Sunday, December 07, 2008

Happy? Spread it around

Dec 6, 2008
Happy? Spread it around
According to the study, geography can affect happiness: if you have a friend who becomes happy and lives within a mile (1.6 km), it will increase your likelihood of being happy by 25 per cent. -- PHOTO: INTERNET

LONDON - HAPPINESS is infectious and can 'ripple' through social groups such as family and friends - but work colleagues are apparently immune to each other's moods, according to a study published on Friday.

The effect creates 'clusters' of happy and unhappy people, both socially and in geographical terms, said the study, stressing that contentment 'is not merely the province of isolated individuals'.

But while the mood of neighbours and friends can have more impact on people than that of live-in partners, work colleagues are not affected by a happy person in their midst, said the study in the British Medical Journal.

'Changes in individual happiness can ripple through social networks and generate large scale structure in the network, giving rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals,' said the study's authors.

'Most important from our perspective is the recognition that people are embedded in social networks and that the health and well-being of one person affects the health and well-being of others.

'Human happiness is not merely the province of isolated individuals,' added the study, by Professor Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School and Professor James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego.

According to the study, geography can affect happiness: if you have a friend who becomes happy and lives within a mile (1.6 km), it will increase your likelihood of being happy by 25 per cent.

They found that live-in partners who become happy increase the likelihood of their partner being happy by 8 per cent; happy siblings living nearby boost joy levels by 14 per cent, and neighbours by 34 per cent.

'Work colleagues did not affect happiness levels, suggesting that social context may curtail the spread of emotional states,' said the study.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Professor Andrew Steptoe of University College, London and Professor Ana Diez Roux of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, called it 'groundbreaking'.

'If happiness is indeed transmitted through social connections, it could indirectly contribute to the social transmission of health, and has serious implications for the design of policies and interventions,' they said.

The study was based on research involving 5,124 adults aged 21-70, followed between 1971 and 2003.

To assess happiness they were asked to agree or disagree with four statements: 'I felt hopeful about the future', 'I was happy', 'I enjoyed life', 'I felt that I was just as good as other people'.

Happiness was defined as a maximum positive agreement with all four statements. -- AFP

Friday, November 07, 2008

Monsoon link to fall of dynasties

Page last updated at 20:58 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Monsoon link to fall of dynasties

Wanxiang Cave, China
The record came from a stalagmite found in Wanxiang Cave, China

The demise of some of China's ruling dynasties may have been linked to changes in the strength of monsoon rains, a new study suggests.

The findings come from 1,800-year record of the Asian monsoon preserved in a stalagmite from a Chinese cave.

Weak - and therefore dry - monsoon periods coincided with the demise of the Tang, Yuan and Ming imperial dynasties, the scientists said.

A US-Chinese team report their work in the journal Science.

Stalagmites are largely made up of calcium carbonate, which precipitates from groundwater dripping from the ceiling of a cave.

Chemical analysis of a 118mm-long stalagmite from Wangxiang Cave, in Gansu province, north-west China, told the history of strong and weak cycles in the monsoon - the rains that water crops to feed millions of people in Asia.

It also shows that, over the last 50 years, greenhouse gases and aerosols have taken over from natural variability to become the dominant influence on the monsoon.

Death of dynasties

Small variations in the forms, or isotopes, of the stalagmite's oxygen composition reflected variations in rainfall near the cave.

Proportions of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium in the deposit allowed the researchers to date the stalagmite layers to within an average of two-and-a-half years.

Stalagmite sample (AAAS/Science)
The stalagmite grew continuously from 190AD to 2003
By comparing the rain record with Chinese historical records, Pingzhong Zhang of Lanzhou University in China, and colleagues, found three out of five "multi-century" dynasties - the Tang, the Yuan and the Ming - ended after several decades of weaker summer monsoons with drier conditions.

"Summer monsoon winds originate in the Indian Ocean and sweep into China," said Hai Cheng, co-author from the University of Minnesota, US.

"When the summer monsoon is stronger, it pushes farther north-west into China."

These moisture-laden winds bring rain necessary for cultivating rice. But when the monsoon is weak, the rains stall farther south and east, depriving northern and western parts of China of summer rains.

This could have led to poor rice harvests and civil unrest, the researchers speculate.

"Whereas other factors would certainly have affected these chapters of Chinese cultural history, our correlations suggest that climate played a key role," the researchers write in Science.

But a weak monsoon could also be linked to changes further afield. The researchers say a dry period between 850AD and 940AD coincides not only with the decline of the Chinese Tang dynasty but also with the fall of the Mayan civilization in America.

Human influence

Subsequent strengthening of the monsoon may have contributed to the rapid increase in rice cultivation, a dramatic increase in population and general stability at the beginning of China's Northern Song Dynasty.

The monsoon record also matched up nicely with the advance and retreat of Swiss glaciers.

Scientists say the natural archive shows that climate change can have devastating effects on local populations - even when this change is mild when averaged across the globe.

In the cave record, the monsoon followed trends in solar activity over many centuries, suggesting the Sun played an important role in the variability of this weather system.

To a lesser extent, it also followed northern hemisphere temperatures on a millennial and centennial scale. As temperatures went up, the monsoon became stronger and, as they dropped, it weakened.

However, over the last 50 years, this relationship has switched. The researchers attribute this to the influence of greenhouse gas emissions and sulphate aerosols released by human activities.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Helping the dying with living

Nov 5, 2008
Helping the dying with living
Instead of discussing euthanasia, the focus should be on helping terminally ill live with less pain, says expert
By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent
Dr Shaw with Ms Joyce Neo Soh Hoon, 54, at St Joseph's Home and Hospice. Communicating with the dying can be taught and learnt, Dr Shaw believes. Often, what doctors need to do is simply to listen. -- ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
Dr Rosalie Shaw, 70, is executive director of the Asia Pacific Hospice Palliative Care Network, which helps develop services for the terminally ill in Asia. She is also a consultant at the National Cancer Centre and a visiting consultant at the KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

EUTHANASIA is the wrong conversation to have in a nation concerned with dying with dignity.

