Birdwatching – a lexicographical lacuna

Oh dear, I reluctantly retract my claim below. Bird-watcher and bird-watching (both, rather quaintly, hyphenated) are listed in the OED, but they are hidden away at the end of the entry for bird and the citations are separate from the definitions. In my defence I should state that the words don’t come up under “find word” unless you spell them with a hyphen.

As I suspected they both date back to the early 20th century and both were first used in book titles by E. Selous. Here are the citations:

1905 E. SELOUS (title) The *Bird Watcher in the Shetlands. 1930 J. S. HUXLEY Bird-Watching i. 13 From the bird-watcher pure and simple it is but a step to the bird-watcher naturalist.

1901 E. SELOUS (title) *Bird Watching. 1920 Edin. Rev. Jan. 63 Bird-Watching as a Hobby. 1930 J. S. HUXLEY Bird-Watching iii. 52 Accompanying Mr. Eliot Howard..on his bird-watching rounds. Ibid. iv. 64 A party of bird-watching friends.

I stand corrected, and have learnt a lot in the process. Here’s my original posting:

As a keen birdwatcher I was surprised to discover that the words birdwatcher and birdwatching are not in the vast, multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. I find this extremely surprising as editors are constantly trawling for new words, and these two words are hardly the latest accretions to our mother tongue (I would guess they date back to the early 20th century or maybe late 19th century, but that’s what I was hoping to find out from the OED).

But although birdwatcher/-ing aren’t in, birding is in, with the same meaning, defined as: “colloq. The activity of bird-watching. Also attrib.” Which is a bit odd, since, as I say bird-watching (with or without the hyphen) isn’t listed.

The first recorded use of birding in the sense of birdwatching is delightful. It is from the Daily News, 1927, and reads: “Miss Fry plays the flute and joins in the arduous sport of ‘birding’. This consists in following across country any strange species of bird, and of playing the flute beneath the tree on which the melodious songster performs.” Well, this is a rather unusual approach to birding (or birdwatching) but I suppose it fits the bill.

The other examples are more conventional, and two are American, reflecting the fact that Americans are more likely (I think) to say “birding” than “birdwatching” (cf. American Birding Association). Actually more and more Brits are starting to say birding rather than birdwatching and to describe themselves as birders, and I’m not at all sure that this word should be regarded as “colloq.” these days. And the fact that the OED refers to birding as “colloq.” raises the question of what the literary or non-colloq equivalent is and why it isn’t listed.

Of course the word birding existed long before 1927, but in the sense of “The action or sport of bird-catching or fowling. arch.” The first usage of the word in this sense dates from 1569 (“An other exercise of Hunting, which is termed Fouling, or Birding.”).

Surprisingly, despite the lack of birdwatcher/-ing, twitcher and twitching, in the ornithological sense, are both in. The OED defines a twitcher as “A bird-watcher [sic] whose main aim is to collect sightings of rare birds.” Its earliest recorded use of the word is from Birds magazine (published by the RSPB), Summer 1973, and is again rather charming: “Twitchers are difficult to identify because they are polymorphic. Best clues are behavioural including carrying Zeiss binoculars and Where to Watch Birds… Known to have nested in Wandsworth and possess a sense of humour.” Of course nowadays they would carry Leica or Swarovski binoculars and a BlackBerry. The reference to Wandsworth eludes me.

The first use of twitching, defined as “The activity of a ‘twitcher’ (sense 4); obsessive or enthusiastic bird-watching for rarities”, is almost contemporaneous, dating to New Society, 17 November, 1977, and is attractively jargonish: “Sibe is twitching slang for a Siberian bird.” Sibe, incidentally, isn’t listed in the OED, and neither for that matter is jargonish (but jargonesque and jargonic are).

I should add that I found all this online at home, using my public library card. It’s a rather little known fact that the OED is available free of charge to anyone with a library card – go to your public library’s website and log in there with your library card number. A terrific free resource.


