Thursday, December 13, 2012

Crikey! I'm gobsmacked! Bespoke crosses the pond

Crikey! I'm gobsmacked! “Bespoke” crosses the pond.


                           Howard Richler

Some years ago while on a trip to England, I encountered some words and expressions that made me realize the importance of being bilingual in my mother tongue. For example, I asked someone in London where I could find an ATM. She looked nonplussed but her companion translated, “he means a “hole-in-the-wall.” Also, I discovered that in some English locales a speed bump is referred to as a “sleeping policeman” and that the British enjoy a bevy of insulting terms for people such as “swot” (boring, studious student), “chav”(bad-mannered person), “anorak”(anal-retentive person) and “poncey” (effeminate) that have limited currency on this side of the Atlantic. I also recall being perplexed upon seeing a sign announcing “bespoke industrial units” and another advertising “bespoke shoes.” I got a clearer idea of the term when I saw yet another sign that read “bespoke tailors.”

“Bespoke,” however, is now ubiquitous in North America. For example, on November 7th we read in the National Post that “Sean Connery's Bond was the Errol Flynn of the swinging '60s, a dapper swashbuckling Saville Row type in bespoke Turnbull & Asser shirts.” Often, the usage transcends the boundary of Saville Row as in the following from the Globe and Mail: “Luxury travel lovers flocked to the Spoke Club for an intimate event with Mr. & Mrs Smith, a bespoke booking service for custom travel property.”

“Bespoke” has also taken the USA by storm. In the New York city area there are over twenty “bespoke” companies including “Bespoke Surgical,” “Bespoke Barber Shop,” and at least one store simply called “Bespoke.” Also, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office lists over 40 active registrations and applications for “bespoke” brand names with the majority of the patents being filed in the past two years. If you have a USA bespoke product or service to offer - act quickly. One person wanted to use as their web address but as this belonged to Bespoke Software, he had to settle for Bespoke Innovations.

The OED defines bespoke as “ordered to be made, as distinguished from READY-MADE”; also said of a tradesman who makes goods to order.” Strangely, the word's first citation in 1755 refers to a play but by the middle of the 19th century the word was most often employed in the shoemaking trade to refer to custom shoes. An 1866 citation from Chamber’s Encyclopedia says that “the shoe-making tradition is divided into two departments-the bespoke and the ready-made or safe business.” The tailoring industry adopted the word to describe the cloth customers select in advance for their suits. The cloth thus became “spoken for” or “bespoke.”

Bespoke long ago shed its tailoring sense in the UK and on my aforementioned jaunt I recall seeing an unlikely sign in Yorkshire advertising “bespoke fish & chips.” However, in North America the same process of applying the term to a variety of sundry products has occurred This can be verified by googling “bespoke tricycles,” “bespoke underwear” “bespoke toilet seats” “bespoke condoms” and “bespoke legal advice.” So far, there isn't a listing for “bespoke criminals.”

So why has “bespoke” become such as a popular marketing word? Justin Watters, the co-founder of the Bespoke Investment Group LLC based in Harrison, New York says “Like a bespoke tailor investors measure risk tolerance needs and outlook in order to develop a strategy that fits their unique needs.” According to Mark-Evan Blackman, a professor at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, “bespoke has.. started seeping into our consciousness as a term for our gold standard, as a male equivalent of couture.” So, it would seem “bespoke” has become a marketing buzzword to convey the superiority of a product or service you are offering. I suppose that the term “custom” has become so commonplace that it is often replaced by the fresher “bespoke” to entice customers.

Soon, no doubt, the revived “bespoke” will lose its freshness; overuse will make everyone jaded as to what it signifies and marketeers will have to find another high-faluting word to bamboozle consumers.

Howard Richler's bespoke book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press next spring.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Saving Endangered Languages

(This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2012 edition of the  legal magazine Lexpert under the title :When We Lose a Language).

What we lose when we lose a language


Howard Richler

The adjective “endangered” is usually twinned with the noun “species” as the onslaught of civilization has brought about a diminution in the planet's biodiversity.

But not only are many species on the verge of extinction, many languages are teetering towards oblivion. Of the approximately 7000 languages spoken on our planet, it is estimated that anywhere from 50% to 90% will not survive the end of the century. So whereas the largest 80 to 100 languages in the world such as English, Chinese, Urdu and French are spoken by 4.5 billion people, there are around 3500 languages whose total number of speakers equals no more than ten million; an average of less than 3000 speakers each. Generally speaking a language is regarded as secure if it has over 100,000 speakers. However, many of the languages spoken today are on the abyss of extinction having fewer than 100 speakers.

Not surprisingly, many of the native languages in Canada fall into the endangered camp. Only Cree, Ojibway ans Inuktikut are regarded as relatively secure. In many of the 53 Canadian aboriginal languages, more than half of the population can't communicate at all in their mother tongue and fluency declines drastically among the youth of the tribe. Hilda Nicholson, a spokesperson for the Mohawk band of Kahnawake, told me that the fluency rate in the 65 year and older category was around 75%, but in the 6-15 age group, this rate drops to under 20% So, there is a clear sign when a language is in danger. Parents stop teaching it to children and children stop wanting to learn the language of their ancestors. Unfortunately, the obvious role of schools is limited no matter how great the effort of the school program, the ultimate fate of the language is determined by whether it is used on a daily basis in casual conversation.

So, why should we care? Several things are lost when we lose languages. First, we lose cultural knowledge. Since there are around only 200 written languages, when a non-written language vanishes we lose the beliefs and stories that may provide insights into our humanity. These oral histories could possibly inspire us by providing a new way to perceive the world.

More concretely, the loss of languages is also a loss for science because a language represents an adaptive technology. For example, the Inuit language possesses approximately 100 words for sea ice and this instructs one about complexities not generally known in other languages. When it comes to knowledge about bees we probably have much to learn from the Kayapo language of Brazil. Its apian vocabulary contains such domains as flight patterns, bee odour, quantity and quality of honey, and the edibility of larva. According to Mark Pagel, a biomathematician at Oxford, different languages have “particular habits of mind” and learning a specific language can possibly alter the brain. For example, Pagel interprets the inability of Japanese adults to differentiate between “la” and “ra” sounds as meaning that on a physiological level there may be brain distinctions based on language.

The difference, however, between Japanese and English pales compared to some nuances we find in other languages. For example, it was once assumed that certain sentence structures were not possible. So while one can say “I will eat this kangaroo” it was believed that in no langauge would some rational person utter “This will eat kangaroo I.” But then linguists “discovered” the Waripiri of the Australian Outback. Not only do tribesmen state in Waripiri, “This will eat kangaroo I.” They also say “Kangaroo will this eat I” and “Eat will kangaroo this I.” By observing which rules hold and which do not (e.g., “will” always comes in the second position in the sentence), linguists have been better able to set parameters for universal grammar. But in order to test and refine universal grammar, linguists require a myriad of examples from the grammars of diverse languages. Unfortunately, until recently the data base has been shrinking drastically.

Until recently” is used in the last sentence because hope is on the horizon. This past June Google introduced the “Endangered Language Project,” (ELP) a website that allows people and organizations involved in language preservation to find and share the most current and comprehensive information about endangered languages. With ELP, Google provides its technology and vast storage capacity to create a headquarters where data can be shared in a variety of forms, such as text, audio and video files. Although Google launched this endeavour it will shortly pass the gauntlet over to these two organizations involved in the field of language preservation: The First Peoples' Cultural Council based in Brentwood Bay. B.C. and the Institute for Language Information and Technology at East Michigan University.

Howard's next book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published next Spring.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Facebook Word Quizzes-150-200

150-What musician's name is an anagram to retrogradely?

151-What do these words have in common? shingle-potash-himself-manger

152-What do these words have in common? braises-mails-mason-rains-resign-super

153-What do these words have in common? landing-denser-topic-sales

154- Name the writer whose name is an anagram to “I'll make a wise phrase.”

155-Name the actor whose name is an anagram to “I value nicer role.”

156- Name 2 words that rhyme with each other that are synonyms with 2 other words that rhyme with each

157-Name 3 words that have 4 letter consecutive strings.

158-Name a US city of 6 letters that spells another word when reversed.

159-I’m where yester follows today and tomo is in the middle. What am I?

160-Name a phrase that features this letter string. “ouea.”

161-What do these words have in common? carnal-snore-tonic

162-What pro sports teams are an amalgam of these anagrams? avenged sills, unhinged paste, sparser pucks, & salon misprints

163-What do these words have in common? jungle-shampoo-juggnaut-thug

164-What do these words have in common? does-number-unionized

165-What do these words have in common? blond-nuthouse-kiln

166- What US capital's last 2 letters are the same as the state's abbreviation?

167-What do these words have in common? dottier-caption-Tory

168-Name the person whose name is featured in these 2 anagrams. hated for ill +mother-in-law
169-What is distinctive about this sentence?-If you want to know what Barack Obama wants to do to our country, why don’t you just ask John McCain, Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin or (God forbid) Mitt?
170-What makes this sentence distinctive?- A cockamamie Commie mocks a gay, sagacious Eskimo.

171-What makes these sentences distinctive? Sununu purports to trust Proust/Support our troops/Not on your own

172-What do these words have in common? lust-election-Lenin-alar

173-What do these words have in common? Graceland-Indonesia-Armenia

174-Presidential anagrams-Decipher the following: He bugs gore- See a thing go wrong-Govern

clever lad-He did view the war doings-Truth searcher-Rash army runt

175-Presidential anagram-Decipher the following:A barbarian smoked teacups

176-What do these words have in common? scornful-reappearance-appraising-fortunately

177-What do these words have in common? apple-compute-apish-whip

178 – Decipher the following Hill



179-What do these words have in common? catamaran, mulligatawny, pariah

180-Name a world capital that is an anagram to an insect.

181-What do these words have in common? anime-nominates

182What do these words have in common? cherries, dessert, salad, salmon, soup (aside from being foods)

183-What cities are these words letter banks to? antic-gouda-car-man T

184-Name a word shortened in front and on back.

185-Name a city of at least 10 letters comprised only of odd letters. e.g., a=1 c=3 e=5

186-What do these words have in common? -banter-mob-sham-snob-talented

187-What do these words have in common? assassination-bloodstained -sanctimonious-scuffle

188-Name a verb derived from a city

189-Name two words pronounced the same that share no letters.

190-Name a 6 letter word composed of only 2 letters in the alphabet.

191-What do these surnames have in common? Rivkin, Dworkin, Malkov

192-What do these words have in common? aback,grackle, parks

193-What do these words have in common? begonia, chauvinist, guillotine,

194-What do these words have in common? venison, bacon, sausage, poultry, sole

195-What do these words have in common? tangerine-manger -raincoat

196-Name acity in the Middle East that is an anagram to a resident of a Middle East country.

197-Name a singer whose name is an anagram to urodele-(type of amphibian)

198-Name an actor whose name is an anagran to Energy cool ego

199 -What do these words have in common? cravat, bungalow, suede, jeans, denim

200-What do these words have in common? boycott-dunce-maverick