English suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous punctuation

Grammar TalesThere’s a chip wagon in town that offers “fresh cut fries.” When I see that sign, I always wonder what “cut fries” are, and how they compare with uncut fries. Does this chipster offer stale cut fries as well as fresh ones?

The former library is becoming an old building. The sign in front tells us a “senior facility” is coming soon. Sad to see a relatively new building forced to age.

A sign in a local department store advises me “video’s” are on sale. A grocery store offers “mango’s” and “avocado’s”. These common ‘apostrophe catastrophes‘ can be seen daily on signs and in official documents pretty much everywhere English is misspoken.

I was warned to “drive safe” when I left a store on a blustery winter’s day. I responded that the safe didn’t have an engine, so I could not possible drive it. When told to “dress warm” I asked “dress a warm what?”

A local restaurant calls itself the Olde’ Towne Terrace. Aside from the inappropriate apostrophe dangling at the end of the word, olde was a correct spelling in earlier forms of English, but not today. As this sites notes, it’s just an affectation today: “Other ways of pretending to be ancient are the addition of unnecessary ‘e’ at the end of words, ‘olde’, ‘shoppe’, again a holdover from Middle English where the ‘e’ was pronounced… fake English spelling affects all parts of the English-speaking world.”

ToonpoolI suppose I’m urinating against the wind here. There are hundreds of sites and blogs dedicated to documenting and correcting the tsunami of improper spelling, punctuation and grammar all around us. My protest is a mere ripple in comparison. Some writers offer constructive correction (like Melissa Donovan in Writing Forward), but people don’t check before they make signs. It strikes me the job of creating those messages is always assigned to the least literate employee.

There’s the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, a Flickr collection of signs with bad grammar and spelling (and not just at Tea Party rallies, either!) and another set here, here, and here.

Canada’s favourite coffee shop annoys me daily with its incorrect punctuation: Tim Hortons (sic). According to Wikipedia, this error was actually a conscious decision: “The chain’s first store opened in 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario, under the name “Tim Horton Donuts”; the name was later abbreviated to “Tim Horton’s” and then changed to “Tim Hortons” without the possessive apostrophe. The business was founded by Tim Horton, who played in the National Hockey League from 1949 until his death in a car accident in 1974.”

Why, you ask, would any company deliberately dumb-down its signs and open itself to ridicule? To appease the anglophobes in Quebec: “Some older locations retain signage with the company’s name including a possessive apostrophe, despite the fact that the official styling of the company’s name has been Tim Hortons, without an apostrophe, for at least a decade. The company had removed the apostrophe after signs using the apostrophe were considered to be breaking the language sign laws of the Province of Quebec in 1993. The removal of the apostrophe allowed the company to have one common sign image across Canada.” I can only feel for the franchise owners who stubbornly refuse to give in to corporate silliness. The company will offend millions of English language speakers by making an egregious error in punctuation, but not anyone in Quebec. Nice message to send the rest of us, eh? Seems the missing apostrophe has even spawned boycotts of the place and petitions to have it restored.

Fortunately, Collingwood Council has not gone the way of Birmingham, England, and declared apostrophes outdated on its signs. I treat this declaration with the same reverence I treat my dog barking at a squirrel that eludes it: pointless and annoying. Birmingham has become the “city where apostrophes arent welcome” and ridiculed for the decision in the media.

If you don’t think punctuation matters, read this story about a comma that cost Rogers $2.13 million!

Does all this matter any more? Is the number of people who care about language usage, about punctuation, grammar and spelling dwindling, fighting a losing battle against tweets and text messages? I fervently hope not. Even some Chinese cities have undertaken campaigns to correct English on their signs. If they care that much about English, surely we, its native speakers, should do so, too.

Maybe Canada needs a National Punctuation Day (Sept. 24) or a National Grammar Day (March 4) like the US has. Would it make any difference? Aside, that is, from giving geeks like me something else to whinge about?

The Drummond Report: economic disaster or salvation?

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” quips Rick Mercer in this video. “Drummond predicts the province could still turn things around, if it acts now, and no one gets sick, needs a job, or educates their children, for the next… ever.”

The Drummond Report – from the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services headed by economist Don Drummond – was released last week. It’s a sweeping, 529-page, brick-thick study of Ontario’s fiscal policies and structures, with 362 recommendations about how the province should run its public service. It reads like the findings of an inquest after a particularly gruesome series of industrial accidents. Perhaps it is.