The focus instead should be on care - how to help the terminally ill live with less pain, says Dr Rosalie Shaw, a palliative care specialist who has helped hundreds here live out their last days over the past 16 years.

'Euthanasia is not about allowing the terminally ill to die with dignity and without distress,' asserts the Australian, who moved to Singapore from Perth in 1992 to help set up hospice care here. 'That is what palliative care does. Instead, it is an act with the intention to kill.'

As a consultant at the National Cancer Centre and visiting consultant at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, she tends to the terminally ill. As executive director of the Asia Pacific Hospice Palliative Care Network, she helps train doctors and nurses in end-of-life care all over Asia.

Weighing in on the euthanasia debate, which was sparked off here when Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan raised the issue last month in response to letters on euthanasia in the Chinese press, she says most terminally ill people do not really want to die.

Yet, once every few months, a patient asks her for help to end it all. 'When people ask to die, what they really mean is, 'Do you know how difficult this is?',' she says.

The plea is usually a cry for help. 'As their bodies break down, they hope that they will not linger long, but they don't expect doctors to do anything but listen.'

Her zeal in opposing euthanasia resonates with that of Catholic Archbishop Nicholas Chia who last weekend called on his flock, including Catholic doctors, to reject euthanasia.

Dr Shaw declines to discuss her religion, saying it is a 'private matter'. The grounds on which she opposes euthanasia are both professional and personal, she says. As a doctor taught to heal or cure, the 'intent to kill' is anathema.

Listening to hundreds of terminally ill people has taught her that the wish to die is not always due to physical pain. Very often, distress is made more acute by mental turmoil - caused by social isolation, depression, anxiety or sorrow.

Dr Shaw has distilled 16 years' worth of experience caring for the dying here into a book, Soft Sift In An Hourglass, now available in book stores.

It offers haunting portraits of how different people face the inevitable.

There is the unmarried violin player dying of bowel cancer, still in love with the married man she spent one weekend with 30 years earlier.

There is the frail housewife with two young children, angry at leaving the world before her time.

'The book is not meant to be didactic,' she says. 'It merely opens windows into issues we must all confront some day.'

While no two people face death exactly the same way, she has noticed broad similarities.

Such as how the dying often lose their appetite as their organs shut down, yet their families continue to force-feed them in the hope that they will recover.

And how some embrace religion before death, hoping for a miraculous recovery, but feel let down by God as death closes in on them anyway.

Often, those who have the hardest time accepting death are successful men in their 50s and 60s 'who seem surprised that wealth cannot buy health'.

In general, she has found that most people cling to life, rather than want to end it.

Studies bear this out. One by Melbourne University's palliative care professor David Kissane examined cases of seven cancer patients who had sought euthanasia when the practice was made legal for eight months between 1996 and 1997 in Australia's Northern Territory.

'It showed that some people asked for euthanasia not because death was imminent, but because they found life intolerable,' she says.

Singapore, she says, should not be taking a short cut and legalising this form of killing. 'A society that allows euthanasia devalues life,' she maintains.

Sanctioning it could pressure the elderly and terminally ill to want to end their lives. They may feel compelled to 'shuffle off' so they do not become burdens to society.

It could lead society down a slippery slope to involuntary euthanasia, where others make such choices for patients no longer able to decide for themselves. The Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legal since 1984, has reported many cases of involuntary euthanasia.

Dr Shaw warns that doctors may also be inclined to take the easy way out when they are unable to control difficult symptoms. And families may make decisions on behalf of patients who are unconscious or have dementia.

What Singapore should work on instead, she feels, is improving end-of-life care.

Currently, home hospice services reach nearly three in four cancer patients here. But for non-cancer patients, such care is limited. Only about one in four patients who died last year had subsidised hospice care.

The network of home care services for the elderly is also limited. Both need to be broadened.

Back home in Victoria, Dr Shaw's father had heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and prostate cancer. Yet he lived alone. His meals were brought to him and his home was cleaned by state-subsidised home care professionals.

'He loved the people who came. We need more of that here,' she says.

Keeping the elderly out of hospitals and nursing homes would not only make them happier, but could be cheaper too.

At the same time, doctors need to be better trained both in how to control symptoms such as pain, and how to help the gravely ill face death.

Often, young doctors are reluctant to discuss openly with patients how little time they have left.

'They interpret death from their own perspective,' she says. 'Because they are not ready, they feel their patients may not be.'

During a training course she conducted, a young doctor asked how he could avoid lying to his patients.

Dr Shaw's reply: 'Often, what is required is not for doctors to talk but to listen.'

Communicating with the dying is an art which can be taught and learnt, she believes.

Some doctors ramp up treatments during their patients' last days, even though it is futile, because they do not know any other way to help. 'They don't have the heart to explain how ineffective the treatment is likely to be.'

But explaining that, and stopping the treatment, may prove liberating.

Just last week, one of her patients was told by a cancer specialist that she had reached a stage where neither chemotherapy nor radiation was likely to work.

'It was like a cloud of confusion had lifted. Now she knew what to do - go home, eat just what she wanted and enjoy life,' said Dr Shaw.

Not all patients, however, like to discuss death or say their last goodbyes. Dr Shaw's own mother, who died of heart disease in 1991, was reticent till the end.

'When I asked her how she was feeling, she said she did not want to talk about it. But she was prepared and had sorted out all her drawers. We have to be sensitive to what patients want.'

