Saturday, November 05, 2011

Word fun

I just subscribed to a free fun newsletter that comes out once a week. It deals with words. (You can check it out at

This week's letter included the following stories I thought you would enjoy:

Topical Words: Plan B
The news in Britain in recent weeks has been full of references to the notorious Plan A of the Chancellor, George Osborne. He said last year that his scheme for improving the country's finances was the only one needed. Last December, the Treasury insisted that "There is no Plan B", which shows signs of becoming a sarcastic catchphrase. A hundred economists published an open letter in the Observer last Sunday in an attempt to change Osborne's mind, arguing that "It is now clear that plan A isn't working" and urging the government to adopt a plan B. This has been reinforced this week by similar calls from the Liberal Democrats, coalition partners in the government. Ed Balls, Osborne's Labour opposition counterpart, dismisses all such alphabetical labels: "Call it Plan A-plus. Call it Plan B. Call it Plan C. I don't care what they call it - Britain just needs a plan that works."

Observers of a logical bent might wonder, if Mr Osborne only ever expects to have a Plan A, why he bothered to assign a letter to it.
A British author had fun with this approach half a century ago:

"This is what I call 'pattern A'."
"And what is pattern B?" asked Ann Halsey.
"There won't be any pattern B."
"Then why bother with the A?"
"Preserve me from the obtuseness of women! I can call it
pattern A because I want to, can't I?"
"Of course, dear. But why do you want to?"
[The Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle, 1959.]

To label alternatives with letters is now so fashionable as hardly to warrant much comment, even though to develop possibilities much beyond Plan C is either to suggest an over-controlling and anxious personality or strategies that contemplate extraordinary contingencies. Plan Z gets some attention, but usually as one so far down the list it can only be crackpottery. Even Plan B is more often a humorous comment on a Plan A that has proved impracticable ("we need a plan B", "time for plan B") than a serious potential alternative.

Legal documents have identified plans and drawings by letters for at least a couple of centuries. The origin of the figurative expression partly lies here, but more specifically in plans that illustrate alternative proposals for a development ("The scheme shown in Plan A for remodelling the house is more expensive than the alternative outlined in Plan B").

The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for both Plan A and Plan B which imply that they originate in the US. However, its earliest citation for Plan B - a letter sent during the Civil War in 1863 - turns out to refer to a physical plan or drawing. I have found a British example, from the Report of the proceedings of the Church Congress held in Cambridge in November 1861, where it refers to one of two proposals for a scheme to modify church taxes. The first known example of Plan A is currently from an equally improbable source - the 1867 Report of the US Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exposition of that year.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on a court case in its issue of
31 October, Jitze Couperus tells us: "A Florida widow who died in
the 2001 anthrax mailings has reached a tentative settlement in her
lawsuit against the U.S. government according to court filings."

Numeracy rules. Fred A Roth reports that a headline on Fox News on
27 October read "FOX NEWS POLL: More than three thirds of Americans
are dissatisfied with the way the U.S. is heading." It has since
been changed. So has the one Roy Zukerman spotted on the website of
the Los Angeles Times the same day: in an article about measuring
the size of the planetoid Eris when it passed in front of a star, it
stated that "Just three telescopes, both in Chile, managed to catch
the event."

Seen by Ian Harrison on an advertising sign placed by a well-known
local supermarket in Johannesburg: "Whole chicken pieces." How would
one tell?

"The ads down the side of Gmail," wrote Sarah Borowski, "are quite
often a source of amusement, such as this one, obviously aimed at
Jake the Peg: 'Get 3 For The Price Of 2 When You Shop Online With
Hotter Shoes!'"
That last one seemed to make sense, although I couldn't figure out what the reference to “Jake the Peg” might be.

But then I think I “got it.” One doesn't buy individual shoes. What will you do with three shoes for the price of two? . . . But a guy named Jake who has a peg leg might like the offer. . . .

Finally, I did a search online and it turns out there’s a song called “Jake the Peg” about a guy who was born with an extra leg:
The day that I was born, oh boy, my father nearly died.
He couldn't get my nappies on, no matter how he tried,
'Cause I was born with an extra leg, and since that day begun,
I had to learn to stand on my own three feet,
Believe me that's no fun. . . .

I had a dreadful childhood, really,
I s'pose I shouldn't moan,
Each time they had a three legged race,
I won it on my own.
And also I got popular,
When came the time for cricket,
They used to roll my trousers up,
And use me for the wicket. . . .

I was a dreadful scholar,
I found all the lessons hard,
The only thing I knew for sure was three feet make a yard.
To count to ten I used my fingers,
If I needed more,
By getting my shoes and socks off,
I could count to twenty-four.
(Pause...count: 1 2 3 4 5....) To twenty-five! . . .

Whatever I did they said was false,
They said 'Quick march,' I did a quick waltz.
Then they shouted at me 'Put your best foot forward.'
'But which foot?' I said.
'It's very fine for you, you only got a choice of two, but me!
And then I found a hilarious presentation of the song on YouTube . . . presented by Rolf Harris who adapted it from a Dutch song about "Ben van der Steen" (Ben of the Stone).

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