Saturday, 22 August 2015

Nautical Metaphors

I must go down to the sea again

As I read the Patrick O'Brian series of novels for the third or fourth time, I am astounded at the number of nautical metaphors that have passed into our language from sailing ships and the sea. I suspect that this aspect of British history is the richest source of idiom and expression after Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

As a youth I sailed through the Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester, but by and large gave lesser imitators a wide berth. Forester had left little leeway for competitors. Then I came upon Patrick O'Brian and his series about Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Steven Maturin, chock-a-block with nautical detail and set, like the Hornblower books, in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. I was committed, hard and fast.

Master and Commander, the first in the series, was no mere flash in the pan. Eighteen more novels followed, each one meeting initial expectations with flying colours, and I continued reading them until the bitter end. Elements of the stories were often unresolved, leaving me high and dry until a new novel appeared in the offing. Nothing else would tide me over. I was left in the doldrums. Without an O'Brian book to read, I was all at sea. 

Reading has always been a mainstay of my existence, and on cold winter nights on the prairies, I would batten down the hatches, tell everybody else to pipe down, get under way, and read long into the night, sipping my scotch until I was three sheets to the wind.

I was taken aback when a seafaring friend of mine, and medical man to boot, let slip that he was making heavy weather of one of the novels. These were dangerous waters indeed, and he was sailing too close to the wind. I could not turn a blind eye. He had better take a different tack! I nailed my colours to the mast and sent a shot across his bows, telling him that I couldn't fathom his attitude and didn't like the cut of his jib. I was ready to tackle him at close quarters: there was no way he could cut and run. I told him to toe the line, to get on an even keel, to steer clear of small fry, and to strive with might and main to sound the depths of this great novel, or our friendship would go by the board. He acknowledged my signal, and from then on, it was plain sailing. We were no longer at loggerheads.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

A Scurry of Squirrels

I have finally defeated the squirrels, those defiant, ingenious, rodent-Houdinis-in-reverse. But it was a Pyrrhic victory.

It began thirty years ago at a little cabin by the Roseau River in Manitoba. Our bird feeder attracted not only nuthatches and chickadees, redwing blackbirds, finches, grosbeaks, cedar waxwings and other avian visitors, but also the squirrels. So I bought a squirrel-proof feeder from Costco. I don't know whether it was ever field-tested, but if so, the focus group must have been fatter or thicker for it didn't take long for one of our squirrels to squeeze through the bars of the cage. I continued to try various designs, positions and locations, but when a bear pulled the feeder down, I gave up.

Here on Mayne Island in a little log cabin half way up a cliff, we began again. Gone were the bears, mosquitoes, wood ticks and poison ivy, but the squirrels were still with us. In the beginning there was only one, and he soon leapt across to the feeder I had suspended from the side of a sloping tree next to the deck. I then tried another "squirrel-proof" feeder of ingenious design with bird perches on a spring tensioned so that birds could feed but the heavier squirrel would draw down the outer frame and close off the feed openings. For a while it worked, and then one day we saw a squirrel draped around the feeder lunching happily, somehow managing not to close access to the sunflower seeds inside.

The trouble with bird feeders is that the word gets around. In the beginning there was only one squirrel, but now we had a score or more running up and down the deck, taunting us. One in particular would not even flee when I charged at him on the feeder, brandishing a stick and uttering a war cry. He would simply retreat to the other side of the tree, clucking mockingly, and reappear when I withdrew. Fearing a repeat of our Manitoba experience, where the squirrels eventually found their way into the roof, I had to devise a new strategy. 

I banished the feeders from the deck and hung a triple-barrelled version high up between two fir trees fifty feet from the cabin. The feeder was suspended on a cord passing through a pulley attached to a wire between the trees. The process of replenishing the feeder was a bit like lowering and raising a mainsail, and we now had to use binoculars to watch the birds, but we seemed to have outwitted the squirrels.

Then one day I looked out to see the feeder swinging wildly on its line. Oh no, I thought. A squirrel must have just jumped off. I waited and watched. At dusk the next day, I noticed a couple of large dove-like birds sitting on a branch overlooking the feeder. They flew across, flapping their wings wildly, trying for a purchase on the perches. Two more arrived at the openings above them, and the four of them clung on awkwardly, embracing the feeder with their wings, hoovering up the sunflower seed within. A white stripe on the back of their heads identified them as band-tailed pigeons. Our feeder was now on their circuit, and they would appear each day for their evening meal.

But I am reluctant to feed these aerial leviathans who empty the feeder in a few days, so for the time being it hangs empty. And no birds swing.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The quick and the dead

As you leave the ferry terminal at Mayne Island and venture onto the vast network of roads, you are duly warned to watch out for deer. As in Greater Victoria, controversy rages over what to do about these gentle creatures, and here the problem is more serious, for without predators they have multiplied far beyond the capacity of the island to support them.

