How many ‘backstops’ will it take to Brexit?

Fielders behind the wicket were first called ‘back-stops’ in the 19th century, but is the EU’s backstop plan just not cricket?

Brexit this week has been all about the “backstop”, and whether the backstop needs a backstop, though no one yet has suggested the elegant solution of giving the second backstop its own backstop, and so on to an infinite series of backstops, the contemplation of which will unite the UK and EU in awestruck comity. But what, pray, is a backstop?

The term comes from cricket: from 1819 you could say “back-stop” instead of “long-stop” for a fielder placed behind the wicketkeeper to stop the ball at the back. From there the term spread to baseball, and then shooting: a backstop was a pile of earth behind the target to stop stray bullets, of the kind hardline Brexiters wouldn’t mind seeing flying anew. The Irish backstop, too, is ...

‘Tipping point’: the point of no return for global warming

Climatologists are warning of a series of ‘tipping points’ that could have catastrophic consequences for life on Earth. Their description is more apt than we may realise

Scientists this week warned that the latest IPCC report on global warming could be underestimating the impact of “tipping points”, such as the loss of polar ice caps, which might lead to “runaway warming”. A tipping point is the point at which nothing is the same again. The idea became famous with Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 eponymous book, which informed excited readers that the tipping point of fax machine usage was the year 1987. But what exactly is being tipped?

If you have in mind the image of something toppling over, you are not wrong. In the 1890s, the tipping point was the point beyond which a listing ship could no longer right itself, or the point at which – in a machine proposed ...

Have You Eaten Grandma? by Gyles Brandreth review – good grammar, with jokes

The former Conservative MP has written an entertaining guide to how to write properly, with an anecdote about the Queen’s loo breaks thrown in

It beggars belief today, but Gyles Brandreth comes from a near-mythical time when a media-friendly MP could also be an intelligent and literate person with a broad cultural hinterland. Now the colourfully sweatered stalwart of Countdown and organiser of the first British Scrabble championships has bounded ebulliently into the rich market for books about how to write proper. Naturally, I took up my mechanical pencil and prepared to festoon the margins with proofreading marks.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. It is almost an iron law that writers who tell other people how to write, from Lynne Truss to Simon Heffer, will as often as not get things technically wrong and break their own rules. It happens only very rarely here: I counted a ...

‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’ by Geoff Dyer review – on Where Eagles Dare

A mini-celebration of the cult film has some funny and brilliant sentences about Clint Eastwood and his fellow heroes destined for a Nazi castle in the Alps

During the filming of Where Eagles Dare, Richard Burton was apparently putting away four bottles of vodka a day, and at one point went awol on a Paris drinking binge with Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris. For his part, sensible Clint Eastwood kept asking for fewer lines, and had to be reminded by the director not to twirl his pistol before holstering it, as they weren’t making a western. Yet somehow the two men make one of the greatest double acts in adventure movies. One the sozzled Shakespearean tale-spinner, the other all lethal feline efficiency.

Geoff Dyer’s micro-book on this film he loved as a child is a curious literary artefact, a sort of printed director’s commentary, though not by the director, ...

If Labour takes us back to square one on Brexit – what would that mean?

What exactly does the phrase ‘square one’ mean? And is it always bad?

This week Keir Starmer said that, if there is a second EU referendum, “nobody is ruling out remain as an option”. Aghast, Conservative chairman Brandon Lewis tweeted that “Labour would take us back to square one on Brexit”. But what exactly is square one, anyway?

One theory attributed the phrase to the old division of a football pitch, in radio commentary, into eight numbered squares. But the OED thinks board games are the most likely source.

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Against Creativity by Oli Mould review – the dullest of jobs is now ‘creative’

A stimulating study argues that the language of creativity in government and business is all too often a cover for austerity and corporate intrusion into our daily lives

Are you a member of the “creative classes”? You might be if you do something that vaguely involves ideas or images, and aspire to live in a warehouse-style apartment next to an artisan coffee shop and pop-up gallery. But what’s so wrong with that? Reader, I sat in a hipster cafe in London’s East End and prepared to find out.

The book’s beginning is wobbly, as it tries to show that the very idea of creativity was invented by modern capitalism. In his day, Shakespeare would not have been thought a genius but a mere “craftsman” or “wordsmith”, Oli Mould claims. This would have come as a surprise to Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson, who called him “the star of poets”, and one ...

Arabic, algae and AI: the truth about ‘algorithms’

The modern use of algorithms to predict human behaviour feels sinister, but they are older and more human than we might imagine

Local councils, we learned this week, are now using “algorithms” to try to predict which children might be at risk. In popular rhetoric, algorithms are scary artificial intelligence mini-brains, the newfangled way to say that computers will take over the world. But what exactly are they?

