Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2013



OZ on DATES  –  Last Christmas I chuckled over a beautifully drawn cartoon in a family history magazine, depicting a man wearing a Father Christmas hat and seated in an armchair, and reading from a long scroll the words “ uncle was born on the 2nd April 1910...”. The man’s wife is wearily explaining to the guests “I asked him to get some dates for Christmas.” I was reminded of this today when I sat down to write an OZ story, and noticed that the date was 12/12/12, a ‘special date’ of a type that only occurs twelve times in each century, the next being 01/01/01 in 2101. There are reports of a huge increase across the country in marriages planned for 12/12/12, including many couples who want the vows said on the 12th second of the 12th minute of the 12th hour of that day. Maybe as you read this, we’ll know the final figures. The BBC added that the date 09/09/09 had been particularly prized as a marriage date for couples working in the emergency services. Interviewed by the BBC, Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, and President of the Mathematical Association, said that he thought that the desire to marry on 12/12/12 shows that “people have mathematical minds”, because they love to find pattern in numbers There are many other classes of ‘special dates’, such as double dates, palindromes, square root dates and so on, far too many to deal with here, so I’ll try to deal with them as they come up in 2013. For as Marcus du Sautoy said in his interview: “We are all incredibly lucky to be living in this 12-year period because it's pretty fallow after that.”, and I think that 2013 is the final year of this magical 12-year period.


OZ on PHENOLOGY UPDATE – Stuck for a theme this month, I looked back ten years to my February 2003 story on phenology, which I had defined informally as ‘the study of organisms as affected by climate, using the dates of seasonal phenomena such as opening of flowers or arrival of migrant birds.’ The article went on to discuss the history of phenology and in particular the work of the UK Phenology Network, a partnership between research biologist Tim Sparks of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, at Cambridge, and the Woodland Trust. It was here that I realised that an update was needed, as so much progress has been made in the last ten years in recording and evaluating results. Between 1998 and 2003 the number of observers rose, from 74 to 18,600. Now, just ten years later, over 50,000 people, both amateurs and professionals, are involved. The Nature’s Calendar Survey combines observations with historical records, providing a database of over 2 million records from the UK since the 1600s. Members are not required to be experts as the Nature’s Calendar team provides free assistance, identification booklets and recording forms. If preferred, members may record their observations online. The team may be contacted online at naturescalendar or at Woodland Trust, Kempton Way, NG31 6LL, or by ‘phoning 01476 584878. Phenology is a pleasant activity that I recommend unreservedly, not least because it is totally unstressful. There is no pressure to tick every, or indeed any, boxes on the recording form, as all that matters is the anonymous aggregate of entries. I am in fact returning to it now after a lapse of three years when my personal circumstances were disrupted. My first entry this year? A catkin near the A4 on the way home from Berkshire on 12 January.


OZ on TRANSLATION – Every Boxing Day, I hibernate with the most enticing book received, and devour it very quickly, often within a day or two. This year was very different. It took the whole of Christmas week followed by a week in Malta for me to digest Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. The content of the book is much more difficult than the jokey title might suggest, and is described perfectly by its subtitle The Amazing Adventure of Translation. Bellos is Princeton professor in the fields both of Translation and French Literature, and is best known as an authority on, and translator of, the works of the French writer Georges Perec. He explains for general readers all the problems and complexities of translation, by writing some 400 pages in 32 short chapters, each containing a huge amount of information and humour, with titles such as “Meaning is No Simple Thing” and “The Myth of Literal Translation.” The latter title highlights the problems involved in translation when there isn’t an equivalent word in the other language. The “100 Eskimo  words for snow” story is now exploded as a myth, but the fact remains that in Russian, there are words for “light blue” and “dark blue”, but not for “blue”, while some languages have no word at all for ‘left’ or ‘right.’ Bellos concludes with an optimistic epilogue, asserting that we should see translation as civilizing rather than divisive, adding that “Languages merge when people do.” It took me a while to decode the main title, which derives from Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where the mythical Babel fish, stuck in the ear, gives instant and perfect translation. It’s an unlikely development, comments Bellos, while acknowledging the impressive achievements of some web-based translation tools. 


