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Cottrell v Oliver

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

If you are not a paying subscriber to The Browser, and enjoy this letter, please do become a paying subscriber to The Browser, because that is how I earn the money to write this letter.

Much of this letter looks forward to my planned argument in London next week with Henry Oliver, of the Common Reader, at City Lit, on 25th April. The writer and teacher Sarah Leipciger has kindly agreed to be our moderator. Henry and I will be arguing whether Orwell's Rules For Writers are good or bad. I say good, Henry say bad. A very few tickets — four, to be exact — remain, as I write. They are free, they are available at Eventbrite, and you will need the password rulesforwriters to access our Eventbrite page. Please take a ticket only if you are reasonably confident that you will attend.

Wondering what to expect from airport immigration when I go to America next month, I visited the Transport Security Administration's website yesterday and found that the TSA has "expanded its security focus" from searching bags into what it calls Identity Management:

A person centric approach is the positioning of processes around an individual’s identity. It uses the information provided by individuals to evaluate the risk they pose to the transportation enterprise, including secure spaces and information. TSA also prioritizes opportunities to scale existing person centric functions and introduce new elements of human-centered design to improve the customer experience.

Having also been re-reading George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four very recently, it occurs to me that Newspeak could compress the essentials of this paragraph into just two words:

ungoodperson untravel.

If we wanted to represent the rationale of the TSA in more detail, we might add

ownlife crimethink

... though the TSA might reasonably object that this was not quite what they meant.

I am not sure that much is lost this compression, and something may even be gained. But Newspeak is ugly and I do not want to live there.

If I try now to translate what I think the TSA is saying into what I think of as everyday English, I arrive at something like this:

"We want to know what people have done in the past, maybe even more than we want to know what they are doing at the airport right now".

Which, by the way, I think is a pretty good approach for the TSA to take.

The more I think about my argument with Henry next week, the more I appreciate the virtues of plain English.

I have been looking again at George Orwell's rules for writers, and comparing them with other rules on offer in what turns out to be quite a crowded market. I have been reading Strunk and White, H.W. Fowler, Ernest Gowers and Kurt Vonnegut. They all propose rules which resemble those of Orwell, if often less concisely expressed. Be short, be simple, be concrete. You know the stuff.

The Guardian has a whole series on writers' rules contributed by Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood and others. Many of these rules are about writing habits rather than writing styles, but here are a few of my favourites:

Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils — Margaret Atwood
Write a book you'd like to read. If you wouldn't read it, why would anybody else? — Hilary Mantel
Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it — Zadie Smith
Remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you're writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching — Will Self
My minimum is 1,000 words a day. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better — Sarah Waters
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it — Elmore Leonard

But of all the writers canvassed by The Guardian, not one of them recommends difficulty, digression, self-indulgence or complexity as a writing strategy. Which is, for my purposes, a bit of a problem. If I am to argue for plain English, what am I supposed to rebutting? Where are the rules with which I disagree, the rules in praise of wordy and difficult writing, the new arguments in need of new rebuttals?

Ideally, I need a copy of the TSA Stylebook.

As the next best thing, I keep close the essay by David Bentley Hart which got me thinking about all this in the first place. It is a gift which never stops giving. There is a misdirection in every line. Take this one: "Never squander an opportunity for verbal cleverness". If I were ever obliged to try explaining the distinction between cleverness and wisdom, I would start with that sentence.  

I have also been re-reading Henry's defence of Hart, in which Henry says:

In this world where all prose must be staccato to be considered readable, I was glad to find someone prepared to say so much against Orwell and the nasty trend he helped embed in ordinary English.

It is not ordinary but extraordinary English which bothers me. But I can argue this out with Henry on the evening.

To these foundational texts I can now add an essay in last week's Literary Hub by Ed Simon (whose writing I know mainly from The Millions; and do look in on his Belt Magazine, a splendid publication based in Pittsburgh), who makes this seductive claim:

When Orwell says that we must always cut a word out, when Zinsser says that we must strip the sentence and valorize function above all else, when Strunk and White demand that all words must be necessary, they are making a philosophical argument about what matters and what doesn’t.

