An abbreviation, from the Latin ‘brevis’, meaning ‘short’, is a shortened form of a word or phrase by any method. It may consist of a group of letters or words taken from the full version of the word or phrase. For example, the word abbreviation can itself be represented by the abbreviation ‘abbr.’, ‘abbrv.’, or ‘abbrev.’. One I hadn’t heard of before until I began my research was ‘NPO’, for Nil (nothing) Per (by) Os (mouth), an abbreviated medical instruction. Abbreviations may also consist of initials only, a mixture of initials and words, or words or letters representing words in another language, for example e.g., i.e. or RSVP. Some types of abbreviations are acronyms, of which some are pronounceable and some ‘initialisms’ or grammatical contractions. Abbreviations have a long history. It has been said that they were created to avoid spelling out whole words, and this might have been done to save time and space, given that many inscriptions were carved in stone, and also to provide secrecy. In both Greece and Rome the reduction of words to single letters was common.

There are quite a few different abbreviations. Acronyms, initialisms, contractions and a new one to me, ‘crasis’, share some semantic and phonetic functions, and all four are connected by the term ‘abbreviation’ in loose parlance. We know an acronym is a word or name formed from the initial components of a longer name or phrase. They are usually formed from the initial letters of words, as in NATO, but they sometimes also use syllables, as in Benelux. They can also be a mixture, as in radar. I am also well-used to an initialism, an abbreviation pronounced by spelling out each letter, for example FBI, USA or BBC whilst a contraction is a reduction in the length of a word or phrase made by omitting certain of its letters or syllables. Often, but not always, the contraction includes the first and last letters or elements. Examples of contractions are “li’l” (for “little”), “I’m” (for “I am”), and “he’d’ve” (for “he would have”). But crasis is more difficult to explain as its usage varies in different languages. Basically it combines two words to form a single word. Except it varies according to language! But in Spanish for example, crasis occurs between prepositions ending in a vowel and the masculine definite article ‘el’. So ‘a el’ becomes ‘al’ and ;de el’ becomes ‘del’. As I have said though, abbreviations have a long history as they were created to avoid spelling out whole words. This might be have been done to save time and space (given that many inscriptions were carved in stone) and also to provide secrecy. In both Greece and Rome, the reduction of words to single letters was common. In Roman inscriptions, words were commonly abbreviated by using the initial letter or letters of words, and most inscriptions have at least one abbreviation. However, some could have more than one meaning, depending on their context. For example, ⟨A⟩ could be an abbreviation for many words, such as ‘ager’, ‘amicus’, ‘annus’, ‘as’, ‘Aulus’, ‘Aurelius’, ‘aurum’ and ‘avus’. Many frequent abbreviations consisted of more than one letter, for example COS for ‘consul’ and COSS for its nominative etc. plural ‘consules’. Abbreviations were frequently used in English from its earliest days. Manuscripts of copies of the Old English poem Beowulf used many abbreviations and the standardisation of English in the 15th through to the 17th centuries included a growth in the use of such abbreviations. At first, abbreviations were sometimes represented with various suspension signs, not only full stops. In the Early Modern English period between the 15th and 17th centuries, the ‘thorn’ Þ was used for ‘th’, as in Þe (‘the’). In modern times, ⟨Þ⟩ was often used in the form ‘y’ for promotional reasons, as in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. Over the years however, the lack of convention in some style guides has made it difficult to determine which two-word abbreviations should be abbreviated with full-stops and which should not. Widespread use of electronic communication through mobile phones and the Internet during the 1990s led to a marked rise in colloquial abbreviation and this was due largely to the increasing popularity of textual communication services such as instant and text messaging. The original Short Messaging Service (SMS) supported message lengths of 160 characters at most. More recently Twitter, a popular social networking service, began driving abbreviation use with 140 character message limits.

In modern English, there are several conventions for abbreviations, and the choice may be confusing. The only rule universally accepted is that one should be consistent, and to make this easier, publishers express their preferences in a style guide. For example, if the original word was capitalised then the first letter of its abbreviation should retain the capital, for example Lev. for ‘Leviticus’, but when a word is abbreviated to more than a single letter and was originally spelled with lower case letters then there is no need for capitalisation. However, when abbreviating a phrase where only the first letter of each word is taken, then all letters should be capitalized, as in YTD for ‘year-to-date’, PCB for ‘printed circuit board’ and FYI for ‘for your information’.

Sign in New York City subway, reading ‘Penna.’ for Penn(sylvani)a, showing the American style of including the full-stop (or ‘period’, as the Americans like to say), even for contractions.

