I previously mentioned the Youtube channel It’s okay to be smart by Joe Hanson, which presents bite-sized chunks of general science, specifically his catch-phrase “Stay curious”. Another catch-phrase is “[Name/pronoun] did a science”.

In the movie The Martian (but not the novel, which I recently bought, partly to research this), astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars after his crewmates think that was killed during an emergency evacuation. He survives (obviously), then records a video outlining what he must do to survive, partly to clarify his own thoughts and partly for any future mission which might find him (dead). He concludes: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m faced with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”.

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Passive voice is not used by Churchill (in this example)

Writing about passive voice yesterday reminded me of another instance of dodgy advice about it, which I encountered several years ago but didn’t write about here at the time. I was able to retrieve it from a series of emails I exchanged with an eminent linguist. 

To be fair, this writer doesn’t actually state that his example is passive voice, but he certainly implies it:

“As a rule, the active voice is more effective than the passive – e.g. ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ is active and more effective than ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat are what’s on offer’.” 

This example comes from English writer/broadcaster/Conservative MP Gyles Brandreth’s book Have You Eaten Grandma? (which I won’t link to). For my thoughts about a similar example, see this post).

When a writer advises against passive voice, check three things: 1) the sentence they use as an example, 2) why they say we should avoid it and 3) how they use passive voice in their writing elsewhere. 

1) Blood, toil, tears and sweat are what’s on offer isn’t passive voice. The only verb is are. The passive equivalent of Churchill’s famous sentence is Nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat is had by me (or Nothing to offer is had by me … or Nothing is had by me …). No-one, least of all Churchill, needs to be to told to avoid writing sentences like that because no-one, least of all Churchill, ever writes sentences like that. (Note that have can be used in passive voice, for example the mostly jocular A good time was had by everyone (or all), rather than Everyone had a good time or All had a good time.)

2) If he’d written “As a general rule, the active voice is more effective than the passive” I might just have agreed with him, but it it easy to find sentences where the passive is just as effective, if not more. Vladimir Putin’s been assassinated! is more effective than Someone’s assassinated Vladimir Putin! because it focuses on Putin (who we know about) rather than someone (who we don’t, at least initially).

3) On page 1 of the same book, Brandreth writes: “I was educated by teachers of English who knew their grammar and the value of it”. Not “Teachers of English who knew their grammar and the value of it educated me”, because the whole introduction is about I

PROPER reading material

One of my frustrations in learning Korean has been (not) finding real or realistic material which takes me beyond textbooks. So I was excited to find ‘Korean Short Stories for Beginners’, promising ‘PROPER reading material’, ‘interesting reading material’ and ‘easy-to-read, compelling and fun stories’. For beginners.

After ordering and receiving the book and its Intermediate companion, I found that their idea of PROPER reading material for beginners is three pages of text per story, albeit at a readable size and divided into paragraphs. My wife (a native Korean speaker with a qualification in teaching Korean to speakers of other languages) gasped with astonishment when I showed her. A member of my church choir said “There a no pictures!”. My idea of PROPER reading material for beginners is three paragraphs of text per story, with at least one picture.

The book also contains vocabulary lists for each chapter, English translations paragraph-by-paragraph, a one-paragraph summary of each story and a comprehension quiz. But three pages of text! With no pictures! I can understand the occasional sentence in its entirety, and get the gist of about half the sentences. 

I wish I could recommend the books, but I can’t, which is why I haven’t identified the publisher (but search and probably find). Maybe if they marketed the first one as intermediate and the second as upper-intermediate and included pictures, I might.

On Sunday I caught a bus to the city centre and a train home. I took this book to fill in time. Just after I got on the train, two women sat behind me and started talking Korean. I quickly hid the book; I didn’t want them to start speaking to me in Korean.

Most advice for second language learners includes something like “Take every opportunity to practice actually using the language.” But I rarely do, which partly explains why my level remains so low. And I would be terrified if people started speaking to me in Korean.

Some years ago I was reading a Korean textbook on a train when a woman sat next to me speaking Korean on her phone. She finished the call and looked straight at my textbook, so I had to say something. It quickly became apparent that her English was better than my Korean, so we talked in Korean until she got off.

PS A few days later I took and read the intermediate book, and found the language much easier (except the stories are longer and there’s no complete English translation).