For the authors of such style guides, good composition is an exercise in the literal, the straightforward, the utilitarian. Certainly, there are some forms of writing for which that’s nothing but good advice, but taken to the extreme of dictate handed down from Sinai, it eliminates much of which is lush and fecund in long sentences, what is ecstatic, incantatory, and sublime about literature.

My first thought when reading this was a relatively trivial one: Could William Zinsser ever have said, "we must strip the sentence and valorize function", or anything nearly so ugly? Google says not. (Try the search yourself, even without quotes). I am going to go with Google on this.  

My second thought was that, thanks to Ed's essay, I believe I now understand the argument for what Ed calls "incantatory and sublime" writing more clearly than I did when reading David Bentley Hart alone, and I hope you will not think me unfair if I summarise the argument as follows:

I am a writer. I am a writer because I think my writing is good. If my writing is good, then more of my writing must be better; and more of my writing in my own distinctive style must be better still.  

This logic holds good if one is Shakespeare, and even if one is James Joyce. It starts to fall away at the level of George Bernard Shaw. But if it encourages merely competent writers, such as myself, to think ourselves capable of writing "sublime" prose, then we fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which holds that "people with low ability, expertise, or experience regarding a certain type of task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge".

I know that sounds a bit rich coming from me, a person with no track record to speak of in writing books, so here is Sarah Waters saying much the same thing:

Without "overwritten" prose, we would have none of the linguistic exuberance of a Dickens or an Angela Carter. If everyone was economical with their characters, there would be no Wolf Hall . . . For the rest of us, however, rules remain important. And, ­crucially, only by understanding what they're for and how they work can you begin to experiment with breaking them.

However weak the arguments in favour of convoluted writing, I still want to rest my case for simple writing on something more enduring than personal preference or current fashion. And I want to get beyond the circular argument which holds that simple writing is good because good writing is simple. This argument can easily be refuted by citing good writing which is not simple; the King James Bible, for example.  

So, what if we agree that life, whether long or short, is doled out to each of us in a finite quantity?

It does not necessarily follow that we are obliged to make good use of such time as we have. But most of us hope to make good use of such time as we have.

A preference for brevity and for clarity emerges fairly naturally from this, at least in conditions of uncertainty. Even if I arrive at a decision that the best use of my time is to read an almost incomprehensible book such as Finnegans Wake, I will want to have arrived at that decision thanks to information that I was able to digest easily and efficiently along with information about other potential pastimes.

Dear reader, you may have decided once and for all upon your ideal. You may want to read and re-read the works of Shakespeare. You may want to listen to the symphonies of Beethoven. Nobody would call these works simple, nor is brevity their selling-point, yet they are among the greatest achievements in human history, and they are generally agreed to reward life-long devotion.

For myself, I am stuck at the search and discovery stage. I have not yet found perfect happiness. I want to try out more things. I want to cast my net widely. I am not going to read something that I do not understand at all. I am not going to read much of something that I find hard to understand unless I have reason to think that doing so is worth the effort.

I am describing here mainly what you might call the recreational part of my life — books, music, films, theatre, food, conversation. As for the functional part of my life, the stuff I consume out of necessity and inertia, ranging from signs in airports to front-page articles in the New York Times, clarity and brevity are primary virtues exceeded only by truth. A good newspaper article is one that I can abandon at any time and still have most of the story in my head, because the key points will have been up there in the first sentence, and preferably in the headline.

I admire Orwell's rules for writers. I admire Orwell's invention of Newspeak. But I can see good reason for rejecting Orwell's rules for writers, if one believes that following his rules will put writers on a slippery slope towards Newspeak, by obliging them to eliminate the digressions and ambiguities and obscurities with which they conceal what they think and, often, what they do not know.

The error here is in taking Newspeak seriously. Even in Nineteen Eighty-Four nobody actually converses in Newspeak. Newspeak is an idea, a language under construction. Orwell provides an appendix to his novel in which he explains how it is meant to work. Our sole extended glimpse of Newspeak in action within Nineteen Eighty-Four comes when a Party member sends a telegram which reads:

Items one comma five comma seven approved fullwise stop suggestion contained item six doubleplus ridiculous verging crimethink cancel stop unproceed constructionwise antegetting plusfull estimates machinery overheads stop end message.