Either way, listening is key.

When a patient in great pain asked for help to end her life some years ago, Dr Shaw asked why.

The woman revealed that she had never told her husband - or anyone else - that their child was actually fathered by another man.

'All I did was listen. All she did was cry,' Dr Shaw recalls. 'And the pain just melted away.'

The woman died three days later, unburdened and at peace.

TV shows link to teen pregnancies

Page last updated at 09:53 GMT, Tuesday, 4 November 2008

TV shows link to teen pregnancies

Sex and the City
Shows like Sex and the City were linked to teen pregnancies

Teenage girls who watch a lot of TV shows with a high sexual content are twice as likely to become pregnant, according to a study.

Boys watching similar programmes, like Friends and Sex and the City, were also more likely to get a girl pregnant, the research in Pediatrics found.

The study authors said limiting exposure to sexual content on TV might reduce teen pregnancies.

Experts urged parents to talk more openly with their children about sex.

Study author Dr Anita Chandra of the RAND Corporation said adolescents received a considerable amount of information about sex through television and the problem was that programmes such as these typically did not highlight the risks and responsibilities of sex.

Sexual content on TV has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research. We found a strong association

Lead researcher Dr Anita Chandra

She said:"Our findings suggest that television may play a significant role in the high rates of teenage pregnancy in the US."

According to Dr Chandra, hers is the first study to show such a direct link.

The researchers interviewed 2,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 three times between 2001 and 2004.

Teens who watched larger amounts of sexually charged TV shows were twice as likely to experience a pregnancy in the subsequent three years, compared with those with lower levels of exposure.

Sexual content

By the third interview, 744 of the teenagers said they had engaged in sexual intercourse and 718 of the youths shared with the researchers information about their pregnancy histories.

Of that group, 91 teens - 58 girls and 33 boys - were involved in a pregnancy.

Dr Chandra said: "Sexual content on TV has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research. We found a strong association."

The US has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates among industrialized nations, with nearly one million adolescent females becoming pregnant each year, with the majority of these pregnancies unplanned, according to RAND.

Britain has Europe's highest teenage pregnancy rate.

The idea of parents sitting down with their children and talking about the issues raised in these television programmes is a great one
A spokeswoman from Brook

Tory MP Nadine Dorries said it would be interesting to see if a similar study in the UK revealed a trend.

"Information such as this empowers parents when making difficult decisions as to what they do and don't allow their daughters to watch," she said.

Psychologist David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family said many teenagers relied on the media to act as sex educator.

Dr Walsh said: "If you have a kid who no-one's talking to about sex and who then watches sitcoms on TV where sex is presented as 'this is what cool people do', the outcome is obvious.

"The message to parents is to talk to their kids about sex long before they become teenagers."

A spokeswoman from Brook said: "The causes of teen pregnancy in the UK are quite complex.

"There are a range of ways we can try to reduce the teen pregnancy rate, such as providing sex and relationship education and outreach and community services for young people.

"The idea of parents sitting down with their children and talking about the issues raised in these television programmes is a great one."

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Councils ban use of Latin terms

Page last updated at 14:57 GMT, Monday, 3 November 2008

Councils ban use of Latin terms

Statue of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius
Several councils have banned the use of Latin terminology

A number of local councils in Britain have banned their staff from using Latin words, because they say they might confuse people.

Several local authorities have ruled that phrases like "vice versa", "pro rata", and even "via" should not be used, in speech or in writing.

But the ban has prompted anger among some Latin scholars.

Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University said it was the linguistic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.

Some local councils say using Latin is elitist and discriminatory, because some people might not understand it - particularly if English is not their first language.

Bournemouth Council is among those which has discouraged Latin. It has drawn up a list of 18 Latin phrases which its staff are advised not to use, either verbally or in official correspondence.

The council denies that it places a ban on Latin words.

A council spokesman said: "We advise against using certain words, particularly when staff are writing to those whose first language may not be English.

"The advice is intended as a guide only, not a direction."

However, the council's Plain Language Guide lists Latin under the heading "Things To Avoid".

Other local councils have banned "QED" and "ad hoc", while other typical Latin terms include "bona fide", "ad lib" and "quid pro quo".

But the move has been welcomed by the Plain English Campaign which says some officials only use Latin to make themselves feel important.

A Campaign spokesman said the ban might stop people confusing the Latin abbreviation e.g. with the word "egg".

Pope urged to admit common ground

Page last updated at 01:15 GMT, Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Pope urged to admit common ground

By Robert Pigott
Religious Affairs Correspondent

Pope Benedict XVI
Efforts will be made to persuade the Pope of the shared origins of religions

When 138 senior Muslim scholars and clergy tried to establish the common ground between Islam and Christianity last year, they said the very peace of the world hung on the outcome.

On Tuesday, a high-ranking delegation is beginning a rare visit to Rome in an effort to persuade the Pope to endorse what they say are the shared origins and values of the world's two biggest religions.

Their letter, A Common Word, cited passages from the Koran which the scholars said showed that Christianity and Islam worship the same God, and require their respective followers to show each other particular friendship.

The document examined fundamental doctrine and stressed what it said were key similarities - such as the belief in one God and the requirement for believers to "love their neighbours as themselves".

Significantly the letter acknowledged that the Prophet Muhammad was told only the same truths that had already been revealed to Jewish and Christian prophets, including Jesus himself.

After a year using the Islamic principle of seeking consensus, the letter has developed into a "manifesto" and is backed by almost 300 leaders from Sunni, Shi'ite, Sufi and other Muslim traditions.

'Out of hand'

The initiative was welcomed promptly by several Christian leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

The Vatican has, however, responded more cautiously to the prospect of identifying common beliefs.

