What’s in a word: Rostrum

When you speak in front of people, you “take the rostrum“. Literally, you are “taking the beak”. The what? Why would you do anything so odd when everybody is watching?

It turns out that, like so much else in our lives, our phrase for pulpit or lectern–ie, rostrum–has everything to do with the story that forms the historical backdrop for the main characters in my forthcoming book. Recall that we left off describing the foolish and tragicomic cock-up that led to two world wars and then a genocide. Well, the first of those wars “produced” quite a bit of flotsam, which the Romans called rostra.

We are talking now about the 23-year-long First Punic War between Rome and Carthage that started in 264 BCE. This war was about the island of Sicily. Both the Romans and the Carthaginians rather wanted it. There was a lot of fighting on the actual island, but the most dramatic and spectacular battles were sea battles. In fact, one of these may have been the single largest naval battle in all of history, involving 200,000 sailors and soldiers!

If you’ve been reading The Hannibal Blog for a while, this might strike you as odd. Yes, Carthage was a great naval power, so that makes sense. But Rome was not. In fact, Rome had no navy at all at the start of the war.

Well, the Romans changed that. At one point, they captured a Carthaginian ship, studied it, and copied it again and again, until they had an entire fleet. This was the ‘reverse-engineering’ part.

517px-corvussvgNext came a bit of innovation. They added an ingenious weapon to their ships. This was the “raven” (corvus), a large swivel bridge that the Romans brought crashing down onto an enemy ship when they pulled up alongside of it. The two ships were then tied together as a large floating platform, and the Roman soldiers stormed across. In effect, the Romans had thereby found a way to turn sea battles into land battles, and they tended to win land battles.

Now to those rostra, or beaks: It’s what the Romans called the prows of galleys. After their first big naval victory, the Carthaginian ships were sinking or floating in the water in pieces, so the Romans fished out the prows, brought them to Rome and stuck them onto the speaker’s pulpit in the Forum, as in the image at the very top of this post.

It was the equivalent, you might say, of an Indian hanging the scalps of his enemies above his tent.

And so, ever since, speakers in Rome and elsewhere have been taking the beak.

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It’s all Greek to me

That’s what we say in English when we don’t understand something. (Probably thanks to Shakespeare, who had Casca saying to Cassius in Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II, that “it was Greek to me.”)

But what do other people say–above all, ahem, the Greeks? Well, somebody has now mapped it.

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Fear and the English Language


Fear and the English Language is my attempt at a meaningful pun on George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, one of the most important essays ever written.

You may remember that our own Style Guide at The Economist begins with Orwell’s six cardinal rules of good writing, taken from this essay. And now a reader of The Hannibal Blog has written, and shared with me, a very thoughtful Socratic dialogue based on this same essay (Orwell is Socrates in this dialogue, speaking to a student.) So I decided to re-read Orwell’s essay, which is always a good idea.

What is Orwell’s bigger point? Let me try to put it this way:

Thought + Intention → Words and Words → Thought + Intention

That’s why words are so important. They reflect thoughts and intentions. If your thoughts are jumbled, vague or absent, the words will come out badly, even if the intention is good. If your intention is insincere, the words will come out badly, even if you have a good thought. It also works in the other direction: If you get in the habit of using insincere or evasive words or talking nonsense, you will probably start thinking that way.

And so we can state, as confidently as Orwell did 63 years ago, that most of the words we read and hear by politicians, businesspeople, PR people, academics and celebrities are bad, embarrassingly bad.

Here are the two qualities common to this sort of language, according to Orwell:

The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.

Orwell makes fun of the sort of monstrosity that this led to in his day by “translating” a famous verse from Ecclesiastes,

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

into “modern” English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

What might that be today? Oh, pick your category. (You can come up with your own best worst phrase in the comments.) Let’s take the businessmen or PR people that I regularly deal with. They might turn Ecclesiastes into:

Whilst it is important to proactively leverage one’s core competencies, market conditions and timing largely determine what becomes a game-changer and what not.

Again, Orwell’s point is that

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.

But why?

1) Laziness, often.

Speaking or writing clearly takes enormous effort because you first have to think, clarify and simplify. On the other hand, speaking or typing words, especially in hackneyed phrases you’ve heard others use thousands of times, takes vastly less effort and fills the time. Yesterday I was interviewing one of the people running in next year’s Californian gubernatorial race: what a torrent of words, in response to every question, and how little I had in my notebook at the end!

2) Fear or cowardice, more often.

This is the real answer, I believe. If you speak or write clearly you end up producing incredibly strong words. If they are noteworthy at all, they are sure to offend somebody. Are you up for that? Most writers are not, which is why they reserve their most honest writing for the grave, as Twain quipped. Usually, people want to speak or write without bearing any consequences. So, as Orwell says, you let your words fall upon the world

like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.

