Using〈em〉Wrong.

Facundo Corradini has an impassioned LogRocket post (from 2018) about HTML and semantics:

In the dark ages of HTML, <em> was barely used at all, despite being part of the specs since really early on (HTML 2.0 standard, 1995). But at that point in time and for some years to come, (almost) no one was thinking of semantics or even separation of concerns. Italics were simply marked up with <i> tags, and we wouldn’t give it a second thought.

Then somewhere along the way, someone shouted “Semantics!” and everybody started to hate the poor little <i> tag like a bad neighbor. A really, really bad neighbor.

<em> was all the rage, with supposed benefits for accessibility and SEO, which got us all using it everywhere. By HTML 4, everybody knew <em> was for emphasis and styled as italics, <strong> was for stronger emphasis and styled as bold text. If you ever dared to use <i>>, you would be instantly tagged as a bad developer. […]

But when HTML5 rolled out, they made sure to draw a clearer line on what they intended <em> to be, while redefining the <i> from a text-italicising tag into a semantic tag that pretty much wraps most other use cases for italics.

He gives examples, then:

Why it matters

Accessibility, of course. Every time we use the wrong tag to italicise a word, most of our users won’t even notice. As long as we are doing so according to our language conventions, the word will be read with the intended emphasis.

But we are making things so much more complicated for screen readers, especially when nesting. If we were doing our job right, speech synthesizers would be able to easily make the right pitch corrections. But we’re so far gone in this that all of them (as far as I know) have it disabled by default, and that’s a big part of what makes them feel so unnatural.

He ends with a series of takeaways (“Whenever you’re throwing italics at a word/phrase, think about why are you doing so and choose the right tag for the task if possible”); it all makes me feel bad for knowing so little about it and just using the “i” tag my software supplies, but obviously I’m one of a vast multitude. I expect my readers will have thoughts about all this.

Comments

  1. Bathrobe says:

    I started using “em” (at least, Dreamweaver did), but I later realised that “em” and “i” were two different things, so I defiantly switched back to “i”, which is perhaps going back too far the other way. Now there is an unholy mixture of “em”s and “i”s throughout my site, depending when the page was created.

    As he says, there are times when you should use “em” for emphasis (i.e., when italics are used to denote emphasis), but it’s hard to draw a firm distinction given that it is all the same in the written language.

    As he points out, words will also be italicised if you use the “cite” tag (for names of books).

  2. David L says:

    If I understand this correctly — and I’m not at all sure I do — the em and i and strong tags are supposed to convey meanings and distinctions in HTML-coded language that we don’t have in plain old written language on the page. Which makes me wonder (a) who made this stuff up and (b) how the heck are untutored readers supposed to grasp the differences?

    In short, I’m confused.

  3. You and me both!

  4. I have zero experience with this, but according to Mr. Corradini it all comes down to the automatic readers. They have to know which of the italicized words to read out with higher volume and pitch or whatever else makes for emphasis in the spoken language.

  5. Nobody does this, but one could use emphasis in a different way from italics. If the basic font class for a section of running text were italicized, the emphasis tag could be defined to switch the text to upright type.

    I think it is actually possible to do the same with the italic tag too in modern HTML, but that was part of the original intended distinction; emphasis was a semantic property, italicization a typographical one. There were probably other motivations for drawing the distinction in the first place, but that is the one that always seemed most salient to me, as a font and composition person. (I had a dream last night about multiple master fonts, of all abstruse topics.)

  6. The (excellent) blogging app MarsEdit has an I button. The mouseover label that goes with it: “Italicize text.” Click on it, and you get <em>. All of which is to say: I give up.

  7. Oh pshaw, text-to-speech software can’t lay its robot prosody at the doorstep of our italics markup. Perfect angle-bracket-emming would help a tiny fraction of that.

    Text routinely goes on for page after page that don’t have any kind of italics, and it’s TTS’s job to generate natural prosody out of that.

  8. John Cowan says:

    Just so. If you tag text according to its function, you can switch from one style to another. So <em> means emphasis, <cite> means a book title (vel sim.), <var> means a mathematical/programming variable, <dfn> means a defined term, and <i> means a foreign-language phrase, or thinking as opposed to speaking dialogue, or anything else for which itals are commonly used. By default (and that was an <em> tag) the tags all redner as italics, but you can change that. If you want to style defined terms in bold, for example, it’s easy-peasy.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    I actually want to control how my texts are shown in every browser. When I put Tyrannosaurus rex in italics, that’s not some kind of emphasis; it’s the style recommended for names at the genus group and the species group of ranks in General Recommendation 6 and universally used whenever possible. I rarely want to use italics for emphasis; I prefer emphasis to be conveyed by other means.

    So, whenever possible, I use <i> and <b>.

    And now I learn that doesn’t give me control over the layout anymore either?!?

  10. Bathrobe says:

    By default “i” should give you italics and “b” bold.

    You can change how “i”, “b”, and many other elements render in the user’s browser by modifying your style sheet (css), but I think users can also set their own style sheet, which will override yours, so no, you don’t have complete control.

    how the heck are untutored readers supposed to grasp the differences?

    Untutored readers don’t have to grasp the differences at all. Unless they look at the underlying code or play around with their style sheet, they won’t notice any difference. It’s the web designer who has to know the difference because it will affect how pages are read out. (It’s possible that Google pays attention to the differences because Google reads the markup, but I’m rather doubtful that it is significant for Google, either.)

  11. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I very rarely use italics for emphasis — wir haben anderen Methoden — but mostly for quoting words as words, sometimes for species and genera. I assume those are part of the new semantics of <i>. I’ll remember the <cite> tag if it works here:

    Det Danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab, Ordbog over det danske Sprog, Gyldendals Forlag 1928-1955.

    EDIT: It’s allowed but styled as ‘normal’ on this site.

  12. Bathrobe says:

    According to this page from 2016, it doesn’t seem to make any difference to Google:

    http://www.velizaratellalyan.com/seo/the-importance-of-bold-and-strong-tags-in-seo/

    Lars, your “cite” tag doesn’t seem to work at LH. But it will definitely work on a web page.

  13. Lars Mathiesen says:

    It does work, as in it’s not removed like the <sub> and <sup> ones, and we’re viewing LH as a webpage innit. But there is a CSS override to make it ‘normal’. Blame Sven Aas who made the theme.

  14. In practical terms, we are really talking about the ability for companies like Google to understand what the text means so they can present their results better.
    So, going to the source,
    https://developers.google.com/search/docs/guides/intro-structured-data?rd=1&visit_id=637257376257957610-1677508014
    We see no lectures about the em tag.
    “You use the schema.org vocabulary along with the Microdata, RDFa, or JSON-LD formats to add information to your Web content. “

  15. Christopher Culver says:

    One can argue that the reason why Latin species names are set in italics is because, well, they are Latin, and foreign-language phrases mixed into English-language text are usually set in italics. Therefore, in this case, for the sake of semantic markup, one should not put i tags around Latin names and phrases. Rather, one should use the span tag with lang=”la”, and add a CSS rule that Latin passages (or simply all text outside the document’s main language) be set in italics.

  16. Alon Lischinsky says:

    the em and i and strong tags are supposed to convey meanings and distinctions in HTML-coded language that we don’t have in plain old written language on the page

    Yes, and that’s because HTML is not solely meant to be viewed on the page. Accessibility is crucial, as anyone with a visual impairment will attest.

    This is not unique to <em>, of course, but a general feature of how content is supposed to be structured. You use <p> tags for paragraphs instead of forcing line breaks with <br>, for example, so that screen readers will know to make a longer pause before moving on.

  17. I don’t think about my pitch when I speak, and I surely doesn’t think about pitch when I write. It’s not very practical to expect writers to write pronunciation guides in addition to the text. I suspect many writers simply don’t have the right skill set for that. I’m also confused over the idea that italics are supposed to be pronounced with a certain pitch. Surely the pitch (and pronunciation as a whole) is different if you use italics to mark a foreign language word or sentence, or if you use it to mark a regular English sentence? Yet none of those is the wrong way to use italics, just different correct ways.

    I see from the article that some of those concerns are addressed (such as using something to mark the language for foreign languages), but I’m still confused. How did someone mix up italics and pitch in the first place?

  18. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Moa:

    How did someone mix up italics and pitch in the first place?

    You’ll need a séance to answer that, because the mix-up happened in the 16th century (cf. Lane, J. (1983/4). “The Types of Nicholas Kis”, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, 18, pp. 47–75). It’s been an established custom for centuries to use italics to mark emphasis in writing (among other things), the same way pitch and volume are used to mark emphasis in speech.

  19. Lars Mathiesen says:

    People will use anything that makes part of the text stand out visually, I guess. Old Danish books and newspapers sometimes used s p a t i e r e d e letters for emphasis (spærret sats).

    (I thought spatiated was an English word, and it is but it does not mean this).

    When books were printed in Fraktur, Antiqua was used for contrast (and for French words in general).

  20. @Alon: Thanks, as I’m not into seances I guess I’m going to continue being confused. 🙂
    I see from your explanation that emphasis is the common theme, and it’s just happens that pitch and italics can sometimes be used for emphasis.
    @Lars: I haven’t seen the spatierede letters in a long time, but I have some vague memories. I wonder if it used to be used in Swedish too?

    In my hand written notes I use versals, lines, exclamation marks, draw circles and write in different colours to mark important words. Italic and bold are not very practical for hand writing.

  21. AJP Crown says:

    Old Danish books and newspapers sometimes used s p a t i e r e d e letters for emphasis

    Lars, is this only Danish? And how have you achieved it here?

  22. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I am only sure of Danish and German printed in Fraktur — if you follow the link you’ll see it used to set off references to (other) headwords in the running text in the ODS. (Explanatory text in italics, phonetics, older forms and citations in ‘normal’ — references in spaced italics and incidentally hyperlinked so they are blue. I think that is how the printed version looks as well, but I never acquired one). But I have a mental image of 50’s vintage SciAm using it too.

    I don’t think there is a CSS font style option to achieve this, and in any case WordPress will suppress “style” attributes (and any tag you would normally put them on, such as “span”). I simply put &thinsp; between each letter and hoped the line wouldn’t break. I see I could have used &#8239; (NARROW NO-BREAK SPACE) instead to prevent breaks.

    Fun thing about the Fraktur use: a ‘ch’ or ‘ck’ ligature would not be broken up, nor I think some other like ‘st’, but ‘sch,’ ‘fft’ and the like would, at least to 1+2 letters. I’m sure there are images on the web that will prove this wrong.

  23. Christopher Culver says:

    Lars, CSS does have support for spaced letters. It would be trivial to write a stylesheet by which text marked with the em tag and lang=”da” has spaced letters instead of italics.

    Also, WordPress does allow blog owners to specify what HTML tags they allow in comments. For example, my own, no longer updated blog, I whitelisted the span tag because I did want comment writers to use semantic markup (if they failed to mark foreign-language text up appropriately I would just go in and add that markup myself). Hat could permit span tags on this blog, but with the volume of comments he gets, perhaps he would think it too burdensome to screen all comments for misuse.

  24. Yeah, it’s all I can do to keep up with the moderation queue and fix typos. I don’t even know what span tags are; that’s not my department (said Wernher von Braun).

  25. David L says:

    Having looked through all these comments I now understand what the original article is getting at. But it seems like a quixotic hope that even a fraction of html users will understand and appreciate and use these subtleties.

    They* could introduce a ‘basic’ tag that non-experts could put around all their html writings, to indicate that the writer doesn’t really know what he is doing. This would be a warning to automated readers to switch off their detection of semantic codes and the like. Or maybe ‘basic’ should be the default and sophisticated html writers should use an ‘expert’ tag.

    *You know, the anonymous overlords who create and approve html

    PS I tried to write ‘basic’ and ‘expert’ between less than and greater than signs but I couldn’t even do that right. I need a ‘total amateur’ tag.