There are also some fragments of Newspeak visible in the instructions which Winston Smith receives at his place of work, the Ministry Of Truth:

times 3.12.8 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs
unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling

The funny thing is, apart from some oddities of vocabulary, that telegram is exactly how telegrams were often written in Orwell's day, when telegram companies charged by the word.

And, having been on the receiving end of many telegraphed instructions in my early work as a journalist, I can greet the order "rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling" almost as an old friend. It tells me that I need to rewrite the given piece in its entirety, then sub-edit my own copy diligently, and then file it to the editor of the day. (I would be wrong on one point if I was working at the Ministry Of Truth; there, "upsub" means "submit it to higher authority", not "give it a good sub-edit".)

The ugliness of Newspeak is merely a by-product. The main point of Newspeak is to make some things unsayable, and thus unthinkable, by having no words for them.  

It was widely believed in the 1940s, when Orwell was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, that a person's capacity for thought was determined by their capacity for language. If you spoke a different language, you would think in a different way and you would experience the world in a different way. The shorthand term for this belief was "linguistic relativity", or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it drew heavily on ideas developed separately by the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

I see Orwell's Newspeak as a thought-experiment in extreme linguistic relativity — no word > no concept > no problem. I doubt that Orwell believed that such a thing could actually be imposed across a society, but he certainly saw the dramatic value of raising it as a threat. His Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four on The Principles Of Newspeak reads to me as satire, or at least as a game with the reader, rather like T.S. Eliot's footnotes to The Wasteland.

In any case, few linguists still believe in any strong form of linguistic relativity. Try finding anybody now who believes we would have no wars if we had no word for "war". It seems far more probable that we have the word "war" because we have wars and we need to talk about them.

Yes, there is a touch of Newspeak in Russia's denial that its war in Ukraine is a war. But the invented Russian term, "special military operation", is a shibboleth, a loyalty test. It does not replace "war" in anybody's mind or vocabulary. Rather, it formalises an additional idea, an additional term, representing a war which cannot be called a war.

Orwell's rules would require us to call a war a war, a spade a spade, etc. Can too much plainness of this kind be bad for our language? Henry will speak to this on Tuesday, but I am far more worried about the opposite drift, into vagueness and abstraction, which seems to be going on all around me. I began with a paragraph from the TSA, but the British are just as equal to the task. Here is part of the job specification for a "Continuous Improvement Consultant" now being sought by a British goverment department:

You'll lead and deliver complex change and improvement projects that result in better processes, outcomes and value for DDTS and our customers. In addition to leading projects, you'll be helping to achieve the team's strategic priorities of growing continuous improvement capability and culture whilst embedding best working practices.

Our team use structured, evidence based continuous improvement methodologies including lean, six-sigma and systems thinking to deliver our improvements. We are part of the Change Awareness and Adoption team, which reports to the DDTS Chief Operating Officer.

Do you have any idea, based on this description, what the Continuous Improvement Consultant actually does all day? Obviously they are supposed to improve things, or improve the way that things are improved — but what things? There is nothing here which seems to have any concrete form, save perhaps for the "DDTS Chief Operating Officer", whom I imagine to be a person in their forties with an office and an air of authority.

Older generations of pedants used to get quite angry about "jargon", by which they meant technical terms and terms of art imported from particular professions and fields of study. They talked as though language was a commons under their stewardship, and the jargoneers were vandalising it.

I don't feel that way myself, perhaps thanks to the Internet. When I see jargon that I don't recognise I can go to Wikipedia and learn something. Looking up "six sigma" in Wikipedia tells me that the term is derived from statistical science and was popularised by American corporations fifty years ago as a way of saying that they had come to see value in making greater efforts to minimise defects in their products.

It is more the drift towards baroque abstraction which worries me. Words seem more negotiable than they used to be. People who used to sell clothes or show films now say they "deliver experiences" and nobody turns a hair. Words and ideas which might give offence are replaced with circumlocutions or omitted entirely — a practice which may well increase the sum of human happiness, but which frustrates my desire to know what is going on. Organisations which have always had private jargon now use that jargon in preference to everyday speech when addressing the public, and I cannot tell whether they do so because they believe the result is more precise, or because they know the result is more obscure.  

