Archive for April 2008

Mistranslations and Misinterpretations are unfortunate but with Media assistance, volatile. Introduction.

28 April 2008

First, a clarification of a common misunderstanding (especially rife in the American media):

Translators translate written documents, usually with time to revise or correct their work before it is seen by others. Accuracy at all levels, especially those of vocabulary and style, is of prime importance. Film and video/DVD subtitlers, for example, are specialised translators who need adequate time to prepare and technically present their work, which will be seen on the screen by audiences. Furthermore, because a permanent written record of translations will be available for examination and comparison with the original written form in the source language, translation is not only a highly responsible job but needs the expensive backing of a substantial indemnity insurance policy.

Interpreters, on the other hand, offer a spoken service, performing ‘live’ (at various levels) by offering a spoken ‘translation’ from one language to another. They need, apart from a thorough knowledge of two languages at the highest level, a good speaking voice, quick wittedness and strong self-control. (This does not imply that we translators are dull-witted or even dull. The jobs are simply different and suit people with different temperaments and gifts.)

On a daily basis, on TV and radio, the voiceover comments we hear in English when (for example) a non-English-speaking politician or celebrity is being filmed for the daily (or hourly) News are usually (but not necessarily) done by an interpreter, on the spot (and often in the spotlight). Face to face interviews of any sort (including those most commonly seen on News programmes), need instant interpretation, whether in a private meeting or an international conference. For more ‘leisurely’ documentaries, subtitled or voiceover translations of interviews in a foreign language may be the result of either interpretation or translation, depending on the circumstances. (As a slightly cynical rule of thumb, the more often the English-speaking interviewer nods his or her head in the TV interview without comment in the foreign language while the foreigner is answering the media interviewer’s English question (which has been interpreted by someone else before the interviewee answers), the more likely that the segments of the foreign language will have been translated and subtitled or voice-overed by a local qualified translator or interpreter during or after the interview.)

Both of these professions are demanding, but the interpreter obviously has the more unenviable and stressful (but better paid) job, even in a medical or court assignment for a single client. It is indeed a very great responsibility to bear. When the work is at the most intense and public level (for example, in international diplomacy, in politics or in commerce), the consequences of a momentary lapse, even by a very seasoned professional, can be catastrophic, therefore the pressure and remuneration are correspondingly heavier. (In such exalted interactions, the further hazard of an interpreter (or a translator) being used as a scapegoat by unscrupulous or desperate politicians and Heads of State who have made an error or a misjudgement will be dealt with in a later essay in this series.)


For now, two international incidents resulting from unfortunate interpreting or translating lapses will highlight the worst hazards, especially in our anxious world which now has to cope with insatiable media appetites and instant international communications (not to mention the general lack of comprehension of what translation and interpreting really entail).


On 26 October, 2005, the President of Iran gave a speech at a student conference in Iran. He was reported in the English language press as having said that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” In an already tense atmosphere, international shock was deep, peace was threatened and the reverberations can still be felt from time to time when the translation is repeated. But it appears that the alarming translation was incorrect.

The Iranian journalist-author of a (balanced) biography of Ahmadinejad, Naji Kasra, takes this blood-curdling English statement and explains (p. 140) that the President’s intent could not have been genocidal because the Persian words used by Ahmadinejad (quoting from the late Ayatollah Khomeini) were “Een rejimeh eshghalgareh Quds bayad az safeyeh rouzegar mahv shavad.” The writer translates these, literally, as “This Jerusalem-occupying regime must disappear from the page(s) of time.” [Bold type added.] Kasra adds further linguistic commentary on the Persian sentence, stating that ‘shavad’ means “must become” and ‘mahv’, “the crucial word […] can mean ‘disappeared’,’obliterated’, ‘vanished’” and “that it does not uniquely imply violence.” The word (mahv), he explains, could also be used for the moon being shrouded by clouds or a man “disappearing into a thick crowd” and “does not imply action on the part of a third party”. For those reasons, Naji rejects the translation “must be wiped off” (which he says would be ‘bayad mahv kard’) and its ultra-violent associations, while admitting that the pronouncement was indeed extremely hostile.

(From: Naji, Kasra, Ahmadinejad. The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader, London & New York, I. B. Taurus, 2008, pp. 139-141)

ADDENDUM: For a more detailed report on the context and complex international reverberations of this mistranslation – and of its unfortunate origin at the “Islamic Republic News Agency” – see

2. (As a salutary ideological counterbalance)

Melanie Phillips, the prominent and sometimes controversial British correspondent for The Guardian, published a short report on 29 February 2008: ‘The Mother of all Mistranslations’. The subheading was ‘Israel warns of Gaza ‘holocaust’.’ The report began: “Israeli leaders are warning of an imminent conflagration in Gaza after Palestinian militants aimed rockets at the southern city of Ashkelon. The deputy defence minister said the stepped-up rocket fire would trigger what he called a ‘bigger holocaust’ in the Hamas-controlled coastal strip.”

Phillips continued: “This reported remark by deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai caused widespread shock and absolute horror. For an Israeli minister to use the word ‘holocaust’ to describe a limited war of Israeli self-defence, when for Jews of all people the ‘Holocaust’ means one thing: genocide – and this at a time when the calumny of the ‘Jews as Nazis’ is rampant around the world, putting Israel and the Jewish people at risk – was simply beyond belief.”

“It was indeed without any credibility – because Vilnai never said it. It was an appalling mistranslation by Reuters, the source of the BBC story.”

Her explanation was simple: “Reuters had translated the Hebrew word ‘shoah’ as ‘holocaust’. But ‘shoah’ merely means disaster. In Hebrew, the word ‘shoah’ is never used to mean ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide’ because of the acute historical resonance. The word ‘Hashoah’ alone means ‘the Holocaust’ and ‘retzach am’ means ‘genocide’. The well-known Hebrew construction used by Vilnai used merely means ‘bringing disaster on themselves’.”