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    The obvious solution is only to use languages where emphasis is not indicated by stress or pitch. There are plenty of them, after all. No need to wrestle with the mysteries of html at all! It’s so simple! Sorry, simple.

  27. But it seems like a quixotic hope that even a fraction of html users will understand and appreciate and use these subtleties.

    Exactly.

  28. ə de vivre says:

    The important issue here for us casual HTML users is more about what HTML is for rather than parsing specific uses of tags. Being non-visually impaired myself, I’d thought of HTML the way I think of typesetting: as a way of achieving visual effect in a visual medium. And from the perspective, the difference between ’em’ and ‘i’ tags is pretty trivial and/or needlessly obtuse. But the internet has the potential to be accessible in ways that print books aren’t, and taking advantage of that potential requires thinking in a different metaphor. I think it is an uphill battle getting non-handicapped people to think in terms of accessibility, but not impossible. That said, it seems like a bad design decision to make semantic and formal tags treated in the exact same way.

    The article reminds me of the Hattery discussions about Christology: if you stick to the technical semantics, it’s a confusing mess; but if you approach it from a more sociological point of view, it becomes a lot clearer what’s going on.

  29. I think it is an uphill battle getting non-handicapped people to think in terms of accessibility, but not impossible.

    Depends what you mean. Sure, it’s not impossible to convince the occasional person to try harder, but it is in fact impossible to convince a critical mass so that the situation would materially change. This is one of the many areas where working on a person here and a person there is a waste of time and energy; the only way to achieve anything useful is an across-the-board change that would allow the average lazy, thoughtless internet user (me, for example) to Do the Right Thing without having to worry about it.

  30. John Cowan says:

    How do other languages do contrast at the morphological level, like “government OF the people, BY the people, and FOR the people” or “not Good-YEAR, Good-RICH” (two tire manufacturers)? I always wondered about that.

  31. No idea about other languages, but you can do it in English too without changing pitch/volume. Just say words separately and draw it out and it will add emphasis. Not governmentovthepeople, but government [pause] ooohf [pause] thepeople. A bit strange, but should do the trick. It’s like using   l e t t e r   s p a c i n g   instead of ALL CAPS.

  32. I seldom use italics for emphasis. When writing fiction, my main use for italics is direct quotes of unspoken material (usually internal dialogue), with some “foreign” words (meaning foreign to the main characters). In nonfiction, there are many more uses for italics: titles of other works, foreign worlds (like “Zitterbewegung”), and of course mathematical expressions. The mathematics is handled entirely differently from the other examples, however, since I do my technical writing in LaTeX, which has (perhaps as its most important feature) a completely separate math mode, in which all sorts of complicated expressions can be laid out in mark-up language. The changes to the typography in math mode go far beyond mere italicization: There are a whole separate set of math fonts; math mode spacing is entirely different; and there are many additional mathematical symbols and operators that are only available in that special environment.

    When I do use italics for emphasis, it is because I want to represent something prosodic that I feel would otherwise not be apparent to a reader. I spend a lot of time thinking about the prosody of my fiction, and even in my technical papers, prosody is always a concern. I mostly try to convey the prosody I want without additional markings for emphasis, but sometimes that is impossible or for some reason undesirable.

    For a nonfiction example, I had to skim half a dozen of my scientific papers to find one which I used italics for emphasis.

    The focus of this paper is primarily on spontaneous gauge symmetry breaking. However, the Lorentz-violating terms… could also arise from spontaneous breaking of Lorentz symmetry. Spontaneous Lorentz breaking has many advantageous features as a way of introducing Lorentz violating into a theory. In particular, theories with spontaneous Lorentz violation are consistent with a pseudo-Riemannian geometric interpretation of gravitation, while explicitly Lorentz-violating theories generally are not.

    (The ellipsis corresponds to the omission of a number of mathematical expressions that I could not reproduce here, because Unicode does not support a full alphabet of subscript characters.) In this case, the emphasis is there to point to the key contrast between the related phenomena of gauge symmetry breaking and Lorentz symmetry breaking.

    Example are more frequent in my fiction, but still not very common. Here is the first example I found in the manuscript I currently have open.

    Then came the first door leading outside. At first, they thought they had found a courtyard. A narrow, peaked archway opened onto a starlit scene. Sensing something unusual, Lyka stepped cautiously through, onto a parapeted terrace overlooking a formal garden. But the night air against her cheek was warm, and there was no sign of the rest of the castle—not even behind her, where Lyka appeared to have emerged from the rear of a slate-roofed villa. Yet she could still see Damel and Bradjet, watching her through the postern gate, with the dim stone of the castle behind them.

    “Wait,” she said, holding up her hand. “Don’t follow me.” The others obeyed. They watched as Lyka tiptoed to the edge of the parapet. She gazed out over the rows of flowers and shrubs, illuminated by unfamiliar constellations. Then something moved below her, a dark shape at work among the hedges with a pair of shears. Its movements were neither fully human nor exactly alien, but Lyka did not wish to see any more. She turned quietly away from the parapet and returned to the wavering lantern light of the castle.

    Here, the prosodic effect I wanted was to foreshadow that “outside” meant something outre, not the just usual outdoors.

  33. ə de vivre says:

    Yeah, I didn’t mean to toot the horn of Saving the World Through Personal Responsibility, or to make a moralize at anyone. Honestly, I wonder if, as younger internet users have less attachment to paper media, adopting design behaviour that isn’t rooted in paper metaphors will be easier. That said, the general clusterfuck of HTML design isn’t doing anyone any favours in doing things “the right way.”

  34. Lyka stepped cautiously through

    How do you pronounce Lyka — laɪkə? lüka?

  35. It’s weird to put the line between handicapped people or not, rather, the distinction is between people who care about pitch and people who don’t. Even if we make a special “pitch” marker, and it becomes wide-spread and default for all blog sites, how will we teach everybody to recognize the different pitches in English, and mark them in the right way? Sure, it’s probably a lot easier than teaching everybody to write in the international phonetic alphabet, but it’s not exactly a question of a simple 5 minute explanation and then people can start doing it. I took English classes too, thorough school, and I don’t remember any special focus on pitch or drawn out emphasis. Maybe I overslept that day, maybe our teacher just didn’t find it important, either way, it’s hardly something everybody who knows English knows well enough to put on paper.

    I do remember going over emphasis in Chinese (Mandarin) class. We were told to listen to several sentences and notice the change in meaning. As it was the first semester, and we hardly could distinguish one sound from another, it seemed pointless and boring at the time. Maybe I could hear that some part of the sentence had more emphasis, but I couldn’t exactly make out what it meant. By the way, the emphasised syllables were marked with a little triangle beneath the syllable/character, not italics.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    but I think users can also set their own style sheet, which will override yours, so no, you don’t have complete control.

    Rats. (Well, mice, actually.)

    One can argue that the reason why Latin species names are set in italics is because, well, they are Latin

    Ah, but no. Here’s the first half of General Recommendation 6:

    The scientific names of genus- or species-group taxa should be printed in a type-face (font) different from that used in the text; such names are usually printed in italics, which should not be used for names of higher taxa.

    And indeed, the names of taxa above the genus group of ranks are practically never set in italics in practice. Yet, they are more likely than genus- or even species-group names to have Latin(ized Greek) endings.

    Zoological names must be in ASCII, but the legal fiction that, anytime authors coin new names that aren’t identical to attested Latin words, they thereby create new Latin words has long been officially abandoned, if it ever was official. Consider Article 11.3:

    11.3. Derivation

    Providing it meets the requirements of this Chapter, a name may be a word in or derived from Latin, Greek or any other language (even one with no alphabet), or be formed from such a word. It may be an arbitrary combination of letters providing this is formed to be used as a word.

    Examples. Toxostoma and brachyrhynchos from the Greek; opossum from the Algonquian Indian; Abudefduf from the Arabic; korsac from the Russian; nakpo from the Tibetan; canguru from the Kokoimudji Aboriginal; Gythemon, an arbitrary combination of letters. The arbitrary combination of letters cbafdg cannot be used as a word and does not form a name.

    (“used as a word” appears to be some faint inkling of phonotactics.)

    This is in contrast to the botanical code, BTW, which has as its Principle V that “[s]cientific names of taxonomic groups are treated as Latin regardless of their derivation.”

    Google Scholar parses cafeteria lunch menus as an author list

    And finds citations for them!

    I surely doesn’t think about pitch when I write.

    I do. That’s what punctuation is (in regularized and sometimes ambiguous ways).

    (Well, intonation in general – an inseparable mix of pitch, loudness and probably speed. I certainly don’t think of these components individually.)

    spærret

    That (gesperrt) is what it’s called in German, where it was used as the main means of written emphasis into the late 20th century – and academic works contained a lot of emphasis. (It was never used for genus & species names that I know of.)

    My mother still uses it in plain text sometimes.

    Italic and bold are not very practical for hand writing.

    That depends! I’ve used them both. Fairly good italics can be achieved by just holding your hand at a different angle to the line, at least if your handwriting isn’t already tilted to begin with (mine’s vertical). For boldface, often it is possible to put a kink in the tip of a fountain pen; turn the pen around its long axis so the entire bent-over surface, instead of just the tip, touches the paper, and you’ll write in an almost calligraphic boldface.

    Fun thing about the Fraktur use: a ‘ch’ or ‘ck’ ligature would not be broken up, nor I think some other like ‘st’, but ‘sch,’ ‘fft’ and the like would, at least to 1+2 letters. I’m sure there are images on the web that will prove this wrong.

    Better yet: the refusal to break up ‘st’ survived as a spelling rule until the reform of 1998/2005. Generations of schoolchildren were taught:

    Trenne nie ST,
    denn es tut ihm weh!

    “never separate ST, because it finds that painful”

    However, while ‘fft’ was and is broken up (ff-t), ‘sch’ only is if it’s /sx/, in other words if it has a morpheme boundary through it (Häuschen, Gänschen), not if it’s /ʃ/. Both kinds of ‘sch’ were written as ‘s’ followed by the ligature ‘ch’ in Fraktur. ‘ck’ used to be broken up as ‘k-k’, but since the reform it’s not broken up at all.

    How do other languages do contrast at the morphological level, like “government OF the people, BY the people, and FOR the people”

    That is often expressed by free-standing particles. Russian же comes to mind (though that is often combined with intonation).

    “not Good-YEAR, Good-RICH”

    Contrastive stress seems to be a purely Germanic concept. Elsewhere, it seems, you’re simply out of luck. When I lived next to Paris, the supermarket next to me occasionally interrupted the muzak to announce it was open on Sundays “de neuf [ˌ]heures à treize [ˈ]heures”, with the stress on the repeated information.

  37. J.W. Brewer says:

    I sometimes have style/typography conflicts/disagreements with colleagues when we are both working on the same document because my view is that you shouldn’t use italics for foreign-origin words or phrases that have been borrowed into English to the extent that they have become part of the lexicon of the relevant variety of English. It is also my view that a foreign-origin word or phrase that isn’t sufficiently domesticated to be not-italicized should generally not be used, at least in my professional legal writing. I.e., don’t use a Latin word or phrase that you’re not confident will be understood by a judge who has never actually taken a single class in Latin as such, but if you’re confident that the word or phrase is so universally known by monolingual Anglophone American judges that it doesn’t flunk that test, don’t put it in italics because you’ve just demonstrated that it’s not foreign.

    Left to my own devices I use italics for emphasis as well as for names-of-cases-cited, but I try not to overuse it for the first purpose. In this specific genre of writing, ambiguity as to which use of italics is intended by me in a particular instance is close to vanishingly rare.

  38. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Two minutes to google up this title page, 10 to fish out a deep link to a page image: Enough gesperrte Fraktur to illustrate. (If the link goes stale, I saved a copy that I can upload and link).

    (Dr. Friedrich Schleiermacher, Der christliche Glaube, 1821. But the rest of the book is a critical edition set in Antiqua, and even though it uses gesperrt for author names it separates ligatures in so doing).

