I had learned the phrase “obiter dicta” in my readings over the years — I especially remember Roger Kimball and Theodore Dalrymple using it — and thought it would make a good name for a continuing series of short posts. Recently, though, George Santayana introduced me to the phrase “obiter scripta,” which struck me as more apt given that I’m writing, not speaking, so I changed the title of the series. This is what happens when your knowledge of Latin consists of a smattering of words and phrases acquired secondhand. Maybe I need to crack some more books.
Ah, progressivism. Where gender and biology are fluid, but language is static. To quote the Red Queen, “It’s too late to correct it. When you’ve once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences.” If the word was once associated with racism, it will be forever tainted and irredeemable, a linguistic landmine lying in wait to macroaggressively maim the unwary. We saw this with beards as well. No, wait, come to think of it, pronouns change with the wind these days, too. Maybe it’s only proper nouns that work like this. Yeah, that must be it. Otherwise, the only logical conclusion is that this is all just a society-wide game of Calvinball, where the only consistent aim is to be the group in charge of declaring when and how the rules change, and that’s just too awful to contemplate.
Thomas Sowell put it most clearly in one of his books — the characteristic thing about this progressive crusading is its desire to not only end suffering and injustice here and now, but its desire to erase the past as well. He didn’t mean “erase” in the Orwellian memory-hole sense, although that tendency certainly exists too. He meant that they’re attempting to cancel the past out, by re-creating what they imagine to be the original Edenic conditions that would have existed had not patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and all the other assorted evils from Pandora’s jar escaped to wreak havoc throughout history. They postulate an original world intended to resemble a maudlin John Lennon song, tabulate all the ways in which it fell short, and then attempt to create the conditions of that world in the present through social engineering. From affirmative action to privilege-checking via language-policing and all points in between, the goal is to reduce “unjust” disparities, but, as you may be noticing, in this worldview, it’s an axiom that all disparities are unjust. Had things been truly fair and equal from the start as they should have been, no disparities would have arisen to begin with.
It should go without saying that this is the type of idea normally found inhabiting pungent clouds of marijuana cannabis smoke. In the commonly-recognized reality, all we can do to atone for shameful actions is to learn from them and do better from this day forward. What’s done can’t be undone. The end of racism will be when we stop practicing racist behavior, not when we expunge every last object, habit, word or idea that may once have been tangentially connected to something racist, however much they may have evolved since then. But unfortunately, the Handicapper General ideal is what underlies the aggregate logic of progressivism, in which a poorly-conceived-and-defined “equality” requires that all officially-recognized victims be “raised up” to wherever they would “naturally” be, had they not been victimized. In practice, though, it’s much easier to remove existing privileges from those who possess them, especially as they didn’t “deserve” them in the first place. To end unjust discrimination, we’ll need to “progressively” discriminate for “better” reasons until, by smoke, mirrors, and dialectical magic, we finally arrive at a point where no one ever needs to unjustly discriminate against anyone. In this instance, it’s not enough that pot legalization has become a mainstream issue; it doesn’t matter that absolutely nobody uses the word “marijuana” to conjure up racist fears of Mexicans; we still can’t be allowed to move forward until we have completely obliterated all traces of previous injustice, as if it never existed; hence, we need to stop using the contaminated term altogether. Again, to just go ahead and put too fine of a point on it, this is an idea so incoherent and delusional that it doesn’t deserve a rebuttal so much as a pillow held firmly over its face.
It’s amusingly ironic to me that a residual respect for the archetypal Old Testament-era prophet should be one of the aspects of our religious heritage to survive deep into our secular liberal age. What I mean is, there’s absolutely no reason anyone should take this social justice nonsense seriously. It’s self-evidently ignorant and counterproductive. And yet, articles like this are published every day and cheered by substantial numbers of influential people, because the authors are given the benefit of the doubt as to their “good intentions.” Sure, they may go a little too far in their zeal, but they mean well, and it’s good to have people filling that role as the moral conscience of a community, nation, etc., calling us to a higher standard and reproving us for our flaws. In reality, this has never been anything but the subtlest of power plays, in which a new class of aspiring mandarins realized that by declaring even the most innocuous things “problematic,” they could present themselves as the cure to their invented disease, and best of all, we’re supposed to believe that they will remain uncorrupted by the power that they refuse to trust anyone else with. It turns out that a “just” society requires their constant supervision and permission to function. Who’d’a thunk it?
