Monday, January 30, 2006

Journalism 101-part three

Chesterton writes:

"In this document Chesterton darkly, deliberately, and not having the fear of God before his eyes, asserted
that Shakespeare wrote the line "that wreathes its old fantastic roots so high."

This he said because he had been kept in ignorance by Priests; or, perhaps, because he thought craftily that none of his
dupes could discover a curious and forgotten rhyme called Elegy in a Country Churchyard.

Anyhow, that orthodox gentleman made a howling error; and received some twenty-five letters and post-cards
from kind correspondents who pointed out the mistake.

But the odd thing is that scarcely any of them could conceive that it
was a mistake. The first wrote in the tone of one wearied of epigrams,
and cried, "What is the joke ?" Another professed (and
practised, for all I know, God help him) that he had read through all
Shakespeare and failed to find the line. A third wrote in a sort of
moral distress, asking, as in confidence, if Gray was really a
plagiarist. They were a noble collection; but they all subtly
assumed an element of leisure and exactitude in the recipient's
profession and character which is far from the truth. Let us pass on to
the next act of the external tragedy."

Having been the recipient of such mail for similar type "howling errors", I can fully sympathize with Gilbert. I'll bet our Gilbert editor Sean Dailey can, as well. People who jump on the tiniest infraction of a misquote or a misspelled word, and fail to engage in the argument of which the writer most likely put a lot of effort. I know of one Chestertonian who reads over his posts three times before pushing the "Send" button. How nice it would be if writers would just read their scribblings over once...and that readers would forgive much quicker the minor errors in grammar or quotations taken from memory...


  1. I like the adjective, "howling." It puts just the right amount of hyperbole on a noun. Belloc used it too, as when he wrote of "howling heretics" in his Song of the Pelagian Heresy (and achieved a nice alliteration in the mix as well).


  2. For my own part, the phrase "for all I know" has always tickled me just right. It adds a certain exasperated and earnest modesty to a piece. Chesterton has used it here quite wonderfully.

  3. Yes, "howling" - looks like AMBER has it nearly 100 times, though some are used in its normal sense (dog, wind, etc). But GKC's occasional dislocated use reminds me of J. K. Rowling's "barking" as in "barking mad"... you just laugh when it appears. And was it D. L. Sayers or J. D. Carr who would always say something looked like a "boiled owl"? I could also give more recent examples. Hee hee.

    Regarding "for all I know" - that does come up rather frequently (nearly 150 times!) though unless one has a mechanical way of doing these analyses, or a good team of underused grad students, one can easily overestimate things of this kind. (Like the guy GKC referred to, reading through all of Shapeskeare to find that one line! Goto, methinks 'twould be howlingly boring.)

    For example, GKC's good friend, Hilaire Belloc, tried it, and was a bit off. In his book On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters HB claimed GKC used: "It is as though" frequently - but it only appears three times in the great bulk of his writing... However - "it is as if" appears over 250 times!

    This mode of literary study suggests a question - do words matter or don't they? If you say they don't, go right ahead, "Professor", and try to log in to your computer with a synonym - or a mis-spelling - of your password. Hmm. Do you hear Someone saying "Not the smallest letter, not the smallest part of a letter shall pass away..." ???

    Hee hee. Or maybe not hee hee this time.

    For some of us, GKC is important not so much because he was a good writer, but because he leads us to the Everlasting Man...

  4. Dr. Thursday, yeah, I love Rowling's use of "barking" in that context! Usually it's Ron doing the talking. I think he's also the one who uses "git" at least once a book, as in calling the Malfoys "slimy gits."

    Nice association you made there between exactitude in language and our Lord's warning that "not the smallest part of a letter shall pass away..." To mess with words is the mess with the Word, as it were. Words are God's playthings, and punning is the highest use of God's toys. :)

  5. Ps. Speaking of howling and Harry Potter, who can forget Rowling's hillarious use of the word "howler" in books 2 and 5?

    hee hee...;)

  6. I don't quite think of words as toys - maybe because I use so many 32-bit words at work. (How odd that they are all four-letter words! Hee hee, tech pun.)

    Also because it takes so much effort to learn how to use words - even in a simple manner - in order to convey what we are thinking.

    No, when God wished to express His very self, He sent the Word - and the Word was made flesh. Strange that we are all words made flesh, as the 3 billion characters of our DNA are literally obeyed and converted (as needed) into our muscles and nerves...

    No, I do not think that words are toys. Oh, no - they are so much more.

    Tolkien told us how Sauron put "a little of his self" into his ring. But here, I do something Sauron could not even have nightmares about, for what I now put myself into, I give away - most freely - and without hope of ever re-possessing it.

    Do you not realize that with these strange little marks of light I struggle to give you a tiny little bit of my very own self???

    Oh, no, dear unsleeping editor - I cannot concur: words are not toys - we may make toys with them, but they are not toys. Even a toy must be made of something serious, like wood, or steel.

    Behold - before your very eyes! With dozens of muscles, acting and reacting to the signals my eyes report, my fingers move; keys are pressed forming bytes (which are now NO LONGER LETTERS but "numbers"); they are stored, and transported, and finally brought to luminescence before you, and your eyes respond...

    And then, in your mind, somehow, a very tiny bit of my own mind is now present... for you to love or hate or ponder or ignore.

    And Chesterton said "I have often thanked God for the telephone." How much more, then...

    Or - you will recall how GKC says, "If we were at rest in a real paganism, instead of being restless in a rather irrational reaction from Christianity, we might pay some sort of pagan honour to these nameless makers of mankind. We might have veiled statues of the man who first found fire or the man who first made a boat or the man who first tamed a horse." [TEM CW2:200]

    So: why not a statue to the inventors of language?


    Oh, that's right. There is.

    It's March 25: when the Word was made flesh.

    (And the day on which Sauron's Ring went into the Fire!)

    = = = = =

    Postscript: OK, sure; it's run-on, but I had a long day, and this was a lot of fun to write.

    Thanks, "Chestertonian", for providing me with a "fine scamper"... hee hee. I'll practice your accent in my bath.

    Signed, Dr. Thursday.

  7. Words are toys. You simply underestimate toys.


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