They are so hungry that they have stripped the island of young arbutus trees and the wildflowers that old timers remember from long ago. They will eat almost anything, including many deer-resistant plants. They have even taken to eating the pink insulation batts underneath our cabin. A serious problem indeed, and no solution is at hand. Unlike their rich cousins in Oak Bay, Mayne Islanders cannot afford to buy contraceptives for the deer at $250 a pop, or should I say "non-pop"?

So when driving on Mayne Island you should be on the lookout for deer. But I always chuckle when I pass the sign, for I imagine a sudden manifestation of deer on all the roads at the same time. Wherever they are, through some paranormal means of communication they must know when to leave the forest for the roads. And how well organised they must be to ensure that no street or lane is left unattended! In more precise language, the sign would have read:

Deer: On any road at any time

And here's another example of careless language. I don't want to seem insensitive, and I wouldn't write about this if I thought that anybody remotely connected with the tragedy would read it. Indeed, I have waited until the event is no longer current. Some time ago I noticed a headline in the newspaper which read:

Man killed at metal depot turned his life around

How could he could he turn his life around if he was dead?

The problem arises in the original headline because, reading the two verbs in the past tense, we assume that the actions happened in order. What we need here is a tense to show that one of the actions happened further back in the past, i.e., the past perfect or pluperfect tense:

Man killed at metal depot had turned his life around.

Now it makes sense.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Rain on Mayne is mainly on the Wane

I wait in vain for rain on Mayne. We islanders are not permitted to use our community water for the garden, so I have rigged up a number of 55-gallon barrels, eight in all, beneath the gutters, connected by flexipipe to every spout I can find. And I sit and wait for the next shower, ready to redirect the flexipipe, or pump water from one barrel to another, all the water eventually to flow to my parched garden.

I watch the weather forecast every day. Sometimes it shows rain about a week ahead, but when the day arrives the rain is always falling somewhere else. I even have an ironic acronym for this phenomenon: ARDOM, Another Rainy Day on Mayne, that is, one of those days when rain is forecast but doesn’t fall.

Apparently, the average water consumption in Canada is 60-70 gallons per person per day. How much of that water is wasted! But I am saving every drop for the garden: bathwater for the vegetables, washing-up water for the plants, rinsing-water for the tomatoes on the deck. And if I sometimes rinse a little too liberally, I compensate by not flushing the toilet. One non-flushing of the toilet is equivalent to one filling of the watering can.

I have added a couplet to the old Australian water-saving, selective-flushing ditty:

If it’s yellow, 
Let it mellow.
If it’s brown, 
Flush it down.

And even then, just bide your time,
Don’t flush it down unless it’s prime!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Fewer and Less

A friend asked me to explain the difference between "fewer" and "less". Here is the short answer.

Use "fewer" with number: fewer marbles.
Use "less" with quantity: less sugar

”Less” is often incorrectly used with number: There are less people here today than yesterday. It should be: There are fewer people here than yesterday

And the longer answer: "Fewer" is the comparative form of the adjective "few". "Less" is the comparative form of the adjective "little". We don't confuse these two words.

There are only a few marbles left. There is only a little sugar left.

"Fewest" is the superlative form of the adjective "few". "Least" is the superlative form of the adjective "little". We sometimes confuse these two words, but the error is less common: John has the least marbles. It should be: John has the fewest marbles.

In case you're wondering about the terms comparative and superlative, adjectives come in three forms: positive (regular), comparative, and superlative. Comparatives and superlatives are typically formed by adding the suffixes "er" and “est"to the word, or using "more" and "most" if the word has more than two syllables.

Tall, taller, tallest
Comfortable, more comfortable, most comfortable 

A few adjectives have irregular comparatives and superlatives.

Good, better, best
Bad, worse, worst
Far, farther, farthest

And, of course,

Little, less, least
Many, more, most
Much, more, most

And there, I think, is the reason for the confusion between "fewer" and "less". I may have fewer marbles but less sugar than Tom, but he has more marbles and more sugar. If "more" will denote either a greater number or greater quantity, why doesn't "less" denote either a smaller number or smaller quantity? Particularly when we have the phrase "more or less", which will do for either number or quantity, won't it? There were a hundred people in attendance, more or less. Only the most extreme grammatical fundamentalist would say "more or fewer". So it's easy to see why the error is so common: "There are less people here today than there were yesterday." No, there are fewer people here today than yesterday.