A full stop is often used to signify an abbreviation, but opinion is divided as to when and if this should happen. Various authors have written about this, but it is generally accepted that in English the full-stop is usually included regardless of whether or not it is a contraction, e.g. ‘Dr.’ or ‘Mrs.’. In some cases, full-stops are optional, as in either ‘US’ or ‘U.S.’ for ‘United States’, ‘EU’ or ‘E.U.’ for ‘European Union’, and ‘UN’ or ‘U.N.’ for ‘United Nations’. There are some house styles however, American ones included, that remove the full-stops from almost all abbreviations. Acronyms that were originally capitalised (with or without full-stops) but have since entered the vocabulary as generic words are no longer written with capital letters nor with any full-stops. Examples are sonar, radar, lidar, laser and scuba. Today, spaces are generally not used between single-letter abbreviations of words in the same phrase, so one almost never encounters ‘U. S.’. There is a question about how to pluralise abbreviations, particularly acronyms. Some writers tend to pluralise abbreviations by adding an ’s’ , as in ‘two PC’s have broken screens’, although this notation typically indicates a possessive case. However, this style is not preferred by many style guides. Here in the United Kingdom, many British publications follow some of these guidelines in abbreviation. For the sake of convenience, many British publications, including the BBC and The Guardian newspaper, have completely done away with the use of full stops in all abbreviations. Acronyms are often referred to with only the first letter of the abbreviation capitalised. For instance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation can be abbreviated as ‘Nato’ or ‘NATO’, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome as ‘Sars’ or ‘SARS’, compared with laser which has made the full transition to an English word and is rarely capitalised at all. But initialisms are always written in capitals, for example ‘British Broadcasting Corporation’ is abbreviated to ‘BBC’, never ‘Bbc’. An initialism is also an acronym but is not pronounced as a word. When abbreviating scientific units, no space is added between the number and unit (100mph, 100m, 10cm, 10°C). A doubled letter appears in abbreviations of some Welsh names, as in Welsh the double “l” is a separate sound, ‘Ll. George’ for British prime minister David Lloyd George. Some titles, such as ‘Reverend’ and ‘Honourable’, are spelt out when preceded by ‘the’, rather than as ‘Rev.’ or ‘Hon.’ respectively. A repeatedly used abbreviation should be spelt out for identification on its first occurrence in a written or spoken passage and abbreviations likely to be unfamiliar to many readers should be avoided. Writers often use shorthand to denote units of measure. Such shorthand can be an abbreviation, such as ‘in’ for inch or can be a symbol such as ‘km’ for kilometre. In the International System of Units (SI) manual the word ‘symbol’ is used consistently to define the shorthand used to represent the various SI units of measure. The manual also defines the way in which units should be written, the principal rules being that the conventions for upper and lower case letters must be observed, for example 1 MW (megawatts) is equal to 1,000,000 watts and 1,000,000,000 mW (milliwatts). One I’ve not seen (perhaps American?), which is no full-stops should be inserted between letters, for example ‘m.s’, which correctly uses the middle dot is the symbol for ‘metres multiplied by seconds’, but I knew that ‘ms’ is the symbol for milliseconds. No full-stops should follow the symbol unless the syntax of the sentence demands otherwise (for example a full stop at the end of a sentence). I do know of syllabic abbreviations though, which is usually formed from the initial syllables of several words, such as ‘Interpol’, stemming from ‘Inter’national and ‘pol’ice. It is a variant of the acronym. Syllabic abbreviations are usually written using lower case, sometimes starting with a capital letter and are always pronounced as words rather than letter by letter. Syllabic abbreviations should be distinguished from portmanteaus, which combine two words without necessarily taking whole syllables from each.

There are also interesting changes made in different languages, however syllabic abbreviations are not widely used in English. Some UK government agencies such as Ofcom, for Office of Communications and the former Oftel for Office of Telecommunications use this style. In America, New York City has various neighbourhoods named by syllabic abbreviation, such as Tribeca (Triangle below Canal Street) and SoHo (South of Houston Street). I wonder where they obtained that name. This usage has spread into other American cities, giving SoMa, San Francisco (South of Market) and LoDo, Denver (Lower Downtown), amongst others. The Chicago-based electric service provider ComEd is a syllabic abbreviation of Commonwealth and (Thomas) Edison. Partially syllabic abbreviations are preferred by the US Navy, as they increase readability amidst the large number of initialisms that would otherwise have to fit into the same acronyms. Hence ‘6 DESRON’ is used (in the full capital form) to mean “Destroyer Squadron 6”, whilst COMNAVAIRLANT would be ‘Commander, Naval Air Force (in the) Atlantic’. Apparently syllabic abbreviations are a prominent feature of Newspeak, the fictional language of George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. The political contractions of Newspeak’s ‘Ingsoc’ (English Socialism) and ‘Minitrue’ (Ministry of Truth), are described by Orwell as similar to real examples of German and Russian contractions in the 20th century. Like the Nazi ‘Nationalsozialismus’ and Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei) and the politburo (Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), the contractions in Newspeak are supposed to have a political function by virtue of their abbreviated structure itself. Nice sounding and easily pronounceable, their purpose was to mask all ideological content from the speaker. A more recent syllabic abbreviation has emerged with the disease COVID-19 (Corona virus Disease 2019), caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 virus, itself frequently abbreviated to SARS-CoV-2, partly an initialism. It seems though that in German, syllabic abbreviations were and are common. Much like acronyms in English, they have a distinctly modern connotation, although contrary to popular belief many date back to before 1933, if not the end of the Great War. Kriminalpolizei, literally ‘criminal police’ but idiomatically the Criminal Investigation Department of any German police force, begat ‘KriPo’ (variously capitalised), and likewise Schutzpolizei, the ‘protection police’ or ‘uniform department’, begat ‘SchuPo’. Along the same lines, the Swiss Federal Railways’ Transit Police, the Transportpolizei, are abbreviated as the ‘TraPo’. Syllabic abbreviations are not only used in politics, however. Many business names, trademarks, and service marks from across Germany are created on the same pattern. For a few examples, there is Aldi, from ‘Theo Albrecht’, the name of its founder, followed by ‘discount’, Haribo, from ‘Hans Riegel’, the name of its founder, followed by ‘Bonn’, the town of its head office and Adidas, from ‘Adolf “Adi” Dassler’, the nickname of its founder followed by his surname. Meanwhile syllabic abbreviations are common in Spanish. Examples abound in organisation names such as Pemex for ‘Petróleos Mexicanos’ (“Mexican Petroleums”) or Fonafifo for ‘Fondo Nacional de Financimiento Forestal’ (National Forestry Financing Fund). There are others in different languages, but I did note that the English phrase ‘Gung ho’ originated as a Chinese abbreviation.