I’ve always liked reading John McWhorter. Here’s a twofer from him. One:
Some might object that we should not check that impulse, and that extremism is necessary to create lasting social change. But it’s useful to recall that, when it comes to profanity, there were once people who considered themselves every bit as enlightened as we see ourselves today, with the same ardent and appalled sense of moral urgency. They were people who said “Odsbodikins” and did everything they could to avoid talking about their pants.
Note that none of these things involve white people “realizing” anything. These are the kinds of concrete policy goals that people genuinely interested in seeing change ought to espouse. If these things seem somehow less attractive than calling for revolutionary changes in how white people think and how the nation operates, then this is for emotional reasons, not political ones. A black identity founded on how other people think about us is a broken one indeed, and we will have more of a sense of victory in having won the game we’re in rather than insisting that for us and only us, the rules have to be rewritten.
Having just read a couple books by David Grambs, it occurs to me it’s been a long time since I compiled a list of interesting words. Some of these are from Grambs’ books, and some of them have been acquired over the last few years from various sources. I like to jot words like this down when I encounter them. I don’t really expect to find a use for them, but I like to read over the list periodically and familiarize myself with them. Whether it’s because of their interesting meaning, or their sheer musicality, these are words that I think deserve to be better known and appreciated, even if they’ve outlived their usefulness to everyday conversation. Feel free to adopt any which catch your eye; there aren’t enough good homes for all of them!
ultracrepidarian: one of those presumptuous overreachers who try to address something outside their knowledge or field of expertise and shouldn’t, who should know their own limits and don’t.
advesperate: to get dark or late.
nemophilist: the lover of forests and woods, or of the sylvan world. The nature lover who most likes the unbeaten paths in tracts of trees and the beauties of coppices, groves and dells; and who of necessity must also be a dendrophile, or tree lover.
vertumnal: pertaining to spring; vernal.
nullibist: a disbeliever in any kind of spirit, soul, or incorporeal being.
henhussy: a husband or live-in male who busies himself with housework more commonly done by women. Not a nice-sounding word for the modern house-husband, but for some women the henhussy is the true man around the house — one who has no ego or identity problem. Two other words for henhussy are cotquean and betty.
vespertine: during the evening.
asteism: a cleverly polite insult.
lucubrator: one who studies long into the night (or ‘composes by lamplight’ as the original Latin has it), or who gives deep thought to something. One who keeps an all-night vigil without books is not a lucubrator but a pernoctalian.
shunpiker: the driver who avoids highways for byways, taking slower but more relaxing and scenic back roads instead.
callithumpian: boisterous and noisy.
genicon: that fantasied sexual partner, as opposed to the one you’re actually stuck with.
solitudinarian: the loner who prizes the solitary life, who wants to be alone, thank you.
clatterfart: a chatterer or babbler.
ephectic: always suspending judgment.
rejectamenta: things or matter rejected as useless or worthless.
cockalorum: a self-important little man.
sciamachy: an act or instance of fighting a shadow or an imaginary enemy.
misoneism: hatred or dislike of what is new or represents change.
isolato: a person who is spiritually isolated from or out of sympathy with his or her times or society.
aleatory: 1. of or pertaining to accidental causes; of luck or chance; unpredictable: an aleatory element. 2. Law. depending on a contingent event: an aleatory contract. 3. Music. employing the element of chance in the choice of tones, rests, durations, rhythms, dynamics, etc.
percipient:1. having perception; discerning; discriminating: a percipient choice of wines. 2. perceiving or capable of perceiving.
brabble: To argue stubbornly about trifles; wrangle.
sizzard: unbearably humid heat.
decathect: To withdraw one’s feelings of attachment from (a person, idea, or object), as in anticipation of a future loss.
parviscient: uninformed or knowing little.
hamartia: Tragic flaw.
pharisaic: Practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.
