What Tech Does to the Reading Brain.

This is exactly the sort of pop-psych piece beloved of op-ed pages and their online equivalents, but what the hell, it’s interesting: Angela Chen interviews Maryanne Wolf about her book Reader, Come Home (subtitle: “the reading brain in a digital world”). Chen starts with a question about the idea of “circuits” in the brain; Wolf responds:

When we have any function, whether it’s language or vision or cognitive functions like memory, we aren’t dealing with a straight line to the brain that says “This is what I do.” The brain builds a network of connections, a network of neurons that have a particular role in that function. So when we have a new cognitive function, like literacy, it doesn’t have a preset network. Rather, it makes new connections among older networks, and that whole collection of networks becomes a circuit. It’s a connected scaffolding of parts.

The beauty of the circuit for functions like literacy is its plasticity. You can have one for each different language, like English or Chinese or Hebrew. And then something miraculous happens: the circuit builds upon itself. The first circuits are very basic — for decoding letters as we’re learning to read — but everything we read builds upon itself.

So what’s changing now with technology? How is that affecting our circuits?

The fact that a circuit is plastic is both its beautiful strength and its Achilles’ heel. Reading reflects our medium. And to the extent that a digital medium is going to require us to process large amounts of information very quickly, it will diminish from the time we have for slower processing work.

And these slower processes are deep learning, the ones that are more cognitively challenging. They’re the basis for going beyond that initial short circuit of decoding the information and understanding it at a very basic level. The digital medium affordance rewards and advantages fast processing at the cost of the slower processes that build our very important critical, analytical, and empathetic processes.

Wolf proposes we aim for a “bi-literate brain.” I leave it to my readers to decide the relative proportions of sense and woo in all this. Thanks, Jack!

Comments

  1. John Cowan says:

    I can no more believe that reading a book off a screen changes the perception of it by the brain than I believe that reading a book from a codex rather than a scroll changes it. It’s not the medium that requires us to process a great deal of information quickly.

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    And to the extent that a digital medium is going to require us to process large amounts of information very quickly, it will diminish from the time we have for slower processing work.

    That’s a sneaky conditional. Few people can process large amounts of information very quickly – whatever “process” means. First of all, it’s not the medium that requires, as John points out. Only persons require – that is, either you subject yourself to “processing” all those words, or someone else subjects you, for instance your boss. Thank goodness only results count – the boss has not read the words either.

    Secondly, a large number of words is not automatically information, for several reasons: 1) words I ignore cannot inform, and 2) it is not the case (against what is being implied) that everything someone says or writes is worth paying attention to. Think Facebook, Twitter and that very pop-psych piece. The way I “process” lotsa-words is to skim and skip, looking for raisins and grit. The people who write the descriptions of bank IT processes that I am confronted with every week are masters of écriture automatique.

    Also: “diminish from the time” ? How about “diminish the time”.

  3. Why this pervasive feeling that something is added by reifying “capability” into “circuit”? Thaumaturgical neurology.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    Fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

  5. I must be ahead of the curve. I thought “The Glass Bead Game” was boring before the Internet.

  6. I know a lot of English teachers who buy into stuff like this, and it’s frustrating. I think students should be exposed to reading in different ways, but the idea that it’s self-evident that we should somehow prioritize *slowness* in reading and thought is bizarre to me. It would be like math teachers deciding that students shouldn’t ever use multiplication, because careful and patient addition is so valuable to the deep tissues and “circuits” of the brain.

  7. Lars (the original one) says:

    bank IT processes — so that’s why the Grumbly. Would get to even a saint.

  8. Trond Engen says:

    I have a brother and a brother in law who both work with that, and I know nothing at all. Maybe it’s because they can’t say anything — and are good at it — or maybe it’s because I’ve never asked. Or maybe they’ve told me lots and I didn’t process it.

  9. Thanks for using woo. It is a favorite of mine (and is also popular with many who pitch said woo).

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    I submit a revised version of the article, amended for accuracy:

    What tech does to the reading brain.

    Nothing.

