Stale news from here and there

Heroic Medical Experimentation: Sometime last year, six doctors in the U.K. and Australia used themselves as guinea pigs and each swallowed the head of a Lego figure to find out how long it would take to find its way out.

The answer is between 1.1 and 1.7 days. To measure this, they developed the FART score (Found and Retrieved Time) and the SHAT score (Stool Hardness and Transit). Without those two scores, the experiment would’ve been just as measurable but wouldn’t have gotten half the publicity.

Toys are the second most common things kids swallow. I’m not sure what the first most common is, but our neighbor’s kid swallowed a coin and the clever devils in A & E (that’s Accident and Emergency–the equivalent of an Emergency Room) used a metal detector to figure out if it had gone into his stomach (safe) or lungs (dangerous). It kept them from having to expose him to unnecessary x-rays.

He’s fine.

Irrelevant photo: A cyclamen, one of those magical British plants that bloom in the winter.

Two things you should know about the experiement: 1. The researchers don’t recommend trying it at home. 2. The experiment doesn’t prove that Lego heads are smarter than mice. Mice in experiments run through mazes where they have to choose one direction or another. The Lego heads followed the only path available to them.

Kids do not, as a rule, swallow mice.

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Department of Eternal Youth: The man who asked a Dutch court to declare him twenty years younger than–how am I going to put this? It’s difficult, because what he asked for falls off the edge of the English language, not to mention the edge of logic. Let’s try it this way: He asked the court to change the year he was born because he didn’t feel his emotional state and physical condition matched the number of years he’d been bumping around the planet. Also because he wanted a better response on Tinder. Anyway, the court turned him down, saying he was free to feel and act twenty years younger if he liked, but his age would remain his age.

The photo that accompanies the article doesn’t make him look like a man who’s twenty years younger than his birth certificate claims. He looks like a man who’d doctor his mirror, mirror on the wall so it shows him what he wants to see.

He plans to appeal–either the court’s decision or the mirror’s.

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Defining Human Rights: While we’re on the other side of the English Channel, a Belgian prince claimed the government violated his human rights by taking 15% off his annual £280,000 endowment. Actually, it was figured in euros–308,000 of them, but I don’t have a euro sign on my keyboard, so I shifted to pounds, knowing that you’d never notice.

The relationship of pounds to euros in constantly shifting, depending largely on who’s screwed up how badly on Brexit and how recently. Forget about me updating it, because it’ll be out of date an hour later. That was the relationship between the two at some point. It almost surely no longer is, but it’ll do.

What did the prince do to make them cut his allowance? He’s been running around meeting with the representatives of foreign states, sometimes in full naval uniform, without the government’s okay. He’d have gotten away with it if he hadn’t tweeted a picture of himself.

The cut of 15%, he said, would “deprive him and his family of all livelihoods.”

It’s tough out there, kids. And the dry cleaning expenses for those uniforms are shockingly high.

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Great Moments in International Diplomacy; And now let’s zip across a bit more water to the United States. I don’t usually write about American politics, mostly because they make me lose my sense of humor. British politics can get depressing, but every so often the people involved will dress up in knee breeches or ermine robes or treat a centuries-old ceremonial mace as if it held actual power. That cheers me up every time. What can American politics do to match that?

Still, let’s have a quick visit: Back in June of 2018, the person Trump would later pick for ambassador to the U.N., Heather Nauert, displayed her grasp of history and diplomacy by saying, “When you talk about Germany, we have a very strong relationship with the government of Germany. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the D-Day landing. We obviously have a very long history with the government of Germany, and we have a strong relationship with the government.

I don’t know if satire really is dead, but I do know it has a hell of a mountain to climb before it can exaggerate the stupidity that passes for normal lately.

Please note: I’m writing this in December and scheduling it for January. I often write my posts well in advance of the time they go live. If by the time you read this, we’ve had two or three more nominees for the post, or two or three different confirmed ambassadors, don’t blame me. If you want your news in a sensibly timely fashion, you need to read a newspaper.

What hasn’t changed in that time is history. The D-Day landing was not a high point in German-American cooperation and good will. 

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Feel-Good News: Two U.S. debt-collection industry executives had a life-changing moment, triggered by I don’t know what, when they realized the crushing effect that medical debt has on people. In response, they became former debt-collection industry executives. More than that, they formed a nonprofit, R.I.P. Medical Debt, that buys up medical debt for roughly half a penny on the dollar and then forgives it.

The group has wiped out $434 million worth of medical debt, freeing some 250,000 people (plus their families) from its burden. The organization targets people who are in financial trouble, facing foreclosure, or earning less than twice the national poverty level.