Foolishly or not, I feel insecure, even frightened, when the language used in the world around me diverges ever further from the language that I use myself. I do not want to be kept in a state of increasing bafflement, even with good reason.

So when I shall meet Henry next week, I shall approach him as a supplicant, pleading for plain English to be maintained. If Henry points out that every great writer breaks all of Orwell's rules all the time, I shall plead that Orwell's rules are meant as a floor, not a ceiling. I hope above all that we shall not bore our audience, and I hope that if some disagreements remain between us at the end of our argument, we will both consider the disagreements to be reasonable ones.

— Robert

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The Clock Strikes Thirteen

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

If you are not a paying subscriber to The Browser, and enjoy this letter, please do become a paying subscriber to The Browser, because that is how I earn the money to write this letter.

This week: AI overload, text-to-voice, notable newsletters, and books I have been reading.

WE HAVE been recommending relatively few articles about artificial intelligence and GPT4 on The Browser of late — relative, at any rate, to the number being published in newspapers and newsletters in the months since ChatGPT went public. For myself, I find people's accounts of their conversations with AI somewhat similar to people's accounts of their dreams: Both subjects can seem fascinating, even revelatory, to the person involved, but neither travels well into writing or conversation.

I do feel that something momentous is happening when machines master language, but I do not know what that something will amount to over time, and nor, I think, does anyone else. At most I am confident that we will soon understand a lot more about how language works, thanks to AI, an advance which is excitement enough for me; and that we will come to a better understanding of what we mean by "intelligence".

I recommended Tyler Cowen's conversation with "Jonathan Swift" on The Browser last week because I saw it as useful evidence of just how far AI has already moved beyond the Turing Test. Not only can GPT4 pass for a human being, it can assume the history and to some very limited extent the personality of a particular person. Likewise, I recommended Stephen Wolfram's recent paper on AIs and neural networks because I thought it the most detailed and concrete explanation likely to be accessible to a general reader such as myself.

As to the social and political implications of AI, I recommend The Moral Economy Of High-Tech Modernism, by Henry Farrell and Marion Fourcade. The paper is primarily concerned with the replacement of bureaucratic choice by algorithmic choice, but the interests and factors at work in that shift are similar to those at work in the rise of AI.

Most of all I recommend exploring AI at first-hand. It is readily available in the form of ChatGPT. Play with it, ask it questions, give it commands, draw it into conversation. A minute with ChatGPT is worth a thousand words of commentary.

An email from Berit Andreone reminds me of something that used to be very much on my mind until I was distracted by AI. Are we anywhere near the point at which Browser subscribers can listen with pleasure to recommended stories as well as reading them?

We did suggest a while back that Browser subscribers who wanted audio might try linking their accounts to Instapaper Premium, which includes a text-to-speech feature. Saved articles are read out loud by a computer-generated voice. But while computer speech is good enough when one merely wants information, as with GPS, there is little pleasure to be had, at least for me, in listening to a computer's reading of long and nuanced essays. The Instapaper feature, while ingenious, is not one that I have been using.

I trust that computer-generated voices will soon improve to the point at which they are acceptable for longer listening, and that in a year or two subscribers may be able to pair The Browser easily with some text-to-voice platform that does near-human speech. Uri points me towards AD Auris, a text-to-speech service which allows one to make Spotify playlists of articles read aloud by computerised voices, and which may well be the best option for the time being.

I have added two newsletters to my feed-reader this week. They are hosted on Substack, they do similar jobs for contrasting publications, and they suggest an interesting trend towards summarisation.

As its name suggests, Last Week's New Yorker, by Sam Circle, summarises and evaluates a selection of articles from the latest print issue of the New Yorker. I find it well-written, and I generally agree with Sam's judgements.

We very rarely recommend New Yorker articles on The Browser, despite their general excellence, only because we think it highly likely that Browser subscribers will have seen them anyway.

