Groundhog Day

A triviality.

When I was very small, back in the Lower Silurian or thereabouts, my kindergarten teacher (a mollusc of great learning and dignity) told me about Groundhog Day. Every second of February, folk gather round the groundhog’s den to see it come out. If it does not see its shadow, spring will come early; if it does, there will be six more weeks of winter—

It was at this point that I baulked. Here in Alberta, six more weeks of winter after February 2 is an early spring; earlier, in fact, than any spring I have ever seen since I have lived here. [Read more…]

Finishing sentences

I have been reading G. K. C.’s autobiography, and here and there having flashes of fellow-feeling where I least expected them. It is common enough with me to feel that I understand something that Chesterton understands, but an entire surprise to find that one of those things, even in small part, should be William Butler Yeats.

Here one master of English rhetoric remarks upon another, with, I believe, exquisite and approving justice:

I can still remember old Yeats, that graceful greybeard, saying in an offhand way about the South African War, ‘Mr. Joseph Chamberlain has the character, as he has the face, of the shrewish woman who ruins her husband by her extravagance; and Lord Salisbury has the character, as he has the face, of the man who is so ruined.’ That style, or swift construction of a complicated sentence, was the sign of a lucidity now largely lost. You will find it in the most spontaneous explosions of Dr. Johnson. Since then some muddled notion has arisen that talking in that complete style is artificial; merely because the man knows what he means and means to say it. I know not from what nonsense world the notion first came; that there is some connection between being sincere and being semi-articulate. But it seems to be a notion that a man must mean what he says, because he breaks down even in trying to say it; or that he must be a marvel of power and decision, because he discovers in the middle of a sentence that he does not know what he was going to say. Hence the conversation of current comedy; and the pathetic belief that talk may be endless, so long as no statement is allowed to come to an end.

—G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography

Frogs

In a recent essai, I mentioned the chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes: a thing I have done before. The keenest eyes among my 3.6 Loyal Readers (if 3.6 readers have 7.2 eyes, I should not expect the 0.2 of an eye to be the keen one) may have noticed that I quoted it (with pedantic correctness) as brekekex koax koax. In the past, I made it brekekekex koax koax: for the simple reason that I had never read the Greek original, but was only familiar (and that but vaguely) with the English translation. An extra ek was inserted into the English version, because it fitted the metre of the translation better; whereas it would have spoilt the rhythm of the Greek. This is poetic licence in its finest form.

In fact, the English translation of that chorus is such a very fine bit of English verse, it was cheerfully sung by the Tommies in the trenches of the Great War: a thing that, so far as I know, has never happened to any other Greek poem, and few English ones. I suppose they thought that by ‘frogs’ the poet meant Frenchmen, as they would have done in his place. Anyway, I recall the song well:

Brekekekex koax koax,
Parley-voo?
Brekekekex koax koax,
Parley-voo?
Brekekekex koax koax,
Go kiss a frog if a Prince attracts,
Hinky, dinky, parley-voo!

You’re welcome.

The cromulent word

I shall probably never summer at the Vineyard or winter at Palm Beach, or do whatever season one does at Biarritz. But there are some pleasures that are still accessible to the chronically underfunded, and a few, thanks to ebooks and the Internet, that are more accessible than ever. One of these is the pleasure of being polybiblious. This is not a word you will find in the dictionaries, but it has a certain amount of currency online; it means, of course, the habit of reading more than one book at a time.

I have been polybiblious, perhaps, about since the time my father gave me my second book. I am very hard on books; I have a way of breaking the spines, thanks to my habit of generally leaving four or five of them lying about on various surfaces, with the spine up to keep them from shutting and losing my place. (Bookmarks have never been my friends. Give me a million bookmarks today, and by tomorrow week I will have lost every one of them and be marking my places with pencils or paper towels.) People who read only one book at a time, generally speaking, don’t leave their books lying open for days on end, and I suspect they are rather apt to wonder how my books wear out so quickly.

But there are compensations. No monobiblist can ever know the polybiblious delight of seeing two incongruously different texts collide in a brilliant shower of new ideas. You can learn, not twice, but ten times as much by reading two good books concurrently than by reading each one straight through in turn. The texts themselves will conduct a lively argument in your head, which may lead you to conclusions that neither author ever dreamed of.

