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Saturday 30 January 2021

On the Use and Mention of Words


Students of linguistics, literature and philosophy sooner or later get the idea that there is an important distinction between the use of a word (any word) and its mention. In print, the distinction can be marked by putting on punctuation marks to indicate that a word is being mentioned (quoted); alternatively, it can be italicised. The common purpose is to prevent confusion about who said what. It also, in some circumstances at least, exempts someone who mentions a word from any criticism which might attach to its use. But it’s not always so simple.

A police officer is giving evidence in the kind of ordinary court of law found in many countries, and says at some point, “I then arrested him and he used a racist epithet”. Now because the police officer is giving evidence and is not prosecutor, judge and jury all at the same time, it is entirely legitimate and relevant to ask, “What epithet?” To know it may be relevant to assessing the gravity of an offence. The officer is only being asked to mention the word, to quote it, not use it themself. It ought to be simple. Sometimes it isn’t and the police officer may demur, “I don’t want to say the word”. In that situation, a judge may ask the officer to write it down, knowing that this is usually acceptable even when saying the word is not.  The slip of paper may then be passed silently to judge, prosecution, defence, and jury.

The officer’s hesitation may be prompted by different kinds of sensibility - they may simply not want to be party to circulating the word in any form, use or mention; they would like the word to go away and not saying it is a step in the right direction. Even if the officer does say it, a newspaper reporting the case will most likely not print it. Instead, a report may repeat the original “racist epithet” formula or, alternatively, print the word in a censored form, say, ******, which may be modified by providing one or two letters as clues. 

This curious practice of giving clues is a modification of the slip-of-paper compromise: the reader now does not have to see the word, but is enabled to infer it, and the more clues provided the less uncertain becomes the inference until the word is staring you in the face. If you want to check the first line of Philip Larkin’s poem, This Be The Verse, online sources will offer you as the second word several versions: “****”, “***k”, “f**k” and “f*ck”. It is an interesting question why anyone should think “f*ck” preferable as an alternative to what Larkin actually wrote in those heady days back in the 1970s when people were trying to say and write what they meant. The obvious answer is that they now mis-quote it as “f*ck” because they do not want anyone to see the complete word, just as the police officer did not want to hear the racist epithet even in the form of a mention.

Expressions like “The F-word” and “The N-word” are rather obviously euphemistic - in the same way that “Number One” and “Number Two” are euphemistic - and also simultaneously expressions of disapproval. They belong with what I call Sunday School language.  The use of asterisks is in the same category and the category is probably linked to social class: these are typically lower middle class ways of encountering and managing the unpleasant side of the world. But it is strange and irritating that should you want to fact-check a line of poetry you can only do so at the same time as being given an indication of someone’s (anonymised) disapproval.

In my country at the time of writing, we have an upper-class Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson, who freely uses the word “fuck” both in speech and text messages, as upper class people often do. But when they print what he says or writes, only one newspaper to my knowledge (The Financial Times) and one widely-read magazine (Private Eye) do so without using disapproval asterisks.

There is, however, a further concern which someone may have about mentioning a word. Especially in relation to speech, there may be a fear that your audience might react in an unwanted way. A police officer who says, “I then arrested him and he used a fat-shaming epithet” may not want to mention the word or expression used simply from anxiety that the court-room audience might not be sufficiently on guard to suppress a titter. It’s possible that they have already had such a thought about the unfortunate officer. An epithet can be well-chosen, even if disgraceful or illegal.

There is a back story perhaps relevant to the discussion. In all the main monotheistic religions, use or mention of the name of God is hedged about with prohibitions, taboos, and contextual requirements; it is one of the Ten Commandments that “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). This requires interpretation, and indeed since it was first written down, many (millions of?)  man-hours have been devoted to its exegesis. One fairly common interpretation leads to the conclusion that, really, one should not use the name of the **** at all, though whether that is a matter of piety or prudence has also to be decided.

There is also a heresy within Russian Orthodoxy which goes in the reverse direction. The name of God should not be used carelessly because the name of God is God, rather in the way that some mathematicians think that the number names are the numbers, without any other kind of existence than the words we commonly employ - though that existence is reckoned well-worth having.

Those who believe that the name of God is God - the heresy is still alive - are called Imyaslavtsy, meaning Those who glorify the Name. When in 1913 Nicholas the Second of Russia was told that Russian monks on Mont Athos had become infected with the new heresy, he despatched a gunboat and two transport ships to Mont Athos. The Archbishop of Vologda was put ashore and held lengthy talks in which many monks identified themselves as heretics and refused to recant. As a result, initiative was passed back to the repressive apparatus of the Russian state. Troops came ashore, rounded up the heretics - killing four, injuring around fifty - and eventually loaded over eight hundred monks onto the ships for transport to Odessa where a few were found Not Guilty and allowed to return to Athos; rather more were jailed; and the remainder defrocked and sent into internal exile.  


This little discussion actually has an ultra-modern relevance. There has always been a part of linguistics, notably that associated with the making of dictionaries, which has interested itself in first uses of a word, subsequent developments in the way the word is used, and in some cases, a word’s fall into disuse. Such corpus linguistics was heavily dependent on printed texts and was extremely laborious work. Modern computer-based data harvesting radically alters the situation: provided it is online, truly huge amounts of data can be harvested with ease. Take any word which, say, has recently become popular and it will be possible to track its origins, its often-global dissemination, its typical users (classified along any dimensions you like), and so on. But there is a hazard involved. 