    @DM, I was not talking about word breaking, but about ligatures not getting spaced in gesperrt. I didn’t find an example of ‘sch’ or ‘ff’ so far.

  39. Lars Mathiesen says:
  40. David Marjanović says:

    Yes, also Teichmühle & Teichhäuser in the line above – ch and st were never spaced, ff was, I think ck was not.

  41. Stu Clayton says:

    Eine Sternstunde der Sperrkunde.

  42. Contrastive stress seems to be a purely Germanic concept

    Hebrew does it; I bet lots of languages do. Intonational focus on contrastive sentence elements is very common, and that’s easily extended to the word level.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    I was sure French did it till I found out it doesn’t… it seems self-evident, but it clearly isn’t.

    Modern Hebrew could always have gotten it from Yiddish. Does Arabic have it?

  44. @languagehat: I pronounce her name laɪkə, as you suggest. It’s the same way I say the name of the first dog in space.

  45. Thanks!

  46. John Cowan says:

    Spanish definitely doesn’t use contrastive stress: if a (Germanic-speaking) learner asks if his interlocutor said “¿el homBRE o el homBRO?”, the answer will be “el HOMbre” [man] or “el HOMbro” [shoulder] as the case may be, and so we go in gyro-gyrorondo. I agree that modern Hebrew picked it up from Yiddish. Arabic can use it, but normally uses word order instead.

    My mother was born in 1919; her journal of her death (which took about two years) was handwritten mostly in English, but there are occasional German bits, and they have letterspacing for emphasis. When I typed up her MSS (not this one, I couldn’t bear it) I letterspaced on the typewriter: one monowidth space between letters, two or three between words.

  47. I don’t really think we need a borrowing account — this feels like the kind of thing that can easily arise naturally.

    Arabic can use it, but normally uses word order instead

    Wait, what? I thought we were talking about word-internal stress.

  48. David Eddyshaw says:

    this feels like the kind of thing that can easily arise naturally

    It’s iconic, certainly; but it’s still conventional. It doesn’t seem to be at all common in Africa.

    “Teach Yourself Swahili”, a more sophisticated work than it initially appears to be, specifically warns the English speaker against importing it into Swahili:

    There are two points which should be kept in mind, especially by women, in speaking Swahili …

    You cannot call attention to a word by emphasising it, or express surprise or excitement as it is done in English …

    Get some African child to imitate an English person speaking Swahili, and learn from his imitation what to avoid.

    I like the “especially by women.” It was published in 1951.

  49. J.W. Brewer says:

    Hmm. That Swahili book is by a D.V. Parrott, whereas the British Swahili intro texts from that era with which I’m more familiar tend to be by E.O. Ashton. But since the E turns out to be for Ethel, perhaps the D is for Diana or Dorothy?

    EDITED TO ADD: That was a shot in the dark but in fact D.V. Parrott’s full name appears to have been Daisy Valerie Parrott. Under the brutal regime of George VI, explaining Swahili was women’s work.

  50. David Eddyshaw says:

    Might well be … [and in response to your edit, actually is]

    There is some doubt about the sex of Ethel herself, inasmuch as she mysteriously metamorphoses into Eric Ormerod Ashton in some bibliographies. It was obviously all go at SOAS in the old days. Boomers, nothing. The place is in Bloomsbury, I suppose.

  51. J.W. Brewer says:

    @David E.: In my childhood, there was a weird convention amongst American authors writing for children and/or teens (“Young Adults” in the euphemism favored by the publishing industry) that an author using only initials was likely to be a woman trying to downplay her sex to avoid being stuck in the Lady Authoress pigeonhole. S.E. Hinton and E.L. Konigsburg are good examples. I’d like to think I would have enjoyed their works just as much had they published as Susan and Elaine, respectively, but they made their choices based on their assumptions about the world, which may have been plausible. But I have the impression that going-by-initials is or at least so much more common in academic or academic-adjacent British circles, Swahili-oriented or otherwise, such that doing so was not so much of a tell. This is of course particularly ironic coming from me, but whatever led me to originally get in the habit of posting here on an initials-only basis was not (I guess you’ll have to trust me on this) the fear that I wouldn’t be taken as seriously if I posted as Jill W., which due to the fortuity of things is not actually my proper given name.

  52. Stu Clayton says:

    The earth trembles. Revelations that ain’t !

  53. David Marjanović says:

    Letter spacing in handwriting is new to me; I’d have expected underlining. The traditional way to render taxonomic italics in handwriting, according to a university course I once had, is to put a wavy line under the words (unterwellieren, “under-wave-ize”).

    In my childhood, there was a weird convention amongst American authors writing for children and/or teens (“Young Adults” in the euphemism favored by the publishing industry) that an author using only initials was likely to be a woman trying to downplay her sex to avoid being stuck in the Lady Authoress pigeonhole. S.E. Hinton and E.L. Konigsburg are good examples.

    It still existed, in the UK, when “J.K.” Rowling brought the first Harry Potter book out. Her K isn’t even real – she doesn’t have a middle name, it’s her grandmother’s, but her publisher wanted her to have two initials.

  54. @David Marjanović: In English-language compositing, a wavy line under something indicated bold. I had a (sincere but terrible) professor who used that to indicate bold vectors on the blackboard; it contrasted rather poorly with another professor we had the same semester, who actually drew blackboard bold versions of every upper or lower case letter of the alphabet.

    Indicating italicization was done with a straight underline. For decades, the underlining was taught to children in school as the correct way of indicating certain things. I remember being vaguely suspicious if it when I first encountered it in third grade, since such underlining did not appear in actual printed books. However, I did not make the connection that it corresponded to italics in properly printed works until I came across a full explanation in a book. As WYSIWYG word processors became available, I tried to convince my teachers that if italics were available, they should be used, not underlining; some agreed, and some did not.

  55. born in Nuneaton, left at age 21. says:

    but whatever led me to originally get in the habit of posting here on an initials-only basis …

    Oh, I’d always assumed you were an authoress of Young Adult fiction, aiming to downplay your sex. You do realise there’s no need for your WordPress “Name *” to resemble any sort of name?

  56. Everyone knows that perfectly well; no need to be snarky.

  57. Very interesting!

  58. David Eddyshaw says:

    Under the brutal regime of George VI, explaining Swahili was women’s work

    Now that I think of it, the best of all the paedagogical Swahili grammars, Twende, is also by a woman, Joan Maw. The chilling effect of the ancien régime persists even into this second Elizabethan Age.

  59. David Eddyshaw says:

    Indicating italicization was done with a straight underline.

    Hockett’s introduction to Bloomfield’s Menomini Language says:

    “For the use of italics (underline) for cited forms … I must accept the responsibility.”

    The actual printed text uses underline; I presume one is supposed to read it as italics.

  60. @ J. W. Brewer:

    I have the impression that going-by-initials is or at least so much more common in academic or academic-adjacent British circles

    Sure. Consider T.S., T.E., D.H., I.A., E.M., C.S., and F.R. (all men), and on the other hand Q.D. (Mrs. F.R.) and G.E.M. There are also non-academic-adjacent C.S. (the other one) and P.G., and in the United States there was S.J., who wrote, “She turned on the radio. With a savage snarl, it turned on her.”

  61. AJP Crown says:

    Queenie is such an unacademicsounding name. It’s too bad she (& they) was such a dreadful scary person.

  62. AJP Crown says:

    …(and you missed A.L.)

  63. David Eddyshaw says:

    To say nothing of WH.

    The book which just happens to be on top of the pile beside me, The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula, proclaims that it is by D W Arnott. No further indication of the author’s name is given anywhere; Professor D was in fact, as it happens, a David, like all right-thinking people.

  64. Rodger C says:

    So now we know that Harry Potter exists in Sakha.

  65. Harry Potter exists everywhere. The next previously undiscovered holdout of Neolithic folk somewhere in the jungles of Borneo or Congo will have folktales based on fucking Harry Potter.

  66. (Er, “fucking” was meant as an intensive adjective, not a verb. Neolithic folk don’t do fanfic as far as I know.)

  67. AJP Crown says:

    De Ste. Croix used Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters as the frontispiece for his book The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World – how confusing of him.

    Geoffrey, or “Croicks” as he mockingly referred to himself

  68. David Eddyshaw says:

    Looking along my bookshelves, the great majority of academic textbooks from UK university presses before about 1980 just give the author’s name as initials + surname (notably, also regularly omitting academic titles and degrees.) It must have been an actual settled convention. Never thought about it before …

    Folktales based on eating Harry Potter might be more interesting. I’d say that they might also be more culturally appropriate, but that would lay me open to well-founded charges of hurtful cultural stereotyping. And cannibalism is so palaeolithic. Nobody’s into that these days.

  69. How often is the V.S. in V.S. Naipaul spelled out?
    Vidiadhar Surajprasad is not that scary, especially in comparison with the following:

    Президент Туркменистана Бердымухаммедов Гурбангулы Мяликкулиевич в ходе его визита в Исландию, вместе с Президентом Исландии Гвюдни Йоуханненссоном посетили вулкан в районе перевала Фиммвердюхаулс, расположенный между ледниками Мирдальсйоукюдль и Эйяфьятлайокудль,… что привело к массовым самоубийствам дикторов новостных программ.

    (pity they bungled ЙоуханнеНссоном, which should be Йоуханнессоном)

  70. Geoffrey, or “Croicks” as he mockingly referred to himself

    That’s quite an obit, and quite a guy:

    When in 1985 his pupils presented him with Crux, his festschrift, the editors had to disregard more than half his interests to produce a coherent volume. His knowledge ranged from pre-colonial Greek exploits of the 8th century BC to the Arab conquests of the 7th century AD; biblical studies from Genesis by way of Job to Revelation, to say nothing of Marx and Marxism. […] Powerfully built, with a great dome of a head, he competed at Wimbledon in 1929, and once defeated Fred Perry.

  71. There are several different formats for citation used in academic works, but for most of them, you only list authors’ initials and surnames in the bibliography, regardless of how an author is listed in the actual source. Of course, you only abbreviate the given names that actually appear, so I am usually “B. Altschul,” not “B. D. Altschul,” and my colleague who goes by his middle name, listed as “V. Alan” in his publications, is reduced to just “V. A.”

  72. David Eddyshaw says:

    This is the actual title pages of the works themselves that I’m talking about. I think it must have been a house rule for at least CUP and OUP.

  73. @D. Eddyshaw: I understand. I just think there may have been a feedback mechanism. If only your initials are ever going to cited, there may seem little point in using your full first name all. Or, at least, the university presses may have been convinced that was a compelling argument.

  74. David Eddyshaw says:

    Maybe so. Seems more plausible than my alternative theory that virtually all British academic works prior to about 1980 were actually written by women.

    (As we were recently reminded, Virginia Woolf led the way, with her works on quantum mechanics.)

  75. AJP Crown says:

    Veronica Wedgwood always published as C. V. Wedgwood. I’m pretty sure it was because she was a woman. Of course you could say the same thing about publishing as Veronica.

    In Britain Naipaul was addressed as Vidia – also in the British media, after an initial introductory VS – and when he became Sir Vidia there was even less of the VS. I can’t remember ever seeing this other ‘scary’ spelling.

  76. @David Eddyshaw: The bit about Virginia Woolf reminded me that, the most famously, loudmouthedly sexist of all American physicists was I. I. Rabi—the inventor of magnetic resonance*—who was also known universally by his initials.

    * Rabi may also have founded the most illustrious scientific lineage in physics. Three of his doctoral advisees also won Nobel Prizes, and a fourth was president of Cal Tech and U. S. Secretary of Defense. A probably incomplete count shows eight more Nobel Prizes among his academic children and grandchildren.

  77. David Eddyshaw says:

    Says Wikipedia:

    As a compromise with his parents, for his Bar Mitzvah, which was held at home, he gave a speech in Yiddish about how an electric light works

    One has to admire this.

