I learned a new word just now, from Theo Tait’s LRB review of two books on ghosts:

The will to ghost-belief is very strong. Clarke cites the interesting case of 50 Berkeley Square, notorious for a century as ‘the most haunted house in London’. It seems to have been lived in by a recluse for a short period. Thereafter a series of scary stories came to be associated with it: a haunted attic; an ‘evil room’; a housemaid struck dead with fright; the wraith of a sobbing child who had died in the nursery; the ghost of a betrayed woman who had thrown herself out of the window; a police notice forbidding anyone to use the upper floor. Clarke sent an email to the current resident, an antiquarian bookseller, and received the following response: ‘There are absolutely no first-hand accounts of anything at all. It’s fiction reversing into reality – similar to what folklorists call ostension.’ (Technically, I think, it’s quasi-ostension – the interpretation of real events according to folkloric or legendary templates: ostension is when people actually act out the folklore.) These fixed units of ghostly narrative seem to circulate endlessly – the body in the basement, the white lady, the hooded monk – just waiting for a suitable place to take up residence: often the same story concerning Anne Boleyn or the headless horseman or whoever will be found in various locations. And fiction constantly gives the ghost-seers new material. For instance, belief in spirit possession had all but died out in America before The Exorcist came out; now it’s widespread. As the ghost-hunter Harry Price put it: ‘People don’t want the debunk, they want the bunk.’

(Great quote in the last line!) The OED entry for ostension, though updated as of September 2004, does not include this sense; they have only “The action of showing, exhibiting, or making manifest[…] (Now rare)” and “Christian Church. The showing of the consecrated elements to the congregation at the Eucharist; (also) a similar display of some other object of veneration. Now rare (hist.).”

I also learned a new word in Russian, непреложный [neprelozhny] ‘immutable’ (often used in conjunction with закон ‘law’ or истина ‘truth’); I wouldn’t mention it except that in going through the citations in the Национальный корпус русского языка (Corpus of the Russian Language) I discovered that Sukhanov (see this LH post) was addicted to it; in his Записки о революции (Notes on the Revolution) he uses it dozens of times: “Я не поверил ни им, ни непреложным фактам”; “считаясь с непреложностью силы вещей”; “это был исконный, непреложный крик хозяина русской земли”; “Хлеб было непреложное требование авангарда”; “Ведь каждый самый непреложный физический закон может быть парализован в конечном счете иными факторами”; “столкнемся с самыми непреложными доказательствами”; “Ибо в непреложных условиях революции”; “С другой стороны, не все высказанное им может претендовать на роль непреложной истины”; “Я предлагал экономистам выступить на совещании с выяснением экономической конъюнктуры и с непреложным выводом: долой коалицию!”; etc. etc. He must have used it more often than anyone else in the history of Russian. I love finding out things like that, and it’s yet another example of what a wonderful thing the Corpus is.


  1. Ghost stories are always interesting

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    Note that both “ostensible” and “ostentatious” remain current but both are pejorative.

  3. Trond Engen says

    It strikes me that the concept of ostension ties together the several meanings of Norwegian forestilling (which has to be a calque from German). One set of meanings revolve around “displaying”, another around “pretending” and yet another around “imagining”.

  4. Ostension also has a technical meaning in pragmatics, specifically relevance theory. It roughly means behaviour that’s intended to be overtly communicative, as distinct from deniable communication like hints, or accidental communication like the yawn you didn’t manage to stifle, etc.

  5. Greg Lee says

    Following up a reference to the philosophical sense of “ostension”, I too learned a new word: Kripkenstein, discussed in a Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kripkenstein. Although it is written with an initial capital, I’m not sure it is truly a proper noun. It means the unfaithful interpretation by Saul Kripke of Philosophical Investigations, by Ludwig Wittgenstein (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_language_argument). (Yes, “unfaithful” is part of the meaning.)

  6. Jeffry House says

    I am reminded of the way in which the dead began to communicate with the living by irregular thumps during the Victorian seance craze. This communication by thumping began only a few years after the invention of Morse Code.

