Monday, August 10, 2009

English Imperatives

In my quest for various bits of lore, I had obtained a copy of the first "Boy Scout Handbook" called Scouting for Boys by Robert Baden-Powell (1908). It seems to contain a far larger and more extensive array of skills than the modern derivatives, but I do not mean that as a criticism. Indeed, many points are similar, and even in our high-tech day there are uses for knowing how to survive in the wilds, tie knots, or render first aid - but far more important is the lesson of chivalry - the idea of living on'es life as a gentleman who is always prepared. It is a very interesting book, and whether one is a scout or not, it can be of benefit and also of delight.

One of the splendid details is the little note on "Our King" (recall that scouting was invented in England!) Here is just a portion:
The word Empire comes from an old Roman word "Imperium" which means "well-ordered-rule". And the title Emperor or ruler of the Empire comes from the Roman word "Imperator". ... Imperator comes from two Roman words, "Im" and "Parere" which together mean "To prepare for" - that is BE PREPARED. An Emperor is one who has to be prepared to face any difficulty or danger that may threaten the country. Scouts have in the same way to BE PREPARED to help their country in any difficulty or danger ...
[RB-P Scouting For Boys 334]

I did check this etymology, and it is correct: the Latin word impero (I command) comes from in + paro (I prepare, make ready, provide, furnish, equip).... Of course I then wondered about what Chesterton would have to say. No, not about Scouting, or about Baden-Powell (perhaps another time we might investigate that) - but about this word. Certainly he had several comments to make about "Empire" - but that I also defer. (You might see the Kipling chapter in Heretics for a starting point.)

Rather, I will just give one small excerpt of GKC where he mentions "the imperative" in the grammatical sense - a very humorous excerpt which curiously touches on the larger matters of one's country:
I wish to ask for advice. I ask for it in an illustrated paper which does not generally print correspondence because, like most people asking advice, I ask for it in the hope of not getting it. But I wish somebody would tell me, through any medium, what I ought to do with a certain class of statements which have bothered me since my boyhood. I refer to the sort of statement that can only mean one of two things - a truth which is a truism and a paradox which is a lie. I adore a truism. I can bring myself to endure a paradox. My difficulty begins when all the intermediary steps are removed, and I cannot tell whether the man means too much or too little.

The best rough representation of the thing I speak of may be found in many slang phrases. Thus, suppose some friend of mine (say, the Vicar) says to me on some stormy and dangerous occasion (say, the Church Congress), "Keep your hair on." This use of the imperative may be considered illogical at either extreme of interpretation. If it be held to mean, "Do not, at this moment, forcibly remove the whole of your hair from your head," the advice is superfluous. No such proceeding has formed any part of my plans. If, on the other hand, it be held to mean that I have entered into a positive agreement between Paul Pentecost Potter (hereinafter called the Vicar), of the one part, and Gilbert Keith Chesterton (hereinafter called the Hair-Restorer), of the other part, that no hair of the said Gilbert Keith Chesterton shall fall out till he is ninety-two - then the advice is again superfluous, for it would be practically impossible to enforce the fulfilment of the contract. And it is difficult to see what "Keep your hair on" (considered as an exact or legal phrase) could mean, except one of these two extremes. As a piece of popular poetry, of course, I admire and applaud the sentiment. But the people who use the phrases I deplore know nothing about popular poetry. I will take two examples on two opposite sides - that is, so far as there are still any opposite sides. I want to know what people mean when they say "My country, right or wrong." It was held, I believe, to be a bold sentiment. It seems to me a curiously timid sentiment, for the man who uttered it had not the courage to finish the sentence. If he had finished the sentence, it must have ended in blank platitude or paralysing lunacy. It must mean either "If my country is being ruined, I will try to save her," which is as plain and good as grass - and about as much of a bold avowal in ethics as grass is a new specimen in botany; or, if it does not mean that, it must mean, "If my country is trying to ruin herself, I will assist her to do so, " which is common treason, for which a man ought to be shot. I cannot see anything else, between these two extremes, that the phrase can mean.
[GKC ILN Sept 6 1913 CW29:548-9]


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