• Mind Your Language

    A couple of weeks ago, I was watching TV One’s 6 o’clock news when I was stopped in my tracks.  Simon Dallow, the newsreader, was reading an item about a worrying decline in kea numbers and concluded by saying that there are now “less than 7000”, whereupon he stopped briefly and said, by way of correction, “fewer than 7000.”  I was both amazed and delighted that he had baulked at reading the text he had been given and had corrected an all-too-common error.

    The incident is worth remarking on because so many supposedly professional broadcasters repeat such solecisms, either because they know no better or are content to accept such injuries to our language on the ground that they have been legitimised because “everyone says that.”

    It is of course true that our language is a living thing and is constantly changing, and that changes are most often brought about by popular usage.  It is also argued that, as long as the meaning is clear, we need not concern ourselves with grammar or the true meaning of a particular word.

    But what are we to say of a change in usage which positively obscures the meaning we wish to convey?  Take, for example, another error repeatedly committed by leading broadcasters; in a recent instance, in an item on the re-opening of State Highway One north of Kaikoura, a broadcaster referred to an “alternate” route.  She presumably meant an “alternative “ route – that is, a route that offers another option, rather than one that should be taken on every second occasion that the journey is undertaken.

    Making the same error, Sky Sport insisted for some months on offering viewers an “alternate” commentary on rugby matches, instead of what was presumably an alternative commentary in Maori. And I was depressed to see a road sign over Christmas offering me and other drivers an “alternate route”.

    The confusion between “alternate” and “alternative”, and the use of one when the other is meant, are now well-entrenched in American English – and, sadly, the mere fact that the two words are now so often misused means that we have now, through sheer laziness and ignorance, ruined two perfectly good and useful words.

    Nor is this the only instance of such a corruption of our language.  What I take to be another Americanism – the use of “substantive” (referring to the substance of an issue or process, as opposed to the procedure or detail) as an up-to-date alternative to “substantial” (meaning of substance as opposed to slight or minimal) – is rapidly gaining ground.

    The Americans, of course, have, as they say, “form” in such matters.  They have for some time refused to use “lie” to mean recline, and use instead the transitive verb “lay” which means to place something (like an egg) down.

    The Americans are not of course responsible for every misuse of the language.  Take, for instance, a home-grown usage that is now constantly heard, particularly but no longer exclusively, in the mouths of young people.  People of whatever age who would never dream of saying “me went to town”, rather than “I went to town”, are apparently persuaded that by adding another subject to the sentence, the usual rule is supplanted, so that we constantly hear formulations such as “me and Tom went to town”.

    Does any of this matter?  I would argue that it does.  Those demonstrating a lack of regard for our language and careless as to its correct use tell everyone forced to listen that they are people who don’t care about getting it (or anything else) right.

    We enjoy the immense privilege of using our language, with all its richness and complexity, as our native tongue.  The rest of the world increasingly uses English as their preferred medium of communication, but we native speakers can enjoy not only its utility but its beauty as well.

    We should not only be aware of our good fortune but also understand the responsibility we have to the language.  To speak it carelessly or ignorantly, so as to confuse meanings and corrupt its functioning, is the equivalent of hitting bum notes when playing a great piece of music.  We all have the opportunity of striving to use it as well as we can – but those whose business is language, in that they speak it or write for a living, have a special responsibility – and congratulations to Simon Dallow for reminding us of that.

    Bryan Gould

    21  December 2017

     

     

  • Emergency Services and The Storm

    As we listened anxiously to the weather warnings on Thursday evening, my wife and I went through a familiar routine.  Living as we do on the Eastern Bay of Plenty coast, just above the beach, we are used to the dangers that attend those “exposed” areas that are especially vulnerable to high winds and heavy rain – both of which were promised us in spades by the weather forecasters.

    So, we moved all our outdoor furniture to positions that would ensure, we hoped, that even if they were picked up by the gale-force winds they would not be hurled through a window.  I cleared the drains in the hope that they would be adequate to divert the waterfall that would surge down our drive so that it would not flood our garage.  And I checked that my chainsaw was in working order and would be up to removing from our drive the tree trunks and branches brought down by the wind and threatening to block access to our property.

    Most importantly, we checked that we had matches, candles, torches and batteries in the event of a power cut – almost an inevitability in rough weather – and that we had enough bottled gas to fire up the barbecue so that we could cook – or at least make a cup of tea.

