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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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The BP spill has poisoned our tongues … our poor, crisp, British tongues

Charlie Brooker in the Guardian:

Flippantly putting the grave environmental tragedy of it all to one side for a moment, the Deepwater Horizon oil leak isn’t just causing extensive damage to the Louisiana coastline. What about our accents? Our lovely British accents? Thanks to the BP link, they’ve been destroyed too. Don’t know about you, but whenever I’m around Americans, I tend to exaggerate my Britishness in a pathetic bid to win their approval. Those days are gone.

The first time I visited the US, I ran into trouble at immigration. Half the group I was travelling with decided to get drunk on the plane, which probably would’ve been fine with all the other passengers if it hadn’t been for the unrelenting cackling and yelping and removal of trousers. I was fairly drunk too, incidentally, but only because I was so terrified of flying I’d decided to blot out the whole of reality by glugging myself into an inflight coma. From my slumbering perspective the flight was a warm 15-minute snooze. To the other passengers it must’ve felt like a 30-year sentence in baboon prison.

Upon arrival, we were identified as troublemakers and hauled off one-by-one for a comprehensive bothering. Instantly I realised my only hope of avoiding instant deportation was to behave like a minor royal – not an aloof, chilly posho, but a genial gosh-what-a-wonderful-country-you-have Hugh Grant-type, one who smiles a lot while using slightly formal language. I apologised profusely by saying, “I apologise profusely.” The officer started out prickly – one of his opening gambits was, “You could be spending the night in jail, wiseguy”, which simultaneously impressed and scared me – but several minutes of profuse apologies and crikey-I’m-sorry delivered in an embellished British accent appeared to disarm him, and I was released without being subjected to gunfire.

[more] via The BP spill has poisoned our tongues … our poor, crisp, British tongues | Charlie Brooker | Comment is free | The Guardian.

Happy Bloom’s Day…

from the NYT:

FIFTY-SIX years ago today, a Bell System manager sent postcards to 16 of the most capable and promising young executives at the company. What was written on the postcards was surprising, especially coming from a corporate ladder-climber at a time when the nation was just beginning to lurch out of a recession: “Happy Bloom’s Day.”

It was a message to mark the annual celebration of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” the epic novel built around events unfolding on a single day — June 16, 1904 — in the life of the fictional Dubliner Leopold Bloom. But the postcard also served as a kind of diploma for the men who received it.

Two years earlier a number of Bell’s top executives, led by W. D. Gillen, then president of Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania, had begun to worry about the education of the managers rising through the company’s hierarchy. Many of these junior executives had technical backgrounds, gained at engineering schools or on the job, and quite a few had no college education at all. They were good at their jobs, but they would eventually rise to positions in which Gillen felt they would need broader views than their backgrounds had so far given them.

The sociologist E. Digby Baltzell explained the Bell leaders’ concerns in an article published in Harper’s magazine in 1955: “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Bell, then one of the largest industrial concerns in the country, needed more employees capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises.

In 1952, Gillen took the problem to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a trustee. Together with representatives of the university, Bell set up a program called the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives. More than simply training its young executives to do a particular job, the institute would give them, in a 10-month immersion program on the Penn campus, what amounted to a complete liberal arts education. There were lectures and seminars led by scholars from Penn and other colleges in the area — 550 hours of course work in total, and more reading, Baltzell reported, than the average graduate student was asked to do in a similar time frame.

At the same time, the institute’s curriculum provided for the sorts of experiences that were once the accidental concomitants of a liberal education: visits to museums and art galleries, orchestral concerts, day trips meant to foster thoughtful attention to the history and architecture of the city that surrounded the Penn campus, as well as that of New York and Washington.

Perhaps the most exciting component of the curriculum was the series of guest lecturers the institute brought to campus. “One hundred and sixty of America’s leading intellectuals,” according to Baltzell, spoke to the Bell students that year. They included the poets W. H. Auden and Delmore Schwartz, the Princeton literary critic R. P. Blackmur, the architectural historian Lewis Mumford, the composer Virgil Thomson. It was a thrilling intellectual carnival.

When the students read “The Lonely Crowd,” the landmark 1950 study of their own social milieu, they didn’t just discuss the book, they discussed it with its author, David Riesman. They tangled with a Harvard expert over the elusive poetry in Ezra Pound’s “Pisan Cantos,” which had sent one of the Bell students to bed with a headache and two aspirin.

The capstone of the program, and its most controversial element, came in eight three-hour seminars devoted to “Ulysses.” The novel, published in 1922, had been banned as obscene in the United States until 1933 and its reputation for difficulty outlived the ban. The Bell students “found it a challenging, and often exasperating, experience,” Baltzell wrote.

[more] via Op-Ed Contributor – The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone – NYTimes.com.

David Mitchell | Save your venom for the self-appointed language police

Why snakes are more useful than language scolds, from The Observer:

… The Queen’s English Society (to which my knee-jerk response is: “No she isn’t. Doesn’t everyone say she’s mainly German?”) takes a different view. It’s decided that English needs an academy so that it can compete with less successful languages such as French and Italian. “We do desperately need some form of moderating body to set an accepted standard of good English,” it says, while the academy’s founder, Martin Estinel, a 71-year-old who claims still to use the word “gay” to mean “happy”, declares: “At the moment, anything goes… Let’s have a body to sit in judgment.”

Obviously this is absolute horseshit. By what authority would they sit in judgment? Where is their evidence that manacling our language to past usage is at all helpful or necessary? It would only stand in the way of the all-conquering self-diversification that has made English the global lingua franca, and allowed “lingua franca” to become an English phrase, while the French kick impotently against “le weekend”. Fortunately, people won’t take a blind bit of notice of this self-appointed academy and will continue, quite rightly, to use words exactly as they find convenient.

But what most annoys about the scheme is that it completely misses the point of linguistic pedantry. It’s no fun prissily adhering to grammatical rules if it’s mandatory. This academy wishes to turn something I have chosen to do – an attitude by which I define myself – into something I’m forced to do, along with everyone else. That’s like making everyone support Manchester United. It’s the blandly didactic product of priggish, literal, two-dimensional thinking. …

[more] via David Mitchell | Save your venom for the self-appointed language police | Comment is free | The Observer.