Noise Annoys

“Noise” may have an interesting etymology. Some think it comes from “nausea”, which itself comes from Greek naus, meaning “ship”. Neither the putative etymology of “noise” nor the undisputed etymology of “nausea” would have been news to J.R.R. Tolkien. He was, after all, a professional scholar of literature and languages.

But that’s why The Lord of the Rings is often a puzzling book. Why did someone so interested in words and languages write so clumsily? As I’ve said before: I wish someone would translate Lord of the Rings into English. But perhaps if Tolkien had been a better writer I wouldn’t have read Lord of the Rings so often. And perhaps if he’d been a better writer there would have been no Lord of the Rings at all. Even so, it’s hard to excuse writing like this:

He heard behind his head a creaking and scraping sound. […] There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling noise. – “Fog on the Barrowdowns”, Book One, VIII

Why did he use “sound” and “noise”? They’re redundant, because creak, scrape and snarl already describe sounds or noises. You could argue that the additional words are there to balance the sentences, but if they hadn’t been there I don’t think anyone would have missed them:

He heard behind his head a creaking and scraping. … There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling.

Later in the book Tolkien gets it right:

At that moment there came a roaring and a rushing: a noise of loud waters rolling many stones. – “Flight to the Ford”, Book One, XII

Then he gets it wrong again:

Turning quickly they saw ripples, black-edged with shadow in the waning light: great rings were widening outwards from a point far out in the lake. There was a bubbling noise, and then silence. – “A Journey in the Dark”, Book Two, IV

This would have been better:

There was a bubbling, and then silence.

It’s crisper, clearer and doesn’t strike an ugly twentieth-century note in an archaic setting. And it should have been what J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in the first place. I don’t know why he didn’t and I don’t know why his editors or those who read early drafts of Lord of the Rings didn’t point out his error. That’s why I’d like to visit the Library of Babel and find a copy of Lord of the Rings written by Clark Ashton Smith.


The Conqueror Term

True story. I saw a copy of Rub Out the Words (2012) on a library shelf. It’s a collection of letters by core counter-cultural colossus William S. Burroughs. I pulled the book off the shelf, opened it, and began to search for a hit of heresiarchal heroin. Exactly 23 seconds later, my eyes fell on this phantasmagoric phraseology:

I do not think a writer should be called upon to defend his work in terms of a legal system that dates back to the middle ages.

I was stunned. Exactly 23 seconds. Well, I didn’t actually time it, but it would have been exactly 23 seconds if you choose the right base. And it was round-about 23 seconds in base 10. So I think reality was trying to tell me something: that Burroughs was part of the Hive Mind. He used a toxic term that good writers shouldn’t use – never, nunca, nohow, nowhere.

And it wasn’t the sole example in the book, I have since learnt. Here, then, are my suggestions for how Burroughs should have rubbed out the offending words and replaced them with something shorter and less vague (the final two examples are by the book’s editor and by someone Burroughs is quoting):

• I do not think a writer should be called upon to defend his work in terms of a legal system that dates back to the middle ages. → in a legal system
• All this is quite possible in terms of existing techniques. → with / by existing techniques
• I am not talking in terms of a thousand years. I am talking in NOW terms. → not talking of a thousand years. I am talking NOW.
• I am thinking in terms of the no-paying far-out magazines like Yugen and Kulchur. → thinking of / about no-paying far-out magazines
• When two or more letters covered the same ground, I selected the best in terms of quality of writing and completeness of thought. → in quality of writing
• Mr Burroughs writes enthusiastically about apomorphine treatment but I do not feel his enthusiasm is justified in terms of published results. → by published results

Okay, there are a lot of letters in the collection and Burroughs himself used “in terms of” only four (or five) times, which isn’t too bad. However, each use is an echt Guardianism, so Burroughs was undoubtedly a victim of the Conqueror Term, like millions of others, then and now. But it isn’t only English-speakers who can be victims of the Conqueror Term: it has infected usage in French too. This is from a speech by the new French president Emmanuel Macron:

… c’est ensuite les routes des trafics multiples qui nécessitent des réponses aussi en termes de sécurité et de coordination régionale … – Emmanuel Macron empêtré dans une folle polémique, Mediaguinee, 10/vii/2017.

… it is then the roads of multiple trafficking which also require answers in terms of security and regional coordination … – French President Emmanuel Macron is in the middle of a social media firestorm, Vox, 10/vii/2017.

The French and English can be shortened in the same way:

• des réponses aussi en termes de sécurité → des réponses aussi en sécurité
• answers in terms of security → in security

Macron, as you’d expect, is part of the Hive Mind too. He and many other Francophones have succumbed to the Conqueror Term, as you can see from these graphs at Google nGrams (“en termes du” behaves in an interesting way):

En termes de

En termes du

But there are vermicides in French too:

Attention, on confond souvent la signification de “en termes de”. Cette expression signifie « dans le vocabulaire de », « dans le langage de » et ne veut pas dire « en ce qui concerne », « en matière de », « sur le plan de ». Cette confusion est sûrement due à l’expression anglaise “in terms of” qui elle a le sens de “en matière de”. Faut-il écrire “en termes de” ou “en terme de” ?, La Langue Française, Nicolas Le Roux, août 31, 2015.

