Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Oh, the Horror! Oh, the Humanity!

The astute Wm. Briggs has noted the following horrifying quotation of Winston Churchill:

Yes, that's right.  The horror is
that ordinary English phrasing has to be translated for the modern ear.  That "retrograde" and "moribund" and "hydrophobia" must be explained to the Early PostModern reader speaks loudly about the decline of education.  Such terms cannot be found in the lyrics of popular song, nor in tweets and Facebook updates, nor even in the moribund dialogue of popular books and moving picture shows.  So what good is it to teach vocabulary? 

Recently elsewhere I encountered a blog comment about the commentator's effort to fill in his education by reading the Odyssey.  The motives were excellent, but he gave up because he was reading a 1930 translation and did not understand the English

O tempora!  O mores!


  1. Oh, Gawd...I wonder if that blog commentator was reading the W.H.D. Rouse version!


  2. The language of academia has always been more high falutin than that of the plebe.

  3. Churchill wrote for the general reader, Mythusmage. Anybody with the equivalent of a Victorian elementary school education should be able to understand the words in that quote. (Including "votaries," because it came into a lot of popular Victorian poetry and prose.)

    The McGuffey Reader series in the US would also have expected sixth graders to understand all those words.

  4. I just ran a story (which Professor McGuffey put at the very end of the First Reader) through the Readability Score website.

    The lowest score was 1.5 (halfway through 2nd grade). The highest scores put the story in 4th or 5th grade. On average, it was rated 2.3 (three months into 3rd grade).

    I'm sure that McGuffey's Sixth Reader is scored as grad school level, these days. :)

  5. Sure enough. The elocution texts in the Sixth Reader come out as things like "18.5 years," even though they're stuff that the average sixth grader should be able to read.

  6. The prudent thing to do is to read back through the decades from the 1990's to the 1930's, which lets you learn words on the way.

    And then go onward. You get back to Shakespeare that way, and even earlier. I only had to look up one word when reading Mallory's Morte -- the second time I tried to read it. I remember it's being barely recognizable as English when I first tried it.

  7. The only ones I needed a translation for were "votaries" and "hydrophobia." I figured the last one meant fear of water which didn't make much sense.

    1. I'll defend the "translation" of hydrophobia-- Mirriam Websters has it only fifty years older than "rabies," and we tend to use the one based on the virus' name instead of just a symptom. (the virus was named for another symptom, but eh.)

      Gotta roll my eyes at "needing" to "translate" Mohammedanism. Gee, Mohammed...ism... what could that be.

  8. I haven't read The River War since I was in college. People today would be shocked to read something like this. But then again, Churchill was full of his own contradictions.

    For example, in that quote, Churchill stands up for women who live under Islamic law, but when it came to women's rights back home, said this:

    "The women’s suffrage movement is only the small end of the wedge If we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers and husbands." [emphasis mine]

    This excellent New York Times article does a decent job of exploring Churchill -- good and bad.

  9. I think Churchill inhabited an emotional environment where it is all but unimaginable that something so trivial as political differences would be allowed into the family and then allowed to come between a husband and wife or a father and a daughter. He assumed that the shared interests of family members could be represented by a single vote for all.

    The key is to see politics as very much secondary to family. we Americans tend to see our right to vote as primary and inviolate, with family being an option, like floor mats. We see it this way so much that we tend to disbelieve or doubt the sincerity of anyone - usually dead guys - who see it otherwise.

    Churchill's position is, I think, worthy of respect, even if equally unimaginable in the modern world.

    1. Good points. To Churchill's credit, he was only 23 years old when he wrote that. He changed his views as he got older.

      But that was in 1897, just two years before The River War was published. So, my point was that it showed some contradictions he had yet to reconcile: condemning patriarchal attitudes in others, while holding patriarchal attitudes himself.

    2. Dudes, the horror was that normal English words had to be parenthetically explained to the modern reader.

    3. You mean, you want us to stay on topic? What kind of a blog IS this?

      OK, then: semi-random paragraph from a popular American novel of 200 years ago. In this case, the vocabulary isn't too hard, but the complex sentence structures would, I think, challenge most modern readers:

      "The imbecility of her military leaders abroad, and the fatal want of energy in her councils at home, had lowered the character of Great Britain from the proud elevation on which it had been placed by the talents and enterprise of her former warriors and statesmen. No longer dreaded by her enemies, her servants were fast losing the confidence of self-respect. In this mortifying abasement, the colonists, though innocent of her imbecility, and too humble to be the agents of her blunders, were but the natural participators. They had recently seen a chosen army from that country, which, reverencing as a mother, they had blindly believed invincible--an army led by a chief who had been selected from a crowd of trained warriors, for his rare military endowments, disgracefully routed by a handful of French and Indians, and only saved from annihilation by the coolness and spirit of a Virginian boy, whose riper fame has since diffused itself, with the steady influence of moral truth, to the uttermost confines of Christendom."

  10. What can you say? The man was right. It's just not acceptable to be right anymore, though politicians still love to argue about who is wrong.

  11. This is why the pulps died -- Winnie didn't use any words Robert E. Howard wouldn't.

    ...And when did the old Readers start falling out of pedagogic fashion?

  12. O tempora! O mores!?

    What do paint and marshmallow snacks have to do with Winston Churchill?



  Teodorq sunna Nagarajan has joined an expedition tasked with evaluating the"serving tray" as a suitable observation post for the...