  78. David Marjanović says:

    O. C. Marsh, of Bone Wars fame, published under his initials because he simply didn’t like being called Othniel Charles.

    a David, like all right-thinking people

    More for the list of Davids who wish they were phylogeneticists.

    How often is the V.S. in V.S. Naipaul spelled out?
    Vidiadhar Surajprasad is not that scary

    Is that how his name works? Lots of people in India don’t have last names, so they put the initials of their father’s name and/or the name of the village they’re from in front of their own names. The exact conventions vary regionally.

  79. Catanea says:

    No one has mentioned that other quite recent (?) convention of emphasis: Treating each word as a “sentence” [at least I think that’s what one does]: Just. Say. No.
    (Sorry, I can’t think of a pithy one.)

  80. George Grady says:

    It was once fairly common in academic papers written in English to use extra-wide between-letter spacing in personal names of authors mentioned within the text. As an example, you can look at this pdf of “On the Rhythm of Muscular Response to Volitional Impulses in Man”, by Schäfer, Canney, and Tunstall, published in the Journal of Physiology in April 1886. If you look through the text, you’ll find the extra-wide spacing in every name.

  81. @ AJP Crown and David Eddyshaw, I should also have mentioned C.E.M. to go with G.E.M., and E.E. to go with W.H. Among contemporaries, A.N.’s cargo of emotion about Jews once capsized an overloaded sentence of his in the TLS, thereby leading to my only published letter to the editor of that initialism.

  82. David Eddyshaw says:

    e.e., surely? (the communists have fine Eyes)

    Odd bod, A.N. I prefer Angus.

  83. George Grady says:

    Rabi may also have founded the most illustrious scientific lineage in physics.

    Look at J. J. Thomson’s academic family: he won a Nobel prize, of course; his students include Nobelists Rutherford, Appleton, Bragg, Bohr, Richardson; his grandstudents include Blackett, Chadwick, Cockcroft, Powell, and Walton; his great-grandstudents include Chandrasekhar, Dirac, Mott, and Klug. I probably missed some, too.

  84. AJP Crown says:

    Lots of people in India
    He’s from Trinidad, or grew up there.

  85. AJP Crown says:

    my only published letter to the editor of that initialism.
    I’m impressed. This is never going to happen to me.

    I suppose all the Times’ supplements are better known by initials, but then there’s also the LRB, which I noticed is known to cognoscenti as “the London Review”.

    I thought of Prof CEM too. So now I can finally guess your GE “his wife called him Bill” M (which is a slightly different system).

  86. AJP Crown says:

    I’ll mention the writer A.A. who was prosecuted for racial hatred of the Welsh, but an ancient friend of mine is godmother of his children so he can’t have been all bad.

  87. e.e., surely?

    That’s a negative. As I said here: “Unfortunately, Zwicky perpetuates the persistent myth that E.E. Cummings preferred his name spelled without periods and capital letters (see here and here for refutation).”

  88. David Eddyshaw says:

    A.A.

    “loquacious dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls”

    Quite unjustifiable. Some of us are quite big, especially once you allow for the effects of the stunting.

    That’s a negative

    well i never another cherished illusion gone

  89. David Eddyshaw says:

    A.A.

    The Pooh-maker, too, of course. I don’t think he had anything in particular against the Welsh.

  90. @ David Eddyshaw, in chapter 3 of his prison memoir The Enormous Room, uppercase E.E. transcribes in to-boot all-caps a French interrogator’s pronunciation of KEW-MANGZ. Incidentally, the typescript edition of that book (Liveright, 1978) is hattishly fun for the spacing. Its first sentence:

    “We had succeeded,my friend B and I,in dispensing with almost three of our six months’ engagement as Conducteurs Volontaires,Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un,Ambulance Norton-Harjes,Croix-Rouge Américaine,and at the Moment which subsequent experience served to capitalize had just finished the unlovely job of cleaning and greasing(nettoyer is the proper word)the own private flivver of the chef de section,a gentleman by the convenient name of Mr. A.”

    One experienced connoisseur of that book on its first appearance was T.E.

    @ AJP Crown, the alternative G.E.M. I was thinking of was alternatively referred to as Elizabeth or Miss. She once hurt C.S.’s feelings by dismantling his logic.

  91. J.W. Brewer says:

    The “extra-wide” spacing George Grady refers to lasted well into the 20th century, maybe even the latter part. My grandfather is credited as R. E. Brewer, not R.E. Brewer, in virtually all of his professional writing that one can google up pdf’s of. (I happen to have his 1942 publication “Plastic and Swelling Properties of Bituminous Coking Coals” open in another window on my computer at present.) He did his research as a federal employee so most of his stuff was published by the Government Printing Office (which doesn’t assert copyright, making full-text scans easy to find), but stuff published in non-government scholarly journals has the same style. E.g. his 1949 article (in a publication apparently cited as Ind. Eng. Chem.) Desulfurization of Coal during Carbonization with Added Gases: Quantitative Determination of Sulfur Compounds was co-authored with J. K. Ghosh, not J.K. Ghosh.

    I have a vague sense of being taught maybe circa 1980 to do initials of individuals that way (with the space after the first period), but whoever taught me that may have been working from a stylebook already fallen (or at least falling) out of fashion.

  92. Addendum, in regard to my heroine, Lyka:

    I had that manuscript open on my computer, because I have decided, after some years away from it, to finally finish writing and editing that novel The War of the Seasons. It’s actually the sequel to another fantasy novel I mostly wrote when I was in graduate school and finished well over a decade ago when I was a post-doc. The first book is more about Lyka—and honestly I’m more happy with it than with the ongoing sequel, since I personally like her more as a character than any of the other viewpoint characters I have introduced in the second book.

    If anyone is interesting in reading the first completed novel, I would be happy to share the manuscript. Just let me know.

  93. George Grady says:

    @ J.W. Brewer:

    The extra-wide spacing was more extensive than just between initials. It was between all the letters of the name. For example, in the linked pdf, there are references in the main part of the text to “H e l m h o l t z” and “V a l s a l v a” (although with something more like half-spaces than full spaces between letters). This is done with all names.

  94. AJP Crown says:

    Aha, Anscombe. According to Ray Monk, Wittgenstein got around this G.E.M. being a woman (he disliked women academics and women philosophers) by calling her “old man”. Why didn’t these subtle thinkers, people who saw every linguistic nuance in a sentence, notice feminism? It’s too bad Wittgenstein didn’t live to read this bit of the Stanford Encyclopedia article on her:

    One of the most significant ideas elaborated on in Intention is ‘direction of fit.’ Though the notion seems to have originated with J.L. Austin, Anscombe is credited with a clear explication of it. ‘Direction of fit’ was how John Searle referred to Anscombe’s idea that there are two things that we can do with words—sometimes we try to get the words to match, or fit with, what’s in the world, and other times we try to get the world to fit with the words. This turned out to be important in speech act theory since speech acts exemplify one direction of fit. When one utters a command, for example, one is not trying to describe the world or make an assertion that is supposed to match with what is in the world. Rather, the point is to bring about a state of affairs in the world.

    Consider this famous passage from Intention:

    Let us consider a man going round a town with a shopping list in his hand. Now it is clear that the relation of this list to the things he actually buys is one and the same whether his wife gave him the list or it is his own list; and that there is a different relation where a list is made by a detective following him about. If he made the list itself, it was an expression of intention; if his wife gave it to him, it has the role of an order. What then is the identical relation to what happens, in the order and the intention, which is not shared by the record? It is precisely this: if the list and the things that the man actually buys do not agree, and if this and this alone constitutes a mistake, then the mistake is not in the list but in the man’s performance (if his wife were to say: “Look, it says butter and you have bought margarine”, he would hardly reply: “What a mistake! we must put that right” and alter the word on the list to “margarine”); whereas if the detective’s record and what the man actually buys do not agree, then the mistake is in the record.

    Even so, when I get home I’m going to start correcting my shopping lists from now on.

    The Pooh-maker, too, of course. I don’t think he had anything in particular against the Welsh.
    I don’t think so either. He just had the enormous grudge against P.G.

  95. David Marjanović says:

    A space between initials is still normal. Some journals even want that in lists of cited literature.

    And while the lack of a space in e.g. and i.e. is universal in English as far as I’ve noticed, it doesn’t go further; German uses a space for some such abbreviations (z. B., d. h.) and cheats for others (usw. usf. = und so weiter und so fort = Russian итд.).

    He’s from Trinidad, or grew up there.

    Ah, I was too clever by half, then.

  96. David Eddyshaw says:

    Hah. Missed Anscombe. Now I’ll have to give my Wittgenstein fan club card back.

  97. John Cowan says:

    You do realise there’s no need for your WordPress “Name *” to resemble any sort of name?

    That’s quite true, Nuneatoner, but you may get named anyway.

    If only your initials are ever going to cited, there may seem little point in using your full first name all.

    Unless you happen to be D. Stampe.

    Lots of people in India don’t have last names, so they put the initials of their father’s name and/or the name of the village they’re from in front of their own names.

    That is precisely Naipaul’s case, and also the case of S[rinivasa] Ramanujan, whose father was K[uppuswamy] Srinivasa. This naming convention traveled to the Caribbean as well. Naipaul’s second name “Surajprasad” is presumably after somone named Suraj Prasad; there are several famous Indians of that name, but of course it could just be a friend of his parents’.

    ancient friend of mine is godmother of his children so he can’t have been all bad

    Perhaps she took a stern view of the duties of godparents, and believed she would be a counterbalancing influence on those children.

    if his wife gave it to him, it has the role of an order

    Or not. It may be that it is his intention, but that his handwriting is so bad he can’t rely on being able to read it later, or that she is the list-keeper even though he suggests most the items on it. Both of these are my case.

  98. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Kusaasi don’t have surnames traditionally; in contexts where one is required, a person will use his/her own real Kusaal name for a surname, and baptismal name (or the functionally rather similar Muslim formal Arabic name) as a given name (or just pick an English or French name they like.)

    This seems to be quite a common strategy among groups with relatively recent exposure to the full horrors of modern Western-type bureaucracy.

    It’s not an issue in the south of Ghana, where there is a whole complicated traditional system of using both your mother’s and your father’s clan names as surnames. Bad as Spanish.
    (It makes sense culturally, as the Akan are matrilineal.)

  99. David Marjanović says:

    quite a common strategy

    It’s official in Rwanda.

    Brazil officially uses tribe names as surnames.

  100. Rodger C says:

    Has anyone mentioned E. G. R. Taylor?

    As an undergraduate I wrote a report on C. V. Wedgwood’s book on Richelieu without ever knowing that the author was a woman.

    She once hurt C.S.’s feelings by dismantling his logic.

    She almost destroyed his religion purely as a side point. He never wrote another apologetic; he turned to writing children’s books. Great career move.

  101. David Marjanović says:

    C. S. Lewis? His children’s books are apologetics.

    (…as far as I know from having read about them. They’re hardly known over here, and the movie didn’t become popular either.)

  102. No, they’re captivating stories with a religious undercurrent. To treat them the same as Mere Christianity or The Problem of Pain is to make the same mistake as to treat Dombrovsky’s novels as political tracts.

  103. David Eddyshaw says:

    It never occurred to me as a child that they had any particular connection with Christianity. (I didn’t like them anyway, but that says more about me than the stories.)

  104. David Marjanović says:

    I should probably have said “Christian allegories”.

  105. By and large, The Chronicles of Narnia are just fantasy stories that happen to take place in an explicitly Christian cosmology. The nature of Aslan as Jesus is never stated explicitly,* and I am sure that many young readers missed the Christian context—although the very specific analogies are obvious if you know to look for them. (In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the son of the supreme emperor, although completely innocent, is executed to take the blame for human crimes and then rises again from the grave.)