  11. I’m afraid I tend to agree with Maryanne Wolf. As a medium, the Internet does seem to encourage a certain style of reading — dipping, switching, jumping, clicking, scrolling — that is less common if you are used to paper books. The very process of scrolling down to get to the next bit and the links that beckon you away encourage a jumpy style of reading. This might be due to the medium (bright screens aren’t easy on the eye for extended periods of time) or the style that the medium has fostered (information is scattered over individual web pages, each page is relatively short and writing is designed to be superficial and snappy so as to grab the reader’s attention, and ease of publishing lowers the bar for entry). The overall effect is to create impatience in the reader and discourage careful, sustained reading. If anything, the web is more like a gossip magazine than a book. You read the parts that interest you (or at least the bits that seem interesting at the time) and throw the rest away.

  12. As a medium, the Internet does seem to encourage a certain style of reading

    Sure, I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. It’s the leap from that to the pseudo-scientific stuff about rewiring our brain circuits that inspires irritation.

  13. John Cowan says:

    I think it’s hypertext rather than the web/internet that inspires that style of reading. By no means everything on the web is hypertext in that sense. A PDF is not, and the texts at Project Gutenberg are not, even if they have hyperlinks to jump to the beginning of chapters. A book remains a book even when digitized.

  14. Stu Clayton says:

    In one widespread view, words point beyond themselves to what they mean. So every word is already hypertext. Hyperlinks are merely an in-your-face mechanism on that principle.

  15. hypertext rather than the web/internet

    Well, the Internet is based on hypertext. That was one of the key innovations (I think it was due to Tim Berners-Lee) that launched the World Wide Web as we know it. The fact that certain kinds of document (pdf, etc.) can be accessed from the World Wide Web does not alter its essential nature.

  16. What Tim Berners-Lee did was twofold. He came up with the idea of presenting hypertext pages in which every resource was fetched separately. That meant that a given page could use image and text files from any commonly addressable location, and likewise, links could be directed to arbitrary off-site locations. He probably was not the first person to think of this possibility, but he made it practical through his second innovation, the first text-based markup language that could be used to generate hypertext pages. (I remember at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, they had an extended “Thanks, Tim” show, but essentially none of the technology on display as part of the program had anything to do with what Berners-Lee did to develop the World-Wide Web.)

    The idea of hypertext itself is older. The OED has two citations (from 1965 and 1967) from papers by Ted Nelson, who coined the word:

    Let me introduce the word ‘hypertext’ to mean a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper.

    Such a congeries of interconnected text may incorporate and have available many chunks of literature on a given subject, or many subjects, purposely assembled and woven together by authors and editors. The name for this new medium is hypertext.

    That’s a nice use of congeries. Unfortunately, the OED entry for congeries looks like it has not been touched since 1891, and so it does not have any quotations from Lovecraft, who really seemed fond of the word.

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    I well recall Lovecraft’s “The Horror from the Fourth Declension.”

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    Fifth Declension. Whatever.

    It’s Magnum Cthulhu that’s from the Fourth Declension, of course.

  19. I well recall Lovecraft’s “The Horror from the Fourth Declension.”

    I prefer “The Clause of Cthulhu” myself. Or “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. (Spoiler: it’s the genitive.)

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    Grammar Horror is a branch of Corpus Linguistics.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    bright screens aren’t easy on the eye for extended periods of time

    That’s why I always decrease “the brightness” to 0% – which isn’t total darkness at all, it just means switching the additional backlighting off. I only turn it back on when I’m sitting in front of or right next to a window and it’s sunny outside.

  22. January First-of-May says:

    That’s why I always decrease “the brightness” to 0% – which isn’t total darkness at all, it just means switching the additional backlighting off.

    As someone who just lost a laptop to a broken backlight, I actually feel kind of happy for you for having screens that can still be readable without the backlighting.

    (We would have just diagnosed it as a switched-off screen if my mom didn’t accidentally notice that if she looked at it from just the right angle there was a hint of the desktop background just barely visible.
    So I googled whether screens can get that dim, found the “broken backlight” possibility, and confirmed that I could actually see enough to interact with when shining on the screen with a flashlight.
    It’s still nigh-unusably dim even then, though.)

  23. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting. I’ve never seen that.

    Perhaps 0% isn’t even turning it off completely? But a screen at 0% does become completely unrecognizable when the sun shines on it or right next to it.

  24. I’m afraid I tend to agree with Maryanne Wolf. As a medium, the Internet does seem to encourage a certain style of reading — dipping, switching, jumping, clicking, scrolling — that is less common if you are used to paper books. The very process of scrolling down to get to the next bit and the links that beckon you away encourage a jumpy style of reading.