If followed, those recommendations will have a huge impact on municipalities and taxpayers (Drummond says government spending must decrease 16.2% every year for every man, woman and child in this province). Adopting them is the only way, says the report’s author, to get the province out of its $16 billion deficit before we become North America’s Greece with a $30 billion deficit.

Drummond says we must accept all of his recommendations or face financial meltdown. All, not just some. We can’t pick from them like a smorgasbord, he says. But that’s just what Premier Dalton McGuinty has already done, with his recent announcements about what he won’t implement or cut.

I’m not sure if that’s McGuinty’s way of telling us he doesn’t have the backbone to implement unpopular recommendations, or he’s just dancing one last song with political popularity while the ship sinks, or that we should buckle up because the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train called The Deficit. But maybe, he’s actually wiser than we normally give him credit for being.

In a few short weeks, the report has spawned a small, but intense industry of commentators who have weighed in on the pros and cons of Drummond’s recommendations. Rex Murphy, for example, penned this scathing comment in the National Post:

With the exception of the writings of the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah at their bleakest, flavoured with a touch of H.P. Lovecraft on the days when that lightless mind was wrestling with a migraine, the recent meditations of Don Drummond on Ontario’s fiscal situation set the standard for prose that vibrates with gloom and foreboding.

To be fair, the chances of any National Post writer making even the most remotely backhanded compliment about anything even vaguely Liberal is akin to my chances of winning the lottery, so we have to take his comments in the conservative spirit in which they were written: a self-righteous, anti-Liberal, “I told you so.”

And as expected, the Toronto Star weighed in against it, albeit from another side. Thomas Walkom wrote:

That the rich will fare best under Drummond is true by definition.
The well-to-do depend less on government programs than the poor and middle class. That is a fact. Drummond’s call for government to roll back the Ontario Child Benefit will hurt poor families who receive the subsidy. It will not affect the rich who do not.
Nor are the wealthy being asked to chip in through higher progressive taxes. Drummond did advocate that some taxes, including those on property and gasoline, be hiked. He even wants a special tax (he calls it a user fee) levied on rural parents who bus their children to school.
But these kinds of regressive taxes hit the poor and middle class proportionally harder than the rich. A surtax on high-income earners could correct that bias. But Premier Dalton McGuinty specifically told Drummond to stay away from such remedies.
Add to this the real world of politics, a world in which some groups have clout and others do not.

AMO – the Association of Municipalities of Ontario – has weighed in with an early comment, noting:

AMO is anxious about the potential for altering the upload agreement and the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund. The Commission is recommending to delay planned uploads of provincial costs from the municipal property tax base by two years.

Translation: Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals promised to reverse the downloading of services and expenses onto municipalities perpetuated by Premier Mike Harris. McGuinty has been undoing it, albeit slowly. He reiterated his promise to continue the uploading at the annual AMO convention, in 2011, and again at the ROMA/OGRA convention in 2012. He promised to have it all reversed by 2018. Drummond suggests pushing that to 2021, which means additional years of expenses to Ontario’s municipalities (you, the taxpayers will pay either way).

AMO credited Drummond with several worthwhile recommendations in the areas of social programs and housing, health care, infrastructure, real estate, electricity, full-cost pricing for water and wastewater treatment services, the justice system, and improving the arbitration system. However, why these recommendations are worthy and others are not is not explained

AMO executives may not want to stray too far into critical commentary because it could alienate the organization from the government, and that would backfire on municipalities. Still, even if it is preliminary, the response noted above is annoyingly vague. I hope to see a much more comprehensive analysis from AMO in the near future, one that looks more closely at what the recommendations mean to municipalities.

Exhaustive as it may appear to some, the report has gaping holes in it. One area, for example, is in the labour arbitration process. Municipalities are frequently burdened with high salary agreements through arbitration. But the executive summary in the report says, “The interest arbitration system has come under increasing scrutiny and attack. We do not find the system to be broken, though it can be improved.” To any municipality trying to wrestle with the escalating costs of, say, their fire service, that statement is a mere nod and a wink to a seriously broken and very expensive process. School boards face the same issue with local teachers’ unions.

Like Walkom pointed out, the provincial tax structure was overlooked and most of the recommendations will have the greatest effect on those with the lowest incomes. One example is full-day kindergarten (which the right-wing QMI media’s writer, Christina Blizzard, caustically calls “free baby sitting”). Working parents who struggle to make ends meet depend on all-day kindergarten to enable them both to stay in the workforce. It’s not a handout.