Phillips underlined the serious consequences of such a basic translating error: “But this grotesque mistranslation has given Hamas a propaganda gift which they lost no time exploiting. Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said of Vilnai’s comments: ‘We are facing new Nazis who want to kill and burn the Palestinian people.’ At a time when the rockets continue to rain down on the southern Negev and Israel is being forced to contemplate stepping up its incursions into Gaza because of the truly genocidal assault upon its citizens by Hamas, such a mistranslation is more than an unfortunate slip. In the present explosive atmosphere, it can lead directly to an enormous escalation of violence by the Palestinians.”


Wikipedia’s Grudging Recognition of its Self-imposed Limitations. An Internet Case Study

26 April 2008

(This is a long blog, offering a digest of the important opinions of sincere and reputable commentators. Your patience and indulgence will be rewarded.)

Recent and foreseeable changes in the Wikipedia modus operandi are, in fact, a belated acknowledgement of the validity of the unrelenting pressure from its many articulate and brave critics. The changes and the reasons for them are also a further encouraging proof of the existence of what one Wikipedia critic, Andrew Orlowski, has dubbed “collective intelligence”, which must surely be seen as a complete antonym for the much-touted ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ (which leads, inevitably, to the creation and popular success of projects like Wikipedia in its present flawed form).

Sources of instant enlightenment on this ongoing Internet controversy:

Wikipedia itself dutifully chronicles 25 pages of criticisms:

Major sites and individuals critical of Wikipedia: (A Wiki-based site) (Daniel Brandt) (Andrew Orlowski) (forums especially for disaffected Wikipedians) (Daniel Brandt – a brilliantly satirical Wiki-based site) (Jason Scott)

Also: ‘Criticisms of Wikipedia – A Compendium’, 4 January 2008, by The Review:

(This post was submitted to the forum by The Review’s resident Troubleshooter, Gomi, on January 1, 2008)”

“Gomi: For the New Year, I decided to attempt to compile a list of Wikipedia Review’s criticisms of Wikipedia. I have tried to approach this broadly — I don’t agree with all of these myself, but this is my view of the complaints that come up over and over again. One thing that is clear, after looking at Wikipedia for several years, is that these problems are not getting better, they are getting worse.”


Jason Scott

An ex-contributor to Wikipedia, information specialist Scott boldly and perceptively articulated many serious claims in his lecture, ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ on 19 November 2004 (three years after the launch of Wikipedia). In response to an avalanche of Internet correspondence, including the sort of abuse often directed at “apostates” and whistle-blowers, Scott followed this lecture with two other important contributions in 2005, and a further one in 2007 (on the extraordinary and revealing Essjay scandal).

Here is Scott’s spectacularly vernacular verdict on Wikipedia’s performance:

“This is what the inherent failure of wikipedia is. It’s that there’s a small set of content generators, a massive amount of wonks and twiddlers, and then a heaping amount of procedural whackjobs. And the mass of twiddlers and procedural whackjobs means that the content generators stop being so and have to become content defenders. Woe be that your take on things is off from the majority. Even if you can prove something, you’re now in the situation that anybody can change it.”

(Jason Scott (Sadovsky) ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ (19 November 2004)

On Wikipedia as a concept and on the Wikipedia NPOV doctrine:

“Neutral Point of View is a doctrine about how Wikipedia articles should be written. Like wikipedia itself, it is a great idea in theory. In application, of course, it turns into yet another hammer for wonks and whackjobs to beat each other and innocent bystanders.”

Jason Scott (Sadovsky), ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ (19 November 2004)

On the Open system model:

“I should mention that I’ve actually spent several years doing work for an organization, using software that is, basically, a Wiki. However, there’s only about 12 of us with access, and of the 12 maybe 6 are frequent contributors… And I thought this is how they all were. We just didn’t get in each others’ way. It was quite a shock to be on Wikipedia.”

(Jason Scott (Sadovsky) ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ (19 November 2004)

This is also a fundamental point by critic Nicholas G. Carr:

“ … the open source model — when it works effectively — is not as egalitarian or democratic as it is often made out to be. Linux has been successful not just because so many people have been involved, but because the crowd’s work has been filtered through a central authority who holds supreme power as a synthesizer and decision maker.”

(‘The Ignorance of Crowds’, May 2007

Scott reiterated and clarified his position after intense Internet debate on his writings:

“ My primary disagreement with Wikipedia’s approach is not about expertise, accuracy or quality; it is about procedure energy dispersal […]. [… ] my issues as stated in my previous essay were not about whether Wikipedia was in competition with other reference sources, but how minor procedural decisions have essentially doomed it on its own.”

“ As an off-the-cuff example, Wikipedia has a login system, wherein for free and with no effort, you become a “Person”, an entity with a name and a history and even your nice little page that you can use to build a fun little world of pictures and information about your work on Wikipedia. It is essentially effortless, and it is pretty easy to create a mass of user accounts and foment your opinions in votes and other situations. […]”

“… they allow totally anonymous full-content editing by random users. In other words, no accounting at all. People don’t even have to submit to a rubber-stamp login process to begin screwing with entries that someone may have just spent hours getting just right. […]”


“ Wikipedia has a large contingency of users who play the Wikipedia Rules of Etiquette and Procedure like they were Role Playing Games and function within them causing havok and personal gratification at the expense of moving the project forward.”

“Academic review, experts vs. non-experts, use of Wikipedia as a replacement encyclopedia, and other such high-level concerns are way down the road and not my concern; my concern, and ultimately the reason why I have stopped contributing to the project (and why many others have, too) rests in aspects much closer to Wikipedia’s core.”

On Wikipedians’ reactions to criticism (of particular interest to ‘whistleblowers’ and those involved with illuminating the murky world of cults and fundamentalist organisations):

“Some days, I feel like I should have never written anything about Wikipedia, positive or negative. Like many cults, it has extreme members or well-meaning folks who do not understand what they are part of, and who take me on personally and then fall back into the ranks should I respond poorly. Some of them, should I respond within the confines of Wikipedia, point to the rules of discourse on Wikipedia and how I am breaking them.”

(Jason Scott 3 Jan 2005

A few months later:

“… I will rest my case on a single entry: That of the Swastika.