But do we now use abbreviations as it is easier when talking to like-minded folk, or is it to deliberately exclude others from our conversation. I can understand that there are times when we might want to impart certain information, for example a doctor might wish a group of medical staff to comprehend the needs of a patient they are treating without letting the patient be worried, but there will be other times when a patient should know what is happening with them. I remember some years ago now having a senior doctor visit me whilst I was in hospital and he had a group of student doctors with him. The senior doctor began by telling the other doctors who I was, why I was there and what treatment I was being given. But the doctor did not speak directly to me. So, at the end of his discussion with the other doctors the senior then asked if there were any questions. At which point I raised my hand and said “Yes. All that you have said sounds very interesting, but what exactly does it mean to me, please?”. At which point the senior doctor looked down at me, smiled and turned to the other doctors, saying “Many patients will simply hear what is said about them and say nothing. But some, like Andrew here, will ask questions. You must be prepared to explain to them, in layman’s terms, just exactly why they are there and what treatment they are receiving.” He then proceeded to do just that for me. I was told I would now, following my heart attack (this was back in 2013) be taking a few more tablets. I foolishly asked him how long I’d be taking this extra medication and he, with a slight smile, said “always”. But it was good to know. I also know that when it comes to talking with others we can so easily use shortcuts, not always considering that others may not know or have the same interests as us and one example I can share relates to my former employment with British Telecom. My engineering colleagues there would often use three-letter abbreviations (TLA’s) in their work and one that I soon learned was ‘NDT’, short for No Dial Tone. Then I became friends with a Royal Air Force engineer, where I learned that to him, ‘NDT’ was short for Non-Destructive Testing! Abbreviations are fascinating…

This week…
The Third Degree.
There are several tales about the origin of ‘the third degree’, a saying commonly used for long or arduous interrogations. One theory argues the phrase relates to the various degrees of murder in the criminal code, yet another credits it to Thomas F. Byrnes, a 19th-century New York City policeman who used the pun ‘Third Degree Byrnes’ when describing his hard-nosed questioning style. In truth, the saying is most likely derived from the Freemasons, a centuries-old fraternal organisation whose members undergo rigorous questioning and examinations before becoming ‘third degree’ members or ‘master masons’.

Click: Return to top of page or Index page

Teaching And Learning

Both of these items have changed over the years, but they are a vital part of life and necessary for us all. Sadly that does not seem to be recognised by everyone and some seem to work on the principle that the knowledge they have gives them a degree of power. There are many ways to teach, some people are better at it than others but we can perhaps forget that we all have differing ways to learn. In addition, with teaching comes learning, but those who teach also have to learn the skill of teaching, for you may be sure that it is indeed a skill. As with all skills, teaching itself is never static, it is continually changing. I was told very many years ago that the worst teachers are those who have either no lesson plan or at best a laminated one! In general there is a recognised format for teaching, where the teacher creates a basic lesson plan, but after delivering it they review it and consider what went well, what did not, identifying areas that can then be changed. The lesson is then revised and delivered. That is once again reviewed afterwards and the circle continues. In addition, as part of the teaching process we continually check for understanding, recognising the abilities of some and nurturing others, encouraging positively. I have said before how some folk I have taught are almost ‘instant’ learners, whilst with others a little more time is required to help get a particular message across. It is at this point that the instant learners can become bored and at times even disruptive, so a good teacher will often get the instant learners to do their part in assisting those who need help. Care must be taken to ensure that the teaching is done properly – I think that is perhaps where the phrase ‘eyes in the back of the head’ may come in! Certainly teachers must be alert to all that is going on around them and not be distracted. So as I have said, teaching is an art and just with all skills, it is not just the students who are being taught as teachers themselves are constantly learning. But how we learn and how we teach changes, or perhaps ‘adapts’ all the time is a better term. On tv at present we have a group of people who are so very clever in practical terms at what they do but as well as working individually, at times they combine the skills one with another. They too are constantly learning. I saw in one episode of the programme, called ‘The Repair Shop’, where one particular item was brought in and it was a musical box in a delightful wooden case. The mechanical item which played the music was carefully removed and one expert cleaned and restored that, whilst another expert took on the task of cleaning and restoring the wooden box. How they do it I do not know, it really is a skill that all of them have! Sometimes one of them will say they’ve never seen one of these items before but they would do their best – and they do! Yes, at times things don’t go as smoothly as they might like, but they achieve. Equally, as I saw on one occasion, a part was considered simply impossible to restore so a ‘donor’ item was found to replace the one which could not be fixed. But the old one was still kept, as it was all part of the whole piece being repaired.


But an essential part of teaching and learning is a common ‘language’. If I try to teach you something, even a simple game, there has to be what I would call “commonality” between us. My native language is English, it is true that I know a little Spanish but not much. Even when written, some languages are quite different. I can look at work written in Spanish and with a bit of luck I might be able to work out the meaning, but what if it were written in Hindu or Chinese, in Arabic or Hebrew? We also have differences in word placement, even in simple things like for example ‘the left hand’ in Spanish is ‘la mano izquierda’, which translates directly as ‘the hand left’. Add to that the different tenses, it is not hard to see how language can be difficult. During my research, I saw a question asking which language has the most words for snow? According to researchers at the University of Glasgow, the winner is the Scots! They claim they have 421 words for snow. Does it really? Here again, it’s all in how you count. The researchers came up with the list whilst working on a thesaurus for the Scots language. Their list includes quite a few compound words, and the folks at Language Log are quite skeptical of this claim, but it is still impressive. One Scottish language lecturer says that the number of words are all sorts of things to do with snow, the way that snow moves, the types of snow, types of snowflake, types of thaw, clothing you might wear in snow, the way that snow affects animals. There is even a category for snow and the supernatural! So a few examples are:

Feefle: Snow swirling around a corner.
Flindrikin: A light snow shower.
Skelf: A large snowflake.
Sneesl: To begin to rain or snow.
Snaw-ghast: A ghost seen in the snow.
Blin-drift: Drifting snow.
Snow-smoor: Suffocation by snow.
Snaw-broo: Melted snow.
Glush: Melting snow.
Ground-gru: Half-liquid snow or ice formed in early spring floating along the surface of a river.

A question was asked as to why there are so many words for snow? One answer given was that because weather has been a vital part of people’s lives in Scotland for centuries. The number and variety of words in the language show how important it was for their ancestors to communicate about the weather, which could so easily affect their livelihoods. It is an interesting thought. So we communicate in different ways with different languages, but human language is distinct and unique from all other known animal forms of communication. It is unlikely that any other species, including our close genetic cousins the Neanderthals, ever had language, and so-called sign ‘language’ in Great Apes is nothing like human language. Language evolution shares many features with biological evolution, and this has made it useful for tracing recent human history and for studying how culture evolves among groups of people with related languages. A case can be made that language has played a more important role in our species’ recent (about the last 200,000 years) evolution than have our genes. Human language is distinct from all other known animal forms of communication in being ‘compositional’, as it allows speakers to express thoughts in sentences comprising subjects, verbs and objects, such as ‘I kicked the ball’ and recognising past, present and future tenses. This gives human language an endless capacity for generating new sentences, as speakers combine and recombine sets of words into their subject, verb and object roles. For instance, with just 25 different words for each role, it is already possible to generate over 15,000 distinct sentences. Human language is also ‘referential’, meaning speakers use it to exchange specific information with each other about people or objects and their locations or actions.

Animal Language.

Animal ‘language’ is nothing like human language. Among primates, vervet monkeys produce three distinct alarm calls in response to the presence of snakes, leopards and eagles. A number of parrot species can mimic human sounds, and some Great Apes have been taught to make sign language gestures with their hands. Some dolphin species seem to have a variety of repetitive sound motifs (clicks) associated with hunting or social grouping. These forms of animal communication are symbolic in the sense of using a sound to stand in for an object or action, but there is no evidence for compositional skills, or that they are truly generative and creative forms of communication in which speakers and listeners exchange information. Instead, non-human animal communication appears to be principally limited to repetitive instrumental acts directed towards a specific end, lacking any formal grammatical structure, and often explainable in terms of hard-wired evolved behaviours or simple associative learning. Most ape sign language, for example, is concerned with requests for food. The trained chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky’s longest recorded ‘utterance’, when translated from sign language, was ‘give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you’. Alarm calls such as observed in the vervet monkeys often evolve by kin-selection to protect one’s relatives, or even selfishly to distract predators away from the caller. Hunting and social group communications can be explained as learned coordinating signals without ‘speakers’ knowing why they are acting as they are. No one knows for sure when human language evolved, but fossil and genetic data suggest that humanity can probably trace its ancestry back to populations of anatomically modern ‘Homo sapiens’ who lived around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago in eastern or perhaps southern Africa. Because all human groups have language, language itself, or at least the capacity for it, is probably at least 150,000 to 200,000 years old. This conclusion is backed up by evidence of abstract and symbolic behaviour in these early modern humans, taking the form of engravings on red-ochre. These archaeological records reveal that about 40,000 years ago there was a flowering of art and other cultural artefacts at modern human sites, leading some archaeologists to suggest that a late genetic change in our lineage gave rise to language at this later time. But this evidence derives mainly from European sites and so struggles to explain how the newly evolved language capacity found its way into the rest of humanity who had dispersed from Africa to other parts of the globe by around 70,000 years ago. This therefore begs the question ‘Could language be older than our species?’. Ancient DNA reveals us to be over 99% identical in the sequences of our protein coding genes to our sister species the Neanderthals (‘Homo neanderthalensis’). The Neanderthals had large brains and were able to inhabit much of Eurasia from around 350,000 years ago. If the Neanderthals had language, that would place its origin at least as far back as the time of our common ancestor with them, currently thought to be around 550,000 to 750,000 years ago. However, even as recently as 40,000 years ago in Europe, the Neanderthals show almost no evidence of the symbolic thinking – no art or sculpture for example – that we often associate with language, and little evidence of the cultural attainments of ‘Homo sapiens’ of the same era. By 40,000 years ago, we had plentiful art, musical instruments and specialised tools such as sewing needles. Neanderthals probably didn’t even have sewn clothing, instead they would have merely draped themselves with skins. And, despite evidence that around 1–5% of the human genome might be derived from Human–Neanderthal matings, the Neanderthals went extinct as a species whilst we flourished. Questions have been asked as to whether the changes to language can be used to trace human history. I do think this is possible. There are currently about 7,000 languages spoken around the world, meaning that, oddly, most of us cannot communicate with most other members of our species! Even this number is probably down from the peak of human linguistic diversity that was likely to have occurred around 10,000 years ago, just prior to the invention of agriculture. Before that time, all human groups had been hunter-gatherers, living in small mobile tribal societies. Farming societies were demographically more prosperous and group sizes were larger than among hunter-gatherers, so the expansion of agriculturalists likely replaced many smaller linguistic groups. Today, there are few hunter-gatherer societies left so our linguistic diversity reflects our relatively recent agricultural past. The ‘ancestry’ of languages can be used in combination with geographical information or information on cultural practices to investigate questions of human history, such as the spread of agriculture. The historical ‘families’ of language have been used to study the timing, causes and geographic spread of groups of farmers/fishing populations, including the Indo-Europeans, the pace of occupation of the Pacific by the Austronesian people and the migration routes of the Bantu-speaking people through Africa. This same historical ancestry are also being used to investigate questions of human cultural evolution, including the evolution and spread of dairying, relationships between religious and political practices, changing political structures and the age of fairy tales. They have even supplied a date for Homer’s Iliad. But language has played a prominent and possibly pre-eminent role in our species’ history. Consider that where all other species tend to be found in the environments their genes adapt them to, humans can adapt at the cultural level, acquiring the knowledge and producing the tools, shelters, clothing and other artefacts necessary for survival in diverse habitats. Thus, chimpanzees are found in the dense forests of Africa but not out on the savannah or in deserts or cold regions, camels are found in dry regions but not in forests or mountaintops, and so on for other species. Humans, on the other hand, despite being a species that probably evolved on the African savannahs, have been able to occupy nearly every habitat on Earth. Our behaviour is like that of a collection of biological species. As to why there is this striking difference, it is probably down to language. Possessing language, humans have had a high-fidelity code for transmitting detailed information down the generations. Many, if not most, of the things we make use of in our everyday lives rely on specialised knowledge or skills to produce. The information behind these was historically coded in verbal instructions, and with the advent of writing it could be stored and become increasingly complex. Possessing language, then, is behind humans’ ability to produce sophisticated cultural adaptations that have accumulated one on top of the other throughout our history as a species. Today as a result of this capability we live in a world full of technologies that few of us even understand. Because culture, riding on the back of language, can evolve more rapidly than genes, the relative genetic homogeneity of humanity in contrast to our cultural diversity shows that our ‘aural DNA’ has probably been more important in our short history than genes. Nevertheless, the necessity for learning new things and being properly taught must surely be at the forefront of our living, especially as technology continues to change at what some might consider to be almost too fast!

This week… By and Large.
As far back as the 16th century, the word ‘large’ was used to mean that a ship was sailing with the wind at its back. Meanwhile, the much less desirable ‘by’ or ‘full and by’ meant the vessel was travelling into the wind. Thus, for mariners, ‘by and large’ referred to trawling the seas in any and all directions relative to the wind. Today, sailors and landlubbers alike now use the phrase as a synonym for ‘all things considered’ or ‘for the most part’.

Click: Return to top of page or Index page

Appreciating Ourselves

Over the last year or so I have been able to look more and more at the questions people ask online. I see astonishing ones and I wonder whether it is down to the teachers not teaching or the children not listening and I have come to the conclusion that it is probably a combination of the two. I know that when I was teaching, I would say to my students, no matter what age they were, that if one of you doesn’t understand what I am saying then probably others don’t either! That is not their fault, it is (in my humble opinion) the fault of the teacher for not checking for understanding. Having said that, if the teacher says “do you understand?” and everyone says yes they do, then the teacher will usually accept that and move on to the next item. Except if some students didn’t understand, then the next part of the lesson probably won’t make sense to them either and they’re lost. I have said before about a time when, as part of my teacher training, I was doing support teaching and I could see how one student was struggling. It seemed simple enough, but this student needed a bit of assistance so, after a quick chat with the tutor (because it is polite to do that) I asked this particular student a few questions. Because teaching is an art, there are many who can do things but not all have the capability to then effectively share that knowledge. The problem that this student had was linking their knowledge to actual practice. Many simply ‘see’ this naturally, others have to be taught it. So show a student a pencil and teach them to write, that is great. But they have to learn that the pencil, when used, will wear out. But they must also beware of the folk who try to be ‘clever’, for example I knew one teacher (who I didn’t exactly get on with!) was teaching a group of us. I was busy writing and my pen stopped working so I put my hand up and when asked by the teacher what my problem was, I said “Please miss, my pen has run out” – meaning of course it had no ink left. But the teacher replied “Well, you had better go and chase after it then, hadn’t you…” Utterly embarrassed, I put my hand down but after a few minutes I raised my hand and was again asked what I wanted, to which I replied, “Please miss, my pen is now devoid of ink. May I be provided with a replacement pen, so that I may continue with my written work please?”. The teacher, now herself unhappy, replied sharply “Come up here and get a new one”. I did so and politely thanked her. Life in that class was never good for me and my grades suffered that particular year. Thankfully the following year I moved up to a different class and my grades improved quite a bit. My education was in a secondary modern school, unlike some others who went first to grammar school then on to university. So I left school at sixteen and went directly into working in the offices of British Telecom. It really was an education to me as when I first started there it was still part of the Post Office (GPO) and a civil service environment, to the point where folk at higher grades had the luxury of sitting on a chair with arms, but at my basic grade I had a simple wooden chair without arms. Seniority was strict, especially in one office where holiday time (annual leave) was chosen in strict order, so if you were low on the list there was little choice of when you could have your holidays! However, things did change and in time the ‘civil service’ regime became less and less, managers were not addressed as ’sir’ or ‘mr’, with first names becoming more used. Not by all, though! The company I worked for also did change, it had to. I moved around the Midlands every few years and in fact I learned later that some of my work colleagues became concerned when they found out that I was moving to work with them, as it seemed that everywhere I went, after a few years changes of staff occurred and some offices were even closed completely! I have said before about this and I assure you it was nothing to do with me!

Peterborough Telephone Exchange – much has changed since I was there.

But what I did notice was a trend, a push towards more and more ‘higher education’, with students almost pushed into wanting to go to universities. It then seemed that they would get their degrees in one subject but then go and find jobs unrelated to what they had learned. It seems to me that not all want to gain a higher education, many are far better at learning practical skills in a more ‘hands-on’ environment. My father was a schoolteacher at a few different infant/junior schools and at one parent/teacher meeting Dad told a parent that their child was quick at learning practical skills, but was not quite as quick on the academic side of things. The parent apparently told my Dad that he was proud of his son, because the lad could drive a tractor a whole lot better than some of his older brothers and that between them they were able to manage all aspects of farm work. We all have differing roles to play in this life, not everyone can be the leader of the orchestra, as without the rest they would be nothing. Having said that, I do wonder at some of the apparent lack of knowledge displayed by some people, especially those who I would expect to know more than they seem to. I enjoy watching a few different television quiz shows and as part of one excellent programme, four tv personalities were given a map of the United Kingdom and asked to point out where certain places were. I was amazed when they seemed to know almost nothing from a geographical point of view, for example they did not know where Hadrian’s Wall was, or where certain cheeses came from such as Stilton or Cheddar. I could appreciate them perhaps not knowing where some places in the U.S.A. were, but here in the U.K.? That was a surprise. As many will know, I am a fan of the science-fiction series ’Star Trek’. There have been a few different series, with different life-forms appearing and one group are the Borg, aliens that appear as recurring antagonists in the Star Trek fictional universe. The Borg are cybernetic organisms (cyborgs) linked in a hive mind called “the Collective”. They co-opt the technology and knowledge of other alien species to the Collective through the process of ‘assimilation’, forcibly transforming individual beings into drones by injecting nano-probes into their bodies and surgically augmenting them with cybernetic components. The Borg’s ultimate goal is ‘achieving perfection’, by becoming almost one single ‘being’, with no individual thought for themselves. We are not all the same, far from it, but what I do notice in our world today is how very large companies seem to be taking over the smaller ones and using that money to maintain their industrial strength. To my mind this is having an adverse effect on life as a whole, by some people controlling what is done in the world, therefore selfishly enabling greater profits for themselves with no thought for the greater good of the world as a whole, along with all that is in it. In this day and age the Borg are portrayed as science fiction, but I do wonder if the writers of Star Trek are trying to get a point across to us. I really do wonder if some are trying to make us all behave and act the same! I am sure they are not, but we must surely make sure that we remember the skills that made us who we are today. I hear in the news of the potential for power cuts, I hope we do not get to that stage but I consider how so much of our lives is governed by electricity. At present I live in a Care Home, so how would us inmates (as I like to call us) manage if the power were to be turned off for just a few hours? I remember those days, back in the 1970’s.

