Cootamundra to the world

20 Sep

BONUS UPDATE: The very day after we were discussing Rebel Wilson and the Australian dollar exchange rate, this appears on the UK homepage of the Daily Mail! Man from Cootamundra (where?) discovers crashed ute (what?) on the Olympic Highway (where?) and, with great courage, pulls him to safety. Now he’s all over the web front page of Britain’s best-selling mid-market tabloid without a hint to international readers about where the drama took place (which is, of course, Australia).

If you need footnotes: Cootamundra is a town of about 5,500 in New South Wales; the Olympic Highway is a country road in the southern part of the state, so named because it formed part of the route of the torch for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics; and a ute, that most distinctively Australian of vehicles, is a light pickup truck based on a saloon car chassis (it’s short for “utility”). None of these explanations make it into the front-page standfirst for British readers, although on the article page itself, there is at least a description of Mr van Baast as an “Aussie hero” in the display type.

In fact, the story is written from such a defiantly local angle that one suspects even readers in other parts of Australia might be nonplussed: it’s not clear how familiar readers in Perth might be with the name of an inland rural highway through another state, even though viewers of Prime 7 News Wagga Wagga (which provided the dramatic pictures) would know at once.

But it also underlines the other emerging trend in the globalising digital news agenda: that, from celebrity photoshoots to fiery rescues, a story’s a story, wherever you are in the anglosphere.


Dollar general

19 Sep

This is a lot of money, but perhaps not quite as much as it seems.

Both the Mail and the Guardian are big in Australia, and so both were all over the story of Rebel Wilson’s bumper defamation victory. But neither of them seems to have cleared up one area of potential confusion for their international readerships. Four and a half million dollars here, of course, means four and a half million Australian dollars: but that’s not mentioned anywhere in the headlines or the copy, and in neither story is any sterling or US equivalent offered for comparison.

It’s not a huge point (the conversion rate is only A$1 – US$0.80), but it does reveal something about life on the digital frontier. As we have discussed before, the objective of the expanding anglophone media groups – like the Guardian and the Mail – is not just to do reporting from new territories, but to provide news for those territories. The point is not just to have a foreign bureau perpetually on the phone to London, but to have a semi-autonomous operation that in effect thinks of Australasian news (or US news) as domestic news. This means that there will often be stories deliberately commissioned about local matters for entirely local consumption – but with the crucial difference that they will be launched, willy-nilly, onto websites with global reach and presence.

We came across one such story a couple of years ago, where a report on failed Australian unemployment policies found its way onto the most-read stories list on every Guardian national homepage. Because it was written for a domestic audience, it understandably failed to mention it was talking about Australia anywhere in the headline, causing temporary bafflement among readers who couldn’t understand why UK joblessness had taken such a sudden turn for the worse.

That, of course, was an accident: as regular reader Jeff has previously observed, it’s the kind of thing that can be controlled by making the content management system more geo-sensitive, filtering the most-read stories list by location, and so on. Even for international news groups, local stories can be kept quite local if you want them to be.

But that doesn’t quite cover the issue with this story, because Rebel Wilson is more than just a figure of local interest. This is not a story that’s leaked across a CMS by accident: it’s news that’s wanted on every homepage in the organisation. Of course, Wilson is an Australian woman suing an Australian magazine in an Australian court. But she is also a globally recognised comedian whose career is followed all across the world. She lives in America, works in Hollywood and gets paid in US dollars: as a trans-national figure herself, there is legitimate room for doubt about which currency her settlement might be denominated in.

The great advantage of having newsrooms on three continents is that you are ideally placed to report on stories like these: the California bureau can cover the Hollywood angle, and the Australian bureau can put a correspondent in the courtroom, while your rivals have to rely on agency copy. The concomitant problem is that if you then produce your story in an Australian voice for an Australian audience, you risk confusing two-thirds of your global readers, all of whom expect you to be reporting in local terms to them too.

The upshot is that, if you don’t watch out, the most determinedly global news organisations in the world can start sounding just like the most parochial ones. All politics may be local, but not all news is.

5 Sep

Well, it says This Blessed Plot, but it doesn’t look like England to me:

But that’s because this isn’t so much This Blessed Plot as this.blessed.plot – an address (or, really, grid reference) on a new map created by a tech startup and identified not by using numbers, but by using words. In fact, the programmers have divided up the entire world into 57 trillion three-metre squares, and been able to address every one individually with just three words separated with dots (in this case, this.blessed.plot, which, to Shakespeare’s undoubted surprise, is north of Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories).

