May You Live in Interesting Times!

One looks for the good, I think. So recently some of us have been repeating that old saw, May you live in interesting times.

A Chinese curse, we’re told. Or a blessing. May you live in interesting times.

But … it’s not Chinese. 🙂

I know, I know, I’m a wet blanket about these things—but it’s what I do for a living. I’m an editor. I check things. Fortunately I didn’t have to do the footwork on this one: Garston O’Toole over at Quote Investigator has the straight poop:

The British statesman Joseph Chamberlain was the father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and future diplomat Austen Chamberlain. As noted previously, Austen asserted in a 1936 speech that “living in interesting times” was considered to be a curse in Chinese culture. Curiously, Joseph [also] used the same distinctive phrase during addresses he delivered in 1898 and 1901.

There’s a lot more to read at QI, which traces usage of the phrase from 1898 right up to modern times. You can also read about it at Wikipedia.

Bottom line: You can’t blame the Chinese for this, friends! But may you have an interesting year nonetheless. 🙂

Giving Up Your Language

Consider for a moment the effects of being asked to change the language you use. … Brian Friel’s play Translations, written in 1980, depicts this in an Irish setting. The action takes place in County Donegal in 1833: we follow a detachment of English soldiers who are part of an Ordnance Survey team anglicizing Gaelic place names, and their work illustrates the significance of names in framing people’s perceptions of the land, The belief that Gaelic is somehow responsible for Irish savagery, superstition and sententiousness dates back at least to the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII asserted that it was sufficient grounds for compelling the Irish to speak English. (When he declared himself king of Ireland in 1541, he did so first in English and then, as an afterthought, in the language of the people he was bringing under his rule.) Friel’s play dramatizes the moment when one language supplants another.

There are areas of Britain where people still use languages that were present before the arrival roughly 1,500 years ago of the Germanic settlers whose dialects became English. But while the central role of English has not been achieved without bloodshed and resentment, it is a largely uncontroversial fact, historically ingrained. Of the languages spoken in Britain today, Welsh has the most ancient roots. … The decline of Welsh began with the seizure of the English Crown by the part-Welsh Henry VII in 1485, and accelerated in the sixteenth century as English became the language of education and administration in Wales …

In Scotland, English arrived earlier; there were English-speaking settlers as far back as the sixth century. However, English became the de facto public language only in 1707 when the Act of Union joined Scotland to England and Wales. …

In Ireland, as Friel’s play Translations suggests, the situation is rather different. Ireland is not a part of Britain, although in my experience some otherwise knowledgeable people seem to consider this an eccentric statement. The details of Irish history are too complex to digest here. The first English-speakers to settle there arrived in the twelfth century, but it was only in the seventeenth century that Irish resistance to English plantation gave way. By the following century, the use of Gaelic was “a marker of rural, Catholic poverty” whereas English was associated with “Protestantism, ownership, and the towns,” although some towns “had a sizeable Gaelic-speaking working class until well into the nineteenth century.” Gaelic was to a large degree abandoned in the nineteenth century, but from the 1890s it was promoted as a minority language. For present purposes, it is enough to say that Gaelic has in Ireland an appreciable symbolic value; that there is a distinct Irish English with its own grammatical features, vowel sounds, stresses and vocabulary; that Irish English exists in several different forms, and that, these facts notwithstanding, English is spoken by very nearly everyone in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Henry Hitchings

Transcribed by me from pages 253–4 of my hardback copy of The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, © 2011, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Travel: There’s an App for That

I spend a lot of time planning my trips; I love the anticipation itch that planning scratches. Still, as you know, even a well-planned trip can go off the rails—a missed flight, for example, or an unexpected case of pneumonia.

But I spend more time at home than I do traveling. I’m not a frequent flyer. So it never crossed my mind that there are dozens of apps to make travel easier.

Some years ago I worked for Mike Hyatt, and I’ve followed his blog for some time (along with about a hundred thousand other people). No longer at the publishing company where we met, Mike is now a popular public speaker and author, and as such he does a lot of traveling. So you can imagine my delight when I found this blog post in my in-box: “Are You Using These Top 5 Travel Apps?