Take care: people often confuse the meaning of “en termes de”. This expression means “in the vocabulary of”, “in the language of”, and does not mean “in what concerns”, “in the matter of”, “after the form of”. This confusion is surely due to the English expression “in terms of”, which has the sense of “in the matter of”. (My translation, so not reliable)

Things were worse than I thought. Pero… ¡La lucha continúa!

Elsewhere other-posted:

Paradigms Loused
The Conqueror Worm — the title of this incendiary intervention is of course a reference to the famous poem by Edgar Allan In Terms Of Poe

Zo with the Flo

I had high hopes when I engaged issues recently around a Zoe Williams article in the Guardian interrogating issues around notions of rape in popular culture. And Zoe — what a thinker! — nearly fulfilled those hopes. I nearly had another scintillating sample for my award-winning “Oh My Guardian” series. This is nearly a perfect opening for a sentence of echt Guardianese:

In terms of narrative tropes…

But it should of course have been:

In terms of core narrative tropes…

So near — and yet so far. Still, “In terms of narrative tropes” is pretty darn good, worthy of the Great Gary himself. And it prompted me to interrogate issues around one of the core linguistic enigmas of our day. Here are two graphs from Google nGrams:

In terms of (UK English)

In terms of (US English)

What on earth is going on? Why have ITO usage metrics continued to rise in British English while peaking and falling in American English? This hasn’t happened with other core items of progressive English, like “issues around”:

Issues around (UK English)

Issues around (US English)

And “notions of authenticity”:

Notions of authenticity (UK English)

Notions of authenticity (US English)

And “engagement with” (in its progressive sense):

Engagement with (UK English)

Engagement with (US English)

If those keyly core items of Progressivese are “spiking” so healthily on both sides of the Atlantic, why is the even keylier corer “in terms of” not doing so? At least, I would say ITO is keylier corer, but does the ITO fall in America suggest that it isn’t?

Maybe not. One possibility is that “in terms of” has been depreciated in an influential (and anti-progressive) American manual of style that hasn’t been influential in the UK. However, American speakers have failed to see that the same grounds for rejection apply to “issues around” and so on.

But it’s hard to see why American progressive would take any notice of sensible advice about rejecting ITO. It’s also hard to see why the American drop in “in terms of” shouldn’t have influenced the UK even if this hypothetical style-manual (or arbiter) isn’t influential in the UK.

Something mysterious is going on and more research is plainly needed.

Previously pre-posted:

Septics vs Dirties
Get Your Tox Off
Guardianistas — all posts referencizing this core progressive demographic and their glossocentric performativity

Which Switch

Why didn’t George Orwell sort his relatives out? I don’t mean his family: I mean his pronouns. In The King’s English (1906), the Fowler brothers say this:

The few limitations on ‘that’ and ‘who’ about which every one is agreed all point to ‘that’ as the defining relative, ‘who’ or ‘which’ as the non-defining.

Here are some examples:

• The cat that sat on the mat ate a rat. (Defining)
• The cat, which is three, never sits on mats. (Non-defining)
• The cat that you see on the mat eats rats. (D)
• The cat, which you saw yesterday on a mat, eats rats. (N-D)
(The third example can also be written without an explicit relative: “The cat you see on the mat eats rats.”)

But Orwell doesn’t follow these simple rules consistently in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). In the opening chapter of the book, you can find many defining relatives using “which”:

• …one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move
• …a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron
• …an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall
• …the blue overalls which were the uniform of the party

But you can also find defining relatives using “that”:

• …his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended
• …there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere
• You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard (note implicit relative after “sound”)

Here Orwell uses “that” and “which” as defining relatives in the same sentence:

• Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.

I can’t see any clear reason for the alternation, but it would be interesting to analyse the sentences more carefully and see if it’s possible to discover what conditions his use now of “which”, now of “that”. When I looked at the same phenomenon in the work of Evelyn Waugh, I found that “that” seemed to occur more often when the noun was governed by a preposition. That may also apply to Orwell.

Now let’s move from a particular writer to something more general. It’s possible to use a modification of the rules given above. If the noun and its defining relative are separated by several other words, I sometimes prefer “which” to “that”. Here’s an example from Orwell:

• He had a trick of resettling his spectacles on his nose which was curiously disarming…

The noun is “trick”, not “his nose”, so “which” doesn’t seem so bad to me, because it helps to disassociate the relative from the nouns that separate it from its antecedent. In its non-defining form “which” has what might be called a disjunctive role, and the disjunctive association is still there when it’s used as a defining relative. That’s why “which” doesn’t seem right as a defining relative when its antecedent stands directly before it.