Here, contained in one entry, is everything that I have issues with regarding the implementation of Wikipedia as it currently stands with its rules. […]”

“With over 1,500 edits done to this entry over its 3 year lifespan, the process of becoming even slightly familiar with the editing pattern could be a full day’s work. […]”


“The story of the swastika’s entry continues after this, for over 1,200 edits. Dozens of people are involved, lots of facts are lost, many are gained… and you would be hard, hard-pressed to show why many of these folks should be editing the Swastika entry in the first place. Calling this “open source” and comparing it to programming projects is borderline insane: open-source programming projects have a core team with goals in mind that they state clearly, who then decide what gets in and what does not get in. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it does not, but people with anonymous IPs can’t just come in and fundamentally redo the graphics code on the program and then disappear, never to be seen again.”

(Jason Scott, 3 May 2005, ‘Swastipedia’, http://


In October 2005, Andrew Orlowski contributed the following opinions:

“Encouraging signs from the Wikipedia project, where co-founder and überpedian Jimmy Wales has acknowledged there are real quality problems with the online work.

Criticism of the project from within the inner sanctum has been very rare so far, although fellow co-founder Larry Sanger, who is no longer associated with the project, pleaded with the management to improve its content by befriending, and not alienating, established sources of expertise. (i.e., people who know what they’re talking about.)”


“ Traditionally, Wikipedia supporters have responded to criticism in one of several ways. The commonest is: If you don’t like an entry, you can fix it yourself. Which is rather like going to a restaurant for a date, being served terrible food, and then being told by the waiter where to find the kitchen.”


“ Thirdly, and here you can see that the defense is beginning to run out of steam, one’s attention is drawn to process issues: such as the speed with which errors are fixed, or the fact that looking up a Wikipedia is faster than using an alternative. This line of argument is even weaker than the first: it’s like going to a restaurant for a date – and being pelted with rotten food, thrown at you at high velocity by the waiters.”


“Re-working Wikipedia so it presents the user with something minimally readable will be a mammoth task. Although the project has no shortage of volunteers, most add nothing: busying themselves with edits that simply add or takeaway a comma. These are housekeeping tasks that build up credits for the participants, so they can rise higher in the organization.”

“And Wikipedia’s “cabal” has become notorious for deterring knowledgable and literate contributors. One who became weary of the in-fighting, Orthogonal, calls it Wikipedia’s HUAC – the House of Unamerican Activities prominent in the McCarthy era for hunting down and imprisoning the ideologically-incorrect.”


“One day Wikipedia may well be the most amazing reference work the world has ever seen, lauded for its quality. But to get from here to there it will need real experts and top quality writing – it won’t get there by hoping that its whizzy technical processes remedy such deficiencies. In other words, it will resemble today’s traditional encyclopedias far more than it does today.”

(Andrew Orlowski, ‘Wikipedia founder admits to serious quality problems. Yes, it’s garbage, bit it’s delivered so much faster!’ uk/2005/10/18/wikipedia_quality_problem/page2.html)


On the members of the Wikipedia community:

A satirical definition from

“What is a [serious] Wikipedian?

“You can set up a user account, start editing everything you can find, enmesh yourself into the politics, the lameness, the backstabbing and moronity, and fight an ever-present desperate whirlpooling battle of contract law, miserable personalities and microscopic anal details. You can run out of additional information to add to subjects you know, and instead tunnel deep into shit you don’t have the slightest notion about, using your intense knowledge of Wiki-jargon and gaming the system to fight every bastard who tries to change an article in a way you don’t agree with, or which might have any information you’re unable to garner in the first 5 matches of a Google search.” (

In its wiki article on Wikipedia, makes this critical point:

“Although experts on a subject may edit a page, they ultimately have no more control over the content of that page than anyone else. Contributors with unique knowledge of unusual subjects may be mistrusted by editors with general knowledge, or to put it less diplomatically, little or no knowledge, who rely on searches of other Internet sites to review new information. Administrators or editors might analyze writing skills or rely on opinions about a contributor to inform decisions when they have no knowledge of the subject of an article, or on a poll of individuals as ill-informed about the subject at hand as they are, themselves.”

Sam Vaknin adds:

“Lacking quality control by design, the Wikipedia rewards quantity. The more one posts and interacts with others, the higher one’s status, both informal and official. In the Wikipedia planet, authority is a function of the number of edits, no matter how frivolous. The more aggressive (even violent) a member is; the more prone to flame, bully, and harass; the more inclined to form coalitions with like-minded trolls; the less of a life he or she has outside the Wikipedia, the more they are likely to end up being administrators.”

(Sam Vaknin, ‘The Six Sins of the Wikipedia’, 2 July, 2006,

A striking example of the many Wikipedia scandals of recent years, unearthed because of the persistence of a critic and the over-confidence of a prominent Wikipedian administrator with brazenly false credentials:

In July 2006, following a fascinating feature article on Wikipedia in The New Yorker by Stacy Schiff, Daniel Brandt posted this letter to the critical forum

“Who is Essjay? I would love to ID this guy. I think he’s notable enough for his own biography.
He says that his username derives from his initials, S.J. That would suggest that his first and middle name, or first and surname, start with S and J. But it hasn’t helped my search.
He’s between 30 and 45, and teaches theology to undergrads and grads. He’s a tenured professor. He says that he teaches at a private university in the northeastern U.S., but I have my doubts about this also.
He says he has these degrees: Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.), Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.), Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.), Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD)
I’ve searched on his degrees, and I’ve looked at religion-department faculty lists in the northeast by using this resource. No clues.” […]


Six months later, Brandt’s suspicions were confirmed. In February 2007, Wikipedia’s credibility suffered a further bodyblow when his evidence and an announcement in The New Yorker revealed that one of Wikipedia’s prominent administrators (recently promoted to be a salaried Wikia employee) did not possess the tenured professorship and four academic degrees that he had claimed on his User page and to the journalist Stacy Schiff. After further internal investigation and discussions revealed that 24 year old “Essjay” (with a tally of 16,000 edits) had used the prestige of his false credentials in edit disputes, he was eventually asked to resign by Jimmy Wales.