Slide Rule.

So as I have said, it seems to me that more and more folk are being led towards educational qualifications and that is all very good, yet I still see questions on the internet on such things as how the Universe was formed. I realise many of us learn in a somewhat different way now to when I was at school, as in my day we had libraries with books and not computers, we used slide rules, we did not have pocket calculators. I’ve said before when I was learning mathematics and innocently questioned the need for me to know Pythagoras’s Theorem. The teacher told me “one day, you will”. The teacher was correct, although it took twenty years! I was working for British Telecom at the time and was learning how we calculated the radial distances between different telephone exchanges (an aspect we needed to know at the time) and I realised that it was indeed Pythagoras’s Theorem we used to do that. My mathematics teacher would have had a sly grin on his face had he known! But we still need to learn these skills, whether they be practical or not. I really like a particular television programme which is being shown at the moment on BBC1 called The Repair Workshop”, where people bring in different items, some large, some small, but they all require practical skills and happily these people at the workshop know them. But I also know that by their own admissions, they too are still learning, seeing how others have built and designed things, combining each others skills and knowledge. One lovely surprise for me was to see a recent episode where a man I actually knew brought in a small item to be repaired. I did not recognise him immediately, but I knew his voice. When I was a child, I was talking to our local vicar about how I was learning how big this world is. I was considering how many years us humans had been on Earth, that we all die after a time and so I said to the vicar, “With so many people dying, Heaven must be a very big place!” The vicar said to me, in his own, kindly way, “Andrew, you are considering spiritual things in Earthly terms”. At the time, I remember saying to him “Vicar, I don’t understand.”, to which he replied “In time my son, one day you will.” It took a few years to realise the difference between Earthly things and the spirit. The Internet has brought us access to information, yet still folk ask basic questions such as how the universe was formed. There was a recent one, asking about how it is that our universe is expanding. The answer given was that the universe is not itself expanding, but it is the elements within the universe which are going further and further from each other, unless they are close enough for gravity to affect them. But even then, the global elements such as our own galaxy is moving away from other galaxies. But that will take an extremely long time! I also saw an item about the ‘observable’ universe, meaning that there are stars that we will never see, no matter how long we or our descendants might live. It is impossible to imagine, but it is fascinating! So even if there are other life-forms out there that have learned to travel into space, the chances of us or our descendants meeting them is pretty small! Remember too that we are carbon-based life-forms, but why should life on other planets be like us, or have developed as we have? Not only that, our Sun is four and a half billion years old. Astronomers estimate that the sun has about 7 billion to 8 billion years left before it sputters out and dies. Before that, it will have expanded and life on Earth will be no more. Will we have learned to travel to other places by then? Perhaps. Either way, there’s time for another cuppa tea…

This week…
For me it is a time of remembrance. Not just for Remembrance Day, but also remembering my parents and grandparents, as well as all the help and support I have had following my heart attack in 2010. For all those we have loved and lost, both friends and family, we will remember them.

Click: Return to top of page or Index page

Bonfire Night

As this day approaches, we get ready to celebrate what could have been a disastrous event in our history. The night of November 5th is known by many names such as ‘Guy Fawkes Night’, ‘Guy Fawkes Day’, ‘Bonfire Night’ and ‘Fireworks Night and is an annual commemoration observed on November 5th each year, primarily in Great Britain, involving bonfires and firework displays. Its history begins with the events of November 5th, 1605 when Guy (a.k.a. Guido) Fawkes, a member of the Gunpowder Plot, was arrested whilst guarding explosives the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords. The Catholic plotters had intended to assassinate the Protestant King James I and his parliament. Celebrating that the king had survived, people lit bonfires around London and months later the Observance of 5th November Act enforced an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure. Within a few decades the ‘Gunpowder Treason Day’, as it was then known, became the predominant English state commemoration, but as it carried strong Protestant religious overtones it also became a focus for anti-Catholic sentiment. Puritans delivered sermons regarding the perceived dangers of ‘popery’, whilst during increasingly raucous celebrations common folk burnt effigies of popular hate-figures of the time, including the Pope. Towards the end of the 18th century reports appear of children begging for money with effigies of Guy Fawkes and 5 November gradually became known as Guy Fawkes Day. Towns such as Lewes and Guildford were scenes of increasingly violent class-based confrontations in the 19th century, fostering traditions those towns celebrate still, albeit peaceably. In the 1850s changing attitudes resulted in the toning down of much of the day’s anti-Catholic rhetoric, and the Observance of 5th November Act was repealed in 1859. Eventually the violence was dealt with, and by the 20th century Guy Fawkes Day had become an enjoyable social commemoration, although lacking much of its original focus. The present-day Guy Fawkes Night is usually celebrated at large organised events. Settlers exported Guy Fawkes Night to overseas colonies, including some in North America, where it was known as Pope Day, but those festivities died out with the onset of the American Revolution. Claims that Guy Fawkes Night was a Protestant replacement for older customs such as Samhain, a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or ‘darker half’ of the year are disputed as England had no contemporary history of bonfires.

An effigy of Fawkes, burnt on 5 November 2010 at Billericay.