    So, basically, it’s like newspapers and magazines. (E.g., the front page of The Times from December 4, 1788 — four columns, twenty-one different items, just daring you to jump around!)

    Which means our “reading circuits” have been thoroughly messed up for more than a century. (Ah, for the days of the early 18th Century, when we could read properly…)

  25. As a physical medium, ’21 different items’ are still far different from computer or phone screens.

    1. Unlike the Internet, newspaper columns don’t lead you down a rabbit hole. You can come back quite easily by shifting your eyes over to the previous column or turning back a few pages. You can glance up to the top of the article or look down at the bottom. You don’t have to scroll.

    2. Newspapers (daily, weekly, or monthly) have a beginning and an end. The Internet is endless. (The advantage, of course, is that the Internet is searchable. Finding that article you read in the paper a few weeks back about growing red lettuce is almost an exercise in futility.)

    3. Newspapers ARE a more fragmented medium than books; they were meant to be like that (like gossip magazines). You look around, flip through, and find what you’re interested in. The Internet is, in that sense, similar to a newspaper. The only things similar to books on the Internet are pdf’s / word documents / kindle app, which are the exception rather than the norm.

  26. Ah, for the days of the early 18th Century, when we could read properly

    Pah. You have to go much further back than that; we’ve been going downhill ever since we switched to these damn codices. With a scroll, you don’t get a chance to wander — you just unroll and read from one end to the other, as the gods intended.

  27. Tsk … we all know that human memory was irredeemably damaged when we started scribbling signs to keep records instead of reciting knowledge and learning it by heart to fix it in memory!

  28. I used to know that but I forgot. Damn these signs and their destructive allure!

  29. John Cowan says:

    There are plenty of book-like things that aren’t PDFs, e-books, or Word documents. I refer once more to Project Gutenberg and its relatives like the Hathi Project, to say nothing of various bootleg sites that present up to tens of thousands of books fragmented to chapter or long-page sizes. The only difference from books is that it typically takes just one click to move along, which can tend to put the reader to sleep compared to the physical action involved in turning the page.

    Blog posts like these are only secondarily hypertexts, as their hyperlinks are more like citations. Other than comment self-links, links to commenter home pages, and the right margin, there is only one hyperlink on this page, and it is most definitely a citation.

  30. Talking of scrolls I wonder if anyone’s tried writing or printing a short story (or a novel or poem) on toilet paper and hanging it in the bathroom. Anything from one word to a page per sheet, you could buy a different toilet roll to read every time you visited the supermarket. I couldn’t do it, we only have one bathroom and it might become occupied for hours.

  31. @AJPC: I never got into the habit of reading (whether traditionally or electronically) in the bathroom. It seems to be one of those topics where everyone is baffled either that others do it or that they don’t.

    More seriously, though, I think a fair bit of samizdat literature has been written on toilet paper.

  32. Stu Clayton says:

    I’ve often read that de Sade wrote the 120 Journées de Sodome on sheets of toilet paper. This may be a learned legend, a silly joke become po-faced as it passed down the generations. Apart from that, I doubt that industry was up to rolls back then, or would have delivered them to the Bastille.

  33. Toilet paper, at least of the modern sort, does not seem very suitable for writing upon. The stuff I buy, which is soft, absorbent, and kind to Uranus, does not have the requisite qualities of smoothness and tensile robustness.

    The hard stuff that we used way back when would probably support writing by ballpoint pen, but it was not well suited to its intended purpose. As someone I worked with on a summer job once put it, “one side is like sandpaper, and the other side the shit slides right off.”

    I apologize for lowering the tone of this establishment.

  34. @John Cowan

    Ok, you are technically correct. There are plenty of other book-like things on the Internet that aren’t PDFs, etc. But what’s the point? They don’t alter the basic nature of the Internet, which is very different from that of a book.

    Other than comment self-links, links to commenter home pages, and the right margin, there is only one hyperlink on this page, and it is most definitely a citation.

    That’s an awful lot of exceptions. And you forgot the links to the blog’s home page in the header and footer.

    The cited page is rich in its own hyperlinks, leading the reader who knows where.

  35. John Cowan says:

    They don’t alter the basic nature of the Internet, which is very different from that of a book.