There has been renewed urgency among Muslim leaders to forge new bonds with Christians since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

A lecture by Pope Benedict quoting a 14th Century Byzantine emperor's accusation that Muhammad encouraged the use of violence in spreading Islam led to a furious reaction among Muslims and contributed to the sense of a widening gap between the religions.

The high-ranking delegation going to Rome includes the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, an Iranian Ayatollah, a Jordanian prince and British converts to Islam.

The Vatican
The Vatican is cautious about the prospect of identifying common beliefs

They are also aiming to work out practical measures for resolving crises in Muslim-Christian relations, such as the angry controversy that followed the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark in 2006.

Dr Ibrahim Kalin, a Turkish scholar who will be among the Muslims who meet the Pope on Thursday, said the dispute about the cartoons showed how important it was to establish regular dialogue.

He said: "Things got out of hand very quickly. A line of communication is needed where we can issue a statement and mobilise resources as a pre-emptive act."

Some of those behind the Common Word initiative believe it has been too easy for radical or extremist Muslims to use the media to promote a distorted view of Islam. One of their principal aims is to create a body that can speak authoritatively for mainstream Islam.

'Agree to disagree'

Although the Pope can speak for about a billion Roman Catholics (roughly half of the world's Christian population), Islam has no central authority able to represent its 1.3 billion faithful.

Apart from practical mechanisms to cope with disagreements, the Pope's Muslim visitors are hoping for a measure of agreement on matters of fundamental belief, and for an exchange of reading-lists - each side providing the names of the books that most accurately describe their values and traditions.

They also want to extend the Christian-Muslim conversation to include that other Abrahamic religion, Judaism.

The Pope is on record as seeking dialogue with Muslims, and is reported to favour a franker, more robust, approach. He is likely to have his own priorities, including a discussion of religious freedom.

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams (left) and Grand Mufti of Egypt Dr Ali Gomaa at a conference on A Common Word
A Common Word is backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury

It is a sensitive issue, not least because some Muslim-majority countries forbid conversion, and oppress their Christian minorities.

Last month a formal meeting of Catholic bishops in Rome said the conversation should stress the need for equal rights for women. Some Islamic states - such as Saudi Arabia - limit women's rights.

Other awkward issues could include the need for democracy.

There is plenty that both sides are clear they cannot agree. Muslims regard Jesus as an important prophet, for example, but they do not believe he was crucified.

Another of the big differences between the religions centres on how God is understood.

Ibrahim Kalin says the Christian belief in Jesus as part of a divine trinity with God the Father and the Holy Spirit conflicts with Muslim doctrine.

"The Trinity is currently not accepted by Muslims as explaining the infinity and oneness of God," said Dr Kalin.

"We don't agree on that, so we shouldn't try to sink these differences into a warped theology, but talk to each other on the basis of agreeing to disagree."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Internet use 'good for the brain'

Page last updated at 15:00 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 16:00 UK

Internet use 'good for the brain'

Brain activity in an experienced internet user when carrying out simple reading task
Areas activated by reading a book in the brain of an experienced web user

For middle-aged and older people at least, using the internet helps boost brain power, research suggests.

A University of California Los Angeles team found searching the web stimulated centres in the brain that controlled decision-making and complex reasoning.

The researchers say this might even help to counteract the age-related physiological changes that cause the brain to slow down.

The study features in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

A simple, everyday task like searching the web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults
Professor Gary Small
University of California Los Angeles

As the brain ages, a number of changes occur, including shrinkage and reductions in cell activity, which can affect performance.

It has long been thought that activities which keep the brain active, such as crossword puzzles, may help minimise that impact - and the latest study suggests that surfing the web can be added to the list.

Brain activity in an experienced internet user when searching the web
Web use stimulates much more activity in the same brain

Lead researcher Professor Gary Small said: "The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerised technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults.

"Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."

The latest study was based on 24 volunteers aged between 55 and 76. Half were experienced internet users, the rest were not.

Compared with reading

Each volunteer underwent a brain scan while performing web searches and book-reading tasks.

Both types of task produced evidence of significant activity in regions of the brain controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities.

However, the web search task produced significant additional activity in separate areas of the brain which control decision-making and complex reasoning - but only in those who were experienced web users.

Brain activity in a personal not used to using the web while reading
Brain activity in web newcomers: similar for reading and internet use

The researchers said that, compared to simple reading, the internet's wealth of choices required people to make decisions about what to click on in order to get the relevant information.

However, they suggested that newcomers to the web had not quite grasped the strategies needed to successfully carry out a web search.

Professor Smith said: "A simple, everyday task like searching the web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older."

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, said: "These fascinating findings add to previous research suggesting that middle-aged and older people can reduce their risk of dementia by taking part in regular mentally stimulating activities.

"Older web users - 'silver surfers' - are doing precisely this.

"Frequent social interactions, regular exercise and maintaining a balanced diet can also reduce dementia risk."

Dr Susanne Sorensen, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society, said: "Use it or lose it may well be a positive message to keep people active but there is very little real evidence that keeping the brain exercised with puzzles, games or other activities can promote cognitive health and reduce the risk of dementia."

50 of your favourite words

Page last updated at 09:07 GMT, Friday, 10 October 2008 10:07 UK

50 of your favourite words

Story about man who read the OED in a year
Lots of sesquipedalians out there, judging by the response to our feature on the man who reads dictionaries for fun, Ammon Shea. We asked for your favourite words and were overwhelmed with nominations. Here we list 50 of the best.

