Tag Archives | Lapsus Linguae

Lunar Lunacy

I just finished reading Artemis, Andy Weir’s follow-up to his hit novel The Martian. I generally enjoyed it (despite finding his prose choices occasionally painful). But I have one major gripe.

You know that classic trope where the villain gives themselves away by mentioning X, and the hero says “but I never said anything about X”? Well, it happens in Artemis – EXCEPT that the hero had in fact explicitly mentioned X to the villain two pages earlier.

Somehow the author missed this. And all the editors and manuscript readers also missed this. WTF?


OOPS. Mea culpa. The idiot is me. I reread the passage. The hero is referring to things the villain said just BEFORE the hero mentioned X. I misread the hero’s “But I hadn’t mentioned X” as “But I haven’t mentioned X.” I shall do penance.

A Question for Latinists

Does Ælred of Rievaulx, in his dialogue On Spiritual Friendship, identify friendship with God?

(No, that’s not the question for Latinists. Not yet. I need to lay out the background first.)

That identification is one of the claims he’s best known for; but the attribution has also been challenged.

As an example of the attribution: in his friendship anthology, introducing an excerpt from Eugenia Laker’s translation of Ælred, Michael Pakaluk (whom incidentally I recall as a T.A. when I was in college) writes:

Aelred ends Book I with the striking suggestion that “God is friendship.” … Aelred’s reasons for holding that “God is friendship” are probably to be located in the doctrine of the Trinity – God as a communion of Divine Persons ….

By contrast, Marsha Dutton, in her introduction to Lawrence Braceland’s translation, says:

Aelred … rejects the temptation to equate God with friendship, an equation that would make God identical with and thereby limited to friendship. … Frustratingly, the misunderstanding that Aelred attempted to avoid by twice explicitly rejecting the identity of friendship and charity is today the treatise’s best-remembered and most frequently quoted idea ….

(Note that Dutton here takes the denial of friendship’s identity with charity to be equivalent to a denial of friendship’s identity with God. On this, see below.)

Well, let’s take a look at the relevant passage.

Some context: earlier in the dialogue, Ælred’s interlocutor Ivo has asked whether friendship (amicitia) and love/charity (caritas, charitas) are the same thing, and Ælred has replied in the negative, on the grounds that caritas is something that Christians are bound to extend to all humankind, even to the wicked and hostile, while friendship can exist only where there is intimacy and mutual trust – although this division between amicitia and caritas is in turn something that exists only because of the Fall and would not have arisen among humans in an unfallen condition. Thus friendship (at least in its highest and true form) is suggested to be greater than caritas, since friendship implies or includes caritas while caritas does not necessarily imply or include friendship.

Ælred has gone on to claim that (true) friendship is like wisdom in that it cannot “entirely” (prorsus) be misused (a qualification that invites more elaboration than it receives), and that although friendship is perhaps technically inferior to wisdom, it is so close to or so pervaded by wisdom that he would “almost say” (pene dixerim) that friendship is “nothing other than” (nihil aliud esse quam) wisdom.

It is at this point that Ivo asks whether we should then say of friendship what St. John says of caritas (“God is love [agapē]; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” – I John 4:16), namely that friendship is God, or equivalently that God is friendship (Deus amicitia est). And here Ælred replies … well, now it depends on the translation.

In Laker’s rendering, Ælred responds with a yes:

That would be unusual, to be sure, nor does it have the sanction of the Scriptures. But still what is true of charity, I surely do not hesitate to grant to friendship, since “he that abides in friendship, abides in God, and God in him.”

Braceland, by contrast, has Ælred respond, if not quite with a no, than at least with a refusal to say yes:

This is novel indeed and lacks the authority of the Scriptures. The rest of that verse about charity, however, I surely do not hesitate to attribute to friendship, because the one who remains in friendship remains in God, and God in him.

Note that nowhere here is there any hint either of Pakaluk’s suggested reason for a yes (trinitarian considerations) or of Dutton’s suggested reason for a no (namely that if God is caritas, and friendship is narrower than caritas, then friendship must be narrower than God – which I’m not at all sure is how mediævals would have thought such predications worked, especially given that Ælred seems to regard friendship as a higher form of caritas, the form that would have been identical with caritas among unfallen humans). The only reason against the identification of friendship with God that Ælred gives is that it is unusual and lacks scriptural authority; and the only definite reason in its favour that the immediate text offers is that as with caritas (which is God), so with friendship, those who abide in it abide in God and vice versa (which is no surprise if friendship brings caritas with it).

So what does the text I’ve put in bold above actually say? In the original Latin, the phrase is:

Inusitatum quidem hoc, nec ex Scripturis habet auctoritatem: quod tamen sequitur de charitate, amicitiæ profecto dare non dubito, quoniam ….