One of the books I have on the go at the moment is How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters, by the indefatigably right-wing British politician, Daniel Hannan. Hannan makes some good points, and some questionable ones, about the particularly English heritage of law and liberty. He is quite right, I think, to stress the importance of the idea, inherent in English common law, that anything not explicitly forbidden is permitted. In contrast to this, he writes about his experiences with the Eurocrats in Brussels, who seem to have the idea that any new activity is illegal until some official writes a set of regulations for it. This is good stuff, and makes one rather more sympathetic to the late Douglas Adams. In the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the radio series), Adams informed us that of all the curse words in all the languages of our galaxy, the most obscene is ‘Belgium’.

On the other hand, Hannan makes, I think, too much of the specifically Protestant contribution to liberty. The English common law, the English Parliament, and the English jury system all flourished in the fourteenth century, when England was still a Catholic country. But the most important institution in the whole framework of English liberty, I believe, goes back to the almost unrecorded twilight of the seventh century. That is the English language itself. For English is a common-law language. [Read more…]

Who’s afraid? Virginia Woolf!

Over at The Passive Voice, while Passive Guy is away, the guest bloggers have put up the sole surviving recording of the voice of Virginia Woolf. Talking of the poor state of the literature of England in her time, she makes this revealing remark:

Where are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors, not on our reviewers, not on our writers, but on words. Words are to blame.

There is a very old English saying, invented by people who had a far better instinct for the use of language than Virginia Woolf ever had: ‘It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools.’ At the very time when Woolf (and a lot of other tired English littérateurs) complained about the exhaustion of the English language, a generation of mostly American and Irish writers were making those poor old words do wonderful new tricks, and breathed a whole new vigour into literature. (Then there were Welshmen like Dylan Thomas, and a few Scots. There may even have been a Canadian in there somewhere.)

Of course it was the Americans’ turn to slip into decadence half a century later, when it became fashionable for the darlings of American Lit to blame the failure of their books on the inadequacy of words to express their wonderful sublime ideas. B. R. Myers had a short way with such people, pointing out sarcastically that English words were good enough for ‘a piker like Shakespeare’.

What did the Americans, Irish, and Welsh have in Woolf’s time that Woolf and her English friends lacked? Part of the answer may perhaps be found when we hear Woolf’s accent. It is a very pure and correct ‘educated’ accent, an early form of ‘Received Pronunciation’, the chief purpose of which was to prove that the speaker did not belong to the despised working classes. It was a deracinated English, deliberately divorced from any regional dialect or demotic form of speech; it did not even have the vitality to generate a vivid slang of its own. George Orwell, who was brought up to to speak it, observed:

The ‘educated’ accent, of which the accent of BBC announcers is a sort of parody, has no asset except its intelligibility to English-speaking foreigners. In England, the minority to whom it is natural don’t particularly like it, while in the other three-quarters of the population it arouses an immediate class antagonism.

This is precisely Woolf’s accent; you can hear it in recordings by Noel Coward also, and any number of English politicians of the time. (Not Churchill; as Orwell points out, ‘Too old to have acquired the modern “educated” accent he speaks with the Edwardian upper-class twang which to the average man’s ear sounds ilke cockney.’ This gave Churchill a great advantage as a public speaker: people could hear him without hating him.) In documents of the period, it is often called a mincing accent; it would not be too much to say that it was seldom spoken without fear – fear of seeming ‘common’; fear of being mistaken for a member of the Lower Orders; fear of breaking the innumerable social taboos that ‘educated’ speakers were supposed to obey, and thus revealing (truly or falsely) that the accent was merely an act.

Great literature is not written by people who are afraid to speak freely. So the task devolved upon people like Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas, and Eliot, who spoke and wrote in their own regional dialects and never felt any need to apologize for it. It is not the inadequacy of words that kills literature, but the fear of being seen to use them differently from other people.

Mission statement

People occasionally ask exactly what Bondwine Books, as a business entity, is setting out to do. After 30 seconds of panic a long and intensive strategy session, we stole commissioned the following explanatory video. I think this perfectly summarizes what we are all about.

