Nominative Determinism

Originally the concept of nominative determinism arose as a humorous feedback thread in New Scientist Magazine as readers observed how authors names reflected their research topics.  Polar explorations by Daniel Snowman,  a urology article by Splatt and Weedon.

This was a build from joke books of my youth.  “The Tower of Pisa” by Eileen Over.  “Legal Jurisprudence” by Argue and Phibbs.  “Treating Tennis Injuries” by Savage, Racquet and Ball. There are lot of those:  Funny books and authors  

Erik the Red, who founded the Viking colony on Iceland wanted to keep the island for his own people.  To dissuade other Norsemen from following he gave his colony an unattractive name.  His son, Lief Eriksson, did the opposite in an attempt to encourage colonists to settle in his new discovery, Greenland.

Some people have begun to take nominative determinism more seriously.  Some pointed to the fact that many names originated in the middle ages when people were named for their trade, and families stayed within a trade.  Thatchers roofed houses.  Wrights made wheels.  Smiths beat metal.  Fletchers made arrows.  Is there a genetic disposition to excellence in a field of endeavour?

A family that has genetically poor eyesight will not survive long in the lacemaking trade.  Do genetic traits in agility, intelligence, strength etc contribute to our aptitude for certain careers?

Then there is the environment.  The child of a musician is raised in a world of music practice, has a learned knowledge of what harmonies work well, grows up playing with musical instruments.  Learning to read music comes easier than learning to read language.  Smiths know the techniques for tempering steel, learned over many generations and passed orally from Father to Son.  Fletchers know how to make good glue.  Dyers know the recipes for pigments that stain cloth but do not fade rapidly in sunlight.  Tanners are used to the smell of piss and shit.

So in the modern world, when we are socially mobile, does our heritage still carry cues to our abilities.  Is nominative determinism a real thing?

For me the funniest example of nominative determinism is given in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22.  With a surname of Major a vindictive father stepped in when his wife was comatose after childbirth and named his son Major Major Major.  The child is drafted into the US Air Force in WW2 as Private Major Major Major.  It is only the work of a short time and standard military bureaucracy before the Private is promoted, by clerical error, and assigned as Major Major Major Major.

Miniver Cheevy; by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam’s neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

 

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A hymn for the defeated

FraVIre

Better remembered as a sculptor William Wetmore Story was born on this day in 1819, so next year he will celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth.  When I saw this poem it immediately called to mind the image above.  If ever a photograph can capture the moment when victory turned to defeat this is it.  Look at those French faces.

Io Victis :by William Wetmore Story

I sing the hymn of the conquered, who fell in the Battle of Life,
the hymn of the wounded, the beaten, who died overwhelmed in the strife;
Not the jubilant song of the victors, for whom the resounding acclaim
of nations was lifted in chorus, whose brows wore the chaplet of fame,
but the hymn of the low and the humble, the weary, the broken in heart,
who strove and who failed, acting bravely a silent and desperate part;
Whose youth bore no flower on its branches, whose hopes burned in ashes away,
from whose hands slipped the prize they had grasped at, who stood at the dying of day
with the wreck of their life all around them, unpitied, unheeded, alone,
with Death swooping down o’er their failure, and all but their faith overthrown,

while the voice of the world shouts its chorus, its paean for those who have won;
While the trumpet is sounding triumphant, and high to the breeze and the sun
glad banners are waving, hands clapping, and hurrying feet
thronging after the laurel-crowned victors, I stand on the field of defeat,
in the shadow, with those who have fallen, and wounded, and dying, and there
chant a requiem low, place my hand on their pain-knotted brows, breathe a prayer,
hold the hand that is helpless, and whisper, “They only the victory win,
who have fought the good fight, and have vanquished the demon that tempts us within;
Who have held to their faith unseduced by the prize that the world holds on high;
Who have dared for a high cause to suffer, resist, fight, if need be, to die.”

Speak, History! who are Life’s victors? Unroll thy long annals, and say,
are they those whom the world called the victors — who won the success of a day?
The martyrs, or Nero? Spartans, who fell at Thermopylae’s tryst,
or the Persians and Xerxes? His judges or Socrates? Pilate or Christ?

Happy Birthday Bob Marley

Marley

Bob Marley is fantastically interesting to semioticians.  Semiotics is the study of signs.  When a person, or the image of a person, evolves to become a sign, that is interesting.  Che Guevara has become a sign for revolution.  Bob Marley has evolved into a sign for the anti-establishment.

Born on this day in 1945 to an English father and a Jamaican mother.  Bob Marley died at the young age of 36, leaving behind a rich legacy of meaning.

