Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2010



OZ on SPARROWS  – We haven’t seen any house sparrows in our garden for exactly a year now. I know this from reviewing our quarterly reports to the British Trust for Ornithology. It’s part of a general decline in sparrow numbers and no one knows the reasons. In eastern England the fall has been over 90% in 30 years with London alone losing 75% between 1994 and 2000, while nationally numbers have fallen by over 60% in 25 years. Some years ago the government set up an official inquiry, and a national newspaper promised a reward for discovering the causes. Both campaigns seem now to have fizzled out. Explanations for the birds’ demise included the usual rogues such as cats and sparrowhawks, unlikely to be guilty in view of the huge numbers involved, and some new suspects such as additives in unleaded petrol, and mobile phones that are alleged to interfere with sparrows’ nervous systems. One of the more plausible theories concerns the effect of pesticides on the availability of insects, particularly spiders, for feeding young sparrows. Another problem arises from the loss of nesting sites as urban areas are tidied and developed using modern techniques and synthetic materials that exclude breeding sparrows. However, it is by now obvious that there are no simple answers. Passer domesticus is in decline across the whole world, from the Americas to Europe, India and the Far East. The problem is global and the research has now become global. In this country the work is undertaken by the universities, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). So here’s a suggestion for a New Year’s resolution. Join Garden BirdWatch and record your own observations at BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford IP24 2PU.  ‘Phone 01842 750050. Website:


OZ on PEPYS - Samuel Pepys started writing his famous diary 350 years ago. The first line said simply: “Jan 1st 1660. This morning (we living lately in the garret,) I rose, put on my suit with great skirts, having not lately worn any other clothes but them.” He then described visiting Gunning’s chapel and dining at home with Mrs P, followed by “looking over my accounts” and “to my father’s.” At the time, the 27-year old Pepys was very poor and had just started working for Sir Edward Montagu. In spring 1660 Pepys accompanied Montagu to Holland to bring Charles II back from exile. On their return Montagu was made 1st Earl of Sandwich, and Pepys gained a secure position on the Navy Board as Clerk of the King’s Ships. Pepys proved a very successful administrator, so good that his work was often hampered by his superiors’ failings, and he was soon promoted to Surveyor-General of the Victualling Office. During this period Pepys continued to write a daily diary, remarkable not only for first-hand accounts of major events, such as the Restoration, the Second Dutch War, the Great Plague and the Great Fire, but also for the minutiae of everyday life in London. In May 1669 Pepys suddenly ended the diary because he feared, incorrectly, that his eyesight was failing, and in November his wife died. Pepys sought comfort in yet more work, as Secretary to the Admiralty, Master of Trinity House and Member of Parliament for various constituencies. This part of his career was sabotaged by unproven assertions of Jacobitism from political opponents, and he retired to Clapham in 1701, where he died in 1703. Fellow-diarist John Evelyn, in his own diary, remembered this “particular friend” of 40 years as “a very great cherisher of learned men.”


OZ on WORST WINTERS  This winter’s snowfall will be remembered as the “worst since” 1947, 1963 or 1980, depending on your age, “worst” meaning longest persistence of snow over the whole country. “Worst winters” usually start just before Christmas and end just before Easter, with heaviest falls in January and February. Between December 1946 and March 1947, snow fell somewhere in this country every day, constantly deepening in freezing temperatures. My brother and I enjoyed a wonderful February as our father was unemployed and helped us build many large snowmen. In June 1947 small patches of ice still survived on Deal beach under the seawall, where the sun didn’t reach. December 1962 to March 1963 was similar, but very much colder. Beakers of water froze on the bedside table in our unheated cottage, and wild birds fell frozen from hedges, making easy prey for cats. New Year 1980 was less clear, being unpleasant in Dover, but variable in intensity and duration over the remainder of the country, so not really a “worst winter”. It was in fact the first of a series of bad winters in the early 1980s that occurred coincidentally alongside climate warming elsewhere. People are already saying that this year’s “worst winter proves beyond doubt that there’s no such thing as global warming.” I wish it were that simple. I wrote here in December 2000 that “if global warming melts the northern ice-cap, the release of fresh water into the North Sea will halt the Gulf Stream in its tracks, leading to another Ice Age, at least over Northern Europe.” That’s still a possibility, as the Millennium Bug and Swine Flu once were. Perhaps the current furore over the Himalayan glaciers will lead to a bit more honesty and humility on both sides of the debate.