In memory of Ft Lt Desmond Hinton DFC

By Michael Rank

Flight Lieutenant Desmond Frederick William Hinton (August 13, 1922-January 2, 1952) was a Royal Air Force fighter pilot who died in the Korean war flying for the United States Air Force and is buried in North Korea. I am extremely grateful to his brother David who shared his memories of Desmond with me and told me the remarkable story of how he located Desmond’s grave near Pyongyang and visited it in 2004.

I wrote about this for the Asia Times, and David was also kind enough to share with me photographs of Desmond which he has allowed me to put on this website.

I am also grateful to HE Peter Hughes, British ambassador to North Korea, and to Korean war veterans Frank Ellison, Peter Fisher, Edgar Green and Stuart Holmes for their valuable assistance, as well as to former British envoy to Pyongyang Jim Hoare for bringing the Quinones article cited below to my attention.

In addition I would like to thank the North Korean ambassador to the UK, HE Ja Sŏng-nam, who first alerted me to the existence of Desmond Hinton’s grave in a speech at the House of Commons in March, 2009. For more about Mr Ja and his role in recovering the remains of US soldiers who died in North Korea, see below.

F Lt D Hinton

Desmond Hinton (right) with USAF pilots in Korea


Desmond and David at Desmond's wedding, Old Malden, 1947

Desmond and David at Desmond's wedding, Old Malden, 1947


Desmond and his wife Audrey

Desmond and his wife Audrey

David Hinton at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

David Hinton at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

David at Desmond's grave (top), with Col Kwak (middle), at grave (bottom)

David at Desmond's grave (top), with Col Kwak at Panmunjom (middle), at grave (bottom)


David at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

David at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

David at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

David at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

Original grave, moved about 50 metres shortly before David's visit

Original grave, moved about 50 metres shortly before David's visit

Letter from Desmond's C.O. that gave the family false hope, stating that "I personally feel that he made it O.K. and I feel that he will be held until the cease fire talks become a reality ... Des is one of the most courageous and skilful pilots I have ever known. He helped in many ways and I think of him as one of my closest friends."

Letter from Desmond’s C.O. who said he believed Desmond had survived. Colonel Mitchell said Desmond was on a strafing run on some trucks a few miles northeast of Pyongyang.

He called that his plane was hit and he would have to bail out. He jettisoned his canopy and two pilots saw the seat was empty which makes me beleive [sic] that Des got clear of the seat.

His parachute was not seen, however, he was wearing an all white shute and the ground was completely covered with snow. This would have made it difficult to see the opened parachute.

The other pilots circled the area for some time and the could not locate Des. I personally feel that he made it O.K. and I feel he will be held until the cease fire talks become a reality …

Des is one of the most courageous and skilful pilots I have ever known. He helped in many ways and I think of him as one of my closest friends.

The grave is in fields near the village of Kusŏ-ri/Guseo-ri 구서리 which is about 30 km north of Pyongyang close to Sunan 순안 airport at 39°14’05″N 125°42’28″E. Here’s a screenshot from Google Earth and it can be seen on Wikimapia here.


Kusŏ-ri is shown in the map below, near the top of the yellow area on the left hand page. The map is from a small North Korean atlas조선지도첩(Pyongyang, 1997). Reflecting North Korea’s extreme secrecy the country’s only international airport is not marked, although the town of Sunan is marked without mentioning the airport (the town is about 10 km south of Kusŏ-ri). I have marked Kusŏ-ri on the North Korean map here if you want to pinpoint the places on the map more precisely.


And here is Ft Lt David Hinton (Ret) who made my article possible.


David Hinton, London, May 2009

David Hinton, London, May 2009

Desmond Hinton was one 41 RAF pilots attached to the USAF in the Korean war, according to Mark Tomkins who has researched this field extensively. Most were attached to the 4th and 51st Fighter Interceptor Wings, flying F-86 Sabre fighters. Four died in action, including Desmond Hinton. None of their bodies were recovered. I have uploaded Tomkins’ report here.