On Signs of Change in the System, Nicholas G. Carr:

“Aware of Wikipedia’s flaws, Wales and other contributors have been trying hard to improve the quality of the site’s content. A management team has slowly been taking shape, and it is establishing editorial policies and policing contributions. But even though this nascent hierarchy has already become much more bureaucratic than Linux’s lean managerial structure, it hasn’t yet been able to substantially improve Wikipedia. The failure appears to stem from the makeup of the supervisory group. Whereas the Linux team is a strict meritocracy, Wikipedia’s administrators represent a broader mix of contributors. They’re often chosen on the basis of how much they’ve contributed or how long they’ve contributed rather than on the quality of their contributions or their editorial skill. It seems fair to say that although the bazaar should be defined by diversity, the cathedral should be defined by talent.”

(‘The Ignorance of Crowds’, May 2007 by Nicholas G. Carr

Nicholas G. Carr’s much earlier brief analysis of Wikipedia is also highly instructive and much wider-ranging.

“In theory, Wikipedia is a beautiful thing – it has to be a beautiful thing if the Web is leading us to a higher consciousness. In reality, though, Wikipedia isn’t very good at all. Certainly, it’s useful – I regularly consult it to get a quick gloss on a subject. But at a factual level it’s unreliable, and the writing is often appalling. I wouldn’t depend on it as a source, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a student writing a research paper.”

(Here Carr gives a critique of two flawed Wikipedia articles (on Bill Gates and Jane Fonda). His analysis was so accurate that Jimmy Wales later admitted the need for improvements.)

Carr continues:

“The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity. Perhaps nowhere, though, is their love of amateurism so apparent as in their promotion of blogging as an alternative to what they call ‘the mainstream media’.”

(Nicholas G. Carr, ‘The amorality of Web 2.0’, LINK


Transcending the lessons offered by the case of Wikipedia, Carr’s magisterial conclusion to this important essay deserves the widest attention and diffusion in this increasingly ‘amoral’ cyberworld:

“Like it or not, Web 2.0, like Web 1.0, is amoral. It’s a set of technologies – a machine, not a Machine – that alters the forms and economics of production and consumption. It doesn’t care whether its consequences are good or bad. It doesn’t care whether it brings us to a higher consciousness or a lower one. It doesn’t care whether it burnishes our culture or dulls it. It doesn’t care whether it leads us into a golden age or a dark one. So let’s can the millennialist rhetoric and see the thing for what it is, not what we wish it would be.”

(Nicholas G. Carr, ‘The amorality of Web 2.0’,

See also: Fluctuating  Specifications for Online Encyclopedias

Etymology, and False Etymology as a Rhetorical Device

13 April 2008

Etymology: “An account of, or the facts relating to, the formation or development of a word and its meaning; the process of tracing the history of a word. The original meaning of a word as shown by its etymology” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). For the English language, a majority of etymologies refer to origins in Old English, Germanic Languages, French, Latin and Greek. The origins of the word ‘etymology’ itself are to be found in two Greek roots: ‘etymon’ (true) and logos (word).

It is not essential to know anything at all about etymologies. Most people survive and prosper without even knowing what the word means. Nevertheless, such knowledge (or where to find it: in reliable dictionaries) often proves to be very useful or indispensable to those who deal closely with (or are interested in) the words of a language. An etymological consultation can also help to avoid serious errors and misunderstandings (and sometimes misleading pronunciations). For example, the differences in meaning between the visually and orally similar ‘manually’, ‘manly’ and ‘manic’ are easily explained by their etymologies: respectively from a) the Latin word for hand, b) ‘man’, and c) Greek ‘mania’. Similarly, any suspicion of a common relationship between eschatology / eschatological and scatology / scatological can quickly and safely be dispelled by noting the different Greek roots from which the eschat- (last) and scat- (dung) parts are derived.

The Spreading of False Etymologies

In about 630 CE, a Catholic Archbishop named Isidore of Seville published an important encyclopedic series of books in Latin. This reference work continued to be consulted by European Latin scholars for several centuries. In The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, a recent English translation of this major ecclesiastical work by Stephen A. Barney and three other scholars (Cambridge University Press, 2006), the legendary poor quality of many of the etymologies offered is stressed and suitable samples are offered:

“Horses (equus) are so called because when they were yoked in a team of 4 they were balanced (aequare).” and “Humus (humus) was the material from which the human (homo) was made.” (I quote from a review by Emily Wilson.)

Another excellent example of how badly Isidore dealt with this minor aspect of his magnum opus (because of unreliable sources and, perhaps, lapses in research rigour) is offered by Adrian Murdoch on his typepad blog:

“The walking stick [baculus in Latin] is said to have been invented by Bacchus, the discovered of the grapevine, so that people affected by wine might be supported by it.”

Isidore’s, er, habit has nevertheless prospered in recent eras and in specific areas. There is some interesting evidence that etymological explanations seem attractive as a rhetorical device to prove a point, particularly in preaching, but also in other areas. If the promoters of beliefs are trusted by their readers or audience, impressive-sounding etymological proof will usually be accepted without demur, even if demonstrably false (‘false etymology’). In his book on cults, the Reverend Stephen Wookey refers to research which demonstrates the use of inaccurate quotations and false etymologies used to make a point by such preachers and orators. He quotes a blatant example by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

“The word Adam is from the Hebrew adamah, signifying the red color of the ground dust, nothing new. Divide the name Adam into two syllables [in English!] and it reads, a dam, or obstruction … it stands for obstruction, error, even the supposed separation of man from God and …” (Wookey, p. 338, from line 12 on). Baker Eddy goes on in similar vein, telling us all the negatives that poor Adam “stands for” for half a page. As Rev. Wookey comments: the Hebrew meaning is simply: man.

One of the clumsiest attempts at etymology for religious indoctrination purposes must surely be the one reported by William J. Petersen (Those Curious New Cults, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1973, p. 115). According to Petersen, one of the beliefs subscrtibed to by members of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God was that the British and the Americans are descended from the so-called Lost Tribes of the ancient Jewish people.’ As one of his ‘proofs’ of this peculiar assertion, Armstrong suggested that the word ‘Saxon’ was derived from ‘Isaac’s sons’.

Armstrong’s false etymologies are also dealt with in an easily accessible article, ‘The “Lost Tribes” of Herbert W. Armstrong’, in Catholic Answers Magazine:

Apparently, to further his thesis that the Lost Tribes settled in Britain and America, the preacher wrote a further piece of blatant ‘etymological’ indoctrination:

“The House of Israel is the ‘covenant people’. The Hebrew word for ‘covenant’ is brit. And the word for ‘covenant man’ or ‘covenant people’, would therefore sound, in English word order, ‘Brit-ish’ (the word ish means ‘man’ in Hebrew, and it is also an English suffix on nouns and adjectives). And so, is it mere coincidence that the true covenant people today are called the ‘British’? And they reside in the ‘British Isles’!”

And Armstrong’s disciples swallowed the false etymologies.

The Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba, has also made frequent use of etymologies as a teaching tool. Many of these are unconvincing except to his unquestioning devotees, who consider him to be Omniscient (and he himself has made that claim). For example, SSB has offered his devotees an idiosyncratic etymology of the ‘Sai’ part of the name that he assumed in 1943: ‘Sai Baba’, from Sai Baba of Shirdi – the Muslim/Hindu saint who died 1918 – whose reincarnation he claimed to be:

Sa means ‘Divine’, ai or ayi means ‘mother’ and Baba means ‘father’. The Name indicates Divine Mother and Father …” (Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. XII, 38:229. These Discourses are translated from Telugu and edited by the Sathya Sai Organisation)

On the real etymology of the original Sai Baba, scholars seem to be agreed. As Kevin R. D. Shepherd writes: “Sai is not a Hindu name, but a Persian word indicative of a holy man. It seems to bear an affinity with the Arabic sa’ih, which in the early medieval era of Islam was used to designate itinerant ascetics of sufi background. It appropriately reflects the Muslim background of the subject. ….” (KRDS, 1986, Chapter 2). See also Sathya Sai Baba’s Claim to be the Reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba

In addition to other inventive Sanskrit etymologies for words like Bhagavan, Guru, Hindu, Krishna, etc., Sathya Sai Baba, the alleged polyglot, has occasionally exercised his imagination on foreign terms. For example, here is one of his etymological explanations of Salaam (which most people know as the Arabic greeting: ‘Peace’).

“The Muslims use the term Salaam as a form of greeting. What does the word mean? ‘Sa’ refers to Sai, the Lord who is the embodiment of Truth, Awareness and Bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda); ‘la’ means ‘layam’ (mergence). Salaam means merging in the Supreme, who is also the embodiment of Truth and Bliss.” (Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. XVIII, 30:187)

Notice that in this example, SSB arbitrarily reduces ‘Salaam’ to ‘Sa’ plus ‘la’ (= ‘Sala’) to fit in with his extraordinary self-promotional interpretation.

(I have reported his different etymologies for Allah elsewhere on the Internet.)

More recently, a few writers of highly controversial works on history and archaeology (especially on the Internet) have also shown a preference for creative etymologies and other plays on words and names in order to support their contentious theses. (For the use of False Etymology in politics and propaganda, see the corresponding article in Wikipedia, to which this blog piece may be considered a supplement, at least by non-Wikipedians who do not reject the fruits of personal research.)

Gene D. Matlock, in yet another book on the lost Atlantis, puts forward the theory that there was an Atlantis in or close to Mexico. Part of his proof seems to be that there were Mexican “Sanskrit” place names like Atlán, Tlan or Tollán and that their inhabitants were called Atlantecas. (Those ‘Sanskrit’ names look like ordinary Mexican indigenous names.)

The author of a sensational best-selling book about a putative Chinese fleet which circumnavigated the globe in 1421-1423 (Gavin Menzies) offers as one of his exhibits news of an alleged inscription found in the Cape Verde islands. Menzies apparently attributes this to the Chinese Admiral Zheng He, but a critic ( reveals (among many other inconvenient details) that Menzies himself admits that the inscription turned out to be written in the southern Indian language, Malayalam.

And finally, for now, a much-argued Internet thesis that there is a connection between Abraham and his wife Sarah and Hindu God Brahma and his consort Saraswati (“Sarai-svati” in this case) seems to have foundered on Wikipedia for lack of solid evidence and partly because “a major hole in this hypothesis is that Hebrew is not an Indo-European language, and that the etymologies for each word [offered as proof] are fairly different.”

(See Wikipedia Discussion page for ‘Brahma’; User: ‘Gizza’.)

Justo Gallego – the lone twentieth century Cathedral Builder

8 April 2008

After I listened to a radio interview with Charles Happell, the author of The Bone Man Of Kokoda: The Extraordinary Story of Kokichi Nishimura and the Kokoda Track, the extraordinary mission carried out by a Japanese World War II soldier over the last 25 years of his life, my mind flashed back to a parallel epic of a Spaniard’s dogged determination to fulfil a self-imposed gargantuan mission inspired by very different circumstances.

According to Happell, Nishimura spent the final 25 years of his life (after abandoning his family, like Siddharta) in the jungles of contemporary Papua New Guinea searching for and recovering the bones of his Japanese comrades in arms who, unlike him, had been killed in the fierce battles with Australian troops on the infamous Kokoda Track in the early 1940s.

Justo Gallego’s travails over more than forty years are, thanks to the media and the Internet (especially the increasingly ubiquitous YouTube website), much more widely documented. Readers who are not familiar with this topic are invited to sample:
(Copy and paste the URLs, please.)
Justo Gallegos (born in 1925) entered a Catholic Trappist monastery in Spain in 1950, with the ambition of becoming a Catholic monk. Unfortunately, Justo contracted TB after several years of studies and (even more unfortunately, IMO) was ‘released’ from his vows by the ecclesiastical authorities, presumably in the health interests of the other monks. Despite these adverse circumstances, he eventually recovered and although (unfairly?) disqualified from becoming a Catholic priest (the only kind of priest then allowed to operate in dictator Franco’s Spain), Justo then made a vow to his mother to build a cathedral in his native Spanish village of Mejorada del Campo, to the greater glory of his God.