OZ on PALAVERY – Twenty years ago, in another life, I worked with a talented and eccentric bridge engineer. Alex was of Polish ancestry and shared my love of literature and language. One day he burst into the site office where we worked, beaming with excitement. “I’ve just found an amazing word,” he cried, “can you guess what it means?” The word was ‘sesquipedalian’, and it describes both long words and the people that use them, so that the word ‘sesquipedalian’ itself and its user can each in turn be described as ‘sesquipedalian’. The word is derived from the Latin phrase sesquipedalia verba, meaning ‘words one and a half feet long’, coined by the Roman poet Horace in The Art of Poetry, first published in 18BC. The word now makes a welcome appearance in Foyle’s Palavery and Foyle’s Further Palavery, published by Chambers in 2008 in an attractive boxed set. The books, subtitled ‘A treasury of unusual words’ and laid out as a dictionary, were compiled by Christopher Foyle, chairman of the world-famous Foyle’s Book Shop in London’s Charing Cross Road. He started collecting in 1990, after hearing the Gulf War General Schwarzkopf describe worthless information as ‘bovine scatology.’ The word ‘palavery’ was shamelessly fabricated from ‘palaver’ by Christopher’s mother-in law, ‘a demon at Scrabble’, during a particularly aggressive game. I wonder if Christopher ever suffered from ‘pentheraphobia – an abnormal fear of one’s mother-in-law’? Another word that we really need every day is ‘apocolocynotosis – the process of being turned into a pumpkin.’ There must be a phobia associated with this but I have yet to find it. I hope that Alex, wherever he is now, received Foyle’s Palavery from a kind relative at Christmas as I did, and remembers the fun we once had with ‘sesquipedalian’ and the like. (Steve Osborn)

May - Because of a family bereavement OZ did not write an article.


OZ on @ – The interval round of a recent Wine and Wisdom evening required teams to identify thirty logos and symbols. My muttered ‘ampersand’ for @ was gleefully rejected by team-mates, as that is the name of &. We finally settled for ‘at sign', annoyed that perhaps we'd missed something. ‘At’ or ‘at sign’ were indeed the allowed answers, and another team's appeal, that @ was also called 'asperand', was dismissed on the usual grounds that the quiz-master is always right. A Google Search later revealed that @ is often named ‘asperand’ in computing circles, but the term is still too new and rare to feature in the major dictionaries. It is thought that the symbol @ comes from the Norman French à meaning ‘at’, and that mediaeval monks joined the tail of the ‘a’ to the backward-sloping accent to avoid taking their pens off the page. It was used extensively in accountancy to denote ‘at the rate of’ and was part of the standard typewriter keyboard from 1885 onwards. This long association with commerce gave rise to other names for @ such as the Spanish-Portuguese ‘arroba’, from a unit of weight, and Italian ‘amphora’, a unit of volume. Another internet search found 54 names for @ world-wide, the most common being ‘monkey-tail’ in various languages. ‘Snail’ is also a popular name, giving rise to ‘chiocciola’ in Italy and ‘malwen’ in Wales. Among other charming names are the Danish ‘snabel-a’ meaning ‘elephant's trunk-a’ and the Israeli ‘shtrudel’ meaning ‘strudel’. The American programmer Ray Tomlinson first introduced the @ sign to email technology in 1971 to distinguish between different computers. By 2004 the internet was so widespread that the symbol @ was added to Morse code as A and C run together, and called ‘commat’. Who’d be a quiz-master?  (Steve Osborn)


