The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Enough SaidThe title is a phrase I encountered while reading Mark Thompson’s excellent book on political rhetoric, Enough Said: What’s Wrong With the Language of Politics? Thompson’s book is both about the current and historic use of political rhetoric (from Aristotle forward), but also about the role of journalists in covering it. Thompson — a former new editor and executive in the BBC and now with the New York Times — maintains we are in  “a crisis of political language” that comes from a combination of modern media, social media use, and also in the changing way politicians speak (“characterised by lies, spin and demagoguery.”)

The phrase itself was coined by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur, in his book on the writings of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Thompson uses it to describe the mindset of suspicion and disbelief in modern journalists towards politicians, and the reverse shared distrust, as well as the public’s suspicion of the media in presenting its content.*

Personally, I believe a strong sense of skepticism and disbelief is necessary for a journalist to see through the spin and the bullshit to the hidden truths and the corruption below the surface. It’s necessary to have a skeptical perspective so as not to be conned by the blandishments and empty assurances of the corporate elite, too. Without skepticism, journalists are vulnerable to piffle in an age where there is so much disinformation and claptrap around.

In a speech given in 2008, Thompson said, 

…proportionate, rational scepticism is healthy and a civic good – as well as being a prime building block of good journalism… the evidence points rather the other way: the less you trust politicians and public institutions, the more likely you are to believe in outré conspiracy theories, not to mention witches and warlocks and so on.
What the evidence points to, I think, is of a large group of the population who feel outside a charmed circle of knowledge and power. Modern public policy is fiendishly complex and debates about it are conducted in a mysterious, technocratic language which – despite the best efforts of the BBC and some of the rest of the media – many people find hard to understand. This by the way may be why, as Onora O’Neill pointed out, the modern mechanisms of accountability, which are riddled with this impenetrable language, have not only failed to arrest the decline in trust but may have accelerated it.

And also in that same speech, he noted,

One of the tasks of a free press is to uncover public malfeasance. The media is right to be alert to it and to pursue and investigate any evidence that it is taking place. But no good – and almost certainly some ill – is served by exaggeration or endlessly crying wolf… However, this does not seem to be one of the main drivers of broader public disillusion…The biggest reason people give is because, in their view, politicians don’t tell the truth. People also think politicians “say what they want people to hear” and they don’t give straight answers – all issues related to the theme of truth telling.

Trust has to be earned by both sides, and is not a right or a given by either. It starts by being honest. Non-critical acceptance of political or corporate blarney by the media leads to the sort of banal, bland coverage (it doesn’t deserve to be called reporting) we get in the ideological media (like PostMedia and Fox “News”) where everything conservative is treated as wonderful and illuminating, and anything done, suggested, or spoken by a liberal or Democrat is vilified regardless of content or context. This reduces their content to a sort of Tarzan-Jane language of simplisticisms: “Them bad. Us good.” This, of course, appeals increasingly to a polarized audience that views complexity and intellectualism with suspicion and hostility.

Little wonder public disillusion with politicians has extended to the media**. We used to expect of our media to be the watchdogs of the greater good; trusted guardians of the public weal to give us truth and fairness. We also expected them to look deeper into issues on our behalf. Now we expect far too many of them to merely regurgitate the party line, shills for the shallow, self-serving ideology of their corporate owners.

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Bring Back the Yogh and the Thorn


ThornYe Olde Shoppe. We’ve all seen the signs like this. Ever wonder why it says “ye” instead of “the”? Me, too, at least way back then. I’ve known the answer a long time now from decades of reading about English, about typography, Chaucer, and about Middle English orthography. Spoiler alert: It was pronounced “the.” Not “ye.”

Thorn evolvedThe “ye” was actually spelled “(thorn)e” — thorn was a letter in the Old and Middle English alphabets that stood for “th.” It started out looking like a lowercase “p” as in the images at the top, but as time went on, it devolved into something that looked more like a “y” (on the left) in German printing (which lacked a thorn in its character set) which got passed back into early Modern English. When printing arrived in England, Caxton used the “y” form of thorn in his books, hence the “ye” in “the olde shoppe…”

Although Latin characters are the basis for most European languages, Latin (itself derived from earlier Etruscan) had only 23 characters in its alphabet, missing several used in other languages including the Germanic and Norse tongues that loaned so many words and sounds to English. To convey these missing sounds and letters, medieval scribes used characters and runes from other alphabets. While Latin was the official language of Christendom, which spread throughout Europe, it had some hiccups in translation.