OZ on PARAPROSDOKIAN – An amusing email, currently doing the rounds, concerns the word ‘paraprosdokian’, meaning a phrase that ends in a surprising way, such as ‘Where there’s a will I want to be in it’ and describing the derivation  of the word from the Greek ‘para prosdokia’, meaning ‘beyond expectation. I immediately thought “What a lovely topic for Alkham readers.” But guess what? Neither the word, nor its derivation, appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. The Canadian writer Bill Casselman has exploded the myth on his website “Words of the World” at He considered the term to be ungrammatical and contrived, invented recently by an American professor, then lazily copied by other academics using the internet. In the discussion that followed, according to another authority at , Casselman reluctantly agreed that the word ‘paraprosdokians’ was used in an 1891 edition of Punch magazine, but he maintained defiantly that “educated people call them ‘sentences with surprise endings.’ ” I think the word will be accepted soon in the OED, as it’s in such common usage now on the internet due to the controversy, and a word is needed as the examples are so funny. Winston Churchill was an expert coiner of these phrases, describing Clement Atlee as ‘a modest man, who has much to be modest about’, and declaring that "You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else.” The writer “Saki” (H H Munro) wrote of a cook who was “good as cooks go, and as cooks go she went." Finally, Groucho Marx once told an unresponsive audience "I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it." While you’re searching for more examples, I’ll email the OED to see if they plan to accept the word soon.


OZ on LICKBARROW – Ever since my wife died, in April 2010, my children and I have chosen a poem each anniversary to remember and celebrate her, the April theme serving also to symbolize Spring, rebirth, and hope. Last month, I began toying with the idea of compiling an anthology of such poems; perhaps entitled April Showers, maybe with the added words Make May Flowers. In so doing I came across some lines from 200 years ago titled Written in May, 1813, describing a distinctly ‘stormy May.’ They were written by a little-known poet, Isabella Lickbarrow, born in Kendal in November 1784, the eldest of four daughters of James Lickbarrow, a Quaker school-teacher. When Isabella was five, her mother died, and the girls were raised partly by a great-aunt, while James taught them Latin, Greek and French. After James died, a huge burden fell on 20-year old Isabella as she laboured constantly to fend for herself and her sisters. Isabella had always written poems privately, and in 1811 she began publishing them in the Westmoreland Advertiser. By 1814, the poems had become so popular that the paper published Poetical Effusions, her first book, to instant acclaim. For the rest of her life, Isabella never really achieved sufficient time and money to publish further, and she died in 1846, worn-out and ill, at the age of 62. Poetical Effusions was republished by the Wordsworth Trust in July 2004 after being out of print for many years. Now it’s out of print again, and I’m hoping that it will be republished next year on the 10th anniversary of the Wordsworth edition and the 200th anniversary of the first edition. I could then see whether Isabella has, for inclusion in my anthology of optimism, any happy alternatives to “Sad dirges for thy blasted charm.”


OZ on MANWOOD – As I write this, on 9 May 2013, Sir Roger Manwood’s School, in Sandwich, is celebrating its 450th anniversary. Tonight’s event is a lecture by historian Dr David Starkey entitled ‘Would Manwood be happy with Manwood’s today?’ I’m sure there’ll be much about the history of the school, but I’m hoping that Starkey will reveal more about Manwood the man, whose nature remains surprisingly elusive for one so powerful and influential. Roger was born in 1532, the second son of Thomas and Catherine Manwood of Sandwich. He was educated at Thomas Ellis’s grammar school in Sandwich, trained as a barrister at the Inner Temple, and was called to the bar in 1553. Over the next few years, Roger worked hard in East Kent, as Sandwich Recorder and Counsel to the Cinque Ports, both of which he combined with being the MP for Sandwich continuously from 1558 to 1572. Roger moved from Sandwich in 1563 after being given the huge Hackington estate, near Canterbury, by Queen Elizabeth 1. After working as a circuit judge for many years, Roger was appointed Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer in 1578 and served Queen Elizabeth I until his death in 1592. Sir Roger presented two faces to the world. On the one hand, he was a stern judge, awarding harsh sentences such as fines for skipping church and tongue removal for disloyalty to the Queen. On the other hand, he was a very generous benefactor, as when he helped the poor by providing free education in Sir Roger Manwood’s School, free meals at his house, and building the Hackington almshouses. Some of Roger’s words on big business still resonate today, describing “...corporations that were invisible, immortal and had no soul, therefore no subpoena lieth against them, because they have no conscience...”