The system, known as What3Words, is a sort of ultra-precise postcode map, but with much more user-friendly coordinates, and covering areas of the planet where the only other method of geolocation would be latitude and longitude. Its founder, former musician Chris Sheldrick, told the BBC: “Every day we would go somewhere new and people always got lost. I tried getting my band to use GPS co-ordinates but they were resistant or typed the co-ordinates wrong. I started chatting with a friend who was a mathematician about how we could come up with something that was simple.”

The BBC reports that they came up with a mathematical formula and a list of, remarkably, just 40,000 words to address all the squares. Now, in the manner of aspiring tech companies everywhere, they are appearing at TED, recruiting corporate clients, starting to get some media coverage, and hoping that the whole system takes off.

As an idea, it raises all sorts of fascinating points for debate, such as the use of vocabulary as numbers, and the opportunities for improving global development. But of course the immediate question that comes to mind is: where are the coolest addresses?

Not since the advent of the telegraphic address has there been a chance to have such an easily memorised location: not a zip code or a street name, but a short phrase that gets visitors right to your door while saying something apposite about you. Unlike telegraphic addresses, of course, the labels for the squares are fixed: it would be a question of you moving to the desired location, rather than choosing a code for where you are. Also, it would appear that while the system contains nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, it omits many proper nouns, prepositions, pronouns and articles (so you can’t have or return.of.jedi, but you could have empire.strikes.back).

Nonetheless, if this system catches on, there will be all sorts of opportunities for alert entrepreneurs. move.move.move, near Morristown, NJ, is ideal for a removals service (or a personal trainer), and handy for your wealthy Manhattan clientele. lemon.drizzle.cake would be a sure thing for a cafe, if one were confident that one’s cappuccinos wouldn’t go flat in a rugged Venezuelan national park. Wedding planners could head for lawful.wedded.husband or truly.madly.deeply. Bee Gees fans could set up a mailing address, at least, at spirits.having.flown (Bahia state, Brazil), and one can only imagine the architecture that might be designed at form.follows.function (or perhaps not, seeing as that square is in the middle of the Indian Ocean).

Politically, however, the picture is a little more unhelpful. strong.stable.leader is in Edinburgh rather than London, and is nowhere near Islington (it’s on the Bay of Bengal). And what about the biggest and best address of all? Well, star.spangled.banners is actually south of the border in Mexico, and star.spangled.banner is – disconcertingly – in Russia.

Imperial cruiser

21 Aug

Meanwhile, in the export department at General Motors:

‘Jeez, how many litres are there in a gallon? It’s like a different language!’

‘Wait, I know what to do.’

If you’ve grown up in Britain, it’s easy to sympathise. This is a country where orange juice is sold by the litre, but speed limits are enforced in miles per hour, and where designers lay out pages in points and picas, then print them out on A3 paper. Metrication got so far but no further in the UK: although the younger generation can conceptualise a hectare slightly better than their parents, imperial measurements (especially in road and traffic law) are still institutionally embedded in British life. Measurement systems may not quite be languages, as the owner’s manual for my rented Camaro seemed to suggest, but they’re certainly a state of mind.

The Tribune’ style guide demands we change feet into metres, but not miles into kilometres: the metre and the yard are deemed to be close enough not to require conversion. We use litres, but obviously not for pints of beer; we use tonnes rather than tons, but obviously not when the sense is metaphorical (and not in relation to shipping).

If only doing conversions was as easy as playing around with the switchable speedometer on the Camaro made it look.

Future descriptive

7 Aug


To: All editorial staff

From the production editor


Dear all

Several of you have been asking for a definitive style ruling in recent weeks about the now-perennial “cannot be underestimated/cannot be overestimated” debate. I know feelings have run high on the issue, and until now we have tried to preserve the traditional distinction in meaning in our pages, even though the interchangeability between the two phrases in spoken English is now almost total.

Historically, it is true that – as recently as the early 21st century – the correct use of the phrases was highly dependent on context, and to say then that the prime minister’s intellectual capacity “cannot be underestimated”, when the opposite was meant, would have been to cause considerable offence. But the error has now become such a common one that it is time to seriously address the question of whether it is an error at all.

Of course I am aware, as some of you have kindly pointed out, that under and over “mean completely opposite things” and that the distinction is “perfectly obvious to those who are prepared to think about it”. Of course it is, but the everyday rough-and-tumble of language has a way of wearing fine distinctions – even useful ones like these – smooth. Look, for example, at how the similar (and now vanishing) terms “biennial” and “biannual” became so confused in the 1900s that the following definition once appeared in Chambers’s 20th Century Dictionary:

biannual (bi-an’-ū-əl) adj. two-yearly: also half-yearly.