  7. Yes, there’s a nice bit about that in the review:

    In 1848, the year Crowe’s book was published, the Fox sisters in upstate New York precipitated the mania for spiritualism that took hold of both America and Britain. After being disturbed by unexplained noises, the sisters established contact with the spirit of a murdered pedlar (buried, with wearying predictability, in their cellar). The Foxes effectively invented the séance. Using knocks and raps, Watkins writes, ‘a system of communication – a sort of bespoke Morse code – linking sublunary and spirit worlds was opened up.’

  8. Sure it’s a proper noun. Kripkenstein is an imaginary person, but so is Frankenstein, and nobody doubts that Frankenstein is a proper noun. I think, indeed, that there may be some connotation copied from one to the other: Kripkenstein’s views are in fact a monstrous distortion of Wittgenstein’s, in the same way that Frankenstein’s monster was a distortion of a human being.

  9. Of course, if you try to use the word in the snootier philosophy departments, they will roll their eyes and sniff, “I think you mean Kripkenstein’s monster.”

  10. Greg Lee says

    John, if Kripkenstein were the name of an imaginary person, the word would of course be a proper noun. But why do you say he is an imaginary person? My reference says: “The portmanteau “Kripkenstein” has been coined as a nickname for Kripke’s reading of the Philosophical Investigations.” A “reading” is not a person. And elsewhere, “Kripke’s account is considered by some commentators to be unfaithful to Wittgenstein,[28] and as a result has been referred to as “Kripkenstein”.” And an “account” is not a person.
    I think Kripkenstein is, rather, spelled with a capital for the same reason that American or British are, though clearly they are not proper nouns. The capitalization is inherited from the noun stem from which the form is derived: Kripke.

  11. marie-lucie says

    In French there is the concrete noun un ostensoir ‘monstrance’. This object serves to show the consecrated host to the faithful during the Catholic mass; the host is placed under glass in the centre of a golden sun shape with rays, above a vertical handle which the priest holds aloft. Figuratively there is the noun ostentation and the adjective ostentatoire, both of which refer to making a deliberate display (often of wealth, but also of emotion, etc – for instance a defence lawyer in full sway in the courtroom).

  12. marie-lucie says

    I was forgetting ostensible ‘visible, showy, obvious’, and its adverb ostensiblement which refers to something obvious rather than pretended as in English.

  13. Bill Walderman says

    Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir.

  14. Webster’s Revised Unabridged (1913) has the following: “(Eccl.) The showing of the sacrament on the altar in order that it may receive the adoration of the communicants.”
    I also like the quoted passage’s compact phrase “ghost-belief”. Maybe we could ostense the verb “ghost-believe” out of it.

  15. >Marie-lucie
    In Spanish this object is “ostensorio” (also from Latin “ostensorium”). The glass is “viril”, from “vidrio” (glass). Other words are “ostensión” very different of “ostentación”, and their derivatives.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    “Monstrance” is a pretty awesome word in English, just because it feels like it ought to be pejorative (a la “monster” or “monstrous”) but it’s not (taking I suppose the neutral/positive sense of the Latin root also found in English embedded within “demonstrate”).

  17. Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir.
    Yes, I too immediately thought of Baudelaire, from whom I learned the word.

  18. Canning lived at 50 Berkeley Square for 57 years until his death. There’s a blue plaque. My guess is that it’s currently worth a good £40m with or without ghosts, so I’m glad to see Maggs Bros, the antiquarian bookseller, hasn’t sold up and moved on. They have this woodcut by Eric Gill for £125.

  19. dearieme says

    “Canning described himself as “an Irishman born in London”. His father, George Canning, Sr., of Garvagh, County Londonderry, Ireland, was a gentleman of limited means, a failed wine merchant and lawyer, who renounced his right to inherit the family estate in exchange for payment of his substantial debts. George Sr. eventually abandoned the family and died in poverty on 11 April 1771, his son’s first birthday, in London.”
    That would be a good plot line for Downton Abbey.

  20. They should have Downton Abbey: The Prequel, set a century earlier with the paterfamilias ranting about the evils of electoral reform and busily enclosing land while his bleeding-heart daughters try to move his stony heart with talk of the poor starving tenants.

