“thwart with danger”

Some years ago, a distant cousin wrote and self-published a book detailing the history of our mutual family. A great-great-great-grandfather and -mother, a great-great-grandfather and four other children arrived in Sydney in 1855 and settled on the mid-north coast of NSW, with four more children born in Australia. Eight of those survived to adulthood and six produced large families, so this is the biggest branch of my family tree. (I might call it a limb or a bough but I don’t know which is meant to be larger.) I have just re-read parts of it while conducting family history research. Among other things, she writes that life on farms and in small towns was difficult, and childbirth in particular was

thwart with danger

I can understand why someone would mix up fraught and thwart – they are relatively uncommon words, they rhyme (at least for people with non-rhotic pronunciation) and the differences are very small (fr and thw), and both collocate with danger: fraught with danger and thwart danger. Fraught here is an adjective and thwart is a verb. 

An online search found about 3,430 instances of “thwart with danger”, 5,150 for “thwart danger” and 2,580,000 for “fraught with danger”.

Fraught is from Middle Dutch or Middle Low German and is related to freight, both most basically meaning full of, fraught in a negative way (and now only as an adjective) and freight in a positive way (as a noun and verb). Common collections are fraught relationship, fraught situation and fraught heart, process is fraught, life is fraught, situation is fraught and system is fraught, and relationships are fraught, studies are fraught and lives are fraught. Thwart is from Old Norse and basically means across; as a verb, to lie across, oppose, frustrate or prevent. Common collocations are thwart God, thwart efforts, thwart attempts, thwart justice and thwart competition, thwart a person/man/child and thwart a takeover, thwart the will, thwart the plans and thwart the efforts.


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.”

Who’s who?

I am reading a book on Australian history, and one passage is about Harold Holt, the prime minister of Australia from 1966 to 1967. In one of the more bizarre incidents of Australian history, he disappeared and presumably drowned while swimming at a remote surf beach near Melbourne (though alternative suggestions exist). The book says that his memorial service “drew a crowd of foreign dignitaries such as had not before assembled at an Australian ceremony”, including “the president of the United States … the prime minister of Britain, Harold Wilson … the heir to the British throne, the young Prince Charles … the presidents of the Philippines, South Korea and South Vietnam and the young prime minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore”.

Continue reading

Sydney Parkinson, the Endeavour’s forgotten linguist

Sunday, 27th. [January 1771] Departed this life Mr. Sydney Parkinson, Natural History Painter to Mr. Banks

James Cook’s one and only mention of Sydney Parkinson is to record his death, one of about twenty of the Endeavour’s crew to die of “Fevers and Fluxes” while at the Dutch outpost of Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) or en voyage soon after, in January and February 1791. 

Joseph Banks records him slightly more, mentioning him sketching and painting, attending the funeral of the other artist Alexander Buchan, inquiring about spices in the Spice Islands (now Indonesia), falling sick and dying. (Banks records the date as the 26th. Cook used naval dates, which run from midday to midday; Banks used civil dates, from midnight to midnight.)

Botanists are fortunate that Parkinson kept a journal himself and made 280 paintings and over 900 sketches. Searching for ‘Sydney Parkinson botany’ will show you the breadth and depth of the material by and about him. But his interests were many and varied. He recorded the information about the transit of Venus (or copied it from the astronomer Charles Green) and thrice-daily temperatures while the Endeavour was at Tahiti. Relevantly for this blog post, he recorded words from languages spanning Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia. Indeed, he collected more words from more languages than Cook and Banks combined. Yet he is almost unknown in linguistic circles. Searching for ‘Sydney Parkinson language’ or ‘Sydney Parkinson linguistics’ shows no scholarly treatment of his linguistic work, and only one passing reference to it (on the website of the Australian Society of Friends (Quakers), (Parkinson being a Quaker).  

I have inquired about doing a doctorate on Parkinson, but the advisor and I couldn’t reach agreement on the exact scope of my possible research. I have in mind to inquire at one other university. Maybe I’ll do it anyway as an armchair scholar, sometime. 

The 250th anniversary of his death fell this week, with no commemoration that I saw, not even on this blog. I drafted this last week then forgot all about it. 

“We will smash them like guitars”

Australians are reliving the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, which ran from 15 September to 1 October 2000. One story which was quite notorious at the time and which has featured in the media recently involves the US swimmer Gary Hall Jr. He was widely quoted as saying that “we [the US 4 x 100m freestyle relay team] will smash them [the Australian team] like guitars”. There were, and are, two problems with that quotation. The first is what happened actually on the night of 16 September 2000:

The second is the way that the Australian media quoted, and still quote, what Hall wrote, which was actually: “My biased opinion says that we will smash them like guitars. Historically the U.S. has always risen to the occasion. But the logic in that remote area of my brain says it won’t be so easy for the United States to dominate the waters this time.”