OZ’s daughter writes - June 8th this year saw the centenary of the death of Emily Davison, from injuries she received running out in front of the King’s horse at Epsom, and it’s an important anniversary that doesn’t deserve to pass unnoticed. She may not have intended to kill herself, and there’s still some debate about whether her actions helped or harmed the women’s suffrage movement, but her death was a significant milestone, nonetheless. Many people believe that women achieved suffrage in 1918 but that’s only partially true; because of the heavy losses we sustained in WWI, women would have significantly outnumbered men at the polling stations, and that would never have done. So suffrage was limited to women over 30 with property – in their own right or by marriage. Women didn’t achieve full suffrage until 1928. One hundred years on, and the question is not so much, “Am I allowed to vote?” as “Can I be bothered?” And that’s pretty understandable. This may not be the political landscape the Suffragettes envisaged us voting in, but we are still lucky enough to have the vote, and that right was won for us with blood, sweat and tears. That’s why I was delighted when my friend, a newly elected councillor, told me that all the election candidates have to gather round to hear the spoilt papers read out. I once wrote a diatribe on mine, and I hope that even if I failed to shame the candidates, I at least bored them to tears. Staying at home achieves little; it just gives the politicians the mandate to do as they please, knowing they’ll hear nothing more than a whimper in return. If you can’t decide who to vote for, spoil your paper! And take pleasure in knowing the candidates will, quite literally, have to listen. Catherine del Campo


OZ on COCKCHAFERS – The late arrival of summer this year has already disrupted the natural calendar, from the absence of ladybirds in May to the widespread cancellation of rose shows in mid-June. Another such delay emerged at the start of June when my son-in-law reported seeing his first cockchafer this year. These beetles usually appear at the end of April and live throughout May, giving them the alternative name of ‘Maybug’ (not to be confused with the Stag Beetle, also known as May Bug.) Other names in English are ‘billy witch’, ‘mitchamador’, or ‘spang beetle’, while my son-in-law’s Spanish family know it as ‘obejorro.’ The Latin name is Melolontha melolontha, meaning ‘apple tree blossom’, perhaps one of the beetle’s foods, although the acknowledged favourite is oak leaves. Cockchafer means in Middle English ‘little man who gnaws’ and they certainly do, swarming round trees and bushes as they devour the leaves. The larvae, known as ‘chafer grubs’, are equally voracious, eating the roots of potatoes and similar crops. Cockchafers are present right across Europe, and over the centuries various attempts were made to control their numbers. In mediaeval times the only method available was direct physical destruction of adult beetles so as to break the reproductive cycle. Remarkably, in France in 1320, cockchafers (‘hannetons’ over there) were put on trial and ordered to move to a designated area. When they ‘refused’ they were rounded up and executed. In other countries, cockchafers were simply cooked and eaten. In 20th century Europe, pesticides were very effective in controlling numbers, to the extent that the cockchafer neared extinction in some areas. However, over the last 40 years pesticides have given way to biological remedies and numbers are once again increasing. I think it’s time to dig out the recipe for sugar-coated cockchafers.


OZ on OGBURN – Many years ago, just before I retired from an authority undergoing continual reorganization, downsizing and outsourcing in preparation for privatization, we kept our morale high by circulating subversive comments and/or pinning them on staff notice boards. One such read as follows: “We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”  This quotation was attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter (27AD – 66 AD), a Roman writer and courtier during the reign of Nero. As it seemed to strike such a chord with us from nearly 2,000 years ago a colleague invited me to verify its source. Over the last fifteen years I discovered that the Petronius attribution was widely regarded as a spoof, but found no evidence of the true author. The other day, I Googled it again for old time’s sake, and Wikipedia came up with the answer. Charlton Ogburn, Jr. (1911-1998), was an American writer and journalist who joined military intelligence in World War II, became a captain, and worked for the US State Department after the war. In 1957 he wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine entitled Merrill’s Marauders, a first-hand account of the Burma Campaign, that contained the ‘Petronius’ lines, presumably commenting on the military hierarchy. Harper then gave him a contract for the book The Marauders, published in 1959, allowing him to be a full-time writer. Amongst other things, Ogburn was an authority on Oxfordian Theory, but surely now is the time for his name to be attached to the glorious ‘Petronius’ quotation.