And since we've strayed a little from the original question, what about the comparative and superlative forms of adverbs? If the adverb ends in "ly", and most do, then the comparatives and superlatives are formed with "more" and "most", not the suffixes "er" and "best".

Simply, more simply, most simply

Grammarians across the country were shocked in the seventies when the Federal Government came out with a fitness advertisement which contained the slogan: "Breathe easier!" It should have been: "Breathe more easily!

Adverbs which don't end in "ly", usually have similar comparatives and superlatives to the  corresponding adjective.

Hard, harder, hardest
Well, better, best
Badly, worse, worst

By the way, be careful with the word "badly". You can't feel badly unless you have damaged nerve endings. If you upset someone, you will feel bad about it, not badly, in the same way that you would feel sad, not sadly. The adjective "bad" is modifying the person feeling, not the verb "feel". Just remember, when it comes to "feeling", use the word "bad" in the same way that you would use the word "sad".

"I feel sad that you will have to go alone. I feel bad about letting you down."

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Abuse and Misuse of Language

This morning In a news report I read a succinct announcement by BC Ferries about possible changes to service between Vancouver and the mainland:

It is contemplated that the Major Routes Strategy will challenge historically established notions of how BC Ferries' service is delivered to the mid-island corridor, and will require changes in customer behaviour.

No errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar. But what did it mean? I imagined someone in the upper reaches of management, chin on hand like Rodin's Le Penseur, contemplating not the meaning of life, or even the amount of his forthcoming bonus, but what ferry route to cut. I pictured Major Routes Strategy challenging Historically Established Notions to a duel. Swords or pistols? And what were these historically established notions? Idle thoughts arising from great events of the past? How would the service now be delivered? By sail, in order to save fuel? But how do you sail down a corridor?  Most intriguing were the required changes in customer behaviour. What would these be? In my experience, ferry passengers have always behaved well enough. Perhaps, now, they would be forbidden from complaining about rising fares under penalty of walking the plank.

It is hard to imagine a greater abuse of language than this. Why do people write this way?

Later, I listened to a CBC report on the proposed changes. The interviewer asked affected passengers the really intelligent question: "How do you feel about this?" 

And then, somewhere in the course of this bulletin, a member of the public spoke about "a whole nother thing". An unorthodox use of language, but I understood him perfectly!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

An Incident on Mayne Island

The lights were going out all over the island.

We lost power on Mayne Island this morning. I had gone to pour my first coffee of the day only to find that the coffee maker had shut off in mid-stream. Caffeus interruptus, as it were. If you're a coffee lover, you can imagine how I felt: that moment of anticipation and then despair, followed by a yearning for the coffee that wasn't there. When would the power come back on? The stuff in the freezer could look after itself. I needed a coffee.

Perhaps I would find out what was happening on the Mayne Island Info Facebook page. I have to confess to a certain ambivalence, even hypocrisy, when it comes to smartphones and Facebook. Like other members of my generation, I rail against youth standing around in circles, texting and checking up on their friends instead of talking to each other. But when I'm alone with my phone and I've read my messages and the online newspapers, I may turn to Facebook and lurk for a while. Just for something to read.

Two pages I quite enjoy. One is the Mayne Island Buy and Sell and Freebies Page. Here you will find everything including the kitchen sink. The other is the Mayne Island Info page. This is what I read:

"Did anyone else just lose power? Ours just went off on Mt Parke." Other comments followed. Power was off at Miners Bay, Bennett Bay, Bluff Way and David's Cove. Probably all over the island.

I decided to go out. Perhaps one of the coffee shops would have an auxiliary generator. I arrived at the bakery which usually offers a fine dark roast. Other islanders had converged with the same thought in mind. No coffee yet, but someone was working on a jury rig. Could be fifteen minutes. But others were in line before me with their tongues hanging out.

I drove on to Farmgate, the source of the best sandwiches, not only on the island but in the world. Try one if you don't believe me. But there was no coffee. Don, the genial host, told me he would have an auxiliary generator in a month, but I couldn't wait that long. Desperate, I headed back to the bakery.

By now the first jug had been consumed. I had to wait another ten minutes and then it was ready. I returned to my table and took my first sip. It was deeply satisfying!

I looked out the window. It was a typical Mayne Island day for this time of the year. As usual, rain was forecast, but of course the sun was shining, gilding the green of the fields and the blue of the sea. Ferries crossed in Active Pass. I savoured the coffee and the moment.

Suddenly the lights went on. I returned to my cabin to find that that the coffee maker had finished its brew. I wondered what had caused the power outage. I knew where to find out. There I read:

Apparently the tree trimming crew had an incident near Fern Hollow.

An incident? For us it was an Event. Different routines, unexpected encounters, new conversations, the talking point of an hour. I poured myself another cup of coffee.