Language – Love It or Lose It – Revisited

Serendipitously, over the last 24 hours, I’ve twice been reminded of the Word of the Week feature that used to be on this blog.  First elbow in the ribs is from Amy Eighttrack’s Blog in the comments section of this post.  Amy used that splendid phrase, take umbrage, and I felt a stab of remorse.  I’ve been a lollygagger in not posting old words in need of immediate care and attention, so they can be returned to the community of everyday language.

The elbow on the other side is an article in today’s Guardian, Dictionary compilers create endangered words listCollins Dictionary is retiring words that people only rarely use, at first in the smaller dictionaries, but who knows when they will only be found in obscure etymological texts?  I am particularly distressed about aerodrome and charabanc.  The aero in front of drome or plane has always seemed to me a much more attractive and spacious spelling.  And charabanc evokes an era of social history that’s still vividly alive in my imagination.

Nor am I alone in this way of thinking.  The great British chocolate manufacturer, Rowntree’s, produced the legendary Aero Bar in 1935, a confection of milk chocolate filled with air bubbles.  The name fits perfectly.  Can you imagine them re-branding it as the Air Bar, just because people now travel between airports in airplanes?  Of course not.  I rest my case.

Something must be done about this.  Remember, you can adopt a word at Save the Words.

I pledge to use aerodrome and aeroplane in all written communications, and charabanc wherever possible, regardless of whether the chellspecker has a hissy fit.  And I will revive the Word of the Week feature.  As before, each new word will be added to the Dictionary Page.

So, without more ado:

Umbrage (n): Offence or displeasure.  It’s almost onomatopoeic, suggesting the sound a large, brass wind instrument makes when blown in a fit of disgust.  Reminds me of rumble, rumble, discontent, a phrase a college friend used when irritated, which was quite often.  In later years I have made it my own.  Such is the power of a good example.  The word contains the Latin umbra, meaning shadow.  I can still remember the pleasure at discovering umbra and penumbra (see also penultimate) in a science class about Lunar eclipses.

But enough of this wittering: Jake took deep umbrage at the evangelist’s claim to know the mind of God, because God had already spoken to Jake, and it was nothing like what he’d heard.

Winter Solstice 152/153 AE

Winter Solstice Sunrise

A good and fortunate day.  I was up before the sun – not difficult on the shortest day of the year, you might think – but I’m not a morning person.  Then out to photograph the sunrise for this post.  I know a great place to watch, where it comes up between Davaar island and the south shore of Campbeltown loch, and you can see Arran in the background.

The sky, unfortunately, was overcast.   All you could see of the sunrise was a yellow glow behind the clouds.  I took some photos anyway, just to say I’d been there.

Then I went for a haircut.  It’s been getting a bit Howard Hughesy recently, so it was past time.  The lass did a good job.

Hi-Lites for a damn fine haircut

The clouds blew away in the afternoon, leaving leaving a perfect pale blue winter sky against the snow.   My second chance at some decent photos.  But I still wasn’t satisfied.  What I see is not the same thing as what the camera produces.   My view is coloured by feelings – the camera just reproduces the colours that pass through the lens.  I am not a camera.  The scenic shots seemed to lack oomph and detail, though I did like a few.   This one pleased me.

Old Pier

At that point I thought of going home for a brew before my writing class.   We teleconference because the population is so sparse in the West of Scotland – I’m the only student in Campbeltown.  Instead I went to the Red Cross shop by the harbour.  Retail therapy for the poor.  I found 3 books for £3, one of them a P. G. Wodehouse.  And a bag of 6 sausage rolls, freshly baked by one of their helpers, for £1.  I was dead chuffed.

Then the good fortune really kicked in.   As I left the shop, I saw the hills on the other side of the loch were tinged with the pink of sunset against the blue sky.  I dashed across the road, nearly getting run over, and started taking pictures.

Dalintober across the loch

There were seagulls on the harbour railings.  Suddenly they all took flight at once.   The air was full of seagulls, an intense flurry of wings and raucous cries.

Campbeltown Harbour

And they got into the photos.  I’ve never had much luck photographing birds, but this seemed to be laid on just for my benefit.  Then the bonus.  After they’d settled down a bit, one particular seagull posed on a post and practically invited me to take a photo.  It let me get within a couple of feet, as if to say, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille.”  And it stayed there long enough for several.

What a Diva!

But there was a problem.  Once my star had gone back to its dressing room, I looked at the camera and found it on some weird setting I didn’t even know the meaning of.  I tend to first growl, then shout, at technology rather than read the manual.  Not that some bits of technology – VCRs and sometimes computers – don’t deserve it.  Smug, arrogant bastards refusing to work unless you do exactly what they say.  Had all that good luck gone to waste?