And consider “head over heels” – a phrase universally understood in its metaphorical sense, but which, parsed logically, says the exact opposite of what it means.

I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that “cannot be over/underestimated” have, through widespread usage, fallen into the same category of phrase as “head over heels”: those that can only be understood in the round, and not by parsing very word individually.

I am aware this decision will disappoint many of you, especially those of you who have pointed me to a significant strand of linguistics scholarship that disagrees with me. Writing in the early 2000s, eminent figures on the influential website Language Log contended against the acceptability of what was then called “misnegation”. Comparing “cannot be underestimated” in relation to the (now-uncontroversial) phrase “could care less”, Professor Mark Liberman wrote:

I’ve argued that “could care less”, where modality and scalar predication seem similarly to point in the wrong direction, has simply become an idiom. Shouldn’t the same be said for “cannot underestimate the importance”?

I don’t think so. As I’ve argued before, there’s a crucial difference.

Whatever is happening with “cannot underestimate” applies equally to “cannot understate”, “impossible to underestimate/understate”, “hard to underestimate/understate”, “difficult to underestimate/understate”, “cannot be underestimated/understated”, “hard to underrate”, “cannot be undervalued”, and many other common ways to re-express the same idea.

In contrast, alternative formulations of “could care less” are rare, and can only be understood as bad jokes, to the extent that they’re not simply puzzling.  Thus one semantic equivalent to “could not care less” might be “could not possibly have less concern” — and we find this in a published translation of Montaigne…

“However, if my descendants have other tastes, I shall have ample means for revenge: for they could not possibly have less concern about me than I shall have about them by that time.”

But in this case, Montaigne means to imply that his concern-meter will be pegged at zero, not at its maximum value. And more generally, we don’t see things like “I could possibly have less concern” used with the meaning idiomatically assigned to “I could care less”. This is the behavior that we expect from an idiom; and the different behavior of “cannot underestimate/understate/
underrate/undervalue” is what we expect from a psychologically probable error.

Other scholars at the time contended that “cannot be under/overestimated” was indeed an idiom; but even if they and I are wrong and it is a mistake, it seems to be a mistake that English-speakers are never going to stop making. And, as we all know to our frustration, appeals to reason over usage rarely succeed in these matters because language doesn’t listen to reason.

Therefore, henceforward,  “should not be underestimated” and “should not be overestimated” shall in all cases be deemed to be equally correct ways of saying the same thing, which is something to the effect of “should not be evaluated incorrectly”. The style guide will be updated accordingly.

Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to come to this conclusion. But our language has changed around us: and with the 22nd century just over a decade away, we have better and more significant things to do with our editorial resources than enforcing a distinction that, to our readers, is increasingly becoming inaudible.

Yours as ever



Production editor, the Tribune

Shock treatment

25 Jul

Well, never mind the Paris Accords – thank goodness this has been settled, years in advance. A decisive example of international cooperation. Wait, hang on, what’s this?


We have seen so many examples of claim quotes being used where they shouldn’t be – around claims that only the reporter has made, or around naked editorialising in the display type – that it’s quite a shock to see a headline not have them when it needs them. This Guardian story is not about a fact, it’s about a claim; not about a decision but a prediction. So the headline cannot stand like this, without any attribution at all.

Yes, the source of the assertion eventually appears in the standfirst, but that’s too late: a headline containing a claim must signal the existence of that claim within itself.* This is a highly sensitised part of British newspaper culture: there is a huge difference, to UK readers, between QUEEN AND PRINCE PHILIP TO DIVORCE and QUEEN AND PRINCE PHILIP ‘TO DIVORCE’. The former is a categorical assurance, a truth on which the newspaper is staking its reputation. The latter is clearly nothing of the kind: a secondhand claim at best, and one from which the newspaper is distancing itself by punctuation.

It puts one in mind of the hoary “that’s what …” construction beloved of US beat reporters and long studied by Fred at HeadsUp, in which a striking, apparently declarative opening sentence is only fully contextualised in the succeeding paragraph.

There’s no way a man could have blown up an airliner using explosives hidden in his briefs.

That’s what defense attorney Anthony Chambers is claiming in his latest court filing involving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with a homemade bomb in his underwear on Dec. 25, 2009.


Monica Conyers doesn’t have a good enough reason to take back her guilty plea and her sudden claim of innocence doesn’t cut it.

That’s what the federal government argued in court documents filed Monday with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Conyers is fighting to have her guilty plea withdrawn.

