OVERCONFIDENCE.

Malcolm Gladwell has an article in the latest New Yorker called “Cocksure: Banks, Battles, and the Psychology of Overconfidence.” I’m enjoying it thoroughly, as I always do Gladwell, but I’ve run across a couple of things that bother me. As usual, he’s using one topic to illustrate another, and his illustrative example in this case is the Battle of Gallipoli in World War One. (Incidentally, “Gallipoli” is an odd name; the Greek name is Καλλίπολις [Kallipolis], ‘beautiful town,’ and the Turkish name derived from it is Gelibolu. Does anybody know the history of the hybrid form?) He writes: “Command of the landing at Sulva Bay—the most critical element of the attack—was given to Frederick Stopford, a retired officer whose experience was largely administrative.” I thought “Tsk, another misprint, and the New Yorker used to be so dependable.” But the misspelling is consistent: “he rushed to Sulva Bay to intercede”; “they held that ten-to-one advantage at Sulva Bay.” Now, I realize the war is almost a century old, and many once-famous place names have sunk beneath the waves, but hasn’t anyone at the magazine heard Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda“?

And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay,
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.”

(If you’re not familiar with it, I particularly recommend the Pogues‘ version; you can see them perform it live here.) I have no idea whether Gladwell mistyped it once and the magazine’s diligent staff made it consistent throughout or whether it was wrong throughout his manuscript, but sheesh, this is what fact-checkers are for. And take a look at this sentence (which begins the last paragraph on page 25 in the physical magazine): “Cohen and Gooch ascribe the disaster at Gallipoli to a failure to adapt—a failure to take into account how reality did not conform to their expectations.” As you all know, I am the last person to go hunting through published writings searching for “ungrammatical” nits to pick—look, a dangling participle! ooh, a split infinitive!—but this is truly terrible; there is no referent for “their” except “Cohen and Gooch,” which is not the intended one, and I had to reread the sentence to understand it, which is the ultimate sin in edited writing.
And all of this is an inadvertent but perfect illustration of Gladwell’s thesis. The New Yorker was so famous for so many years for its impeccable editing and bulletproof fact-checking that it got overconfident and lazy, and now allows mistakes that would embarrass a good local newspaper.

Comments

  1. Cohen and Gooch ascribe the disaster at Gallipoli to a failure to adapt—a failure to take into account how reality did not conform to their expectations.
    One reality they (not Cohen and Gooch of course, as you point out, but the western commanders) failed to take into account was something they probably couldn’t have guessed in advance, though they could perhaps have taken it into account as the engagement proceeded. This was that at Gallipoli they were faced by the one Otttoman general who really knew what he was doing — Mustafa Kemal, later famous as Atatürk. No doubt their earlier experience had led them to expect utter incompetence.
    I’ve mostly forgotten such little Turkish as I once knew, but I think Kemal means perfect and was not originally part of his name but was a nickname recognizing his qualities at Gallipoli.

  2. Did someone along the way think Gallipoli was supposed to mean ‘Frenchtown’? That’s how Gallipolis, Ohio got its name — it was founded in 1790 by refugees from the French Revolution. At least so says Wikipedia.

  3. “Gallipoli” is an odd name
    The key seems to be that there’s also a Gallipoli in Southern Italy.

  4. My uninformed guess would be that “Gallipoli” came into English via Italian. It sounds like the way the Venetians might have interpreted “Kallipolis”.
    Supporting my hunch is the fact that there is also a city in Puglia named “Gallipoli” which also is said, although not by everyone, to derive from the Greek “kallipolis.”

  5. That would do it; Italian forms were traditionally used by Western Europeans for many names in the region (Veglia for Krk, Negroponte for Euboea, etc.). Thanks, all!

