bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

An error not to be exonerated

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 28 October, 2012

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?