Critical Reader :
Critical Reader is devoted to analyzing
recently published writings that are egregiously illogical, illiterate,
or otherwise in need of skewering. The emphasis in these analyses
will be on misuse of language, in particular tendentious diction or
other corruptions of English. I will be particularly concerned to
point out any political motivation behind such corruption, and the
effect such corruption has even on those not sharing that motivation
This number of The
Critical Reader deals with two pieces on two quite different
subjects; the reason for doing so consolidating
them is that the pieces in question are still
today available on
line to TVR readers, but may not be for much longer.
Part 1: Must We Burn
I had supposed until just a
few days ago that the attack on Roget and his " Thesaurus"
by Simon Winchester ("Word Imperfect," " The
Atlantic Monthly ," May 2001) was a freak, the momentary
aberration of a journalist desperate for something to write about.
But now a second writer, a novelist, has joined Winchester in attacking
the man and the book. In a review (available at http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,753688,00.html
) for the British publication " The Guardian"
of a new edition of the "Thesaurus , "
Lawrence Norfolk writes what would seem to be a warmed-over version
of Winchester's piece, but one that, if anything, is even less rational
Like Winchester, he loses no
time in walloping Roget with a bladder of nonsense:
Roget's Thesaurus stands
somewhere between pornography and Brodie's Notes on the embarrassment
scale. Use implies need. Need implies deficiency, whether of sexual
partners, revision time or words. In the case of Roget, no one wants
to admit to being dumb.
He follows this initial blast
with a potted portrait of Roget the man, much of it irrelevant (in
this, too, following Winchester), and then a couple of very brief
and tendentious quotations from Roget's introduction to the "Thesaurus"
Roget compiled his Thesaurus
for " those who are unpractised in the art of composition,
or unused to extempore speaking. " "It is to
those who are thus painfully groping their way and struggling with
the difficulties of composition, that this Work professes to hold
out a helping hand."
Norfolk implies, by juxtaposing
these two fragments as if they occurred as one continuous passage
in the original, that Roget created the "Thesaurus"
only for the semiliterate, so that those of us who use it today
are, in his words, admitting to being dumb. But Norfolk is -- to be
charitable -- mistaken. Roget does not say that he created the "Thesaurus"
for the simpleminded or semiliterate; he discusses the difficulties
all writers experience in finding the mot juste , then remarks
that " To those who are unpractised in the art of composition,
or unused to extempore speaking, these difficulties present themselves
in their most formidable aspect. " This is followed
by several more sentences, in which Roget makes it clear that the
" Thesaurus" is needed by all writers, not just
the unpracticed -- and only then comes the second sentence quoted
by Norfolk, the one that begins "It is to those ...." And
indeed Norfolk implicitly concedes the point when he says, "
Roget himself was the first of the painful gropers his book was
designed to help. " Roget was a widely experienced
professional writer and lecturer, and hardly at a loss for words or
ideas; if the book was originally written to help him, then
it was hardly written for dummies.
And what exactly is it that
the " painful gropers " are seeking?
Not, as Norfolk implies, the meanings that their own wits cannot supply,
but the very opposite: if they are using the "Thesaurus"
as Roget intended, they already know the meaning they are trying
to express, and they already know that there is a word that precisely
meets their need -- but they cannot for the moment think of that word,
and turn to Roget to find it. (I quoted Roget's own clear statement
to this effect in my examination of the Winchester paper -- see http://www.vocabula.com/Essayarchive/VROCT01Halpern.asp
-- and won't waste space by repeating it here.)
Again like Winchester, Norfolk
(do all enemies of Roget bear the names of English towns or counties?
Am I jousting with members of a landed and armigerous aristocracy?
If so, why are they so poor at jousting?) confesses that he himself
has used and profited from Roget, but warns us that " Roget
also lends itself to misuse. " Waiving the question
that naturally arises here -- what does not lend itself
to misuse? -- we read on to find two anecdotes supposedly illustrative
of Roget's propensity for causing harm harmfulness
In the one story, the
novelist Jim Crace, looking in Roget for one word, found an entirely
different word, and apparently used in his book the one he found --
a crime for which Roget, apparently, is responsible. In the other,
Norfolk himself was looking for a word meaning violin-shaped, and
instead found -- and apparently used -- a word meaning fan-shaped.