For more than 40 years Justo has steadfastly dedicated all his physical efforts to fulfilling that vow, canvassing local support, donations, and working with recycled materials. Against all the odds and quite significant local opposition, Don Justo has now virtually succeeded in building his ecclesiastical “Castle in Spain”. Although his idiosyncratic Cathedral is still not quite finished, when it is completed (possibly after his death), in view of this inspiring example of individual faith in an increasingly secular Spanish environment (and Western world), the Catholic Church really has no alternative but to recognise the Justo Cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of the Pillar (Nuestra Señora del Pilar), despite local town planners’ misgivings about the structural soundness of this huge building, designed and built by a complete amateur.

My own interest with this fascinating saga dates back to1991 (when the Internet and YouTube, etc., etc. etc., had not even been conceived). Taking a break from one of my language research trips to Spain, I followed up an intriguing Spanish magazine account of Justo’s labours. (He had already been slaving for 20 years!)

From the centre of metropolitan Madrid I took a train, a walk and a bus to the prosperous village of Mejorada del Campo (today one bus is sufficient, from the Avenida de América bus station). Before the bus arrived at the village, the impressive soaring shell of Justo’s homespun cathedral was visible. When I reached it, I talked to Don Justo – who could not even stop working to eat his lunch sandwich, even though his helpers had gone away for their well-earned break. He generously answered my questions before resuming his labours. I then toured the impressive but rickety 2-storey skeleton. On the second storey I was filmed and interviewed by a teenage crew from the local High School engaged on a video project on the Cathedral. They seemed surprised and gratified at this foreign interest, especially from antipodean Australia. I took some photos and before I left, I offered Don Justo a 5,000 peseta note ($50). I am still SO grateful for the privilege of contributing this insignificant sum to the lofty and seemingly Quixotic dream of this ordinary and extraordinary man.

¡Que su Dios le bendiga, Don Justo!

I revisited the building – still unfinished – 3 years later (1994) and there were encouraging signs of foreign touristic interest, although the local Municipal Council were still nervous about the project and its structural viability.

Since then Justo’s obsessive energy has put Mejorada del Campo on the tourist map. Bus excursions are run from Madrid (only 40 kilometres away). The irony is that in the 1960s when Don Justo committed himself to his vow, Mejorada was merely a village and the Spanish tourist boom was only just beginning. Decades later, it is a prosperous township close to Madrid’s vastly extended and bustling Barajas Airport. It is under the approach flightpath so some clued-up tourists may also be lucky enough to check it out from the air, free.

For historical comparison, I enclose a few of my photos from 1991.

I also enclose the public statement that Justo Gallego posted in the Cathedral to avoid being overwhelmed by questions from the flood of visiting Spanish and overseas tourists attracted by his fame.

Debido a mis problemas de afonía, les ruego eviten hacerme hablar. Si desean información, lean este cartel.
Me llamo Justo Gallego. Nací en Mejorada del Campo el 20 de septiembre de 1925. Desde muy joven sentí una profunda fe cristiana y quise consagrar mi vida al Creador. Por ello ingresé, a la edad de 27 años, en el monasterio de Santa María de la Huera, en Soria, de donde fui expulsado al enfermar de tuberculosis, por miedo al contagio del resto de la comunidad. De vuelta en Mejorada y frustrado este primer camino espiritual, decidí construir, en un terreno de labranza propiedad de mi familia, una obra que ofrecer a Dios. Poco a poco, valiéndome del patrimonio familiar de que disponía, fui levantando este edificio. No existen planos del mismo, ni proyecto oficial. Todo está en mi cabeza. No soy arquitecto, ni albañil, ni tengo ninguna formación relacionada con la construcción. Mi educación más básica quedó interrumpida al estallas la Guerra Civil. Inspirándome en distintos libros sobre catedrales, castillos y otros edificios significativos, fui alumbrando el mío propio. Pero mi fuente principal de luz e inspiración ha sido, sobre todo y ante todo, el Evangelio de Cristo. Él es quien me alumbra y conforta y a él ofrezco mi trabajo en gratitud por la vida que me ha otorgado y en penitencia por quienes no siguen su camino.
Llevo cuarenta y dos años trabajando en esta catedral, he llegado a levantarme a las tres y media de la madrugada para empezar la jornada; a excepción de algunas ayudas esporádicas, todo lo he hecho sólo, la mayoría de las veces con materiales reciclados… Y no existe fecha prevista para su finalización. Me limito a ofrecer al Señor cada día de trabajo que Él quiera concederme, y a sentirme feliz con lo ya alcanzado. Y así seguiré, hasta el fin de mis días, completando esta obra con la valiosísima ayuda que ustedes me brindan. Sirva todo ello para que Dios quede complacido de nosotros y gocemos juntos de Eterna Gloria a Su lado.

Translation (added 27 December 2011)

In view of my throat problems, please do not ask me questions. If you desire information, please read this notice.

My name is Justo Gallego. I was born in Mejorada del Campo on the 20th of September 1925. From an early age I felt a deep Christian faith and wanted to devote my life to the Creator. So, at the age of 27 years, I joined the monastery of Santa María de la Huera, in Soria, but was expelled when I fell ill with tuberculosis, to avoid infecting the rest of the community. Back in Mejorada and with this first spiritual path closed, I decided to build, on a farm owned by my family, a work to offer to God. Little by little, using inheritance money at my disposal, I gradually erected this building. There are no plans for it, nor any official project. Everything is in my head. I am no architect, no bricklayer, nor do I have any training related to building. My basic education was interrupted by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Inspired by various books on cathedrals, castles and other significant buildings, I forged my path. But my main source of light and inspiration has been, first and foremost, the Gospel of Christ. It is He who lights my way and comforts me and to Him I offer my work in gratitude for granting me life and in penance for those who do not follow His way.

Forty-two years I have been working in this cathedral. I have to get up at three thirty in the morning to start the day’s work. Except for sporadic support from others, I have done everything myself, most of the time with recycled materials. There is no date for completion. I merely offer the Lord every day of work He wishes to give me, happy with what has been achieved. And so I shall continue, to the end of my days, finishing this work with the most valuable help that you care to give me. May it all serve to make the Lord pleased with us and may we all enjoy Eternal Glory together at His Side.


1. Facade 1991


2. Justo Gallego 1991 and a written request for donations to finish the work

(“Se Admiten Donativos para terminar la OBRA!!”)


