Friday, November 02, 2012

A Thursday for a Friday...

Today is the feast of All Souls, and though it is a Friday, I shall take this paradoxical way of resuming my Thursday posts about G. K. Chesterton.

I feel it is necessary, mainly because there is almost nothing new going on, at least not that I can tell - and what's even worse, there's nothing old either. GKC wrote a weekly column for the Illustrated London News, and he did it for about 32 years, right up until his death, which made 1533 essays. (I have heard a rumor of some which had been overlooked in the collection, but as yet nothing further.) Anyway, the point is not about his ILN essays, but about the idea of trying to do something on a periodic basis. One of my major delights is chemistry, and I think everything ought to be carried out on a periodic basis... which we can symbolise by IO4. Hee hee.

Anyway, I have finished my Saga, and its 13 books are slowly becoming available, so there are several things I want to try to get to. A commenter asked to have a study made on the fascinating essay "The Conscript and the Crisis" which appears in GKC's A Miscellany of Men, and there are others which deserve study. There's several books which would be worth investigating in detail, much as I did some years ago with Orthodoxy... chief of these is his other masterwork, The Everlasting Man. Well... God willing, we'll get to them.

But for today, since I am already late - such a Chestertonian state when it comes to having articles written! - I shall do something else, something which is a little closer to my own discipline, and also fun to talk about.

Specifically, sometime in the past I have heard people wondering about GKC's knowledge of languages, and how that may be discerned from his writing. Now, this is one of those examples where the so-called free "search engines" of the much-vaunted INTERNET fail miserably... but let us not be critical of them. They can be useful... but no one can find a needle in a haystack when no needle has ever been present there. Moreover, this is rather an example of the famous "Cat-in-the-Hat" search algorithm which (as I recall) was termed "Calculatus Eliminatus" - finding out where a thing is by finding out where it isn't. My doctorate was akin to that, though I did not reference the esteemed feline scholar therein... Ahem. But let us not go into methodology now, which is of little interest. Rather, let us go into the results, whether they came from hard work or magic. Hee hee! Of course that dangerous word was stuck in just to enable me to quote of my favourite lines:
"You say this thing was done by spiritual powers. What spiritual powers? You don't think the holy angels took him and hung him on a garden tree, do you? And as for the unholy angels - no, no, no. The men who did this did a wicked thing, but they went no further than their own wickedness; they weren't wicked enough to be dealing with spiritual powers." [GKC "The Miracle of Moon Crescent" in The Incredulity of Father Brown]
Very well. The results of a rather preliminary study of GKC's writing reveal the following:

Language Unique phrases
Latin 543
French 521
Greman 14
Greek 31
Italian 17

There were also one or two Spanish words (en seconde noces and espada) and one which might be Russian: Realpolitik, and a handful of ones I am not sure of: firman, gamin, skoramis, pana, pani, prosha.

Given the rather imprecise comparison I was using, Latin and French are definitely neck-and-neck. (I say imprecise because this includes footnotes and writing of others which may include these tongues.) Obviously, GKC studied French, Maisie Ward tells us "Gilbert's mother was Marie Grosjean, one of a family of twenty-three children. The family had long been English, but came originally from French Switzerland." [MW, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 4] He certainly studied Latin, and we know from his autobiography that "I should always have chosen rather to idle at Greek than to idle at Chemistry." [CW16:107, see also 60] The German is no surprise given his journalism during World War I, and Italian comes in from contact with the arts... but perhaps I ought to leave that sort of speculation to others.

Unfortunately, the lists are too long to include here, but let us just take a brief look at some of his uses. I know little French beyond critical words like Burgundy and Chapagne, so I cannot comment on them. But a few of GKC's Latin phrases deserve highlighting.

Ver non semper viret; sed stiltonia semper virescit ["The Poet and the Cheese" in A Miscellany of Men] Roughly, this is "Spring does not always grow green, but Stilton always turns green." GKC proposed this as the engraving on a monument to the cheese - he proposes several other monuments, to the man who invented Stilton, to the cow who provided its foundations, and to the courageous man who first ATE the cheese... this is all paralleled with the very famous proposal he gives in The Everlasting Man [CW2:200] for veiled statues to those unknowns who established the great inventions of our civilisation. (I have used this idea in my Saga; see my book The Horrors in the Attic III.18 for the scene.)