  21. A “reading” is not a person.
    No, it isn’t. But I don’t think the Wikipedia definition you cite actually fits the facts of usage. I got these snippets from Google Books:

    Kripkenstein must offer an alternative explanation of our normative practices. Kripkenstein, however, offers no such alternative. His point is not to outline a philosophical response to questions about the possibility of rule-following, but to show that the demands for such accounts is based on a mistake. According to Kripkenstein, […].
    Although Searle ultimately formulates a conventional account of language similar to the one offered by Kripkenstein, […]
    Of course, Kripkenstein’s view doesn’t imply that we can’t say things like “No matter how long the numbers a and b are, there is a number c such that c is the sum of a and b.” Kripkenstein would say that it is part of the language-game we play […]
    In short, Kripkenstein’s view is a combination of a “deflationist” account of truth and a metaphysical realist account of fact!
    Unlike Quine, Kripkenstein does not restrict us to publicly observable facts. […] In other words, class T in Kripkenstein’s argument is wider than it is in Quine’s.
    [S]i Kripkenstein tiene razon, no podemos dejar de ser como niños […] [If Kripkenstein is right, we cannot be like children …]
    This reveals, I believe, a third form of circularity, which Kripkenstein assumes from the start, and which he considers to be inoffensive. The skeptic, Kripkenstein tells us (12), must, in order to formulate his paradox, presuppose the existence of that which he seeks […]
    Recall Kripkenstein’s semantic skeptic, who doubts that anything about my use of the word ‘plus’ insures that it means plus rather than quus.

    The whole reason to postulate Kripkenstein is to answer the question: “Whose views are these?” If you asked Kripke, “Are these your views?” he would say “No.” If you asked him, “Are these Wittgenstein’s views?” he would say “Probably not.” It’s most convenient, then, to attribute the views to a third person, Kripkenstein. However, because Kripkenstein is only postulated, he only has views, rather than a whole biography (as Kripke and Wittgenstein have). As a Dennettian, this does not trouble me, for I consider the self to be a theoretical posit anyway (my own just as much as anybody else’s).
    I have changed the Wikipedia text to read thus:

    The portmanteau “Kripkenstein” has been coined as a nickname for a fictional person who holds the views expressed by Kripke’s reading of the Philosophical Investigations; in this way, it is convenient to speak of Kripke’s own views, Wittgenstein’s views (as generally understood), and Kripkenstein’s views.

  22. I’m convinced that “Kripkenstein” is now the name of a person, even more so than before you changed the Wikipedia entry I had quoted. However, if it weren’t, I think it would still be spelled with a capital. Interesting phrase “a Dennetian”.

  23. Even if it weren’t the name of a person, I’m pretty sure it would still be a proper noun. It’s a noun that refers exclusively to a unique entity, after all.

  24. Greg Lee says

    If “Kripkenstein” is a nickname, what is his true name?

  25. My daughter once asked “Do I really have imaginary friends?” Some of the discussion here seems to be on a par with this.

  26. marie-lucie says

    Shades of Russian Lieutenant Kijé (French spelling)? or renowned mathematician Bourbaki?
    Incidentally, I think I have seen “renowned”, especially preceding profession and full name, quite frequently lately, but this could be the “recency fallacy” often mentioned on Language Log. On the other hand it could be the worldwide influence of renowned bestselling novelist Dan Brown and some of his characters.

  27. And then Canning could duel with the dashing young Irish revolutionary Castlereagh and his eccentric wife, before the latter melodramatically slits his throat. They could have appalling poetry and everything!

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s less than half a mile from Berkeley Square to the shady side of Jermyn Street, innit?

  29. John Cowan says

    Why should Kripkenstein have a real name? He’s only a posit, and a posit doesn’t have to have all the properties of a real person.

  30. John Cowan says

    They should have Downton Abbey: The Prequel, set a century earlier with the paterfamilias ranting about the evils of electoral reform and busily enclosing land while his bleeding-heart daughters try to move his stony heart with talk of the poor starving tenants.

    Considering the conflict between soft-hearted Earl and hard-hearted daughter on this very subject in the episode that just aired in the U.S., this is nicely ironic.

  31. Yes, indeed!

  32. I have very belatedly changed the WIktionary definition of Kripkenstein as well, as the Wikipedia entry has stuck.

  33. Shades of Russian Lieutenant Kijé (French spelling)

    It’s a French spelling, but it’s extremely useful in English, since it suggests the correct pronunciation, whereas “Kije” is completely opaque.

  34. “Kije” isn’t canonical English orthography, but if I saw it out of context I would assume it rhymed with oblige.

  35. Yes, exactly.

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