I Want A Word

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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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