Based on the following…

…I think the next three years should be fairly interesting:

“I will be teaching preaching, systematic theology and…evil.” 

“I can teach you how to sail a dinghy. I can teach you how to row. And I’m very interested in learning about bee keeping.” 

“My literary idols are Kierkegaard, Tolstoy and Spiderman.” 

Today was my welcome day at theological college. The above are quotes from the session in which the teaching staff introduced themselves – they’re a diverse bunch who seem to collectively possess an excellent sense of humour. This is most definitely a good thing.

What is possibly not a good thing is the continuation of the curse of classical education…

When I was in my first year of secondary school, I did well enough in French to be identified as a ‘potential linguist’, prompting a letter to my parents conveying this good news and offering me the opportunity to take extra-curricular Latin. What self-respecting parent would turn down such an amazing educational opportunity? Certainly not my parents. The catch? The classes were before and after school – i.e. ridiculously early or ridiculously late (and I already had to catch a bus at 7.15 to get to school on time). Yes, Latin was beneficial, but I was very glad when, with the news that my new school didn’t offer it, I was allowed to drop it in favour of choir rehearsals.

Today, we heard about the optional Greek course. Every fibre of my body knew that it would be in my best interests to take it – and that my parents would reinforce this. The catch? It’s before classes start. In fact, it’s even before the breakfast that kicks off our day of classes. Oh, and it’s on Mondays.

Hopefully the early start won’t affect my attitude to Greek in the way it did Latin. I can’t remember an awful lot of it now, aside from the first page of the Oxford Latin Course text book (‘Scintilla mater est. Quintus puer est. Scintilla in culina est, Scintilla cenam parat…’) and how to say “I can’t hear you, I have a banana stuck in my ear”. Super useful if ever there’s a lull in conversation.

[I mention the following only because my friends will inevitably discover this in conversation and will find my dislike of the early class laughable, but Greek will start at 8.30am. I appreciate that this isn’t actually that early. In fact, it’s later than most of my teaching friends start work every single weekday. But have you met me before 10.30am? I’m not pleasant and I’m not sure I’ll be in a fit state to learn a new language…]

Divisions of language and culture

Spending time with a large group of people is usually fairly comedy, albeit often in a niche, you had to be there kind of way. [I always feel sorry for friends of mine who end up in the midst of my singing friends (particularly the girls of Girls’ Weekend Away fame) and a whole host of stories about events they weren’t at and people they’ve never met.] These situations often become even more amusing when you add to the mix people from different cultures who have very different ideas to you…

…like bringing together a load of leftie-liberal Londoners, mostly from the trendy East End, with a group of right-wing conservative Texans. Now that’s just asking for trouble!

Leaving aside the obvious political differences (the wildly divergent reactions to someone getting Al Gore in a game of Guess Who? were amusing to say the least and involved much biting of British tongues), there were many examples of language issues, often with hilarious effects. Oh ok, I’ll share one political example. We were in France, there was always going to be the chance that WW2 would be mentioned, or some other conflict in which the Americans ‘saved us’. And thus, the following exchange took place:
Brit: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
Texan: “War is God’s way of teaching the French to say no.”

Somehow it became my role during the week to document amusing quotes as they appeared and then recite them after dinner, the bulk of which related to Anglo-American confusion or clashes. For example, an education was conducted by a British furniture designer with a Texan roofer over the subtleties of British phrases – particularly the difference between describing something as “bollocks” and “the dog’s bollocks”. [Classy.] It took a while for the Texan to get the hang of it…
T: “That’s the dog’s balls!” 

B: “No, you’ve not got that at all right.”
It took a few days until the Texan achieved the right phrase in the correct context and when he managed it, it was rather touching…

Texan to his wife after eating a plate of food she’d cooked: “It’s the dog’s bollocks.” 

Texan wife in reply: “Thank you darling.”

A happy Texan couple and the Texan versus the Brit.

