A Very Uncomfortable Suit

Image via Akseli Koskela
A rainy afternoon at Circular Quay.
I have nothing against suits. Regular readers might remember my article about wearing a tie in an Australian public school. But this particular suit that I met today might explain why some people do dislike “suits”.

Catching the ferry into the city again this morning, I felt something of a trailblazer, as, on account of a minuscule spattering of rain, all of the other ferry commuters were huddled inside, and no-one else was standing on the outside decks. So, Columbus like, I showed the way by opening the door to the front deck and bravely standing out in the elements. Truly the rain was insignificant, it was like a Hertfordshire spring shower, some of the rain drops were so tiny that they didn’t even fall down, instead just swirling about in the air, but still the open deck at the front of the ferry remained empty except for myself. Looking back, the doors to the inside area of the ferry resembled the doors to the Hydrotherapy pool at your local public baths - all fogged-up and sweaty. I was perplexed that I was really the only one who preferred the fresh sea air to a room packed with wet human beings.

As the ferry got moving, some others also came out onto the front deck. Obviously following my brave example. By the time we’d reached Circular Quay, I was in a state of complete content, conscious that I should savour the serene beauty of this rainy morning on the harbour.

However, I soon discovered that at least one of the suits who’d ventured out onto the open-air front deck was an unwilling convert to the outdoors lifestyle. After struggling with the door back into the ferry and in an obvious state of agitation he turned to me, stuttering and stammering to release all of the obscenities he thought necessary to explain the “disgraceful” level of service on the ferry, he complained that the air-conditioning in the ferry had broken down.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Sunset over Port Jackson.
He was indifferent to my attempt at being agreeable and completely ignored my comment that yes, inside it was in fact “like a sauna”. Perhaps because I had ignored my own advice from last week’s blog and pronounced sauna like it is in Finnish (rhymes with shower, not corner); or more likely because he had made a bee-line to someone who would be much more useful for the purposes of expressing grievances. As I overheard him repeating his complaint to a member of staff (this time sans obscene language), I realised that he wasn’t in fact making friendly conversation, rather I was just the first person unfortunate enough to come within range of spraying out a load of invective.

When I got off at Circular Quay, instead of jumping on the first available train, I walked another 7 minutes to the next nearest train station, just to savour a little more the lovely peace and quiet afforded by the rain.

NB: I didn't have the presence of mind to take photos of Circular Quay on my rainy morning trip - so rainy afternoon photos will have to suffice.

Anglicisation Anxiety

Image via Akseli Koskela
Des croissants, confiture et jus d'orange.
Recently in a discussion with a friend, I got into an argument as to the correct pronunciation of “prima facie”. Having tentatively dipped my toe in the Italian language, I assumed that a Latin expression would follow Italian pronunciation, hence: “pri-ma fah-chi”. But no, apparently everyone says “preemer face-ee” as in the word “face”. Wikipedia’s IPA spelling suggested the unhappy compromise of “prima fay-shee”. I decided in the end, that however the phrase is properly pronounced in Latin, it’s best to go with the common pronunciation. But this question frequently vexes me, how much should one anglicise foreign loan words when using them in everyday sentences?

Take “croissant” for example. Is there any other word for which I exercise so much anxiety when I’m called upon to use it in conversation? Where do you draw the line when it comes to pronouncing the word properly? Do I cough-up a great big ball of phlegm when pronouncing the “r” in “cr-” and do I, like “un vrai français” pronounce the “-oi-” as “wah”? Of course I’m not going to pronounce the final “t” but should I also properly nasalize “-ssant” and thus produce a passionate and fully rounded “kr-wasson”?

No, that would sound ridiculous.

Should I instead, like every other Aussie, refer to a croissant the same way I would refer to my auntie when she’s angry about something?

Oh, if only I could just ask my whole question in French and remove any ambiguity:

Deux croissant s’il vous plaît.”

But I’m not sure the pimply apprentice at Baker’s Delight would understand what I was talking about. Looks like I’ll just have to say:

“May I have two cross aunts please.” (Although really I’d prefer it if my aunts remained their cheerful old selves).

But this is the dilemma. On the one hand, I can sound like an uneducated bogan, on the other a pretentious merchant banker. Where is the happy middle-ground?

Of course the French have no such anxiety. The resolve the question rather bluntly by simply Francifying all foreign loan words. I don’t think anyone in France would get any sort of higher esteem or caché for pronouncing “le showbiz” like some marketing executive straight off the plane from Los Angeles. Rather, my pocket Larousse’s IPA guide suggested something much more like “le chobiznès”. While it is generally a mark of intellect being able to pronounce foreign loan words correctly in English, the French have no such hang-ups. “Naples”, “Genoa”, “Moscou”; if you ever wondered why we call Florence “Florence” when the actual denizens of that city call it Firenze you can thank the French. Yes the English assiduously tried to copy the names properly - but the English copied them from the wrong language!

Watson’s Bay Ferry

Image via Akseli Koskela
Departing Rose Bay, Point Piper is visible to the left
and the Sydney Harbour Bridge is visible in the distance.
The Watson’s Bay Ferry serves commuters from Sydney’s Eastern suburbs ferry wharfs to Circular Quay, the main ferry terminal of Sydney and also the site where the city was originally founded. You can jump on the Watson’s Bay ferry from Double Bay, Rose Bay and Watson’s Bay, as well as Darling Point ferry wharf and also the ferry wharf at Garden Island Naval Base and it will take you direct to the city centre. It’s fast, runs on time, zooms straight past all the peak hour traffic on your way to work and you get tremendous views of Port Jackson (also known as Sydney Harbour). Only pity for tourists is that outside of peak-hour times, the service is rather infrequent.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Fort Denison [centre] and the Sydney Opera House to
the right.
Fortunately for me I have the “onerous” task of having to cross this particular body of water on my way to school every morning. In all truthfulness it could well qualify as the highlight of my day. As hilarious as my students can be sometimes, it would take some special craziness from the students to top this view everyday. I enjoy seeing the deep blue of the water on a clear day, and passing Fort Denison, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. I also have a particular fondness for the two islands in the middle of the harbour which I pass but never set foot on, maybe it’s the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” on a young and impressionable mind, but I can’t help but feel a particular fascination for all types of islands. Fittingly for a Robert Louis Stevenson fantasy one is named “Shark Island”, the other has been dubbed the infinitely more mundane “Clark Island”.

