Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Let's have the view from 1785

Speaking on Channel 4 News, Jon Snow described the election as a “shambles” for the UK.  He said: “Do you think this shambles in which we find ourselves is in anyway a respectable condition. What do you think other countries are thinking what’s going on here?”

Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed the presenter was “classically overstating” the result of the election in which the Tories fell short of an overall majority.

Snow snapped back criticising the Prime Minister for going into an election “looking for a major mandate” without being able to deliver it. But the Conservative MP rejected the term “a shambles” as the pair began rowing.

He said: “Hold on, you call it a shambles, you call it a butcher's slaughterhouse. That’s what a shambles means, I’m surprised you don’t know, most uncharacteristic. It clearly isn’t a shambles, what it is, is a less successful result than we wanted, it’s not the large majority that we wanted.”

“Shambles” of course, means “a state of total disorder.” An example would be "my career was in a shambles".

But words change their meaning, and “shambles” once had a meaning of “butcher's slaughterhouse”

In English, the word appears in the early 15th century, and the meaning changes from a "place where meat is sold" to "slaughterhouse" (1540s), then figuratively "place of butchery" (1590s), and later to generally "confusion, mess" (1901).

Reece-Mogg, having done only half his homework, settles on the meaning from the 1540s, and not the earlier “place where meat is sold”, and should be marked as 5 out of 10 for fixating on one meaning, and not the earliest at that, and 9 out of 10 for behaving like Lord Snooty.

The etymological fallacy is a genetic fallacy that holds that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be similar to its historical meaning. An argument constitutes an etymological fallacy if it makes a claim about the present meaning of a word based exclusively on its etymology.

Jacob Reece-Mogg likes to convey a spurious air of knowledge, hence his exchange with Mr Snow. It suggests that here is someone who knows what words really mean. Actually shows up someone who does not know what words mean, because they rarely mean one thing, and meanings change over time

Someone summed up his approach as follows rather neatly on the Wordcraft site where they do not suffer linguistic mistakes lightly:

“There is an extremely pompous, rather nauseating Tory politician in the UK named Jacob Rees-Mogg. Like many Tory politicians he always tries to put down the people interviewing him with his shows of erudition.”

When the exchange was shown as a clip on “Have I Got News For You”, Paul Merton's comment was beautifully apposite: "Let's have the view from 1785".

Actually, it is a view someone who knew what a word once met – it did not always mean “slaughterhouse” – and who has the strange notion that must somehow be the real meaning of the word today.

Words change meanings all the time, but public school educations are not particularly good at teaching what is a commonplace fact to any linguist.

That is partly because they are only taught Classic Latin, and never learn about the change in meanings that took place as it developed into the late Latin of the 3rd century, and they learn a prescriptive grammar built on Classical Latin which promotes such nonsense as “you must not split infinitives”, something which is impossible to do in Latin, where an infinitive is just one word, but which is demonstrably possible in English. There is nothing wrong with “to boldly go” unless you suffer from the peculiar notion that English must behave like Latin: any linguist will tell you that it does not.

Virtually everything in a public school education of the old sort provides a toolbox for making an individual into a linguistic ignoramus, including the conceit that they must be right. Jacob Reece-Mogg is a perfect example.

The word “nice” is a particular good example of how a meaning can shift markedly over time. I remember being told by equally ignorant people that “nice” “really meant precise”. This kind of semantic essentialism is wholly false.

If we look at the development of the word – we see that in the late 13th century “nice” meant "foolish, stupid, senseless," from Old French “nice” of the 12th century. The Old French meaning of "careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish," derived from the Latin nescius "ignorant, unaware," literally "not-knowing,"

It developed in an extraordinary way, from “timid” (pre-1300) to "fussy, fastidious" (late 14th century); to "dainty, delicate" (c. 1400); to "precise, careful" (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to "agreeable, delightful" (1769); to "kind, thoughtful" (1830)

By 1926, it was pronounced by Fowler to be "too great a favourite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness."

"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?"

"Very true," said Henry, "and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything."

The current meaning of “nice” is usually “pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory” – “we had a nice time"

Andrew L. Sihler, writing in Language History: An Introduction, comments that:

"In our own day the etymological fallacy is widely honoured, as revealed in countless statements by columnists, in letters to editors, and other public fora, which declare for example that the real meaning of doctor is 'teacher'; or that the verb orient properly means 'to arrange something to face east'; or that gyp 'cheat' is derived from Gypsy (probably), and therefore its use in any context is de facto an ethnic slur; or that decimate correctly means only “to punish a mutiny or other serious breach of military discipline by killing one soldier in ten.”

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, 1995 is even more caustic:

"One thing to remember when you read or hear someone insisting that an English word must have a certain meaning because of its Latin or Greek roots is that these insisters apply their etymologies very selectively. You will find few of them who object to December being used for the twelfth month, when its Latin root means 'ten,' or to manure being used as a noun meaning 'to work (land) by hand.' So when you read, for example, that caption must refer to matter above a picture because it comes from Latin caput 'head,' keep manure in mind."

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