32 hours

Harry Potter arrived in our house around 10am on Saturday, and by 6pm Sunday my better half had finished it. Now I know what you’re thinking, and it’s true; that is a long time. We had to go to my father’s for a birthday party, which really cut into her available time. The verdict? It’s good, apart from a bit near the end that she didn’t really get, so she’s going to read it again.

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Gay and So Gay

I was reading a couple of articles on the Out Front Blog, one covering the difference in acceptability between the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’, the other protesting the use of the word gay to mean lame or rubbish.

This set off a couple of trains of thought, neither of which have arrived at the station, but I thought I’d start to explore them here. The first was in the display of minor hypocrisy involved in these arguments. They argue that the clinical ‘homosexual’ should be replaced with the colloquial ‘gay’, which is a word repurposed from its previous meaning of cheery or lighthearted, while at the same time arguing that ‘gay’ shouldn’t be repurposed to mean lame.

There’s clearly a difference here. One is taking something meant as an insult and turning it into a badge of pride (no pun intended), while the other is an ugly reversal of that. But there’s also something unsettling about a group deciding that it owns the meaning of a word, for good or bad, and that it can stop others doing what it did.

The second, related, train of thought (can trains be related?) is just how the word gay could be repurposed. A sitcom gag I rather enjoy is when a white guy tries ineptly to do something we might think of as traditionally ‘black’ (dunk a basketball, dance, be hip) and mutters “Oh man, I am so white” to his friend. Note that I just said “be hip”; I too am so white. Now I think that’s funny, but it’s predicated on recognizing a stereotyped difference between two groups. There’s a reason stereotypes exist (because there is some difference), but there’s also a reason we call them stereotypes (because they overextend that difference in some way).

The same is, or at least could be, true of the word gay. In particular I’m thinking of the phrase ‘so gay’. For example, watch the (very amusing) appearance of John Barrowman on Never Mind The Buzzcocks. When trying to think of adjectives to describe Barrowman in the show, ‘so gay’ would be near the top, along with likable and funny. But again, it rests on an assumption of differences; Barrowman is gay, but that doesn’t mean that his mannerisms are in some way required of gay people, or that someone couldn’t have those mannerisms and be straight. Given that, I wonder if ‘so gay’ would be acceptable to the Out Front writers and community at large; it’s not overtly an insult, but inevitably has a suggestion of one behind it.

Disclaimer: This is a discussion about language, not about sexual preference; I don’t think that being gay is good/bad/right/wrong any more than I think being left-handed or blonde or tall is one of those things.

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In which your shut-in author writes to the BBC when his pedant juices come to boiling point:


I was reading your piece on the latest supercomputer, and was a little disappointed to read the following:

“The latest number cruncher is capable of operating at so called “petaflop” speeds – the equivalent of 1,000 trillion calculations per second.”

There are two problems with this one sentence. The first is that the OED defines ‘so called’ as “commonly called or designated by the name or term specified, often incorrectly” An excellent use is to describe the so called War on Terror, because that is how our current situation is called, whether it is a justified title or not.

By contrast the speed of supercomputers is actually measured in flops, and at the moment the fastest use the larger unit of petaflops. They aren’t ‘so called’ petaflops any more than my house is 13 so called miles from Southampton; Southampton actually is that far from my home, and Blue Gene/P actually does operate at petaflop speed.

A second, lesser point: A petaflop isn’t the “equivalent” of 1,000 trillion calculations per second, it actually is 1,000 trillion calculations per second. A mile isn’t the equivalent of 1,760 yards; that’s what it actually is.

I understand that you have to skim some details to maintain user interest (not mentioning the type of calculation that gives a flop its name, for example), but if there’s one thing the BBC should always be able to do, it’s to use words and sentences at least as well as I do.

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