Another report, whose author I have not been able to trace, says a total of 18 members of the RAF Sunderland Squadron died in two separate crashes in the Korean war, and six RAF pilots attached to the Royal Australian Air Force also died on operational duties.

According to the official history The British Part in the Korean War by Anthony Farrar-Hockley, 1,078 British troops died in the war, including 27 members of the RAF (12 officers, 15 other ranks) (vol 2, p. 491). It refers to how RAF officers became attached to the USAF in order to achieve “manpower savings which could be passed to the Fifth Air Force in Korea.”

“By the end of the war, twenty-one RAF pilots had served with the 4th and 51st Fighter Interceptor Wings,” the book states.

“Each tour was approximately four months. As one group went home another was in training at Nellis [Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada]. Sixteen officers in all completed active operations. All of them damaged one or more MiG-15s during combat, several were credit with ‘kills'” (Vol 2, pp. 323-324).

However, David Hinton told me his brother trained at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, not at Nellis. The Shaw website describes how “The outbreak of the Korean War in the summer of 1950 spurred the deployment of the wing’s flying units to Royal Air Force Station Manston [Kent], United Kingdom. Perceiving the communist North Korean aggression as a potential precursor to a large-scale Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the Truman administration ordered a deterrent force of nuclear-capable bombers to England. The wing’s F 84s deployed to protect the bombers from aerial attack while they were parked on vulnerable airfields in East Anglia.” Shaw is still being used to train RAF pilots today.

The National Archives has a useful website on the Korean war here.

There’s an extremely interesting report entitled The US-DPRK 1994 Agreed Framework and the US Army’s Return to North Korea on the now suspended official U.S. efforts to recover the remains of American servicemen who died in North Korea in Korea Yearbook 2008. The report by former senior State Department official C. Kenneth Quinones tells how Ja Sŏng-nam was involved in these efforts long before becoming ambassador in London, and how he was almost killed in a car crash near Kaesong on his way to Panmunjom in the wake of the downing of a U.S. helicopter that had repeatedly strayed into North Korean airspace in December 1994. The pilot was killed and his passenger was injured, but thanks in part at least to Mr Ja the pilot’s remains were repatriated and the passenger was released.

David Hinton’s host in North Korea, Senior Colonel Kwak Chol-hui, is one of the very few Korean People’s Army officers who has had dealings with foreigners. He met two Senate Foreign Relations Committee members in 2003, and told them “that the DPRK would like to expand the joint recovery operation, employing as many as 2,700 investigators to scour the country to conduct interviews with those elderly North Korean who might have knowledge of the location of U.S. remains. He indicated that the DPRK’s commitment to the recovery operations is independent of the nuclear issue, and, in his opinion, should remain so. It is unclear, however, what role the DPRK envisions for U.S. forces in such an expanded operation.”

Kwak has since been promoted to major-general. He led the North Korean side at “DPRK-U.S. general-level talks” with U.S. Air Force Major General Johnny Weida at Panmumjom in March 2009, when he declared that planned U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises “will pose increasing danger as they are timed to coincide with a spate of bellicose remarks let loose by the U.S. and the south Korean conservative forces as regards the projected launch of a satellite by the DPRK.”

Apart from Desmond Hinton, who knows if any further British or other members of U.N. forces lie buried in North Korea?

And as a footnote, here’s a 2004 article by the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) which reported David’s visit but was not widely read at the time:

British Citizen Thanks DPRK Government and KPA

Pyongyang, July 2 (KCNA) — Some days ago, British citizen David Hinton requested the DPRK side to correctly ascertain the fate of his elder brother Frederic William Hinton, former lieutenant of the British Royal Air Force, who participated in the Korean war as an airman through a channel concerned. From a humanitarian point of view the DPRK side confirmed with much effort that his elder brother died in the Korean war and informed him of the correct crash site and the grave site.
Recently he paid a visit to the DPRK during which he went round these sites.
He expressed thanks to the DPRK government and the side of the Korean People’s Army for helping him realize his hope.