    However, the books do occasionally venture into full-fledged apologia, although it is still bizarrely couched in metaphor. Particularly near the end of The Silver Chair, Lewis presents (and then attempts to rebut) an argument against the existence of lions—which is point-by-point identical to one of the basic arguments against the existence of God. Moreover, Aslan himself tells Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter that he has brought them to Narnia so that they will better understand his nature in their own world; and Lewis acknowledged that he, as a writer, had the same goal—to help children better understand and appreciate God and Jesus, even if that improved appreciation was merely in terms of themes and values.

    * In fact, when the question of who Aslan is in our world is first explicitly put forward (at the end of Prince Caspian), the answer Aslan gives is actually quite obfuscated. See this Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange question that I asked a couple years ago for views about the confusing and metaphorical way Aslan answers the question for some views on matter.

  106. I should probably have said “Christian allegories”.

    Well, as you see from DE’s comment they aren’t very transparent allegories.

  107. David Eddyshaw says:

    Oh, I don’t know. I was probably a dim child. I think they’re not very opaque, at any rate.

    Actually, I rarely pick up on even the most brazen allegories even now. Probably connected with the fact that I hardly ever see plot twists coming, either.

  108. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I was probably older than average when I read the Narnia books, but I remember feeling cheated when I found out who Aslan was. (At one point it is spelled out very transparently). People were all the time trying to get me to read edifying literature and I was having none of it, but here a work of Christian apologetics had snuck up on me unawares. Out of The Silent Planet was much the same.

  109. Probably connected with the fact that I hardly ever see plot twists coming, either.

    Same here. My wife is great at it, though.

  110. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’ve always liked Out of the Silent Planet, and would even now maintain that it’s underrated as a science-fiction novel. The earlier scenes on Mars where Ransom is overwhelmed by sheer strangeness are very well done (I think.)

    Again, when I first read it as a child, the Christian elements simply passed me by; at least in that novel they’re not so much allegorical as transposed.

    Perelandra I doubt whether it’s really possible to enjoy without at least being happily able to imagine yourself into a distinctly Christian worldview for the duration. And I’m with the majority in thinking that That Hideous Strength is readable but not much more (and more or less designed to get up the nose of anyone who isn’t a Christian.)

  111. David Marjanović says:

    I have the impression that going-by-initials is or at least so much more common in academic or academic-adjacent British circles

    I just found this gem. The PDF I downloaded long, long ago gives the authors as “W. Yuan”, “G. Keqin” and “X. Xing”. The journal, which is not British at all, must have abbreviated their names without asking them; they can’t possibly have written their names on the manuscript like that, because what’s abbreviated here are their last names Wáng, Gāo and Xù.

    At some point that was quietly corrected, because if you follow the link now, you’ll find “Y. Wang, K. Gao & X. Xu”.

  112. Bathrobe says:

    JK Rowling. She doesn’t actually have a middle name starting with K. She doesn’t have a middle name at all. She put it in there, apparently, because she didn’t want to be known as Joanne Rowling.

    I was always under the impression that letter spacing was found in French. Maybe I was thinking of German. It seems exotic to me, but not outlandish.

  113. AJP Crown says:

    Perhaps she took a stern view of the duties of godparents, and believed she would be a counterbalancing influence on those children.
    Oh, a top role model, but absolutely no way. She was at school with AA. Counterbalancing was probably the mother’s role (she became Home Secretary).

    I first heard The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe on the BBC in, I think, the late 1950s. There was nuffink about God and I loved it, especially the snow in the wardrobe. I was Edmund or one of the characters (I’ve forgotten all the names). They kept all that stuff about Aslan being Jesus quiet from children until later (1960s) and thank goodness they did, or I wouldn’t have been encouraged to listen. I was surprised by it; up until then I’d not thought of Jesus as a lion.

    She almost destroyed his religion purely as a side point. He never wrote another apologetic; he turned to writing children’s books.
    “Lewis actually published no fewer than thirty-four essays in Christian apologetics after the debate” [at the Oxford Socratic Club with Anscombe]. More here (I know nothing about this myself, I’m just passing it on).

    We had CS but no JRR. You can’t mention them all, I suppose.

    I wrote a report on C. V. Wedgwood’s book on Richelieu without ever knowing that the author was a woman.
    I assume that was her plan but I’ve nothing to back it up – anyone could have probably got their first book published if it was very good and their last name was Wedgwood, even a woman.

    DE’s comment
    I know that one.

  114. David Marjanović says:

    She put it in there, apparently, because she didn’t want to be known as Joanne Rowling.

    The story goes that her publisher wanted her to use initials instead of a full first name, and wanted her to have a middle initial to go with her first initial, so she took her grandmother’s first name, Kathleen, as mentioned above.

    I wonder if the abbreviation j/k for “joke” was already established, though.

    …While I’m at it: what is the spread in time and space of slash abbreviations? (The most common one is w/ for “with”, followed logically by w/o for “without”.)

  115. @David Marjanović: The abbreviation “j/k” is “just kidding,” not “joke”—although there’s not much difference between the two, pragmatically.

    I have to admit that I dislike abbreviations with the slash, since it does not appear to represent anything. In America, I think the important development started with “w/”—in which the solidus indicated that it was a contraction, like in “hamburger w/ketchup.” The development to “w/o” for “without” is fairly natural from there, and after that it seems to have spread. (I qualified that by saying I was talking about American usage, since abbreviations with slashes—or “strokes” as they would call them—seem to be more common and older in Britain.)

    When I was heavily into scambaiting I had one bait where the lad* wanted by bank account number, but he kept saying “A/C number” so I gave him the serial number on my air conditioner.

    * “Lad” is (or was) baiter terminology for a 419 scammer. It was abbreviated from “the lads from Lagos,” as the Nigerian 419 scammers were known.

  116. ktschwarz says:

    If you don’t like w/, you’ll really hate all the abbreviations in medieval manuscripts and the early printed versions of them. Take the famous 14th-century recipe for Pygges in sawse sawge (Pigs in sage sauce): the first printed version, from 1780, tried to represent the abbreviations from the original manuscript faithfully (though they did replace yogh with z, which was the convention of the time). There’s a curlicue kinda like a superscript 9 that represents -es or sometimes -er, so Pygg⁹ = Pygges, but vyneg⁹ = vyneger; over- and under-lines that represent -er or -m or whatever letter was needed to finish the word; and more — I don’t know if even current Unicode could handle it. When Project Gutenberg transcribed it, they had to spell out all the typographical abbreviations; it must have been a lot of work, since they had to know enough of Middle English to recognize what the abbreviated words were.

  117. AJP Crown says:

    I’m trying to imagine using a veffell large enough to take three pigs, however fmall they were.

    At least the 9 has one or two purposes; the slash has no value and anyone using it has evidently never had to take notes quickly. I only ever use forward slashes to indicate above & below in the style of denominator & numerator. I’m glad to find that other people have been disliking a/c or w/ slashes. I thought it was just me.

    There’s this in Wikipedia, on sigla, abbreviations used by scribes in various languages including Old English but in this case starting with Latin:

    Another mark, similar to a bold comma or a superscript 9, placed after the letter on the median line, represented us or os, generally at the end of the word, being the nominative case affix of the second declension, sometimes is or simply s. The apostrophe used today originated from various marks in sigla, which caused its current use in elision, such as in the Saxon genitive.

    It must be available in Unicode, surely?

  118. David Eddyshaw says:

    UK medics still use Latin abbreviations with a line above, like c̄ “with” or s̄ “without.”

    (Or I do, at any rate. But I despair of the young. I seem to be the only person left who knows that “SOS” as a medical abbreviation doesn’t stand for “see on symptoms.” It’s lonely sometimes, being the only one who’s right …)

  119. AJP Crown says:

    Si opus sit? I remember my best friend’s father telling him at thirteen he’d better become a dentist because he (like E.L. Wisty) didn’t ‘ave the Latin for the doctoring. He did so, but you wouldn’t really need all that much Latin, I’d have thought. If surgeons were required to become linguists as well, we’d have a shortage of both.

  120. David Eddyshaw says:

    Si opus sit, indeed.

    O-Level Latin was actually still a requirement for medical school when I were a lad. I’m that old. Even then, there was no good reason for it (apart from keeping the Wrong Sort of People out, I suppose.) It mostly comes up in anatomy, but I would have thought that memorising all the names of the bits is not materially helped by knowing what they mean in Latin.

  121. It’s tricky, because if you do know what they mean in Latin it seems obvious that of course it helps and why wouldn’t you want to? Similarly, if you are an etymology nut (like myself) you feel that everyone should know where words come from, it helps in so many ways. And yet the vast majority of people get along fine without the specialized knowledge that would cost them more time and effort than it’s worth.

  122. That goes for specialists in any field; physicists think everyone should know physics, farmers think people who don’t know how their food is produced are fools, etc. But all of us are almost completely ignorant about almost everything, and yet we manage to get through life somehow.

  123. Rodger C says:

    I learned c̄ and s̄ in US Army medic training in 1969 and still use them in my notebooks.

    I should have said that Lewis, AFAIK, never attempted a systematic argument for the existence of God after the Anscombe encounter. He said in a letter that he thought that Anscombe (a practicing Catholic) was obliged to say why she did believe in God if it wasn’t on such grounds. I imagine that he put the question to her and that she replied, in effect, “Why do you think it’s called a faith?”

  124. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t know about Anscombe, who was cleverer than I and incomparably more clued up on the relevant philosophy, but I’ve never been happy with systematic arguments for the existence of God, for reasons much like those. Apart from the fact that I’ve never come across one that actually seems valid on its own terms (though I have a gobsmacked admiration for St Anselm’s snake-eating-its-own-tail ontological proof), the very idea seems open to theological objection. If belief in the existence of God were a matter of being able to follow a robust argument, then all the clever people would believe in the existence of God, and the stupid people wouldn’t. Quite apart from the fact that this doesn’t actually seem to be the case, it cuts right across the Christian concept of salvation: it’s more Gnostic, really.

    (There’s the point that belief in the existence of God, if perhaps necessary to salvation, is clearly insufficient [presumably Satan believes that God exists], but the issue still seems awkward to me.)

    Having said that, what Lewis was engaged in was mostly apologetics rather than evangelism (hardly anybody has ever been argued into faith.) The idea is not to demonstrate that Christian doctrines are obviously correct, but to defend them against the charge of being logically or morally incoherent.

  125. I’ve never been happy with systematic arguments for the existence of God, for reasons much like those. Apart from the fact that I’ve never come across one that actually seems valid on its own terms …, the very idea seems open to theological objection. If belief in the existence of God were a matter of being able to follow a robust argument, then all the clever people would believe in the existence of God, and the stupid people wouldn’t. Quite apart from the fact that this doesn’t actually seem to be the case, it cuts right across the Christian concept of salvation: it’s more Gnostic, really.

    This has always been the Russian attitude; faith is faith, not a scientific hypothesis to be proven.

  126. David Eddyshaw says:

    While I more or less agree with that, I don’t think it’s quite so simple; I think there are core aspects of Christian belief (traditional Christian belief, anyhow) which belong in the same conceptual world as scientific hypotheses, in the sense they are in principle capable of being definitively refuted. I think that follows from the doctrine of Incarnation (and if you jettison that, I can see only cultural reasons for being a Christian, which would evidently be enough for many, but not for me personally.)

    [It’s easy to fall into confusion in discussing this because of an ambiguity in the word “belief”; I’ve been trying to keep to the sense “belief that a state of affairs is so” as opposed to “trust in a person/people”, which is what self-styled “believers” usually actually have in mind when they use the word.]

  127. David L says:

    If belief in the existence of God were a matter of being able to follow a robust argument, then all the clever people would believe in the existence of God, and the stupid people wouldn’t.

    As far as I understand these matters (which is not very) the Scholastics would agree with the first part of that sentence, but then they would say that the less enlightened should still believe as a matter of faith (that, and being condemned to eternal damnation if they didn’t).