So, on the face of it, if you want to be alerted to the best things in the New Yorker, without subscribing to the New Yorker, then Last Week's New Yorker might be the answer. The counter-argument is that, whereas an annual subscription to Last Week's New Yorker costs $40, a digital subscription to the New Yorker itself is today being advertised at just $49.99, at least for the first year — a limited-offer discount which seems to me an extraordinary bargain.

Tracking People's Daily, by Manoj Kewalramani, provides translations, summaries and analysis of articles appearing in People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. The suggested yearly subscription is $40 (in rupees), or you can read for free if you so choose.

The hitch here is that People's Daily is not generally interesting in any conventional sense. You will find in it exactly what you would expect to find in the flagship newspaper of a totalitarian state: Leaders' speeches; meetings between Chinese and visiting officials; protestations of China's benevolent and selfless intentions towards the world at large; plus lots and lots of statistics about exports, bank loans, and industrial production.

The trick is to read People's Daily regularly and carefully until you recognise all the boilerplate, at which point you can start spotting the anomalies, especially the innovations and omissions, which is where the real news is hiding. Has a new adjective been applied to Xi Jinping Thought? Is somebody's name missing from a list of attendees? Is some event of significance being unaccountably ignored?

If you need to know about China in detail, Tracking People's Daily is fascinating stuff. If not, I still recommend a salutary glance at it every now and then, if only to remind yourself how lucky we are to have the New York Times.

Books I have been reading

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell (1949).
I am a timid, tree-hugging liberal. My preferred way of life is a house and garden connected by public transport to a walkable town centre where I can do as I please. I doubt I harbour any unconscious desires to live under an totalitarian dictatorship. But as I re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four, almost seventy-five years after it was written, and many decades since I read it last, I cannot warm to Winston Smith, nor can I quite believe in the world that Orwell imagines for him.

Yes, the life described there seems horrible to me — but why are Winston and Julia the only people who seem to hate it? Why is Smith the only person whose memory seems to work? How can an all-seeing totalitarian state have placed Smith's home-surveillance camera with a blind spot just where Smith has his desk and his diary?

I start to imagine a revisionist reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Smith is revealed as an unreliable narrator, and the horrors of Airstrip One are revealed as the product of his paranoia — something along the lines of Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island. Not that Orwell intended such a reading, but all credit to him if his novel would support it, since a classic novel is, almost by definition, one that can be read at different times in different ways.

Some have called Nineteen Eighty-Four the greatest novel of the 20th century. It would deserve that acclaim if its impact had helped prevent the worst of its prophecies from being realised. At this safe distance in time, I doubt that was the case. If Orwell had died a couple of years earlier with Nineteen Eighty-Four unfinished, I doubt Britain would now be another North Korea. But I respect the argument and it has some merit.

If Nineteen Eighty-Four were published today, I suspect it would pass little-noticed. It would be classed as a work of dystopian science fiction and compared unfavourably by critics with the work of George Saunders, Ted Chiang, or Margaret Attwood. I do not mean by this to diminish Orwell's achievement, but rather to salute the flourishing of science fiction and speculative fiction in the decades since Orwell's death. Even our dystopias have got better.

The Fourth Man, by Robert Baer (2022)
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago how much I enjoyed The Company, by Robert Littell, a book about spies which was offered as a work of fiction. I have just now finished reading The Fourth Man, by Robert Baer, a book about spies which is offered as a work of non-fiction. Given the impossibility of checking what is fact and what is fiction in the world of espionage, even for those involved, I wonder if the distinction matters. If The Fourth Man had been published as a novel I would have been none the wiser.

The Fourth Man covers much of the same ground that The Company does (indeed, as many spy novels do), namely, the pursuit of of a double-agent in the upper reaches of CIA. The conclusions to Littell's fictional hunt and to Baer's supposed factual hunt are eerily similar: The answer has been hiding in plain sight.

As far as I know, Littell never worked for CIA. Baer spent 30 years there. Yet the minutiae of Littell's fictional CIA — the jargon, the daily habits, the personality types — are exactly those of Robert Baer's factual CIA. I see three ways to explain this coincidence:

— Littell, sitting at his desk, intuited brilliantly how CIA operates day-to-day;
— Novelists find it much easier to obtain detailed information from and about CIA than one might have imagined;
— The culture of CIA is shaped by its depiction in spy novels. Life imitates art.