OZ on CHARTERHOUSE – “It was all new to me”, agreed our party of eight seventy-somethings after visiting Charterhouse, in London’s East End. We travelled from Dover on the new Javelin train, twice as fast as cars on the adjacent M2, a new experience for many of us, and arrived 67 minutes later at the refurbished St Pancras station. A tube to the Barbican and a short walk found us at the gates of Charterhouse. Originally it was a field, owned by St Bartholomew’s Hospital since 1123, and acquired in 1349 for burying Black Death victims. In 1371 surplus land was released for the establishment of a Carthusian monastery, ‘Carthusian’ deriving from Chartreuse, French birthplace of the Order, and anglicised as ‘Charterhouse.’  In 1537 rebel monks were horribly executed at Tyburn, when the monastery was seized by Henry VIII and given to Lord North who turned it into a Tudor mansion. In 1611 Thomas Sutton, England’s wealthiest commoner at the time, bought the mansion and converted it into Charterhouse School and an old men’s almshouse. The school moved in 1872 and was replaced by Merchant Taylors’ School, which stayed until 1933. The school site is now occupied by Barts Hospital and some London University medical colleges. However the almshouse remains and is occupied by forty ‘brothers’, who must be: aged between 60 and 80; male; ‘unencumbered’; and healthy on admission. This list caused gleeful but mysteriously enigmatic smiles in us all. After an organ recital in the chapel and a cup of tea we walked to St Paul’s for choral evensong before braving the rush-hour tube back to St Pancras. The Javelin again excelled itself on the return journey, reaching Dover in 60 minutes, just in time for one of the ladies to attend a committee meeting, poor thing.


OZ on SPANGLISH – The World Cup Football series seems to have cemented the recent and close friendship between England and Spain. When our daughter married, six years ago this month, the groom’s Spanish family stayed with us. The happy couple were largely bilingual, but we four parents had to learn quickly how best to deploy the little we each knew of the other language. After the prepared opening gambits of “Hola, mi amigo!” and “Como estas?” we improvised throughout dinner with “passer el pepper, por favour”, “soy sixty-four años” and “I’m mucho full-up”, agreeing over coffee that we had invented a new language called “Spanglish”. Little did we know that the term had already been used, in the late 1940s, by Salvador Tió, a Puerto Rican linguist. Serious Spanglish occurs in populations whose mother tongue differs from that of the host country, such as Hispanics in the US and British in Argentina. It reduces the total number of available words by selecting the most-used or shorter alternative, so that ‘park (the car)’ becomes ‘parquea’, not ‘estaciona’, and ‘so’ is used instead of ‘porque’ for ‘therefore’. Spanglish is also spoken by computer-users who have never set foot outside Spain, when they ‘deletean’ a mistake instead of ‘borran’ it, or ‘dragean’ a file rather than ‘arrastran’ it. Some words and phrases, in both languages, are so readily accessible to the other language, that they need no Spanglishment.  For example, after the above dinner we walked in Kearsney Abbey, where model boats were buzzing around the lake. “Ah, los barcos miniaturos!” declared el Spanish padre, which delighted me with its clear and perfect imagery. Salvador Tió also coined the term ‘Inglañol’ as the Spanish word for ‘Spanglish’. I prefer ‘Espanglese’. It sounds like the word that Peter Sellers would have used.  

September - Oz did not write an article


OZ on NIGHTINGALES – This has been a memorable year for 70th anniversaries of key Second World War events such as Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. One lesser event, but equally important for national morale, was the birth of the song A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, first performed by Judy Campbell on 11 April 1940 in the revue New Faces at London’s Comedy Theatre. It’s a wonderful and magical song, the title of which was criticised by Cocker and Mabey in Birds Brittanica on the grounds that the bird was “extinct there as a breeding species.” But that misses the point, as Judy also sang that “There were angels dining at the Ritz”, the angels and the nightingale proving that “That certain night, the night we met / There was magic abroad in the air.” Cocker and Mabey go on to discuss the nightingale’s song and its formidable technique comprising “250 different phrases compiled from a repertoire of 600 basic sound-units.” These phrases combine in continually varying ways so that each song is complete but never repeated. Amongst bird-lovers, debate rages over the finest songbird; nightingale, blackbird or song thrush. Whilst loving the thrush’s dawn chorus and the blackbird’s all-day in-your-face chortling, we’ve always favoured the nightingale, so shy and territorial that simply finding it is an adventure. Our successful searches took us to tips, dumps and the interiors of several woods, sometimes at midnight. After a particularly tuneful trip to East Blean Woods in 1992, my late wife tried to convey her enthusiasm to her class. After the lesson a seven-year old lad complained that “You’re a snob – you go into the woods at night to listen to birds.” Last year at Dungeness RSPB, she met him again, a pleasant young man with binoculars and a bird book. (Steve Osborn)