1. To throw something (someone) out of a window is to defenestrate. I love this word because it immediately brings some interesting memories to the front, not to mention makes me think of some new things to toss out of a window.
Lee Nachtigal, West Hartford, Connecticut, USA

2. Poodle-faker - a young man too much given to taking tea with ladies.
Jane, Pembroke

3. Omphaloskepsis (self-absorbed, navel-gazing). I'm not really a selfish person, but I do occasionally need someone to remind me to look up from my navel. Plus, things that have to do with belly-buttons are generally pretty fun.
Anise Brock, San Francisco, USA

4. Mallemaroking - the carousing of seamen in icebound ships. A wonderfully useful word! How many icebound ships do we all know?
Sue H, Tiverton

5. Spanghew - to cause (esp. a toad or frog) to fly into the air off the end of a stick. (In northern and Scottish use.) Why? Well, all one has to do is imagine the myriad situations in which one might use this word.
Michael Everson, Ireland

6. Scrimshanker - one who accepts neither responsibility nor work.
Maurice De Ville, Chesterfield

7. Zareba - a protective hedge around a village or camp, particularly in the Sudan. Used to great effect by PG Wodehouse in, for example, The Clicking Of Cuthbert, with his description of a Russian novelist: "Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair."
Peter Skinner, Morpeth, UK

8. I first heard Stephen Fry (of course!) use this on QI. Tmesis - To break one word with another. For example: dis-bloomin-graceful, un-flippin-believable. Use it mainly when talking to British Gas.
Colin Rogers, Maidenhead, Berks

9. I love the word quidnunc, which means one who gossips because it is a word I could use to describe a lot of people who fit the definition and they wouldn't know what I was saying.
Katie, Hickory Hills, IL, USA

10. Ischial callosities is a great description, because of its precision. It refers to the leather-like pads on a monkey's bum.
Paul Edward Hughes, Langley, Canada

11. One of my favourite words is cryptomnesia because it captures the meaning of a whole process that I previously never thought could make it into a single meaningful word. Of course it makes sense, and literally means "buried memory". I first came across it reading Jung when he described the process of forgetting the source of some information and assuming you've known it all along. That's such an ephemeral process, and I'm fascinated by it as much as the word used to describe it.
Alan Languirand, Ypsilanti MI, USA

12. One of my favourite words is urt. Urt is almost onomatopoeic, since an urt is a "leftover bit".
Eric McConnachie, Clear Lake, Ontario, CANADA

13. I like the word termagant meaning a quarrelsome shrew of a woman - because it's just obscure enough to get mixed up with "ptarmigan", a lovely bird.
Jan, Portland, Oregon, USA

14. Oxter- space under the arm (not the armpit) eg he walked down the street with a copy of the Times under his oxter.
David McLoughlin, Dublin, Ireland

15. Spelunking- the hobby or practice of exploring caves. The word just sounds good, I love it!
Rachel, Reading

16. Petrichor - the sweet smell of rain on dry earth. Although I wouldn't consider myself enough of a lexiphane (another good word, meaning "one who uses words pretentiously") to bring it up in every day conversation. Plus, living in Scotland, dry earth isn't a phenomenon I'm used to.
Natalie, Glasgow

17. Frippet (noun) - A flighty young woman prone to showing off. Could be used for the vast majority of contestants on Big Brother.
Charley, Bristol

18. Panglossian - Excessively or naively optimistic. The world needs more people like this now than ever!
VJ Patel, Luton, UK

19. I love the word proprioception (go ahead and look it up - I define it as knowing where you are in the world, where your body stops and everything else begins). I learned it in an undergraduate psychology course, probably. One of my favourite things about this word is that I can never remember it! I'll come across a use for it and then rack my brain for several minutes before having to give up and then of course suddenly remembering it (there's another word I have the same experience with but I can't remember what it is just now). There's a French term that I believe is tangentially relevant to proprioception - "jusqu'au bout". It means "to the end" but it was explained to me (by a nice young French man, many years ago!) in the context of "je t'aime jusqu'au bout", as in to love someone all the way to the ends of their fingers and tips of their ears (etc!).
Marni Law, Brisbane, Australia

20. If you ever fly into the US, then one of the questions you're asked on the entry form you have to fill in is "Have you ever been convicted of moral turpitude?" What a great word turpitude is! I've never heard it anywhere else, but I can guess what it means and that the required answer is "NO". Just the sound of it is faintly dubious, once you've realised that it's not something you use to clean your paint brushes with.
Stevie, Brighton

21. I like the word discombobulated. It has a staccato, mechanical sound and conjures up an image of a robot scrabbling to hold itself together when all its nuts and bolts suddenly start to fall out. Which is just how one feels when discombobulated!
Sally Ratapu, Auckland, New Zealand

22. Floccinaucinihilipilification - this word was used by Bollywood star Amitabh Bachhan 20 years ago while giving an interview. I was struck by his choice of word and the meaning of it!
Sudip Mazumder, London

23. Pusillanimous (lacking in courage or strength of purpose) just sounds funny and derisive and insulting.
David Benning, Davis, CA USA

24. Sepulchral - of or pertaining to the tomb. I just love the way it sounds and the movements my mouth must make to say it. To be sure, I rarely have the opportunity to use it, except during Halloween.
Gregory Strucaly, Apollo, PA, USA

25. I love the word sphygmomanometer, which is the medical instrument used to measure blood pressure. Try saying it after a drink or two.
Lucy, Cambridge, UK

26. Crepuscular, which means "of or like twilight".
Sarah, Bedford, UK

27. Sinecure - a position or office that requires little or no work but provides a salary.
Stephen Lynn, Antrim

28. Word: kakistocracy. Definition: The government of a state by the worst citizens. A very useful word!
Helen Collins, London, England

29. Chthonic: first encountered in Philip Pullman, then in the BBC series Rome, meaning dead, underground, of the nether world.
Mike Crompton, Hayfield, High Peak

