Skip to main content

Eyjafjallajökull and other words

Every new discipline, every new crisis brings new vocabulary. Words, phrases or meanings for existing words that simply did not exist in common language on the 1st of January are now batted around. Politicians, in particular, will use them with confidence so as to suggest mastery of the underlying concepts.

If only.

It's not a new oratorical device. When I was the Government's Transport Minister, one of the challenges, there were many, was when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull blew up. It ejected immense amounts of material into our skies and essentially shut down commercial flights across a fifth of the globe. Sound familiar?

A clip from Icelandic TV showed that many natives in that country found it challenging to correctly pronounce its name. Perhaps like not every Scot can get their tongue around Acharachle. It's a bonny village in the, also challenging for some to say, Ardnamurchan area of Argyll.

So I memorised the correct Icelandic pronunciation. It's stuck ten years later in my memory as "aye-aff-yalla-yö-kel" but with a Nordic twist on the "ö" that I cannot write down here an Anglophone expression of. A bit like it's difficult to explain to a Sassun the correct way to engage the back of the throat to say "ch". You just have to hear it.

So when answering questions in Parliament, I liberally sprinkled my answers with the correctly pronounced name of the volcano that was bothering us. It put my interrogators onto the back foot.

But the choice of words in ordinary life also marks out our origins and the cultural community of which we are part.

Winston Churchill (WSC) had an American mother and an English father. And said that England and the USA were two countries divided by a common language. The origins of this statement are a matter of debate; perhaps George Bernard Shaw in 1877. Perhaps another. But certainly, a statement that has survived to be re-used regularly to this day. Because it captures an essential truth. When you learn another's language, you also need to understand the cultural context, so as to be able to extract meaning from phrases. Words standing alone are not enough.

Churchill was the person for another crisis. Revisionism in that regard seems not yet to have reached his reputation. It shall be interesting to see how history assesses the performance and personal characters of those who, around the world, are at the head of various countries' administrations.

WSC was known when he was a war leader to be not without flaws, but most judged that his many strengths were needed at that time of extreme challenge.

It's important to remember that being put into political office is not a magic way to sandpaper off pre-existing defects of character or behaviour. Democracy allows the imperfect into office. But alas may then criticise them for their defects.

The clever put them into full view. And seek to learn from their earlier mistakes.

When I sit in Parliament's Committees, I generally do so without my jacket. It does make me stand out from my colleagues but is done for another reason entirely.

Quite a few decades ago, if only my diaries were not in my Edinburgh accommodation, I could look up the exact date, I experienced a minor health issue. I had tingling in my left upper arm. Over a period of time, it extended all the way down my arm to finally run along the right-hand side of my thumb and the opposing finger. One could almost visualise the track of the nerve that was carrying a signal to my brain.

A consultation with my GP led to my being in an outpatient clinic with a consultant. He knew at once that it was a trapped nerve in my neck. He could even name the nerve. And X-Rays, a scientific word coined in 1895 by their discoverer Wilhelm Röntgen that has crossed in everyday layperson's language, confirmed his diagnosis.

The upper vertebrae of the spine have little bits hanging off them which would be ribs if they were much longer and positioned further down. One of these was rather longer than normal and could be seen pressing down on its lower neighbour's outgrowth—the perfect trap for a nerve.

The consultant offers three possible remedies. An operation to saw off some bone. Acupuncture to "fiddle around" (my words not his), with the nerves to switch off the tingling message. Or manipulation. There was a pause, and then he said, "I can do that now". I can hear a hint as loudly as anyone else and "manipulation please".

He laid me on my back on his examination couch with my head over the edge. Then he pulled my head towards him. Turned it to the right and pushed it forward. Serious injury or worse beckoned for an instant in my mind's eye. A loud crack was heard; and felt. He said, "that should fix it although you will have a stiff neck for a day or two". And it did. And I did. But more to the point it has never returned in the 40 or so years since.