De maximis non curat lex. [ILN Apr 1 1922 CW32:349] Roughly, "the law does not care about the greatest things." This is GKC's splendid revision of the famous legal maxim, De minimis non curat lex, roughly "the law does not care for, or take notice of very small or trifling matters". [Black's Law Dictionary, 482, referencing Cro.Eliz. 353.] This should be cross-referenced to GKC's parallel: "When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws." [DN Jul 29 1905 quoted in Maycock]

Franciscus franciscat! [Well, both you and I expected this to be in SFA, but it's not. It's in his A Short History of England CW20:467] This was not GKC's, but a joke he heard somewhere, when a Franciscan heard a Benedictine say grace with the words Benedictus benedicat. And obviously, if Benedict blessed, Francis could "franciscify"... which is "something of a parable of mediaeval history; for if there were a verb Franciscare it would be an approximate description of what St. Francis afterwards did." [ibid.]

Then there is this powerful word-study of two important words, which deserves to be quoted in full:

The general notion that science establishes agnosticism is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Science is the Latin for knowledge. Agnosticism is the Greek for ignorance. It is not self evident that ignorance is the goal of knowledge. It is the ignorance and not the knowledge that produces the current notion that free thought weakens theism. It is the real world, that we see with our own eyes, that obviously unfolds a plan of things that fit into each other. [GKC The Thing CW3:170-1]
There are other fascinating word-studies, such as the famous one on omnibus:
"Omnibus" may seem at first sight a more difficult thing to swallow - if I may be allowed a somewhat gigantesque figure of speech. This, it may be said, is a Cockney and ungainly modern word, as it is certainly a Cockney and ungainly modern thing. But even this is not true. The word "omnibus" is a very noble word with a very noble meaning and even tradition. It is derived from an ancient and adamantine tongue which has rolled it with very authoritative thunders: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus. [GKC ILN Jan 13 1917 CW31:22]

...if a mediaeval State had an omnibus company, the omnibus company probably would have an official religion. It would probably have a patron saint: an advocate in heaven supposed to be protecting that particular omnibus company and no other. It would quite certainly have religious services invoking blessings on that particular omnibus company and pledging it to those social duties. It would have processions in the street on its feast day, carrying omnibuses garlanded with flowers, with the image of the Patron Saint of Omnibuses carried above torches or lighted candles; and perhaps an illuminated blazon of the company motto, whatever it might be - presumably "Quod Ab Omnibus." [GKC ILN Dec 28 1929 CW35:224-5]

There is his insight into eight great words from Aquinas: Sumit unus, sumunt mille; quantum isti, tantum ille. [STA CW2:509] And then there is that grand switch of endings he makes when he considers ancient Rome, when the great Delenda est Carthago! of Cato finally becomes Deleta est Carthago. [in TEM CW2:282] Given our present state of affairs, let us fervently pray we may someday soon say the same thing.


At 02 November, 2012 18:34, Blogger Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

Hi, I saw this through the ACS' Facebook link. I can help with a few of the words you didn't recognize.

pana, pani, prosha -- I'm pretty sure these are Polish- "pan" is like "mister" and "pani" misses and I think "pana" was like "miss." Prosze is like please/you're welcome, etc. :-)

I never found the language distracting - a few key phrases is never too hard - usually guessable and always google-able. I can't imagine using so many, though, even over 32 years.

At 02 November, 2012 19:23, Blogger Hamish Redux said...

"Ver non semper viret" is also the motto of the Vernon family. There's a ceoling in Trinity College, Cambridge which has this inscription on it.

At 03 November, 2012 12:28, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Thanks very much - you are both very kind. I shall add both details to our collection of annotations. I ought to have checked the context of those odd language cases, in hope of getting further. It will provide a filler if I get stuck some future week.

I particularly enjoyed the "Ver non" item, which reminds me of canting heraldry. As I recall, an arms of the "other" university has a bovine mammal crossing a river... hence Ox-ford.

I would bow, but like Fangorn, I am not - er - very bendable.

At 15 November, 2012 10:06, Blogger Banshee said...

"Realpolitik" is a German word (politic is from Greek, of course), describing the sort of politics Bismarck said he did. Of course, some of his nasty work was more like Unrealpolitik or Surrealpolitik, if you're talking the surrealism of nightmares.

"Firman" is the Ottoman Turkish for "decree" or "order," and comes from the Persian "ferman". A lot of Victorians used this word; it doesn't prove special linguistic prowess. (It is curious that it's fallen so far out of use, but there's no Ottoman Empire to be issuing firmans.)


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