Kingdoms and empires

The hymn The day thou gavest, Lord, has ended (Wikipedia, performance) has as its last verse:

So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

We quite often refer to God as king and to God’s kingdom or the kingdom of God, but we almost never refer to God as emperor or to God’s empire or the empire of God, even though King of kings and Lord of lords is more analogous to an earthly emperor than a king. 

The only reference to empire/emperor/imperial in the King James/Authorised version of the bible is in the comparatively late OT book of Esther (1:20):

When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire (for it is great), all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small. 

(The king being Ahasuerus and the empire being Persia.)

Of the other 27 translations on Bible Hub, one uses realm, four use empire and the rest kingdom.


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아모르 파티

My wife has been watching a Korean drama named 아모르 파티. I searched for information in English. Some sources render 파티 as party (so amor party is a love party), but far more as fati,* in which case what’s a love fati? Some sources add that amor fati is Latin for the love of fate, specifically one’s own fate. The concept dates from the Greek Stoics, and Wikipedia quotes Nietzsche: “that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

The drama is, as summarised by AsianWIki: “A divorcee with cancer and a penniless single father meet and heal their wounds with the help of each other.” I wonder how many Koreans are familiar with Latin or Stoic philosophy; in fact I wonder how many people from any country are.  

Another current drama 미스 몬테크리스토 (mi-seu mon-te-keu-ri-seu-to, Miss Montechristo) also alludes to Western literature, namely Dumas’ The Count of Monte Christo. Just because I haven’t encountered amor fati and have encountered The Count of Monte Christo (but haven’t read it) doesn’t necessarily mean that other people haven’t and have. 

(* both p and f can be transliterated as ㅍ; the actual Korean consonant is much closer to p)


Yesterday I had the sudden thought that we don’t say good-mouth as the equal and opposite of bad-mouth. We may compliment or speak well or highly of people, but we don’t go around good-mouthing them. Maybe we should.

Wikitionary and trace it to a calque from an expression in a Mande language of West Africa, which entered US English via Gullah. Wiktionary also adds “Compare Japanese 悪口 [waruguchi] (“to badmouth”), which is a compound of 悪 [waru] (“bad, wicked”) and 口 [kuchi] (“mouth”)”. I can also think of Latin maledicere/maledico/maledictus (compare English maledict (rare), malediction), so if three such widely separated languages have a word for it, then surely it’s not uncommon. See also Latin benedicere/benedico/ benedictio and English benedict (not used in this sense), benediction

But imagine that one bus driver drives carefully the whole way, while another starts a sign language conversation with a person sitting in the front passenger seat (which really happened some years ago). Which one am I likely to tell you about, or to complain to the bus company about (I didn’t; another passenger asked him to stop it, and he did)? How many large companies have complaints departments instead of compliments departments? Some websites allow the giving of feedback about how we are doing. I’ll guess that at least 90% of the feedback is negative. 

Many years ago I saw a cartoon of one person complaining about everything to another, who is trying to interrupt. The last panel shows that they are at the complaints counter of a department store. See also Douglas Adams’s Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints Department, which is “the only part of the company to still turn a profit”. 

Online searches for good-mouth found oral and dental products and treatments. Searches for bad-mouth found those alongside the criticise meaning. 

Coincidentally, while I was drafting this post, Browse TV Tropes showed me Accentuate the Negative, which discusses and gives examples of this. Accentuate the Positive is a song by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen.

Biblical gramma

I occasionally attempt to learn some biblical Greek. During my last burst, I spotted three slightly related words. 

The first is μαθητής mathetes (singular), μᾰθηταί mathetai (plural). In any other context, this would be translated as learner, student, follower or adherent, usually of a philosopher or rhetorician, but in biblical translations, it is usually translated as disciple (from Latin discipulus).  

The second is απόστολος apostolos (singular), απόστολοι apostoloi (plural); not surprisingly, apostle. This means one who is sent (ἀπό-, apó-, from + στέλλω, stéllō, I send). The closest Latin word is delegate (dē-, from + lēgātus chosen, selected, appointed), and I can’t think of any Germanic word except sendee, which Pages for Mac and WordPress both red-underline. (There is an old joke that an epistle is the wife of an apostle. One of my first linguistic musings was why epistle had an ‘i’ while apostle had an ‘o’. I later found out that the words are not e + pistle and a + postle but epi + stle and apo + stle.)   

