Melius ex errore.

An interesting quote (via Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti) from Robert A. Hall, Jr., A Life for Language: A Biographical Memoir of Leonard Bloomfield (John Benjamins, 1990):

Part of the strong condemnation expressed in the last sentence quoted above was an outgrowth of Bloomfield’s disgust with the inexactitude and inaccuracy of the folklore taught in our schools as “grammar” (e.g., “a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing”). He used to say that it would be better for school children to remain totally ignorant of grammar than to be taught such traditional but false doctrines. On more than one occasion, I argued with him about this opinion of his, and tried to point out that, if a child is to recognize the desirability of analysing language at all, this must be demonstrated to him at an age when he is interested in such matters. Even if what the child learns is wrong, he can unlearn it later. But, once he has passed beyond the stage of acquiring his native language (normally wholly outside of awareness), he no longer sees any need for discussing or analysing it. I wish I had known the mediaeval Latin aphorism Melius invenitur veritas ex errore quam ex ignorantia ‘it is easier to get at the truth starting from a wrong notion than from no notion at all’, so as to quote it to Bloomfield.

I can understand both points of view; I think I would have firmly agreed with Bloomfield as a fervent young linguist, but now I incline toward Hall’s attitude. (The aphorism is apparently from Francis Bacon, Novum Organum 2.20: citius emergit veritas ex errore quam ex confusione.)

I can’t resist quoting another Laudator post, an excerpt from Alexander Langlands, Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts (2017):

The local potter couldn’t specialise and expect to survive. Instead, they had to turn their hand to a huge range of vessels from pie dishes, pancheons, cream-making pans, bread crocks, butter pots, stew dishes, casseroles, cauldrons, fish dishes and bakers, to storage vessels, ham pans, salt kits, jelly moulds, jugs, plates, bowls and chamber pots. I could go on. In fact, I will: costrels, spittoons, alembics, paint pots, chicken feeders, hog pots, pitchers, fuddling cups, stinkpots, Long Toms, lading pots, bussas, chafing dishes, bed pans, benisons, barm pots, cloughs, clouts, piggins, posset pots, wash pans, whistles and widebottoms.

But wait, there’s more…


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The trouble is that traditional English school grammar is not just error, but confusio as well.

    I think the Baconism (which I’ve always liked) has a rather different sense and application from melius invenitur veritas ex errore quam ex ignorantia. He meant that it’s good to avoid vagueness and muddle in your descriptions, so that both you and others can the more easily see where you go wrong (which you will.) In other words, you should commit yourself to stating your hypotheses plainly, even when (perhaps particularly when) you’re uncertain, rather than hedging.

    I’ve tried (at any rate) to abide by this myself, both in my day job and in my grammar work.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    (The idea has something in common with Luther’s si peccas, pecca fortiter.)

  3. David and Steve, I already told you not to do that. What is “that”?. But go ahead.

  4. Speaking of ceramic diversity, I just learned a term last week: briquetage, a type of clay (.. material or technique or vessel or all three, I’m still not sure …?) used to extract salt in prehistoric times.

  5. “No, please, please, I beg you, anything but THAT!”

    “Anything? Anything? ANYTHING?

    “Ok, THAT, THAT!”

  6. They’ve got some interesting links over at that Laudator (it needs a facelift, this isn’t 2004) including via Anecdotal Evidence (likewise, facelift) Clive James’s contemporary translation of the Divine Comedy – or chunks of it anyway – that I’ve been wanting to read. Perhaps the word is cantos not chunks. Also Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum and The Nietzsche Channel containing all his letters, and then there’s one to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas that looks good for finding wildflowers.

    If anyone wants to know what the salt kits & chamber pots might look like, a good place to start would be the V&A Ceramics Dept. which is absolutely huge as well as wonderful. I go there for fun nearly every time I’m in London and I’m not even interested in ceramics. Looking back, I’m pretty sure my chamber pot was enamelled metal.

  7. it needs a facelift, this isn’t 2004

    Hey, I resemble that remark!

  8. So do I. I’m not casting nasturtiums. LH has a lovely layout and it’s not too in-your-face. It’s easy to read and not too stylised, just b-on-w Helvetica Neue with some red – it’s almost like reading a book or mag (The Nation, but on glossier paper). Some of the early ones (no names) make me wonder if the blogger was typing on rolls of embossed yellowing wallpaper.

  9. And while I’m at it, did you know that George Washington’s gt gt grandmother was called AMPHYLLIS TWIGDEN? They’d make good middle names for a girl now, give her a bit of class.

  10. I am agog.

  11. See wikipedia Lie-to-children and also its “See also” section.

  12. I actually read that as TWIDGEN, which would not give her a bit of class.

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