District 9 and other extremely boring films

Like all too many films we have seen recently District 9 is BORING. It starts out interestingly enough, but from the start it seems unsure if it wants to be a reasonably straight sci fi film, a political allegory or a sci fi comedy spoof. The film is set in present-day Johannesburg, which has been visited by grotesque aliens known as prawns who have emerged from a giant spaceship that hovers over the city. The prawns have been forced into squalid squatter camps but they escape.

The hapless Wikus Van Der Merwe leads the team that tries to round them up, but he has only got the job because he is the son of the head of the multi-national company in charge of the effort, so it’s no surprise that he’s pretty hopeless.It doesn’t help that he looks a bit like Alan Partridge and there’s a chorus of journalists and others who occasionally pop up to give a rather self-conscious commentary in an Office-like way.

The idea of separation and squatter camps has obvious apartheid overtones, and there are also thuggish Nigerians in the camps who deal in prawn weaponry and body parts, just as there are people from all over Africa in South Africa trying to eke out a living. The cannibalistic Nigerians are portrayed in a highly xenophobic way that leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, so to speak.

But after the thematically very mixed up but reasonably interesting first half hour or so, the film becomes simply a Rambo-type action movie with vast amounts of blood and guts and an extremely limited vocabulary consisting almost entirely of the f-word. This soon becomes extremely tedious and we were bored stiff (though it may appeal to not terribly bright 15-year-old boys).

Incidentally we have seen a number of terribly dull films lately. These include Swedish horror film Let The Right One In, which got wonderful reviews, but although it’s slightly creepy and pervy as one might expect from such a film, we found it extremely flat and uninteresting,

Equally dull overall was Synecdoche, although it was excellent for the first 20 minutes when it was about illness, death and hypochondria (and quite funny!) but becomes terrifically pretentious and dull for the subsequent two hours (or whatever) when it turns into a tedious meditation on a theatre director for whom art becomes his life (or something like that). The idea of actors on a vast set in a disused factory or warehouse with lots of parallel plots in some kind of grandiose soap opera where it’s difficult to tell what is real life and what is the drama the director is directing is an interesting idea, but it’s so lengthy and lifeless it became utterly tedious. And I got awfully tired of the sight of the talented but over-exposed Philip Seymour Hoffman.

But the most mind-numbing film I have seen in my life is Bustin’ Down the Door, a documentary about middle-aged surfers reliving their glory days in Hawaii in the 1970s. It was mindblowingly uninteresting from the first few seconds (an “I’m wonderful, you’re wonderful, we’re all wonderful” surfing awards ceremony), followed by endless inane soundbites from said aging surfers plus grainy footage from the hallowed 70s. The only slightly interesting part was about a turf war involving a nasty bunch of heavies who resented the Australian and South African new arrivals, but that wasn’t really developed. And why was it shown in the large format Imax? The surfing footage was old and grainy and didn’t benefit at all from being shown on a huge screen, and the rest of it consisted merely of talking heads. An utter waste.

Incidentally I noticed that Shaun Tomson, one of the surfers featured in the film, is both executive producer and producer, which may be why he and his mates come over as a little egotistical and un-self-critical.

Which is not to say we haven’t seen some good to excellent films lately, such as Frozen River, The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (Le premier jour du reste de ta vie), The Damned United and Home, and but I simply don’t understand why so many people seem to have liked the really boring films and they got such good reviews. Chacun à son goût, I suppose…

A couple of strange book titles

I’ve come across a couple of interesting book titles lately.
The first is a Chinese book whose English title is Have Some Fun Through Hardship. I wonder what Chairman Mao would have said about that.

