Occupied San Francisco, atom bombs and lost words

It’s been a while since my last post – busy with work. So this will be a catch-up on recent things.

First crocus

This was the first crocus to appear in a pot in our garden, taken on 28 Jan

 Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle. PMC, 2001; first published 1962. I bought this during the presidency of the last incumbent, now just a nightmare memory (or will he return?). It looked for a while like he was going to make this counterfactual story come true. The plot involves a post-WWII America in which the Nazi – Japanese axis powers won the war. The Japanese occupy the ‘Pacific States’ zone, the Germans hold the eastern zone, with a buffer zone in the mid-west.

I’ve read very little sci-fi/fantasy, but I suppose this falls more into the category of speculative fiction – like Len Deighton’s SS GB, or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America – both of which I found entertaining but not entirely satisfactory. As with most good sci-fi the genre lends itself to some fierce critical insights into the ‘real’ world of our time.

The title refers to a weirdly postmodern novel-within-the novel which tells an alternative counterfactual history of the war: this time the allies defeated the Nazis, but what followed isn’t in line with what ‘really’ happened. I rather liked this head-spinning reflexiveness. The author, rather like the Wizard of Oz, turns out to be much less than his grandiose ‘high castle’ solitude and anonymity would suggest.

I’d seen a couple of episodes of the TV series on Amazon, but gave up on it. It’s similar to but different from the novel, and much less interesting.

Daffodils and blossom

These daffodils and early blossom have appeared in a local park, taken two days ago

 Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows. Bloomsbury, 2009. Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel Home Fire was one of my favourite books of last year (brief post about it here). This one came even more highly recommended, but I found it slightly less impressive. It still packs a powerful emotional punch.

It begins in Nagasaki, 1945. A young Japanese woman survives the bomb, and the rest of the novel traces her subsequent life. She travels to India, then to Istanbul and post-partition Pakistan. Much of the central plot involves her teenage son’s reckless flirtation with some of the forces of violence in this turbulent part of the world. Oddly enough, given this dramatic subject matter, I found the central part of the novel flagged rather, though it picked up in the last part, and developed a tension almost as unbearable as that in Home Fires.

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words cover Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words. I just returned this to the library, so don’t have publication details to hand. It’s similar in some ways to Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary (brief mention of this one at the same link as above). Both novels involve words that didn’t make it into a major dictionary.

In this one the central character is Esme. As a little girl she likes to hide and play under the table at which the eminent scholar-lexicographers edit the ‘slips’ – small pieces of paper on which the words and entries about them are written and then filed in the pigeon-holes ready for collation and publication in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are colourful depictions of the famous editor, James Murray, his family, and many of those involved in the making of the dictionary, and of the long struggle to get to the end of the project that took nearly fifty years to finish. In a way it never did. It was first mooted in 1857, work began a few years later, and the last fascicle was published in 1928. Supplements and updates have been appearing since. I use the online edition all the time, and have referred to it often in this blog.

The ‘lost words’ collected by Esme begin (significantly, given its meaning) with the slip for ‘bondmaid’, which she finds under the table, dropped by one of the editors. She hides it away in a secret trunk, and over the following years builds up a large collection of her own. This becomes a sort of feminist alternative to the venerable (and patriarchal) OED. Esme’s words are culled from her visits to the covered market in Oxford: the taboo words, slang and vernacular of the women who were denied a place at high table, even if they did eventually get admitted to the universities.

This feminist angle is the strongest part of the novel. It culminates in the grand dinner held in 1928 to celebrate its completion. Several women, including Esme and two of Murray’s daughters, had been key members of the editorial team; many of the public who contributed words and citations – including Esme’s beloved aunt Ditte – were also women. None of them were allowed to attend this august, all-male event. A few were allowed in the gallery to look down at the men eating and drinking.

Not surprisingly the novel includes forays into the suffragist movement, and shows Esme’s awakening to the cause of rights for women – and the working classes who were also excluded from the privileges of the male elite. There’s a rather tedious romantic sub-plot, and some tragedy.

The research intruded too much into the narrative for my taste. The issues, despite their worthiness, dominated the characterisation. I’d have been better off reading a non-fiction account. I’d recommend Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998), about one of the more unusual contributors to the OED, and The Meaning of Everything (2003) by the same author.

Laurel berries

According to my plant identifier app these are Japanese laurel berries. Wonderful colours and texture.

As I write this we’re being battered here in Cornwall by storm Eunice. I had to take down my new bird feeder pole, fearing it would be torn up and become a flying spear. The birds are gathering, confused, in our magnolia tree and keep looking reproachfully and hungrily up at our windows.

I’ll place throughout this post a few pictures taken recently showing the first stirrings of spring in the area.




“Text” or “texted”?

In family conversation recently someone said, “I hate it when people say ‘I texted her yesterday. It should be text”.