    I don’t think the Internet has a “basic nature”, you see. It has a gossip-column nature, and a book nature, and a TV-show nature, and a feature-film nature, and every other kind of nature. And even that’s not the whole Internet, just the Web. I remember reading an article about the functions of the Internet, which were enumerated as six:

    1) Communication between a pair of people. Email is one form of this, but there are others.

    2) Communication between a closed but self-selected group of people. Mailing lists are the simplest form of this.

    3) Shared conversational databases. Usenet news was an early form of this; web forums like this one are another version of it.

    4) Interactive real-time chat. IRC, Slack, WeChat, Skype.

    5) The remote control of devices. Telnet, ssh, the Internet of Things. Amazon, which lets you remotely control devices which send you things in the mail.

    6) Retrieval of information. FTP. The Web 1.0.

  36. Unlike the Internet, newspaper columns don’t lead you down a rabbit hole. You can come back quite easily by shifting your eyes over to the previous column or turning back a few pages.

    You are aware, I hope, that most web browsers have a “back” button, which lets you “come back quite easily” by clicking on it a few times? (And if you click on a link that opens a new tab or window — the original tab/window is not automatically destroyed…)

    Newspapers (daily, weekly, or monthly) have a beginning and an end. The Internet is endless.

    This kind of suggests that libraries are slightly bad (physical) places, because they allow you to explore things other than that one document you’re supposed to be reading. (I could be reading a book, and get intrigued by a particular cited reference. If all I have is the book, well, no distraction. But if I’m in a good library I might be tempted to go looking for that reference…)

    Are old-fashioned encyclopedias with cross-references (or books like The Dictionary of the Khazars) bad, because they encourage you to wander down rabbit holes?

    (And it’s odd the way you keep referring to “gossip magazines”, as if other sorts of (fragmented, distracting) periodicals don’t really exist. The New Yorker, to take just one example, is full of different articles, summary reviews of plays and films, cartoons, images, advertisements, etc.)

  37. Saragossa Manuscript is kind of like that.

    Or 1001 nights for that matter.

    Stories within stories within stories…

  38. I never got into the habit of reading (whether traditionally or electronically) in the bathroom.

    That reminds me. A school friend told me he had dropped in on another school guy. The guy had disappeared and the friend went looking for him. He found him perched on the toilet seat, reading a book or something and drinking juice and eating cookies…

  39. Sorry to rattle on about toilet paper but its big advantage over a page of text is that it can present words in one long line. That’s more akin to the way we talk. The telling of a story, for example, could be presented in a straight or a winding line or as two or three parallel lines (different voices), and so on. It would also be possible to present work on Kibble in this way. Amazon uses pages of text because of its resemblance to paper books. That is what they were after, but I bet it will die out soon. It’s static, slow and unnatural. A linear Kimble machine would be much smaller too (perhaps not much bigger than a fountain pen).

  40. most web browsers have a “back” button, which lets you “come back quite easily” by clicking on it a few times?

    Nice try, but it still doesn’t make web browsers the same as a page of text.

    I could be reading a book, and get intrigued by a particular cited reference. If all I have is the book, well, no distraction. But if I’m in a good library I might be tempted to go looking for that reference…

    What percentage of readers of paper books indulge in this style of reading — finding a reference in a book, jumping up to go through the stacks and find the book, reading it a bit, jumping up again to find another book in the stacks, ad infinitum — at any given time? Maybe 0.00000000000000001%? On the other hand, I suggest that a huge percentage of Internet users do the equivalent of this every day. (Of course, there are some people for whom the Internet is synonymous with logging on to Facebook, so it’s certainly not all.)

    it’s odd the way you keep referring to “gossip magazines”

    What’s odd about it? A good proportion of the Internet isn’t much above this level, starting with portals like Yahoo, MSN, and, of course, clickbait. The Internet is encyclopaedias, newspapers, gossip magazines, porn magazines, mailboxes, shops, and the occasional book, all wrapped together in one bundle. Try to find that in your well-stocked library.

  41. John Cowan says:

    That’s an awful lot of exceptions. And you forgot the links to the blog’s home page in the header and footer.

    But they are all trivial. And as for the header, footer, and right margin, I no more notice them when reading the blog than I notice the ads when reading a magazine. My eyes simply don’t go there.