This amounts to insincerity. You are really using words to hide. Typically, this is when the mixed metaphors and clichés come out. (By the way, I am not endorsing that American genre–you know who–of writers who see offending people as their niche. You can’t just be offensive, you still need a genuine thought.)

So: good writing, good language, good style comes down to, yes, having something to say and saying it as simply as you can, but above all to the great courage that this takes. That’s why good writing is so rare.

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What’s in a word: “Liberal”

Adam Smith

As you may have noticed by now, I am a lover of words–to the point of pedantry–and it gives me indigestion to hear people abuse my little darlings. Americans are especially prone. For example, they are scandalously liberal with the word … liberal.

Traveling around America, we at The Economist get at least two questions in any gathering. 1) Why don’t we have bylines? 2) Are we liberal or conservative?

Folks, the way you (the Americans) ask that second question, it does not make any sense! You, unique among nations, did something quite uncivilized to this word, liberal. You unilaterally and wantonly changed its meaning, without telling the other 6.3 billion of us. You cannot do that! As The Economist has demanded before, it’s our word and “we want it back.”

Here is what liberal means: It comes from the Latin liber, free, and refers both to a philosophy and worldview that treasures individual freedom (as in Liberalism) and to the habits and learning befitting a free individual (as in Liberal Arts). That’s all.

The origins of liberalism go back to classical Greece (the “left leg” in this analogy of the Western Tradition as a “body”). It thrived during the Enlightenment, especially its Scottish flavor; found a permanent fan group when The Economist was founded; came under undignified attack in the past century; was defended valorously by people like my great-uncle Ludwig Erhard; became a whipping post in France (especially in the phrase “neoliberal”) for people who like to roll tractors through McDonald’s outlets; and now lives this bizarre American double life among barely literate TV-show hosts.

Liberal means: Tolerant, even enthusiastic, about the eccentricities of individuals and the diversity of lifestyles, as long as nobody is harmed. Hence, a modern Liberal is likely to support the right of gays to marry, as The Economist has done far longer than any other major publication that I’m aware of.

It also means being tolerant, even enthusiastic, about the willingness of individuals to take risks for gain, without any sour-grapes Collectivist outbreak of envy after the fact.

It means skepticism about huge efforts to change human nature; about naive faith in governments or companies always being “good”; about any attempt to subordinate the individual to society.

But Liberalism does not mean (as anti-Thatcherites in Britain once tried to imply) denial that there is such a thing as society.

And it does not mean (duh, really!) salivating over “big government”. Whatever that is called, it is not Liberalism.

Finally, is it the same as what Americans call Libertarianism? In theory, it comes close. In practice, not. American Libertarianism tends to attract a lot of loonies.

Liberals are not loonies. They don’t foam at the mouth. If you need an image, it is of a dour Scot like Adam Smith, pictured above. Slightly dull, but excited about the fun that others get up to. Sort of like The Economist.

Wit: Voltaire and Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great




Voltaire and Frederick the Great were friends and conversed in French, as all European aristocrats did at the time. And they were witty.

One day, Frederick invited Voltaire to come join him at his castle, Sanssouci, in Potsdam, by writing the following note:

_p__   à   _ci__
venez        sans

Voltaire did not miss a beat and replied with his own note:

G      a

And they both began to look forward to their next meeting!


Voltaire immediately understood Frederick’s note to mean “venez souper à Sanssouci“–ie, come dine at Sanssouci. The word venez is “sous” (under) the letter p. The word sans is “sous” the word ci.

So he replied by saying J’ai grand appétit: Capital G = “Gé grand”; lower-case a = “a petit”.

Back to irony

For un-ironic activities and subversive earnestness

Wanted: For un-ironic activities

What a bizarre article in the New York Times about an alleged crisis of irony, to be blamed in large part on Obama.

As you may recall from my previous thoughts on irony, I’ve never been tempted to consider irony thriving in American life to begin with. But now to mourn its decline because of an outbreak of naive and gushing earnestness about the prospects of imminent world-saving by the new savior?

I briefly suspected that the article was being retro-ironic when it proposed to prove the irony crisis by counting the appearances of the word irony in newspapers, before, several laborious paragraphs later, conceding that this was just plain silly.

Now I suspect that it comes back to that widespread American confusion over what irony is (not). Towards the end of the article, somebody finally attempts to define irony as “the incongruity between what’s expected and what occurs” which “makes us smile at the distance.” How could that be in decline?

Last time, I defined irony as “the non-aggressive savoring of contradictions in life and people (others and yourself) and of turns of phrase that are slightly and adroitly off-key and thus meaningfully surprising. Irony is not merely saying the opposite of what you mean.”