The third of those possibilities is the most pleasing. John Le Carré believed it to be true of the British Secret Intelligence Service that young spies were learning their habits from his books. It also echoes the more readily documented ways in which the culture and conversation of the American Mafia are said to have reinvented themselves in the light of The Godfather. According to the New York Times:

Generations of mobsters have looked to The Godfather for inspiration, validation and as a playbook for how to speak and act and dress. Federal and local investigators on surveillance duty saw and heard made men and wannabes imitating the mannerisms and language of the screen gangsters.

Diego Gambetta captures the reasons for this mimicry in his book, Codes Of The Underworld:

How a real mobster should behave, dress, and speak are questions for which there is no optimal technical solution that presents itself independently of what others do and perceive as the meaning of their action. While criminals need conventional signals to communicate with each other and with the outside world, they are also hard put to agree on what these signals are and how to establish them credibly. They lack a coordinating and standardizing authority, and have to operate in secrecy. Movies can accidentally offer some solutions to those problems. What they offer is 'common knowledge', the foundation of coordination in the absence of a central authority. Coordination occurs when everyone knows that everyone else knows that s means k or that people like us always do j.

Of course, one thing that "people like us" do not generally do in CIA is to publish books accusing other CIA officers of being double agents.

So while I enjoyed Baer's Fourth Man, just as I enjoyed his earlier memoir, and his book about Saudi Arabia, I can see why others found it repugnant for Baer to imply on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone that a well-respected CIA veteran was a double-agent working for the KGB.

In fact, I found it amazing, accustomed as I am to strict British libel laws, that such a book could be published at all. I know things are different in America. But are CIA officers, of all people, "public figures"?


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I Want A Word

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

If you are not a paying subscriber to The Browser, but enjoy this letter, please do become a paying subscriber to The Browser, because that is how I earn the money to write this letter.

This week: Things I want to read, books I have been reading, and a word that gives me goosebumps.

MY WANTS and needs are few. I am glad to have the three lowest levels of Maslow's hierarchy covered for the time being. Above that I will settle for a connected iPad running Kindle, a sofa, a spaniel, decent public transport, and world peace. All but the last are within my grasp.

But, since you ask, here are some things that I want to read more about:

Dishwashers: Everybody has their own ideas about loading the dishwasher, and most stuff doesn't fit anyway. Can't somebody tip off the manufacturers that dining plates are big, soup bowls are concave, and wine glasses have long stalks?  

The Voynich Manuscript: Why can't AI solve this in 0.1 seconds?

ASML: Given what it does, why is it the only company that does what it does?

Thomas Pynchon: Not to the point of invading his privacy, but what would it take to persuade him to publish an autobiography?

What did happen to Hu Jintao?

Where is Putin's fortune?

Here are some things that I have been reading:

Crassus, by Peter Stothard (2022).
The problem with history is that there are too many people in it, as Nick Hornby noted. The particular problem with ancient Roman history is that there are too many names in it. Not only does everybody of significance have three names, but every famous person tends to share at least two of their names with somebody else famous doing something similar at roughly the same time, since they all belong to the same families and all divide their time between governing Rome and invading other countries.

Marcus Licinius Crassus, though having many eminent relations with similar names, has avoided confusion with relations and namesakes by getting fantastically rich, which was strangely unfashionable in those days. His cv was so distinctive that he passed into history with just the one name, Crassus. Even Julius Caesar needed two. His fortune was reckoned by Plutarch at 229 tons of gold, which today would be worth about $14 billion, whatever that might mean in purchasing power across two millennia. At worst one might confuse him with Croesus. If the name "Crassus" makes you think of "crass", so much the better. Crassus was crass.

Stothard's book is short and taut. Plain prose. Pleasure to read. Inevitably too many names, everybody arrives dragging a family tree behind them, but the pace is generally well maintained. In brief: Crassus crushes Spartacus, makes a fortune in real estate, bankrolls Julius Caesar, partners up with Pompey, worries about seeming wussy by comparison, decides to invade Parthia for no particular reason, gets killed.