3. Cathedral detail 1991


Fuzzy Dates in the Official Biography of Sathya Sai Baba. A Re-examination

6 April 2008

Some of the strong assertions made by Sathya Sai Baba’s hagiographers, as well as by the Sathya Sai Organisation and by spokespersons and devotees, are highly controversial, in particular claims of SSB’s Divinity and Avatarhood. Internet and other coverage of these controversies is already substantial and easy to find. This short essay, which is addressed to researchers and other open-minded readers, sheds light on two details of the controversy surrounding his official biography (hagiography).

As stated in my ‘Dossier 4’ and in earlier articles of mine, new evidence offered by the (devotee) researchers who published Love is My Form, Volume 1 in 2000 draws attention to the circumstantial uncertainties surrounding SSB’s declared official date of birth (1926) and the date of his alleged Declaration of Mission – as “Sai Baba” (1940).

On the first point, since the official biography, which gives SSB’s year of birth as 1926, has always linked the two numbers ‘1940’ and ‘nearly 14’ to SSB’s first declarations that he was “Sai Baba”, the strong recent LIMF evidence that leads to the inevitable conclusion that these Declarations took place in 1943 shows that one of these official figures (14 or 1926) must be incorrect. If SSB was 14 in 1943, as is possible, then he was born in 1929; if he was born in 1926, then he was nearly 17 at the time of the Declarations in Uravakonda in 1943, which is also possible.

To my knowledge, the Sathya Sai Organisation has never refuted (or even mentioned) the LIMF evidence which points to 1943, or my Internet articles about it. There has been no official adjustment to to SSB’s stated age when he undertook his Mission nor to the date of that alleged event. When the SSO does decide to address this question, there are other pieces of information relating to his date of birth which they will need to consider.

In LIMF (pp.132-133) the 1943 Register pages (apparently from Uravakonda High School) give Sathya Narayana’s date of birth as 4-10-39. This is an obvious clerical error. However, the later correction to “4-10-29”, with a signed clarification, “fourth October Nineteen Twentynine” (dated, as far as the writing is legible, 11-8-76). (Note that the same date of birth, in 1929, is also given – with an intricate disclaimer caption (plausible but also defensive), which needs to be taken into consideration – on the transfer certificate from distant Kamalapuram School to neighbouring Bukkapatnam School, in 1941, LIMF, p. 68.) However, before too much is made of the 1929 date ‘discrepancy’, we have been informed, in LIMF (p. 68), and by other experts on Indian culture, that such errors were quite common in rural India in those days. Equally relevant, therefore, is the hypothesis that, in such a remote Indian village in the 1920s, no one would have remembered the exact birth date and the date in the register is an approximation. It is also possible, of course, that the date of birth will never be proved one way or the other, but in the light of demonstrable discrepancies, all the evidence should be considered.

Additional Notes:
1. On this document, the other boys in Sathya Narayana’s class have birthdates ranging from 1933 to 1938, and leaving dates from 1946 and 1949. Sathya Narayana’s early leaving date (suggesting a younger than usual termination of studies), although not recorded, is assumed (according to the LIMF evidence) to have been October 1943, when he made his second Mission Declaration.
2. Still to be investigated is the note by prominent SSB proselytiser, M.N. Rao (A Story of God as Man, 1985, p. 28). It states that after Sathya left, there was an entry in the Uravakonda High School records to that effect. “In the fourth form (ninth class) attendance register of 1940, the entry against the name Rathnakaram Sathyanarayanaraju read as follows: “Discontinued – no T.C. claimed.”

An additional relevant consideration is that the 1926 date of birth is inextricably linked with the claim by SSB and the SSO that Shirdi Sai Baba predicted before his death (in 1918) that he would return in 8 years – a claim not supported, as far as I am aware, by the official Shirdi Sai Association literature. (The two Associations are totally separate.) Equally dependent on the official 23rd of November 1926 date of birth is the confident assertion by SSB writers and devotees that Sri Aurobindo’s declaration on 24 November 1926 about the descent of Krishna into the physical on the preceding day was really an acknowledgement of SSB’s divine Advent. In other words, it is one of a series of unsupported (and often demonstrably unconvincing) official (and devotee) claims that SSB’s birth was foretold by many important sages and leaders. This particular claim was never recognised by Aurobindo (who died in 1950) or by his followers. The latter have always interpreted this special announcement as the arrival of the Divine spirit into Aurobindo’s consciousness, for which he had prayed for years.

The voluminous (partisan) literature on SSB offers a few further pieces of circumstantial evidence for solving this biographical puzzle. First of all, innocent quotations offered in veteran devotee Smt. Vijayakumari’s memoirs seem to provide a degree of independent support for the possibility that SSB’s date of birth may not have been in 1926 but in 1929. In 1945 the little girl’s cousins were strolling in the affluent Bangalore suburb of Malleswaram when they heard bhajans being sung. They entered the house to listen. Sai Baba, who was present there, invited them to go to Puttaparthi (whose name they had never heard). When they returned to their town of Kuppam (south-east of Bangalore, but in today’s Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh), the cousins told the girl’s mother about their meeting. The latter was keen for them all to go, but the idea was vetoed by the father, who said: “You tell me He is sixteen years old and claims to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai. This is all humbug” (Vijayakumari, p. 12). That night the mother had a dream of SSB and they were immediately given permission by the father to visit the ashram for three days. This first visit allegedly took place during Dasara, in October 1945 (p.13). The family soon became very close to SSB and visited for long periods.

However, since the fortuitous assistance of the research behind LIMF has enabled us to establish that SSB was (allegedly) nearly 17 when he made his October 1943 Declaration, Vijayakumari’s words quoted above indicate that, two years later, in 1945, SSB was not nearly 19, as would be expected, but 16. If true, this would make his year of birth 1929 (as indicated by the register entries in LIMF). What is also interesting about this possibility is that at the time of the (alleged) Mission Declarations of 1943, he would have been almost 14 years old – as he and his biographers have always claimed!
The rest of this essay is to be found HERE.

