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OK, gentle visitor, I have a challenge for you. Can anyone out there cite a German source for the claim that during the First World War the kilties were known as either the “Ladies from Hell” or “The Devils in Skirts” ? I’ve got a feeling these names might just be the products of the British propaganda bureau or over-imaginative journalism. I have come across a German nickname for the kilties but it does not convey the respect or awe suggested by the above. I think for that reason, what I found rings truer. Very few troops are given respectful nicknames by their foes. It's funny how fictions can become accepted as truth through constant repetition. Many people believe that Berwick upon Tweed was still at war with Russia until the 1960s. The story went that the declaration of war against Russia when the Crimean War broke-out in 1853 included Berwick as a separate entity because it's status was still in dispute; the Scots claiming in the 1707 Treaty of Union it was annexed territory and refusing to recognise it as part of England. When the peace was signed in 1856, Berwick was not mentioned. Sadly, not true. A 1746 Act of Parliament declared Berwick officially part of England. The Crimean War claim was first made in shortly before the First World War. It was even said, wrongly again, that the Soviets signed a "peace treaty" with Berwick in 1966 to rectify the omission.

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I’m still a little baffled as to why drug cheat cyclist Lance Armstrong has suddenly decided to come clean. Only the most naive could have believed that he could have won the Tour de France so many times without using performance enhancing drugs. I made that point for years – but only in private. If I had said the same thing in a public forum, on this website for instance, there’s a good chance Armstrong and his backers would have ruined my life. That to me was Armstrong’s real crime: he tried to destroy those who dared to tell the truth. He didn’t just deny he was drug cheat or say, “so prove it and if you can’t, I’ll sue”. No, he was proactive and highly aggressive when it came to going after his critics. There are plenty of people who have won substantial libel settlements in the British courts and then years later it is come out that what was written was actually true. As a journalist I knew there was a big difference between having evidence that something was true and that evidence not being quite strong enough to prove beyond a doubt in court that something was true. There are no certainties in life and to go before a British civil court is a massive financial gamble. I think some wit said that appealing a civil decision is simply to throw the dice a second time. The sleazier British tabloids thrive on the flip side of that coin – the poor working Joes and Josephines that they libel for the sake of their drivel stories can’t afford to sue. Anyway, the civil and criminal courts both depend on witnesses if they are going to function. Silence the witnesses and the whole process falls apart. I learned a long time ago never to confuse the Law with Justice. And what happens to a person appearing in court depends on the size of their wallet. The Law, as is the case with decent healthcare, is a commodity with a price tag. The best most of us can hope for is never to need either.

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Any of you who read Book Briefing regularly will know that several of the books reviewed almost certainly started their lives as PhD theses. My admiration for most of the authors of them leapt recently when I attended a seminar hosted by the University of Alberta. Several what I took to be embryo theses were presented and questions were invited. I couldn't help noticing the contrast between the language used in the written papers and the language used to answer the questions posed. The English used in the papers was abstract, pompous and I suspect at times deliberately ambiguous. The answers given to questions were in clear English. This experience made me realise just what a good job the authors of the books had made of writing in plain English and dropping the convoluted gobbledegook apparently so much appreciated in the halls of academia.

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When I first came to Canada to work as a newspaper reporter I sometimes found myself struggling to differentiate between Canadian Usage of English and just plain Bad Usage. Most of what triggered my spidey sense turned out to be Bad Usage. There’s a lot of bad usage out there. Hardly a day goes by without me hearing something on the radio that sets my teeth on edge. “Doesn’t that clown know what that word means”; “That’s just gibberish” - are two phrases which spring to the lips of my mind. One of the great things about the English language is that it is always evolving. Words and usages which I believed were perfectly acceptable were frowned on in the 1940s. I managed to get my hands on the British Government’s guide to good English usage from around 1948, “Plain Words”. It was an education in how much the language had changed in 35 years. The booklet slammed the BBC for murdering the English language – so obviously some things don’t change. I remember one of the editors here in Canada changing my “who” to “whom”. According to the style guides and grammar mavens, he was correct. But who these days uses “whom”? It comes over as pompous. That said, and at the risk of sounding like an old grouch, I can’t help feeling that the use of English is getting sloppier. And that means we’re not communicating as well as we need to. I think part of this is down to well-intentioned souls who argue against Language Fascism. Attempts to impose Latin rules on English, a Germanic language, have certainly led to some nonsense grammar rules. But if no-one is pushing back in the name of good usage, then the slide into incomprehensibility is accelerated.

 

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I have Argentinian neighbours. I’m worried that they are going to seize my flat. After all, much of Argentina’s claim on the Falklands seems based on proximity and only a thin wall separates me from the neighbours. I can’t help noticing that many of Argentina’s South American neighbours are supporting the attempt to force the islanders to accept traditional South American life. I’d take this despicable piece of grandstanding more seriously if all South American countries agreed to return to their own pre-1833 boundaries (the year Britain took over the islands). And possibly I’d make them sign a guarantee that never again would their countries be run by military dictatorships, no more paramilitary death squads, no drug cartels, no oppressing or murdering indigenous populations, no murdering inconvenient environmental activists and perhaps genuinely democratic elections. You know, I really can’t blame the Falkland Islanders for not wanting to be ruled by their nearest neighbours. Mind you, that would probably have happened if the Argie Junta hadn’t been stupid enough to invade in 1982. I was a teenager at the time but I knew that the plan to withdraw the South Atlantic patrol ship Endurance was madness and would be seen as a lack of commitment to the islanders. I could never work out why the wishes of the Falkland folk were regarded as paramount but we were happy to turn over the residents of Hong Kong island to Communist China. The 1898 lease agreement for 99 years only applied to the parts of metropolitan Hong Kong on the mainland. So, Britain was not obliged to return the island at all.

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