  6. Athel: at Gallipoli they were faced by the one Otttoman general who really knew what he was doing — Mustafa Kemal
    My great-uncle volunteered for the British army (as a sixteen-year-old) and was at Gallipoli. His job was to hold the Australians’ horses in the water and on the beach, so he was comparatively safe, he once told me. I thought it was Turkish machine gun installations, rather than the command of the troops, that made storming the beach an absurd proposition. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

  7. Hat, I hope you have mailed both corrections to the New Yorker!
    http://www.newyorker.com/contact/contactus
    To submit a letter in response to a New Yorker article for publication by the magazine, you may send an e-mail to themail@newyorker.com or
    [Fill out our Letters to the Editor form]
    Alternatively, letters may be sent by post to:
    The Mail
    The New Yorker
    4 Times Square
    New York, NY 10036
    All letters should include your name, postal address, and daytime phone number. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium. All letters become the property of The New Yorker and will not be returned. We regret that, owing to the volume of correspondence, we cannot reply personally to every letter. Publicity materials and submissions should be sent to the addresses below and will not be forwarded if sent to other addresses.

  8. What is Suvla’s etymology? Σούβλα? In which case, there’s a mnemonic for carnivores. A quick search suggests that the mistake is not uncommon: in library catalogs, encyclopedias, and a handful of times in the NYT during the war (though usually with the correct spelling in the same article, suggesting a printer’s error).

  9. What is Suvla’s etymology?
    Well, if you can’t find it, I’m not even going to bother looking. Σούβλα (Greek for ‘spit, skewer,’ hence “souvlaki”) was my guess as well.

  10. So perhaps “Sulva” is due to ignorant, lazy I-want-to-be-absolutely-correctiveness. That appears to be an oxymoron, but I claim it’s a familiar feature of speech as she is spoken.
    I am imagining this: the author, or an editor, was unsure about “Suvla” and didn’t want the bother of checking. He thought that “Suvla” must be a mistake due to a sound-association with “souvlaki”, which everbody knows and has eaten. So he wrote “Sulva” instead, which sounds foreign, not like something you order at Jimmy the Greek’s Restaurant, and so must be more genuine.
    A similar phenomenon is: “At the reception for the German chancellor, which Hillary Cliton attended along with Mark Twain and I, …”
    My favorite, which I’ve already related here but never tire of repeating, is from an old New Yorker cartoon: “Who shall I make this check out toom?”

  11. John Emerson says:

    If the Pogues were more prolific, the fact-checker’s job would be much easier. They have regrouped and are touring again, and my sources say that the new band is still good.
    My son and I have been Pogues fans since he was 15 years old, and the Pogues cover band he plays in, KMRIA, has been endorsed by Pogue James Fearnley, a nice mellow guy.

  12. komfo,amonan says:

    @GS: I wonder, somewhat immaturely, if Madame Secretary has ever been referred to in that fashion before.

  13. Your son plays bass! Cool, I always wished I could play bass. And of course anything that’s endorsed by the Pogues is endorsed by me.

  14. Thanks for the fascinating ANZAC-related piece, Hat. In much the same way that Kiwis are instinctivelty drawn to “z”s on a page, so we are to mentions of Gallipoli. This was very interesting.
    I also have an apeeal of sorts. In reply to a blog on Hindi films, I posted an opinion piece from a publisher on the artificiality of the division between Hindi and Urdu. The blog’s author has subsequently posted a link to book on that very subject. My very first thought on reading the summary was that John Emerson needed to see it, but then I was moved to reply. Given my profound ignorance in matters linguistic, this would seem to be overconfidence beyond that of The New Yorker and I would be interested to see just how much egg the readers of your blog think my face is now carrying as a result of my hubris.

  15. dearieme says:

    Never mind, the NYT evidently still employs the chaps whose job it is to ensure that the readers yawn a lot.

  16. I would be interested to see just how much egg the readers of your blog think my face is now carrying as a result of my hubris.
    You are, in fact, perfectly correct, thought that will not stop you from being flayed alive by the Mad Dravidianist and his minions (and I don’t mean the good John Emerson).
    An excellent book by a real scholar on the relations of Hindi and Urdu is A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi-Urdu, by Amrit Rai.