The other is Chinese Governmentalities, which I think takes some beating for utter pretentiousness. As the website says, “it opens discussions of governmentality to ‘other worlds’ and the glocal [sic] politics of the present.” Hmm…

I’m not impressed with GCHQ

I am not impressed with GCHQ. I dare say Britain’s main intelligence-gathering centre doesn’t feel the need to impress the likes of me (or probably you), but it could have been more helpful nevertheless.

I emailed GCHQ a few weeks ago about a colleague, Neville Bealing, who died recently aged 83. I was going to say a few words at his funeral in a week’s time, so I asked them politely and somewhat hesitantly if they could confirm that Neville had worked for GCHQ (or its predecessor) about 50 years ago.

He had mentioned to a colleague that he had worked for GCHQ, and it must have been as long ago as the late 1940s or early 50s as he worked for the company I work for as a translator for an amazing 50 years. He retired (reluctantly) only a year or two before his death.

I didn’t expect GCHQ to tell me much; just confirmation that he had worked there would have been enough.

But they didn’t even reply. Not so much as an acknowledgment, not even a computer-generated one. This doesn’t surprise me hugely but it does make me a bit angry. I don’t like being ignored when I ask a polite, reasonable question.

And you would think, or hope, that in this day and age GCHQ would be a bit concerned about PR and regard responding to questions like mine about pretty ancient history as a way of showing a friendly public face.

GCHQ does in fact have a reasonably informative website which gives an email for their Press Office/Public Affairs. So why do they have such an office if they don’t deign to reply to emails sent by the public?

Their website divulges the fact that they employ 5,500 people in a “multi million pound building, provided under PFI [private finance initiative] arrangements, provides state of the art facilities to deliver our essential work.” Not only that, but the building hosts “a range of facilities including a shop, restaurant, deli bar and coffee shops and gymnasium.”

And listen to this: “The shell of each office chair is made from 36 recycled plastic 2 litre pop bottles. Desks and table surfaces are made from 90% recycled wood and all steel products are made from 30% recycled metal.”

So I am not at all clear what reason can there be for refusing to confirm that somebody worked there 50 years ago, or even for saying that for whatever reason they do not wish to confirm or deny…

I can’t help feeling if Neville had worked for the CIA, for example, I would at least have received a reply, and probably a reasonably helpful one at that. The CIA says in its document Strategic Intent 2007-2011 that “the American people…expect us to keep secrecy but not to have anything to hide.” Very healthy. Its website even has a Library and a Freedom on Information Act Electronic Reading Room. Hard to imagine any British intelligence agency having anything like that.

In fact the British security services are exempt from our very own Freedom of Information Act, as MI5’s website makes clear.

MI5, unlike GCHQ (in theory), does not have a press office and directs journalists to the Home Office.

Freedom of information has a lot more meaning in the US, I’m sure, while here, despite a Freedom of Information Act, there is still an obsession with secrecy.

Well, I’m sure GCHQ monitors the blogosphere, so maybe they will take note of my comments.

Oh, as a tribute to Neville I would like to mention his other main claim to fame. He sat on Thomas Hardy‘s knee as a baby. His father was a photographer in Shaftesbury, Dorset, so he must surely have taken a photograph of this great event, but Neville told me had never seen a copy.

Joseph Needham, sinological sage – and novelist

By Michael Rank

I’ve just read George Steiner on the great sinologist Joseph Needham in his collection of essays, My Unwritten Books. Needless to say it’s phenomenally erudite, not to say highly original and provocative, and I’m far too ignorant to comment on it in any detail, but I would like to ask a couple of questions.