As a former teacher of various linguistics courses I had to resist the temptation to go into lecturer mode – prescriptive v. descriptive attitudes, misguided notions of “correctness” in language and grammar, etc. (This is not a temptation I’m noted for resisting, but hey, this was family.)

I always say “texted”, on the grounds that the simple past tense in regular verbs (if there is such a thing) is usually (but not always!) formed by adding –ed. The nearest equivalent I can think of is “test, tested” and all those other verbs that end –est in the present tense form.

English language is so inconsistent and full of exceptions, however, that it’s not a clincher to point to parallels with which to assimilate (compare ‘live/lived’, ‘give/gave’ and ‘dive/dived’ – or should that be ‘dove’?!)

What if “next” were used as a verb (which it isn’t, but all English syntax is more flexible, especially in informal, conversational use, than pedants like to believe – put that in your clay pipe and smoke it, Jacob Rees-Mogg, in your monocle and plus-fours)? I think I’d say “I nexted her” – ok, not impossible, if one thinks of the innovative ‘verbing’ and nominalisation of the conjunction “but” in ‘but me not buts’ – as first used in an obscure text of 1709, but made popular by Scott in The Antiquary (1816) – not Shakespeare, as is often asserted; so one could imagine ‘next me no nexts’ (imperative). Just a short step from there to: ‘I nexted her’, ie I used “next” as a verb to her some time in the past. I don’t think I’d say ‘I next her’.

I would have turned to David Crystal for insight into or clarification of this problem; I’m sure his book on the language of the internet/IT would have covered it (he’s a big fan of the playful inventiveness of text message language, for example, though this is largely outdated now by the ubiquity of smartphones), but I donated my copy to my college English dept when I finished teaching there this summer – I’m now officially retired (well, made redundant, but that’s another story).

A quick online search found that this “text” v. “texted” is a common language question.

Chicago Manual of Style Online:

Texted is correct. Adding ed is the standard way to make a verb past tense, so with a new verb like text, that’s the default. With increased usage, a nonstandard past tense could eventually establish itself, but until then, use the standard verb form.

At OED online (edited) entry on ‘text’ as a verb:

Now rare.

1.  A.  transitive. To inscribe, write, or print in a text-hand or in capital or large letters. Also figurativeObsolete.

1600    Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing  v. i. 179 [this is Claudio speaking]   Yea and text vnder-neath, here dwells Benedick the married man.

1607    T. Dekker Whore of Babylon sig. I4   Vowes haue I writ so deepe,..So texted them in characters capitall, I cannot race them.

1621    J. Fletcher et al.  Trag. of Thierry & Theodoret  ii. i. sig. D1   Condemne me, for A most malicions [sic] slanderer: nay, texdeit Vpon my forehead.

1624    T. Heywood Γυναικεῖον  vii. 315   That such as..past.. might read them as perfectly and distinctly, as if they had beene textedin Capitall Letters.

[My note: That Shakespearean usage is interesting; it looks to me, in context, that it’s the future form, for Claudio characteristically continues the chaffing at Benedick’s expense, started in the previous speech by Don Pedro: ‘But when shall we set the savage bull’s horns on the sensible Benedick’s head?’ i.e. ‘[when shall we] text underneath…’; so, not the past tense. Interestingly, those citations from Dekker, Fletcher and Heywood all have the –ted ending. But this is a different semantic sense from the modern ‘messaging’, so not really comparable. But it does at least establish that the –ted ending was considered acceptable at that time.]

 [OED] Draft additions March 2004 to ‘text’ as verb: transitiveTelecommunications. To send (a text message) to a person, mobile phone, etc.; to send a text message to. Also intransitive: to communicate by sending text messages…

2001    Leicester Mercury (Electronic ed.) 31 July   I texted my mother and my friends when I got my results.

Hardly a canonical citation, but worthy of note.

OED also has:

texted, adj.


  1. Skilled or learned in ‘texts’ or authors. rare.(In this sense texted wel (v.r. text wel) appears in one group of Chaucer MSS., where another has textuel. The latter was probably the original reading, but the change in some MSS. perhaps implies that texted was known.)

14..    Chaucer’s Manciple’s T. (Harl.) 131   But for I am a man not texted wel [so Corp.; Lansd. texed, Petworth text; 3 MSS. textuel] I wil not telle of textes neuer a del.

14..    Chaucer’s Manciple’s T. 212   But as I sayd, I am nought tixted wel [Corp., Petworth, Lansd. text; 3 MSS. textuel, -eel, tixt-].

2. Written in text-hand or text-letters; engrossed.

1620    T. Dekker Dreame sig. A2   They beg nothing, the Texted Past-bord talkes all; and if nothing be giuen, nothing is spoken.

1695    London Gaz. No. 3125/4   Texted Indentures for Attorneys.

To sum up: most people defend their usage of one or other of these forms, “text” or “texted”, by saying: ‘it just sounds right’. Each to his (or her) own, I say. Let’s just not be prescriptive or pedantic about it.