It’s an all-around feel-good story until you realize that the total past-due medical debt in the U.S. is more than $750 billion.

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Franz Kafka Department of Fighting Terrorism: An American-born theater historian, David Mayer, who lives in Britain, got on a U.S. terrorist watch list because a Chechen Isis member, Akhmed Chatayev, once used the name David Mayer, along with many others. You’d think it would be a simple problem to sort out since David Mayer the historian 1, isn’t Chechen, 2, was born decades before Chatayev, and 3, unlike Chatayev is both alive and the owner of a matching set of arms, one on the left and one on the right. Chatayev, before he died, was known as Akhmed the One-Armed.

No such luck, though. None of that’s been enough to prove that he’s a different person.

Being on the list means Mayer the historian can’t receive packages or mail from the U.S. Why would it endanger anyone if he did? No idea, but he can’t. He found out he had a problem when he tried to buy an old theater poster off Ebay. The U.S. wouldn’t let it out of the country.

He has been able to fly, but he carries his discharge papers from the Korean War to show with his passport. They’ve helped, although I can’t begin to explain why they’re more convincing than having two arms. Papers can be forged. Arms, at the moment, can’t be.

Mayer’s been trying to get himself off the list for two years but hasn’t even been able to find out what list he’s trying to get off of. 

In 2016, a Muslim ten-year-old in the north of England wrote on a school paper that he lived in a terrorist house. Teachers are required to report any suspected extremism, so they did and the cops turned up at his house the next day. His parents did their best to explain that he meant “terraced house,” which is British for a row of houses that are attached to each other by their side walls.

The police and county government issued a statement saying it was “untrue to suggest that this situation was brought about by a simple spelling mistake” and also that “No concerns were identified and no further action was required by any agency.” Those sound to me like they contradict each other, but what do I know about terraced houses?

The boy’s cousin said the kid was afraid to write anymore.

In 2018, a British woman filling out a visa waiver form for a trip to the U.S. accidentally checked yes in response to a question about whether she’d ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide.

And yes, that’s a perfectly a sensible question to put on a form, since anyone who’d done those things would, of course, say yes.

That moment’s inattention cost her more than £800. She had to rearrange her trip plus go through a couple of high-stress interviews with the U.S. embassy. She did at least get to go, and she can, as far as I can tell, still receive mail from the U.S.

She may or may not live in a terraced house.

It gets better: A three-month-old baby was identified as a terrorist by his grandfather, who was filling out the same form for him. The baby was summoned for an interview. The grandfather reports that the officials didn’t seem to have a sense of humor so it’s probably just as well that they didn’t dress him in an orange jumpsuit. The whole thing cost them an extra £3,000.

In 2016, a flight was delayed when the seatmate of a professor working some mathematical equations reported that he might be engaged in suspicious activity. The seatmate got off the plane. The captain interviewed the professor and decided it was safe to fly.

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Public Involvement: Back in Britain, the minister of a church in Aylsham decided to make services interactive by letting parishioners use an app to register their opinions on hymns and create a word cloud of things they’re praying for.

I don’t suppose it’ll make the papers when someone writes that they’re praying for the end of the sermon.

One of my favorite attempts to make people feel they’ve been consulted about things they don’t control sits at the end of a British airport security checkpoint. Let’s take a minute to visit it:

You’ve just dripped free from narrow end of the security check’s funnel, frazzled and shoeless, and you’re still trying to assemble your phone and computer and belt and change and, oh my gawd, where did you put your passport?, and there sits this panel with buttons, asking how your experience with airport security was today. The buttons are big, each one’s a different, attractive color, and you get to push one to say your experience was ecstatic, fine, tolerable, or terrifying.

Okay, I’ve made up the categories, but you get the idea.

When I walked past it, a girl and boy were punching the buttons, one after another after another after another. They were having a wonderful time, and their parents were so relieved to see them occupied with something that didn’t break, complain, or cost money that they let the kids slam their happy fists on the buttons for many minutes.

I don’t believe for half a second that anyone looks at the results of that survey, or even that the buttons are hooked up to anything, but it was a reminder of what it’s worth when a massive bureaucratic system asks our opinion.

Public consultation’s a thing in Britain. It has to be done, usually after all the decisions have been made, and if one more authority consults me about things they aren’t about to change, I’m going to start throwing things.

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Swearing and Kids: People working in British nursery schools are reporting an increase in how often kids swear. I probably shouldn’t think that’s funny–I believe swearing should be reserved for those who understand the meaning and implications of the words they’re saying–but all the same, I do think it’s funny.