In 1962 Marley recorded 4 songs as “Bobby Martell”.  In 1963 Marley and a group of his Trenchtown, Jamaica friends formed the Teenagers, which probably reflects what they were picking up on the radio from the USA.  They then moved into Ska music and renamed as the Wailing Rudeboys, and then the Wailing Wailers and then became the Wailers.  Marley converted from Catholicism to Rastafarianism and stopped cutting his hair, developing his famous Dreadlocks.

In 1969 the band moved away from Ska, slowing down the beat to create Reggae.  From there the rise of Bob Marley became stellar.  He was shot in 1976 on the eve of a political rally and went on stage with the now famous line “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”

His political credibility soared and his music followed.  The album Exodus spent 56 weeks in the British Charts.

The high point of his life was probably the “One Love Peace Concert” concert in Jamaica in 1978, uniting bitter political rivals in Jamaica on stage in a manner that has been copied since by U2 front man Bono in Northern Ireland.  Bob Marley became the face man for the anti-apartheid movement and for Zimbabwean independence.

The appropriation of his image for various causes is interesting.  He is used by groups to represent black issues, anti-establishment/anti-globalisation positions, Cannabis culture, pan-Africanism and the concept of a Black God.

Get up, stand up:  Bob Marley & the Wailers

Preacher man don’t tell me heaven is under the earth
I know you don’t know what life is really worth
Is not all that glitters in gold and
Half the story has never been told
So now you see the light, aay
Stand up for your right. Come on

Get Up, Stand Up, stand up for your right
Get Up, Stand Up, don’t give up the fight

Most people think great God will come from the sky
Take away everything, and make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You would look for yours on earth
And now you see the light
You stand up for your right, yeah

Get Up, Stand Up, stand up for your right
Get Up, Stand Up, don’t give up the fight

We’re sick and tired of your ism and skism game
Die and go to heaven in Jesus’ name, Lord
We know when we understand
Almighty God is a living man
You can fool some people sometimes
But you can’t fool all the people all the time
So now we see the light
We going to stand up for our right

So you’d better…
Get Up, Stand Up, stand up for your right
Get Up, Stand Up, don’t give up the fight

 

Bit of a commotion.

Cole

Back in the 1980’s it was very important for musicians to look serious about their craft.  Otherwise they would be lumped in with Wham or Yazz.  The way to look like a serious musician was to have a portrait of yourself or band in black and white, staring into the distance.  Very cool, very artistic.

Lloyd Cole was born on this day in 1961.  He is probably best remembered for that Lost Weekend in a Hotel room in Amsterdam.  That’s how I remember him anyway, from those days in the college disco, throwing shapes in front of girls, mouthing the lyrics, staring into the distance, artistically.

Lost Weekend

 

The one and only “Elmore James”

elmore-james

King of the Slide Guitar and a leading influence on the Delta Blues, Elmore James was born on this day in 1918.  He died the year I was born, aged only 45.

After leaving the US navy at the end of WW2 he worked in his brothers electrical shop.  While there he experimented with electrical equipment and built his own unique electric guitar in a hollow body acoustic and his playing was described as “violent” by George Adins.  James used the bottleneck slide technique, which in those days usually meant the bottle was attached to the neck!

If you cleaned up his recordings a bit to cut the crack and hiss this stuff sounds fresh today.

Scratch the surface of any later blues act such as John Mayall or the Rolling Stones and you will find the bones of Elmore James in there.

Shake your Moneymaker

The thing about martyrs

Kevin_Barry

Kevin Barry in his Belvedere Rugby Shirt

Born today in 1902 Kevin Barry was the most perfect of martyrs.  A smart lad, educated by the Jesuits in Belvedere College Dublin.  He played on a championship winning junior rugby cup winning team and also represented the school on the senior cup team.

He went on to study medicine in University College Dublin.  Aged only 18 he was involved in a shootout with British Soldiers and was the only member of his squad caught.  He refused to give up his comrades under torture.  He was tried, found guilty and hanged by the British like a common criminal.

For Sinn Féin (the IRA) the events could not have been orchestrated more favourably.  The British immediately found themselves on the losing side in a world-wide PR campaign.  In Ireland tempers were already high.  The hanging of Barry occurred in the same week when Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died on hunger strike.

The British had plenty of ammunition to fight a counter PR campaign but they failed miserably.  For instance the soldiers attacked by Barry’s squad were about the same age as Barry himself.  Barry was armed with dum-dum bullets, banned by Geneva convention.

Described as a “sensitive poet-intellectual” MacSwiney was presented to the world as a pacifist playwright intellectual forced by the brutal British to take up arms in defence of his rights.  Killed by a callous and cold-hearted monarchy.  Barry was presented as little more than a child, a young gentleman of great potential, beaten, tortured and hanged by violent beasts.  Who could not shed a tear?

