Friday, 12 December 2014

Words in vogue: subsidy

Suddenly the word "subsidy" seems to be very much in fashion, especially in local government. I've heard it three times in the last week used in connection with local government services, but I don't recall hearing it in this context before.

Recently it was in the news - and continues to be to some extent - due to the changes in housing benefit which introduced rules about the number of bedrooms that anyone claiming housing benefit would be entitled to, with a commensurate reduction in their benefit if they were deemed to have too many rooms. Opponents of this change called it the "bedroom tax", which was a clever soundbite and infuriated the government, who (correctly) pointed out that it was not a tax, but who still found it difficult to counter. (It had the unlooked-for and unwanted effect of leading elderly and comfortably-off supporters of the government to think that they were actually going to be taxed on their own extra rooms - rather like King William III's window tax and the subsequent Georgian attempts to increase revenue from the tax by decreasing the number of windows you could have before incurring it). Then somebody came up with the idea of calling it the "spare room subsidy". The implication here is clear: money paid to people with rooms which are now deemed to be surplus to their needs is a hand-out, has always been so, and is to be withdrawn (but it never was called the "spare room subsidy" before: this is an attempt to put a certain spin on the policy).

It's a word with an interesting history. According to the OED (use your public library's subscription to check it online!) it was often originally used to indicate a tax: a tax on imports and exports, which was given to the sovereign; a levy paid by parliament to the sovereign for a particular purpose (such as a war); or (an obsolete meaning) help, assistance (of the kind which you could request from a saint, for instance).

More generally, it also means: a donation (usually to provide assistance); a sum which one country might send to another for a specific purpose (such as war, or to repay aid); and, the meaning which is closest to what we are starting to see now, money granted by the state or a public body to keep down the price of a commodity or service or to support something held to be in the public interest (so, the government's intervention to assist the banks after the crash could reasonably be called a subsidy, as would be money supporting a rural bus service which might otherwise be too expensive to be viable, but which is considered to be in the public interest because it enables people living in otherwise isolated communities to have jobs, visit the shops, &c.)

The word "subsidy" does not traditionally have negative connotations (such as the idea of a generous hand-out to an undeserving recipient, or the idea of its being something which could be withdrawn at any time and for which the recipient should be suitably grateful). It is not a word to use with scorn about something which one does not wish to pay for any more. This seems to be the meaning which is beginning to be attached to it, however. It has come a long way from its meaning of a tax which was raised in order to fund the monarch!

It is not a word which is appropriate when discussing the provision of statutory services. They are not "subsidised" but provided in accordance with legal requirements. We do not need to feel inferior for being on the receiving end of them. Did the monarch ever feel this when receiving his subsidy? or, to be more up to date, do the banks show any sign of unworthiness at having received such a substantial subsidy? Local government spin doctors and eager adopters of buzz words everywhere, please desist! We know what you are trying to do: use language to distort the argument. You have been rumbled!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Words in vogue: reform

"Reform" used to mean a change which was an improvement. The SOED [Shorter Oxford English Dictionary] lists several variations on this, many of them with quite a strong sense that a wrong is being put right, an abuse is being corrected, malpractice is being rectified, &c.

Perhaps "reform" still does have this meaning, and its current apparent frequent misuse is due to the fact that one person's reform is sometimes another's retrograde step. Whatever the reason, it seems to be being used widely in contexts in which opinion is not supposed to be being expressed. The use of the word "reform" implies that whatever change is being discussed is a change for the better (and, therefore, that the speaker supports the change). Something to remember next time you hear a BBC reporter discussing "necessary reforms".

Monday, 17 November 2014


I've been thinking about spelling quite a lot recently. I've never had very many problems with spelling, and I think that's largely because I have always read a lot. If you read a lot, the patterns of the words, however illogical the spelling of many English words may be, fix themselves somehow on your retina or in your memory and you can reproduce them without too much difficulty. Spelling in English is incredibly inconsistent, for all sorts of historical reasons, so learning rules probably doesn't get you very far. I remain in awe of people who learn it as a language which is not their first. Welsh is so much easier, despite all the silly jokes beloved of (usually, English, or at least Anglophone) journalists. Learn the rules and with a very few exceptions you can pronounce the words: hear the words and you can, usually, have a stab at spelling them accurately. Not so with English (or should that be Inglish?)