The third is γραμματέας grammateas (singular), γραμματείς grammateis (plural), which is not related to grammar in the modern sense but to writing (γράμμα grámma) (compare Latin scrībō). Originally, it was anyone who wrote for a living, but in biblical terms is a scribe of the religious law (Hebrew סוֹפֵר sofér).

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And to think that I saw it in a Dr Seuss book

In 1937, Vanguard Press published And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street, by Dr Seuss, known to his family and friends as Theodore Seuss Geisel. The original edition referred to “a Chinaman”, which was later changed to “a Chinese man”. Chinaman is now seen as offensive though possibly not taboo, and no new children’s book would use it. As far as I can find, there are no direct equivalent instances of [Country] + man. The closest is Indiaman, but that didn’t/doesn’t refer to a person, but rather to a large ship engaged in trade between Europe and India. notes that Chinaman was originally as neutral as Englishman and Irishman. The difference is that Chinaman is [Country]-noun + man (compare *Englandman and *Irelandman), while Englishman and Irishman are [Nationality]-adj + man (compare *Chineseman). 

The Wikipedia article on Chinaman (linked above) mentions that Chinese uses 中國人 (zhōng-guó rén, China man/person), and I am familiar with Korean 중국 사람 (jung-guk sa-ram, China person). 중국 남자 (jung-guk nam-ja, China man) and 중국 여자 (jung-guk yeo-ja) are both also possible. I would not be surprised if many other languages use this formula. It is certainly not inherently racist. (Also, the Chinese word for a Western foreigner, 鬼佬 (gwei-lo), means ghost or devil man. Hmmm …)

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Lying awake in the middle of the night, I suddenly thought of the older, mostly biblical word beget. This was originally be + get, similar to be + come and be + have. It is irregular, originally beget, begat, begot and later beget, begot, begotten (cf get, got, gotten (for some people) and forget, forgot, forgotten). It is most famously used in the King James/Authorised version of the bible (1611), specifically in chapter 1 of the gospel according to Matthew, where “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas [Judah] and his brethren” and so on.

This translates the Greek word ἐγέννησεν, egénnēsen, the third-person singular aorist active indicative of γεννᾰ́ω, gennáō, 1. to beget, give birth to 2. to bring forth, produce, generate. We can hardly say that Abraham gave birth to Isaac, but we could easily say that Sarah did, except that the word is almost always used in relation to men. At the other end of Matthew’s genealogy, it does not say that Mary begat Jesus, but rather that Jesus was born of Mary, using the passive voice of the same Greek verb. (Compare 1 Chron 3, where “the sons of David, which were born unto him” are listed.)

Later versions use either begot or was the father of. The Good news bible/Today’s English version avoids the problem by using “the following ancestors are listed: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and his brothers” and so on. Other possibilities are the very un-biblical father and sire (both of which started as nouns).

Google Ngrams shows that the heyday of beget in all its forms was the 1650s, after which there was a slow decline to modern times. Surprisingly, though, there has been a rise in usage (especially of begat) since the 1980s, which I can’t find or think of any reason for. 

While researching for this post, I found a book by David Crystal titled Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. Note that much of the language of the KJV comes from Tyndale (1526-30) and Coverdale (1535), and even the KJV’s original phraseology is in conscious imitation of the earlier style (and English had changed a lot in that almost a century.

The colours of our lives

In 1969, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay published Basic Colour Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. They argued that there are “a limited number of universal basic color terms which begin to be used by individual cultures in a relatively fixed order”.

They present these as:

(white black) red (green yellow) blue brown (purple pink orange grey/gray).

(There are differences between languages and cultures (mostly involving green and blue, and light blue and dark blue), but I’ll accept that list at face value.)

The website of Lancaster University’s University Centre for Computer Corpus Research of Language (UCREL) contains lists of word frequencies in English.* Its frequency list of adjectives shows that the frequency of usage of colours is in the order

black white red green blue grey brown yellow pink orange purple

(and no others with a frequency of more than 10 per million words).

The two lists are obviously very similar: brown and yellow are the only two colours out of order. The two lists don’t have to match up, because they measure different things, but it’s fairly logical that a basic term in any semantic field will be used more than a non-basic term, and that words which are used more often will be regarded as basic.

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