incondite: 1. Ill-constructed; unpolished: incondite prose. 2. Crude; rough; unmannerly.
banausic: Serving utilitarian purposes only; mechanical; practical: architecture that was more banausic than inspired.
mumpsimus: 1. Adherence to or persistence in an erroneous use of language, memorization, practice, belief, etc., out of habit or obstinacy. 2. A person who persists in a mistaken expression or practice.
apotropaic: Intended to ward off evil.
ruck: 1. A large number or quantity; mass. 2. The great mass of undistinguished or inferior persons or things.
graveolence: a strong or offensive smell.
vilipend: 1. To regard or treat as of little value or account. 2. To vilify; depreciate.
expostulate: To reason earnestly with someone against something that person intends to do or has done.
solecism: 1. A breach of good manners or etiquette. 2. A nonstandard or ungrammatical usage, as unflammable and they was. 3. Any error, impropriety, or inconsistency.
veriest: 1. Utmost; most complete. 2. Superlative of very.
pansophy: Universal wisdom or knowledge.
thanatopsis: A view or contemplation of death.
hobson jobson: The alteration of a word borrowed from a foreign language to accord more closely with the linguistic patterns of the borrowing language.
amaranthine: 1. Unfading; everlasting. 2. Of or like the amaranth flower. 3. Of purplish-red color.
gnathonic: sycophantic or parasitic.
apodictic: 1. Necessarily true or logically certain. 2. Incontestable because of having been demonstrated or proved to be demonstrable.
cater-cousin: An intimate friend.
irenic: Tending to promote peace; conciliatory.
corybantic: Frenzied; agitated; unrestrained.
canorous: Richly melodious; pleasant sounding; musical.
vulpine: 1. Cunning or crafty. 2. Of or resembling a fox.
fastuous: haughty, overbearing, pretentious or showy.
liminal: Relating to the point beyond which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced.
Chinese philosophers, Fung insisted, have tended to avoid the abstract, showing little interest in metaphysics or pure logic, pouring their energies instead into developing more down-to-earth, practical political arguments. They were, he suggested, ‘concerned chiefly with society and not with the universe’, more preoccupied with defining how to live than in discovering how things are. Or, as another Chinese philosopher Y.L. Chin has put it, ‘Chinese philosophers were all of them different shades of Socrates’.
Not just geography, but language too, Fung suggested, made Chinese philosophy distinct. The Chinese corpus contains few great philosophical tracts. There is little to compare with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, or Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Chinese philosophy tends rather to be poetic, aphoristic, suggestive. The very language of the Chinese, many argue, has lent itself to aphoristic philosophy and discouraged long, finely argued theses. A written language based on the alphabetic system, and with a tight grammatical fabric, as came eventually to be used in the West, provides useful material from which to fashion an argumentative treatise. A language that is constructed from symbolic characters that are not susceptible to considerations of singular or plural, or of past, present and future tenses, and most of which can equally be a noun, a verb, and adjective or an adverb, but whose connotation changes according to the other symbols alongside which it sits in a sentence, is necessarily more ambiguous and allusive in meaning. Chinese language is, the philosopher Lawrence Wu suggests, ‘an excellent tool for poetry but not for systematic or scientific thought’. There is in Chinese philosophy ‘profound insights, brilliant aphorisms, interesting metaphors, but few elaborate arguments’.
The calls of birds and the traces left by wolves to mark off their territories are no less forms of language than the songs of humans. What is distinctively human is not the capacity for language. It is the crystallization of language in writing… Writing creates an artificial memory, whereby humans can enlarge their experience beyond the limits of one generation or one way of life. At the same time it has allowed them to invent a world of abstract entities and mistake them for reality.
…It is scarcely possible to imagine a philosophy such as Platonism emerging in an oral culture. It is equally difficult to imagine it in Sumeria. How could a world of bodiless Forms be represented in pictograms? How could abstract entities be represented as the ultimate realities in a mode of writing that still recalled the world of the senses?