    But as we went through our check list, I remarked to my wife that the people I felt sorry for, as we and they waited for the storm to hit, were those emergency workers who would know for a certainty that their evening and night were going to be disrupted by call-outs, and that they would have to leave the comfort of the family hearth and go out into the foul weather.

    I was thinking of course of the firefighters who, by virtue of their expertise in using long ladders, seem to be the first port of call to resolve almost any problem – from a roof blowing off to a pet getting stranded.

    And then there are the electricity line workers, struggling to identify and then to rectify the problem that might have left thousands without light or heat or the ability to cook.  And spare a thought for the hard-pressed call staff, having to be polite as stressed callers insist on an explanation and a prediction as to when power will be restored, even when the technicians themselves are still searching for answers.

    And never forget the ambulance staff and the police whose normal workload is usually trebled by the manifold accidents that inevitably attend severe weather.  We, the public, are a demanding and often ungrateful lot (as will be certified by anyone who has ever had occasion to deal with “the public” at first hand) and most of those who undertake these difficult tasks get precious little by way of thanks in return.

    So, as I spend Friday morning clearing up the mess, looking in wonder at the mountainous seas that – driven by the super moon’s king tide – are obliterating our beach, and wondering what worse is yet to come, I am grateful that I, like many others, can rely on being able to call for help when it is needed.  It is good to live in a society that is sufficiently well-organised and caring to make provision for coming to our aid when our own efforts alone are not enough.

    These services cost money, of course, and probably more than is actually made available – and they are only the tip of the iceberg, since they have a higher profile and visibility than other services, by virtue of their importance in emergency situations.  Behind them, though, are many other public services that have a less high profile, but are equally important over a longer period of time, in helping us to overcome life’s problems.

    The resources needed to maintain these services have to come from somewhere.  A moment’s thought will tell us from where – from the bills and taxes we pay.  The next time we grumble about paying our taxes or our bills to public utilities, let us reflect that some of our fellow citizens are ready to go out on a cold, wet, miserable and dangerous night and will use the resources that we help to fund so as to help us through our difficulties.  Well done them!

    Bryan Gould

    5 January 2018

     

  • The Season of Goodwill

    “Nice” is an odd word – one of our most widely used adjectives but of imprecise, not to say amorphous, meaning and often pressed into service just to signify anything that is vaguely pleasing.

    So, when I say that, living as we do on the outskirts of Opotiki in the eastern Bay of Plenty, we are privileged to rub shoulders every day with “nice “ people, I had better spell out what I mean.

    When I say that the people we have dealings with are “nice”, I have in mind our neighbours who, following one of the winter’s most damaging cyclones, drove down our drive to check that we – their septuagenarian neighbours – were all right.

    I think of our neighbour who, realising that my wife was about to come home from hospital following surgery for breast cancer, and that, following a couple of accidents, our rainwater tanks were empty, rigged up a connection that enabled him to pump water from his own tank into ours.

    And then there are our friends who – on an almost daily basis – delivered to us freshly baked cakes and fish caught off our beach, filleted ready for eating, and others who brought us hot meals, at a time when neither my wife nor I was able to focus much on cooking or shopping.

    But even these acts of thoughtfulness and generosity do not quite capture the “niceness” I have in mind when I think of those with whom we interact on a daily basis.  I think of the local retailers and tradesmen, and the receptionists and check-out girls, and the unfailing good humour and courtesy with which we and they are able to conduct our transactions.  It is hard to overstate what a pleasure it is to do business with “nice people”.  The business has to be done, whether or not the people involved are “nice”, but how much easier and less stressful it is when one can count on the good faith and desire to please of those with whom it is done.

    I think I am now getting close to what I mean when I refer to “nice’ people.  I mean people with good hearts – people who take it for granted that we share the same life and that we ’re all in it together, and that things will go better for us all if we try to help each other.  I mean people with a generosity of spirit, who are ready to ease any situation with a smile or a cheery greeting or a kind word.

    These are people whose “niceness” comes naturally to them, without thought or design or ulterior motive.  They are the strangers one meets in the street or walking on the beach and who are happy to catch one’s eye and to say “Good morning” or “nice day”.  I know it is easy to idealise these behaviours and to read more into them than they merit.  But they are also simple expressions of a community spirit that enriches the lives of all of us.

