Jargon and clarity

We all feel that the only inferior thing is to be superior; and various forms of cheap superiority are the most irritating facts of our modern life.  One impudent piece of pedantry I have noticed as very much on the increase — it is the habit of arbitrarily changing the ends of abstract words (which are bad enough already) so as to make them sound more learned.  I heard a young man, with thin, pale hair, speak some time ago at some Ethical Society; and words cannot convey the degree to which he drooped his eyelids whenever he said “Christianism,” instead of Christianity.  I was tempted to get up and tell him that what was the matter with him was Tomfoolerism, called by some Tomfoolerity, and that I felt an impulsion to bash his physiognomics out of all semblity of humanitude.  I saw a magazine the other day in which Ethics had turned into Ethology.  Now, the word Ethics is already a nuisance to God and man; but its permanent defence and its occasional necessity is that it stands for conduct considered statically as a science, whereas morality (or moralitude) stands for conduct considered actively as a choice.  One can discuss ethics.  One cannot discuss morality; one can only violate it.

The reasonable difference between ethics and morality is like the difference between geology and throwing stones or between jurisprudence and outrunning the constable.  But if Ethics is the right word, as I always supposed it was, for the science of conduct, the dispassionate study of the ethos, in that case what the deuce is Ethology?  In practice, I fear, it simply means that somebody or other, who was already too priggish to talk about morality, is by this time too priggish even to talk about ethics.  The three phrases probably represent merely three stages in sniffing superiority and the perversion of all primary moral instincts…

However this may be, there seems to be a curiously bloodless and polysyllabic style now adopted for the discussion of the most direct and intimate matters.  The human home, for example, which whether it be comfortable or uncomfortable is, after all, the only place in which humanity has ever lived, people discuss as if it were the nest of some extraordinary bird, or the cell of some occult insect which science had only just discovered.  The combination of man and woman may be, and indeed is, a dangerous chemical combination; frequently resulting in an explosion; but the explosion is one to which we might have got pretty well used by this time.  And if we are really to debate these matters with much effect, I suggest that we avoid these new polysyllables as much as possible; and if a word has already a long tail, at least that we leave it the long tail that our fathers gave it.  I fancy it will be good for our intellects and certainly (as far as I am concerned) for our tempers.  If we have to discuss the most familiar and fundamental human problems all over again, let us at least take advantage of their antiquity in the fact that the vocabulary of them is fairly popular and clear.  Let us realize that marriage is not monogamy but marriage; that fighting is not natural selection but fighting; that wine is not alchoholic stimulation, but wine; that work is not the creation of capital, but work, a very unpleasant thing.  It seems that we have a great upheaval and revision in front of us.  The discussion will certainly be long, but at least the words might be short.

The Illustrated London News, 12 June 1909.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 6:22 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “I was tempted to get up and tell him that what was the matter with him was Tomfoolerism, called by some Tomfoolerity, and that I felt an impulsion to bash his physiognomics out of all semblity of humanitude.”

    LOL! Oh Gilbert, I love you.

  2. Yes, me too.


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