The Critical Reader :

The 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 Roget?

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 than Winchester's.

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, like theirs.

Part 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 man.

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):

  1. ¡­the literature on international affairs is suddenly ripe with articles whose authors seem to be¡­1
  2. ¡­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 be used?)2
  3. ¡­one struggles to remember an American President making aid to Israel incumbent on reform of the labor laws. 3
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:

  1. All the President needs [to be an old-fashioned imperialist] is a solar toupee¡­4


Article Footnotes

1The literature may be ripe, but the word Elliott meant was rife .

2 To beg a question is not to raise or suggest or suppress a question; it is to take for granted what is to be proven¡ªthe fallacy of petitio principii .

3What Elliott meant here is dependent or conditional. Actions are incumbent on those who ought to do them; nothing can be incumbent on something that is not a moral agent.

4The pith helmet that is the icon of the tropical explorer and colonial administrator is the sola topee. Topee means hat; s ola is the plant from whose stems the hat is made. Imagining a solar toupee wigged me out, and made my whole day sunny.