Monday, 30 April 2007


Like millions of children the world over I was forced into studying Pythagoras and his familiar theorem of Euclidean geometry which states that in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the two opposite sides. Pythagoras' influence in the field of mathematics is undoubted and given my ineptitude in that particular field I shall say little more about it, what interests me about this ancient philosopher is how he inspired a form of mysticism as bizarre and influential as the Homeric poems. Quite little is known of his early life other than to say that he was born on the island of Samos around 532 B.C. and lived under the despotic rule of the tyrant Polycrates. He was a genuinely odd chap, Bertrand Russell described him as 'a combination of Einstein and Mrs Eddy'.

Pythagoras wrote on a number of fields from Mathematics and logic through to metaphysics and religion. It is important to remember that he came a couple of hundred years before Aristotle, the man who was responsible for the categorisation of different spheres of thought, physics, metaphysics and politics. Therefore the early, pre-Socratic philosophers wrote on anything and everything, they truly lived up to the etymology of the word; philo sophia, the love of knowledge.

Pythagoras was the St. Francis of his time in that he preached to the animals which is quite understandable when you understand that one of the central tenets of his religion (yes he began a religion) was the concept of the transmigration of souls, or metempsychosis for those of you who are familiar with Joyce's Ulysses. In his time Pythagoras' religion exerted considerable authority and became responsible for unusual rules, for instance:

  • One must always abstain from beans (not even Aristotle could understand this one, he mused that perhaps the reason Pythagoras ban their eating was that they looked like genitals.
  • One must not break bread or eat from a whole loaf.
  • One must not let Swallows share one's roof.
  • One must never look in a mirror besides a light (probably a sign of the general mathematicians fear of the concept of infinity).
  • On rising from bed one must smooth out the imprint that the body has left, etc...
There were some more progressive sides to his religion, for instance in his society men and women were considered equals. Property was held in common (Plato wrote a book on Pythagoras, now lost, perhaps he was inspiration for 'the Republic') and the advances made by that society were considered as a result of collective rather than individual achievement, I like him all the more already. Mathematics provide axiomatic truths and form the basis of our understanding of ourselves and the external world. There are elements in Newton's Principa mathematica which can be directly traced back to Pythagoras so he is one of the giants upon whose shoulders modern science stands, the fact that he was something of a loon makes him all the more endearing.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

All That's Left

I promised (or should I say threatened) in a previous post that I would discuss the word sinister and it is certainly a word that merits consideration. Anyone who has studied basic Italian will know that the Italian word 'sinistra' means 'left' and that belies the Latin origins of the word. Sinister, meaning 'giving the impression that something harmful or evil is happening or will happen' appeared with its current meaning in 'late Middle English' but it came from the Old French word 'sinistre' and the Latin word before it 'sinister' and as I hinted, it simply meant 'left', as in the direction.

The word took on its modern meaning in the Middle Ages and came about from the idea that the left side was unlucky and it is an idea that pervaded most cultures. When you spill salt you throw it with your right hand over your left shoulder and that came from the belief that you would blind the devil who perched there. There is also the superstition that if one gazes too long in the mirror that the Devil will appear, again on your left shoulder. In some different Arab cultures the left hand is the unclean hand and its use is forbidden for many practices. Also, let us not forget that in the Bible that God's favourites sit on his right hand, not his left.

In case there are any right-wing people out there who'd like to use this to deride your left-wing antagonists then I hate to disappoint but the left/right division in politics has a different etymology. It dates back to the French Revolution where the more liberal parliamentarians sat on the left side of the assembly chamber and the conservative members sat on the right; a tradition I understand which is still upheld in the French National Assembly. Whilst I'm on the Subject of French politics, vote Ségolène Royal on the 6th of May.

Friday, 27 April 2007

The Plants of Shakespeare

In the book 'Mouse or Rat?: Translation as Negotiation', Umberto Eco conducts an experiment to expose the shortcomings of Alta Vista's automatic translation tool, Babelfish. He took a phrase then, using Babelfish, translated it into Italian and then took the results and translated them back into English. For instance, the phrase 'The works of Shakespeare' becomes 'Gli impianiti di Shakespeare' which, when translated back into English became 'The plants of Shakespeare' (at least that was the result Umberto Eco got, I actually got 'The systems of Shakespeare').

The problem faced by such translation tools is that they cannot discern context. When you have a language such as English which is full of homonyms, context becomes essential for identifying meaning, therefore, when Babelfish conducts its lexicon comparing exercise quite often the wrong meanings are applied to homonyms and this is exaggerated further when additional languages are introduced, leading to some humorous results. Umberto Eco used a chapter from Genesis to prove his point, but to reserve some semblance of originality, I shall use a different text and shall instead give it the rather difficult challenge of the opening paragraph to James Joyce's Ulysses:

"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: Introibo ad altare dei. Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely: Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!"

