We think of our use of language as ‘fluency’. There are, however, congealed lumps floating in it and, if we look beneath the surface, often more lumps than liquidity. Put another way, most language is pre-owned. The previous owners are, as Gary Morson instructs us, often worth knowing about. Take, for example (not one of Morson’s examples), the indisputably most famous and quoted line in English literature, ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’.
Most theatregoers would think the sentence spit new. But should they also go to a performance of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus they would hear the following in the hero’s magnificent opening soliloquy, in which he resolves to sell his soul: ‘Bid Oncaymæon farewell, Galen come’. The Greek Oncaymæon transliterates as ‘being and not being’. Where is Faustus a professor of philosophy? The University of Wittenberg. Where is Hamlet a student of philosophy? The University of – you guessed it. ‘To be or not to be’ is not a deeply original thought but a hackneyed sophomoric seminar topic. Hamlet is not thinking, he’s quoting.
Morson’s book is full of surprises on the baggage phraseology carries.[…]
The review itself, however, is quite irritating at times. The idea that ‘whether [the text] must be in the exact words of the respondent or whether it can be paraphrased depends on the precise objectives of the interview’ has, so far as I can see, nothing whatever to do with Johann Hari’s shameless passing off of other journalists’ work as his own, and certainly does not exculpate it. And all that “I don’t give a damn and neither does Gary Morson for such pernicketiness” stuff is faux-populist nonsense. What, either you damn people for misquoting or you damn anyone who cares at all what the real quote was—there’s no in between? (Thanks, Paul!)