Image via Akseli Koskela
The cruise ship Europa moored at Circular Quay
International Passenger Terminal
Occasionally I might also spot floating into the city one morning, the bloated carcass of a leviathan. Upturned, grotesque white belly bulging into the air, dwarfing nearby buildings, while underneath, the cool navy blue is just visible along the water line. Although called cruise ships, as a conurbation of some 2000-5000 people, they may as well fit the geographer’s definition of a medium-sized town. Ever since the Diane Brimble scandal, I can’t help but associate these massive ships with a certain decadence and the faint reek of death. Thus, the glistening white of their exteriors is but further testament to their ossification and the otherwise innocent circling of the seagulls above the harbour now takes-on a more a sinister hue.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Two ferries passing by.
Still, vibrant, young Sydney has life enough to spare without begrudging the cashed-up new arrivals their share. Only sometimes I wonder at what it must be like for those small Pacific Islands whose population doubles with the arrival of such a ship and are thus stuck in a grim dance with death, dependant as they are on the tourist dollar, but finding nevertheless that like an addictive drug, this same source of nourishment cheapens and destroys their culture.
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“Facts”, “deeds” and that which has been “done”.

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...Image via Wikipedia
Old English Epic Poem Beowulf
I’m a great fan of Melvyn Bragg’s “The Adventure of English”, but there is one part in his series when he is waxing lyrical about the uniqueness of English and it’s large vocabulary and extensive loan-words and I can’t help thinking that he’s making a virtue out of a necessity (or at least a virtue out of an indifferent fact). Because, really, is the English language’s much-vaunted big vocabulary actually as good as all that? I know it’s good in a social setting when you want to show off your … you know show off your... not lexicalness... logicalness? no.... Oh what’s that word?! Loquaciousness! Loquaciousness that’s it!

But how are you to impress upon your fellow human any sense your incredible wit and verbal acuity when you’re umm-ing and ah-ing? Everyone else gets impatient for you to “just spit it out” as you try to remember that really apt word; so eventually you just settle for a less appropriate but still workable word. And that’s the big problem with English: there are just too many words and I (for one) can never remember the one that I really want to use!

I was thinking the other day about the word “fact” - because it sounds a lot like the French equivalent “fait” and I guessed that that was where the English word came from. Actually according to the “Australian Oxford Dictionary” it comes from the Latin word “factum” which just like in French is the past tense form of the verb “facere” (“fait” and “faire” in French) “to do”. Which is to say that really a fact is simply a done - something that has been done. The etymology is easy to follow in French and Latin, but in English it’s not at all readily apparent that the word “fact” is related to the word “done”.

Of course English had its own word for “that which has been done” before it developed its preference for fancy Latin and French words over humble old Anglo-Saxon ones. That is, “deed”. Which if I refer again to the Australian Oxford Dictionary, has an “Old English” origin, “from Germanic: related to DO”. But, you might protest, “deed” doesn’t mean the same thing as “fact” and this is the source of Melvyn Bragg’s effusive paean to “English’s extraordinary ability to absorb [new words]”. Bragg finds that when English absorbs words from another language where a word with the same meaning already exists in English, both words take on a slightly different meaning. Thus “where old English said craft old Norse said skill... in Old English you were sick, in Norse you were ill”. Bragg lauds this habit of adding words to the English “word horde”, describing it as “adding to the richness and flexibility of the vocabulary” as each word takes on a new, more specific meaning, with nuanced distinctions between words, allowing for the expression of more complex and specific ideas.
Influences in English vocabularyImage via Wikipedia
Influences in English vocabulary

But to suggest that English has any particular advantage in expressing complex ideas is ridiculous (for one thing it would mean it couldn’t be translated into other languages!). And of course, whilst Stephen Fry might be happy to make outrageous claims on behalf of his beloved language, linguists will have more difficulty in justifying them. The reality, as I investigate my “Larousse de Poche” is that the French word “fait” in fact encapsulates all of the above listed meanings of fact, deed and done - varying according to context.

So, what about the big vocabulary? Is it a bane or boon? Well, for my part, I find it jolly annoying! I can never think of the word with that specific meaning that I’m after. And words with related meanings like “fact” and “deed” don’t in any way hint as to the other’s existence through sounding similar because they have completely alien etymologies. But if you were to ask me which ones I wanted to cull, I could never choose any, because I can’t help but be infatuated with all of the English vocabulary’s richness of connotations. Each word has its own adventure to tell as to how it found itself in our language. Whether it be from the marauding vikings of the Danelaw who gave us “sky” and “knife”. Or if they came from William’s conquering armée who taught the English the hard way about the role of the “state”, “traitors”, “arrest”, “justice”, to “accuse” and “acquit” and to “sentence”, “condemn” and “gaol”. Or the honest “pukka” words from working people under English dominion all over the world whether they be the unsentimental references to pompous “Lord Muck-a-Muck” from those suffering under the thumb of the British Empire, or just the tomfoolery of some “hooligans” in Ireland...
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