The important corollary was the "post-match" discussion. He showed me on the X-Ray, two small bits of arthritis in my upper spine. He suggested that it probably wasn't something of concern for the time being. Correct. But it now means I have some discomfort from the weight of a jacket on my shoulders when I sit in one place. Hence the disinclination to wear a jacket in Committee.

My dealings with our NHS in a personal capacity have been extremely limited. Hurrah! But always very positive and broadly successful. My challenges to them utterly trivial compared to the support they are giving to individuals stricken with COVID-19. And also of substantially emotional value to our communities, knowing that they are there, free at the point of need, should others need them.

But that still leaves another part of my garb which rather more often causes comment. That's the galluses. You thought I'd forgotten that words were the topic of the day. Oh no.

The three words that are engaged in my mind by my reference to what keeps my breeks up are - galluses, braces, suspenders. And this is where Churchill's comment about a common tongue comes straight back.
In the COVID-19 Committee broadcasting from home
If I was an American, galluses would be cried "suspenders." If I were English, or perhaps a "refained" Scot, they would be called "braces".

But I would describe suspenders as a device to keep my socks up (yes ladies, I know), not my trousers.

And if I were American, although it seems now also to be used thus here too, "braces" would keep my teeth in a position chosen by my dentist.

In the current context, the new "word" edging into our vocabulary is "R0" (that's R zero, not R O), which is about cross-infection. There will be more.

And I may return to R0 in the following days because I think this "word" is going to move centre stage shortly. Watch this space. And I will explain why I wear galluses, not belts. I don't mean an American "belt" which is a "shot" for us.

Admire my galluses in the screen-grab from the COVID-19 Committee that I now sit on.


Popular posts from this blog

Finding the question

Until I looked further into the matter, I had always attributed the phrase, "Two countries divided by a common language", to Winston Churchill. It seems to make sense as he seemed to be referring to his parents, father English, a mother from the United States.

But it seems I shall need to update both my database of quotations and my memory.

Mr Google has taken me to the information that in The Canterville Ghost (1887), Oscar Wilde wrote: "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language". He also takes me to the suggestion that George Bernard Shaw said, "England and America are two countries divided by a common language".

The question as to which of Wilde or Shaw originated the phrase, if either did, seems to remain open. I do note that Wilde has a clear claim to 1887 while Shaw's writing career came somewhat later. So I plump for Wilde.

Unless Churchill started using this phrase when he was thirteen years old, he…

Non-taxing times

There aren't many substitutes for lived experience. Book learning is more than useful mainly because it fills one's head with questions as well as knowledge.

Being a member of a numerical majority can breed certain unconscious complacencies. Plural. I had no influence over being born white and male. But carry total responsibility for what I then do.

It's not often I will quote a Labour MP with commendation. But a comment article in one of today's papers by such a person caused me to realise that my reaction to recent events was an example of unconscious bias in my thinking.

The UK Prime Minister has announced his economic response to the pandemic. It can be criticised on so many fronts. And my take on it, as with many commentators, was largely economic. It's tiny compared to the need. It's not new money. It provides little or nothing for Scotland and Wales. All true.

Investing in infrastructure is suggested as a way of building a way out of the economic crisis …

Watch my back

Every family is different, and every child will be a distinct character formed by their DNA and by their experience of life. If many of the contacts I have had over the years are anything to go by, grandparents are a vital part of most families. Yesterday's announcement that young children can hug their non-shielding grandparents will be widely welcomed.

It's not something my personal experience has exposed me to. My siblings and I grew up in a family without grandparents. When my parents married at the ages of 32 and 37 all but one of their parents had already died. As the eldest in the family, I overlapped my maternal grandmother's life by a mere fourteen months and have no recollection of her. Indeed I have no photographs of my mother's parents apart from one which may be of me on my grannie's lap. There's no one left to check with.

My family seem to have bred very late in their lives. My youngest grandparent, Alexander Campbell MacGregor, a Gaelic speaker f…