“My biased opinion” and “it won’t be so easy to dominate” give him just enough wriggle room. It was his biased opinion, and it wasn’t so easy.

Quotations need to be concise, but it is easy and often tempting to select and present portions of a quotation which give a distorted meaning, or even the opposite meaning.

Botany Bay

The topic of Botany Bay as a penal colony cropped up twice today. The first was at a service commemorating the 200th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of heritage church building in Sydney. The settlement/colonisation/invasion of Australia started in 1788, so no building in Australia is older than 231 years, and only a handful are older than 200 (a lot depends on definitions – some buildings were originally built then but have been extensively rebuilt since then).

Alongside some psalm anthems and a hymn of the time, we sang a rollicking song which I had not previously encountered, which exhorts young virgins, frolic and fair, to trip it away to Botany Bay to join the bold convicts, from whom they may chuse a man and attend procreation. Google shows that the poem was written in 1801, at which time the convict colony was a miserable place. It didn’t start improving until the arrival of Governor Macquarie in 1810. 

This evening my wife and I went to see the movie Downton Abbey, set in 1927. The servants of the household get their their noses out of joint at being pushed around by the servants of the King and Queen, who are visiting, so they plot to temporarily remove them from the situation. One of them mutters “We’ll be sent to Botany Bay”. Well, no, for two reasons. Firstly, the convict colony at Botany Bay lasted only 10 or so days before Governor Phillip discovered that Port Jackson/Sydney Harbour was far nicer, so only the convicts on the ships of the First Fleet were sent to Botany Bay. But the name stuck, either for the colony, alongside the official name, New South Wales, and as the destination for convicts. Secondly, transportation to New South Wales was abolished in 1850 (and to anywhere in Australia in 1868), so no-one would have been transported here in 1927. I think the character was being hyperbolic, anyway.

gong hay fat choy and gong xi fa cai

From the time of the gold rushes of the 1850s to about 1989, most Chinese people who came to Australia were from the southern provinces and spoke Cantonese, Hokkien or Hakka. I can remember seeing Lunar New Year decorations and advertisements saying gong hay fat choy (or variations thereof). 

About nine years ago I started teaching at a college which overwhelmingly catered to Chinese students. It being February, I started with gong hay fat choy! and no-one understood me, because they all spoke Mandarin (and/or because my Chinese pronunciation is so bad). Finally one student understood what I was trying to say.

Especially post-Tiananmen Square, more people from the northern provinces came here and Mandarin gradually overtook Cantonese as the most-spoken kind of Chinese. The 2016 Australian census reported that 2.5% of Australians speak Mandarin at home, alongside Cantonese at 1.2%, and Arabic, Vietnamese, Italian and Greek (with between 1.4 and 1% each).

Continue reading

Not so fast!

I was editing an article about intermittent fasting (that is, not eating for all or part of a day, interspersed with normal (possibly restricted) eating on other days). 

Inevitably, I got thinking about the various meanings of fast, as an adjective or adverb meaning quick(ly), as an adjective or adverb meaning firm(ly), secure(ly) and as a noun or verb meaning an abstention/to abstain from food. Dictionary.com doesn’t help. It lists the quick(ly) and firm(ly) meanings together, and notes that they are “akin to fast2” (that is, the noun/verb).

Etymology.com has possibly too much information. As I understand it, the firm, secure meaning came first. The abstain from food meaning came next, and means, basically, to hold oneself firmly. The quick meaning came last. If you run firmly, you run quickly. (Fast asleep means firmly, securely asleep, not quickly asleep, which might be confusing to young children, who almost certainly encounter the quick(ly) meaning first.)

From hold fast has come holdfast, which means a firm grip, a staple or clamp, or an organ by which an aquatic plant or animal can attach to a surface. Note also Holdfast Bay, Adelaide, South Australia, which got its name after Colonel William Light, the SA surveyor-general found anchorage there in a storm.

Hang on, though, I’ve encountered the meaning of a small fortress. But that appears to be used only in fantasy novels; Wikipedia’s disambiguation page gives GRR Martin’s A song of ice and fire series as an example.

PS At a funeral this afternoon, the word steadfast was used.

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.

Continue reading