    Sorry to rattle on about toilet paper but its big advantage over a page of text is that it can present words in one long line.

    That would have been a big advantage of scrolls over codices, and yet the whole world has switched to the codex except where ritual reasons prohibit it. The possibility of random access trumps a slightly improved experience of linearity. Indeed, my own history as a computernik covered the transition from magnetic tape (linear only) to hard disks (random access with a slight extra cost for linearity). No one would go back. (Film, on the other hand, is still represented as a scroll.)

  42. JC: random access trumps linearity

    It might be easier to find a sentence on page 73 than halfway down a snake or it might not. I don’t know. But that’s not the point. Unlike pages of text or scrolls, linear script has similar qualities to speech coming out of mouths. It’s worth trying that. I always liked children’s books like Beatrix Potter or Ferdinand the bull that have only one or two sentences per page & picture, as if the story is being told by a parent (as it normally is).

  43. January First-of-May says:

    Film, on the other hand, is still represented as a scroll.

    The film version of random access, I assume, would be something like those YouTube videos where you can click at the bottom to get to any point.

    (This is, I believe, actually typical for computer versions of both video and audio those days.)

  44. AJP, have you ever tried the Kindle app’s Word Runner feature? It presents your book one word at a time. So it’s not exactly linear in the sense you mean, but the way the text unfolds in time is like spoken communication in a way: although you can change the presentation speed, at any given speed the reader just has to keep up, as a listener has to keep up with a speaker, because the words vanish much as spoken words do. I’ve seen claims that it makes reading more efficient, but I haven’t seen (or looked for) any research on it. In my few brief trials I’ve found I take in more than I expected, but I’ve been reluctant to try it on a whole chapter, let alone a novel. It’s an odd experience.

  45. Stu Clayton says:

    JC: random access trumps linearity

    The technical IT expression “random access” is probably misleading for non-IT people. Reading and writing data from/to random access memory is the exact opposite of random, in fact it is 100% deterministic – otherwise you couldn’t reliably recover your Word documents from day to day.

    “Random access” memory is accessible in the fashion of a grid or coordinate system. Each point in the grid contains a 0 or 1, and each point has coordinates. The trick is that is takes the same time (in nanoseconds) to read the data at one set of coordinates as at another. For example, the time to get the data at coordinates (3, 11) is approximately the same as that to get the data at coordinates (400000, 378888).

    Random access techniques can be compared to fence-climbing at a theme park. In the olden days, people waited in queues to get into an attraction. But when you climb the fence, you get there faster.

    When you stand in front of a museum painting while scanning it, the time it takes to move your eyes from one part A of the painting that you’ve been studying, to another part B, is approximately the same no matter where A and B are. You don’t have to move your eyes left-to-right and top-to-bottom as if you were reading.

    Contrariwise, one advantage to having books organized in lines on pages is that this makes it easier to jump from top to bottom and right to left without reading what was in between. Pages are handy “frames” in which visual access to any location takes about the same time as to any other, as with the museum painting. With scrolls you have lines, but no pages, so that it tends to take longer to find what you’re looking for – you have to read every line, or jump around randomly looking for it.

    An index at the back of a book enables you to locate data much faster than by reading straight through the book. Index entries (with page numbers) are coordinate specifications: “the coordinates of ‘Bonaparte’ are pages 16, 77 ff and 94”.

    These are all techniques to speed up access to data. An index in particular may seem to provide “random access” to certain words, but in fact it is highly organized. Random doesn’t pay the rent.

  46. Thanks for your analogies, Stu, especially the fence-climbing (I’m glad to find a moral objection to random access).

    And thank you, Breffni. I’d love to try the one-word-at-a-time version.

    There may be a name for the relation of graphic presentation to verbal composition and meaning. Everyone loves the inscription above the Corinthian colonnade of McKim, Mead & White’s post office at 33rd Street in Manhattan – Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds – partly because it’s a very long line that somehow seems to imitate the postman’s trudge through the snow or rain.

  47. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds

    That’s Herodotus describing the Persian royal post. Ever since i took Greek as an undergrad I’ve wondered why the architect left off the last words, “as swiftly as possible” (hos takhista).

  48. A wise decision. In English, it’s a sad, bathetic falling-off from the magnificent peroration of “the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Compare “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender… if we can help it.”