    We know that New Zealand is a popular destination for overseas tourists, and that the scenic beauty and sense of space we can offer are among the major attractions.  But I also think that the natural friendliness and good manners of New Zealanders also play a part – and, judging by my own experience, they are more likely to be found in small rural communities than in the big cities where the pressures on time and space take their toll.

    The season of goodwill is of course the ideal time to pause and reflect on such matters.  Nothing encompasses the Christmas spirit better than the readiness to think and take account of, and give time to, others.  Christmas is after all the time for families – and families are like communities, in that we don’t choose our family members, any more than we choose those in our community – they just are.  And, as the time for New Year resolutions approaches, what better than to resolve that the season of goodwill should be extended well into 2018?  The lives of all of us would be immeasurably better – in all sorts of immeasurable ways.

    Bryan Gould

    24 December 2017

     

  • A Merry Pohutukawa Christmas

    In 1962, a Rhodes Scholarship took me to Oxford University – and I didn’t get round to coming back home for another 32 years.  Those 32 years in England have of course left their marks, one of which is my abiding expectation that Christmas means cold temperatures and warm fires.  After being home again now for 23 years, I confess that I still can’t quite get used to Christmas on the beach.

    Perhaps it is the prospect of the cold and dreary months of January and February that makes the lights and music and good cheer of a northern winter Christmas so welcome and memorable.  The Christmas festivities play an important role in lifting the spirits when that is most needed.

    Barbecues and picnics in the sunshine, enjoyable as they are, don’t have quite the same buzz.  But there is one aspect of a New Zealand Christmas that never fails to please me – especially in the wonderful Bay of Plenty where I grew up.  I am always delighted to see the riot of colour when the pohutukawas blossom as Christmas approaches.  As we walk along our beach, the great trees that cling to and support the cliff faces are ablaze, and the tracks and roads are carpeted with red – and our own property boasts from every viewpoint centuries-old specimens of our own Christmas trees so that, truly, “every prospect pleases”.

    But, this year, that pleasure is tempered by the unwelcome realisation that “myrtle rust” might mean the demise of this spectacular witness to the Christmas spirit.  Like kauri die-back, this uninvited visitor from overseas threatens the survival of one of our most iconic species.

    Unlike the PSA outbreak that shook the foundation of our kiwi fruit industry, the incursion of myrtle rust does not seem to be attributable directly to human failings.  But all of these threats to our environment arise directly or indirectly from human intervention – and we are not just talking of plants and trees at risk, but of many of our birds and marine species as well; that should surely induce some serious consideration as to what aspects of human activity should be modified if we are to avoid irreversible damage to our natural environment.

    The first lesson we should learn is that it is the human need to move ourselves and our goods from one part of the globe to another that creates the risk.  We would probably not have to put up with myrtle rust or kauri die-back if the scourge had not been spread by humans.  This realisation should immediately impose an obligation to take more care than we currently do to avoid such blights.  At the very least, we are entitled to expect that our public services are adequately funded to provide the required protection.

    Saving money on biosecurity is surely a false economy and a short-sighted dereliction of duty.  As always, prevention is better and easier than cure, and our new government should immediately take the opportunity to make good the deficiencies in this respect of its predecessor.

    But there is a wider message as well.  It may not be possible to identify in every case precisely how and why diseases like myrtle rust, kauri die-back and PSA reached our shores, but we can be sure that these calamities occurred because human (usually economic) needs were thought to take priority over the survival of our environment and the species with which we share it.

    Our mindset has, in other words, been for far too long that “turning a buck” is the most important goal and will justify taking whatever risk is involved.   In this Christmas season, and while the pohutukawas still bloom, we have the chance to re-order our priorities.  What will it avail us to have more money in our pockets if the price we pay is that we live in an impoverished environment?

    We should all stop to think.  The fate of other species should not be relegated to the bottom of our priority list but should always be at the top of our minds.  The survival of our environment – its diversity, its integrity and inter-dependence, and, yes, its beauty – should not automatically take second place to the constant priority given to a single bottom line.

    Bryan Gould

    16 December 2017

     

     

     

    In 1962, a Rhodes Scholarship took me to Oxford University – and I didn’t get round to coming back home for another 32 years.  Those 32 years in England have of course left their marks, one of which is my abiding expectation that Christmas means cold temperatures and warm fires.  After being home again now for 23 years, I confess that I still can’t quite get used to Christmas on the beach.

    Perhaps it is the prospect of the cold and dreary months of January and February that makes the lights and music and good cheer of a northern winter Christmas so welcome and memorable.  The Christmas festivities play an important role in lifting the spirits when that is most needed.