Someone I know used to work in a daycare center, and just when the inspectors from some important department or other walked through, Kid 1 was about to hit Kid 2 over the head with a toy truck. The person who told me the story magicked the truck out of Kid 1’s hands and said, “We don’t hit people here. Use your words.”

In response to which, Kid 1 said, “Fuck you, Kid 2.”

The inspectors were impressed all to hell and back.

But that was in the U.S. It has no bearing on swearing in Britain. It’s just a story I always wanted to drop in somewhere.

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Swearing and Santa: Where are all these kids learning to swear? Well, a Santa Claus in Cambridgeshire, which is conveniently located in the U.K., came raging out of his grotto this past Christmas, tearing off his beard and yelling at fifty or so kids to “get the fuck out.”

A fire alarm had gone off and the kids were already on their way out, but apparently not fast enough. One parent speculated that thumping music from a kids’ rave (a kids’ rave? don’t ask me) downstairs had already driven Santa to the breaking point when the fire alarm started screaming.

Another parent said they told their kids that this wasn’t the real Santa and that he was going on the naughty list.

And this, my friends, is why you should never tell your kids that Santa’s real. You can’t predict when Santa’s going to tear off his beard and teach your kids to swear, after which all they’ll want for Christmas is another handful of those powerful, forbidden words. And they’ll never believe anything you tell them again.

I expect the shit to fly over my having said that, but I’m actually quite serious about it. 

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What Santa Didn’t Bring You: It’s a little late for Christmas, but Harrods was (and probably still is) selling a hand-painted refrigerator for £36,000. 

I found several articles about it, with photos, so this seems to be far more real than Santa Claus, but I can’t find it on Harrods’ website, possibly because Lord Google knows I’m not a serious customer and tucked it away so it wouldn’t get shopworn. You don’t want unworthy eyes wearing the paint off it.

I did find a £500 hand-painted toaster and a £700 hand-painted blender. You can also buy a £600 kitchen mixer that isn’t hand painted. Just in case you’re struggling with the vexing question of how to get rid of your money fast enough and you don’t like hand-painted stuff.

You’re welcome. I’m here to help. But I still don’t think you should tell kids that Santa’s real.

News about the English language

You’ve probably read that English is now the default world language. Well, here’s the proof you weren’t looking for: Birds are speaking it. To each other. Or at least in Australia they are.

Escaped pet parrots and cockatoos have taught it to the wild flocks they join, and the flocks are sitting in the trees chatting away. Not necessarily making anything we’d recognize as sensible conversation, but then humans don’t always make much sense with it either.

A lot of what they say involves swear words.

Well, what did you expect they’d learn from us? Trigonometry?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This petunia does not speak English. Or any other language. Shocking, isn’t it?

But wild birds speaking English is nothing compared to prairie dogs—North American relatives of meerkats—can do in their own language. They describe not only the kind of danger they see but the size, shape, color, speed, and type of predator.

They do that in Prairie Dog, a language that’s only now getting the recognition it deserves.

According to a New York Times article, “The animals could even combine the structural elements of their calls in novel ways to describe something they had never seen before…. Prairie-dog communication is so complex…—so expressive and rich in information—that it constitutes nothing less than language.”

That dumps us right into the thicket of what a language is and whether, as the article asks, language created the mind or the mind created language. I won’t try to find my way through that—there’s a shortcut leading out of the thicket and I’m going to crawl through it. I won’t learn as much as I would if I took the long way, but I won’t get as many thorns in my hide.

Besides, I don’t know enough to find my way through if I go the more interesting way, never mind enough to guide anyone else. If someone does know enough and writes on this, send me a link and I’ll post it. In the meantime, take a look at the article if you’re interested. It’s a fascinating question.

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You may have already suspected this, but it’s now official: Swearing makes you stronger. A study at Keele Univery, in Staffordshire, has established it. And since Staffordshire is in Britain, it’s legitimate blog fodder, unlike that business about Australian birds and North American prairie dogs.

The test involved repeating either your swearword of choice or a word you might use to describe a table. You know: scratched, wobbly, needing a good wipe with a dishrag that is, ideally, cleaner than the table.

Okay, you now know more about my gift for housekeeping than you were meant to. And that last suggestion isn’t one word, so it probably wouldn’t work.

Whichever group you were in, you had to say the word in an even tone while pedaling an exercise bike for half a minute.

The swearword group generated more power than the table group.

It’s possible that the people repeating “wobbly” were laughing too hard to press those pedals, but if they weren’t and it was a fair comparison, it means that I am very, very strong. Please be impressed. At my size, I don’t get to impress people often.