It is significant that nothing resembling Platonism arose in China. Classical Chinese script is not ideographic, as used to be thought; but because of what A.C. Graham terms its ‘combination of graphic wealth with phonetic poverty’ it did not encourage the kind of abstract thinking that produced Plato’s philosophy. Plato was what historians of philosophy call a realist — he believed that abstract terms designated spiritual or intellectual entities. In contrast, throughout its long history, Chinese philosophy has been nominalist — it has understood that even the most abstract terms are only labels, names for the diversity of things in the world. As a result, Chinese thinkers have rarely mistaken ideas for facts.
Piety and patriotism were one and the same thing. For the Greeks, to be without patriotism, to be anything less than an active citizen, was to be an ‘idiot’. That, indeed, is what the word originally meant, referring to anyone who retreated from the life of the city.
Having just finished a book in which Steven Pinker cautioned the reader against struggling upstream toward the “original intent” of specific words, against the current of popular usage, it is only after judicious deliberation that I hereby proclaim my intent to reclaim this particular term. Like Randal in Clerks 2, I realize that “idiot” is currently classed along with “moron”, “retard”, “imbecile”, “cretin” and “simpleton” as unacceptably “ableist”, in the parlance of our times, but such fashions will always come and go, and like the idiots of ancient Greece, true individuals will always pay them no heed. Oh, no, no, it’s cool, I’m taking it back.
My own retreat from political dialogue was motivated by sober realism, not by selfishness. Temperamentally averse to any sort of group activity, I’m not the sort to take part in meetings or marches, and I’m incapable of proselytizing for a cause. I make just enough money to get by, not enough to meaningfully contribute to charities and politically-oriented non-profits. I could use my limited spare time in an attempt to thoroughly educate myself about all the issues du jour, but to what end? What would I do with that information? Vote differently? Win arguments on the web? In short, I have no power or influence, and acting or speaking otherwise, even as a quasi-literary character, would be just another attention-seeking, self-flattering conceit.
Life in the modern-day polis has rendered most of our activity as citizens superfluous. Retreating from it isn’t a renunciation of obligations so much as an acknowledgement of limitations. Like another ancient Greek who was faulted for a perceived lack of community spirit, I don’t know much, but I know that much.
Those who looked up “misogyny” in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary would find a terse definition: “a hatred of women.” Etymologically speaking, that is right on the money, as the word combines the Greek root for “woman” with the prefix “miso-” meaning “hatred” (also found in “misandry,” a hatred of men, and “misanthropy,” a hatred of humankind).
But given the modern usage of the word, is that definition in need of a rewrite? From the evidence that Mr. Rodger left behind, it is easy to diagnose him as having an abiding hatred for women, but few of the critics of Messrs. Limbaugh and Abbott would go so far in describing their attitudes. The “misogyny” at issue in those two incidents, as well as the kind typically discussed this past week under the banner of #YesAllWomen, has more to do with ingrained prejudices against women than a pathological hatred of them.
Language certainly does evolve. There’s no reason why the definition of misogyny couldn’t expand to mean little more in practice than “anything that offends a feminist undergrad.” Popular usage has committed worse crimes and will do so again. This should be obvious and uncontroversial, but then again, these are largely the same people who will shamelessly turn a half-circle and argue that certain slurs were created from offensive origins, have always been offensive, and can never be anything but offensive, end of story. Political expediency rather than intellectual consistency is the name of their game.
A mere few years ago, if I had heard someone described as a misogynist, I would have been almost shocked. Goodness, what a terrible person he must be! Now? Ho-hum. The currency has been completely debased. It won’t even buy you a raised eyebrow from me anymore. To expand upon a recent assertion, the word “misogyny” is currently used to describe the attitude of young men who are only really interested in women as objects of sexual conquest. It supposedly underlies the use of gendered words as insults, indicating contempt for femininity itself, rather than any particular individual woman. It’s assumed to motivate the supposedly unconscious bias affecting female hires, and as with Freudianism, denial of the accusation only counts as further proof in its favor.
These and other disparate examples are then assumed to exist on a continuum with extreme expressions of male supremacy like domestic violence and actual mass murder, all logically and necessarily connected. Like a shapeshifting evil spirit, misogyny can manifest in a variety of seemingly-unrelated forms, from self-centered sexuality to murderous rage. If you protest that no single concept can meaningfully describe such a vast range of attitudes and behaviors, well, maybe you’ve been possessed yourself. Pilgrims must always be on their guard in this fallen world against Satanic misogynist trickery. Have you been known to consort with woman-haters and perform foul rituals in dark corners of the Internet?
A professor presented his students with the number sequence 2-4-6. They had to calculate the underlying rule that the professor had written on the back of a sheet of paper. The students had to provide the next number in the sequence, to which the professor would reply ‘fits the rule’ or ‘does not fit the rule’. The students could guess as many numbers as they wanted, but could try to identify the rule only once. Most students suggested 8 as the next number, and the professor replied: ‘Fits the rule.’ To be sure, they tried 10, 12 and 14. The professor replied each time, ‘Fits the rule.’ The students concluded that: ‘The rule is to add two to the last number.’ The professor shook his head: ‘That is not the rule.’
One shrewd student tried a different approach. He tested out the number -2. The professor said ‘Does not fit the rule.’ ‘Seven?’ he asked. ‘Fits the rule.’ The student tried all sorts of numbers -24, 9, -43…Apparently he had an idea, and was trying to find a flaw with it. Only when he could no longer find a counter-example, the student said: ‘The rule is this: the next number must be higher than the previous one.’ The professor turned over the sheet of paper, and this was exactly what he had written down.
What distinguished the resourceful student from the others? While the majority of students sought merely to confirm their theories, he tried to find fault with his, consciously looking for disconfirming evidence.
The human brain is, of course, a pattern-seeking machine extraordinaire. We see faces in the clouds, detect agency in random movements, connect the dots with a straight line, and invent elaborate ad-hoc theories to give our apophenia the appearance of solidity. In a political environment, though, such as the one surrounding the definition and use of certain words, looking for disconfirming evidence is itself perceived to be a reactionary political act. The very tool necessary to circumvent error has been politicized by ideologues, at which point there’s nothing left but the shouting.
Hi, it’s me. ‘Niggardly’. I just wanted to talk about the way you use me. Got a sec?
I‘ve always been honest with myself about my uncanny resemblance to the word ‘nigger’, even though we have no common etymological ancestors or definitions. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of it – it’s a weird linguistic fluke and nothing more.
I’m not exactly an everyday word. I’m no ‘pants’ or ‘food’ or ‘door’ or ‘hand’. When people need to describe the state of being ‘ungenerous or stingy’ most of them just use ‘cheap’. ‘Cheap’ gets a lot of action, cuz it’s short and sweet. And once the word ‘nigger’ became more or less universally reviled, I figured my usage would drop off even more. When gangsta rap came along I hoped maybe people would start using me as slang. Like, ‘Yo, my nigga, that’s a muthafuckin’ niggadly tip you left the waiter.’ But that didn’t really catch on. Them’s the breaks in the world of words, though, There’s lots of words that don’t get used often because they sound like other words; just ask ‘coccyx’ and ‘angina’. You roll with it.
The post goes on to lament the author’s suspicion that some people continue to use the slightly-archaic word because it hits the sweet spot of implied racist intent while technically retaining plausible deniability. Eh, I guess it’s possible, but my amateur fascination with the evolution of language has convinced me that attempts to morally sanitize word usage will forever remain a couple steps behind people’s inventiveness. In fact, while reading this, I found myself wondering whether the more clever racists have actually moved on to some new linguistic convention similar to Cockney rhyming slang, where synonyms like “stingy” or “miserly” become code words for referring to, you know, those people.
On a more lighthearted note:
I ordered Batchelor’s book, it sounded so interesting. Plus it cost a penny plus shipping. Wisdom on the cheap is still wisdom, right? I also read the article in Aeon: fascinating, as much for the comments as for the article. One comment puts it succinctly: the Buddha was not interested in ontology. Nagarjuna wrote reams of prose and verse explaining exactly why. He effed the ineffable, which perhaps he shouldn’t oughta, but he did, so there it is. REM: “Oh no, I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that many things can be shown but not said, and wrote a whole book (the Tractatus), explaining what and why. Martin Heidegger made himself famous by asking what Being is, and then spent much of the rest of his life explaining why you can’t even ask this question. Call it mysticism if you want; the label has little enough meaning. But whatever you call it, it is rife in great philosophy – Eastern and Western.