  17. Thanks for the pointer, LH. I am actually biased toward Urdu over Hindi, except for the impossibly beautiful Nastaliq, so a book on the subject by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about will be very interesting.

  18. I am actually biased toward Urdu over Hindi, except for the impossibly beautiful Nastaliq
    I am confused (not an unheard-of situation). Do you by any chance mean because of the impossibly beautiful Nastaliq?

  19. ToussianMuso says:

    The bad sentence you quote, and your reaction to it, illustrates the importance of a balance that one could perhaps describe as gramatically informed descriptivism: correct use is defined by common use; it is important to be grammatical insofar as it serves coherence. The sentence is bad because it is confusing. Presumably we are on the same page here, but I just wanted to make an attempt to reconcile your descriptivist principles with your occasional indignation at incoherent grammar – both of which I agree with, but which you seem a bit torn between. (Note how I unashamedly end clauses with prepositions.)

  20. Do you by any chance mean because of the impossibly beautiful Nastaliq?
    Your confusion springs from my poor phrasing. I meant that all things being equal, I prefer Urdu. All things are however, not equal, because devanagari was easy to learn, whereas Nastaliq is both beautiful and impossible. I found it easy to learn to read devanagari and it can be readily repoduced with fidelity in a range of typefaces through IMEs, but Nastaliq seems much harder both to learn and to reproduce by means of a keyboard, my only relaible method of writing these days.

  21. Daniel Ezra Johnson says:

    To call the landing at Suvla Bay “the most critical element of the [Gallipoli] attack” seems also to be wrong. It came months after the initial invasion, something you’d never guess from Gladwell’s piece.

  22. J. W. Brewer says:

    It took a second read on my part for it to click why KMRIA was a particularly apt name for a Pogues cover band, but then the initialism resolved, and click it did. Although (having then clicked through to the myspace page) I rather doubt the phrase was original to Joyce.

  23. it is important to be grammatical insofar as it serves coherence. The sentence is bad because it is confusing.
    Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s what I said. There is no contradiction between my descriptivist principles and my indignation at incoherent grammar; in fact, one reason I hate stupid made-up “rules” is that the focus on them distracts people from paying attention to what should matter, the coherence (and, ideally, attractiveness) of their or other people’s prose.

  24. I rather doubt the phrase was original to Joyce.
    I’m quite certain it wasn’t.

  25. Noetica says:

    “K. M. R. I. A.” in Ulysses:
    This tag (always so punctuated and spaced) is variously kept in running text or elevated to a heading, in different recensions of the text. Same for the preceding shorter “K. M. A.” Compare this version and this version. (I have not surveyed all versions.)
    Gifford, the classic commentator, gives no information about a source, but remarks that the included letters M. R. I. A. also stand for “Member of the Royal Irish Academy”.
    In this edited instalment version the expanded form euphemistically includes Irish Aunt, not Irish arse. (Americans, note Joyce’s spelling: it is never ass.)

  26. T. P. C. K. M. R. I. A.
    Here’s a proper Irish song which mentions Suff^W Suf^W Sulv^W — the geographical feature what you was talkin’ abaht:
    The Foggy Dew

  27. dearieme says:

    I saw someone claim recently that many Irish folk songs are originally English folk songs that died out in England but survived in Ireland.

  28. Re: the New Yorker…. Can we blame Tina Brown?

  29. Also re: The New Yorker, by coincidence I happened to read an article yesterday in the issue of Feb. 9 & 16, 2009 (p.58), by John McPhee, it’s called ‘Checkpoints’. It is about his experiences with The New Yorker’s fact-checking department over the past 40 years and just how great it is. As if to show his impartiality, he describes one screw-up they made, but the whole thing smacked of self-advertisement to me — it was not uninteresting, though.

  30. I, too, would blame Tina Brown for the demise of fact-checking at the New Yorker. This is not based on any solid evidence whatsoever, beyond her on-the-record disregard for what most of us would believe to be the virtues and substance of that publication.
    Fact checking at the New Yorker was one of my dream jobs growing up; even now, reading an issue, I occasionally wince and allow as how I could have done better. Perhaps it’s just envy on my part.