But the possessive of “his nose” also helps to dissociate the relative, so I would also be happy to use “that” in this particular case. In the other examples, “that” is the clear winner (except perhaps in “an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part…”).

Do many foreign learners of English feel the same way about “that”? I doubt it. It must often be difficult to separate the three meanings of “that”: the demonstrative pronoun, the defining relative, and the coordinator. Not many foreign speakers of English would understand this sentence easily:

• It’s confusing that that “that” that’s a relative pronoun is written in exactly the same way as that “that” that’s not.

If English had a governing academy, we might spell the three thats differently: that, thæt and thatt, for example. And if I had my way, we wouldn’t use a digraph for the dentals. That is, the opening sentence of Nineteen Eighty-Four would look like this:

• It was a bright cold day in April, and ðe clocks were striking Þirteen.

Terminal Breach

It’s said that, if you hear “in terms of” 23 times in 23 hours on the 23rd of the month, the ghost of William Burroughs will appear and offer you a heroin enema.

I don’t know whether this is true.

Elsewhere other-engageable:

William S. Burroughs
Alan Moore, C.B.E.
Michael Moorcock
Will Self
Stewart Home
Cormac McCarthy
Dr Joan Jay Jefferson
Serpent’s Tail
Titans of Trangression

Don’t Do Dot…

It’s a mistake to think that Guardianese, the optimal dialect of keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community, mandates optionizing on a permanent basis for the pretentious and polysyllabic. Yes, Guardianistas are addicted to phrases like “in terms of” and “prior to”, but they also like urgently throbbing monosyllables like “key”, “core” and “spike”.

These are unnatural words, taken from headlines, not from normal English. They reveal an important truth: simplicity can be pretentious too. The two aspects of Guardianese come together in phrases like “key indicator” and “core metric”. I would say that “vital sign” and “important statistic” are better and more natural English, but you can’t tell that by counting syllables.

And sometimes Guardianese doesn’t use any syllables at all…  Guardianistas also like the stylistic trick of trailing dots. I find it cheap and irritating, so I’m glad that one of my favourite writers thought the same long ago. In his essay “Stories I Have Tried to Write”, M.R. James (1862-1936) said this:

In parenthesis, many common objects may be made the vehicles of retribution, and where retribution is not called for, of malice. Be careful how you handle the packet you pick up in the carriage-drive, particularly if it contains nail parings and hair. Do not, in any case, bring it into the house. It may not be alone… (Dots are believed by many writers of our day to be a good substitute for effective writing. They are certainly an easy one. Let us have a few more……) (“Stories I Have Tried To Write”, 1929)

In short: Don’t do dot…

Elsewhere other-engageable:

Titus Graun
Reds under the Thread

Terminal Teraticity…

Americotrop-ism: n. literally, a tendency or habit of moving towards America; hence, a tendency or habit of adopting American culture, vocabulary and usage when one is not oneself American. | -ist, -ic(al) [Americ(a) + -o- + tropism, on the analogy of phototropism, chemotropism, geotropism, etc]

• “The Guardian-reading community displays a marked Americotropism.”


V. disappointed by China Miéville on BBC Radio 4’s Book Club (Sunday 1st November). It took him eight minutes to say “in terms of”.

Metricizing Michael…

All right-thinking folk are agreed that the Peckham-based author and visionary Michael Moorcock is a core colossus of the counter-culture. As the Guardian put it in 2007, he’s “the incendiary keystone of the visionary vortex that crystallized around New Worlds magazine in the 1960s, sparking a transgressive tornado that has sculpted paradigm-defying narratives of mutant sexuality, psychology and politics on an almost daily basis for over fifty years.”

But how often have keyly committed components of the Moorcock-fan community wished they had some objective mode of metricizing the coreness of the colossusness of his counter-culturality?

Well, the wait is over:

site: “in terms of”

About 4,910 results (0.56 seconds)

• in terms of sci-fi recommendations, I gotta go — Moorcock’s
• They’re really rebellious in terms of gender, in terms of sex, in terms of politics, the portrayal of society and race, and I really want that to be …
• In terms of games I am rediscovering Zelda: Majora’s Mask with updated graphics and sound.
• … and to describe such elements in terms of Good and Evil seems (as I hope I demonstrate) a rather useless way of looking at our problems.
• We’ve reached a point, in this new century, that can be identified as both technologically and sociologically, futuristic, even in terms of the very recent past and …
• I’m wondering about stillborn-siblings in terms of esoterica: are they the next sibling born after the stillbirth, making a short appearance (i.e. is …
• I can say I’ve had one good experience with a press release distribution service, in terms of acquiring reviews.
• In terms of chronology, however, it would have to fit in somewhere between the novels The Fortress of the Pearl and The Sailor on the Seas of [Fate]

Elsewhere other-posted: