A nice piece by Josephine Livingstone about one of my favorite works of lexicography, Hobson-Jobson, which I’ve cited a fair number of times here at LH and which I’ve consulted frequently in my handy Wordsworth Reference edition—a thousand pages in a nice compact paperback that easily fits in the hand. Of course, you don’t need to have a physical book at all now that Digital Dictionaries of South Asia has put it online so conveniently (see above link), but if you do want one (and why wouldn’t you?), I would urge you to get the whole thing and not the edition Livingstone reviews, which is cut down by half (“without cutting any good bits” my foot—it’s all good bits!). At any rate, what I found most interesting about the review is Livingstone’s squeamishness about the very words so entertainingly recorded in the dictionary and the very entertainment to be derived from them:

There is something jolly and old-fashioned about this book which will appeal to the trivia-loving, moustache-twirling, Eats, Shoots and Leaves-owning, tea-dance-attending, Waugh-quoting pedant… I’m not suggesting that there is anything dubious about being interested in the etymology of “shampoo” or “sherbet” … But it is the case that patriotism and the vintage aesthetic feed off one another. If we are lazy about our enthusiasm for the British past, especially when it all starts looking a bit Henry Yule, then we risk forgetting about the nasty, violent bits. … “Hobson-Jobson” is a sweet rhyming term, and, like “pukka,” it means something. But it is also a pretty disrespectful bastardisation of a real religious practice.

Livingstone went to college in the ’90s, and I guess it shows. [She wrote to correct me—she actually got her BA in 2010.] Me, I roll my eyes at the idea that we must use even such harmless artifacts of an earlier era to parade our purportedly greater wisdom and tolerance and rub the nineteenth century’s sins in its insensible face. I really think we can enjoy words like “pukka” without running the risk of turning into pukka sahibs. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)


  1. Is pukka something that applies only to sahibs? Could you have a pukka bindi-wallah, for example? It seems to me that you should be able to.

  2. Isn’t there a long-term secular trend toward greater tolerance, if not wisdom? No need to rub the past’s face in anything, I suppose – but I like to take the “college in the ’90s” mindset as a call to be humble about our own blind spots, since we’ll never know what they’ll think we were wrong about 200 years from now.
    I went to college in the ’90s too, though, so I’m sure I’m infected with the same disease.

  3. ‘When it all starts looking a bit Henry Yule, then we risk forgetting about the nasty, violent bits’. Yule is quite aware of the nasty, violent bits, I’d say. The entry for ‘nigger’ begins ‘It is an old brutality of the Englishman in India to apply this title to the native..’

  4. I too went to college in the 90s, and still am able to appreciate things such as Kipling.
    @maidhc: At least in modern Indian English (as well as Hindi, of course) “pukka” can apply to anything, including bindi-wallahs.

  5. Isn’t there a long-term secular trend toward greater tolerance, if not wisdom?
    I don’t know what you mean by “secular trend,” but in terms of the long arc of history, no, I don’t think there is. I think there are localized outbreaks of tolerance that eventually slide back into the swamp of violence and intolerance that makes up the greater part of human history. I think tolerance is a lot easier in circumstances of general economic security and confidence in the future, but such circumstances tend not to last very long, and as soon as people start worrying about their jobs and their kids’ well-being, they start listening to people who want to blame the troubles on [local minority] or [traditional national enemy]. From Yugoslavia to Ceylon/Sri Lanka to Rwanda, the world is full of places with a history of tolerance, intermarriage, people going to each other’s religious festivals, and the like that have descended into hells of mutual slaughter. And frankly I’m not too sanguine about the United States in the coming century. I have a faint hope that over the very long term, if humanity survives, it may evolve away from the need for violent competition, but it’s pretty faint and has no relevance to the foreseeable future.

  6. On the other hand, the heat may be getting to me.

  7. I don’t know what you mean by “secular trend”
    I should have left it at “long-term” – I didn’t mean non-religious but “of or relating to a long term of indefinite duration.”
    in terms of the long arc of history, no, I don’t think there is
    I’m no expert, and maybe you’re right. You can certainly find a persistent instinct not to trust [local minority] and [national enemy] fighting against a persistent desire for tolerance. And at any given moment there are places where it’s getting worse instead of better.
    But I’m hopeful – I gather that the rate of early death from violence was much higher several thousand years ago, despite the fact that it’s technologically much easier for us to kill each other. Also, I’d like to think that the sequence 1. no one questions the morality of slavery, 2. people fight over slavery, 3. slavery is abolished and universally decried is more common than the reverse (even if slavery continues to pop up as a marginal phenomenon).

  8. There are more slaves than ever de facto, but de jure there are none, and there are no opinion leaders who justify slavery — it is universally acknowledged to be a criminal phenomenon. That is in itself a huge improvement in human morality.
    Secular in this connection means ‘both unidirectional and aperiodic’.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    “Looking a bit Henry Yule” sounds like cockney rhyming slang.

  10. John Emerson says:

    Yule’s “Marco Polo” is still the best, after 100+ years. Not the most correct any more, but he has a tremendous amount of supplementary material.
    And not Anglocentric or Eurocentric at all. (Marco Polo was not an imperialist, though he was an agent of the Mongol imperialists).

  11. That is in itself a huge improvement in human morality.
    No, it’s a huge (but possibly temporary) improvement in current officially accepted attitudes. Human morality is what it always has been, for better and worse; if conditions change enough to make slavery officially acceptable again, it will be enthusiastically taken up by many, many people. The more history I read, the less sanguine I am about any long arcs whatever.

  12. Hat, have you read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature? It’s an 800-page attempt to prove the opposite case.

  13. I haven’t read it, but I am very much aware of it and have read enough about it (and discussed it enough with people) to be pretty sure Pinker is cherry-picking evidence and “proving” what he wanted to believe. Of course, I strongly disagree with his linguistic theories, so take that with whatever salt you feel necessary.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    Describing the peculiar linguistic usages of people (a quite small minority of all human beings either presently or formerly living) whose attitudes and beliefs will be judged morally praiseworthy by the 1990’s college-graduate cohort may itself be interesting (if only to see how and why new euphemisms and new pejoratives get coined), but it seems like the lexicographic enterprise should have a broader scope than that.
    But to be more practical, the modern multicultural UK experiences interethnic tensions from time to time and I expect there is a set of lexical items used by impolite non-South-Asian-origin Britons when they wish to express disparaging or stereotype-ridden views of their South-Asian-origin neighbors, with varying levels of pejorative intensity and subject to varying levels of tabooness in polite conversation. I don’t know much about that modern offensive/taboo vocabulary, but I’d be surprised if it had much to do with the contents of Hobson-Jobson.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    I do think one can take Livingstone’s point that a comical-sounding word that comes from a garbling of a serious religious text might be thought in questionable taste (and perhaps if a similar dictionary were being compiled today that example would be included but not used as the title track of the album), but it’s also not clear to me (and I wonder whether it’s clear to her, or if she’s even thought about it) what the actual South-Asian Shiite position on the question might be. They might in fact well find the transformation into nursery-rhyme gibberish offensive (if they could manage to spare the time from being, in Pakistan, brutalized and terrorized by their Sunni fellow citizens), or they might equally well find it hilarious because it would confirm their own prior stereotypes about how comically stupid/clueless the English kaffirs are.
    One can find Out There on the internet people who both: a) accept the contested etymological claim (which is an ancient one) that “hocus pocus” comes from a garbling of “hocus est corpus meum” in the Latin text of the Mass; and b) that therefore the phrase should be considered offensive to Roman Catholics and treated as taboo. I think such people constitute a fairly small minority of actual Roman Catholics, but the internet always makes it difficult to judge things like that.

  16. One can find Out There on the internet people who both: a) accept the contested etymological claim (which is an ancient one) that “hocus pocus” comes from a garbling of “hocus est corpus meum” in the Latin text of the Mass; and b) that therefore the phrase should be considered offensive to Roman Catholics and treated as taboo.
    Yes, I have seen it as well, along with many other similar claims about the alleged etymologies of other seemingly harmless words and phrases. My response to all of them is an eye-roll.

  17. John Cowan says:

    I have read The Better Angels several times, along with some of the more intelligent hostile Internet and Internet-available commentary, and I basically do believe it. Of course Pinker is careful to say that statistical trends don’t prevent the occasional blips: for example, he points out that wars of conquest that stick (don’t get reversed) pretty much ceased in 1945, though of course he couldn’t forsee the conquest of Crimea. Even then, though, the Russian government can’t just say “Might makes right”: they have to arrange for a plebiscite showing that joining Russia is the will of the Crimean people. That shows that such activities are now on the defensive, a huge change from the 19C and the first half of the 20C. And of course things may change completely in the future. But a 500-year bend in the moral arc isn’t to be dismissed, either.

    I also reject the charge of cherry-picking: he’s using data collected by organizations who have no ax to grind, and if anything would like to discover more wars, more murders, more cruelty, more oppression just to round out their database.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    What struck me at the time was precisely that nobody was willing to escalate the war. In a mindset from before 1945, NATO would have regarded this as a provocation that had to be responded to, and would have felt obligated to start a world war. Instead, a few personal and economic sanctions are all that happened; honor is now for Klingons, and almost everybody lives.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    “hocus est corpus meum”

    Uh, hoc est enim corpus meum “this is namely/after all my body”.

  20. John Cowan says:

    Well, the Ukrainian claim to Crimea was shaky, as the Ukrainian government surely knew. It was a result of a fiat by Khrushchev in 1954, ethnic Ukrainians were a small minority there (16%), and if the referendum was unconstitutional, the ousting of Janukovych was also (though he came to power by vote-rigging). The government may in fact have preferred a clean separation to more or less permanent unrest.

    What is more, the U.S. annexed Texas and Hawai’i by exactly the same method, which left it open to a nasty tu quoque argument.

  21. wars of conquest that stick (don’t get reversed) pretty much ceased in 1945

    What has he been smoking?

    Israel tripled its territory by conquest, Indonesia successfully invaded and annexed Netherlands New Guinea, India invaded and annexed Goa, North Vietnam invaded and annexed South Vietnam – in all these examples internationally recognized borders were changed by military conquest.

  22. John Cowan says:

    Those were not military occupations of all or part of one state by another state, leading to the occupied area being incorporated into the occupying state. Indonesia won a diplomatic coup, annexing West New Guinea after the Dutch had relinquished it. Israel of course did not incorporate the occupied territories. Goa was not self-governing.

    The exceptions are the Golan Heights and the Vietnam War. Note that neither North Vietnam nor South Vietnam recognized the 17th parallel as their border, no matter what the international community said: the North signed the temporary partition agreement under Soviet and Chinese pressure, the South signed nothing. In the upshot, both laid claim to the entire territory, making the Vietnam War an internationalized civil war (one in which outside parties provide military or material support to one or both sides).

  23. What self-government has to to do with annexation?

    Crimea wasn’t self-governing, it was Ukrainian territory just like Goa was Portuguese, Netherlands New Guinea was Dutch, East Jerusalem was Jordanian and Golan Heights were Syrian.

    And they stopped being that and are now Russian, Indian, Indonesian and Israeli.

    All as a result of military action. Conquest pays and it sticks as it always did.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    In contrast, the borders of the former Yugoslav republics are still exactly where they were under Tito, despite massive efforts to change that. Instead, lots of people were made refugees.

    The technical exception is Kosovo, which wasn’t a republic on the same level as the others, but is now just as independent – but it, too, kept all its borders, despite more or less ongoing efforts to change that.

  25. 1950 Tibet (arguably “not” military occupation), 1962 Aksai Chin

  26. John Cowan says:

    Crimea wasn’t self-governing, it was Ukrainian territory just like Goa was Portuguese, Netherlands New Guinea was Dutch

    Hardly comparable. Crimea was an integral part of Ukraine; Goa and NNG were colonies. In the case of NNG, Indonesia did make threatening moves (their actual military invasion was comprehensively defeated by Dutch forces), but the ultimate handover was achieved by diplomacy. The Dutch got out clean, Indonesia won, Papuans lost, as usual in these things. (Cf. the War of 1812). Tibet was part of the Qing empire, so this is like the “conquest” of the Confederacy by the Union in the American Civil War. Aksai Chin was a border dispute.

    I grant you the Golan and also East Jerusalem: straight-up conquest.

  27. Tibet was part of the Qing empire

    That’s an interesting argument. And Crimea wasn’t part of the Russian empire or USSR?

    Furthermore, I am quite astonished to hear an argument that having been part of the empire which collapsed thirty nine years ago (Qing empire ended in 1911, Tibet was invaded in 1950) makes invasion acceptable.

  28. John Cowan says:

    The point is that it’s one-sided. Tibet claimed independence at that time, but China (by any name) never recognized it (indeed, maps of the Republic of China in Taiwan still include Mongolia as part of China). Crimea was part of the Russian Empire and the USSR, but not of the Russian Federation.

    Military invasion and occupation is never a good thing. But it needs more than that for a conquest.

  29. But much of the world is at least theoretically claimed by various actors. China still claims Vietnam, and indeed anything that it ever even nominally controlled; are you saying if China invaded Vietnam, it wouldn’t be a conquest? Sounds like special pleading.

  30. Crimea was part of the Russian Empire and the USSR,

    And also the RSFSR until Khrushchev got his hands on that bottle of apocryphal vodka.

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    I look forward to the day that our North American colonies relinquish their hopeless struggle and gratefully accept once again the protection of the Crown.

  32. John Cowan says:

    China still claims Vietnam

    Where did you get that from? The Ming invaded and occupied Vietnam in 1406 after intervening in a civil war, but were defeated by the rebel alliance under Emperor-to-be Lê Lợi in 1427 and Vietnam’s independence was acknowledged by China. That was the first time China had controlled Vietnam even de facto since Tang. The Qing never made it past the border region in 1788. Finally, China renounced all claims to Vietnam in 1885 to France under one of the unequal treaties. The last war between China and Vietnam ended in 1979, and their relationship was normalized in 1991. You don’t exchange ambassadors with a government whose territory you claim (it would be unthinkable for China to send an ambassador to Taiwan, for instance).

    By the same token, if China invaded and subjugated Taiwan that would not be a conquest in the sense I’m using it here, though it would be a disaster for the people of Taiwan. There is a legalistic argument that since Taiwan was ceded by China to Japan in another unequal treaty in1895 no government has controlled both the mainland and the island at the same time, so Taiwan is de jure independent because neither China nor Japan has a legitimate claim to it. The Potsdam Declaration says that Taiwan is legitimately part of China, but neither the PRC nor the ROC government signed that.

  33. Where did you get that from?

    Talking to people in Taiwan when I lived and taught there. The existence or otherwise of an official declaration on the part of the government is meaningless, as meaningless as the 1885 renunciation should China decide to renounce it. I have no idea whether Hungary has officially renounced its claim to Transylvania, but should the occasion arise to retake it they would do so without a second’s hesitation and every Hungarian would consider it a just and proper retrieval of their own territory. You (and presumably Pinker) take far too legalistic a view of these matters.

  34. Taiwan still claims Mongolia because it was part of the Qing state.

    Was the Qing empire a collection of states, so that while Tibet, Mongolia, Turkestan, Manchuria etc were part of the Qing state, they were not part of China? ie. Is it like saying Scotland is a part of UK but not a part of England?

  35. January First-of-May says:

    Israel tripled its territory by conquest

    I rather suspect that this is supposed to refer not to the Golan Heights (tiny) or East Jerusalem (even tinier, though very important) but to the Sinai Peninsula, which was quite successfully conquered by Israel in 1967, and then given back to Egypt in a peace treaty in 1979.

    (I’m not sure whether it actually counts as a conquest by the restrictive criteria; technically the state of affairs before the 1979 treaty might have been a single prolonged war.)

  36. John Cowan says:

    aTalking to people in Taiwan when I lived and taught there.

    Wait, what? People in Taiwan told you that China still claims Vietnam? (I assumed you meant the PRC, but maybe you mean the ROC?) There’s a story that the Americans offered Chiang the whole of Indochina after the war (better him than the French, they thought); he allegedly replied “Absolutely not!”

    I have no idea whether Hungary has officially renounced its claim to Transylvania

    Of course it has, by the Treaty of Trianon. Treaties aren’t just so much flatus vocis, you know: there are consequences for trying to break them, as Evo Morales has recently found out at the World Court. Anyway, would present-day Hungary seriously want (as opposed to yammering about) an area that is 70% ethnic Romanian? Nothing but a source of future headaches. A country can denounce a treaty or just break it, but it can’t maintain a legal claim over territory it has renounced by treaty. The claim or the treaty, one of them has to go.

    zyxt: No. The ROC does not recognize the authority of the PRC to recognize Mongolian independence, as they did in 1949 after taking power on the mainland.

    I’m not sure whether it actually counts as a conquest by the restrictive criteria

    It doesn’t. It was a military occupation. The Allies occupied Germany after WWII; they did not annex it, so they did not conquer it. Wales is a conquered country, and so is England.

    You (and presumably Pinker) take far too legalistic a view of these matters.

    Don’t blame Pinker for the mess I am probably making of his careful arguments: I don’t have his book to hand. It’s quite possible that he said 1975 rather than 1945 as the terminus ad quem for military conquests.

  37. J.W. Brewer says:

    Picking (somewhat arbitrarily and/or self-servingly) 1975 as the cutoff date would in addition to certain instances mentioned above also take the Indonesian conquest of East Timor off the table. (That one stuck for 24 years until it didn’t stick. Should we wait until 2038 before deciding whether the change in the Crimea’s landlord has or hasn’t stuck long enough to be a real counterexample?) 1975 also avoids the need to decide what label to affix to the rather notable change in the de facto rule of Cyprus that had just then occurred and has stuck through the present day.

    It does seem like it ought to mean something that the violent disintegration of the former Yugoslavia ultimately involved (brutually) moving people around to suit borders rather than moving borders around to suit people. But what does it mean? I’m not particularly convinced that the former resolution reflected more inherent moral refinement than the alternative, so I’m not convinced it supports Pinker’s Whiggish/Coueist narrative about the wonders and/or inevitably of Progress.

  38. John Cowan says:
  39. War in Bosnia actually led to creation of new borders (between Serb Republic and The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) within the internationally recognized borders of the Bosnian state.

    Check this map

    If and when the breakup of Bosnia occurs again, it will be less bloody hopefully – all the necessary ethnic cleansing was already done in 1990s.

  40. Sinai Peninsula, which was quite successfully conquered by Israel in 1967

    And previously in 1956 (aided by British and Fench forces). Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1957.

  41. David Marjanović says:

    Wikipedia, “Mongolian Revolution of 1921”:

    In 1945, the Chinese Nationalist government recognised the full sovereignty of the Mongolian People’s Republic, though Chiang Kai-shek was to withdraw that recognition a few years later.[36] However, in 2002 the Republic of China did recognize Mongolia as independent.[37]

    On May 21, 2012, the Mainland Affairs Council of the Republic of China in Taiwan stated that Outer Mongolia should be considered as an independent state.[38] Taiwan however continues to appoint a “Minister of Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission”, indicating[according to whom?] that it hasn’t given up its sovereignty claim over Mongolia.

    Ref. 37 was an article in the Taipei Times, in English; the link doesn’t work anymore. Ref. 38 is a PDF of that statement, in Chinese; the title has 外蒙古 “Outer Mongolia” and 中華民國 “ROC” in it…

  42. If I am getting right the reasoning of John Cowan, PRC has a right to invade Taiwan, but not Mongolia, because they already recognized it as independent.

    However, Taiwan has a right to invade both the mainland AND Mongolia!

  43. And Vietnam!

  44. I wonder how many countries Mongolia has a right to invade because they used to be part of the Mongolian empire….

  45. Historic fact: Mongolia re-invaded Iraq in 2003 as part of the “coalition of the willing”

    “Hulegu, we have returned”

  46. The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde. (Great story, available online here, p. 19.)

  47. John Cowan says:

    Not a right. It’s just not a conquest.

    It’s important, when you are looking at history as a whole, to have stable definitions of these things, as precise as possible. The book is full of them, essentially none of them invented by Pinker. The Correlates of War project, for instance, on which Pinker draws heavily, classifies wars into nine types, each with its precise definition: (1) wars between states; wars between a state and a non-state entity, either (2) colonial or (3) imperial; civil wars (4) for central control or (5) over local issues, or between (6) regions or (7) non-regional communities; wars between non-state entities (8) in non-state territory or (9) across state borders. The definition of war, by the way, is “sustained combat, involving organized armed forces, resulting in a minimum of 1,000 battle-related combatant fatalities within a twelve month period”; anything less than that is a militarized dispute.

    War between China and Taiwan would be a type 3 war: though the ROC certainly thinks of itself as a state, the international community does not agree, and implicitly takes the PRC’s view that it is a rebellious province, something very common in Chinese history. The U.S. Civil War ended in the military occupatio.n of the South, but it was not a conquest of the Confederacy.

  48. Until 1979, “the international community” by which you must mean the United States was of the opinion that Taiwan was actually a state and the People’s Republic of China was its rebellious province.

    It’s kind of hard to take these “precise definitions” seriously when they change whenever it suits people in the White House.

  49. Not only that, I’m not clear on why it’s important “to have stable definitions of these things, as precise as possible.” Important for scholarly discussion, sure, but for deciding whether everything’s hunky-dory and the apparent bloodiness of recent history is just an illusion, it seems to me important mainly in order to handwave away the evidence that is clear to the nonacademic mind.

  50. Pinker’s book (“The Better Angels of Our Nature”, 2011) is the modern-day equivalent of Norman Angell’s “The Great Illusion” (1910).

  51. John Cowan says:

    Indeed, Pinker discusses Angell, and points out that he has been misinterpreted. Angell didn’t say there would be no more war: he said war was no longer economically useful, and that he thought that in the future people would go to war for non-economic reasons like national glory and so-called “honor”. That said, sufficiently total war can be economically useful: the effects of WWII in bringing the U.S. out of the Great Depression are well known.

  52. J.W. Brewer says:

    A plausible candidate for a post-1975 _attempted_ war of conquest occurred between Argentina and the U.K. in 1982. Maybe it’s not a counterexample because, in the event, it failed, but it’s hardly the case that it failed because the “international community” formed an implacably unified front against such things as opposed to being by and large willing to defer to the judgment of the God of Battles, as was traditionally the attitude of nations not close allies of one or another direct participant in such a conflict. I suppose if it had succeeded, the Usual Suspects would have explained that Las Malvinas were the Goa of the South Atlantic, so it still didn’t really count, or something like that. Yet another good reason to treat 1975 as a convenient stopping point, by the way, would be the timing of Morocco’s de facto (and still ongoing) annexation of most of the former Spanish Sahara.

    It’s interesting because it’s certainly not like 1975 seemed at the time like the dawn of a new golden age of peace and international understanding. Certain long running conflicts were coming to an end (largely due to the exhaustion of some participants and/or superior military achievements of others), others were flaring up with unknown long-term outcomes, it might reasonably have been anticipated that still others would pop up in the future, even if the details were unpredictable, etc. The rhetoric of “detente,” with the Helsinki accords etc. lacked even symbolic effect outside Europe, as the continuation of the Cold War via local proxy wars in random bits of the Third World continued unabated elsewhere even after one side prevailed in Indochina (for a few years, before falling out amongst themselves).

  53. All these pesky details aside, if the argument is that there have been no military conquests since 1975 — that’s a whole 44 years! — then I find myself not in the least confident we have seen the end of such things.

  54. John Cowan says:

    The only difference between Goa and the Falklands is that the first colony changed hands and the second one didn’t. In either case it isn’t a conquest, because I don’t think Argentina had the slightest intention of making the Malvinas an integral part of the state.

  55. J.W. Brewer says:

    So when the Philippines and Puerto Rico forcibly switched from Spanish ownership to American ownership, that wasn’t a conquest either, because the territories were non-integral to both the old landlord and the new one? I am having trouble understanding the utility of such a restrictive definition of “conquest.” The party winning the war either ends up in possession (more open-ended in temporal scope than what is overtly billed as a temporary occupation pending resolution of other issues) of territory that previously belonged to the loser, or it doesn’t. There’s either an international consensus that hey, sometimes those are the breaks when you lose a war, or there isn’t.

    Perhaps there has been a shift from an overt acceptance that might makes right in these matters to the deployment of various sorts of euphemism and hypocritical cant to avoid acknowledging that a particular change of borders occurred, in the final analysis, only because one side was mightier than the other. Whether that sort of shift represents moral progress is another question.

  56. David Eddyshaw says:

    I have some difficulty with any arguments suggesting that the century of Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot is not, just possibly, a counterexample to the idea that we have all been making splendid progress since the Enlightenment.

    On a somewhat more pedestrian level, I have an irrational (admittedly) distaste for the works of Pinker which introspection suggests is almost entirely founded on the fact that well-meaning friends, knowing I was interested in linguistic matters, kept pressing The Language Instinct on me, and I never had that heart to explain that I didn’t actually like it.

    Also, what David L said. In spades.

  57. I have some difficulty with any arguments suggesting that the century of Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot is not, just possibly, a counterexample to the idea that we have all been making splendid progress since the Enlightenment.

    You and me both. It smells of Dr. Pangloss.

  58. AJP Crown says:

    Pangloss, plus awful hair that is as distracting as AC Grayling’s.

  59. A legitimate argument could be made that the period from the outbreak of the First World War to the end of the Great Leap Forward (or thereabouts) represents the darkest half century in human history. There are probably times that were worse to be alive (in terms of total rates of death and misery), such as during the plague epidemics of the sixth and fourteenth centuries. However, the horrors of the twentieth century are unique in that they were essentially entirely artificial, caused by human evil rather than natural forces.

  60. Are the wars in the Caucasus from 1991 onwards wars of conquest?

  61. John Cowan says:

    Whether that sort of shift represents moral progress is another question.

    I strongly believe that it is. When societies are willing to admit that slavery is wrong they have taken the first step to abolition.

    Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot

    In the War of the Three Kingdoms (184-280) in China, about 38 million people were killed out of a world population estimated at 200 million, or 1 in 14 people. The Hemoclysm of the first half of the 20C (WWI, WW2, Holocaust) killed about 127 million people out of a world population of about 2 billion, or about 1 in 16 people, so roughly comparable.

    Lots of links to raw data with some graphs.

  62. It’s kind of hard to believe in moral progress when the world peace is based on willingness of superpowers to kill hundreds of millions (aka MAD doctrine).

  63. Was the Qing empire a collection of states, so that while Tibet, Mongolia, Turkestan, Manchuria etc were part of the Qing state, they were not part of China?

    That’s what the Mongolians say.

  64. The Qing did delegate heavily, but their official position was that the outer territories were part of China. According to the Qianlong Emperor, “There exists a view of China (Zhongxia), according to which non-Han people cannot become China’s subjects and their land cannot be integrated into the territory of China. This does not represent our dynasty’s understanding of China, but is instead that of the earlier Han, Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties.” Chinese nationalists often express contempt for the Manchus, but without them China would probably be a lot smaller today.

  65. David Marjanović says:

    I strongly believe that it is. When societies are willing to admit that slavery is wrong they have taken the first step to abolition.

    Likewise, when people say “I’m not a racist, but”, chances are very good that they are racist butts, but also that they live in a society that has a lot less racism in it than it did within living memory.

  66. When societies are willing to admit that slavery is wrong they have taken the first step to abolition.

    But “abolition” can be just a pious fiction to appease the bien-pensants. Wasn’t it you who said in a comment once that there was more actual slavery today than ever? Whether it was you or not, it’s probably true. You seem very focused on formal definitions and official status; actual slaves and war casualties are probably less so.

  67. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    These words were written by slaveholders

  68. John Cowan says:

    Wasn’t it you who said in a comment once that there was more actual slavery today than ever?

    I doubt I used the word “actual”. If there are more people held in slavery than ever, it is also true that there are more people than ever. In 1860 on the verge of the Civil War there were 31 million people in the U.S. of whom 4 million were slaves, about 12%. Does anyone imagine that there are 39 million people held in involuntary servitude in the U.S. today, or 925 million people worldwide? The International Labour Organization estimates about 21 million in involuntary servitude today; this includes convicted criminals. (I note with satisfaction that Colorado by constitutional amendment abolished forced labor as a punishment in 2018.) In addition, modern trafficked people suffer something that is a crime everywhere, often heavily punished, and never publicly justified; not so the slave of former times.

    These words were written by slaveholders

    True. The same slaveholder who wrote them also wrote and published this:

    With what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him.


    Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.–But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one’s mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

    In the end, of course, the masters neither consented nor were extirpated, but just had to put up with it (and without compensation for their economic losses, which were often huge: slaves for export to other states were Virginia’s most profitable crop in 1860).

  69. “Admit that slavery is wrong” often means rather something like “claim to oppose slavery for the sake of diplomatic relations”.

    This can very well already constitute a legal stance, but institutions like slavery, given long enough a history, always have also a deep cultural component that takes more to root out than just an executive proclamation.

  70. Likewise, when people say “I’m not a racist, but”, chances are very good that they are racist butts

    Good one! Is it yours?

  71. John Cowan says:

    You seem very focused on formal definitions and official status

    When we were discussing hate crimes, I pointed out that it makes no difference to the dead whether their deaths were murder, manslaughter, or sheer accident, but it makes a great deal of difference to the living, and even more to the society to which they both belonged.

  72. Well, OK, but how does it benefit the living to call slavery or conquest by some other name?

  73. January First-of-May says:

    I’ve actually read somewhere recently – very possibly on LH – that the infamous description of economics as “dismal science” originated in a rant against contemporary economics for it being solidly against slavery.

    (And if any of you got confused by the stacking negatives, yes, it was a pro-slavery rant, by someone who didn’t agree with the anti-slavery position of economics.)

  74. AJP Crown says:


  75. John Cowan says:

    As I said before, without definitions there is no comparability across time, which is what Pinker’s sources are after. Note the formal definition of war above: are you less dead if you are one of only 999 combatants who died that year? No. Nevertheless, a line must be drawn somewhere, and this is where CoW chooses to draw it.

  76. David Marjanović says:

    Good one! Is it yours?


  77. Contra Pinker. Conclusion: “Don’t assume that Pinker’s scholarship is reliable. Comb through particular sentences and citations for other hidden — or perhaps intentionally concealed — errors in ‘Enlightenment Now.’ Doing so could be, well, enlightening.” (Obviously such errors will not be confined to that one book.)

  78. David Eddyshaw says:

    In the War of the Three Kingdoms (184-280) in China, about 38 million people were killed out of a world population estimated at 200 million, or 1 in 14 people.

    I think figures of this kind are largely wild guesses. But in any case, I don’t think counting heads of victims is actually the way to answer questions of this nature. It isn’t that kind of question, and it seems curious to me that anyone could suppose that moral progress, or the reverse, could in fact be charted by such metrics.

  79. J.W. Brewer says:

    Lots of human societies have experienced catastrophes (whether caused by amoral natural forces like earthquakes or epidemics or immoral human forces like tyrants and oppressors) that left high percentages of their populations dead. The more populous the society in question, the larger the absolute number, and the larger the percentage of the total world population. So bad things in China are easier to reclassify as bad things happening to the world-at-large than bad things (even dramatically worse things on a percentage basis) happening in a smaller society like Cambodia alias Democratic Kampuchea. But China’s War-of-the-Three-Kingdoms-era problems were as far as I know largely isolated rather than part of a broader global pattern, whereas China’s Mao-era catastrophes were at least in part an outgrowth and effect of Stalin’s prior catastrophes (which interacted in a complex feedback loop with Hitler’s catastrophes) and Stalin/Mao were joint partial causes of Pol Pot, so it makes more sense to see all four of those villains (plus more) as part of a larger pattern.

  80. In either case it isn’t a conquest, because I don’t think Argentina had the slightest intention of making the Malvinas an integral part of the state.

    You are completely wrong and should pay more attention to what is happening around you.

    “La Nación Argentina ratifica su legítima e imprescriptible soberanía sobre las Islas Malvinas, Georgias del Sur y Sandwich del Sur y los espacios marítimos e insulares correspondientes, por ser parte integrante del territorio nacional”. That’s from the Constitution.