When with Americans, there’s always the temptation to deliberately use British terms that mean something else in the US, just to create something of a sensation – or stealthily getting Americans to use terms that cause British hilarity. Like the classic bum-bag versus fanny-pack scenario. To quote a Texan: “What’s wrong with calling it a ‘fanny pack’?” – that was a fun question to answer. Or a load of immature Brits collapsing with giggles when someone described how, following a broken ankle, “In this leg, I’ve got 2 screws & a knob…”. Still, in exchange I have also learnt that describing a smelly article of clothing as “fruity” stateside lends it quite a different meaning, especially if it’s a man using the adjective.
Perhaps my most favourite moment involved much immaturity. (In fact, as I read through the quotes with a London friend who left France early, I realised that there were many that involved me and two companions who seemed to consistently form the naughty end of the table.) We had use of a Swiss minibus for the duration of the trip, which required some force to be applied from outside in order for the passenger door to be shut properly. Usually this was only remembered once the passengers were inside and whoever occupied the front passenger seat would have to jump out and exert some pressure, via their posterior, to the door. 
Ultimately this resulted in a cry of “Shannon, you need to bum the door!” from one of the American occupants, which was met with shrieks from all the British passengers. We didn’t fully explain the multiple meanings that can be drawn from ‘bum’ as a verb, and when I retold the story to my two compatriots at dinner, I for some reason thought to talk about how I could have explained the joke to the Americans with the phrase “can I bum a fag?”. Of course I could…but I’d only intended to explain ‘bum’ in the context of borrowing something, not the other translation! We didn’t dare explain the source of our hoots of laughter to the innocent Texans. 
Inside the fun bus & some resulting hilarity. 
(The hilarity would have nothing to do with the substance in that glass…)

What can I say? It seems that my sense of humour lies very firmly in the gutter. On the plus side, I have come home with a host of new phrases which I’ll be looking to slot into conversation wherever possible. These would be two of my favourites:
“That tasted so good I’m gonna slap ya mama twice.”
“I’m as full as a tic on a hound dog.”

The linguistics of baking

It’s another full-on baking week and luckily, my baking mojo is in pretty full residence [there was a minor incident on Sunday involving brownies and 1 egg instead of 2, but it wasn’t a total disaster]. Special requests were made by departing students and there’s an exciting tea party on Thursday, so there’s lots to be done and exciting new recipes to try…

However, high on the list was an old favourite. In fact, it is a true heirloom of a recipe for a truly classic English delicacy: fruit scones. I love a good scone (I usually arrange my Belfast flights to ensure that I arrive in time for college elevenses as they involve spectacular scones of a wide variety of flavours) and honestly believe that there is little better on this earth than a scone, fresh from the oven, with butter and jam. The advantage of getting my scone baking in early meant that this is exactly what I consumed for a late breakfast on Sunday. Yum.

We have a family recipe that originated with my Great Grandmother – ‘Grandma Clarke’, though realistically it’s likely to have existed for a couple of generations prior to that. My mother’s copy is an aerogramme stuck into her recipe book, as Grandma Clarke sent it to her grand-daughter-in-law when they were in Tonga. It’s super-simple and produces delicious results. I’m almost loath to post it publicly, but I suppose I should share the joy.

Grandma Clarke’s Scones

10oz Self-Raising Flour
2oz Sugar
6oz Butter
1 egg – beaten with a little milk
Small handful of raisins
Rub together fat & flour. Add sugar and fruit. Mix in egg.
Roll out onto floured surface, 1″ thick. [Thickness is vital!]
Bake for 12 minutes, at Gas Mark 7, until golden.
The thing is, once you get talking about scones, no matter how beautiful the baked goods are, an ugly issue rears its head – that of pronunciation. Britain is divided, are scones to rhyme with ‘Joan’ or ‘John’. Personally, I’m a Joan, but many of those arguing with me on Twitter on Sunday were firmly Johns.
Someone suggested that I look up statistics on the issue (perhaps knowing that I rarely dispute statistical evidence, being a good researcher) and lo and behold, googling ‘scone pronunciation stats’ revealed a UCL study from 1998 entitled ‘Pronunciation Preferences in British English: A New Survey’. As someone who is regularly mocked for their supposedly ‘wrong’ pronunciation, this article was a revelation. 
Its contribution on the scone debate revealed that I was in the minority, 35% of those surveyed preferring Joan to John. However, the proportion of Joans was higher amongst younger respondents, indicating that it may overtake John in the future (here’s hoping). Interestingly, 99% of Scots surveyed prefer John – this being the only significant regional difference discovered (i.e. it’s not like the bath debate in which there’s a clear north/south divide). Should you be interested, this research also explored ‘garage’, ‘February’, ‘princess’ and ‘schedule’ – honestly, it’s possibly the most fascinating article you’ll read this week. 
I’m secure with being in the minority on this one, as one thing I’m more than secure about is the fact that my scones taste fabulous, and that is the most important aspect of the debate!

A question of etymology and sensibilities

While on a research trip last Sunday, I had an incredibly lovely non-traditional Sunday lunch (home-made pizza followed by brownies replaced the usual roast) with the minister of one of my case studies. Conversation turned at one point to the forthcoming crib service on Christmas Eve and the debate within the congregation regarding the involvement of the church’s teenagers. It emerged that some members of the congregation didn’t have an issue with the teenagers being involved again, more that they’d had a look at the proposed script and didn’t like some of the language used.