“Mysticism” is an unfortunate word, because it implies obscurantism: let things remain a mystery. If you have to ask what it means, you’ll never know what it means.
Here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about it (actually, them, since there are two distinct but eminently punnable words that are spelled the same but are not the same):
early 14c., in a theological sense, “religious truth via divine revelation, hidden spiritual significance, mystical truth,” from Anglo-French *misterie, Old French mistere “secret, mystery, hidden meaning” (Modern French mystère), from Latin mysterium “secret rite, secret worship; a secret thing,” from Greek mysterion (usually in plural mysteria) “secret rite or doctrine,” from mystes “one who has been initiated,” from myein “to close, shut” (see mute (adj.)); perhaps referring to the lips (in secrecy) or to the eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the sacred rites).
“handicraft, trade, art” (archaic), late 14c., from Medieval Latin misterium, alteration of Latin ministerium “service, occupation, office, ministry” (see ministry), influenced in form by Medieval Latin mysterium (see mystery (n.1)) and in sense by maistrie “mastery.” Now only in mystery play, in reference to the medieval performances, which often were staged by members of craft guilds. The two senses of mystery formed a common pun in (secular) Tudor theater.
The operative sense is “mute.” Zip it. Stow it. Whistleblowers beware. No journalists or photographers allowed. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent–or else.
Initiates into the highest levels of the Eleusinian cult were called “mystai.” Athenians could be and were executed for publicly divulging details about the cult’s doings. Even Aeschylus was put on trial for running his mouth about the Mysteries in one of his plays. (He was acquitted: or was he? Like the Mafia, the Athenian archons just bided their time, till one day: pow! A tortoise just happens to fall from the sky and lands precisely on his head. Yeah, right.)
The second “Mystery” is unrelated etymologically but leads irresistibly to puns because the meanings dovetail: Mysteries were guilds, guilds had initiation rites and killed members who betrayed their secrets… Sounds a bit like the NSA/CIA/cronyism complex.
In other words, the NSA is a Mystery Cult. Dick Cheney, the arch-crony, is the ultimate Mystic.
I’m currently reading Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years, where he writes:
The multilingual philosopher Fritz Mauthner (1849-1923) knew about the impossibilities of literal translations between languages and became fundamentally suspicious of what could and could not be said with words. Mauthner analyzed the ability of language to transport definite meaning, after having noticed that concepts and their connotations were subtly different in every language he would use. Experience is unique and immediate, and the very moment it receives a name it loses those crucial qualities, Mauthner contended, and in his Contributions to a Critique of Language, 1901-03, it took him three hefty volumes to explain that language was unable to convey thought content — one of the more paradoxical achievements of Western philosophy. Mauthner’s philosophical project culminated in an all-embracing but godless mysticism.
Of course, there wasn’t anything peculiarly Teutonic about this tendency toward logorrheic reticence, as Po Chu-i famously snarked about Lao Tzu:
“Those who speak know nothing;
Those who know are silent.”
Those words, I am told,
Were spoken by Lao Tzu.
If we are to believe that Lao Tzu
Was himself one who knew,
How comes it that he wrote a book
Of five thousand words?
We have to have names for things in order to communicate with each other about them. If we were to call what is now called Buddhism “realism,” as Nishijima Roshi suggested would one day happen, this could be confusing. These days the word “realism” generally seems to be synonymous with “materialism.” And Buddhism isn’t materialism.
We could just make up a new word. But that has drawbacks. It’s like the people who are concerned about the grammatical necessity of using gendered pronouns in English who propose to use new words like zhe, ze or zir instead of he or she. It’s awkward and nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about.
Maybe eventually we’ll get a word that works. But not yet. So we’re stuck with “Buddhism” for now.
Stuck. As in, immobile, solid, entrenched. You know what loosens such bonds? Water, that’s right. Let the waves of enlightenment wash over you and dissolve the conceptual concrete in your mind.