I'll save you from the proceeding steps except to say that I first translated it from English to Dutch, from Dutch to French, from French to Greek and finally from Greek back into English and this was the result:

"Stately, myeloejde's Buck Mulligan they have come out stairhead that bol is reported foams in that they put a mirror and one crisscross scheermes. Dressinggown yellow, ungirdled, has been supported softly behind by generous air of morning. It has kept in the cover bol and intoned: The notice you raise the contralto National Electrical Company van Introibo. Orders, below stairs that I wrap sombre and grof it has detected it has called: Bol in the cover, Kinch! Bol in the cover, you horrible jesuit!"

For one last piece of online editing I put it through the fantastic Pornolize tool (which you can see at work in all its glory here on the official biography page for Tony Blair, watch out for the foul language though):

"Stately, myeloejde's Buck "Muffdiver" Mulligan they have come out stairhead that bol is reported foams in that they put a mirror and one crisscross scheermes. Dressinggown yellow, smacked, has been supported softly behind by gebangs air of cocksucking. It has kept in the cover bol and intoned: The notice you raise the contralto National "Bastard" Electrical Company van Introibo. Unclefucks, below thrusts that I wrap sombre and grof it has gangbanged it has blowed: Bol in the sex fighting cover, Kinch! Bol in the fingering cover, you horrible jesuit!"

The exercise certainly shows that Babelfish is no replacement for the careful and considered negotiation between a skilled translator and the original text, where faithfulness to the text does not require an exact word for word translation. But it also shows you how adept one can be to the art of procrastination.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Did Plato invent Communism?

I first read Plato's 'Republic' back in 2002 after being prompted by this wonderful person called Yasmin. Two things struck me about the book, the first was the Socratic dialogues at the beginning which blow the mind, the way he makes you question the basis upon which we rest our most deeply held beliefs is incredible and you can appreciate why someone who asked such penetrating questions would make enemies. The other is the question of communism.

I shall start, as I often do, by examining the etymology. The word 'communism' first appeared in the middle of the 19th Century in France in the form communisme and that probably came from the Old French word commun (meaning common) and from the Latin before it with communis. I think I'm right in saying that there is no equivalent word in Ancient Greek so if Plato did invent the concept of communism, he certainly did not create the word. Since we are talking about a utopian belief, that is a word which is also worth considering, especially since Sir Thomas More's treatise 'Utopia' is also touted as a possible birth of communism. Thomas More's usage of the word utopia seems to be the first in English and it comes from Late Latin and from the Greek words before it, ou + topos, literally meaning 'no place' which seems rather apt given the subject.

So, word histories aside, you might be wondering what is it that makes me draw the comparison. In the 'Republic', Plato argued for a Commonwealth, a society in which the community would take responsibility over many of the social aspects of life, from the provision of education and healthcare to the ownership and distribution of property. Almost everything was to be held in communal ownership, including children (who were to be taken away from their parents and cared for and educated by guardians) and women (although I'm not too sure I understand the specifics about the communal ownership of women so it's probably best to gloss over that aspect of his philosophy).

There are, however, some caveats to examine. Plato's utopia of community ownership did not apply to everyone in his society, but was reserved to his 'guardian class'. There is another, almost sinister (now, the word sinister has a fascinating history but I shall write about that some other time as I can see eyes begin to droop) aspect to Plato's philosophy. It is clear from his words that his political philosophy was not one that he believed the masses would necessarily choose, and that didn't particularly bother him. Plato believed in the idea of a elite ruling class. He envisioned philosopher-kings who would be enlightened rulers and act in the interests of his people, even if they did not agree that their actions would be in their interests. In other words, Plato's social system would be enforced on its populous and his guardians would be the police force which has to be the precursor to despotism and authoritarian rule.

I don't know enough about early Ancient Greek scholars to argue conclusively that Plato did invent the concept of communism, but it is certainly true to say that some of the ideas that exist in his 'Republic' have helped form that school of political philosophy. Plato seems to be a great example of someone who has exhibited such an extreme belief that he is neither communist nor fascist, but displays elements of both and it is true; when you go so far off one end of the spectrum, you end up on the opposite side.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007


Today I have decided to talk about Diarrhoea , well not the unfortunate phenomenon that is a rather unpleasant bowel movement but rather the word. Diarrhoea in British English, or diarrhea in America English (well, they do always like to be contrary) is a lovely, almost onomatopoeic word. As you would imagine its etymology is Ancient Greek and literally meant through-flowing. The Germans have a fantastic word for that particular anal effluence which is 'durchwahl' which literally translates to throughfull. From the original Greek word you get the suffix 'rhein' which entered archaic German as 'Rhine' after which the river is named, a name which means that which flows.

There is something lego-esque about Ancient Greek in that words are all made up of their component prefixes and suffixes, if you understand the basic components; the language's atoms if you will, then the molecule-like words become intelligible to you even if you have never come across them. Understanding the ancient languages is like cracking the genome of modern language, surely a worthwhile exercise.