    Bertrand Russell dismissed Aquinas as a philosopher for this reason: that if Aquinas could find a logical argument for believing in some aspect of scriptural teaching, he would use it, but if not he would fall back on faith and the mysteriousness of His ways.

  128. David Eddyshaw says:

    Russell, I think, misinterpreted what Aquinas was actually trying to do: easy enough, given how fundamentally unsympathetic Russell evidently felt Aquinas’ objectives to be. He wrongly supposed that Aquinas was trying to achieve Russell’s sort of objectives, and thus concluded that he was actually doing so very badly. A bit like somebody looking at a soccer match and wondering why nobody has picked up the ball.

  129. David Marjanović says:

    a gobsmacked admiration for St Anselm’s snake-eating-its-own-tail ontological proof

    I was gobsmacked enough by what a nominalist word game it is that I didn’t come up with Gaunilo’s island myself, despite how obvious it is in hindsight (and how pathetic the “criticism” from Anselm himself all the way to *eyeroll* Plantinga).

    the very idea seems open to theological objection

    That’s the post-Vatican-II attitude, at least as I was taught it: a god small enough to be provable by Puny Humans wouldn’t be a god. (The dào that can…)

    presumably Satan believes that God exists

    James 2:19: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”

  130. David L says:

    given how fundamentally unsympathetic Russell evidently felt Aquinas’ objectives to be

    I wouldn’t be surprised, and having read about Aquinas only in Russell’s jaundiced analysis, I daresay I am missing something. Russell portrays his goal as being to make belief — Christian belief, specifically — philosophically ineluctable.

    According to Wikipedia, Aquinas never considered himself a philosopher, and criticized philosophers, whom he saw as pagans, for always “falling short of the true and proper wisdom to be found in Christian revelation.”

    But if revelation is the ultimate source of truth, then Russell’s opinion doesn’t seem that far off the mark.

  131. David Eddyshaw says:

    Aquinas’ position is not that revelation is the sole ultimate source of truth, except in the few (but in his view, critical) areas where other sources either do not or could not in principle be adduced. For Aquinas, the truth of revelation is axiomatic; what he’s about is showing that this does not entail the position that other sources of truth are necessarily invalid or that the tradition of Western philosophy is hopelessly incompatible with Christian belief: on the contrary, it can even help in the interpretation of revelation itself, and moreover is our only recourse in the great majority of cases, where revelation is silent.

    As Russell’s starting point is more or less the exact opposite, the very nearest he might have come (without greater powers of philosophical imagination) to an accommodation with Aquinas would have been a sort of grudging admission that Religion was perhaps all very well in its way, perhaps as a sort of autosuggestive wellness technique. As I myself regard that sort of religion as pointless and rebarbative, my sympathies are actually with Russell in having no truck with it. He’s still fallen into the Fundamental Attribution Error (who does not, once in a while?)

  132. Lewis understood perfectly well that logic was insufficient to demonstrate the existence of the divine. I mentioned above the Emerald Witch’s arguments in favor of (Narnian) atheism in The Silver Chair; there is nothing logical or even scholastic about Puddleglum’s subsequent rebuttal. Here it is, delivered by Tom Baker. (Pardon the terrible 1980s BBC special effects.)

    Lewis was a firm believer in the Pauline idea that all humans are constantly exposed to the divine presence of God, so that logic was unnecessary to justify belief. He felt that the natural state of humanity was acceptance of the obvious presence of the divine, and that unbelief required active and perfidious refusal to acknowledge that presence. That his own early atheism was part of a reaction against certain hated features of the British society of his youth helped him come to the conclusion that his rejection of God had been a petulant, unjustified, knee-jerk response to society. I discussed this here, in connection with the well known “problem” of Susan’s later denial of Narnia.

  133. David Eddyshaw says:

    My difficulty with Paul’s argument is not with the idea that atheism, knowingly or not, involves active disbelief (my own experience, like Lewis’s; though the notion is – very understandably – extremely annoying to atheists, and er, not a good basis for evangelism, let’s say.)

    It’s that Paul takes it as read that the evidence of creation shows that God is good. Paradoxically, this may have seemed more obviously a truism for people living in harder and more precarious times than we do. Lower expectations – I don’t know.

  134. David L says:

    @DE: Thank, you that’s very illuminating. But it leaves open the question of what happens when revealed truth clashes with other forms of truth. My interest in Aquinas, such as it is, came about in trying to understand better the collision between the Church and Galileo.

    Simplistically, Thomism would seem to lead to what some scientists dismiss as the “God of the Gaps” argument, according to which religious thinkers hold on to theology as the explanation for those things that are beyond the reach of science–those things steadily diminishing in number as science keeps nibbling away.

  135. David Eddyshaw says:

    Reminds me of JP Donleavy’s:

    A: Why are you growing a beard?
    B: I’m not doing anything, Why are you shaving every day?

  136. John Cowan says:

    Smullyan, however, gave an ontological proof that is perfectly sound formally, given its axioms (note that property and perfection are undefined terms) must be correct:

    Axiom 1. The property of existence is a perfection.

    Axiom 2 (the ontological axiom). Given any perfection P, if all things having Property P also have the property of existence, then there is at least one entity having the Property P.

    Theorem 1. (the ontological theorem). Something exists; that is, there is at least one entity that has the property of existence.

    Axiom 3. Given any class C of perfections, the property of having all the
    perfections in C is again a perfection.

    Axiom 4. There is a class of perfections that contains all perfections.

    Theorem 2 (the weak bible theorem). There is, at least, one god — moreover, an existent one.

    Axiom 5. For any god g, the property of being identical to g is a perfection.

    Theorem 3 (the strong Bible theorem). There is exactly one God.

    Whitehead, of course, defined Unitarian as someone who believes in at most one God. Smullyan’s argument strikes me as a hapenny worth of bread for an intolerable deal of sack, but others may think differently. (Which reminds me of the wife’s complaint that she has to do all the marketing, because her American husband “simply refuses to say thruppence-hapenny; he says it’s silly”.)

    Of course, Kant tells us that Existenz ist kein reales Prädikat, which kills Axiom 1. (I am not sure of the force of reales in Kantese.

    what self-styled “believers” usually actually have in mind when they use the word.

    True enough, but when applied to God the two fuse. I trust that Trump exists, but I don’t trust in Trump; I don’t see how anyone can trust in God while (as I do) remaining agnostic about the existence of God. Though perhaps “Waiting for God-o” is a refutation of this…

    I think that follows from the doctrine of Incarnation

    I don’t see how. What scientific tests could you have applied to Jesus to find out if he was, in fact, divine, much less partly divine or a compound of human and divine in stoichiometric ratio? (Miracles are, alas, too easy to fake, especially under 1C conditions.) Of course, the untestable is not the unprovable. As Smullyan also says, my chair may be thrown through the window five hours from now, or it may not. But no amount of testing either the chair or its environment will tell me which. (This presumes either quantum indeterminacy or free will, though I reject the explanation of the latter using the former.)

    Smullyan used this example in pursuit of the notion that real is a relative term and likewise untestable, saying that objects in his dreams were real while he was dreaming, but not after he wakes up, and wondering if after his death the objects of his life would seem equally real or unreal to him then. He may know now, or he may not, but in either case he is not going to tell us.

  137. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David L:

    I think Aquinas would rather have characterised his position as “philosophy of the gaps” …

    My own theological wisdom is not world-celebrated (for some reason), but FWIW:

    The areas where scientific explanations of the natural world have actually displaced previous explanations based on religion (at least the sort of religion we’re talking about) are either fewer than people commonly think, and/or involve forcing literalistic interpretations onto religious texts which would have astonished their original authors (the fact that it is often modern believers who do this doesn’t make it any the less wrong.)

    I don’t know of any case where such reevaluation has any bearing on an essential doctrine, though admittedly it might be said that this could be achieved by retrospectively adjusting what you mean by “essential”, and also the nature of the case is such that it’s not obvious how this could happen even in principle. For example, it is a core doctrine that God created the universe, and many simple folk have seized on the physical Big Bang as showing that yet again, this “proves” that Science (when properly understood, of course) can only support Revelation; however, even if the consensus among physicists were in fact a Steady State, given that it is also doctrine that God created time and himself stands outside it, there’s no real difficulty: it would just make the task of Sunday School teachers more challenging. (“No, Abigail, you need to think of four dimensions … here, let me show you with this paper model.”)

    Having said that, I also think that the “God of the Gaps” taunt needs taking seriously. To some extent, accepting the idea in those terms is a mistake, based on retrospectively assigning whole categories of human thought anachronistically to Religion (our forebears would have been baffled by our categories); but there is (it seems to me) a particular danger of confining religion to an entirely subjective realm where horrid unbelieving physicists can never penetrate (psychologists might, but who cares about them?) As I said, I think this is particularly the case with a religion which centres on Incarnation.

    In principle, (traditional) Christianity could be refuted. It makes assertions about historical events which might not be true, and they’re not peripheral to the doctrine but central to it. In practice, granted, it’s pretty hard to see how this could happen, and it would moreover actually be quite legitimate Lakatosian philosophy-of-science to refuse to give up the Theory too readily anyway at the first production of inconvenient counter-evidence. Nevertheless, I think the potential for refutation is important, because it bears on what intellectual category Christianity belongs to: in particular, it does belong by nature to the universe of God of the Gaps (though the Gaps are much larger than the non-Gaps, always were, and always will be; and much more important.)

    In case I might be thought to be ceding too much ground here, I should perhaps fess up to being personally committed to a degree of Biblical literalism which is, to say the least, highly unfashionable in the intellectual and political (and to some extent, ecclesiastical) circles in which I move, and it is indeed incompatible with some large chunks of modern scientific understanding of How Things Are. On a day-to-day basis I cope with this through the tried-and-trusted ever-reliable technique of cognitive dissonance; I also have no problem with using scientific theories whose ultimate truth I disbelieve in if they work as reliable heuristics (the mirror image of the friendly humanist’s idea that religion may not be, like, true, but can be indulged a bit if it helps people.) On more reflective days I try to keep an open mind. And it’s good mental exercise having to think through why you believe the things you do. The intellectual suicide bit comes when you convince yourself that you can stop worrying about it because you’ve arrived at the Truth already. A few of my US cousins would appear to have reached this particular Nirvana …

  138. Very interesting indeed, and I thank you for sharing all that!

  139. Stu Clayton says:

    On more reflective days I try to keep an open mind.

    I have systematized that. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when confronted with dissent about whatever might be the issues of the day, I try to entertain the possibility that I might be wrong. On other working days I crush the opposition like a flower beneath the foot. This is a bracing exercise for all involved.

  140. David Eddyshaw says:

    Once a week is probably enough, I feel (not the Sabbath, obviously.)

  141. David L says:

    Yes, my thanks too.

  142. Stu Clayton says:

    the tried-and-trusted ever-reliable technique of cognitive dissonance

    Quite right. Fred said it this way: ich mißtraue allen Systematikern und gehe ihnen aus dem Weg. Der Wille zum System ist ein Mangel an Rechtschaffenheit.

  143. David Eddyshaw says:

    Hey! I’ve become a Nietzschean, and I knew it not.

  144. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when confronted with dissent about whatever might be the issues of the day, I try to entertain the possibility that I might be wrong

    This sounds like an Orwell translation of a Pooh poem.

  145. David Eddyshaw says:

    We should attempt to reconstruct the Vorlage.

  146. Stu Clayton says:

    TR: Good catch ! That’s exactly what I wanted to convey. A bit of smarm warmed over a right-thinking fire.

  147. Stu Clayton says:

    the Vorlage

    I think it’s one of his little “sayings”, slapped down among others with no linear argumentative intent. From Götzendämmerung mebbe.

  148. David Eddyshaw says:

    Pooh wrote Götzendämmerung? I had no idea. Milne’s portrait of him is evidently very one-sided.