Guy Fawkes Night originates from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England and VI of Scotland and replace him with a Catholic head of state. In the immediate aftermath of the 5 November arrest of Guy Fawkes, caught guarding a cache of explosives placed beneath the House of Lords, King James’s Council allowed the public to celebrate the king’s survival with bonfires, so long as they were “without any danger or disorder”. This made 1605 the first year the plot’s failure was celebrated. The following January, days before the surviving conspirators were executed, Parliament, at the initiation of James I, passed the Observance of 5th November Act, commonly known as the ‘Thanksgiving Act’. It was proposed by a Puritan Member of Parliament, Edward Montagu, who suggested that the king’s apparent deliverance by divine intervention deserved some measure of official recognition, and kept 5 November free as a day of thanksgiving whilst in theory making attendance at Church mandatory. A new form of service was also added to the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, for use on that date. By the 1620s the Fifth was honoured in market towns and villages across the country, though it was some years before it was commemorated throughout England. Gunpowder Treason Day, as it was then known, became the predominant English state commemoration. Some parishes made the day a festive occasion, with public drinking and solemn processions. Concerned though about James’s pro-Spanish foreign policy, the decline of international Protestantism, and Catholicism in general, Protestant clergymen who recognised the day’s significance called for more dignified and profound thanksgivings each 5 November. What unity English Protestants had shared in the plot’s immediate aftermath began to fade when, in 1625, James’s son, the future Charles I, married the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France. Puritans reacted to the marriage by issuing a new prayer to warn against rebellion and Catholicism, and on 5 November that year, effigies of the pope and the devil were burnt, the earliest such report of this practice and the beginning of centuries of tradition. During Charles’s reign Gunpowder Treason Day became increasingly partisan. Between 1629 and 1640 he ruled without Parliament, and he seemed to support ‘Arminianism’, a controversial theological position within the Church of England particularly evident in the second quarter of the 17th century (the reign of Charles I of England) which was regarded by some Puritans as a step toward Catholicism. By 1636, under the leadership of the Arminian Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, the English church was trying to use 5 November to denounce all seditious practices, and not just popery. Puritans went on the defensive, some pressing for further reformation of the Church. Bonfire Night, as it was occasionally known, assumed a new fervour during the events leading up to the English Interregnum. Although Royalists disputed their interpretations, Parliamentarians began to uncover or fear new Catholic plots. Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, the country’s new republican regime remained undecided on how to treat 5 November. Unlike the old system of religious feasts and State anniversaries it survived, but as a celebration of parliamentary government and Protestantism, not of monarchy. Commonly the day was still marked by bonfires and miniature explosives, but more formal celebrations resumed only with the Restoration, when Charles II became king. Courtiers, High Anglicans and Tories followed the official line that the event marked God’s preservation of the English throne, but generally the celebrations became more diverse. By 1670 London apprentices had turned 5 November into a fire festival, attacking not only popery but also “sobriety and good order”, demanding money from coach occupants for alcohol and bonfires. The burning of effigies, largely unknown to the Jacobeans, continued in 1673 when Charles’s brother, the Duke of York, converted to Catholicism. In response, accompanied by a procession of about 1,000 people, the apprentices fired an effigy of the Whore of Babylon, bedecked with a range of papal symbols and similar scenes occurred over the following few years. On 17 November 1677, anti-Catholic fervour saw the Accession Day marked by the burning of a large effigy of the pope and two effigies of devils ‘whispering in his ear’. Two years later an observer noted that “the 5th at night, being gunpowder treason, there were many bonfires and burning of popes as has ever been seen”. Violent scenes in 1682 forced London’s militia into action, and to prevent any repetition the following year a proclamation was issued, banning bonfires and fireworks. Fireworks were also banned under James II (previously the Duke of York), who became king in 1685. Attempts by the government to tone down Gunpowder Treason Day celebrations were, however, largely unsuccessful, and some reacted to a ban on bonfires in London (born from a fear of more burnings of the pope’s effigy) by placing candles in their windows, ‘as a witness against Catholicism’. When James was deposed in 1688 by William of Orange (who, importantly, landed in England on 5 November) the day’s events turned also to the celebration of freedom and religion, with elements of anti-Jacobean ways. Whilst the earlier ban on bonfires was politically motivated, a ban on fireworks was maintained for safety reasons, ‘much mischief having been done by squibs’.

From an issue of ‘Punch’, printed in November 1850.

The restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 provoked a strong reaction. King William III’s birthday fell on 4 November and for orthodox Whigs the two days therefore became an important double anniversary. William ordered that the thanksgiving service for 5 November be amended to include thanks for his ‘happy arrival and the Deliverance of our Church and Nation’. In the 1690s he re-established Protestant rule in Ireland, and the Fifth, occasionally marked by the ringing of church bells and civic dinners, was consequently eclipsed by his birthday commemorations. From the 19th century, 5 November celebrations there became sectarian in nature. Its celebration in Northern Ireland remains controversial, unlike in Scotland where bonfires continue to be lit in various cities. In England though, as one of 49 official holidays, for the ruling class 5 November became overshadowed by events such as the birthdays of Admiral Edward Vernon, or of John Wilkes, and under George II and George III , with the exception of the Jacobite Rising of 1745, it was largely ‘a polite entertainment rather than an occasion for vitriolic thanksgiving’. For the lower classes, however, the anniversary was a chance to pit disorder against order, a pretext for violence and uncontrolled revelry. In 1790, The Times reported instances of children ‘begging for money for Guy Faux’, and a report of 4 November 1802 described how ‘a set of idle fellows with some horrid figure dressed up as a Guy Faux’ were convicted of begging and receiving money, and committed to prison as ‘idle and disorderly persons’. The Fifth became ‘a polysemous occasion, replete with polyvalent cross-referencing, meaning all things to all men’. When I first read the two words ‘polysemous’ and ‘polyvalent’, I had to look them up as they were new to me. I have learned that the former simply means ‘having more than one meaning’, whilst the latter means ‘having or using a lot of different forms or features’. So, back to the story. Lower class rioting continued, with reports in Lewes of annual rioting, intimidation of ‘respectable householders’ and the rolling through the streets of lit tar barrels. In Guildford, gangs of revellers who called themselves ‘guys’ terrorised the local population, proceedings were concerned more with the settling of old arguments and general mayhem than any historical reminiscences. Similar problems arose in Exeter, originally the scene of more traditional celebrations and in 1831 an effigy was burnt of the new Bishop of Exeter, a High Church Anglican and High Tory who opposed Parliamentary reform and who was also suspected of being involved in ‘creeping popery’. A local ban on fireworks in 1843 was largely ignored, and attempts by the authorities to suppress the celebrations resulted in violent protests and several injured constables.