  31. J. W. Brewer says:

    Perhaps military history is just not a strong suit of whatever the New Yorker’s current fact-checking apparatus may be? I noticed in the current issue with the “Suvla” article (just browsing, not trying to play gotcha, although I suppose I can’t rule out the possibility that this post had heightened my sensitivities) a blurb in the “Goings On About Town” section for a photography exhibit that begins “In 1970, when the country was at war with Vietnam . . .” This seems as peculiar a description of the historical circumstances as it would be to say that in 1951 we were “at war with Korea.”

  32. rootlesscosmo says:

    the whole thing smacked of self-advertisement to me
    I think MacPhee’s reputation for diligent research is way overinflated. His article about railroad freight train crews, for example, included a glaring, elementary error about the air brake system, delivered in a tone of confident authority. I think a moment’s reflection should have made him question his understanding, but maybe that’s because I have some experience with train air brakes; still, any of the railroaders he met could have explained it to him in five minutes, but if he asked, he completely misunderstood the answer, and nobody at the magazine checked its accuracy. (Why not? Maybe the malign influence of Tina Brown, maybe the awe with which MacPhee is regarded–I dunno.) I don’t know thing the first about shad or geology, but now I’m disinclined to trust MacPhee on those subjects as well.

  33. I think MacPhee’s reputation for diligent research is way overinflated
    And McPhee’s doing his best to keep it that way. His article has a story about how he devoted three months to finding out whether he should write Penn’s daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware, or Penn’s daughter, Margaret, fished in the Delaware.

    The commas — there or missing there — were not just commas; they were facts, neither more nor less factual than the kegs of Bud or the color of Santa’s suit. Margaret, one of Penn’s several daughters, went into the book without commas.

  34. I wonder what happened to Language? Working again?

  35. John Emerson says:

    The mysteries of the shad are certainly not to be trifled with. I can’t say more than that at this time.

  36. John Emerson says:

    The mysteries of the shad are certainly not to be trifled with. I can’t say more than that at this time.

  37. But you can repeat it.

  38. The Founding Fish?

  39. It’s funny, but if he had just dropped the Dravidian/Austric (!) bit, he probably has the making of a decent book there. Not that I would subsidize pseudo-science by reading the book to find out.
    But no, Mister O, those commas do represent facts: the fact of whether Penn (whichever Penn it is in this context) has more than one daughter.

  40. Yes, I know they represent facts. Thanks to Jamessal’s having given me David Crystal’s book ‘The Fight For English’, I know this to have been confirmed by McPhee as a non-restrictive relative clause (though I’ve had to turn down the corner of p.149 to remember the name and that’s why I didn’t mention it before).
    My point is about John McPhee bashfully telling this story about having used 3 three months of his precious time to nail for his readers an answer to the (irrelevant) question of how many daughters Wm Penn had. By implication it’s a boastful assurance of the overall high quality in his working method; and, because it’s a simply a boast, it isn’t convincing.

  41. mollymooly says:

    Americans, note Joyce’s spelling: it is never ass.

    Here I must raise a caveat: not all Irish people nowadays say “arse”. While Dubliners still say “arse” as in Joyce’s time, I only heard “ass” growing up in Cork, and it’s what I still say. I cannot tell whether this reflects a greater willingness to embrace Americanisms or a greater eagerness to cast off Briticisms.

  42. I’m too young – or too ignorant – to have heard of “Suvla”. “Suvla” actually sounds alright to me – something about of the “lv” being more ‘natural’ than “vl” (not that I’ll bother to do a statistical analysis of English digraphs).
    My main beef about Gallipoli is that Moseley was killed there. He shoulda won a Nobel – and I’d love to see what he could have come up with had he had the chance.

  43. Most theoretical physicists & mathematicians seem to do their best work when really young. At 27 Moseley may already have passed his sell-by date when he got to Gallipoli.

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