  149. Stu Clayton says:
  150. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ah. Now I see.

  151. David Eddyshaw says:

    It would never have occurred to me that Winnie the Pooh was a thinly disguised caricature of Friedrich Nietzsche, though once it’s been pointed out it’s pretty obvious, in hindsight. The clues were all there.

    This calls for a wholesale reevaluation of the canon.

  152. Stu Clayton says:

    A chicken in every pot, and Nietzsche in every nursery.

  153. A philosopher of very little brain.

  154. Trond Engen says:

    John Tyerman Williams: Pooh and the Philosophers : In Which It Is Shown That All of Western Philosophy Is Merely a Preamble to Winnie-The-Pooh (1995)

  155. I remember The Pooh Perplex from my young youth. (Reviewed here.)

  156. Talk to a very old Princetonian (I’m the former but not the latter) and you’ll hear à clef about P. R. Honeycomb ( = R. P. Blackmur, author of The Lion and the Honeycomb) and Murphy R. Sweat ( = Carlos Baker, the biographer of Faulkner and Hemingway who refused to teach graduate courses). And since the names of F.R. and Q.D. came up the other day, notice also the contribution from Simon Lacerous.

    Crews knew better than to try to imitate the F.R. prose style, though. The sentence from Dickens and the Novel that I kept pinned to my carrel’s corkboard for inspiration while I was writing my dissertation was, and this probably deserves a soundtrack:

    “I can’t but observe that the critical consciousness to which this kind of confidence belongs operates at decidedly a not-profound level.”

  157. That is an amazing sentence.

  158. J.W. Brewer says:

    Crews’ belated sequel of four decades later (Postmodern Pooh, published 2004) did not become nearly as much of a classic. Perhaps the quality of his satire had declined, or perhaps literary academia had descended further enough into self-parody that there was little market left for “regular” parody. (I will say that Orpheus Bruno, the roman a clef stand-in for the since-deceased Harold Bloom, is reasonably well-done.)

  159. Correction: Carlos Baker didn’t write a biography of Faulkner. He did Hemingway, and at the time of his death he was working on Emerson. I got the Faulkner attribution from the parody, and Emerson probably would have had something to say about that.

  160. On the general topic of initialized writers, I discovered yesterday that J. D. Bernal, known to his intimates as Des(mond) or Sage (his nickname), is called by Russians Джон Бернал (John Bernal). This amused me.

    (Well, he was so known in Soviet days, when he was talked about a lot because he was a committed communist all his life and president of the Soviet-dominated World Peace Council; I doubt Russians talk about him much these days.)

  161. AJP Crown says:

    Father of Martin Bernal, who wrote Black Athena.

  162. Yes, that surprises me every time I rediscover it.

  163. John Cowan says:

    if you do know what they mean in Latin it seems obvious that of course it helps and why wouldn’t you want to?

    Etymologies may be more fun to learn than word meanings, but surely no easier. And while the etymologies can help you distinguish perineal, peroneal, perirenal, perianal, peritoneal from one another, it’s still hard to remember which is which on the fly.

    it cuts right across the Christian concept of salvation: it’s more Gnostic, really

    Quite so, which is why both gnostic and agnostic are dirty words in mainstream Christianity.

    The dào that can…

    Le Guin’s version from Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way:

    The way you can go
    isn’t the real way.
    The name you can say
    isn’t the real name.

    Heaven and earth
    begin in the unnamed:
    name’s the mother
    of the ten thousand things.

    So the unwanting soul
    sees what’s hidden,
    and the ever-wanting soul
    sees only what it wants.

    Two things, one origin,
    but different in name,
    whose identity is mystery.
    Mystery of all mysteries!
    The door to the hidden.

    And here’s mine, from The Unix Power Classic: A book about the Unix Way and its power:

    The route you can traverse
      isn’t a static route.
    The name you can dereference
      isn’t a universal name.

    Namelessness is the root of everything.
    Names are the mother of everything.

    Therefore,
       the unchanging, seen from outside the box,
        reveals its inner nature;
      the unchanging, seen from inside the box,
        reveals its outer form.

    These two are alike in origin,
      but different in name.
    Their unity is called “the mystery”.

    Mystery of all mysteries,
      the gate to all wonders.

    Le Guin’s commentary, with which I agree:

    A satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible. It contains the book. I think of it as the Aleph, in Borges’s story: if you see it rightly, it contains everything. [I in turn think of it as Blake’s “moment in each day that Satan cannot find”.]

    Neither of us knows any Chinese to speak of; we depend heavily on the literal renderings by Carus (her) and Star (me). She also had a lot of help from the Chinese scholar J. P. Seaton, whereas I didn’t.

    I should perhaps fess up to being personally committed to a degree of Biblical literalism which is, to say the least, highly unfashionable […] On a day-to-day basis I cope with this through the tried-and-trusted ever-reliable technique of cognitive dissonance; I also have no problem with using scientific theories whose ultimate truth I disbelieve in if they work as reliable heuristics

    This at once made me think of Le Guin’s Hainish people, who are described in the most detail in “A Man of the People”, part of the story-suite Four Ways to Forgiveness. The Hainish are divided into the people of the pueblos, the vast majority, and the historians (Hain has three million years of history, though the first two million are pretty much uninterpretable today). Occasionally, pueblans become historians.

    Historians are involved in all the sciences, many arts, and many forms of technology. About a million years ago, they discovered nearly-as-fast-as-light space travel and sent out colonists to about eighty-odd worlds, including ours, adjusting the people sent to the local life as much as possible. In recent millennia they have been exploring those worlds, the good the bad and the ugly, and with the help of the ansible, an instantaneous communication device, a dynamic stability called the Ekumen (after Kroeber’s Oikumene, of course) has arisen to keep them all talking. As Le Guin says elsewhere, the Ekumen is an experiment in the superorganic, and as such is mostly a failure, but a failure that does more good than most successes.

    Here’s a historian explaining to Havzhiva, a man of what used to be her pueblo, what the difference is:

    ‘I began a new education. I changed being. I learned to be a historian.’

    ‘How?’ he asked, after a long silence.

    She drew a long breath. ‘By asking hard questions; she said. ‘Like you’re doing now . . . And by giving up all the knowledge I had — throwing it away.’

    ‘How?’ he asked again, frowning. ‘Why?’

    ‘Like this. When I left, I knew I was a Buried Cable [one of the three exogamic clans of the pueblo] woman. When I was there I had to unknow that knowledge. There, I’m not a Buried Cable woman. I’m a woman. I can have sex with any person I choose. I can take up any profession I choose.

    Lineage matters, here. It does not matter, there. It has meaning here, and a use. It has no meaning and no use, anywhere else in the universe.’ She was as intense as he, now. ‘There are two kinds of knowledge, local and universal. There are two kinds of time, local and historical.’

    ‘Are there two kinds of gods?’

    ‘No,’ she said. ‘There are no gods there. The gods are here.’

    She saw his face change.

    She said after a while, ‘There are souls, there. Many, many souls, minds, minds full of knowledge and passion. Living and dead. People who lived on this earth a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand years ago. Minds and souls of people from worlds a hundred light-years from this one, all of them with their own knowledge, their own history. The world is sacred, Havzhiva. The cosmos is sacred. That’s not a knowledge I ever had to give up. All I learned, here and there, only increased it. There’s nothing that is not sacred.’ She spoke slowly and quietly, the way most people talked in the pueblo. ‘You can choose the local sacredness or the great one. In the end they’re the same. But not in the life one lives. “To know there is a choice is to have to make the choice: change or stay: river or rock.” The Peoples are the rock. The historians are the river.’

    After a while he said,‘Rocks are the river’s bed.’

    Havzhiva at historian school:

    The old knowledge had been difficult but not distressing. It had been all paradox and myth, and it had made sense. The new knowledge was all fact and reason, and it made no sense. […] For instance, he knew now that historians did not study history. No human mind could encompass the history of Hain: […]. What the historians mostly did was explore, in an easy and unhurried fashion, the local reach and moment of the river.

    Hain itself had been for several thousand years in an unexciting period marked by the coexistence of small, stable, self-contained societies, currently called pueblos, with a high-technology, low-density network of cities and information centers, currently called the temple.

    […] By now Havzhiva knew that everything he had learned in Stse, all the knowledge he had had, could be labeled: typical pueblo culture of northwestern coastal South Continent. He knew that the beliefs, practices, kinship systems, technologies, and intellectual organising patterns of the different pueblos were entirely different one from another, wildly different, totally bizarre — just as bizarre as the system of Stse — and he knew that such systems were to be met with on every Known World that contained human populations living in small, stable groups with a technology adapted to their environment, a low, constant birth rate, and a political life based on consent.

    At first such knowledge had been intensely distressing. It had been painful. It had made him ashamed and angry. First he thought the historians kept their knowledge from the pueblos, then he thought the pueblos kept knowledge from their own people. He accused; his teachers mildly denied. No, they said. You were taught that certain things were true, or necessary; and those things are true and necessary. They are the local knowledge of Stse.

    They are childish, irrational beliefs! he said. They looked at him, and he knew he had said something childish and irrational.

    Local knowledge is not partial knowledge, they said. There
    are different ways of knowing. Each has its own qualities, penalties, rewards. Historical knowledge and scientific knowledge are a way of knowing. Like local knowledge, they must be learned. The way they know in the Household isn’t taught in the pueblos, but it wasn’t hidden from you, by your people or by us. Everybody anywhere on Hain has access to all the information in the temple.

    This was true; he knew it to be true. […]

    By his third year, Havzhiva had decided that there was more than one kind of people. The pueblans, able to accept that existence is fundamentally arbitrary, enriched the world intellectually and spiritually. Those who couldn’t be satisfied with mystery were more likely to be of use as historians, enriching the world intellectually and materially.

    Much later, when Havzhiva enters the Ekumenical Service, he realizes that all knowledge is local.

    Blake says that the artist’s job is not to believe his religion, or to disbelieve it, but to see what it means.

  164. Excellent quote from LeGuin. (I fixed some typos.)

  165. John Cowan says:

    Thanks!

  166. David Marjanović says:

    My difficulty with Paul’s argument is not with the idea that atheism, knowingly or not, involves active disbelief (my own experience, like Lewis’s; though the notion is – very understandably – extremely annoying to atheists, and er, not a good basis for evangelism, let’s say.)

    Well, what exactly is Paul’s claim?

    I have always taken it to mean that evidence, perfectly scientific evidence, of the divine surrounds us and is obvious enough that any atheist would be a Discworld Atheist. (…Check out the “Other” examples.) In other words, a huge “God of the Gaps” argument. In Paul’s time and long after, up until quite recently, that was, at worst, a perfectly respectable inference, because more parsimonious explanations for large and numerous gaps had not been found. (Dawkins: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”)

    Or is the claim that we perceive the divine directly, by a sensus divinitatis, rather than by interpreting evidence? Because that’s not my experience either.

    I should mention at this point that there are natural-born skeptics who, when they’re little, take for granted that religion is how grown-ups play make-believe. Then, around age 8, they’re shocked to discover that adults actually believe this. They generally conclude they’re surrounded by idiots and cannot figure out, for the rest of their lives, how anyone can believe in anything so self-evidently absurd as a god. I am not one of these. By default, I believe what I’m told or what I read. It’s only when that contradicts something I learned earlier that I apply skepticism. So, I have believed, I have prayed, had no reason to go into denial, and yet felt nothing. Some people do; indeed, as I recently learned, some American denominations expect the faithful to feel interesting things when they pray, and teach them that explicitly; but evidently not everyone is like that. (…Mother Teresa once did, and then she didn’t anymore, went deep into despair and then basically decided to become a bodhisattva.)

    It’s that Paul takes it as read that the evidence of creation shows that God is good. Paradoxically, this may have seemed more obviously a truism for people living in harder and more precarious times than we do.

    I don’t think it was, actually – hence the concepts of divine punishment (blaming the victim), karma (blaming the victim’s previous incarnation) and original sin (blaming Adam & Eve). Theodicy didn’t begin with the holocaust.