Latin had no J, U, or W (or any lowercase form, which was also invented in medieval times), so these came from elsewhere into English. I was used for J; J wasn’t even a separate letter until Gian Giorgio Trissino used it in a book in 1524, but it didn’t appear in English books until 1633, and still wasn’t commonly used until around the early 19th century. So there was no Jesus, Joseph, Jehovah, Joshua, or any other character whose name started with a J in the original bibles (Latin or Greek). Those names are the result of translation into later English.

W had been represented in 7th and 8th century Germanic texts as a digraph (VV or uu), but didn’t make its way into English until the 13th century. It still took a century to become standard. Before then, the sound was represented by the rune wynn. U was originally just a stylistic variation on the letter v, used in the middle or end of a word, while the pointed v was used as the first character. Although u was accepted as a separate character as early as 1386, it was only in its lowercase form. The uppercase U was not used in English until the 17th century. 

EthAnother lost symbol for the was the Irish character eth, which also represented ‘th’ but was a slightly longer sound than thorn (try saying thing versus this to hear the difference).

YoghThe letter “y” wasn’t used back in Chaucer’s day, and instead scribes would have used a yogh, looking a bit like the numeral 3,  spelling our “ye” as 3e.  But yogh was flexible. Yogh, which derives from the Hebrew character gimel, was used for more than one letter, depending a bit on context and pronunciation: it could be g, z, w, or y, or sometimes an x or the allophone gh (as in night or knight, although these were not silent as they are now) and the guttural ch in loch or Bach. Yogh suffered from its closeness to the Arabic symbol for number three. Arabic numerals were gaining popularity in Britain around the end of the 14th  and early 15th centuries, and the two symbols conflicted.

By Chaucer’s day, by the way, the Latin I and Y had lost their distinctiveness as sounds in English.

Another lost letter is wynn, which was used for the “w” sound centuries before the letter was finally adopted into English. Several of these lost characters stayed around in English writing until Chaucerian times, but after the Norman invasion of 1066, French became the official language, and they disappeared from court documents and records. 

Thorn, eth, wynn, and yogh were incorporated into early English because they represented existing sounds not in Latin, but the long s was a typographic affectation for the letter s: style rather than pronunciation, so it had somewhat greater longevity. By Caxton’s time most of these symbols and letters had vanished from printed works, in large part because the printing press and its moveable type were imported from Europe where they didn’t have any of these symbols, so Caxton and others had to make changes to suit the typefaces they had.

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Johnson’s words

Samuel JohnsonI have recently been reading through the David Crystal anthology of words from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (Penguin, 2006), attempting to cross-reference it with entries in the Jack Lynch anthology (Levenger Press, 2004), comparing how the two editors chose their selections, and to see how the book designers chose to present them. Yes, I know: reading dictionaries isn’t a common pastime, but if you love words, then you do it.

In part, I’m doing so for the sheer delight of the reading (Johnson’s wit shines through in so many of the entries), and as a measure of the differences in book design, but also with an odd project in mind: The Word-of-the-day From Johnson. I had the notion of transcribing a single word at random every day, and posting it online, on and social media. Not something that seems to have been done before, as far as I can tell.

I’ve previously written about how much I enjoy Johnson’s dictionary, and how I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading, not merely bibliophiles, logophiles and lexicographers. However, there is no reasonably-priced version of the complete dictionary with its 40,000-plus entries, just various selections. As good as the abridgments are, readers will soon ache, as I do, to read more than the limited number of definitions provided in these.

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Books, writers, words, and competencies

Oxford English DictionaryI have always believed that any good, competent and credible writer can be judged (if judge people we must, and yet we do) by the books on his or her desk. Yes, books: printed hardcopy, paper and ink. I’ll go into why books are vastly superior to online sources a bit later (although I suspect my readers already know why…).

Although I am no longer in the media or much of an active writer these days, I believe I can still determine the craft, the credibility and dedication of a writer simply by a quick glance at their library. That’s because good writers have a library to which they refer. Words, and words about words, matter to them.

For a writer or editor not to be passionate about words, not to continue to read and learn about them, not to to delight in them, is like an architect not to be passionate about wood and steel. Or a musician not to be passionate about the materials of which the instrument is constructed. A cook not to be passionate about the ingredients that make up the dish. Good writers care about words. This is true whether the writer be in advertising, technical writing, PR, journalism, a blogger, a poet or a novelist.

And it’s not just words by themselves, but how they play together, how they glide or grate, how they tangle or spin. Good writers also care about grammar, spelling, punctuation and style. Even the typefaces matter. If these things don’t, matter, to paraphrase Truman Capote, they’re not writers, just typists.