To me the natural reading of the Latin is:

That is indeed out of the ordinary, nor does it have authority on the basis of the Scriptures: nevertheless, that which follows concerning charity, I assuredly feel no uncertainty in ascribing to friendship, since ….

Laker seems to have taken quod … sequitur de charitate to mean that “whatever follows from [the nature of] charity,” i.e., whatever is true of charity, is likewise true of friendship – which would imply that friendship must be God, since charity is so. The force of the tamen (“nevertheless”: Laker’s “still” and Braceland’s “however”) would then be: despite this identification being unusual and not sanctioned by Scripture, I nevertheless endorse it.

But “follows from [the nature of] charity” does not strike me as a natural reading of sequitur de charitate. If that were what Ælred were trying to say, I would expect sequitur charitatis or sequitur ad charitatem. To me, “that which follows concerning charity” seems to mean, rather, “what the Bible verse goes on to say about charity after saying that charity is God” – namely that those who abide in it abide in God and vice versa – and that would seem to support Braceland’s translation, “The rest of that verse about charity.” The force of tamen would then be: while I’m not prepared to ascribe to friendship what the first part of that verse ascribes to charity (namely identity with God), I’m nevertheless happy to ascribe to friendship the rest of what the verse ascribes to charity.

However, I would welcome confirmation or disconfirmation from anyone with a surer grasp of the nuances of Latin, especially mediæval Latin, than I possess. Hence this post.

If I’m right in my interpretation, though, then Dutton is correct (and Pakaluk, Laker, et al. are wrong) in this respect: Ælred never actually endorses the claim that God is friendship. But again, if I’m right in my interpretation, then Dutton overstates her case in saying that Ælred denies that identification. Instead, Ælred is contrasting what he does not feel uncertainty about (non dubito), namely ascribing to friendship what is said of charity in the second half of the Johannine verse, with what he does feel uncertainty about, namely ascribing to friendship what is said of charity in the first half of the verse. And the unusual and scripturally unsupported nature of the identification seems to be the only reason offered for Ælred’s uncertainty. I can’t see that the text offers either an affirmation or a denial here.

En Ce Bordeau Ou Tenons Nostre Estat

Yesterday I was reading through a collection of mediæval verse when, in the section on the 15th-century poet and scalawag François Villon, I came across two poems that were remarkably similar to two songs in Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera. I did some googling, and yes, this is well-known (and Brecht apparently borrowed more than just the two I’d found), but it was news to me.

Compare this Villon poem:

What though the beauty I love and serve be cheap,
Ought you to take me for a beast or fool?
All things a man could wish are in her keep;
For her I turn swashbuckler in love’s school.
When folk drop in, I take my pot and stool
And fall to drinking with no more ado.
I fetch them bread, fruit, cheese, and water, too;
I say all’s right so long as I’m well paid:
“Look in again when your flesh troubles you,
Inside this brothel where we drive our trade.”

But soon the devil’s among us flesh and fell,
When penniless to bed comes Madge my whore;
I loathe the very sight of her like hell.
I snatch gown, girdle, surcoat, all she wore,
And tell her, these shall stand against her score.
She grips her hips with both hands, cursing God,
Swearing by Jesus’ body, bones, and blood,
That they shall not. Then I, no whit dismayed,
Cross her cracked nose with some stray shiver of wood
Inside this brothel where we drive our trade.

When all’s up she drops me a windy word,
Bloat like a beetle puffed and poisonous:
Grins, thumps my pate, and calls me dickey-bird,
And cuffs me with a fist that’s ponderous.
We sleep like logs, being drunken both of us;
Then when we wake her womb begins to stir;
To save her seed she gets me under her
Wheezing and whining, flat as planks are laid:
And thus she spoils me for a whoremonger
Inside this brothel where we drive our trade.

Blow, hail or freeze, I’ve bread here baked rent-free!
Whoring’s my trade, and my whore pleases me;
Bad cat, bad rat; we’re just the same if weighed.
We that love filth, filth follows us, you see;
Honour flies from us, as from her we flee
Inside this brothel where we drive our trade.

with this Brecht song:

or likewise this Villon poem:

Rain has unsmirched and washed us
And the sun has dried and blackened us;
Magpies and crows have carved out our eyes,
And torn off our beards and eyebrows.
We never sit for a moment;
Now here, then there, as the wind changes,
at its pleasure, without cease it tosses us,
More pecked by birds than thimbles,
Do not then be of our brotherhood,
But pray God that he wills to absolve us all! …

Human brothers who live after us,
Do not have your hearts hardened against us,
For, if you take pity on us poor fellows,
God will sooner have mercy on you.
You see us tied here, five, six:
As for the flesh, that we nurtured too much,
It is already long-time consumed, and rotting,
And we, the bones, become ashes and powder.
Of our pain let no one make fun,
But pray God that he wills to absolve us all!

with this Brecht song:

I’ve used the Threepenny Opera versions from the excellent Raul Julia stage production (not to be confused with the sadly unbearable Raul Julia movie version) because the translations are more accurate than most.

Here’s another version of the “Zuhälterballade,” featuring Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper. This translation is in some respects more accurate, and in other respects less accurate, than the Raul Julia / Ellen Greene version above:

While I’m on the subject of Threepenny Opera, I can’t resist adding this performance of “Seeräuber-Jenny,” by Anne Kerry Ford. This song has nothing to do with Villon, and the translation is not terribly accurate, but Ford’s performance is amazing:

For comparison, here’s the Ellen Greene version – a more accurate translation, and an excellent performance, but not quite as excellent as Ford’s:

This Gallant Will Command the Sun

— Let’s see; I think ’tis now some seven o’clock,
And well we may come there by dinner-time.
— I dare assure you, sir, ’tis almost two,
And ’twill be supper-time ere you come there.
— It shall be seven ere I go to horse. …
It shall be what o’clock I say it is. …
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
— The moon? The sun! It is not moonlight now.
— I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
— I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
— Now by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house. …
— Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please;
And if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
— I say it is the moon.
— I know it is the moon.
— Nay, then you lie; it is the blessed sun.
— Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun;
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam’d, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.
(Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew)


— How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?
— Four.
— And if the party says that it is not four but five – then how many?
— Four. …
— How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?
— I don’t know. I don’t know. You will kill me if you do that again. Four, five, six – in all honesty I don’t know.
— Better.
(George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty-Four)


— How many lights do you see there?
— I see four lights.
— No, there are five. Are you quite sure?
— There are four lights. …
— I can produce pain in any part of your body at various levels of severity. Forgive me; I don’t enjoy this, but I must demonstrate. It will make everything clearer. …
— There … are … four … lights!
(“Chain of Command,” Star Trek: The Next Generation)


— Would you like some? I know they haven’t fed you since you got here. That’s at least two days. Besides, it’s lunchtime. Isn’t it? Isn’t it lunchtime?
— You just said it was morning.
— Well, you can’t have a corned-beef sandwich for breakfast. It would upset your stomach. Corned-beef sandwiches are for lunch. If it’s morning, you can’t have it. If it’s lunchtime you can. Is it lunchtime?
— I’m sure it’s lunchtime somewhere.
— Excellent answer. … It does prove, though, how everything is a matter of perspective. You think you see daylight, and you assume it’s morning. Take it away, you think it’s night. Offer you a sandwich: if it’s convenient, you’ll think it’s midday. The truth is fluid. The truth is subjective. Out there, it doesn’t matter what time it is. In here, it’s lunchtime if you and I decide that it is. The truth is sometimes what you believe it to be and other times what you decide it to be. My task is to make you decide to believe differently. And when that happens, the world will remake itself before your very eyes.
(“Intersections in Real Time,” Babylon 5)

Confessions of a Grammar Nazi

[cross-posted at POT]

Well, usage nazi, really, more than a grammar nazi narrowly speaking.

And now that literal, open Nazis are a thing again, I’d really prefer another term for the “nazi” part. (I’ve seen some suggest “grammar cop,” but for an anarchist that’s only marginally better. I welcome suggestions.)

Anyway, folks like me are often regarded as having a nitpicky enthusiasm for arbitrary and pointless rules, and failing to recognise, as any good libertarian should, that language evolves spontaneously over time, and thus that rules of usage can only be descriptive, not prescriptive.

To this charge, my reply, first of all, is that whatever may motivate others of my tribe, I have no mere attachment to rules as such. I’m happy to revise or discard rules of grammar, usage, etc., whenever some genuine benefit is obtained thereby.

What motivates me, rather, is a love for useful and beautiful tools that are well-designed to perform specific functions, and a dislike of seeing them used in a way that ruins them. If we misuse a phillips screwdriver (and note that I have no objection to dropping the initial majuscule on “Phillips”) to punch holes in a wall or to chip bits off of rocks, we run the risk of blunting it in such a way that we lose the ability to use it as a phillips screwdriver. Likewise, when we use “decimate” (a term that bears its etymology and associated history on its face) to mean “destroy most of” (something we have many perfectly good synonyms for already – including “devastate,” which is probably what people were aiming for when they started misusing “decimate”), we undermine our ability to use it to mean “destroy ten percent of” – a very specific meaning for which no other term exists (and we also help to render the historical use of the term unintelligible).

Or again, when we use “may have” and “might have” interchangeably, we lose our ability to make certain useful distinctions, such as the fact that while it is arguably true that Hitler might have won World War II (since that means it was possible back then that he should do so), it is definitely false that Hitler may have won World War II (since that means it’s possible now that Hitler really did win it). And we thereby also undermine future readers’ ability to understand writing that respects such distinctions.

While I’m obviously a fan of spontaneous order, not every spontaneous change is an example of spontaneous order, and for that matter not all spontaneous orders are good. I also don’t think the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive holds up very well when considering a practice, such as language, that operates by implicit rules that anyone can contribute to changing, but where one of the most well-established rules involves, at least in many contexts, (defeasible) deference to experts.

By “deference to experts” I have in mind the sort of thing that Hilary Putnam talks about in his 1973 essay “Meaning and Reference”:

Suppose you are like me and cannot tell an elm from a beech tree. We still say that the extension of ‘elm’ in my idiolect is the same as the extension of ‘elm’ in anyone else’s, viz., the set of all elm trees, and that the set of all beech trees is the extension of ‘beech’ in both of our idiolects. Thus ‘elm’ in my idiolect has a different extension from ‘beech’ in your idiolect (as it should).

Is it really credible that this difference in extension is brought about by some difference in our concepts? My concept of an elm tree is exactly the same as my concept of a beech tree (I blush to confess) ….

[T]here is division of linguistic labor. We could hardly use such words as ‘elm’ and ‘aluminum’ if no one possessed a way of recognizing elm trees and aluminum metal; but not everyone to whom the distinction is important has to be able to make the distinction. … [E]very one to whom gold is important for any reason has to acquire the word ‘gold’; but he does not have to acquire the method of recognizing whether something is or is not gold. He can rely on a special subclass of speakers. … Thus the way of recognizing possessed by these “expert” speakers is also, through them, possessed by the collective linguistic body, even though it is not possessed by each individual member of the body, and in this way the most recherché fact about [gold] may become part of the social meaning of the word although unknown to almost all speakers who acquire the word. …

Every linguistic community exemplifies the sort of division of linguistic labor just described; that is, it possesses at least some terms whose associated ‘criteria’ are known only to a subset of the speakers who acquire the terms, and whose use by the other speakers depends upon a structured cooperation between them and the speakers in the relevant subsets. … When a term is subject to the division of linguistic labor, the “average” speaker who acquires it does not acquire anything that fixes its extension. In particular, his individual psychological state certainly does not fix its extension; it is only the sociolinguistic state of the collective linguistic body to which the speaker belongs that fixes the extension ….

In other words, even if most people use an expression one way, they may be committed to a rule according to which some other way, perhaps unknown to them, is more correct if certain identifiable experts say so. If this deference is actually to be considered part of usage, as seems reasonable, then the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive becomes rather blurry.

So what determines who the experts are – given that those ordinary speakers who intend to defer to experts may not have in mind any particular criterion for identifying an expert? Rather than appealing to merely academic credentials, which are likely to cast a net simultaneously too broad and too narrow, perhaps we might draw a page from Mill on higher and lower pleasures (with a dash of Burke and Hume on the standard of taste), and say that the experts, concerning any particular choice between two uses, are those who are a) familiar with both uses, and b) sensitive to the grounds for keeping (or not keeping) any traditional distinction between them, whether they endorse that distinction or not. (Hence someone might count as an expert with regard to one expression but not another.) So if, say, most people who know that “decimate” originally meant “destroy one-tenth of,” and have a sensitive understanding of the case for and against retaining that meaning, are willing to acquiesce in the new use, that counts as an expert judgment on behalf of the new use in a way that like acquiescence by the ignorant does not.

I am not saying, however, that the judgment of experts should always be followed, or that every change in usage should be resisted; some changes should be embraced, even if they go against the rules. The rules exist for us, not we for the rules. Since there is (thankfully) no central linguistic authority we can petition, the only way we can “vote” for changes in the rules of usage is to violate them and encourage others to do so. The move to reject the gender-neutral use of “he” is a good example; using “he” for both gender-neutral and gender-specific purposes is what traditional usage dictates; but traditional usage thereby creates problematic ambiguity, and in particular tends to reinforce the norm of viewing the masculine as the “default.” This is like a tool that keeps malfunctioning in dangerous ways; it makes sense to toss it out.

However, when a tool is useful rather than harmful, the fact that others, expert or otherwise, are voting to discard it does not imply that we should follow suit.

Of course, even if a change should initially have been resisted, if it is not resisted it may in time prevail and thus become “correct,” and if the problems it causes are smaller than the inconvenience and risk of unintelligibility involved in striving to reverse it, the change should be accepted – though there will be reasonable disagreement among experts as to when such a point has been reached with regard to any particular change, and that’s fine.

* * *

I would be remiss, incidentally, to touch on this subject without linking to Richard Mitchell’s brilliant essay Why Good Grammar?,” which makes many valuable points I have here omitted.

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