Which in turn raises a wider question about how long a newspaper should be allowed to keep its readers on the hook before revealing the contested or partial nature of what it’s saying. I would suggest – whether we’re talking about a headline or an opening paragraph – not very long at all.


*Especially because, on many news websites, it is only the headline, without the standfirst, that appears on the homepage.

Nation shall prescribe unto nation

11 Jul

‘I’d have gone for “visionnaire” myself. I’m glad we didn’t get “auralooker”:

Historian Nick Kapur’s fascinating Twitter thread about the BBC’s Advisory Committee On Spoken English and its influence on modern speech reveals just how close we came to referring to anticyclones as “halcyons”, but also offers an illuminating insight into what prescription in language really means.

Because of course, there is not one kind of linguistic prescriptivism: there are two. One opposes all language change and all neologism, and attempts to conserve current norms as an eternal standard. But the other seeks to deliberately modify language: not to reject new words, but to invent them, and to influence speech and writing to go in new directions – such as the campaigns to popularise Ms and Mx as neutral  honorifics. It is this second kind of prescriptivism, which one might call activist or progressive prescriptivism, that Kapur is tweeting about here.

The story begins, he relates, in 1926, when Lord Reith sets up a committee to help resolve one of the many problems a pioneer national broadcaster has to solve: how should you pronounce certain words on air? (This group, the Advisory Committee On Spoken English, still exists today, doing very similar work to help BBC broadcasters). Then in 1935, faced with the question of what to call users of the new media of the day – television –  a new sub-committee was set up, not just to advise on pronouncing words, but to invent some new ones. Led by the Anglo-American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith – an eager language reformer – the Sub-Committee on Words generated the alternatives listed above to start the debate (although it eventually rejected all of them and recommended “televiewer”, subsequently shortened to “viewer”.)

After that, the sub-committee remained active, and widened its remit to mass-produce new words for broadcast far beyond the new industry’s immediate needs, eventually becoming so extravagant and implausible in its inventions that an exasperated chairman of governors closed it down in 1937. But by then it had created several terms – “roundabout” for the road junction, “serviceman” for members of all the armed forces, “art researcher/art historian” to replace the German word “kunstforscher” – that are now commonplace in modern English.

The impression descriptivist scholarship frequently gives is that language is an unknowable stew of errors, localisms, homophone confusions and misreadings, prone to unpredictable change. The emphasis, or the cultural preference, often seems to be bestowed on the unwilled variations to language, not the willed ones. But Kapur reminds us that English is also highly susceptible to the approaches of those who have a design on it, from Edwardian grammarians like Fowler to equalities campaigners to spelling reformers like McCormick at the Chicago Tribune. There are words and conventions in many registers of modern English that were created deliberately by people who wanted to see them catch on and took the opportunity to make it happen.

Sometimes, of course, prescriptivism is institutional, and benefits from that privilege. It might be justifiably argued that the BBC’s committee, as a quasi-official body proposing usage for the nation’s only broadcaster, was in a very strong position to succeed, particularly as it was inventing terms for then-unnamed phenomena. But the Academie Française, which is attempting to do for French today almost exactly what the BBC committee did for English in the 1930s – and from a similarly state-sanctioned position – is greeted with widespread indifference and derision for its efforts.

And in any case, innovative prescription does not need an official platform to succeed. This blog has discussed at length the extent to which Fowler’s suggestions have influenced modern formal and legal English, but Fowler himself was no state official, nor did his books bear any government imprimatur (although Churchill is said to have recommended Modern English Usage to his staff after it came out). His books were a success because, then as now, there is a sustained public appetite for advice on how to engage with formal English. (Indeed, given the existence of a generation of professional linguists who consider it their role to observe rather than advise, the field for such material is possibly clearer today than it was then.)

This is not to say the process is easy: frequently, big innovations just don’t catch on.  There is no doubt that some of the committee’s ideas, like some of Fowler’s, are much worse than others: for example, one member apparently felt it desirable to create a shorter term for “inferiority complex” (“inflex”), and another proposed “yulery” as a collective term for Christmas festivities. The point is not that Fowler or the committee were always “right” about what they proposed; the point is – at least sometimes – that they were successful.

Usage remains the timeless, and the only, judge of current English. But usage does not simply adjudicate on terms that have risen up unbidden from the demos; it also sits in judgment on peri-statal prescriptions and private linguistic entrepreneurialism. Due process is afforded to all new words, whether they are accidents or designs. Linguists say that language is a democracy, and it is: a democracy in which, among other things, anyone is free to prescribe and see what happens.