First, I was extremely surprised to read that “Under a pseudonym, and unnoticed by most of his scientific colleagues, Needham published historical novels dramatising the fate and doctrines of radical sects during the Cromwellian period” (pp. 4-5). Well I never! What was the pseudonym, how many novels, what are their titles? And are they any good? Simon Winchester, in his racy and highly readable biography of Needham, Bomb, Book and Compass (published in the U.S. as The Man Who Loved China for some strange reason) makes no mention of Needham the novelist… I’m interested in this incidentally because I interviewed Needham for Reuters a couple of years before he died, and recently reviewed Winchester’s book for Asian Affairs, journal of the Royal Society of Asian Affairs. Anyone remotely interested in Needham, one of the towering intellects of the 20th century yet remarkably little known, should definitely read Winchester’s book, even if it’s an unscholarly biography of a great scholar.

My other main point is that – and I say this with great trepidation – Steiner seems to have made a mistake. About bores. No, not that kind of bore, tidal bores. Steiner says (p. 21):

“Nor must we forget that China possesses one of the only two great tidal bores or eagres [!] in the world, on the Chien-Tang, or Fuchun, River near Hangchow (the other operates at the northern mouth of the Amazon).”

This seems a rather surprising claim. Surely the Severn bore is a world class tidal bore, and the Bay of Fundy is too, so I wonder why Steiner claims there are only two great bores, and neither of these extremely famous ones makes it?

One other point: My Unwritten Books is so-called because it’s a book about seven books which Steiner has thought of writing but never did. In the late 1970s he was asked by Professor Frank Kermode to contribute to his popular and influential series of “Modern Masters”. Steiner proposed writing about Needham, but admits:

“Being neither a biologist or a sinologist schooled neither in chemistry nor in oriental studies, my lack of qualification, the impertinence of my suggestion, were patent. But I had long been spellbound by Needham’s titanic enterprise and by his kaleidoscopic persona. Had there been a more learned, a more inclusive mind and purpose since that of Leibnitz? What I had in mind was a possibly irresponsible approach to both the man and his works.” (p. 1)

The project didn’t come off, of course, but the reason Steiner gives is interesting. It was because Needham had claimed that the Americans had used bacteriological weapons during the Korean war, and refused to discuss, still less withdraw, the claim when he went to discuss the putative biography with Needham some 25 years later.

“Jospeh [sic] Needham’s irritation, his anger were manifest. Even more so, the mendacity within that anger. He gave no direct reply, It is said that those with a trained ear can detect the minute flaw in a glass goblet when they pass their fingers arond the rim. I heard this flaw, unmistakably, in Needham’s voice. I sensed it in his posture. There could, from that moment on, be no realistic prospect of reciprocal trust. We did not meet again.

“I never wrote the little book. But the wish to do so has stayed with me” (p. 3).

I sympathise with Steiner to some extent. The germ warfare claim was refuted not long after Needham made it, and it didn’t do his political reputation any good. When I was reading Chinese at Cambridge in the late 1960s, I remember Needham defending the use of the daily readings from the Little Red Book as analogous to Christians reading the Bible (this was at the height of the Cultural Revolution), and thinking that was extremely naive of the great man.

But maybe another reason Steiner didn’t write his study of Needham is that sage as he is, he isn’t that well read in classical Chinese astronomical, chemical, biological or engineering texts, as his ability to read Chinese isn’t that great, and without reading such texts one can hardly evaluate Needham’s magnum opus…

Amazingly stupid advertisement

Mineral water for moronsAdvertisements are pretty stupid almost by definition, but this is one of the stupidest. I mean, “Enhanced hydration for the uninhibited”!!!! It’s some kind of flavoured mineral water for affluent people who definitely don’t need extra vitamins. And why is it “for the uninhibited”?

It’s for sad people who feel the need to affirm their identity through their soft drinks. Idiotic.

But it’s further proof that the recession is extremely patchy and there are vast numbers of people whom it hasn’t hit at all, or a company wouldn’t be launching such a product at this time. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t also plenty of people aren’t losing their jobs and are having a very hard time, they just aren’t the target demographic for this particular product.

The advert is unmissable at the Old Street roundabout, London N1 if you want to go and throw rotten eggs at it …