I've been trying to work out which words are likely to cause problems, particularly for anyone who doesn't read widely in English and/or for anyone whose language of education is not English (in order to help my son a little with his English, for one thing). How fortunate we are to have the outpourings of Twitter, comments on newspaper articles and other manifestations online to give us a clue. Here are a few versions of English words and phrases, all of which I have seen online recently:

draw [for furniture]
chester draws [ditto]
I don't give a dam
The damn has burst
To and throw
bi laws
the church bizarre

These are all probably genuine misspellings rather than typos, and suggest a lack of understanding of the meaning of some of the expressions (if you can change "to and fro" to something quite different it suggests that you don't understand where the phrase comes from). They are certainly also the result of hearing, but not seeing, the words. There are plenty more to be seen all the time online.

In the face of all this, I might be wasting my time trying to convince my son that correct spelling matters. After all, he can see examples of mistakes every day, many of them made by adults (and many of those are quite well-educated adults).  Perhaps I am just too fussy! I admit to pedantry - but there is still a point to spelling, even in a language which makes it so difficult for you by the divergence between its orthography and its pronunciation. How many online searches fail because of incorrect spelling, for instance? Google will often give you the accurate alternative, but not everything else does (including many library catalogues and databases).

Thoughts, and examples, welcome!

Dr. Bethan Jenkins of Oxford has pointed me in the direction of eggcorns, which I hadn't come across before. It's a database of exactly what I was thinking of, but with citations. I haven't given any citations, largely because my examples are things I have spotted people I know either in real life or online using, and I think anonymity is, in that case, the wisest if not the most reliable course (so I can't back anything up!)

Friday, 25 July 2014

Cataloguers, the scapegoats of the library world

"People think librarians are odd, but even librarians think cataloguers are odd" - or words to that effect, said to me long ago when I (inadvertently) became a cataloguer in a prestigious university library in London. It's certainly true that cataloguers don't seem to have many friends, especially when the cuts bite. They are a discrete bunch, easy to separate from colleagues and perhaps easy to dispense with (this has certainly been the case over the years in public libraries). They tend to work out of sight of the rest of the library service (at Cardiff University cataloguers are in an office block some way away from most of the libraries we serve).

Out of sight doesn't necessarily mean out of mind, but it does mean that cataloguing can be seen as something isolated from the immediate role of the library. Out of sight also means that the quantity of books allegedly sitting on shelves and not reaching the readers can grow to mythical proportions. It's a difficult thing to counter once the belief becomes widespread in the library service. "Oh, it hasn't come yet, it's still in cataloguing" soon becomes "there must be quicker ways of doing this", "couldn't we get a student to do it for work experience?", and variations on the theme. How big does a backlog have to be before it can be said to be having a negative effect on the service and the end-user? Our backlog of current material, that is new books bought for research and teaching, including reading list titles, was about half a shelf at the beginning of this week. At no point during the last six months has it been more than four shelves at the most - it is usually less than that - yet in the minds of those who have not seen it it seems to rival the contents of an actual library.

As for the current material, cataloguers rarely catalogue from scratch: the new textbooks nearly always come with an existing record which simply needs some tidying up to conform to the requirements of the system. We classify them ourselves. Very little cataloguer time is spent on some of this material. The things which do take more time are the more esoteric publications, particularly overseas material, and audio-visual material. (If you don't spend time on these, your lovely new whizzy discovery platform won't work properly.) External companies which offer to provide a cataloguing service tend also to be quicker and stronger on the "bread-and-butter" textbooks, and less able to fulfil requirements when it comes to the more obscure material, as you would expect.

The cataloguer wastefully doing everything from the beginning every time, and duplicating the same work done in other libraries, is another myth which is hard to crack. Cataloguers have shared records for decades - and I do mean a long time (i.e. even before I was born!) - but this fact doesn't seem to be widely known even in libraries. Every now and then someone comes up with the brilliant idea of speeding things up by doing, yes, something we have already been doing for many years.

We do have a larger backlog of donated material, some of which arrives in large and unpredictable quantities (after a death, for instance, or the retirement of an academic). We catalogue this material as and when we can, but it isn't planned for in the way the usual throughput of new books is. Basic records are added to the catalogue by assistants before they reach the cataloguers' shelves, so they can be found on the catalogue and requested if wanted.

Cataloguers do not process the books themselves (again, perhaps something which is not fully understood), so once we have catalogued and classified we think our work is done and the books have become a processing backlog (and the processors' backlog is not large either, except at times of staff shortage). Turnaround for processed books is usually 24 hours.

Anecdotal comment is very hard to prove or disprove. We monitor our throughput (for the new material), so we have evidence of the amount of time taken, and of course our empty shelves are there to see, if anyone would like to come and look. Perhaps we should lure our colleagues down to our lair (with cake?), and dispel the myths. Any suggestions gratefully received!