30. Runcible as used in Edward Lear's poem The Owl and the Pussycat - given in Chambers Dictionary as meaning a pickle-fork but used in our household as anything, especially cutlery, which is slightly ill-matched or bent/crooked.
Kirsty Harrison, Binfield, Berkshire

31. I very much enjoy palimpsest because you would never think that there was a word for something so specific as that: "A parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another." Its etymology is beautifully direct. From Ancient Greek "palin" meaning "again" (as in palindrome) and "psen" which means "to rub smooth".
William Kraemer, London, UK

32. I like susurrus which means a soft murmuring or rustling sound. Terry Pratchett used it to great effect in one of his books, and I couldn't help hearing the sound of a gentle breeze on tree leaves whenever I read it. Almost like magic.
Sarah, Woking

33. I just like the sound of the word tintinnabulation and if you look it up in the OED, it simply describes a sound made by the ringing of a bell. Imagine using such a word in everyday language.
Earl Okezie, Lokoja, Nigeria

34. Maieutic is one of my favourite obscure words. It means pertaining to intellectual midwifery and describes as no other word does a phenomenon that happens more often than you might think. It is very rewarding when you can match the moment to the word.
Martin Ackland, London

35. Crenellate - to furnish a wall with crenels or battlements, the rectangular "gaps" seen atop castle towers. For me, this word conjures up images of seaside holidays and carefully constructed sandcastles.
Simon Bonner, Liverpool, UK

36. Borborygmus - the rumbling sound that comes from an empty stomach.
Rupam, Ashburn, VA USA

37. Fug. I love jazz and have always thought a cellar jazz bar with a hazy atmosphere created through captivating music and hazy smoke would be perfect if called "The Fug". However, the smoking ban now prohibits any kind of fug. And "The Sanitary" just doesn't have the right ring.
Julian Williams, Stourport-on-Severn

38. Metanoia - the act or process of changing one's mind or way of life - is so beautiful.
Sa Smith

39. Estivate (the opposite of hibernate), because that is what I do. With the onset of autumn, I am looking forward to awakening from my summer torpor. The colder the day, the happier and more energized I am.
DJ Leslie, Falls Church, Virginia, USA

40. Rodomontade is my favourite, meaning boastful. Difficult to use in conversation though!
Kevin Murphy, Glasgow

41. Slubberdegullion is a favourite word of mine, meaning, roughly ,a worthless person. Throw it in next time you're gossiping about someone.
Bob Baker, Dunster, England

42. I like erythrismal, meaning "red by nature". An example would be a fox or a robin's breast. However, I am a redhead, so may be biased
Judith-Anne MacKenzie, London

43. Chatoyant is a word I learned from a poet/artist friend, and I teach it, or use it, whenever possible, which is quite often. It means something that glows from deep within, like a cat's eye (chat), or star sapphires, or highly polished hard woods.
Roxann , Alexandria, MN, USA

44. I like enervating (to weaken physically) because it sounds like it SHOULD mean the opposite to what it DOES mean.
Bob, Edinburgh

45. Tatterdemalion - a person with tattered clothing or of unkempt appearance. This word has, to my mind, a "bouncy" rhythm to it and use it often. I know several people who could have this word attributed to them...
Graham, Luton, England

46. Mellifluous - sweet, pleasant-sounding speech, words or music - is a my favourite word, though I suppose it couldn't really be classed as obscure. It's so beautifully onomatopoeic.
Maura Evans, Bradford

47. A word I recently learned and immediately liked, is ideation. It's like you take a creative word and turn it into a verb, make it creatING! Ideation means "the process of thought" or "the conceptualization of a mental image".
Theresa, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

48. I used to love the word syzygy because, in the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, its definition (in the mathematical sense) went something like: "A group of rational, integral functions, which, when severally multiplied together, the sum of the products vanishes identically."
Reggie Thomson, Cambridge, England

49. My favourite word is sesquipedalian. From the Latin, sesquipedalis, meaning a foot-and-a-half, it means given to using long words.
Chris Howard, Morden

...which is probably a fitting adjective for...

50. I'm disposed to immediately feel dyspathy with a secretary like Shea, but after goving at his story for a while, I begin to hansardize. There's no point in being philodoxical just because an apparently mundane subject deeply happifies another. I may stroke my natiform chin sceptically at Shea's cachinnations, but if such things truly make him tripudiate, then who am I to be the pejorist?
Rob Stradling, Cardiff

Underwear as outwear

Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 16:52 UK

Underwear as outwear

Bra models in shop window


Elaborate bra straps. Designer trunks riding above low-slung jeans. The fashion for flaunting one's underwear may have more to do with conspicuous consumption than a decline in decency, says Lisa Jardine.

When I was at school, the whispered warning "Charlie's dead" alerted a girl to the fact that her petticoat was showing under her lovat-green school skirt. Horror of horrors!

Modelling the New Look in the 1940s
Today the petticoat alone would suffice

From the age of 11 we all knew that our underwear ought never to be visible - a flash of white below the skirt-line was both an embarrassment, and potentially the occasion for a reprimand from a school prefect.

There are various theories as to where that curious phrase came from. It seems to date from World War II, and my own favourite explanation is that in the 1940s, the window-blinds were lowered whenever there was a death in the house.

The dipping half-slip was like a lowered window-shade. More fanciful versions involving Bonny Prince Charlie or Charles II, are, I am afraid, historically implausible, though no doubt a number of listeners will write or e-mail me to say that they prefer them.

Until relatively recently, visible bra straps were treated as a sign that the wearer was, if not actually a fallen woman, at least someone who took insufficient care with her appearance - a likely symptom of slack behaviour in other areas of her life.

A student of mine whose mother ran a fancy lingerie shop in Delhi once told me that her mother's customers were not prepared to buy silk camisoles with spaghetti straps because the maid who laundered them would consider them - and therefore their owner - scandalous.