Why he accepted that word rather than continue his search for the
one he originally wanted he doesn't say; perhaps he decided that the
one he found was actually better or just as good, or perhaps he just
got tired of looking. In any case, why is Roget to blame for either
Crace's experience or Norfolk's -- assuming that their experiences
were hurtful, and need to be blamed on someone?
Summing up this mess
of bad logic and irrelevance, Norfolk says, " The right
word can sometimes stop a thought dead rather than usher it forward,
and Roget has always had a lot of right words. " Norfolk's
writing is very loose here, but what he presumably means -- like Winchester
-- is that Roget, by supplying people with so many words to choose
from, enables them to shirk thinking their ideas through. But the
two anecdotes Norfolk has just told us concern writers accepting words
that are not " right " -- not
the ones, that is, they set out to find. And why should the right
word stop thought? Should Roget, in order not to stop thought, have
offered a lot of wrong words? I agree with Norfolk and Winchester
on one point at least: Roget can be dangerous in the wrong hands,
2: Michael Elliot on Imperialism
Michael Elliott, a columnist
for Time magazine, has written a piece (available at http://www.time.com/time/columnist/elliott/article/0,9565,269939,00.html
that, while fully satisfying the criteria mentioned above for
treatment by The Critical Reader , is one that I cannot be
too harsh on, because it has afforded me some quiet amusement, and
even one out-loud laugh, which doctors say is good for one¡¯s health.
His theme is roughly
indicated by the subtitle of the piece: ¡°Imperialism is suddenly fashionable.
Just ask the Palestinians¡±; more precisely, it is that America, despite
its official abhorrence of imperialism (a term Elliott uses as interchangeable
with colonialism ), is now acting like an old-fashioned imperial
power. The latest evidence of this, says Elliott, is President Bush¡¯s
insistence that the Palestinians dump Arafat and adopt a number of
other measures before they can hope to achieve statehood. Throughout
the piece, Elliott seems perpetually about to come down hard on Bush
and America for this recrudescence of imperialism, but he never quite
gets around to doing so, and for good reason: Elliott himself, when
all¡¯s said and done, thinks that imperialism, in the right circumstances,
is OK. The concluding paragraph of his piece reads,
There¡¯s nothing wrong
with a little colonialism¡ªsorry, nation building¡ªbut it¡¯s not easy
to get right. Americans should remember that the old imperial powers
got out of the business in part because they never got any thanks
for it. Instead, their reward was ¡°the blame of those ye better, the
hate of those ye guard.¡± That¡¯s Kipling again. This year, he¡¯s the
The hollowness of the
piece is a reflection of Elliott¡¯s failure to sort out his own beliefs,
and his desire to have it both ways: he wants to belabor Bush for
bringing back imperialism, but cannot because he himself sees it as
necessary in some cases. He tries to criticize Bush by assimilating
him to Rudyard Kipling, whom he takes, at least for purposes of coming
up with a catchy title, as the apostle of imperialism, but is tripped
up by his awareness that Kipling, in his ¡°Recessional,¡± passed the
most somber judgment on imperialism to
be found in English literature
on imperialism . In the end, he is reduced to warning us that
while we may justifiably practice imperialism, we must not expect
any thanks for doing so¡ªa truth he illustrates with lines from Kipling.
So Elliott¡¯s final message is that which Kipling expressed far better
almost a century ago, and in conflating with Bush with Kipling, Elliott
implicitly praises Bush.
In its message, then,
the piece is simply so confused and convoluted that it winds up biting
its own tail, but it can be shown mercy because it affords an editor,
or any critical reader, so much material to chew on. For all you aspiring
editors, here are three Elliott passages to work on (answers provided
in footnotes, in the unlikely event that a reader of TVR
should need help):
These three passages offer useful material for sharpening editorial
tools, or for supporting an argument that journalists are getting
more and more illiterate, but nothing more; the fourth, though,
is good for a belly laugh:
- ¡the literature on international
affairs is suddenly ripe with articles whose authors seem to be¡1
- ¡a senior White House official
blithely said, ¡°We¡¯re for nation building,¡± as long as American
troops aren¡¯t used to do it. (Which begs the question: Who will
- ¡one struggles to remember an American President making aid to
Israel incumbent on reform of the labor laws. 3
- All the President needs
[to be an old-fashioned imperialist] is a solar toupee¡4