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Iridescent irises

I recently began reading The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, first published in 1954. Early on, Jenkins describes a character’s dark eyes, and where I would use the word ‘irises’, Jenkins used the word ‘irids’:

Her skin had the warm whiteness of marble in sunlight, her eyes were so dark the irids were indistinguishable from the pupils; the whites were a pale blue.

Why have I never seen or heard the word ‘irids’ before? Where did it come from? Why don’t we use it anymore?

To the OED!

As it turns out, the distinction between the words is not massively clear: as you’d guess, they share an etymology.

Certainly, ‘iris’ is more common than ‘irid’ these days, though some people prefer ‘irides’—with that extra ‘e’—as a plural form rather than ‘irises’. Indeed, ‘irides’ is listed in the 1900 OED as the preferred plural. There are two iris-related adjectives listed in the OED, both of which prefer a ‘d’ over an ‘s’: ‘iridal’ and ‘iridic’.

Comparing the frequency of usage of ‘irid’ and ‘iris’ is complicated by the fact that ‘irid’ is specific to the structure in the eye and the genus of plants, whereas ‘iris’ can also refer to the Greek goddess, a shape of crystal, and an asteroid—among other things.

One of the other things that can be described as an ‘iris’ is a rainbow. You might think you’ve never heard of this usage, but you probably have—just with a ‘d’ form of the word. The much more common word ‘iridescent’ is used to describe items that show many different colours when seen from different angles. ‘Iridescent’ is an adjective related to ‘iris’ in its ‘rainbow’ sense.

The preference for ‘iris’ as the anatomical term seems to have followed the standardisation of terms as medical publishing became a thing: Gray’s Anatomy has consistently used ‘iris’ since its first publication in 1858, and most textbooks—and latterly medical journals—followed suit. As medical science advanced rapidly in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a strong push towards the standardisation of medical terms to ensure clear communication between medical professionals: see also the virtually total replacement of ‘apoplexy’ with ‘stroke’, of ‘consumption’ with ‘tuberculosis’, and of ‘dropsy’ to ‘oedema’.

Curiously, though, ‘irid’ was already pretty uncommon by the time Jenkins’s novel was published: its frequency of usage was similar to today’s. It was, however, much closer to its peak fifty years earlier, when Jenkins would have been growing up—so perhaps it was lodged in her lexis.

Perhaps in a similar way, I sometimes get teased for using certain words in medical notes: ‘don’ and ‘summarily’ are two examples. Both are words whose usage has collapsed since the decade when I was born, but which seem like perfectly ordinary, everyday words to me. As it happens, both were also less common in the 1950s than in the 1980s: the popularity of words can rise as well as fall.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , .

‘Earth’ by John Boyne

Earth is the second (and latest) book in Boyne’s promised quartet of novels themed around the elements. I read the first in the series, Water, last month.

You may recall that Water focused on Willow Hale, a woman who moves to a remote Irish island as she spends time coming to terms with the collapse of her family life. Earth picks up a few years later, and is narrated by Evan Keogh, a young island resident who was a relatively minor character in Water.

At the start of Earth, Keogh is a professional footballer, on trial as an accessory to the rape of a young woman allegedly committed by one of his teammates. As with Water, we gradually come to learn more about Keogh’s life story and the abuse he has suffered in his past, including while coming to terms with his sexuality. We also, of course, follow the progress of the trial while learning about the truth of the events the trial considers. Many of the revelations about Keogh’s background hark back to events described in Water, in a way that makes me look forward to re-reading the whole of the quartet at some point in the future.

As is Boyne’s usual style, his characters are all damaged, complete and emotionally complex. Often, Boyne’s plots are ridiculously implausible (and that’s certainly the case here), but he’s an author for whom that doesn’t matter. In Boyne’s novels, the plot merely serves as a background to character development, it is not the focus of the work. It is a little like opera in that sense.

Earth felt like a more direct novel than Water. In Water, most of the abuse is at one remove from the main characters who are reacting to it. In Earth, the narrator himself is both a victim and a perpetrator. This makes it a slightly harder read in some senses, but overall, I found that I enjoyed it slightly more than the first novel in the series.