Lisa Jardine

I am sure there are those who mutter that flamboyant, underwear-exposing fashions are further evidence of a general decline in morals

There could hardly be more of a contrast with fashions in underwear, and acceptable attitudes towards its display in public, in the era of consumer affluence we have been living through, these past 10 years.

It has been a time for ostentatiously showing off surplus wealth. And one of the signs that a woman has money to spare has been for her to let beautiful, expensive items of underwear show. Lavish lingerie departments have blossomed in department stores across the country.

The impulse not to keep a prize purchase hidden from view has been reflected in the design of fashion too - from High Street to haute couture. On the catwalks at this year's London Fashion Week, layering of diaphanous garments, with equally gorgeous underskirts and bodices, left nothing at all about the underwear beneath to the imagination.

Good for the goose...

This modern fashion trend, which seems to us to reflect our more easy-going attitudes to our bodies, is strikingly similar to the layering and glimpsing of undergarments of English 16th and early 17th Century costume.

Man's linen shirt, embroidered in black silk c.1585-1620 (courtesy of Fashion Museum, Bath, photo by Brenda Norrish
Embroidered undershirt for men

This week sees the posthumous publication of the fourth volume in the great costume historian Janet Arnold's meticulously detailed series, Patterns of Fashion.

Having documented every item of outer clothing for the period, Arnold has turned her attention to Tudor and Stuart underwear. The book is sumptuously illustrated with photographs of surviving items of the clothing our forebears wore next to the skin, including gorgeous detail of lavish embroidery, lace-work and stitching. And it shows clearly the ways in which men and women of substance also enjoyed letting their expensive underwear show.

Indeed, the most striking difference between underwear-flaunting then and now seems to have been that in Tudor times, it was not only women, but men too who adopted fashion designs which allowed them to reveal their undergarments.

The process by which this gradual uncovering happened over time is fascinating.

The woman's smock and man's shirt, made of linen, were originally very similar garments - calf-length and long-sleeved, with a simple neck-opening. Worn next to the skin and washable, they protected the layers of finer fabric above from the wearer's sweat and dirt.

Linen underwear offered a practical way of being hygienic while wearing outer garments of heavy expensive cloths, richly embroidered and adorned with jewels which could never safely be cleaned.

Over the shirt the man wore a structured doublet, over her smock the woman wore a bodice - or pair of bodies, as it was called then - with inserted strips of stiffening.

The woman's layers of petticoats, underskirts and farthingales were attached to her bodice by "points" (ornamental ties) drawn through purpose-made eyelets, as were a man's hose or leggings.

These conjoined undergarments provided a base armature on which the sumptuous outer garments were displayed to produce an imposing, sharply defined, tailored shape to the ensemble.

Like my ruff?

Over time, the shirts and smocks of the wealthy came to be made of finer and finer linen, and were decorated with increasing lavishness at neckline and cuff.

Dita van Teese on a giant wonderbra
The bra has come out from under

The fashionable neck frill and gathered cuffs used more and more linen, so that special starching and setting were required to make them sit more tidily around the garment's neckline. They were eventually separated from the undershirt or smock entirely, for ease of washing and maintaining, and evolved further in decorative lavishness as garments in their own right.

The neck frill grew oversized, into the elaborate, face-framing ruffs which for many of us define late Tudor dress, as it features in any number of formal portraits of royalty and nobility. Starching these became a laundry skill in its own right - the very first specialist ruff-launderer in England is supposed to have been a Flemish woman, Mistress Dingen Van der Passe, who brought Dutch-standard starching to London in 1564.

Detached ruffs and decorative cuffs were securely attached to the outer garments for each wearing, using metal pins. It has been suggested that in economic terms, these pins are the first genuinely disposable commodities of emerging consumer culture, since they were bought in bulk, used once and then discarded (though there are records of the more frugal having their bent pins straightened for re-use).

Even without integral layered and embroidered neck-frills and cuffs, the amount of coloured embroidery on the upper part of shirt and smock continued to grow, transforming the simple undergarment into an object of beauty in its own right.

Wearing a 1588 bodice
A Tudor-era bodice, with a roll to hold the skirt out suggestively at the back

At a workshop on Tudor underwear I attended last week, run by the Early Modern Dress and Textiles Research Network, it was suggested that once these items of clothing were decorated with silver and gold thread-work - so they became both uncomfortable next to the skin, and difficult to launder - another, simpler smock or shirt had to be worn beneath them, adding further to the layering.

As the shirt and smock grew more highly-decorated, ornamental openings were slashed in men's doublets and women's gowns to allow the wearer to show off the beauty of the embroidered blackwork on their underwear. Loose outer gowns, kirtles and waistcoats enabled women to offer revealing glimpses of the elegant structuring of their underwear corsetry.

Austerity measures

I am sure there are those who mutter that recent flamboyant, underwear-exposing fashions are further evidence of a general decline in morals and decency.

Elizabeth I
The Virgin Queen flaunts her wealth

The close equivalence of fashions worn in the Tudor period suggests otherwise. The women who wore the extraordinarily smock- and undershirt-revealing styles of the late 16th century had to be seen as paragons of virtue by all. No well-born woman could risk being construed as provocative on the basis of what she wore.

Yet fashionable Tudor ladies were as be-ruffed and cuffed, and parading of their embroidered underwear, as their male counterparts. Take a close look at any of the many familiar, exquisitely detailed portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, and you will quickly spot the heavily embroidered smock glimpsed beneath her bodice, the hints of lace at throat and wrist, betokening lace-edged and finely stitched needlework under her bejewelled gown.