OZ on INDIAN SUMMER – On 2 September the Met Office announced that the weather during June, July and August made 2013 one of Britain’s top ten summers since records began in 1910. This, combined with the summer’s late start and continuation into September, has caused much talk of an ‘Indian summer.’ It’s a misnomer so far, as ‘Indian summer’ refers properly to a prolonged warm spell only after the first sharp frosts, usually between October and November. All my life I’ve assumed that the term ‘Indian summer’ originated in the Anglo-Indian sub-continent, and it was only when I couldn’t find it in my Hobson-Jobson that I looked further afield. It comes in fact from North America, and is thought to describe the ideal warm conditions in autumn when native American Indians preferred to hunt. The first reference to it in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1794, when E Denny wrote in his journal “Oct 13th. – Pleasant weather. The Indian summer here.” In English-speaking countries the previous names for this season were ‘St Martin’s Summer’, ‘St Luke’s Summer’, or ‘All Halloween Summer.’ In Welsh, it is ‘Haf Bach Mihangel’ meaning ‘St Michael’s Little Summer.’ Across Western Europe, the names are generally translations of the above four saints, while in Eastern Europe they are variant translations of ‘Old Ladies’ Summer’ or ‘Gypsy Christmas.’ China has probably the most vivid name of ‘qiu laohu’ meaning ‘tiger in autumn.’ Hot autumn weather can occur with the remains of Atlantic hurricanes bringing warmth from the tropics towards us, as is happening now, but predicting Indian summers is not easy and we may still be surprised one way or the other. As Grace Metalious said in her notorious 1956 novel Peyton Place “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle.” Steve Osborn


OZ on FRUIT FLIES – For weeks now I’ve suffered ever-increasing swarms of tiny flies, and at times have blamed myself for sloppy kitchen hygiene. That may well be part of the cause, but I was relieved to discover that the problem has been shared with the whole country in this year’s wild weather extremes. It seems that the cold spring, high summer temperatures and heavy autumn rain have created the ideal conditions for these busy little creatures. They feed on fermenting fruit, and the importance of this is reflected in their scientific name, Drosophila malanogaster, from the Greek for ‘dark-bellied dew lover’ (drosia = dew, philia = love, malano = dark-coloured, gaster = belly). Beware confusion with three other insects called ‘fruit fly’: Asian Fruit Fly (Drosophila suzukii); Olive Fruit Fly (Bactrocera oleae); and Mediterranean Fruit Fly (Ceratitis capitata).  Our Common Fruit Fly, Drosophila malanogaster, has a complete life cycle of seven days, and so has produced many generations this year, time which has been spent feeding on fruit, vegetables, wine dregs, both indoors and outside, and latterly on compost heaps, wet from the autumn rains. They are extremely athletic creatures, flapping their wings at over 220 beats per second and capable of rotating 90 degrees in less than 1/40 of a second. Fruit flies live in a close symbiotic relationship with humans and, amazingly, share 75% of human disease genes. For this reason they are used extensively nowadays in medical research into aging, immunity, diabetes and cancer, amongst other conditions. People often seek ways of destroying fruit flies, and it seems that the most reliable method is beer traps, as I recommended in this column many years ago for wasps. But why kill friendly recycling relatives? Just keep the kitchen clean and enjoy their company - outdoors! 


OZ on FIRST CROSSWORD - FUN’S Word-Cross Puzzle

This month sees a very special anniversary for word-lovers; the 100th birthday of the first crossword puzzle. Its inventor, Arthur Wynne, was born in Liverpool in 1871, and emigrated to the US in 1890. He lived and worked first in Pittsburg as a journalist, also playing violin in the city orchestra, and then moved to New Jersey to work for the paper New York World.  Instructed to devise a new game for the entertainments pages he compiled a puzzle called ‘Word-Cross’, published in the Sunday 21 December 1913 paper. It was an instant hit, and, renamed ‘crossword’, led to a national craze in the USA, causing some alarm about ‘time-wasting’ and then arriving here in 1922. So why not have a go at the first one  - see it on-line?