    I think that follows from the doctrine of Incarnation

    I don’t see how. What scientific tests could you have applied to Jesus to find out if he was, in fact, divine, much less partly divine or a compound of human and divine in stoichiometric ratio?

    Look at it from the other side: if there was no “historical Jesus”, you can keep all the epistles and Revelation, but the gospels go out the window, and so does half of the Nicene Creed. (And those feet didn’t do anything in ancient times.)

    I don’t know of any case where such reevaluation has any bearing on an essential doctrine, though admittedly it might be said that this could be achieved by retrospectively adjusting what you mean by “essential”

    Prime example: American creationists like to point out that if Adam & Eve never existed, there’s no original sin, no need for a savior, Christianity vanishes in a puff of logic, and we’re all going to die for real. Not so, says the Catholic Church: because we’re descended from mere animals, we have an imperfect, sinful nature and totally need a savior.

    “No, Abigail, you need to think of four dimensions … here, let me show you with this paper model.”

    At least it’s a model! I remember when Scientific American printed “a 3D projection of a 4D hypercube”… of course it was a 2D projection of a 3D projection of a 4D hypercube, and therefore quite incomprehensible.

    The intellectual suicide bit comes when you convince yourself that you can stop worrying about it because you’ve arrived at the Truth already.

    That’s why it’s so important that science is not a quest for truth – it’s the quest for every single falsehood.

    It would never have occurred to me that Winnie the Pooh was a thinly disguised caricature of Friedrich Nietzsche, though once it’s been pointed out it’s pretty obvious, in hindsight.

    Thinly disguised caricatures all the way up!

    Quite so, which is why both gnostic and agnostic are dirty words in mainstream Christianity.

    Admittedly, agnostic was only coined in 1869.

  167. John Cowan says:

    J. D. Bernal, known to his intimates as Des(mond) or Sage (his nickname), is called by Russians Джон Бернал (John Bernal).

    I thought that was more or less necessary in order to avoid confusion with name and patronymic initials, just as H.G. Wells is Герберт Джордж Уэллс or just Герберт Уэллс.

    The Problem of Pain

    There’s a Poul Anderson story called that. It’s about the exploration of a new planet by a mixed team of humans and Ythrians (flying mammaloids and obligate carnivores):

    He drank, looked as near the cruel bluish sun as he was able, and mumbled: “What I couldn’t do was forgive God.”

    “The problem of evil,” I said.

    Oh, no. I’ve studied these matters, these past years: read theology, argued with priests, the whole route. Why does God, if He is a loving and personal God, allow evil? Well, there’s a perfectly good Christian answer to that. Man—intelligence everywhere—must have free will. Otherwise we’re puppets and have no reason to exist. Free will necessarily includes the capability of doing wrong. We’re here, in this cosmos during our lives, to learn how to be good of our unforced choice.”

    “I spoke illiterately,” I apologized. “All that brandy. No, sure, your logic is right, regardless of whether I accept your premises or not. What I meant was: the problem of pain. Why does a merciful God permit undeserved agony? If He’s omnipotent, He isn’t compelled to.

    “I’m not talking about the sensation which warns you to take your hand from the fire, anything useful like that. No, the random accident which wipes out a life…or a mind—” I drank

    “What happened to Arrach, yes, and to Enherrian, and Olga, and you, and Whell [the other characters of the story both Ythrian and human, who died in agony from metallic vapors that are a slow poison]. What happens when a disease hits, or those catastrophes we label acts of God. Or the slow decay of us if we grow very old. Every such horror. Never mind if science has licked some of them; we have enough left, and then there were our ancestors who endured them all.

    “Why? What possible end is served? It’s not adequate to declare we’ll receive anunbounded reward after we die and therefore it makes no difference whether a life was gusty or grisly. That’s no explanation. “Is this the problem you’re grappling with, Pete?”

    “In a way.” He nodded, cautiously, as if he were already his father’s age. “At least, it’s the start of the problem.”

    You see, there I was, isolated among Ythrians. My fellow humans sympathized, but they had nothing to say that I didn’t know already. The New Faith [Ythri’s revealed religion], however… Mind you, I wasn’t about to convert. What I did hope for was an insight, a freshness, that’d help memake Christian sense of our losses. Enherrian was so sure, so learned, in his beliefs.

    “We talked, and talked, and talked, while I was regaining my strength. He was as caught as me. Not that he couldn’t fit our troubles into his scheme of things. That was easy. But it turned out that the New Faith has no satisfactory answer to the problem of evil. It says God allows wickedness so we may win honor by fighting for the right. Really, when you stop to think, that’s weak, especially in carnivore Ythrian terms. Don’t you agree?”

    “You know them, I don’t,” I sighed. “You imply they have a better answer to the riddle of pain than your own religion does.”

    “It seems better.” Desperation edged his slightly blurred tone: “They’re hunters, or were until lately. They see God like that, as the Hunter. Not the Torturer—you absolutely must understand this point—no, He rejoices in our happiness the way we might rejoice to see a game animal gamboling. Yet at last He comes after us. Our noblest moment is when we, knowing He is irresistible, give Him a good chase, a good fight.

    “Then He wins honor. And some infinite end is furthered.” (The same one as when my God is given praise? How can I tell?)

    “We’re dead, struck down, lingering at most a few years in the memories of those who escaped this time. And that’s what we’re here for. That’s why God created the universe.”

    “And this belief is old,” I said. “It doesn’t belong just to a few cranks. No, it’s been held for centuries by millions of sensitive, intelligent, educated beings. You can live by it, you can die by it. If it doesn’t solve every paradox, it solves some that your faith won’t, quite. This is your dilemma, true?”

    He nodded again. “The priests have told me to deny a false creed and to acknowledge a mystery. Neither instruction feels right. Or am I asking too much?”

    “I’m sorry, Pete,” I said, altogether honestly. It hurt. “But how should I know? I looked into the abyss once, and saw nothing, and haven’t looked since. You keep looking. Which of us is the braver?”

    “Maybe you can find a text in Job. I don’t know, I tell you, I don’t know.”

    The sun lifted higher above the burning horizon.

  168. SFReader says:

    Winnie the Pooh was a thinly disguised caricature of Friedrich Nietzsche

    I wonder who the Piglet was then.

  169. @David Marjanović: I do not know what Paul personally intended by his notion that the presence of the divine was manifestly present around us—nor does anyone else, really, although there have been nearly two millennia of people ascribing particularly interpretations to what he wrote.* However, Lewis definitely believed in the presence of the Holy Spirit as humanity’s ever-attendant companion. He was not convinced of the existence of God in order to explain away the nature of lightning or earthquakes, but because he later decided that his atheism had been a petulant denial of the manifest reality of God’s intimate presence:

    You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.

    * Paul’s views on this are most completely set out in the Epistle to the Romans, the longest of the Pauline letters and possibly the chronologically last of the ones which is genuinely Paul’s work.

  170. David Marjanović says:

    whom I so earnestly desired not to meet

    Yeah, well, that’s just alien to me. 😐

  171. I thought that was more or less necessary in order to avoid confusion with name and patronymic initials, just as H.G. Wells is Герберт Джордж Уэллс or just Герберт Уэллс.

    Huh? If it’s not necessary in English, why would it be necessary in Russian? And why “John” rather than the accurate “Desmond” if you absolutely have to have a given name? (Perhaps you are not aware that spelled-out names are not universally used in Russian — initials are absolutely standard in formal reference.)

  172. David Eddyshaw says:

    I wonder who the Piglet was then

    John Stuart Mill (who was, of course, known as “Piglet” to his intimates.)

    There can be no doubt but that Eeyore is Schopenhauer.

  173. Stu Clayton says:

    I had no immediate intuition about Piglet, but Eeyore is definitely Schopenhauer. Perhaps Piglet was one of his poodles (they were all named Atma).

    I mention this possibility because Mill thought it important to consider all sides of a question:

    # It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question. #

    There are Satanic Mills, and there are Silly Mills.

  174. John Cowan says:

    And why “John” rather than the accurate “Desmond” if you absolutely have to have a given name?

    J.D. Bernal = John Desmond Bernal.

  175. Yes, I know that. But he didn’t use John.

  176. Lars Mathiesen says:

    better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied — that’s one of those ‘two kinds of people’ things, isn’t it?

    I’m in the camp of ‘the one who has laughed the most, wins.’

  177. a footnote at this point, after a conversation that’s gone in such long & lovely directions, but yiddish also uses s p a c i n g for emphasis (i don’t know under what name) – at least in orthographically ‘modernized’ scholarly contexts. the convention’s obviously imported from german, but does make me wonder whether any other non-roman scripts have also adopted the form. the advantages seem clear for either the movable type era (no need for a second typeface) or the contemporary html era (flexible tags, officially “semantic” or not), but not really for any publication technology besides those two…

    @John Cowan: i love those passages from “A Man of the People” – Five Ways to Forgiveness is one of my favorite of le guin’s books. but they seem to me to be fundamentally (and i’d argue deliberately) about practice-based systems rather than belief-based ones (the sort that christianity gave us the notion of “religion” to describe). the former generally don’t claim to be more than ‘local knowledges’; the latter have great difficulty limiting their claims to the ‘local’. i hasten to add: that doesn’t imply any pattern in their relationships to alternate ways of moving through the world, just that orthopraxy doesn’t have the kind of structural universalism as orthodoxy does (at least in systems of thought that insist on truth being constant across time and space).

    @languagehat: all folklore is fanfic! harry potter slash is at least as authentically neolithic as commensal goats.

  178. AJP Crown says:

    If Schopenhauer is Eeyore, Hegel is Rabbit.

    There’s also a case for Piglet being Kant, who said something about pygmies avoiding the drunken giants of colonialism but piglets would also make sense. There’s imo an even better case for Christopher Robin – who has to go off to what we infer as school at the end of The House at Pooh Corner – than there is for Aslan, as Jesus. The only difference is that the author made no claims about it.

  179. David Eddyshaw says:

    Tigger, the “new animal in the forest”, is pretty evidently Bertrand Russell.

    Owl is a somewhat cruel portrayal of an all too recognisable Hegel. Milne was notoriously unsympathetic to German Idealism.

  180. AJP Crown says:

    Hegel licked the end of his pencil, and wondered how to spell “Phänomenologie.”

  181. the convention’s obviously imported from german, but does make me wonder whether any other non-roman scripts have also adopted the form.

    Russian does (presumably also borrowed from German); they call it разрядка [razryadka], with the associated adverb вразрядку [vrazryadku].

    all folklore is fanfic! harry potter slash is at least as authentically neolithic as commensal goats.

    Fair enough!

  182. ktschwarz says:

    AJP (back on May 25), thanks for the link to Wikipedia on sigla — I should’ve known not to underestimate Unicode. Sure enough, that curlicue has its own codepoint at U+1DD2 COMBINING US ABOVE: Pygg᷒, no need for a workaround. And so do a bunch of other abbreviation marks: ꝑſel (persel, i.e. parsley), ſau̅ay (saueray, i.e. savory), qͥnces (quinces), powdo᷑ (powdour). (I think the blog specifies a font that includes all those; let’s see what happens. Looks OK in my browser.)

    And I should’ve also expected that The Forme of Cury has been discussed at Language Hat before! The reason why the 1780 printed version was able to include all those marks is because the printer was also working on the first printed edition of Domesday Book, which they wanted to reproduce *exactly* as written because sacred document, so they created a typeface for it with all the curlicues and overlines and stroked letters.

  183. @ktschwarz: My font set does not apparently include the curlicue, but it does know that it is supposed to appear above the other character. So I get a box directly above the “g” (and likewise a box above the “o” at the end of “powdo”). This is probably the first time I’ve seen something like that. It does, however, reproduce “qͥnces” correctly, probably because that does not involve a special glyph for the stacked character.

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