The book is part of Yale's Ancient Lives series, a series which hopes to persuade us that the big questions in life “have changed very little over the course of millennia”. I finished Crassus thinking exactly the contrary.

The ancient Rome of Gibbon is so varnished over with irony and high style that it reads like fiction. The ancient Rome of Stothard reads more like a newspaper delivered two thousand years late. Everything that happens in Crassus is described in admirably straightforward terms. But I can scarcely guess at the psychology of the people involved, nor model the choices that they faced.

The richest person on Earth invades a big foreign country in person, at the head of his own army, on spec, just for the lulz, and loses? Not to mention the six thousand slaves he crucified earlier in life along the Appian Way? I suppose if you could graft stem-cells from Vladimir Putin on to stem-cells from Yevgeny Prigozhin then you might grow something that ticked most of the boxes, but I don't understand those people either.

The Company, by Robert Littell (2002).
I had been meaning to read The Company for more than a decade, ever since I was knocked sideways by Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (2006), which I thought to be one the best novels about World War Two that I had ever read — not to mention a peculiarly dangerous and disturbing novel, because The Kindly Ones gets you inside the heads of Nazis who are carrying out the Holocaust, which is absolutely not a place than any sane person wants to be for very long.

Finding that Jonathan Littell's father, Robert Littell, had written a score of spy novels (and seems even now to be still writing them), I was curious to see whether any heritable talent might have been involved. The answer, I conclude, is Yes. Robert Littell is very fine thriller writer indeed, even if his son is the greater novelist. The Company kept me gripped for at least three-quarters of its length, from Cold-War Berlin through the Bay of Pigs and the Kennedy assassination to Iran-Contra and 1980s Afghanistan. I mean that as high praise, given that the print edition of the book runs to 894 pages, and there are only so many ways to skin a cat, even when you are CIA.

Littell would have done better, I think, to have divided The Company into two volumes, and taken a break between the two. Still, with the Kindle edition massively discounted on Amazon as I write (to $1.99/£1.99), I cannot think of a better way to spend two dollars.

The Diaries, Volume Three, 1943-57, by Henry Channon (2022).
I found the young Channon insufferable in Volume One, 1918-38. So I didn't read Volume Two, 1938-43. And then, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. I was reading Hugo Vickers's book about all the fun he had while writing his biography of Cecil Beaton, and it struck me that pretty much all the interesting people in Beaton's world also drifted in and out of Channon's world (both of them having a marked taste for dukes and duchesses, film stars, cabinet ministers and debauchees in roughly that order). So I gave Channon another go.

This third volume is the one to read. Channon has grown up. He is just as arrogant and snobbish and self-centred as he was in his twenties, but the passage of time is making him less naive. He is no longer quite so enamoured of all those countesses and kings-in-exile, all those dinner parties in Belgrave Square; he still gets some pleasure from his lovers and from his seat in parliament, but he is starting to accept that he will never be a Great Man in any walk of life, starting to worry that he might not even get a peerage, and starting to wonder whether these diaries of his, these writings which he began so frivolously in his youth, might yet be his main claim to remembrance. On each of these last points he is correct. And so the personality of Channon himself starts to become interesting.

The Wrestling, by Simon Garfield (1996).
Should I even mention this? OK, but very briefly. If you grew up watching televised wrestling in Britain in the 1960s, if you saw Mick McManus and Jackie Pallo grunt in person at some Corn Exchange or Free Trade Hall, if the name Kent Walton rings any bells, then you may share my delight at this anthology of reminiscences. If not, then not.

Also, I want a word. Which may seem an odd request when the English language has a million of them freely available. But perhaps for that very reason I can't put my finger on quite the right one.

I want a word which means: "Using a word to show that one knows that particular word".  

You might say that usage of this kind overlaps with what John Searle called  "performative" utterances — statements which "change the reality of what they are describing".  Searle had in mind a tight causal relationship between the saying of a given word or phrase and the effect of that word or phrase. By saying, "I bet you ..." you make the bet. By saying, "I do", at the altar, you contract to marry.  