OZ on ARMISTICE DAY – This autumn, as Remembrance Sunday neared, I wondered if Armistice Day 1940, following the first full year of war, had been in any way unusual. The main change in this country had already been made in 1939, when the two-minute silence was moved to the Sunday closest to 11th November so as not to interfere with wartime production when Armistice Day was a weekday. Beyond that the day was little different from those of the previous 22 years. The US was not yet in the war, but suffered a great disaster when the ‘Armistice Day Blizzard’ struck. Warm wet air from the Gulf of Mexico collided with freezing Arctic air over the Midwest, resulting in a 2-day blizzard, with snowfalls of 27 inches, winds of 80mph and 20-foot snowdrifts, and causing 154 deaths, including 49 duck-hunters who were not dressed for the weather. In Paris the day was marked by the first public demonstration against German occupation when a large crowd of students marched down the Champs-Elysée, singing the Marseillaise and chanting ‘de Gaulle!’ The Nazis arrested 123 demonstrators and closed the university for a month. The protest, although unsuccessful, did much to encourage resistance in France. Finally, on the night of Armistice Day 1940, the British launched the first ever aircraft carrier strike, against the Italian Navy at Taranto. The carrier Illustrious, heading a huge task force, launched 21 Fairey Swordfish bombers firing adapted torpedoes, and wrecked all the ships in the harbour, including three battleships. Italy never again threatened the British supply routes to Africa. After the war most Armistice Day events were moved to the nearest Sunday and commemorated both World Wars. The change was made in many Commonwealth countries as well as the UK, and the new commemoration was named Remembrance Day (or Sunday).


OZ on SPROUTS – Since my wife died in April, I’ve been learning how to live alone whilst doing the work of two, as the house and garden haven’t grown any smaller.  The trickiest part was shopping and cooking for one so as to maintain a varied diet without overstocking the fridge.  My daughter Catherine recognized this early on and set up a website called Culinary Capers for the Suddenly Single, that also welcomes “articles on any related subject ... nutrition, retirement, bereavement etc.” My contribution this month will probably deal with cooking the much maligned sprout. The Brussels sprout (Brassica oleracea) has grown in north-west Europe for some 800 years, and its ancestors for even longer in Asia and southern Europe. Just lately, I’ve been eating sprouts on most days as I like them, they’re green and easy to cook. It’s also the sprout season now, from August to March, although it seems that they’re always at their best, like sloes in sloe gin, after the first hard frost.  They’re remarkable vegetables, jam-packed with health-giving organic chemicals including sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, both having marked anti-cancer properties.  However, if sprouts are overcooked, they release glucosinolate sinigrin, another anti-cancer compound, but with a sulphurous taste and smell that people dislike. For this reason, and to avoid loss of beneficial compounds, cooks recommend boiling or steaming sprouts for no more than six minutes, and tossing in a pan with melted butter or oil just before serving.  Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is a sprout enthusiast and shows on his website at what can be achieved, with recipes such as Brussels Sprout Salad, and Creamed Brussels Sprouts with Bacon, along with other seasonal ideas.  You can find Catherine’s website, see my sprouts contribution there and maybe add something of your own at: 


OZ on MANDELBROT – I learnt only recently that one of my heroes, the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, had died in Massachusetts last October. Benoît was born in Warsaw in 1924 to an academic Jewish Lithuanian family who in 1936 fled to Paris as political refugees. After years of study in Tulle, Lyons and Paris, Benoît mastered in aeronautics at California in 1949 and gained a doctorate in mathematics at Paris in 1952. He married Aliette Kagan in 1955 and the couple moved to New York in 1958, where Benoît joined IBM and stayed for the next 35 years. He worked on a huge range of problems in mathematics, especially in economics, biology, fluid dynamics, information theory and astronomy. The work that brought him most fame was the theory of ‘fractals’ that was found to explain many dynamic systems, from natural growth processes to economic theories. It’s a difficult concept to explain in words. Indeed Mandelbrot once said “people would run a mile from my papers, but they could not run from my pictures.”  I’ll resist the temptation to insert a picture here, but please follow these instructions carefully. Draw a large equilateral triangle. On the middle third of each side of the triangle, draw another equilateral triangle. There are now 12 edges in the diagram. Repeat the process until the triangles become too small to draw. You now have a snowflake curve, one of the earliest fractals, discovered by von Koch in 1904. There are thousands more fractals to see on the internet. In recent years, Mandelbrot’s theories on the stock market were often misunderstood, sometimes ignored, as when he advised in 2004 that “financial risks are much underestimated.” Why is he one of my heroes? Simply because of the many happy hours I spent at work doodling fractals.