A group of children in Caernarfon in November 1962, standing with their Guy Fawkes effigy. The sign reads ‘Penny for the Guy’ in Welsh.

On several occasions during the 19th century ‘The Times’ reported that the tradition was in decline, being “of late years almost forgotten”, but in fact the civil unrest brought about by the union of the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 resulted in Parliament passing the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, which afforded Catholics greater civil rights, continuing the process of Catholic emancipation in the two kingdoms. The traditional denunciations of Catholicism had been in decline since the early 18th century and were thought by many to be outdated, but the pope’s restoration in 1850 of the English Catholic hierarchy gave renewed significance to 5 November, as demonstrated by the burnings of effigies of the new Catholic Archbishop of Westminster as well as the pope. With little resistance in Parliament, the thanksgiving prayer of 5 November contained in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was abolished, and in March 1859 the Anniversary Days Observance Act repealed the Observance of 5th November Act. As the authorities dealt with the worst excesses, public decorum was gradually restored. The sale of fireworks was restricted and the Guildford ‘Guys’ were neutralised in 1865, although this was too late for one constable, who sadly died of his wounds. Violence continued in Exeter for some years, peaking in 1867 when, incensed by rising food prices and banned from firing their customary bonfire, a mob was twice in one night driven from Cathedral Close by armed infantry. Further riots occurred in 1879, but there were no more bonfires in Cathedral Close after 1894. Elsewhere, sporadic instances of public disorder persisted late into the 20th century, accompanied by large numbers of firework-related accidents, but a national Firework Code and improved public safety has in most cases brought an end to such things. But one notable aspect of the Victorians’ commemoration of Guy Fawkes Night was its move away from the centres of communities, to their margins. Gathering wood for the bonfire increasingly became the province of working-class children, who solicited combustible materials, money, food and drink from wealthier neighbours, often with the aid of songs. Most opened with the familiar “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot”.

Spectators gather around a bonfire at Himley Hall, Dudley on 6 November 2010.

Organised entertainments also became popular in the late 19th century, and 20th-century pyrotechnic manufacturers renamed Guy Fawkes Day as Firework Night. Sales of fireworks dwindled somewhat during the First World War, but resumed in the following peace. At the start of the Second World War celebrations were again suspended, resuming in November 1945. For many families, Guy Fawkes Night became a domestic celebration, and children often congregated on street corners, accompanied by their own effigy of Guy Fawkes, but this was sometimes ornately dressed and sometimes a barely recognisable bundle of rags stuffed with whatever filling was suitable! A survey found that in 1981 about 23% of Sheffield schoolchildren made Guys, sometimes weeks before the event. Collecting money was a popular reason for their creation, the children taking their effigy from door to door, or displaying it on street corners. But mainly, they were built to go on the bonfire, itself sometimes comprising wood stolen from other pyres and seen as ‘an acceptable convention’ that helped bolster another November tradition, Mischief Night. Rival gangs competed to see who could build the largest, sometimes even burning the wood collected by their opponents and in 1954 the Yorkshire Post reported on fires late in September, a situation that forced the authorities to remove latent piles of wood for safety reasons. Lately however, the custom of begging for a ‘penny for the Guy’ has almost completely disappeared. Generally, modern 5 November celebrations are run by local charities and other organisations, with paid admission and controlled access. In 1998 an editorial in the Catholic Herald called for the end of ‘Bonfire Night’, labelling it ‘an offensive act’. In my research I have found similarities with other customs, also that nowadays family bonfire gatherings are much less popular and many once-large civic celebrations have been given up because of increasingly intrusive health and safety regulations. I had no idea that in Northern Ireland, bonfires are lit on the Eleventh Night’ (11 July) by Ulster Protestants. There is of course another celebration involving fireworks, the five-day Hindu festival of Diwali (normally observed between mid-October and November) which I detailed last week. Gunpowder Treason Day was exported by settlers to colonies around the world, including members of the Commonwealth of Nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and various Caribbean nations. In Australia, Sydney (founded as a British penal colony in 1788) saw at least one instance of the parading and burning of a Guy Fawkes effigy in 1805, whilst in 1833, four years after its founding, Perth listed Gunpowder Treason Day as a public holiday. By the 1970s, Guy Fawkes Night had become less common in Australia, with the event simply an occasion to set off fireworks with little connection to Guy Fawkes. Mostly they were set off annually on a night called ‘cracker night’, which would include the lighting of bonfires. Some states had their ‘cracker night’ at different times of the year, with some being let off on 5 November, but most often, they were let off on the Queen’s birthday. After a range of injuries to children involving fireworks, Fireworks nights and the sale of fireworks was banned in all states except the Australian Capital Territory containing the national capital of Canberra and some surrounding townships until 1980, which saw the end of cracker night. Some measure of celebration remains in New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, though on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa, Guy Fawkes Day has become associated with youth hooliganism. In Canada in the 21st century, celebrations of Bonfire Night on 5 November are largely confined to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The day is still marked in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as well as in Saint Kitts and Nevis, but a fireworks ban by Antigua and Barbuda during the 1990s reduced its popularity in that country.

This week…
I decided to include the fact that there are many food items which are associated with Bonfire Night. Toffee apples, treacle toffee, black peas and Parkin or gingerbread cake, even jacket potatoes are traditionally eaten around Bonfire Night in parts of England. Also, some families eat soups to warm up on a cold night and toast marshmallows over the fire…

Click: Return to top of page or Index page