The word sounds hi-tech, but in fact it’s very old: imported into English, via French and Latin, from the name of the ninth-century Arab mathematician al-Khwarizmi. Originally algorithm simply meant what is now called the “Arabic” system of numbers (including zero). Only later did it acquire the more specific sense in mathematics of a procedure or set of rules: a writer in 1811 called for an algorithm for establishing theorems.

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Are you merely a fan or are you a ‘stan’?

Today’s superfans are calling themselves stans, but this tasty bit of celeb-culture slang is already 18 years old

You may be a fan of Keanu Reeves, but what if you really, really love Keanu and can’t stop looking at the “Keanu Doing Things” account on Twitter, and don’t know how you will while away the time until John Wick 3? Maybe you are more than a fan – you are a “stan”.

This tasty bit of celeb-culture slang was mentioned in an article this week about the bullying and often misogynistic side of pop fandom, but it is already 18 years old. Owing to rhetorical inflation driven by overuse of the word “fan” (originally short for “fanatic”), we came to need a new word for particularly obsessive fanning. “Stan” boasts a retroactively imposed etymology (appropriately, “stalker” plus “fan”), but it was originally taken from the 2000 Eminem song of ...

A different kind of emission: the religious roots of ‘pollution’

The word may have initially been used to describe male wet dreams – but now there is no aspect of our environment that we are not intent on profaning

Air pollution in big cities, we learned this week, causes large reductions in intelligence, which is perhaps one good reason for moving Parliament out of London. Toxic air is a scientific and health issue, but the way we speak of it has religious roots.

“Pollution” comes from the Latin for the desecration of a sacred space, spiritual or moral corruption, or general filth. In the middle ages it was adopted in French for nocturnal emissions of the kind that emanated from sleeping male sinners. Nowadays, of course, we happily chuck all kinds of stuff into rivers, seas and the air, including warming carbon dioxide and NOx, or nitrogen oxides. Add noise pollution and light pollution, and it seems there is no ...

‘Truth isn’t truth’: so, is that true?

Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani has insisted that truth is not what it seems. Is the post-truth age just all about lies?

What is truth? According to Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, the one thing it isn’t is itself. “Truth isn’t truth,” he insisted during an interview. This would seem to imply that a post-truth age is simultaneously a post-untruth age, though lies haven’t yet vanished from the face of the planet.

For its first few centuries, “truth” meant loyalty or agreement (it shares its roots with “troth” and “truce”), and only later acquired the sense of conformity with reality. It is conceivable, then, that Giuliani was using the word in two senses at once, and what he really meant to say was that loyalty (to Trump) is not the same as being accurate about facts. Seems legit.

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From greenhouse to hothouse: the language of climate change

Feedback effects could spark irreversible global warming, says scientists. But what does the word ‘hothouse’ imply?

Scientists warned this week that feedback effects in global warming might tip the Earth into a “hothouse state”, recovery from which could be impossible, even by reductions in CO2 emissions. How frightened should we be about moving from a greenhouse to a hothouse?

The mechanism by which atmospheric gases warm the planet has been well understood since the 19th century. High CO2 levels early in the Earth’s history, wrote the geologist Thomas Sterry Hunt in 1867, had created the sort of climate that would have resulted if we “had covered the Earth with an immense dome of glass, had transformed it into a great orchid house”. The term “greenhouse effect” was coined in 1907.

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Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon review – can you escape your upbringing?

A virtuosic memoir of sexual awakening and of childhood within a French working class that now seems to have deserted the left

What has happened to the left? It’s a question being asked all over Europe, but is especially pertinent in Didier Eribon’s home country, France. In last year’s presidential election, the Socialist party candidate scored a dismal 6.2% in the first round of voting, while the Bernie Sanders-esque Jean-Luc Mélenchon (universally described as “hard left” or “far left”) was also beaten by Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Popular attachment to social democracy is seemingly in retreat almost everywhere.

In this brilliant little book, Eribon attempts to explain why, using his own experience as illustration. It is a memoir of his upbringing as a working-class boy in a family that lived in provincial public-housing estates, where everyone left school as soon as possible and worked in ...

Are ‘thinktanks’ as brainy as they sound?

The Institute of Economic Affairs has reportedly been acting as a lobbying organisation for powerful interests. Has the word ‘thinktank’ been drained of its original meaning?

Controversy erupted this week with reports that the Institute of Economic Affairs, a thinktank, offered access to government ministers in exchange for cash from its donors, whose identities it keeps secret. But why are such institutions called thinktanks rather than think-aquaria, or think-helicopters?