Suppose I want to give an example of a newly popular word and choose “genderfluid”. Then if what I write should appear online, a data-harvesting program designed to pick up occurrences of the word will pick it up. But I haven’t used the word; I have mentioned it. And unless the program is trained to distinguish use and mention it cannot ground certain interpretations which human users of the data might want to make. Unable to distinguish use and mention, a program would not differentiate between such very different occurrences of “genderfluid” as these:

(1)   I am genderfluid

(2)   I never use the word “genderfluid”; I would not like to take it in vain.

Revised August 2021



Thursday 21 January 2021

The Manufacturing Interest: Booker Prize Shortlisted Books 2020


I bought five of the six as a bundle on Amazon, not with any great enthusiasm - more with a view to updating myself on what kinds of books the manufacturing interest wishes to promote: it costs £5000 to enter a book for the Booker Prize. I left one of the six off my order since it was described as the third volume of a trilogy and if that’s the case then I would have to buy the trilogy, wouldn’t I? What are they doing just listing a third of a work as a potential prize-winner? (Tsitsi Dangarmbga, This Mournable Body)?

I took the shortest book first, Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar: sensible length (229 pages, wide spacing to text, decent font size), short chapters, crisp writing. The first person narrator (Antara) is not very nice, very prickly, a bit disturbed and with every reason for being so. She splices the story of her Indian childhood into a narrative of her current situation (still in India) as wife of Dilip and eventually less-than-perfect mother of baby Annika. The pace is steady but the narrative tension and edginess increases through the book, and as a result my approval rating went up as I read on. Like many readers, my attention span has been shortened by the siren call of the computer sitting opposite on my desk but though at first I was checking my emails more or less after each chapter I settled into longer reading stints - the chapters about the narrator’s adolescence are very well done. First impression: at least good enough to be in the running for a prize of some kind.


Next up, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King set mostly in 1930s Ethiopia. My paperback has over twenty endorsements (always depressing), but including one from Salman Rushdie who writes, “A brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth”. I think he is pulling out the most important aspect, but I also think the novel doesn’t quite achieve its goal of lyrically lifting history towards myth. It’s readable, at times gripping, there is a strong narrative thread, and I guess that for most readers the fictionalised history will be new to them as it was to me. So lots of positives, to which reviewers from the police department add that the book is about “female empowerment”. Why bother with Aster and Hirut, Ferres and the cook, Kidane and Fucelli, Aklilu and Navarra when you could just write about “female empowerment”?

But the problematic aspect begins with the simple fact that the book has three epigraphs, which is two too many. We are offered “The Iliad by Homer”, “Isaiah”, and “Agamemnon by Aeschylus”.  From this one can deduce that Mengiste, or her editor, reckons that her readers will know what “Isaiah” is but might not be able to place “The Iliad” or “Agamemnon” unless reminded of their authors or vice versa, though I guess there are those who will have recently been reading Madeleine Miller.

As well as providing a historical narrative in which complex characters are developed, Mengiste tries to lift it into myth in passages (including Greek-inspired “Chorus” passages) which I ended up feeling were overwritten, overwrought, and at worst meant to help out the person who will be trying to sell the film rights to Hollywood. In that terrible place they would be converted  into panoramic images of “woman standing erect beside man on horseback on top of mountain, silhouetted by sun, hair blowing in wind” etc.

I can imagine a better novel in which all this stuff was cut out and Mengiste stayed with the exploration of human complexity, intensity of human feeling, and the sometimes ambiguous character of violence - all things about which Mengiste writes extremely well, and in general leaving it to the reader to develop their own understanding of what has been depicted.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Booker judges gave it the prize.


There is something not quite right about Douglas Stuart’s autobiographical novel Shuggie Bain - I guess Douglas was probably called Duggie as a child. He grew up in Glasgow but now lives in the USA where he wrote this book. It was first published in America and apart from a one-word puff from Graham Norton (“Brilliant”) all the puffs on the jacket of my hardback are from American publications. The book belongs to the genre of rough working class childhood - in this case declining industries (coal and shipyards), delinquent father (taxi driver), very alcoholic mother, older siblings busily trying to escape. The genre is still acceptable, though nowadays if the eponymous hero is male he also needs to be gay, since straight working class white males are going nowhere in publishing. Shuggie is gay right from the start: the child trails Daphne, a pink plastic doll, to alert his readers.

Stuart acknowledges a lot of help and from the names and places I guess that most of the help was American with rough working class morphing into trailer trash.  Whatever the genesis, the result is a parody of the original genre: relentless, no opportunity missed to deepen the misery, no comic relief, no irony. And I suspect it may be the fault of his helpers rather than the author.  I do hope it doesn’t win the prize; I abandoned the book half-way through.


I wrote the previous paragraphs nearly four months ago. I then picked up Diane Cooke’s The New Wilderness, and promptly put it down again. No thanks. And when Shuggie Bain won the prize, I didn’t have the heart to bother with the final book on the shortlist, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. But I have read it now, a few months later - I saw it on the shelf and thought “Well, I bought it, I suppose I should try …”. It’s good. Technically, there are some accomplished set piece scenes in which the small cast of characters are meeting together, taking time out, exchanging remarks which sometimes turn awkward. These scenes are tautly written and keep the reader on edge.  There is an interesting and unusual backdrop of campus science labs. There is a complex main character, gay black male Wallace, who only feels clich├ęd in the stream of consciousness / monologue in which he describes his childhood. The chapter which it occupies (pp 193 - 201) is perhaps just too short to attain a complexity which matches the character we are learning about in the other chapters. There are hints of Virginia Woolf in the writing - there is a nod to To The Lighthouse - but the writing - though frequently referencing landscape and weather in the context of an exploration of human emotion - is not either over-literary or under-literary. It’s a book you could compare & contrast with Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Forced to choose between Taylor's Real Life and Doshi's Burnt Sugarwith which it has things in common, I would pick her book.