So irony is worlds apart from:

  • Sarcasm: This really is simply saying the opposite of what you mean. Hence: the lowest form of humor.
  • Wit: quick, sharp and probably biting associations between dissimilar things.
  • Humor: an ability find things funny.
  • Satire: the art of ridiculing somebody in power (possibly using irony, sarcasm, wit or humor as weapons).

My hunch: Irony is alive and well, inherently in situations and naturally in Britons. The rest of us can keep practicing. 😉

Spaces between words

Marc Davis

Marc Davis

The good conversations are always the impractical ones, I’ve discovered. Either I do a focussed interview of somebody and I end up with the right quotes and facts in my notebook, ready to write a story. Or I … have fun. The notebook winds up chaotic, but I end up thinking about all sorts of interesting things.

My lunch on Friday with Marc Davis, Yahoo’s “social media guru” was a good conversation. Yes, we dutifully got around to talking about how technology might a) make all people permanent producers of “content” (photos, text, video) and b) connect them socially. But first we indulged ourselves with the fun stuff.

Marc, it turns out, is a student of words. He studied at the University of Konstanz with Wolfgang Iser, author of such works as Der Akt des Lesens (The Act of Reading). We talked a lot about what communication is and whether it is even possible.

It is possible, of course, but there is an arbitrary dimension to it. A spews out words (in text, audio or video, or in person) and perhaps other gestures. B receives them and does something with them (or not). (Mis)communication happens somewhere between A and B.

As Marc puts it, it happens in “the spaces between words.” A has to say the words, but B has to put something into those spaces.

This immediately reminded me of my drawing and painting classes in college. “Look at the negative spaces,” my teacher kept saying. He meant: Don’t just draw the leg and hip and waist and so forth. Look at the shape of the empty space surrounding them. And it’s true. If you draw the empty space it’s always a better drawing.

The spaces between words are a little different, of course. They are for somebody else to fill in. So the skilled writer/storyteller/communicator uses words in such a way as to create empty spaces for the other person’s imagination and projection. The writer cannot control what the other persons puts in there, but can shape the space.

That is really difficult. It takes the second secret of good writing, ie empathy, to do it well.

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Word-loving as science

I still remember my high-school English teacher telling me that good writers minimize the use of the, of, a and so forth. Those are fill words–in effect, noise. Turn nouns into verbs and get rid of them, so that the signal-to-noise ratio of your writing goes up. Don’t say: “A restructuring of our financial system and a recapitalization of our banks is an imperative for the avoidance of a depression.” Say: “We have to change our financial system and put capital into our banks to avoid a depression.”

I’ve also warned in a previous post about the treacherous first-person voice, which writers overuse, in my opinion, especially in America.

James Pennebaker

James Pennebaker

Well, James Pennebaker is now forcing me to think much more deeply about all this. He’s a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and he counts words. All sorts of words, especially the fill words that I thought existed only to be eliminated, and all those Is, mines and mes.

Why? Because how people use words, even and especially the ones we think don’t matter, says so much about them.

For instance, in analyzing the difference between Obama and McCain, Professor Pennebaker has this to say in on his blog:

Categorical versus fluid thinking.  Some people naturally approach problems by assigning them to categories.  Categorical thinking involves the use of articles (a, an, the) and concrete nouns.  Men, for example, use articles at much higher rates than women.  Fluid thinking involves describing actions and changes, often in more abstract ways. A crude measure of fluid thinking is the use of verbs.  Women use verbs more than men.

McCain and Obama could not be more different in their use of articles and verbs.  McCain uses verbs at an extremely low rate and articles at a fairly high rate. Obama, on the other hand, is remarkably high in his use of verbs and low in his use of articles.  These patterns suggest that McCain’s natural way of understanding the world is to first label the problem and find a way to put it into a pre-existing category.  Obama is more likely to define the world as ongoing actions or processes.

In this post, Pennebaker actually counts how often the candidates use various categories of words.

It’s all about probabilities, of course. But I love how Pennebaker reminds me–not that I’m somebody who was likely to forget it–just how much words matter!

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Amy Tan and I

And just as I am researching J.K. Rowling for my book, I am also looking into Amy Tan, and discovering interesting things other than those I am actively searching for. From Amy Tan, during this interview, the following:

I also grew up, thankfully, with a love of language. That may have happened because I was bilingual at an early age. … Words to me were magic. You could say a word and it could conjure up all kinds of images or feelings or a chilly sensation or whatever. It was amazing to me that words had this power.

Why interesting? Because I have, in my own way, said the exact same thing, many, many times. Perhaps there is something about bilingual types that lets us love words as others can’t.

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The Republicans and language

And from that same issue of The New Yorker, this piece, which might well have telepathically come out of my mind.

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I feel rather strongly about words and language–in more than one language, as it happens. So when a political movement arises with the apparent mission to abase and disdain language itself, you might be able to guess where my sympathies lie…

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