    Barbecues and picnics in the sunshine, enjoyable as they are, don’t have quite the same buzz.  But there is one aspect of a New Zealand Christmas that never fails to please me – especially in the wonderful Bay of Plenty where I grew up.  I am always delighted to see the riot of colour when the pohutukawas blossom as Christmas approaches.  As we walk along our beach, the great trees that cling to and support the cliff faces are ablaze, and the tracks and roads are carpeted with red – and our own property boasts from every viewpoint centuries-old specimens of our own Christmas trees so that, truly, “every prospect pleases”.

    But, this year, that pleasure is tempered by the unwelcome realisation that “myrtle rust” might mean the demise of this spectacular witness to the Christmas spirit.  Like kauri die-back, this uninvited visitor from overseas threatens the survival of one of our most iconic species.

    Unlike the PSA outbreak that shook the foundation of our kiwi fruit industry, the incursion of myrtle rust does not seem to be attributable directly to human failings.  But all of these threats to our environment arise directly or indirectly from human intervention – and we are not just talking of plants and trees at risk, but of many of our birds and marine species as well; that should surely induce some serious consideration as to what aspects of human activity should be modified if we are to avoid irreversible damage to our natural environment.

    The first lesson we should learn is that it is the human need to move ourselves and our goods from one part of the globe to another that creates the risk.  We would probably not have to put up with myrtle rust or kauri die-back if the scourge had not been spread by humans.  This realisation should immediately impose an obligation to take more care than we currently do to avoid such blights.  At the very least, we are entitled to expect that our public services are adequately funded to provide the required protection.

    Saving money on biosecurity is surely a false economy and a short-sighted dereliction of duty.  As always, prevention is better and easier than cure, and our new government should immediately take the opportunity to make good the deficiencies in this respect of its predecessor.

    But there is a wider message as well.  It may not be possible to identify in every case precisely how and why diseases like myrtle rust, kauri die-back and PSA reached our shores, but we can be sure that these calamities occurred because human (usually economic) needs were thought to take priority over the survival of our environment and the species with which we share it.

    Our mindset has, in other words, been for far too long that “turning a buck” is the most important goal and will justify taking whatever risk is involved.   In this Christmas season, and while the pohutukawas still bloom, we have the chance to re-order our priorities.  What will it avail us to have more money in our pockets if the price we pay is that we live in an impoverished environment?

    We should all stop to think.  The fate of other species should not be relegated to the bottom of our prioprity list but should always be at the top of our minds.  The survival of our environment – its diversity, its integrity and inter-dependence, and, yes, its beauty – should not automatically take second place to the constant priority given to a single bottom line.

    Bryan Gould

    16 December 2017

     

     

     

    In 1962, a Rhodes Scholarship took me to Oxford University – and I didn’t get round to coming back home for another 32 years.  Those 32 years in England have of course left their marks, one of which is my abiding expectation that Christmas means cold temperatures and warm fires.  After being home again now for 23 years, I confess that I still can’t quite get used to Christmas on the beach.

    Perhaps it is the prospect of the cold and dreary months of January and February that makes the lights and music and good cheer of a northern winter Christmas so welcome and memorable.  The Christmas festivities play an important role in lifting the spirits when that is most needed.

    Barbecues and picnics in the sunshine, enjoyable as they are, don’t have quite the same buzz.  But there is one aspect of a New Zealand Christmas that never fails to please me – especially in the wonderful Bay of Plenty where I grew up.  I am always delighted to see the riot of colour when the pohutukawas blossom as Christmas approaches.  As we walk along our beach, the great trees that cling to and support the cliff faces are ablaze, and the tracks and roads are carpeted with red – and our own property boasts from every viewpoint centuries-old specimens of our own Christmas trees so that, truly, “every prospect pleases”.

    But, this year, that pleasure is tempered by the unwelcome realisation that “myrtle rust” might mean the demise of this spectacular witness to the Christmas spirit.  Like kauri die-back, this uninvited visitor from overseas threatens the survival of one of our most iconic species.

    Unlike the PSA outbreak that shook the foundation of our kiwi fruit industry, the incursion of myrtle rust does not seem to be attributable directly to human failings.  But all of these threats to our environment arise directly or indirectly from human intervention – and we are not just talking of plants and trees at risk, but of many of our birds and marine species as well; that should surely induce some serious consideration as to what aspects of human activity should be modified if we are to avoid irreversible damage to our natural environment.

