17 May 2015

Murray Watson on Antisyzygy

The following is a guest post by Murray Watson who together with Marilyn Barber, were the presenters at the May BIFHSGO meeting.

Two authors separated by the Atlantic Ocean

 By Murray Watson

It is common practice for editors to encourage, if not insist, that their authors use clear, plain English and simple-to-understand terminology - sorry words. Well, I am going to eschew editorial advice and use the word “antisyzygy”. Before you rush for your dictionaries antisyzygy means union of opposites; its Greek derivation being anti against, syzgia, union, coupling ( - sy with, together, zygon, a yoke). Antisyzygy is the perfect word to describe the relationship I had with my co-author with whom I shared the research for and writing of our new book, Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945.
Marilyn Barber is a respected Canadian historian based at Carleton University. In comparison I am a humble honorary research fellow at the University of Dundee who took to academia late in life at the age of 50. We are both blessed with the maturity and wisdom of those past a certain age. Unlike Marilyn, I like to think I have experience of the real world, having followed a career in international marketing and not being immersed in academia since my school days. This difference produced a creative tension that I hope emerges from our shared writing of our book.
            Tensions and creativity also surfaced arising from differences in our respective nationalities. Our contrasting origins undoubtedly enhanced our appreciation both of matters Canadian and of things English - one might argue this dual perspective had the making of a perfect partnership for a book about English immigrants in Canada. A common area of frequently amusing debate was discovering the huge difference between Canadian English and UK English language and idioms. For example, the handy Scottish word ‘outwith’ was barred from the book. It was considered to be outwith the ken of Canadian readers. Spam, a popular (sic) processed meat eaten in England during the postwar austerity years, required a footnote to distinguish it from unsolicited emails. When referring to English accents we used the term “cut glass”; our Canadian copy editor, an experienced wordsmith, did not know this was a colloquial English expression for “Received Pronunciation” or RP. There were numerous other examples and we now wonder if our next joint project should be a Canadian/English dictionary.
            Another difference was in our gender and our sensitivity to gender issues. We are still debating how gender may have affected our relationship with our interviewees and the stories they chose to tell us. In my more curmudgeonly moments, not made known to Marilyn until now, I sometimes felt that her references to gender risked approaching feminist pedagogy. I was determined that as there were two genders our narrative and analysis should be equally balanced. With hindsight I recognise that was Marilyn’s objective too. One of our more amusing debates occurred when Marilyn scored through my use of the word “girl” and replaced it with the word “woman” on the grounds of political correctness. There was a dilemma, however, regarding present versus past usage; a middle aged English female interviewee had used the world “girl” to describe herself as young twenty something on board ship en route to her new life in Canada. An additional dilemma, which highlighted the cultural differences between England and Canada, also existed. The said female interviewee being of a certain age and class, not only saw herself as girl, but would have been offended by being referred to as a woman. She would have considered herself to be a lady. I can’t remember the compromise we reached; you will have to read the book yourself to find out.
            Much to our surprise, being separated by the Atlantic Ocean created few problems. Indeed, having one of us based in the old wor(l)d and one in the new was a bonus, especially as we were writing the first book about postwar English immigration to Canada. Email and Skype proved to be a very effective means for having arguments about structure, debating content, contemplating theoretical interpretations, right down to checking the correct use of single and double inverted commas - known in Canada as quotation marks.
            In our book we make a number of comparisons with the findings of Jim Hammerton and Al Thomson’s book, Ten pound Poms: Australia’s invisible migrants. Jim and Al were separated by the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans and when they wrote their book Skype had not been invented. By the way our copy editor asked us to define the word “Pom.” We did not take his advice considering a definition would insult our readers’ intelligence. You, in all likelihood, will probably have already known the meaning of antisyzygy. Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945, by Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson is published by University of Manitoba Press.

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