The themes explored in Water and Earth were very similar: the long-term effects of abuse, pricking consciences, and the difficulty of reconciling public perception with reality. Boyne’s storytelling ability made the stories feel completely different, but I’m nervous as to whether he can pull that off twice more.

I look forward to finding out: Fire, the next in the series, is due to be released in November.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

Orpheus never left the underworld

On Tuesday, the incomparable Diamond Geezer compared Transport for London’s 2004 plans for their network to the 2024 reality. He concluded:

The map may not have happened in full but a goodly proportion of it eventually did, delivering better transport links for all.

I thought I’d undertake a similar exercise for my home region—North East England—and see how we fared.

In 2002, with much fanfare, the regional public transport executive Nexus published a £1.5bn ‘visionary’ public transport plan, dubbed Project Orpheus. This was to combine light rail expansion in the region with the re-introduction of trams and the construction of a cable car on Gateshead’s quayside. By 2018, the map was supposed to look like this:

So, how much of the 2002 ‘vision’ actually happened? How much fell by the wayside? How much of it happened later than planned?

I’d go through proposal-by-proposal in the style of Diamond Geezer, but it’s not worth it: none of the proposed extensions to the network happened; all of it fell by the wayside. As DG says, ‘all that really matters is what got built’—and none of it did.

Which isn’t to say we got nothing: we’ve had two new infill stations at Northumberland Park (2005) and Simonside (2008), refurbishment of many stations and rebuilding of Haymarket (2009), North Shields (2012), South Shields (2019) and Sunderland (2024). Several single line sections have been converted to dual running, the train shed has been completely rebuilt, and a new communications system has made live tracking available in an app.

We’re also due to get new Metrocars to trundle around the Metro track, maybe sometime later this year, only a decade-and-a-half after the end of the design life of the existing fleet (which is, erm, falling apart to such an extent that timetables have been cut to run the service with few working trains—and even with that mitigation, punctuality fell to its lowest ever level).

Unlike London, we might not have received even a fraction of what was promised, but we have had hundreds of millions of pounds of investment… and that’s an awful lot more than some other places have got.

This post was filed under: Travel, , .

Summer showers

This post was filed under: Photos, .

Bullshit engine

In the FT Weekend, Tim Harford recently played with the latest version of ChatGPT and concluded that:

large language models can be phenomenal bullshit engines. The difficulty here is that the bullshit is so terribly plausible. We have seen falsehoods before, and errors, and goodness knows we have seen fluent bluffers. But this? This is something new.

It made me reflect on the types of, erm, lexical nonsense I come across in my day-to-day life.

The kind I find most irritating by far is deliberately obfuscatory language. I recently received an email referring to a ‘pathogen agnostic enabling technology’ and wondered why on Earth someone would write that: I didn’t understand what it meant, I’m fairly certain that most other readers didn’t either, and I’ve a strong suspicion that the author would also be unable to concisely define it. They were hiding their lack of understanding—or perhaps their inability to describe something clearly and concisely—behind a jargon phrase.

Yet, from a reader’s perspective, the advantage of this sort of word salad is that it’s clearly visible: it telegraphs a lack of understanding up front.

Perhaps I really ought to be more exercised about plausible rubbish: the sort of stuff whose clarity of expression lulls one into a false sense of assurance, from which the logical leaps are harder to spot. That seems far more insidious.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , .

‘The Tent, the Bucket and Me’ by Emma Kennedy

My sister bought this memoir for me, commenting that the tales of camping holidays in the UK and France in the 1970s would remind me of our childhood—though I must immediately clarify that, as the youngest sibling, the 1970s predate my arrival!

The book did, however, bring back memories. It was funny: there were anecdotes that made me laugh out loud, and also reminded me of situations in which we’d found ourselves.

Kennedy spins a good yarn: there aren’t many writers who can eke out pages of humour and tension from getting lost when driving in France, for example. She has real storytelling skill.