    The first lesson we should learn is that it is the human need to move ourselves and our goods from one part of the globe to another that creates the risk.  We would probably not have to put up with myrtle rust or kauri die-back if the scourge had not been spread by humans.  This realisation should immediately impose an obligation to take more care than we currently do to avoid such blights.  At the very least, we are entitled to expect that our public services are adequately funded to provide the required protection.

    Saving money on biosecurity is surely a false economy and a short-sighted dereliction of duty.  As always, prevention is better and easier than cure, and our new government should immediately take the opportunity to make good the deficiencies in this respect of its predecessor.

    But there is a wider message as well.  It may not be possible to identify in every case precisely how and why diseases like myrtle rust, kauri die-back and PSA reached our shores, but we can be sure that these calamities occurred because human (usually economic) needs were thought to take priority over the survival of our environment and the species with which we share it.

    Our mindset has, in other words, been for far too long that “turning a buck” is the most important goal and will justify taking whatever risk is involved.   In this Christmas season, and while the pohutukawas still bloom, we have the chance to re-order our priorities.  What will it avail us to have more money in our pockets if the price we pay is that we live in an impoverished environment?

    We should all stop to think.  The fate of other species should not be relegated to the bottom of our priority list but should always be at the top of our minds.  The survival of our environment – its diversity, its integrity and inter-dependence, and, yes, its beauty – should not automatically take second place to the constant priority given to a single bottom line.

    Bryan Gould

    16 December 2017

     

     

     

     

  • Learning About Work

    The advent of November tells us that the year is nearing its end – and that means in turn that summer is about to arrive (if we are lucky) and that Christmas is just around the corner.  But it also brings another annual ritual – the end of the university year and the return of thousands of young people to Mum’s cooking and the other comforts of home.

    This annual migration often means the disruption of domestic calm, as large and noisy young men and women re-establish themselves temporarily in the bosom of a family that had adjusted to a quieter life without them.  And the end of academic pursuits for the year does not – nor should it – mean for those returning students the end of the learning process.

    For many homecoming students, the end of studies provides an opportunity, and means an obligation, to go out and get a (usually seasonal) job in their home town, in the hope of earning enough to cover their costs in the coming year – and that can offer a different kind of learning and instruction.

    In my own case, and even at a time when fees were not charged for a university education, it was  necessary to cover the cost of board and lodging.   For me, the long summer holiday at home meant getting a job in the local dairy factory.  Those months doing hard physical work taught me lessons that remain with me today.  I learnt about working with mates in a team, how important it was to earn respect by pulling your weight and how tough physical work can be.  And I learnt about the wider world and how milk powder, casein and butter were made, and gained an insight into what lay behind one of our most important export industries.

    I learnt, too, about the dangers of working with powerful machinery.  While I was working at the dairy factory, one workmate was killed and another was seriously injured.  The fatal accident occurred when a workmate was steam-hosing the interior of a large steel vat which had originally been bought to make casein and was equipped with a large beater; it was however being used for the time being to store milk, and therefore had to be cleaned each day.  One day, someone carelessly pushed a starter button on the wall with the result that the beater started whirring while my mate was inside.

    These lessons were a valuable adjunct to what I was studying at university and could not have been available to me if I had not had to work my way through university.  Perhaps the most important aspect of my education in this respect was what it taught me about my fellow-citizens.  I learnt about how those of my contemporaries who were not at university but were earning a living looked at life and how they went about dealing with the obstacles in their path.  This was knowledge I could never have acquired, from within “the groves of Academe”.  It was knowledge that has greatly affected the way I look – even today – at contemporary New Zealand.

    In a country that is, it seems, increasingly polarised between those fortunate enough to gain qualifications that open the door to a comfortable life, and those on the other hand who survive by “the sweat of their brow”, it is salutary for the former to understand the problems that face the latter.

    I have sometimes heard the scornful comments of motorists as they drive past a gang of workers doing road repairs and notice someone “leaning on a shovel”.  I wonder how many of those making such comments have actually spent a day on physical labour?

    It is an important factor in building an integrated society that we should each have some insight into what life is actually like for our fellow-citizens and that we should each give proper value to the efforts made by others.  The annual rite of the “summer job” is not only essential in financial terms for the students involved, but helps us all to share life’s experiences.  Long may it continue.

    Bryan Gould

    19 November 2017