  81. J.W. Brewer says:

    Individual human beings have been known to make lots of boasts/claims they have no real intention of acting on, and the same can sometimes be true for nation-states who do things like enshrine irredentist territorial claims in their constitutions (or, if e.g. a dictatorship, have a bunch of nice-sounding phrases about freedom of speech and free elections and due process of law etc.). This certainly doesn’t mean John C.’s claim about Argentina’s actual subjective intentions, which was not consistent with my admittedly vague sense of the situation, is actually accurate, only that it’s not conclusively disproved by the mere existence of contrary rhetoric in a constitution.

  82. My sense, as someone who lived in Argentina for years (and heard many fervent assertions that “las Islas Malvinas son argentinas”) and followed the Malvinas crisis as it was happening (from my berth in NYC), is that they very definitely wanted to take possession, though I don’t know how you’d prove such a thing.

  83. John Cowan says:

    That text was not in the Constitution at the time of the war; it was added in 1994, more than ten years later. What is more, the Province of Tierra del Fuego, in which the islands are now nominally included, did not exist at the time: Tierra del Fuego was merely a territory whose occupants did not have normal political rights. If Argentina had won the war, the islands would also have been mere territories, and no one can say whether they would have been incorporated into the state in the same way as the other territories of Argentina have been. I suspect not, but I have no way to know.

    The United States claims sovereignty over Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Marianas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, but none of these places send voting representatives to Congress, and the U.S. Constitution is not in full effect there. (American Samoans aren’t even U.S. citizens, a gross injustice that leaves them effectively stateless.)

  84. J.W. Brewer says:

    From time to time someone brings a lawsuit complaining about the lack of U.S. citizenship accruing automatically to anyone born in American Samoa, and the locally-elected American Samoan authorities, on behalf of, if not necessarily a majority consensus, at least a consensus of the politically influential down there, usually pop up to say they affirmatively don’t want it, not least because they want to preserve certain features of local Samoan law that would be at risk of being thought to violate the constitutional rights of US citizens if done in a more unambiguously-American environment.

    But plenty of people born in American Samoa have at least one U.S. citizen parent, and are thus under the current statutes U.S. citizens from birth. This may be of some current media relevance because one such person (Congresswoman Gabbard of Hawaii) is currently a candidate for an office whose holders must be “natural born Citizen[s]” of the U.S.,whatever that means. If her candidacy gains any serious traction, the internet will again be full of self-proclaimed experts on what it means.

  85. J.W. Brewer says:

    To avoid the risk of putting the prior comment into moderation limbo, I will do this new comment in order to provide a link to a brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court a few years back by American Samoa’s government plus its delegate to Congress saying “we don’t want it.”

  86. John Cowan says:

    The bad situation, however, is not so much for Samoans in American Samoa, but for those in the rest of the U.S. They have the right to move here, to work, and so on; they hold American passports. But they have no more political rights than their relatives back on the islands. As for jus sanguinis citizens in American Samoa, nobody knows how many there are. About half the population was born in American Samoa, which is orthogonal to being a citizen.

  87. J.W. Brewer says:

    Mr. Cowan will perhaps be pleased to know that American Samoa’s Congresswoman is trying to make it even easier for those wishing to be naturalized as U.S. citizens to do so without, for example, the bother of having to move to the mainland first. Of course, if it becomes so easy that the percentage of actual residents of American Samoa who are nationals-but-not-citizens becomes trivial, then the status quo will end up shifting in unpredictable ways anyway.

  88. I have long wondered what Argentina meant to do with the small but distinctly British population of the Falkland Islands. I may have mentioned this here before, but my favorite memory connected with the war was from a nature documentary I was watching a year or two later. The camera crew was there filming penguins and the marine biologists studying them when the Falkland Islands War broke out. The film crew documented the scientists taking time out from their usual rounds through the outlying islands, checking on the gentoo and rockhopper colonies, to plant large Union Jacks atop the cliffs.

  89. John Cowan says:

    If we may judge from the Argentines’ claim at the UN Decolonization Committee that self-determination does not apply because the kelpers are not indigenous, they would probably seek to deport them to Britain.

    I belatedly discovered that about 200 American Samoans a year are naturalized, a process which requires taking up residence in the U.S., paying $680 (a tidy sum in a land where the median income is $24K as opposed to the $60K in the U.S. proper), and taking the usual history and English-language tests (entirely redundant, given the distinctly American schooling they already get). On the other hand, this naturalization-simplification bill is remarkably similar to another one that died in Congress in 2003.

    I will also add that in my view the arguments from fa’asamoa (Samoan customary law) will not stand up, given that analogous customary law prevails on many Indian reservations, notwithstanding that all Indians have been U.S. citizens since 1924.

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