By the end, though, I began to struggle: it did feel a little strung out and perhaps a touch repetitive to me. To sustain its length, I would have preferred it to be a little more grounded in growth or self-reflection, or perhaps to have a little more variety of mood or depth of characterisation.

But I nevertheless enjoyed this. It was very nostalgic, and I would never have come across this book by other means, so that makes it a great present.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

Three bridges

Here are three bridges crossing the Ouseburn.

Nearest to the camera is the Ouseburn Viaduct, which carries the East Coast Mainline. It was built of timber in 1839, and rebuilt in iron thirty years later. When I took a photo of it twelve years ago, it was undergoing an extensive restoration.

Furthest from the camera is the 1878 Byker Bridge, originally a toll bridge—though the charge was removed in 1895. It carries the road now designated the A193.

In the middle is the newest of the three, Arup’s much-celebrated 1970s curving concrete Byker Viaduct, with joints glued together. It carries the Tyne & Wear Metro between Manors and Byker.

Though people assume he was born in Denmark, Arup’s founder, Ove Arup, was in fact born a stone’s throw from the bridge in Heaton. He was born in 1895: closer in time to the construction of the two preceding bridges than the one his firm designed. He had retired by the time the firm took on the Byker Viaduct project.

This post was filed under: Photos, , , .

‘Shooting yourself in the head’

Yesterday, I read Emilio Casalicchio’s excellent Politico article which gave a glimpse into the Conservative’s election campaign. I was struck by the line ‘launching the first attack by shooting yourself in the head doesn’t look so clever’.

But I was even more struck by the notion that the campaign had been led by a headstrong small team, which neither sought nor responded to external feedback. This is redolent of the flaws of Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign.

Perhaps responding well to feedback counterintuitively conflicts with the egotism necessary to seek public office. Perhaps this is only exacerbated for those seeking the top office in an era of ‘strongman leadership’.

It was certainly true that Sunak’s public response to even a hint of public criticism during the campaign was primarily defensive: he did not give the impression of being curious to better understand the alternative viewpoint, let alone to change course in response to it. It’s not like he’s alone; this behaviour is common.

Over the years, I’ve read quite a lot about the skill of constructively receiving feedback. I don’t think it is something that comes naturally to anyone, but it is a skill that’s particularly well-developed among people that I admire. Getting better at it has certainly been useful for me and has helped my professional development.

I recently read one of Arthur C Brooks’s articles in The Atlantic covering this topic, too. I enjoyed his observation that ‘once you depersonalize criticism, you can start to see it for what it is: a rare glimpse into what outsiders think.’

This is both blindingly obvious and yet also often missed: it’s easy to get too caught up in judging the person who wrote the comment or perhaps being defensive. But taking feedback exactly as it is offered—as in, this person thought X—can be radically helpful. One doesn’t need to agree with the other person’s viewpoint, but having knowledge of it can nevertheless be extremely useful.

After reading Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book Thanks for the Feedback a few years ago, I added a link in my work email signature which gives people the opportunity to offer anonymous feedback. This has served me very well, giving me lots of opportunities to reflect and develop my understanding of others’ viewpoints. Philippa Perry’s book also offered some useful insights into contextualising and using feedback in a personal (as opposed to professional) context.

I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if people were better equipped to receive criticism—politics would certainly be better for it. Failing to make use of feedback feels a bit like ‘shooting yourself in the head.’

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , , , , , , , , .

Tall pines

This post was filed under: Photos, , .

A Labour landslide

I wrote the other day about the effect on Britain of the last fourteen years. But politics is personal too.

When David Cameron became the first Conservative Prime Minister of the twenty-first century, Keir Starmer had been Director of Public Prosecutions for less than two years. He surely cannot have imagined that he’d be the next Labour Prime Minister. And yet here we are.

And yet, it must surely feel daunting. The New York Times yesterday talked about him inheriting a ‘legacy of ashes’, while Le Monde talked of ‘creaking public services and a flatlining economy’.

On top of that, he’s got a unsupportive press looking to land every possible blow, and an insurgent Reform party primed to cause as much political instability as they can muster.

It’s a tough old job he’s got on his hands, and I don’t envy him.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , .

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