Ambrose Bierce defines ‘Editor’

From The Devil’s Dictionary:

EDITOR, n. A person who combines the judicial functions of Minos, Rhadamanthus and Aeacus, but is placable with an obolus; a severely virtuous censor, but so charitable withal that he tolerates the virtues of others and the vices of himself; who flings about him the splintering lightning and sturdy thunders of admonition till he resembles a bunch of firecrackers petulantly uttering his mind at the tail of a dog; then straightway murmurs a mild, melodious lay, soft as the cooing of a donkey intoning its prayer to the evening star. Master of mysteries and lord of law, high-pinnacled upon the throne of thought, his face suffused with the dim splendors of the Transfiguration, his legs intertwisted and his tongue a-cheek, the editor spills his will along the paper and cuts it off in lengths to suit. And at intervals from behind the veil of the temple is heard the voice of the foreman demanding three inches of wit and six lines of religious meditation, or bidding him turn off the wisdom and whack up some pathos.

O, the Lord of Law on the Throne of Thought,
A gilded impostor is he.
Of shreds and patches his robes are wrought,
His crown is brass,
Himself an ass,
And his power is fiddle-dee-dee.
Prankily, crankily prating of naught,
Silly old quilly old Monarch of Thought.
Public opinion’s camp-follower he,
Thundering, blundering, plundering free.
Affected,
Ungracious,
Suspected,
Mendacious,
Respected contemporaree!

—J.H. Bumbleshook

(Hat tip to Peter Grant, by way of  Mad Genius Club.)

Call for information

I’m posting this in the hope that one or more of my Loyal Readers will be able to help me with a small difficulty. I’m looking for a word. More precisely, I’m looking to see if there is a word.

I want to find out whether there is a specific technical term for the kind of name whose literal meaning is the complete opposite of the thing it actually refers to. I don’t mean an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms, I mean things like these:

  • The Australian habit of calling redheads ‘Blue’.
  • The Holy Roman Empire, which as Voltaire observed, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
  • Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’, which produced nothing but lies.
  • ‘Democratic People’s Republic’ almost anywhere you find it, but especially as applied to the comic-opera régime of North Korea, an unconstitutional hereditary monarchy in which the people count for nothing.

I have a sort of vague intimation that there is a term for these kinds of names, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it is. It may be Latin or Greek in origin, a whatsitation or thingumanym. (I may adopt thingumanym anyway, as a kind of meta-name for ‘some particular class of words that hasn’t got a name, but you know the ones I mean in this context’.)

So, what’s the proper word for these thingumanyms? Anyone? Bueller?

Éala Éarendel: A study in names

A meditation on words, slightly late, but suited for Eastertide. Any howling errors herein are wholly my own; though I reserve the right to be an intellectual coward, and blame them on my recent concussion.


 

There is no such thing as an expert on language. There are experts on individual languages, and experts on different aspects of language as a phenomenon; but the field of language as a whole is, and always has been, far too large for anyone to adequately survey in a human lifetime. Tolkien came as near it as almost anyone: he was intimately familiar with the whole 1,500-year history of English, plus Old Norse, Latin, and classical Greek, and had a firm working knowledge of German, French, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Hebrew, and several other languages, including the latest reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European. Yet he wrote, with perfect sincerity, to Fr. Robert Murray: ‘I am in no ordinary sense a “linguist”’. He understood better than most professional linguists the internal workings of language, but he also had a sound knowledge of his own limitations.

It may be unfair to compare Tolkien with Noam Chomsky, who does unabashedly call himself a linguist, and is often regarded by his younger colleagues in the field as the linguist. Unfair, but for my present purpose, necessary. Chomsky does not show any signs of great familiarity with any language but English. He attempts to lay down ‘universal’ rules of grammar, but his universals, when closely examined, tend to be disturbingly parochial. [Read more…]

The rhetoric of Middle-earth

This essay is included in my collection, Writing Down the Dragon. It has previously appeared on LiveJournal.


 

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story — the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths — which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 131 (to Milton Waldman)

The business of finding and resolving cruxes, of course, is not the only trick in the philologist’s bag, or the only one that Tolkien brought to his imaginative writing. A philologist, in the nature of things, must have a keen nose for style, for the sounds and usages of words. A genuine document is always rooted in the dialect of a particular time and place, modified by the author’s choice of words, rhythms, and turns of phrase. [Read more…]