I steeled myself for some truly controversial vocabulary, and was slightly surprised to discover that the first word was in fact ‘crikey’. A dictionary was obtained to check whether this seemingly innocent word in fact had darker connotations. Turns out these older Christians had every reason to object – crikey is in fact an ‘alliterative substitute’ for Christ kill me.

So we moved on to ‘Cor Blimey’. (I have no idea what the play was about, only knowing that these two phrases were involved I imagine it must either be a vintage Ashes Test Match or some kind of Dickensian Christmas). Of course, this too has some connection to God in a blasphemous way – it’s derived from God blind me. The conclusion round the table was that perhaps the objectors had a point.

Fast-forward 18 hours and the British public were faced with a far more obvious use of unacceptable language – James Naughtie made a now infamous slip-up while introducing Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Radio 4’s flagship morning news programme. [If you’ve been living under a rock/outside Britain and don’t know what I’m talking about, swap the first letter of ‘culture’ with the first letter of ‘Hunt’…]

It caused outrage, of course, though the Twittersphere’s reaction was generally one of amusement. (Although is that because I have a tendency to only follow leftie-liberals like myself?) It also resulted in my dear friend Andy writing a post about whether swear words are ever acceptable. [Warning, it contains language which some – especially you BB – may find offensive.]

Twenty-four hours later and I’m still not sure what I think about it. My initial reaction was one of intense physical revulsion – stamping my foot and nearly dropping my phone. [I’d spotted a “Probably shouldn’t have published that… #blog” tweet at the end of my choir rehearsal, so thought I’d open it up & read it on the way home – I love my phone…] That word is one that I’d never use, even in a fit of temper. He’s right in that some words are perfect for screaming when you hit yourself with a hammer, but is there ever any need for the C word?

Thing is, it can’t always have had negative connotations, surely? No one can agree on its etymology, which doesn’t help. Tuesday’s The view from a broad column in the Guardian gives an example from a pre-1325 manuscript and even its use in the Canterbury Tales isn’t seen as particularly offensive – yet by the 1970’s it was seen as deeply offensive by feminists. Personally, I’m all in favour of the various campaigns that have been started to reclaim the word by women for its original meaning – why should an entirely pleasant bit of female anatomy be used as the worst insult in the English language?

I was a little concerned that I might be over-reacting (not unknown), so I quizzed my good chum Katie about it. In the process, she managed to get me to say the word twice – something she considers an achievement – but I won’t be writing it. She assured me that I wasn’t alone in my views (although she personally doesn’t have too much of an issue with it, as I learned while sitting in her car during the Bristol rush hour…) but agreed that she felt it was deeply offensive to women because of its anatomical connotations. That still doesn’t go any way to explaining why that word is so socially unacceptable, while its masculine counterparts are widely used and accepted. [I was about to say that they still wouldn’t be used in the pulpit & then remembered that at my church that’s not actually the case – given that the F word was used fairly recently and with good effect.]

Clearly I have no conclusions. On the one hand, I don’t see the point in making a fuss about a simple on-air slip of the tongue. On the other hand, I definitely don’t think it’s a word that should be in common usage – unless its negative meaning can be reversed. In general, I think people could simply learn a lot from discovering what words actually mean, how they came into existence and most of all, using them properly and meaningfully.

What the world needs:

The resurrection of more supposedly out of date words – like swoon.

(i) To faint.
(ii) To be overwhelmed with ecstatic joy.
e.g. “James has just changed his profile photo on Facebook. *Swoon*.”
It all began when a friend starting using it in e-mails whilst referring to her latest man of the moment. (That is not to imply that she’s in any way slutty, but most girls, most of the time have a guy in the picture who can make them swoon.)
Between the two of us, we’ve now decided to bring it back into common usage – more in the ‘to be overwhelmed with ecstatic joy’ sense, than the fainting one – so we are now swooning all over the place.
I’ve decided that this is just the start of a much larger campaign to reclaim words that have fallen by the wayside, including:
  • hookem-snivey – to fake illness on the street in order to ‘excite compassion & receive alms’.
  • ran-tan – to be drunk. (Though, Michael Macintyre has an amusing theory that for people with posh accents you can use any word to mean drunk – “I was utterly gazeboed!”.)
Ok, perhaps those aren’t fantastic examples. For now I’ll just stick to swooning. Now, where’s that ER season 1 box set…?