There are four essential books every writer and editor needs on a desk, or at least within reach: a dictionary, a thesaurus, a style guide, and a usage guide. Anyone’s claim to be a writer or journalist without these is suspect. However, which ones they chose is also important to consider.

But before I look into these categories, let me explain about books vs. online sources, and why books are superior. And this advice applies not only to people who write for a living, but to bloggers, aspiring novelists, academics working on dissertaions – anyone who writes regularly or for pleasure.

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Of dictionaries, memories, and friends

Johnson's DictionaryWhen a copy of this selection from Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary arrived last week, I was delighted, and immediately reminded of my late, and well-loved friend, Bill. He would have appreciated the book, chuckled over Johnson’s witty definitions, delighted in the words at play. We would have sat around the kitchen counter, alternately reading random definitions from the book, in between sips of wine.

Like every good writer I’ve ever known, Bill loved words, puns, wit, and the interplay of language.

Sadly, Bill died of esophageal cancer late last year, the same cancer that took my father a few years earlier. A nasty, painful, flesh-wasting disease.  Because of that, Bill and I never got to sit down and share our thoughts about this book over a glass of wine, as we had done many times over many different books, before. I saw him a couple of weeks before his death, as he lay, bedridden, in palliative care. A thin shadow of the man who used to come up for long weekends to spend time with us.

Bill was a passionate reader and we shared many books and interests in common; especially those on Napoleonic and English history. He had a passion for British naval history, and Jane Austen’s life and times, and he was a fount of knowledge about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He could quote Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Austen. He introduced us to numerous BBC dramas, comedies, and specials, and he was generous in lending his DVDs of them. He had a musical streak and we played guitar and ukulele together. And, of course, he loved words.

I was reading through this book the other night, and wondered how Johnson himself felt about friendship and death. James Boswell was his biographer, friend and companion late in his life, but did they share the same sort of closeness as I had with Bill? Boswell went off on a trip to Scotland when Johnson was sick, and was away when the latter died, in 1784. How did Johnson feel about Boswell’s absence, or Boswell and being so far away when his friend died?

Boswell’s comment on hearing of the death was, “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up.” I felt similarly, when Barbara, Bill’s wife, called to tell me of passing, last year. And I felt relieved, not that he was gone, but that his suffering was finally over. I am not ashamed to admit I cried at the news.

I’d known Bill since the late 1970s-early ’80s, back when we both worked on InfoAge magazine, years even before I met Susan. Many the evening back then we stayed up late and talked, sometimes argued, and drank our wine while playing chess, go, or some wargame – at which he almost always won. He was the smartest, funniest man I ever met and my time with him – our time, really, since he was a friend to both of us – was precious.

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The dictionary of delight

Johnson, a la BlackadderMohocks, Samuel Johnson informed us in 1755, was the “name of a cruel nation of America given to ruffians who infested, or rather were imagined to infest, the streets of London.” Moky meant dark, as in weather. Gallimatia was nonsense; talk without meaning. Commination was a threat; a denunciation of punishment, or of vengeance. Tachygraphy was the art of quick writing. Eftsoons meant soon afterwards. Saltinbanco was a quack or a mountebank. A dotard was a man whose age impaired his intellects (no Donald Trump jokes, please).

A lexicographer is a “harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” So reads the self-deprecating entry in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language.  It’s a wonderful book to read even today, and not only for those few of us who delight in reading dictionaries.

Reading through Samuel Johnson’s dictionary is, for anyone interested in words and history, a delightful, entertaining experience. Johnson’s wit and intelligence come through in every entry, more so when you consider it was a one-man project that took eight years to complete. A truly remarkable accomplishment. 

And it remained the basis of all subsequent dictionaries and remained in print right up until the absolute crown of dictionaries: the Oxford English Dictionary (compilation began in 1857, but  it didn’t start publishing until 1884, and the full dictionary itself did not see print until 1928!)

Johnson’s work is also a window into the literary and social world of the 18th century as seen through the language. Johnson was contemporary with Adam Smith,  Edward Gibbon,  Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Rousseau, Kant, Spinoza, Voltaire and many other great authors and thinkers. It was also the era of political upheaval: both the French and American revolutions erupted.

If you’ve seen the wonderfully funny Blackadder episode about Johnson’s dictionary (Ink and Incapability), you get a bit of the sense of how much fun a dictionary can be. Who can forget Blackadder’s contrafibularity? Anaspeptic? Interfrastically? Frasmotic? You probably even tried to look them up in a more modern dictionary (yes, of course I did…).

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