Padmanaban, R. et al , Love is My Form. Vol. 1 The Advent (1926-1950). Prasanthi Nilayam, Sai Towers, 2000. [Often referred to as LIMF]
Vijayakumari, Smt., Anyatha Saranam Nasthi. Other than You Refuge is There None, Chennai, [n.p.], 1999. [Available from the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust]
For an introduction to the alleged forecasts of Sathya Sai Baba’s birth and their prominence in the official promotion of SSB: ‘Counter-Evidence to the Sathya Sai Baba Divinity Myth and Related Topics. A Basic Source Guide’

New Hope for Disempowered Women

4 April 2008

New Hope for Disempowered Women under Authoritarian Régimes: The Spanish Experience (1960-2000)

Brian Steel

Copyright © 2007 Brian Steel


Detecting a glimmer of potentially valid extrapolations from a forty-year old essay has prompted me to re-issue it with this Introduction. The essay reproduced below was written in 1967 as a background paper for a number of women’s Extramural Discussion Groups in rural New South Wales. It describes the disempowered status of Spanish women during the major part of the Franco dictatorship which followed the 1936-1939 Civil War. Also mentioned are a few emerging signs of small changes to a status quo supported and enforced by the dominant political and religious powers. What is not mentioned and could not be predicted by those who lived through that period of recent Spanish history (including journalists and social commentators) was the speed and scope of the political, social and economic transformations which would follow the death of General Franco in 1975.

The changes in the status and role of Spanish women over the past thirty to forty years are so profound that much of what is described in this 1967 survey is no longer true. Moreover, the present generation of Spaniards (of both sexes) will find some of the facts astonishing or exaggerated – which is why revisiting this subject at this difficult moment in history may prove to be a salutory and enlightening experience.

The Spain of 2007 is an affluent, vibrant European country which attracts many millions of world tourists every year and is the subject of intense media attention and fascination, especially for its special cultural phenomena. Like other developed countries it has its share of internationally known celebrities (notably in sports, cinema, music and fashion). Spain also has a simpatico and down to earth Royal Family.

Like their Western sisters, Spanish women enjoy varying degrees of freedom and equality with men, as can be glimpsed in the internationally popular films of Pedro Almodóvar, the acclaimed director and one-time enfant terrible. Spanish women of today are to be found in positions of high responsibility and authority in national and local politics, in the Public Service, the professions, management, commerce, health, medicine, law (including the police), education and the armed forces. These advances put them on a par with women in countries of similar contemporary status, where, forty years ago, the status of women was somewhat more advanced, as reformers and social commentators have recorded in their chronicles of the Feminist Movement of the 1960s.

The surprise of today’s grown up grandchildren on learning of the conditions of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s from their grandmothers, from books or sociology courses is much greater in Spain than elsewhere precisely because the path has been longer and more tortuous, due to a series of historical and cultural factors. In this aspect as in many others, today’s Spain is a different planet and its younger inhabitants are almost a different species.

What encouraged me to re-examine and re-offer these personal memories to a much wider public was precisely that perceptuion of such an unthinkable change in the space of 50 years (1950-2000). In today’s uneasy atmosphere of suspicion between ethnic groups and the fear of future clashes between populations predicted and so heavily promoted by the media and politicians, the reality of the socio-cultural abyss which separates Spanish women of 1940-1960 from their twenty first century descendants, and which was not forecast or even imagined by the media forty years ago, may encourage people to be slightly more optimistic about the development of human and international relations in the next forty years. In particular, long term media predictions about the continuing plight of Muslim women, which tend to present overwhelmingly negative scenarios, may well turn out to be based on false premises and expectations, for example, the central assumption that the power of authoritarian régimes and religions are immutable. This is surely an auspicious possibility for women in some of the countries where their current situation is as bad as or worse than that of their Spanish sisters of the mid-twentieth century.

The Status and Role of Women in Spain circa 1960

At the end of the Second World War, there was a wide gulf between the political, economic and social systems of English-speaking countries and those of post-Civil War Spain. Firstly, there was a much sharper contrast between conditions in urban and rural communities. Rural areas in Spain were more backward than towns and cities and preserve even today customs and att­itudes which have disappeared from the urban areas. In subsequent references to Spanish women, I shall be referring mainly to those in urban areas, although many of the observations are also applicable to rural Spain.


The full 4,000 word article is available HERE:
You may have to copy and paste the URL:

Spanish Pronunciation in the Media

3 April 2008

“Spanish is an easy language to learn – badly.” (?Anthony Gooch)

Are you fed up with hearing mispronunciations of Spanish names and terms from the worlds of sports, music, films and politics on the radio and TV? Probably not.

OK. Please do not waste your time on me today but please return soon.

For the five of you who are still here, deeply concerned about this neglected problem, I am happy to share my own heartache and tribulations and the causes thereof.

How do you pronounce the following?

Ángel, Enrique, Felipe, Juan, Javier, Vicente (the tricky one for Italian lovers, or even lovers of Italian), Martínez, Sastre (the Tour de France resumes in a couple of months; check how that common Hispanic surname and others come over in the expensive media commentaries), Aranjuez (as in ‘Concierto de -’), Plácido Domingo, Almodóvar, and so on.

You can pick up your free guide, if you still want to. It’s all here, in black and white:


P. S. Worth preserving from the Internet’s Maw:

French Words in English

2 April 2008

A significant amount of the English lexicon is – or was – French. In addition to all the words which were fully absorbed in the first centuries following the radical change of government in 1066, many other words and phrases have been absorbed or borrowed down the ages. They still keep arriving. Some of the more recent have kept their French spelling (sometimes written accents as well) and an approximate French pronunciation. We come across such terms in our reading and listening or we use them in our speech and, more often, our writing.

After that début, faute de mieux, if you would like a concise desktop aide-mémoire for many of these terms (with a novel system of pronunciation glosses), I invite you to download and enjoy the collection of 600 terms which I made available some time ago.

Perhaps you would be kind enough to supplement my list by sending in suggestions, and corrections, to ““.

Here is a brief sample for your dégustation.

Merci bien and à bientôt.

Bonne chance.

Sample: abba-twa(r), ah la cart, ah-pray-voo, aid duh com,

boo-fong, cash, ca-shay, coo duh grass, crow-Kay, day-tont, dee-stang-gay, dew zhoor, etc.

(A Cheat Sheet is provided)

The full lists are available at: