Yesterday evening saw me sitting in the gods, with the young people, at Oxford’s New Theatre for a performance of La bohème – an experience that made me rue how many years I have wasted not going to the opera. I think the last occasion I was in the New Theatre was when it was still under its old designation of the Apollo, for a production (like this one, by Welsh National Opera) of Richard Strauss’s Elektra. That, a quick internet search suggests, was a full two decades ago; what time I have lost! I fear that I have stayed away because I made what would be called a category error: I imagined opera to be a sub-set of theatre. I realised last night how wrong that was and how free from the constraints of the logic of plot or characterisation an opera could be, driven on by the dynamic of its music, with an orchestration as complex as any contrapunctual masterclass. I finally realised how opera could find its purpose in expressing the drama of emotion — how it can voice the heart’s strings.
But talking of category errors, I am not the only one to have laboured under a misapprehension. The programme for last evening’s performance included an essay by Adrian Mourby that begins engagingly:
Once upon a time in a city called Paris the gendarmes raided a nightclub and accused a poet of stealing the Mona Lisa. The year was 1911, poet [sic] was called Apollinaire and to get himself off the hook he fingered his disreputable boiler-suited friend, Pablo Picasso, for the crime. Both men were later released and exhonorated.
Now, from the context, we can surely assume that Messrs Apollinaire and Picasso had (on this occasion) the onus of blame lifted from them and so were exonerated. How could the author, or his copy-editor, have got the spelling so wrong that it begs the question how the programme received its imprimatur? How come they mangled the word into something which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary,does not exist in our language? Is it because a Cardiff accent aspirate an ‘o’, I wondered? Or was it because they had been misled by some half-remembered crossword clue (let off, the old flame sounds like they got a gong. 10 letters)?
Of course, as I have noted elsewhere, even the OED is not wholly comprehensive – wonderfully so. It cannot pretend to be au courant with every English usage. So might it be permissible to fangle anew the verb ‘exhonorate’? There are two problems with that: first, it can hardly be accounted a recent invention. Some ‘Hints for Teachers’ that appeared in The Classical Journal eighty years ago, in 1932, comments:
There are many Latin derivatives beginning with the combination “exh”-”exhaust,” “exhort,” “exhume.” Students of Latin know why the “h” is in these words. It is because they are derived respectively from haurire (haustum), hortari, and humare. But what would you think of “exhonorate,” “exhorbitant,” and “exhuberant” – three atrocities which I encountered in newspaper copy within a week?
However, it is not an error that had to wait for newspapers to be invented. To give one example, in Richard Grafton’s Chronicle – I have used the 1569 edition [STC 12147] — the author talks of Edward IV’s anxieties, saying ‘his minde and phantasie, was not clerely exhonorate or dispatched, of all feare and inward trouble’ (p. 715). The spelling generally in that passage reminds us that we are dealing with a period before any strict standardisation, but might Grafton’s spelling of the (now obsolete) adjective suggest that the route ‘exonerate’ took into the English language from Latin picked up on its way some French influence, with the ‘h’ imitating the pronunciation of the verb exonérer?
Whatever the precise trajectory taken by the term in its early years in English, Grafton himself was not consistent in his usage: just a few pages on from the passage quoted, he used ‘exonerate’ (p. 720), and others among his contemporaries employed that spelling which has become the accepted form. And with good reason, for the second and more significant problem with deviation from ‘exonerate’ is that it suggests also a change of meaning. As the American Willis Ellis, the author of the ‘hint’ quoted above, went on to note ‘”Exhonorate” would mean (if it meant anything) “to deprive of honor”‘ – the spelling seems obviously to announce the Latin noun ‘honor’ (our ‘honour’) as its root. Indeed, there is a late Latin verb, albeit a fairly rare one, ‘exhonorare’ which means ‘to dishonour’. In other words, if the French poet and the Spanish painter were ‘released and exhonorated’ that would suggest that they had been let go but not let off — they walked from the prison cell, but not without their honour somewhat compromised, poor chaps.
The point is that we all read new words most days: some so confuse us that we glide over them in blissful igorance, some we come to grasp by bothering to learn from a dictionary, while others we can grapple to comprehend by using knowledge we have already — we understand them through cognates or by intuition based on etymology or by mentally pronouncing terms we may have only heard spoken. The opera programme’s ‘exhonorated’ probably came about through the corollary of the last of these processes: whether direct or repeating another’s error, it presumably originated as a phonetic attempt to record in writing a heard word, ‘exonerated’ — except, of course, it perpetrates two slight mispronunciations. What makes that process a problem is that, as we each use the range of techniques to make sense of the words before us, the shifting of a term to a spelling that suggests another root is liable to cause miscomprehension.
We should, then, delight in the variety of usages that our language allows — but always accept that there are limits and there are errors. The question, of course, is how to know when something is a permissible alternative and something simply an unacceptable mistake. I do not intend to attempt a full answer to that, and will confine myself to drawing out a comment implicit in the example I have just given: that is that common usage can surely not be reason sufficient on its own either to prescribe or, indeed, to proscribe. Let me end, instead, with a plea and a suggestion. First, the plea is to on-line dictionaries. In trying to understand how this error came about, I typed in ‘exhonorate’ — the Free Dictionary on-line immediately directs the viewer to ‘exonerate’, without explanation. The OED, on the other hand, simply returns a ‘no entry found’ notice. Would it not be more helpful if both noted that mis-spelling as such and so helped those in error to mend their ways?
Finally, the suggestion. We can know ‘exonerate’ is more likely to be correct than ‘exhonorate’ if we think of their etymology — we know ‘onus’ and we know ‘hono(u)r’ and we understand what the prefix ‘ex’ does to a term. The origin of both the real and the cod word would be Latinate, but that does not mean it is beyond understanding — we all live with Latin, even when we imagine we are solely speaking English. Delving into a word, unearthing its history and, indeed, watching the tergiversations it has taken on its path to its place in our modern language enriches our understanding of our quotidian vocabulary. So, we have had a history of the world in a 100 objects; is it not time to have a history of English in one hundred words?
Friday morning, 7:30am and a dream comes true. I’m in Duke Humfrey’s Library outside opening hours. But not, alas, to consult any manuscripts. I was there to be interviewed about the Duke himself. In conjunction with the British Library exhibition of Royal Manuscripts that will open in November, BBC Four has commissioned a series on manuscripts and kingship. It is being presented by the vivacious Nina Ramirez, who, in a whistle-stop tour, is trekking across the country and interviewing a galaxy of experts on medieval England. And, it was Friday, so it must be Oxford, and it is Oxford, so it must be Humfrey.
We were able to film at the Arts End of the Old Bodleian until just before 9am, when we had to decamp to New College Lane. Nina and I had to demonstrate that we could walk and talk at the same time — which, I think I can say without fear of contradiction, we did with aplomb (apart, perhaps, from when I walked into the bookcase). I learnt that al fresco interviewing has the potential pitfalls of passers-by, as was shown when a gentleman decided to walk right behind us and then crossed over to the director saying ‘Sorry – did I ruin that shot? You should get a real job’.
Those who know me will not be surprised that I may have proven less than biddable as an interviewee. I have strong views on Humfrey and was not about to change my interpretation to be on TV. So, ‘Humfrey really needs books for his job running the country, doesn’t he?’ — well, he needs to be seen to be interested in learning… ‘He was a Renaissance prince, then?’ Not quite… Nor was I able to get in as much about his sex life as I should have done.
But it was an enjoyable experience, in genial and very professional company. It is probably the only chance I will have to talk to a wide audience about Antonio Beccaria (on whom I have written on this site). And the high point? Walking out of the Bodleian after an hour’s filming past those readers who were hoping to be the first in the library that day.
Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands, said e.e. cummings. He could have said such manicules, since in its Latin root, maniculae, the word means precisely ‘small hands’ — the diminutive of manus. It has come to mean something more specific to those of us who grub around in the margins of books: it is the nota-symbol drawn, sometimes rapidly, sometimes elegantly, as a pointing hand, a fashion that lasted several hundred years. Bill Sherman has discussed manicules with customary verve and insight; he has helped us consider their possible meanings. Except they do not, officially, have an English name; the manicule has no meaning. It does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.
I discovered this lacuna just now when I typed the term into the OED and was advised that the nearest English word is ‘manicure’. Few of the pointing hands I have seen require such care to their nails (if they have them at all). Bill Sherman similarly noticed in 2005, when entitling an article ‘Toward a History of the Manicule’ that the word – the concept he was championing – had no existence then. Five years on, and despite his work, it is still not recognised.
One wonders why this oversight: is it because it is rude to point? Is there a worry about touching the manicule because you don’t know where it’s been?
My immediate reaction was to call for a campaign, demonstrations with appropriately designed placards demanding dictionary space for the manicule — a truly Pythonesque occasion. But then it struck me that there is something of a badge of honour in being so underground that you have no meaning, something ironic that an image so well-defined can have no definition, and something fitting that a symbol from the margins is considered so marginal. The manicule is precisely beyond the text and, indeed, defines the text rather than being defined by it. So, what has the OED to offer to an extended forefinger that has travelled so widely? If a manicule was to appear, it should not dragooned into line alongside any quotidian term. Frankly, the manicule has no need of the OED. So, rather than campaigning to include it, let’s fight to keep it out of the dictionary. Anyone to join me? Put your manicule up.
And, lest I leave you without an image on which to feast, view a comely, if tiny, manicule, a maniculula if you will. It is by Pier Candido Decembrio, the translator of Plato’s Republic, in a manuscript he himself prepared for Humfrey, duke of Gloucester:
Books are as static as stones. They sit inert on the shelves, though, in my room, some are piled so high on their sides there is a chance that one day one might topple over and slip to the ground, from where it can not fall any further. It will lie there until I stoop to help it up again. Yet, books are also highly movable, more so than, say, many paintings or furniture. A book’s stasis is a temporary state, a front to hide the active career it has had – and could have again at any moment, if I take it off the shelf, flick through it, or throw it across the room in disgust, or give it away in an act of generosity I know I will later regret. Each book is a travelogue that can never be finished.
Take the book in front of me. Its price sticker has not lost its stickiness yet. It sits on its back cover and tells me I parted with £12.99 in Blackwell’s, Oxford. Integral now to the book is my ownership note, written, as is my practice, at top left of the front flyleaf in pencil: it reminds me that I brought it home to Catherine Street from the Broad on 12th June 2007. I wonder: how far had it travelled before then? The title page tells me that the work was published by University of California Press (Berkeley Los Angeles London): which side of the Atlantic was it manufactured? The text was composed in the States or, at least, that would seem to be where Steven Rendall produced this English translation of a French work. The book is shy about revealing his whereabouts. It is only by moving away from my book and checking on-line that I learn he was then based in Eugene, Oregon as Professor of Romance Languages (he now lives in France). So, the work must have been a dialogue between neighbouring states: the original author signs the preface ‘La Jolla California’. That is over 400 miles from where the publishers would have been sitting. The work was well-travelled even before it was printed. It first appeared in 1984, but the publication details record that the ‘first paperback printing’ was in 1988. In fact, I suspect my book of not being honest with me: it must be lying about its age. The same page records ‘the paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (R – 1997)’. I do not know what this means but another look on computer records that this industry standard for paper quality was released on 1st January 1992. So my book must date after that. And several years: the cover design, involving a photograph by Toshi Sasaki, was created by Victoria Kuskowski – ponder on the cosmopolitanism conjured up by those names – and Kuskowski, the internet says, left Wesleyan University in 1998 and was senior designer at the relevant press from 2001 to 2006. Despite what it claims, my book is not yet ten years old but, with the quality of paper, I should be reassured it can last for ‘several hundred years’ – if fire, or water, or simple neglect do not kill it first.
A book like this can be reluctant to reveal all about its origins; it misinforms and it simplifies its own history. We are complicit with that simplification. We hand over the money in the shop and leave with it, thinking little about how it came to be there in the first place. Leave aside the odyssey of the text from Paris to Oregon to California (and presumably back and forth) before it was typeset. My book – my unique copy, with its price sticker, ex libris and slight stain down the outer edges (was that there before today?) – had undergone its own journey: from computer screen to print run, and then via binding and warehouse to purchase order and coming to rest on a shelf in the Norrington Room, Oxford’s underground treasure-house of books. And, then, the next instalment of its story began when I purchased it. How many lives it must have touched on its travels, and none of those lives any more able than myself to conceive of all the others who had become in some small way associated with each other by this paper object. To what mundanity a book, however arcane the wisdom of its text, is witness; to what humanity a book is also testimony.
The latest instalment comes once more from the lavatorial nook of an esteemed library: this time, the loos marked ‘Male Readers’ in the Bodleian.
There has been, for what seems many moons, a notice on one of the electric hand-dryers, which reads:
OUT OF ORDER
This has set my mind wondering: where in the library’s collection has regret been misplaced? Is there a space in the section for negative emotions, between chagrin and disappointment, where it should have been? It has not been lost, merely wrongly shelved, so where now might it be? In the allied section of memories, snuggling up to nostalgia? Or in a completely counter-intuitive part of the library, like the poorly-lit room given over to gustatory sensations? The Bodleian, at least, is optimistic that it will be returned to its rightful place: does this mean there is even now a wise member of staff hunting down regret in the recesses of the stacks? We wish them luck in their search, and hope that they will take care handling it, when found: regret can be so fragile, so insubstantially bound.
I was reading a review today which ends:
‘[The author] has also committed the considerable offence, which one would have thought the concentrated venom of reviewers would have killed off long ago, of herding all her notes together at the end of the book.’
The review appeared in History in 1939. Clearly, the tongue of reviewers, however spiteful, spits an ineffective poison.
And let us not be uncharitable: endnotes are not the worst. Even more infuriating are notes gathered at the end of each chapter. Nor are they the most unscholarly: that accolade should surely be reserved for the ‘author / date’ system which not only interrupts the text and often fails to provide enough citation to be usefully specific but also seems to arouse the spirit of Lethe, where the writer, their copy-editor and their publisher all forget to check that the full reference is actually included in the bibliography. Yet both styles seem to be gaining ground on the now old-fashioned footnote (it would be interesting to know what proportion of monographs use each system and how that changes over the years: does anyone have those figures to hand?).
Perhaps, though, we should remember that the footnote itself has not always been viewed with a kindly eye. Hilaire Belloc, in an essay curiously not mentioned in Tony Grafton’s The Footnote: a curious history, roundly rounded on the practice of freighting a page of text with the ballast of small-typed notes. A form of lying, he claimed, with Edward Gibbon accused of being its originator. His venom too was patently proven innocuous.
The first in an ever-so-occasional series.
This morning saw me in Lambeth Palace Library, which I have not visited for too long. It is a calm location, as befits the epicentre of the Church of England, where you can forget you are yards from the bustle of London and the Thames. I had forgotten its lavatorial arrangements. It boasts one toilet, with a label on the wall behind it:
Please flush gently
How Anglican! While others might be riven with guilt about their bodily functions, and some might take perverse delight in the quotidian symbols of their fallen nature, those of our communion are enjoined politely to rouge, but only moderately. This is the church for me.
Death stole away last Saturday, clutching to his breast the life of the man I most loved in the world. He was no mere prince among men; he was not in my eyes one of the mortals. He was my father, and nothing less.
In making the arrangements for the funeral, my instinct was that the service should include an appropriate poem. I thought of Dylan Thomas’ ‘And Death shall have no dominion’ but, with its description of bones picked clean, I felt it was, if you pardon the expression, too close to the bone. I decided instead on John Donne’s sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’ which you may consider a crassly obvious choice, though, to my surprise, the undertakers had not heard of it or known it to have been used.
Preparing for the day, I naturally read and re-read the verses, a process that I had forgotten can have an alchemical effect, transforming the words in your mouth as you recite them. In the circumstances, I think I will be forgiven for not researching the poem more deeply. A cursory glance across the internet now shows me there is a useful and detailed explication of the sonnet’s scansion, which would perhaps have saved me from some misplaced stresses. But a poem, even one of such artifice as a sonnet, is not formed only of its meter. Here is a brief comment of what this reader found as he prepared to speak before his father’s coffin.
For a modern recitation, the most problematic part of the poem is what appears to us to be the failed rhyme of the final couplet:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And Death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.
But I came to realise that the rhyme was not central to those lines. What matters is the final word of the penultimate line, which is like an explosion following the staccato gun-fire of the monosyllabics which precede it. Indeed, ‘eternally’ is one of only two four-syllable words in a poem dominated by monosyllables. The other occurs in the ninth line, where normal grammar seems nearly to break down:
And soonest our best men with thee shall go,
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery.
Again, I began to understand that the point of the line was the breaking of single-syllable dominance with a final word that also provides an uplifting, imperfect cadence. In such circumstances, normal grammar need not apply.
I have not read Donne’s sonnets in detail but, from what I have seen, the preponderance of monosyllables in this poem is unusual even for him. Is it too much to sense in this word-selection part of the poet’s purpose? Death, the end, that brings life to a full stop, and falls on us like an enormous no — death is, in its form and its nature, monosyllabic. And, while acknowledging that, this sonnet also turns language against it, both using monosyllables to deny it — ‘be not proud, … thou art not so’ — and introducing polysyllables as if they were a form of release. Death’s grunt is pitted against man’s potential for eloquence and belief.