  49. Good point. It occurs to me for the first time that the translator has probably solved the problem by tucking hos takhista into the previous construction: “swift completion.”

  50. I don’t think “the swift completion of their appointed rounds” is a peroration to compare with “we shall never surrender”. It would be at least at home in a memo. “Following the unfortunate events of last Tuesday at 452 Evergreen Lane, all delivery personnel are reminded that consumption of alcohol is strictly prohibited until after the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

  51. You’re talking about substance, a matter of indifference in this context. The rhythm of the prose is what matters to me, and it’s magnificent.

  52. the Persian royal post

    Apparently the inscription translation was by William Kendall, a partner at McKim, Mead & White who also (I think) designed the Casa Italiana, across Amsterdam Ave from the Columbia campus, a wonderful building. Kendall’s declaration is more poetic than anything you’ll find elsewhere in Herodotus. The translation by Rawlinson (1941) is:
    Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers. The entire plan is a Persian invention; and this is the method of it. Along the whole line of road there are men (they say) stationed with horses, in number equal to the number of days which the journey takes, allowing a man and horse to each day; and these men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to go, either by snow, rain, heat, or by the darkness of night. The first rider delivers his despatch to the second and the second passes it to the third; and so it is borne from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light in the torch-race, which the Greeks celebrate to Vulcan. The Persians give the riding post in this manner, the name of Angarum.

    If this pediment had been for the Royal Mail, in Victorian London, the inscription would have been in Latin and no one would read it. As it is, in New York, the words more than compensate for the outrageously long facade. That’s quite an accomplishment.

  53. John Cowan says:

    It has been noted that all the words from “We shall …” to “… never surrender” are native, with the sole exception of the last, which is French. Which is particularly ironic, since the French had in fact just surrendered.

  54. @John Cowan: That segment of Churchill’s speech is often described as a “peroration,” but it was not the end (a statement that brings to mind another of his great war speeches). Moreover, it forms only a rhetorical sub-unit, not a complete unit. The parallel, “We shall fight,” constructions begin earlier, with

    Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air.

    And he continues after, talking about even more dire circumstances than being forced back to the hills,

    … and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

    I think it is interesting that, at that early stage, Churchill was promising that the Americans were the ultimate backstop against Hitler’s aggression.

    Churchill did certainly get a huge chorus of cheers and applause after “We shall never surrender,” even if the speech did not actually end there. My father owns the three-volume set of Churchill’s complete war speeches, and one year we got him a tape if the very best ones, as originally delivered. When we listened to this speech, my dad pointed out that there was an obvious break in the recording after “surrender,” presumably to excise the hoopla. That seems puzzling to me now, however. Most of the prime minister’s major war speeches were delivered twice, first in the Commons and then again for radio broadcast. I would expect the recorded copies to be the radio versions, but then I do not know that there would have been any cheering to edit out.

    And France was still weeks away from surrender when Churchill made the speech on June 4, 1940. That was before the fall of Paris and the evacuation of the French government. Moreover, there is the linguistic point that the French military leaders (especially the pusillanimous Weygand) were adamant that there could not be a “surrender”; that would mean a capitulation by the armed forces. Weygand insisted that the end of hostilities had to formulated through an “armistice,” leaving the responsibility solely on the political leadership. Reading the account of those last days in Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic, it seems like the French generals were trying to lay the groundwork for their own “stab in the back” narrative, like the one that had served Hitler so well in Germany.

  55. the Americans were the ultimate backstop

    This American expression “the backstop” has been appropriated for the brexit to refer to a purported guarantee of N. Ireland’s customs border with Europe. The only trouble is that no one seems to have a clue when a backstop might be implemented or why indeed the word is being used at all. I would have preferred silly-mid-off, third slip or something else more cricketty.

  56. David Eddyshaw says:

    Leg break?

  57. “Lurg before picket”?

  58. John Cowan says:

    The OED’s first citation for backstop is 1819, where it is a synonym for long stop. In 1851 it is being used in the sense of a barrier placed behind something: the quotation is “The remaining shaft […] broke off short, and that which when we started was a gig, was now a back stop for horses’ heels.” Not until 1889 is it found in the sense ‘fence behind a baseball catcher’, and still later in the sense of the catcher himself. The sense ‘mound of earth behind a rifle target’ doesn’t show up until 1946, and is probably the source of the current figurative sense.

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