I couldn’t know until I’d uploaded the pictures into my computer.  So I put the camera on the right setting, took some more pictures, and hurried home to find out.  The final piece of good fortune – whatever that setting was, the pictures were fine.

I was a few minutes late for my class.  But it didn’t matter because there’s no class today.  I have a Day-Timer and Google Calendar, but still write things down of scraps of paper.  Evidently I’d lost the one that said there was no class this week.

So I wrote this instead.

New, Improved Positivist Calendar

There is something deeply unsatisfying about the calendar we all use, for three reasons. The months have a variable number of days – 28, 30 or 31 – and I have to remember a mnemonic to keep them straight. Thirty days hath September, April, June and November; all the rest have 31, except February, which has 28. Any day of the week can therefore be potentially associated with the number of any day in the month.

The calendar is out of sync with the seasons. New Year’s Day usually occurs 10 days after the Winter solstice, which is either the real start or finish of the year, depending on your point of view. This error perpetuates throughout the calendar year.

And the calendar is a product of Christian culture, starting with the mythical birth of its founder. I don’t deny that someone existed to set it all in motion, I just don’t accept that this figure necessarily resembled the hagiography. More fundamentally, the Christian insistence on a 7 day cycle derived from the Bible means that the weeks do not fit into an astronomical year without 1 or 2 days being left over.

Therein lies the problem. It takes the Earth an intractable 365 and a bit days to orbit the Sun. The “and a bit” is neatly taken care of by making every 4th year a leap year. But 365 days? It would be so much easier if it only took 364 days. Then you could have 13 months of 28 days, comprising 4 weeks of 7 days each. Mondays would occur on the 1st, 8th, 15th and 22nd day of each month, and so on.

Auguste Comte

That is exactly what occurred to Auguste Comte (1798-1857), a French Positivist philosopher, whose work was instrumental in founding the discipline of sociology. His solution was to take the 365th day out of the calendrical year and make it a separate day in honour of the dead. In leap years, the 366th day was similarly removed in celebration of holy women. This was Comte’s Positivist calendar.

In essence, a simple and elegant solution. But he screwed it up. Comte wanted to replace all the Saints’ Days in the French calendar with Secular Saints’ Days. Each day and month had one such associated with it. For example, today in the Comtean calendar is Friday, Bichat 19, with the day dedicated to Berthollet. I’m guessing that nobody except the writer of the Wikipedia pages has heard of these two gentlemen. Hopeless. Let’s get rid of saints of all stripes. Even to suggest such a scheme indicates that Comte was in logical fallacy mode, relying on the argument from authority.

Then he compromised his brilliant idea even further, by starting his year on January 1st of the Christian calendar! Instead of taking the opportunity of aligning his calendar with the seasons, by placing the extra day on the winter solstice, he makes it New Year’s Eve instead. Thus the new Positivist calendar is as out of sync as the traditional one.

The basic idea is perfect, and I propose to rescue it from Comte’s obfuscations. Away with the secular saints. Place Solstice Day on the winter solstice. In a leap year, put the 366th day (Leap Day) between the 14th and 15th of the new 7th month, which I will call Sol. That leaves only the problem of where to position Year One.

Charles Darwin

This should obviously be a significant year. Christians use the supposed birth of Jesus; Comte used 1789, the year of the “Great Crisis” of the French Revolution. Well, it’s bit Francocentric, isn’t it? I understand that Comte was a man of his times, but political regimes change constantly.

Year One should be significant for the whole world. I considered 1809, the year of Charles Darwin’s birth, but that seemed no better than building a shrine around his birthday. It’s what we do that matters.

So I propose 1859, the year he published  On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a book that shook the world to its foundations and revolutionized our understanding of human life. The fact that many people continue to be brainwashed into thinking otherwise does not detract from one of the most comprehensively verified theories in science. Here are the depressing statistics.

Since I can only speak for myself, and since a blog is the perfect place to do just that, I will add an Aside each day, giving the Darwinian date and linking to this post. There will also be a sun icon in the Where I Stand section that links to the New, Improved Positivist Calendar. This calendar uses the winter solstice as the starting/ending date of each year. AE for After Evolution, making pre-1859 dates BE, Before Evolution.

Today’s date is Solstice Day, 152/153 AE. (See the calendar here.)

And here’s the title page of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Not a religious text where you are required to believe through Faith, but an extremely well-supported theory based on scientific method.

Happy Winter Solstice

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost (1923)