Here’s a sample:

1. TripIt. This is “command central” for my travel details. My assistants and I use it to maintain all my transportation and accommodation information. When they book a flight or a hotel, they forward the information to TripIt. The program parses the email and creates neat records with all the details. It tells me when flights are delayed, the travel time, my seat assignments, confirmation numbers, and whether or not the flight provides wireless Internet service. It gives me similar information about hotels.

Mike goes on to name four other travel apps he finds useful, including one called Uber, which allows you to book limousine service from your iPhone. Don’t assume it’s too expensive, he says: “I find it is often much cheaper than a rental car.” I can affirm this: Gerry and I booked limos from LaGuardia to midtown Manhattan and they were cheaper than cabs.

So read this article—you may find something very useful for your business or pleasure travel. Best of all, Mike encourages his readers to leave suggestions in the comments—and holy cow, are there some good ones:

• Gate Guru: It gives a list of all the restaurants, snack stands, and shops in the terminals of most airports.

• Seat Guru: Find low airfares, pick your ideal seat on the plane, and get real-time flight alerts with the free SeatGuru app.

• GlobeConvert: Currency and units converter.

• HotStop: Local transit directions (subway, train, bus, ferry, bike).

• Bedbug Registry: self-explanatory.

• AroundMe: Quickly identifies your position and allows you to choose the nearest bank, bar, gas station, hospital, hotel, movie theater, restaurant, supermarket, and so on.

Check it out!

How’s the Craic?

For the uninitiated, that word’s pronounced “crack.” In fact, that word is crack. Meaning it’s an English word (crack) borrowed into Irish (Gaelic) as craic; then that Irish spelling was reborrowed into English (starting with Hiberno-English, which is, simply, the dialect of English written and spoken in Ireland).

I know, it’s confusing. But craic has started showing up in my Facebook feed in posts of friends who are definitely not Irish, so it may be time for us to look into it. Because we’re not talking about the crack that can break your mother’s back; we’re not even talking about a wisecrack. (Actually, my favorite dictionary lists nine separate definitions for the noun crack, none of which are the crack/craic I’m talking about.)

Still with me?

Crack dates from Middle English (dialects of English spoken for about three hundred years, between the late twelfth and late fifteenth centuries). Back then it was crak, and it meant “loud conversation, bragging talk,” according to A Dictionary of Hiberno-English by T. P. Dolan (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2006). A hundred years later (1590, the oldest reference I could find easily), we see Edmund Spenser using it in The Faerie Queen (book II xi, 8): “vainglorious crakes [braggarts].”

So there it is in (British) English, and the context and meaning evolved as it moved through history, from braggadocio to conversation and chat to news (“What’s the crack?” means “Have you any news?” or even “How are you?”) and gossip and … fun ambience.

And there it is, in fact, in the Oxford English Dictionary (added in 2008), which dates craic at “1968 or earlier.” The concept of crack as fun was in use in Ireland and elsewhere but, according to the OED, the Irish spelling was “popularized by the phrase beidh ceol, caint agus craic againn, lit. ‘we will have music, chat and crack’, the catchphrase of the Irish-language television programme SBB ina Shuí, running from 1976–83.”

Aha. I’d thought it was an old Irish (Gaelic) word, not something we might classify as, you know, mid-century modern. Which is probably what bugs some folks in that part of the world (linguists, for the most part). It’s faux-Irish, they say. And even now you see it spelled crack by some Irish writers (Roddy Doyle and Dermot Healy are two I can say for sure), so the Irish spelling isn’t universally used. But—having some experience in the quibbles of language—I must ask how it can be fake if so many Irish folks use it?

Those cranks are spoiling my craic. Because the Irish have made this word, no matter its origin, their own.

But what does it mean? you ask. In Ireland, that is.

Well, kids, there are as many definitions as there are Irish pubs—some of them really cheesy—in North America, one of which you may find yourself in this weekend. Craic means high-spirited entertainment, including lots of talking and laughing … it means fun, usually when mixed with alcohol and/or music … it means having a laugh in a social context (craic is the original social medium) … it means a good time … it means conversation, chat. It means merriment (my personal favorite). But here’s a definition I stumbled on a few years ago: craic is the combination of the music, the drink, the conversation, and the spirit of the surroundings. “How was the craic?” one might be asked the morning after. “Deadly,” might come the answer.

Which means, you know, really good in Hiberno-English. But that’s another post.

This post originally appeared on my professional blog, Read>Play>Edit on 14 March 2013.