Money flowed in from abroad for the cause.  The IRA guerilla campaign went into all out war and within a year the British Government found their position in Ireland untenable.  They went to the negotiating table.

The thing about martyrs is never to create them.  The British were slow to learn this lesson.  The execution of the 1916 leaders should have opened their eyes to the power of martyrs.  But the British were still creating martyrs in 1981 when 10 Provisional IRA prisoners died on hunger strike in the Maze prison in the Britain of Margaret Thatcher.  The leader of that strike, Bobby Sands, was elected to the Westminster parliament while on hunger strike.  The British Government suffered a dreadful loss of face and had to pass legislation to prevent nomination of prisoners for election to prevent a repeat incident.

The hunger strike is a very ancient tradition in Ireland and goes all the way back to pre-Christian Ireland and Celtic Hospitality laws.  It was compulsory for a host to feed a guest under his roof.  As a protest against injustice a subject might starve himself outside the hall of his lord.  Such an action usually led to resolution of a dispute because the lord could not bear the shame of a man starving himself on his doorstep.

The IRA began active use of the hunger strike in May 1917 to protest their status as political rather than criminal prisoners.  Under international pressure the hunger strikers were released.  Thomas Ashe was subsequently re-arrested and went back on hunger strike in Sept 1917.  The British Government initially ordered the forced feeding of fasting prisoners.  When Ashe choked to death during force feeding in 1917 his funeral became a major IRA recruitment drive.  The hunger strike as a modern weapon of non-violent resistance was born.

The world paid due attention and in India Mohandas Gandhi saw its potential.  As a form of non-violent protest it complied with the philosophy of satyagraha.  In 1929 Jatin Das died after 63 days on hunger strike.  On the same strike Bhagat Singh set a hunger strike record of 116 days and ended the strike when demanded concessions were granted.

Prison authorities have become more scientific about the force feeding of hunger striking prisoners.  As a result of direct stomach feeding via a Ryles tube Irom Sharmila was able to remain healthy despite 16 years refusal to ingest either food or water through her mouth.

One final thing about martyrs, they need to be special.  A good martyr every ten years or so serves as a beacon of defiance, bravery, resistance to oppression.  It serves as a rallying cry, a call to recruitment , an incentive for contributions to the cause.  In the middle east today Islamic groups create a handful of martyrs every month.  Too many martyrs for any individual martyr to stand out from the crowd.  Martyrdom is no longer special, it just become the norm and eventually it becomes meaningless.  A pointless death.  A waste of life.

 

Kevin Barry: Anonymous

In Mountjoy jail one Monday morning
High upon the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty
But a lad of eighteen summers
Yet no one can deny
As he walked to death that morning
He proudly held his head on high

Just before he faced the hangman
In his dreary prison cell
British soldiers tortured Barry
Just because he would not tell
The names of his brave companions
And other things they wished to know
“Turn informer or we’ll kill you”
Kevin Barry answered, “no”

Calmly standing to attention
While he bade his last farewell
To his broken hearted mother
Whose grief no one can tell
For the cause he proudly cherished
This sad parting had to be
Then to death walked softly smiling
That old Ireland might be free

Another martyr for old Ireland
Another murder for the crown
Whose brutal laws may kill the Irish
But can’t keep their spirit down
Lads like Barry are no cowards
From the foe they will not fly
Lads like Barry will free Ireland
For her cause they’ll live and die

#MeToo nothing new

Pan and Syrinx, by Peter Paul Rubens

Pan and Syrinx, by Peter Paul Rubens

A priapic director, dressing gown flapping open, chasing a pretty actress round his hotel room.  A seedy image but hardly a new one.  As old as myth and fable.

A fable that gave us two of the most scary objects ever made by man.

Syrinx was a chaste nymph who was pursued by the God Pan, the goat legged wild spirit who represents the wilderness and fertility.  In a bid to avoid him Syrinx appealed to the water nymphs to hide her, and they turned her into hollow reeds.  As he passed Pan sighed and the hollow reeds resonated.  So he cut them and created the pan pipes.  So next time you are accosted by a brightly clad troupe of Peruvian troubadours in Subway, Underground or Metro you can blame it on the Ancient Greek Harvey Weinstein.   Pan pipes – a particular form of torture!

But for the ultimate torture comes another word derived from Syrinx herself.  The hollow reed was the model for the hollow needle, from which we get the word Syringe.  Next time you are at the doctor or dentist and this object of medieval torture emerges you know who to blame.

Panpipes.jpg