Drummond’s recommended cuts could slash another 250,000 jobs from the provincial workforce and reduce the provincial economy by billions of dollars. McGuinty may be right by not leaping into these waters without carefully looking at what’s lurking in their depths first.

To the right who view every government program with suspicion, Drummond didn’t go far enough and the cuts should be made regardless of their impact on lower-income and working-class families. To the left, Drummond’s recommendations are a recipe for disaster that will decimate our workforce, our economy and cripple our already struggling labour force with additional costs. These are simplistic views. We’re in a mess and we need to fix it, but Drummond’s report is not the sole answer. It’s a start and some of what he recommends will be necessary, but not all. So Dalton may be right to proceed with caution and not simply dive in without some serious thought to what has to be done.
Here’s an idea Drummond didn’t offer, but I put forward for your consideration. Once upon a time, the province used to charge licencing fees for vehicles based on their number of cylinders. That was dropped, inexplicably. Why not return to that system and put the extra revenue directly into infrastructure spending? Or perhaps base the license fee on the vehicle’s gas mileage ratio? It would serve the double duty of discouraging sales of gas guzzlers, which will only help our environment.

You really think they’re, like, linguistic pioneers? OMG!

Are the Kardashians, Valley Girls or the Jersey Shores’ starlets pioneers of language? Or just inept, barely literate, somewhat dim young women of dubious talent? I tend to believe the latter. Writer Douglas Quequa suggested the former in the New York Times this week. He opens with this line:

“Whether it be uptalk (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?), creating slang words like “bitchin’ ” and “ridic,” or the incessant use of “like” as a conversation filler, vocal trends associated with young women are often seen as markers of immaturity or even stupidity.”

Well, of course, yes. If you speak like an idiot, people naturally assume you are one. Language conveys the speaker’s intelligence, education, upbringing, experience and communications skills. Anyone who sticks “like” into every sentence does not come across as a particularly well-educated or even bright communicator. Anyone who thinks the Kardashians are brilliant orators is, like, oh-my-god, a moron.

It doesn’t have to be women: men do it too albeit usually with different words and cadence (the affected pseudo-“homie” talk of young men is particularly painful to listen to), but the cultural stereotype of the mindless, barely literate babble has been rather unfortunately pinned mostly on young women. Sadly, a few, it seems, deserve the label:

But linguists — many of whom once promoted theories consistent with that attitude — now say such thinking is outmoded. Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.”

I agree that these verbalizations fulfill a stylistic function, but interactional? It’s difficult to interact properly with someone who peppers “like” throughout a sentence. When someone says “I’m, like, happy,” should I ask what being similar to happy means to them?

If you mean “um”, say “um,” and not “like.” Basically both are an interruption of thought, but “like” has become an accepted stylistic form among some groups, spread like a virus, without deliberate effort. The abuse of the word “like” in speech is a bad gene on the language chromosome we need to expunge. Quequa writes,

The same can be said for the word “like,” when used in a grammatically superfluous way or to add cadence to a sentence. (Because, like, people tend to talk this way when impersonating, like, teenage girls?) …while young people tended to use “like” more often than older people, men used it more frequently than women… The use of “like” in a sentence, “apparently without meaning or syntactic function, but possibly as emphasis,” has made its way into the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition — this newspaper’s reference Bible — where the example given is: “It’s, like, hot.” Anyone who has seen a television show featuring the Kardashian sisters will be more than familiar with this usage.

Making it into any dictionary does not convey credibility or even acceptability. Dictionaries document use, but don’t make any effort to correct usage. They are tools for mapping the language, not arbiters of its use. Words also disappear from dictionaries, but not because they’re worthless. They may be expunged simply for lack of space. How many dictionaries still carry the word “mumpsimus”?

As an editorial note, Quequa doesn’t qualify his statement as to how (or even if) his quoted sources, “once promoted theories consistent with that attitude.” We never get any inkling of what those those earlier theories say. Or even if they are theories (they could be mere hypotheses…)

I suppose if I really wanted to be hip (wait, does that colloquialism show my age?) I’d write Valley “Gurlz” because the rage among the marketing and advertising illiterates is to replace a proper ‘s’ with a ‘z’ and pretend they’re actually the same sound (they’re not, but it’s like arguing cosmology with goldfish…). These are the same dimwits who brought us “lite” instead of light and “E-Z” instead of easy. Pay no attention to them and they will probably slink back into their caves.

Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

Oh, puh-leez. That’s codswallop. That’s akin to saying my dog is pioneering veterinary treatments because she got better after the medicine. The spread of linguistic forms is often little more than mimicry based on popular culture and pressure from peer usage. It’s just like fashion and popular culture. Just look at Internet memes and viral videos. Pioneering requires someone or some group to actually do the pioneering, not simply repeat what others do. I am not a pioneer of the telephone simply because I use one.

In the Sixties we talked about “rip offs” and said “cool, man”; in the Fifties it was “Daddy-oh” and “hipster.” Were we language pioneers or just parrots? These young women are products of their age and pop cultures, influenced by TV, the Net and movies to absorb these aspects.

Every generation has its own language, its own slang. But slang and sociolects age like political humour, losing their relevance within a few years and get dropped. Who today uses terms that were once in daily speeeh in the 1920s? Who says twenty-three skidoo or  see you later alligator?

What Quequa overlooks is that the patois of Valleyspeak and its ilk are not evolving languages as much as they are variant sociolects that have become a cross-pollinating meme. A sociolect, or social dialect, is, according to Wikipedia:

…a variety of language (a dialect) associated with a social group such as a socioeconomic class, an ethnic group, an age group, etc… interaction in written and other media can also lead to sociolects, and many can be found in online communities.

There’s nothing wrong with slang or sociolects; they’ve been around since language was invented. But there’s a world of difference between pioneering language forms and merely using them. And certainly a difference between pioneering and parroting.

Language is a tool. It can be used with finesse, like a scalpel, or bluntly and coarsely, like a chainsaw. Girl slang is certainly closer to the latter than the former as a mode of communication. Shakespeare was a pioneer of language, introducing many neologisms and developing new forms of expression. I simply cannot countenance putting the Kardashians on the same level as Shakespeare.

Not a John Lennon quote… just another bad meme

Lennon mis-quoteAnother unsourced, mis-attributed quote is going the rounds, found as are so many on Facebook, this one turning itself into another of those annoying, unsourced Internet memes that people love to share:

When I was five years old, my Mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote down “happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Nope, not by Lennon. Just another bad Internet meme, with no source ever listed, but posted and re-posted as a Lennon quotation by the gullible souls who want warm-n-fuzzy thoughts to tinkle down on the rest of us. The Net is replete with laudatory comments about how this shows just how wise John was. Well, at least someone was wise, not Lennon, since he didn’t say it. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Just get gooey and gush about how meaningful it is. Uplifting, inspirational, some call it.

Sorry, but to me a bumper sticker about fishing is about as inspirational as this misquote. It’s one of those saccharine snippets you expect to read in self-help books; all puff and no substance. Tagged on blogs and forums with glittery words like happiness, fulfillment, wisdom. Kindness demands I should merely label this quote “apocryphal,” but I can’t get past the terms “sloppy thinking” and “gullible Netiots” when I read it.
Internet jokeAt the age of 4, Lennon was in the custody of his aunt Mimi (Mary Smith), not his mother. You really think a five-year-old is that precocious and witty? Kids say the darndest things… but that Lennon kid didn’t say this. (As an aside, he started school on Nov. 12, 1945, but by April, 1946 he had been expelled from Mosspits County Primary School for misbehaviour. He then went to Dovedale Road Primary School.)

Check Wikiquote and Beatlesquotes for confirmation or at least additional challenges.

Check those quotes, says Ralph Keyes: “As for Churchill, he-like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln-is what Keyes calls a ‘flypaper figure,’ a personage so famously quotable that lesser wags’ witticisms and anonymous maxims, like the one Warner used, get stuck to him.”

The Quote Investigator also notes other lines mis-attributed to John Lennon. Lennon is also one of the Top Ten mis-quoted celebrities.

On translating Chaucer and the joys of Middle English

Geoffrey ChaucerIn my last two visits to the nearby Chapters, I picked up from the bargain books section two recent, hardcover, versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One is a new verse translation by Burton Raffel published in 2008, the other a prose translation by Peter Ackroyd, from 2009.

These join the dozen or so other versions of Chaucer’s works I already have on my bookshelves: the Riverside Chaucer (third edition), several venerable Penguin editions (both original and translations), the New Cambridge edition, the Portable Chaucer, Hopper’s interlinear translation, and a few others. What always surprises me is how widely these translations range in wording, rhythm and style.

Chaucer, of course, wrote in Middle English, a form of English that’s not quite like our speech today, but close enough that anyone can stumble through most of it without needing a glossary. I have only skimmed some works on learning Middle English, not studied it beyond casual reading. For me, trying to read and understand Chaucer in his original tongue is part of the pleasure of it. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I figure out a verse that looked cryptic at first but clarity has broken upon me, or when the words coalesce into a tale.

There are four things to keep in mind when reading Chaucer. First is to try to read it aloud. The sound and rhythm of the spoken word often helps makes the meaning evident. Chaucer wrote to be heard, not just read. You can hear some Chaucerian poetry online to get a sense of how it sounded – a lot more Germanic than it does today. But just reading him aloud helps you appreciate his work.

Second is the pronunciation. Many words and letters were pronounced somewhat differently in Chaucer’s day, much more like Romance languages: most letters are pronounced and few are silent. For example, what we would see as a silent ‘e’ at the end of a Chaucerian word, such as ‘grete’ and likely pronounce as “greet” today would have been sounded as ‘eh’ in Chaucer’s day” ‘grey-teh’. You can get basic pronunciation guides online, too. It’s not difficult.

Third is the spelling. Chaucer didn’t use spell-check (neither, it seems, do most Facebook posters, but I digress). He was not always consistent in his spelling. Many common words in his day were also spelled differently than today. These words can look odd, but when you say them aloud, you realize they’re familiar words with different spellings. For example, these lines from the Knight’s Tale (Knightes Tale, lines 2160-64):

“His coat-armure was of clooth of Tars,
Couched with perles whyte and rounde and grete.
His sadel was of brend gold newe y-bete,
A mantelet upon his shuldre hanginge
Bret-ful of rubies rede, as fyr sparklinge.”

You should understand most of that pretty easily. Shuldre today is shoulder, sadle is saddle, perles are pearls, clooth is cloth, and so on. But what is y-bete, or brend, or armure? That’s where translations or glossaries help.
In prose translation, this can be rendered:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And here it is in poetry (from an online interlinear site):

His tunic with his coat of arms was of cloth of Tarsia (in Turkestan)
Adorned with pearls white and round and big;
His saddle was newly adorned with pure gold;
A short cloak hanging upon his shoulder,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

Raffel, I see, translates Tars as “Persian”:

…His coat was Persian silk,
Embroidered with pearls, great, and white as milk.
His saddle was hammered out of bright new gold,
And the mantle hanging high across his shoulders
Was heavy with fire-red rubies, sparkling in sunlight.

Fourth reminder is that words come and go in English, and can even change meaning from one period to the next. In Chaucer’s day, for example, the word silly meant “happy, blissful, blessed or fortunate.” By the early-16th century, it meant “deserving pity or sympathy.” It took on its current meaning of “empty-headed” or “lacking good sense” by the early 17th century. (See Steinmetz: Semantic Antics). When you read Chaucer, you will find words no longer in use, as well as words that have shifted meaning since his day. That’s one reason having a modern translation is handy. When you come to an incomprehensible line, you can see how it gets translated into today’s speech.

The structure of Middle English – the grammar – is similar enough to modern English that it’s not hard to figure out. Adjectives tend to follow nouns rather than precede them (“perles whyte” rather than “white pearls”). But if you have no problem with the syntax of Shakespeare or the King James Bible, Chaucer won’t pose significant problems,

Ah, but you also need to know where you’re reading in order to find the translated lines. In Hopper’s edition, those lines above are numbered 1303-06. In Raffel’s new translation, we find them at 1290-94. But the Riverside, New Cambridge and Penguin (original spelling) versions all use the numbering noted above.

It can be tricky finding the reference. Many translations are unnumbered, making it difficult to locate a particular line. Ackroyd’s prose version has no references, either (the lines above appear about a third of the way down on page 57):

His coat of arms was woven of rare silk and embroidered with white pearls; his saddle was of newly beaten gold, and the mantle around his shoulders was studded with glowing rubies.

Morrison’s translation in the Portable Chaucer (revised edn), is:

Over his gear a Tartar coat; each fold
With large pearls was embroidered, round and white.
His saddle was of forged gold, beaten bright.
A little mantel from his shoulders spread
Brimful of fiery rubies, glittering red.

Coghill’s translation in the Penguin Classics edition reads,

His surcoat was in cloth of Tartary,
Studded with great white pearls; beneath its fold
A saddle of new-beaten, burnished gold.
He had a mantle hanging from his shoulders,
Which, crammed with rubies,dazzled all beholders.

Here a re a few other translations of those four lines from the Web. First this one:

His coat-of-arms was cloth of the Tartars,
Begemmed with pearls, all white and round and great.
Of beaten gold his saddle, burnished late;
A mantle from his shoulders hung, the thing
Close-set with rubies red, like fire blazing.

Which I find a bit stilted (begemmed, rubies red, etc.). Then this one:

His coat of arms of cloth from Turkestan,
Adorned with large round pearls of polished white;
His pure gold saddle was a wondrous sight;
A short cloak on his shoulders all admire,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

And this prose version:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And this poetic version:

His surcoat was of cloth from Tartary,
With all the large white pearls that it could hold.
His saddle, newly forged, was burnished gold.
A mantle from his shoulders hung, attire
Brimful of rubies sparkling red as fire.

And finally this verse translation:

His surcoat was of cloth of Tartary,
Adorned with pearls, white, round and bold.
His saddle of pure freshly-beaten gold,
A short mantle on his shoulder hanging,
Dense with rubies red, like fire sparkling.

You can see how different each version is, yet how similar. The original is not really very difficult to understand – at least to my eyes – but every translator finds in it a different sense or colour. Every version above sounds particularly different from the original when read aloud, both in wording and in poetic rhythm.

Are any of them better? Is there a definitive modern translation? I have not the academic background to judge. I enjoy reading Chaucer in almost all forms, including my stumbling and fitful attempts to master the original. But these two latest versions of the Canterbury Tales are among the most enjoyable I have read in a while, and I would recommend them to anyone. You merely have to decide whether you want to read Chaucer as epic poetry (Raffel) or stories constructed like modern fiction (Ackroyd). I like both, and of course the bargain-book price didn’t hurt.

All of this is to explain why, despite several translations on my bookshelves already, I continue to purchase – and delight in reading – new translations of Chaucer.

It wasn’t Einstein who said it…

Not an Einstein quote!Yet another incorrectly attributed quotation is being passed around the Internet, this time on Facebook. This one is, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

A saccharine, touchy-feely, warm-puppy quote that appeals to some who take comfort in them, but Einstein never said that. According to Wikiquote’s page on Einstein,

This gets almost 500k hits on google, but as far as I can tell, none has a source… Doing a Google book search and restricting the date range to 1900-1990, there are only 10 books and several of them attribute it to “Samples, 1976” which is apparently The Metaphoric Mind by Bob Samples (which also seems to be the earliest published variant)… two sections that attribute it to Einstein, but as a paraphrase rather than a direct quote, with no source given, and the author seems to be adding his own comment when he writes “It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine” so even if the first part is accurate, this part is probably not Einstein’s.
Einstein had many quotes about the value of intuition and imagination, but the specific word “gift” can be found in a comment remembered by János Plesch in the section Albert_Einstein#Posthumous_publications, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” So, Bob Samples might have been paraphrasing that comment.

Einstein, as far as I know from my reading of several biographies, was unlikely to refer to a natural faculty as a “sacred gift” – Einstein was not openly an atheist (he called himself an agnostic), but neither was he by any means religious. A “sacred gift” suggests humans get their faculties handed down by the gods, rather than developed by evolution and through effort. Einstein would have rejected that for the codswallop it is.

Einstein’s religious views were firmly in the humanist-Descartes-Spinoza model, according to Wikipedia:

He believed in the God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief which he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, and criticized atheism, preferring he said “an attitude of humility.”

One actual quote from Einstein is this:

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

But his views on religion and spirituality were amorphous and seem to have changed over the years – although not towards him becoming religious in the traditional or formal sense, but rather in a deeper sense of wonder that can be called spiritual, without any identification with a personal deity.

It’s worth reading the entire entry to see how complex this subject is.

Be that as it may, this quotation is another bad Internet meme, perpetuated by people who are don’t bother to confirm sources and simply spread the silliness. Then the gullibles pick it up and spread it around faster than a chain letter. Damn, I wish people would check first and post later.