Now, for example, imagine that I use the word "eponymous" where in simpler times I might have said "gave her name to" or "is named after"? I am using the word "eponymous" as ordinary speech. It is behaving like any other word. It is not a code or a trigger. But I am hoping for a secondary effect — that my listener will be favourable impressed to learn that I am the sort of person who knows and uses the word "eponymous".

The relationship here between word and hoped-for effect is far weaker, far less certain, than in Searle's "performatives". Using fancy words is a form of showing off, and perhaps "showing off" is all that one can say about it. But it would be nice to have some more technical-sounding term to hand, that one could employ without giving obvious offence to the person who is showing off.  

I wonder — to bore you for a moment more — if we might remember here Leonard Sachs, host of The Good Old Days, a variety show broadcast on BBC television in the 1960s. His shtick consisted largely of using elaborate Latinate words to ridiculous effect. Please do sample this one-minute audio clip of Sachs on YouTube (expect some brief audience noise, then Sachs warming up from a cold start in a loud voice).

Perhaps "Sachsian" is the word I want, to describe a pulchritudinous propagation of pedagogical polysyllables. But a free and giftable one-year Browser subscription to anybody who comes up with a mot more juste.

Not that I am obsessed with the word "eponymous" or anything, but when I die you will find it carved on my heart. A plurality of English-speaking humanity is repelled by the word "moist". For me the goosebumps-word is "eponymous" — with "eschew" a close second.

And it turned out that I didn't even know my enemy.  

A couple of weeks ago I was laying down the law on what I imagined to be the meaning of "eponymous" (to Uri, if you must know), and saying that it was doubly a pity that so many journalists had started using this horrible word since they almost always used it wrongly.

"Eponymous", I insisted, referred strictly to a person who gave their name to a thing, not to a thing which was named after a person. Thus Gordon Selfridge was the eponymous founder of Selfridge's department store in London, but Selfridge's was not the eponymous department store founded by Gordon Selfridge.

Then I troubled to check this claim in a few dictionaries and I found that I was talking through my hat. The two usages are gazetted as equally correct. Selfridge's and Gordon Selfridge can eponymise one another in complete mutuality, reciprocity, and commutability.

Bah. Was it always thus?

Fowler's Modern English Usage (1965) lists as "eponymous words" only proper names (of people) which have subsequently passed into English for describing things or practices closely associated with them — Captain Boycott, Professor Bunsen, Dr Guillotine etc.

Fowler does not specifically rule out "eponymous" to describe a thing which assumes the name of its originator; and Fowler is rarely slow to rule out things which need ruling out; so either the alternative usage did not trouble H.W. Fowler, or H.W. Fowler thought the possibility of so gross an error so improbable as to be not worth mentioning.

I shouldn't mind. I am a liberal. I am a descriptive rather than a prescriptive grammarian. We have the language that we have because enough people want it to be that way. Wisdom of crowds.

But I can't always help myself. When I see the word "eponymous" in a newspaper or magazine I generally just stop reading the piece there and then — much as I tend to stop reading when I see other, wholly inoffensive, words which nonetheless are reliably absent from writing that I enjoy. These include "best I have ever tasted", "whip-smart", "razor-sharp", "pitch-perfect", "toxic" (in a non-chemical context), "TikTok", "hegemony", "bivalve", and "paradox" (when "apparent contradiction" is meant).

I also tend not to read articles which have the word "must" or "secret" in the headline, since there is never anything that anyone must do, nor anything which can be both "secret" and the subject of a newspaper article at the same time, except possibly the location of the Amber Room.

If that makes me sound curmudgeonly, let me add that I will read almost anything, at least until I find reason to do otherwise, which contains any of a far longer list of words, among them, "Voynich" (see above), "Monty Hall", "paradox" (used correctly), "Fowler's Modern English Usage", "cathar", "bayesian", "new books", "Elena Ferrante", "Michael Hoffman", and "1970s". Yes it does occur to me to feed all those words into ChatGPT and see what comes out, but it also occurs to me that most of the pleasure lies in the anticipation, so I will put off this narrative rendezvous for as long as I can bear.


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