Archive | August, 2022

Zeroes and ones, part 6C (43F)

30 Aug

Journalism and maths – the adventure continues:

Although in fact, here the issue is not really numeracy: it’s a more abstract one of conceptualisation – confusing a temperature of 2.5C with a difference in temperature of 2.5C. A sum has been calculated correctly; it’s just not the appropriate sum. (If global temperatures rise by 36F, even air conditioning isn’t going to help.)

And I’m afraid, at the Tribune, this has happened quite often:

It’s not clear why we struggle with temperature like this when we navigate other conversions successfully and, as has been said elsewhere, sub-editors are capable of making much finer distinctions than this when it comes to language. I think it may have something to do with the fact that the zeroes on the two scales are so far apart and signify different things (whereas, for example, 0 mph and 0 kph signify the same thing, and the scales diverge after starting at a common point).

The classic formula for converting an actual temperature in celsius to fahrenheit is

(<temp in C> x 1.8) + 32 = <temp in F>

and it’s that addition of the constant, the 32, that causes the trouble when you are trying to calculate a difference in temperature. If you subtract 32 from all the erring totals (where given) in the corrections above, you get the right answer (or close to it, given some of the original fahrenheit totals have been rounded). So the correct C to F conversion for a difference in temperature is simply

<temp difference in C> x 1.8 = <temp difference in F>

and similarly the other way, for a difference in temperature:

<temp difference in F> x 0.5555 = <temp difference in C>

In such a critical decade for climate change policy, we may find ourselves needing to do these sums more and more often.

With thanks to the Tribune’s chief revise sub for spotting this one – a man who has seen too many improbable-looking pound-to-yen conversions (really, that many zeroes?) to let any figure in parentheses pass unscrutinised.


Going for bloke

16 Aug

It’s on the Mail’s UK homepage, but there’s something very Australian about this story, isn’t there? And the most uniquely Australian thing about it is not the cassowary (which is also indigenous to Papua New Guinea): it’s the presence of the word “blokes” in the headline.

The word is rarely heard in any context in the US, of course, and in the UK, although it’s common, you would never see it in straight news reporting like this. In Britain, it carries a strong overtone of randomness or inconsequentiality – “some bloke”; “that bloke over there”. It’s almost dismissive; it would invite you not to care much about the people to whom the news had happened.

In Australia, however, it means something quite different: the “Aussie bloke” is a national idea, a recognised type, familiar from cultural exports such as Crocodile Dundee. As the academic Andrea Waling puts it, a bloke is “white, straight, able-bodied, and good for a laugh. He is practical and good in a crisis, but generally laid back. He rejects individualism in favour of loyalty to his mates.” In this context, “bloke” is not a denigration but an invitation to identify with the protagonists and sympathise. They are good sorts, Everymen, authentic Australians: people just like you or me, and just as likely to be out of their depth when being chased by a 100lb bird with a blue face.

Up until now, this blog has been discussing these constant collisions of anglosphere news dialects as a three-way “clash of equals” involving British, American and Australian English, but now I’m starting to suspect it’s even more complicated than that. For example, this piece of copy appeared in the Tribune subs’ queue a couple of weeks ago:

Because the story had arrived from the Australian website on its way to the UK print edition, it had already been edited, and there in blue (ie, already deleted) was the word “dairies”. Dairies? It seemed wrong, obviously, but also such an unlikely mistake to make in the context of cigarette retailing. What could the writer have meant?

In fact, a bit of Googling revealed that it wasn’t a mistake at all: this story was filed to the Australian newsroom by our correspondent in New Zealand, where the term for a corner shop/7-11/convenience store is, indeed, a “dairy”. But this usage is not even understood in Australia, so the sub in Sydney had changed it, hours before the copy found its way to London. I did one or two bits of de-Australianising elsewhere for UK readers, but beneath that work there had already been a process of de-New Zealandising that would have been undetectable to anyone outside the Tribune.

This prompts the thought that beneath the “big three” flavours of anglosphere news English, there is also an overshadowed hierarchy of others. At the Tribune, in addition to New Zealand correspondents filing to Sydney, Canadian reporters file to New York and South African writers to London. What is happening to idioms and expressions common in these countries and present in copy, but processed at regional offices elsewhere before being published to the world? Presumably, as in this case, they are ending up on the spike. We have previously floated the idea of British, Australian and American news eventually merging into one, but, if it ever happens, it may have to wait until six or seven flavours of English have been flattened into three.

Nouvelle vague

2 Aug

Vagary is back! By which I mean not in its traditional sense of “foible”, but in its rare, possibly-on-the-brink-of-emerging sense of “vagueness”. We spotted it three years ago in a record review that was even then several years old, and at the time it appeared to be a one-off variation. But the other week, what should appear in the Tribune’s copy queue but this:

Given that the speaker is talking about the clarification of certain issues, it seems clear that what she means by “vagary” is not “aberration” but “ambiguity” – not a definition that has found its way into any dictionary, even though you can appreciate how easily it can be formed as a noun out of “vague”.

And not only that: here’s two more in the wild, from a film review lamenting the generic quality of Hollywood remakes compared with their foreign-language originals:

Here again, “foible” or “whim” make no sense in context, but “imprecision” makes perfect sense.

Now that “vagary” has actually appeared in the subs’ queue, we are confronted in real life with the issue we wrestled with hypothetically the first time, which is how to handle it in copy. I’m not sure it’s anywhere near being understood in this new sense with that spelling, and, as we discovered three years ago, even “vaguery” isn’t widely accepted, even though that might be the best choice for etymological clarity and fidelity to the speaker.

In the end, I went with “vagueness” in square brackets, even though square brackets are the editor’s last resort:

This blog does not like to make too many usage predictions (although it remains confident of the eventual collapse in distinction between “not to be overestimated” and “not to be underestimated”). But if people seem to be discovering a neologism all by themselves like this, with no obvious high-profile precedent, you do get the sense that a new word might be coalescing into being. One to watch.