loudness in various languages, as student of various degrees of loudness in various languages come and go), the students (who have different levels of English, life experience and personal and study backgrounds, some of whom attend way less than 20 hours per week, and come and go, use their phone, chat in their own language or sleep when they are there), and myself (basically, dealing with all of the above, and commuting). 

Through English language teaching, I’ve lived in South Korea for two periods totalling three and a half years, met my wife, travelled to Hong Kong and Japan, met all kinds of other people in South Korea and Australia, gained my masters degree (and may yet go on to doctoral study), attempted to learn Korean (하지만 아직 잘 못 해요), developed a serious hobby of photography and started this blog. On the other hand, I’ve had to largely give up my other serious hobby of classical choral singing. (I can and will return to that, but it remains to be seen whether I will ever again perform at my peak.) So now it’s time for a change. From tomorrow …

Sydney and Nepean

(long but hopefully interesting) The Nepean and Hawkesbury Rivers circle the Sydney metropolitan area and surrounding countryside to the south-west, west, north-west and north. I live in a suburb on the banks of the Nepean and last weekend went photo-hiking to four lookouts about 20 minutes’ drive south of here, in the small part of the greater Blue Mountains National Park east of the river. An online friend from Canada commented “Your Nepean is a lot more photogenic than ours” – “ours” being a major suburban centre of Ottawa, Ontario.

The former British colonies, big and small, are strewn with names commemorating places and people from Great Britain and Ireland, alongside names from other colonial powers (most notably Spain, France and the Netherlands) and indigenous names. Canada and Australia both have a Sydney and a Nepean. (And a Toronto – Australia’s Toronto has a population of about 5000; Canada’s Toronto … doesn’t.)

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The Blue Mountains v Blue Mountain

Yesterday I went driving, exploring and photographing in part of what some of my students call Blue Mountain, and what I insist on calling the Blue Mountains. There’s no place in Australia called Blue Mountain, but there are genuine linguistic reasons why some of my students (and, I guess, many others) change the Blue Mountains to Blue Mountain. Many languages do not have the equivalent of English a and the, and many speakers of English as a second language just aren’t used to saying those two English words. Many languages also do not have the equivalent of English plural s (or, as in Korean, it may be optional). English plural s often makes a double, triple or even quadruple consonant cluster with the final consonant(s) – here ns, which many second language speakers find difficult and want to simplify.

The Blue Mountains cover a large area, and people usually go to only a very small part of them. The officially defined geographic area covers 11,400 km2, almost as large as the Sydney metropolitan area (12,367 km2) and larger than 37 sovereign states. The local government area and the state electorate are, respectively, the City of Blue Mountains and the Electoral district of Blue Mountains, respectively.

And they aren’t blue. The sun filtering through evaporated eucalyptus oil gives the scenery a very slightly blueish tinge, but the trees are otherwise green and the rocks brown. I hope tourist books explain that.

The same linguistic issues arose when a student told me that she’d gone to Southern ’Ighland (viz, the Southern Highlands) the previous weekend. This sounded either like Southern Island (there is no Southern Island anywhere in the physical world) or (in my non-rhotic pronunciation) Southern Ireland (ooooh, a lot of Irish history and politics there).

[edit 6 Oct: after I posted on Facebook about another photo-hike to the Blue Mountains, an online friend from Canada told me that there is a Blue Mountain in Ontario (the name of the mountain and a ski resort), as well as nearby town named ‘The Blue Mountains‘.]