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As long as I’m on the subject of language, let’s give a minute to the way a recent newspaper article about eating red meat was written. It said studies have shown “that substituting white meat for red meat reduced the risk of dying from most causes.”

Since I not only don’t eat red meat, I don’t eat white meat either, I won’t die from any cause at all. And if swearing turns out to not just make you stronger but also prolong life, I’ll have many extra years to pass on to my friends and readers.

Exploring British profanity

Not long ago, someone in an online conversation said that as she gets older she has less “inclination to tolerate the presence of cockwombles.”

The presence of what?

The cockwomble in question was our local Member of Parliament, Scott Mann (the only people I name in this blog are public figures, but if you run for office, sorry, you’re fair game), so I went ahead hit Like. Then I headed for the internet to figure out what I’d agreed with.

According to the Register, “The origin of this very rude term is unclear, although it’s thought to have first surfaced on an online football forum. For those of you unfamiliar with the word, it has been summarised as someone ‘possessing properties of striking idiocy.’ “

The summary the Register’s quoting is on the b3ta dictionary. In case you need to know that.

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

But with something this absurd, no single definition is enough. And I wanted to know more about the word’s origin, so I followed a link that promised me the origins of nine “Great British” insults.

Just for the sake of unclarity, I should say that the site could have been promising great insults but could also have meant that they were mediocre insults from Great Britain. Its headline style capitalized most words—never mind which ones; it’s never quite as simple as it seems and you don’t really care, do you?—which meant that Great would get capitalized whichever meaning it had.

As it turned out, the site was a disappointment. Three of the insults were American as well as British (clodhopper; nincompoop; lummox), and cockwomble wasn’t one of the nine.

I love Google. It adds such a layer of pointlessness, to my life.

Anyway, I moved on and found a cycling forum (no, I have no idea; the tides of the internet sweep my intellectual raft to some very strange places) that had hosted (and not taken down) a discussion about the meaning of cockwomble. I came away convinced that no one can define it but that everyone will use it anyway.

Which leads me to ask: If no one can define an insult, is it possible to use it inaccurately? It’s too deep a question to go into here, but I raise it in case you want to give it some thought yourself. As an editor, I saw such gloriously misused words that I started a collection, and soon friends were adding to it. My favorite came from a college philosophy paper: “When we contemplate the obesity of the universe, we know there must be a god.”

After reading that, I understood our cats better. They weren’t lying around doing nothing; they were contemplating the obesity of the universe. I could never tell whether ornot they believed in god.

But back to the cycling forum. Highlights of the discussion include—.

Sorry, but I have to interrupt myself again. The contributors were coyly reluctant to swear but were convinced that if they substituted an asterisk for a U no one would know they were swearing.

Is U a bad letter or is something else going on here?

At the exact same time, they believed that everyone would understand what they meant, and these two beliefs cancel each other out so thoroughly that holding them both at the same time should make the believer’s head explode, but that must be a delayed effect, because once that happens you can’t post anymore. And these people were posting.

Anyway, the most vivid definitions were: “a less sweary f*ckMuppet,” “somebody in charge of a department of a local authority” (translation for those who need it: authority here means government), and “anyone who disagrees with you on an internet forum.”

So much for the wisdom of bikers. Or cyclists, as I think people say here.

Collins English Dictionary defines a cockwomble it as a Scottish football administrator. (“Approval status: pending investigation.” Um, yeah, I’d say.)

My search (I only do this, folks, so you don’t have to) then led me to Buzzfeed. How did I get there? By following a come-on that said, “Know your bawbag from your wazzock.” Well, I didn’t know my bawbag from my wazzock, so I clicked through and learned that, being of the female persuasion, I don’t have a bawbag. I understand that many of the people who possess them can’t imagine life without them, but any number of us manage quite well without them.

Do I resent bawbag owners who can’t imagine that every random stranger they meet on the internet might not have one on hand? You bet your ass I do, but not enough to spend much time on it. Especially since bawbag might be used the way cunt is in Britain. In other words, it may be one of those miraculous and logic-defying insults that’s applies to any gender you can think of, even though it’s about as gender specific as you can get. In which case, I can use one as easily as the next guy, so maybe I do need to know it from my wazzock.

But this is all kind of academic since it’s Scottish and I’m not likely to hear it much down here in Cornwall. And if that makes me sound defensive, it’s because I don’t want to dent my reputation for the sparkling use of profanity. I’ve sworn ever since I understood the words. Or before I understood the words, if you want the truth. What I understood was their power. Now that I’m 603, though, I apparently look like someone who wouldn’t swear, which goes to show you how deceptive looks can be and adds an element of (a) hilarity or (b) shock to the exercise.Either one’s fine by me.