Patrick Gillespie, the American poet who gives us the intelligent dissection of the sonnet’s scansion on-line, describes ‘Death be not proud’ as a poem of defiance. I understand that reading of it, though I defy anyone to make the last line sound like a resounding challenge. ‘Death, thou shalt die’ — that wonderful oxymoron — is a phrase simply not made to be shouted or expressed in anger; if it were, it would fall limp, giving Death a final victory in the silence that followed. It seems to me, instead, that what Donne has given us is a poem of confidence, where unshakeable Christian belief in the resurrection of the body allows the reader to step close to Death and whisper in his ear: ‘why swell’st thou then?’ The words ‘we wake eternally’ are a celebration, which leave us with no need for gloating. The final line that follows is a recognition of the magnitude of the miracle that lies at the heart of Christian faith, to be spoken in quiet wonder.
My waking hours at the moment are being spent providing addenda and corrigenda to Roberto Weiss’ Humanism in England during the fifteenth century, for the projected on-line edition to be produced in the autumn by the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature. Checking a reference he provides to Charles Kingsford’s English Historical Literature this morning, I note that a passage from a chronicle recording the death of the duke of Gloucester in custody in 1447 contains praise of the late prince, with the transcription opening thus:
hic dux erat vix literatissimus…
Even I have hardly been as harsh in criticism. Given the context, Kingsford, or his typesetter, clearly slipped where it should say ‘vir literatissimus’. A claim which, even these five words demonstrate, could hardly be made for the chronicle’s author.
Enjoy the weekend!
As will already be apparent to the careful reader, I try to keep my lives separate: my involvement, at a minor level, in politics and the civic life of Oxford taxes a different node of my mind from those cells taken up with thinking about the Renaissance. Between politics and research, an invisible wall has been constructed. I believe that is the way it should be. As a result, I am finding a recent turn my writing has taken to be unsettling.
That the practice of politics and the process of intellectual study should be kept separate seems to be a widely-shared attitude. I remember a conversation with the late Conrad Russell, ‘revisionist’ historian of the seventeenth century and Liberal peer, when I asked him whether his political outlook informed his historical thinking. ‘I hope not’ was his response. The reasons are manifest: the pursuit of knowledge, with the assumption that you are striving for ‘truth’, inhabits a different universe from the political life where the emotive and the tribal are among its essential elements. This is not to say that a scholar should not be engagé — on the contrary, my own view is that there is a duty on them, as on others, to move beyond their own activities and be involved in the political community. It may even be that their own research can inform their politics, though it is notable how often that is not the case: a Marxist may tend to be a Marxist in both voting and writing, but for others there can often be an apparent mismatch between the ideas in their publications and their espoused political loyalties. Perhaps Russell himself can stand as an example of that, for his ‘revisionism’, with its emphasis on the contingent in the development of the conflict which became the Civil Wars was hardly indulgent of the historical mythologies on which some liberal writings have been based.
My quandary is that I find myself preparing a paper for next week in which the position presented happens to sit well with my own political outlook. It is to do with the concept of the ‘hero’. As a Liberal, I have an innate and firm suspicion of ‘heroes’; I have a belief that those who are placed in positions of power are no better than others, and should not be expected to be. Tales of ‘heroes’ too often tend to imagine that a few have particular virtues, beyond those attainable by most men or women. On the contrary, those we elevate to heroic status are as flawed as any of us: we are no worse, and no less able to achieve. What has been developing in my own research is a critique of a tradition of writing on Renaissance humanism which, as I now see it, describes the humanists and their activities in heroic terms. Without giving you the whole of my forthcoming paper, the sort of writing I have in mind is that which, for instance, narrates tales of humanists finding classical texts as a process of selfless striving and determination against all vicissitudes which culminates in a success for the good of civilisation. The humanists themselves might have liked to have had their activities written in these terms but they, at least, would have been able to detect what was rhetorical embellishment in the tales.
What I find myself doing is puncturing such narratives by emphasising the unheroic, the very human, nature of these characters and their activities — how they were distracted by their sex lives, or how they made claims which were intentionally false. I have no desire to put such scholars — much more skilled than myself — on trial but rather to save them from the mythologies that have de-humanised them.
I am comfortable with the direction my writing is taken but I do wonder how far it is informed by my ideological beliefs. Is, in fact, the idea of the scholar who can rise above the other elements of their life itself a construction of a hero, a myth that I should jettison as well?