What Tudor fashions share with more recent styles is the ostentatious display of garments on which the wearer has lavished significant sums of money. In both cases the expensive item is clearly a frippery - an unnecessary extravagance announcing that the person wearing it has extra cash to spend.

I wonder whether, in the current financial climate, as frugality returns, it will once again become unseemly to display an elaborately embroidered bra, or show net petticoats under a twirling skirt?

The whispered warning "Charlie's dead" dates from a previous age of austerity, after WWII. According to the Governor of the Bank of England, we stand poised once again on the brink of a recession.

If things go as badly as the predictions of the gloomiest pundits suggest, will it soon be the case that women once again begin to alert one another to the danger of an immodest glimpse of petticoat?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The man who reads dictionaries

Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Tuesday, 7 October 2008 00:03 UK

The man who reads dictionaries

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Ammon Shea
The OED is the Everest of dictionaries
Ammon Shea spent a year reading the Oxford English Dictionary - 20 volumes, 21,730 pages and 59 million words - and he rates poring over a dictionary as enriching as reading a novel. Why?

The prospect of talking to a man who reads dictionaries for fun prompts a sudden vocabulary-insecurity complex and a fear that every word he utters might sound like a painful medical condition.

But thanks to Ammon Shea's belief that long words only hinder conversations, there's no need to consult any dictionaries while he clearly explains his eccentric hobby.

"I'm not against big words per se or fancy or obscure words, obviously I love them, but I'm opposed to using them for their own sake," he says.

"If words are to form a communication, you use them as a tool to communicate to people and it's pointless to intentionally use a word that no-one else knows."

Cachinnator - one who laughs too much or too loudly
Dyspathy - the opposite of sympathy
Gove - to stare stupidly
Hansardize - to change one's opinion
Happify - to make happy
Natiform - buttock-shaped
Pejorist - one who thinks the world is getting worse
Philodox - one who is in love with his own opinion
Secretary - one who is privy to a secret
Tripudiate - to dance, skip or leap for joy

Mr Shea, a 37-year-old former furniture remover in New York, has spent 12 months conquering what he describes as the Everest of dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), by ploughing through 20 volumes weighing a total of 137lbs.

In the process, he became the Morgan Spurlock of lexicologists, devouring words for eight to 10 hours a day, which caused him severe headaches, deteriorating eyesight and injuries to his back and neck. So why bother?

"I've always enjoyed reading dictionaries and they are far more interesting than people give them credit for. And I think everything you find in a great book you would find in a great dictionary, except for the plot.

Tell us obscure words you're fond of, and why, using the link below
We will feature the best

"All the normal emotions - grief, happiness and loss - exist in a dictionary but not necessarily in the order that you would think."

If you come across a word like "remord" (to recall with a touch of regret) it's impossible to read that word without thinking of things that you regret yourself, he says, or to read "unbepissed" (not having been urinated on) without a chuckle.

Winter sun

"Knowing what to call something makes me more aware of that thing. For instance, it's not terribly useful for me to know that [the sound of] leaves rustled by the trees is a psithurism.

"I don't want to walk down the street with my girlfriend saying: 'Listen, there's a psithurism.' But knowing it means I pay more attention to it."

Similarly, knowing that "undisonant" is the adjective to describe the sound of crashing waves and that "apricity" is the warmth of the winter sun brings these things more often to mind.

WH Auden
For a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways
Writer WH Auden

"It's not easy to use them in conversation and so I enjoy them for their own sake. They are like one-word poems."

Turning page after page of unfamiliar words made him sometimes feel like he was reading another language, he says. That was dispiriting but also intriguing, because it showed how rich and powerful the English language is.

But absorbing so much made Mr Shea lose his grasp on his normal vocabulary. He recalls being fascinated when reading the definition for the word "glove" before he realised it was a word he already knew.

"That happened frequently. I guess it gave me a useless large vocabulary and in the short-term I lost my normal vocabulary. I would go to the shop and forget the word for milk. Momentarily I'm looking for the cold, white stuff."

Mr Shea is not alone in his love of dictionaries. WH Auden waxed lyrical about them and Arthur Scargill said his father would read one every day because his life depended on the power to master words.


Thousands of avid Scrabble players read dictionaries looking for words, especially those with a high-scoring J, Q, X or Z, says Elaine Higgleton, editorial director of Collins Dictionaries. And crossword fans devour dictionaries for the same reason.

"We also have people writing to us who have been very interested in obscure words and obscure definitions.

"A student in Iraq was trying to learn English and he sat down trying to learn every word in the dictionary, starting at the beginning with A and working all the way through.

My father still reads the dictionary everyday. He says your life depends on your power to master words
Arthur Scargill, 1982

"It's probably not the best way to learn English, and you'd learn many more than you would need."

But dictionaries are a wonderful source of learning about the origins of the English language, she says, and especially the Greek and Latin roots to many of the words.

Collins, which records everyday language rather than all known words, is involved in a campaign to save some of the lesser-used words from being edited out of its future editions. Stephen Fry, for instance, has championed "fubsy", which means "short and stout".

Collins removes words from its dictionaries that are not used enough

"One of the nice things about dipping in and out of a dictionary is that although people are very comfortable with the vocabulary levels they have, there are some good fun words in there that offer an additional dimension of interest," says Ms Higgleton.

Some of Mr Shea's favourites garnered from the OED include "assy", which means behaving like an ass, and natiform, which means "buttock-shaped".

It's impossible to be intimidated by a dictionary that uses a word like assy, he says, and to pick one up and glance through one - rather than just opening one when in trouble with a word - can be a captivating experience.

And how much of what he has read has stayed between his ears?

Throwing 10 semi-hard words ( from the OED at him, Shea correctly guessed five definitions.

That's a considerably higher success rate than many of us would have scored, after reading 59 million words.