Thinktanks are now lobbying organisations camouflaged under a thin veneer of pseudo-academicism

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The Re-Origin of Species by Torill Kornfeldt review – bringing extinct animals back to life

The ‘de-extinction’ of vanished wild animals, from the woolly mammoth to the Pyrenean ibex, raises deep questions about our relationship to nature

It’s harder than you might think to make a dinosaur. In Jurassic Park they do it by extracting a full set of dinosaur DNA from a mosquito preserved in amber, and then cloning it. But DNA degrades over time, and to date none has been found in a prehistoric mosquito or a dinosaur fossil. The more realistic prospect is to take a live dinosaur you have lying around already: a bird. Modern birds are considered a surviving line of theropod dinosaurs, closely related to the T rex and velociraptor. (Just look at their feet: “theropod” means “beast-footed”.) By tinkering with how a bird embryo develops, you can silence some of its modern adaptations and let the older genetic instructions take over. Enterprising researchers have already made a ...

From anxiety to Zuckerberg: an A-Z of Brexit

Hard or soft, clean, dirty or frictionless? As the EU debate reaches boiling point, it’s time to take a closer look at its unique lexicon

The syndrome known as “Brexit anxiety” is now so common that a team of psychotherapists from the Existential Academy is offering free sessions to help people avoid “being sucked into a vortex of gloom and doom”. Unfortunately only continental Europeans living in the UK qualify, so the rest of us will just have to pretend we like living in a vortex.

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Is Donald Trump Putin’s ‘poodle’, or a different kind of political animal?

The US president is only the latest in a long line of politicians accused of being a lap dog

This week Donald Trump initially said he believed Vladimir Putin’s “strong” denial of interfering in the US election at their summit. Critics responded by saying he was now just “Putin’s poodle”. This seems to get the hairstyle wrong, but what’s so bad about poodles anyway?

A poodle (originally “poodle dog”) is so named from the German puddeln, to splash about in water: they were bred as hunting dogs to retrieve ducks. The use of “poodle” as a political insult seems to have been invented by David Lloyd George, who complained in 1907 that the House of Lords was the Tory leader’s poodle. “It fetches and carries for him. It barks for him. It bites anybody that he sets it on to.”

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Penal or nudist: what kind of ‘colony’ will Britain be in Boris Johnson’s Brexit vision?

The former foreign secretary said Britain was ‘truly headed for the status of colony’ if it followed Theresa May’s Brexit plan – but what does that mean?

So farewell, then, Boris Johnson, who this week resigned from the cabinet because the latest Brexit plan meant that “we are truly headed for the status of colony”. No one knows why this should have suddenly offended the principles of a man who once wrote that the “problem” with Africa was “not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.

A “colony” in English was originally just a farm: “colonia” in Latin was a farm or estate, but also a group of Roman citizens garrisoned in a newly conquered country; so “colony” came to mean a settlement by some country in another, regardless of the wishes of the existing inhabitants, as well as ...

May’s Brexit ‘dividend’ is imaginary – there is no Brackpot

Theresa May’s reference to a ‘dividend’ implies a mathematically precise calculation of how Brexit will boost NHS funding. In truth the sums don’t add up

This week Theresa May announced that she’ll spend more on the NHS because of the “Brexit dividend” (Brividend). Like a “jobs-first Brexit” or a unicorn, it’s a thing that’s entirely imaginary, since the likely loss of tax revenue due to slower growth after Brexit will more than offset the slightly more than 1% of the government budget we currently pay to the EU. Still, let us at least applaud May’s sobriety in not announcing a Brexit bonanza (Bronanza) or a Brexit jackpot (Brackpot).

Most apposite in today's political context is the sense of 'dividend' that means the proceeds from gambling

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The Inner Level review – how more equal societies reduce stress and improve wellbeing

The authors of the influential study The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, extend their exploration to individual health and happiness

In a recent episode of the TV drama Billions, the antihero Bobby Axelrod is talking to a rival hedge fund manager who is going to have to “close his shop”. “How much are you walking away with,” Axelrod asks. Forty million dollars, the guy says. And then Axelrod details for him all the expenses of his lifestyle, in excruciating detail, implying that $40m won’t be nearly enough. “You’re right,” the guy eventually says in shock. “I’m broke.”

You couldn’t ask for a better illustration of the truth that we feel rich or otherwise not according to any objective measure, but in comparison with how our peers are doing. And vast disparities of wealth in any society just make things worse. In their influential 2009 book The ...

Does the word ‘diversity’ really only have one meaning?

In her rant against Penguin Random House, Lionel Shriver claimed ‘diversity’ is no longer a general-purpose noun

The novelist Lionel Shriver was vexed this week about Penguin Random House’s new aim for its authors and staff “to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability”. This, Shriver wrote, was a publisher “drunk on virtue”. For good measure, she claimed the word “diversity” had been “effectively removed from the language as a general-purpose noun”. Really?

“Diversity” comes from the Latin for “facing both ways”, and “divers” or “diverse” in English has meant “various” since the 13th century. (Also “several” or “sundry”, and at one time “wicked” or “perverse”.) These days, of course, “diversity” can also mean a variety of ethnic, sexual and other identities.

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