But I should stop bragging and tell you what a wazzock is. It’s a northern word for an idiot, so it’s not exactly swearing. We do have idiots in Cornwall, in roughly the same proportion as you’ll find them in the rest of the world, but we don’t seem to have wazzocks. Which is kind of a pity. It’s a great word.

So I learned something, but it wasn’t about cockwombles. They weren’t mentioned.

In a final burst of intellectual curiosity, I looked up womble, because I still wanted to understand the word’s origin. A womble, it turns out, is a furry, pointy-nosed creature that lives in a burrow and helps the environment by collecting rubbish and recycling it. In case it’s not already clear, wombles are fictional. They were created by Elisabeth Beresford and apparently escaped her books and took refuge on TV.

Maybe you need to have spent a few years watching the wombles to understand the insult.

Periodically, someone me asks why, after ten years in Britain, I still sound so American. My answer is usually that I don’t pick up accents in English, and that’s true as far as it goes. But it’s also true that if I did pick up accents, at my age the best I’d manage would be a kind of mid-Atlantic accent and vocabulary.

That means that if there’s a way to misuse cockwomble, I’d misuse it. And if there isn’t, I’d misuse some other word I’d just gotten hold of and wanted to show off. I’d contemplate the obesity of the universe. I’d mistake my nonexistent bawbag for my all-too-existent inner wazzock. Because swear words are rooted deeply in the culture. You can’t listen for ten minutes and get them right.

A belated note here for anyone who dislikes swearing. If you’ve gotten this far. I respect your feelings, but I don’t share them. For me, swearing’s an integral part of any language, and what’s considered to be swearing depends on each culture’s taboos. The whole subject is fascinating.

I can swear a bit in Spanish, and a bit less in French and Greek. (My Greek vocabulary consists of something like ten words, so you should be impressed that I know anything this useful, thanks.) But if I get the words wrong in a foreign language, or use them in an odd way, my accent will explain my absurdity and somebody will have a good laugh—and I’ll join in if I figure out what the joke is, which I probably won’t. But in English, my profanity has its roots in the U.S. of no-cockwombles A. I understand American swearing.

British swearing, though? Not really And you can’t use an insult unless you have a feel for its meaning, its context, its impact.

I’m not assimilated enough for that. So it is with great sadness that I report the following: I will not be calling our MP a cockwomble.

Comparative swearing: U.S. vs. U.K.

In a comment on “More about manners in the U.S. and U.K.,” Karen at Fill Your Own Glass [sorry, everybody; that’s almost the end of the links] wrote, “My impressions have been created solely by movies, but I have believed that people in the U.K. are less inhibited when it comes to cursing and talking about sex.” (She went on to say that it was an insightful post, but I wouldn’t want you to think I’m the kind of person who’d mention that.)

I haven’t a clue whether her impressions are true. What fascinates me about the comment is how you’d measure either.

late winter 002

Near Minions

Let’s say we want to compare how inhibited or uninhibited people are in talking about sex. I mean, I want to be scientific here. How do we compare passing references to serious what-I-did, what-I-didn’t-do, and how-I-feel-about-it conversations? Do we measure in frequency, in length, or in depth?

No puns, please. We’re being scientific here, so settle down in the back row.

If we’re talking about a serious cross-cultural comparison of swearing, how do we balance frequency against intensity? How do we measure the weight do various swear words carry?

People I know here (and it’s entirely possible that my friends swear more than the average Brit) say “bloody” fairly often. How often? Oh, you know, often enough. (You can see why I never became a scientist, right?) But how intense a swear word is bloody? I’d always heard that it’s religious—actually, sacrilegious—in origin and assumed that it packed quite a punch. But a Wikipedia entry raises several milder and way less interesting possibilities. My Dictionary of British Slang and Colloquial Expressions calls it simply “an intensifier,” which makes it sound mild to the point of insipidity. Of course, I once heard a linguist talk dispassionately about the way Americans use the word fucking as an insertion. In fact, he called it “the fucking insertion,” which both illustrated how it was used and cracked me up for weeks afterwards. From this I gather that linguists, like all scientists, whatever their passions, prefer to present a dispassionate surface.

I’ve heard bloody said often enough that it’s made itself a home in my head, and it’s trying to push its way into my speech. It wants to be said, and I want not to say it. Not because I don’t swear—I do, and without being immodest here, I do it well—but because I don’t have a sense of its proportion, its weight, its impact. I don’t like to throw things until I can gauge their impact.

Besides, with my accent it’ll sound very odd.

So there you are, folks. Comparative swearing. I look forward to hearing what you have to say on the subject.