So Much Waste Paper

20 07 2014

This poem of 433 lines, with a page of notes to every three pages of text, is not for the ordinary reader. He will make nothing of it. Its five sections, called successively “The Burial of the Dead”, “A Game of Chess”, and so on, for all they will signify to him, might as well be called “Tom Thumb at the Giant’s Causeway” or “The Devil among the Bailiffs”, and so on. The thing is a mad medley. It has a plan, because its author says so: and presumably it has some meaning, because he speaks of its symbolism; but meaning, plan, and intention alike are massed behind a smoke-screen of anthropological and literary erudition, and only the pundit, the pedant, or the clairvoyant will be in the least aware of them. Dr Frazer and Miss J.L. Weston are freely and admittedly his creditors, and the bulk of the poem is under an enormously and cosmopolitan mortgage: to Spencer, Shakespeare, Webster, Kyd, Middleton, Milton, Marvell, Goldsmith, Ezekiel, Buddha, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, St Augustine, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and others. Lines of German, French and Italian are thrown it at will or whim; so, too, are solos from nightingales, cocks, hermit-thrushes, and Ophelia…

For the rest one can only say that if Mr Eliot had been pleased to write in demotic English The Waste Land might not have been, as it is to just all but anthropologists and literati, so much waste paper.

– Charles Powell, Manchester Guardian (Oct 31, 1923), 7. [Cited in Michael North (ed.), The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot (A Norton Critical Edition, 2001), 156.]

“Much Ink Has Been Spilled”: Musings on the Origin of a Trope

14 12 2013

I see it time and again: an expression that I found charming when I first observed it so many years ago, but one that is beginning to strike me as a pompous and unnecessary way of signifying that others have already tackled the topic in question. “Much ink has been spilled”, muse a thousand academics in a thousand different fields and on a hundred thousand different subjects. One would think there was an inexhaustible supply of the stuff, it being poured out with such reckless abandon.

Where does the expression come from? Does it have an English origin, or is it a translation for something else? In its original context, what was it meant to signify? Was it an allusion to the spilling of blood, perhaps? An extension of a metaphor that equates argument with warfare?

As I’ve no training in computational linguistics (nor in linguistics at all, for that matter), I hesitate to draw any conclusions from what I am about to say next. But I did run a couple of searches on the Google Ngram Viewer, and if you click on the image below you can enlarge the results of one such enquiry. You will note that this phrase was employed sporadically during the 19th century, but that its employment shot upwards rather dramatically in the 20th. The peak for the American spelling (“spilled”) was in the late 30s, while the British spelling (“spilt”) peaked about a decade earlier. After a haphazard series of further peaks and troughs, the phrase with its American spelling became popular once more. Indeed, as of 2013, the phrase is being used almost as frequently as it was in 1937.

Spilling of Ink

I cannot imagine what might have initiated such a groundswell of popularity, be it anything other than the whimsical vicissitudes of personal taste. But as to the phrase’s origin, I have thus far been unable to find any English language material prior to a short article and a poem – both of which were published in 1805. The article is a review of Rev. Charles Daubeny’s “Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae”, which was published early that same year in the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, and which was, itself, a somewhat scathing indictment of The True Churchman Ascertained, by John Overton (1804). At the close of 1805, The Christian Observer responded to Rev. Daubeny’s critique with a review of their own, and one that sought to find common ground between Rev. Daubeny and Mr Overton. The relevant passage, on p485, reads as follows:

On this chapter, in general, we shall only add, that, as is often the case after much ink has been spilt on both sides of the question, a Christian Observer will see room for mutual concession.

Here, the spilling of ink is a martial metaphor, designed to invoke the spilling of blood. That it need not be, however, is borne out by a poem printed in the same year. Found in the third volume of The Lounger’s Commonplace Book, or Miscellaneous Collections in History, Criticism, Biography, Poetry, and Romance, it is the creation of Jeremiah Whitaker Newman: a poet, raconteur and author of medical literature. The poem itself is on p244, and constitutes an ode to the (supposed) merits of matrimony. The relevant passage reads as follows:

That wedlock’s a pill one and all they cry out,
Of digestion so hard they make a great rout;
On the subject abundance of ink has been spilt.
I’ll swallow the pill if ’tis properly gilt.

Here we see that on a subject on which everybody is said to agree with one another, the spilling of ink denotes wastage and not warfare. That these two texts were both published in 1805 would demonstrate that the expression, applied differently in both of them, originates in neither.

[Be warned, fellow explorer, if you seek a passage prior to either of these, that Google has misfiled a 20th century text (the introduction to George Thornley’s translation of “Daphnis and Chloe”) as a 17th century text. While the translation itself was published in 1657, the introduction is by George Saintsbury, who was born in 1845.]

And so here, for me at least, the search ends. But oh – I would love so much to take it further! If only to unite these curious English applications of an insufficiently clear metaphor to the beautiful poetry of Midrash Tanchuma/Yelamdenu. First printed in Constantinople between 1520 and 1522, it is a collection of exegetical midrashim on the Torah, believed to have originated in the first half of the 9th century. Consider the following passage, in which sentiments are imputed to the 2nd century nasi, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who here opines on the greatness of peace (Tanchuma, Tzav 7):

אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, גדול הוא השלום, שהכתיב הקדוש ברוך הוא דברים בתורה שלא היו, אלא בשביל השלום. אלו הן. כשמת יעקב, ויראו אחי יוסף כי מת אביהם ויאמרו לו ישטמנו יוסף. מה עשו. הלכו אצל בלהה ואמרו לה, הכנסי אצל יוסף ואמרי לו, אביך צוה לפני מותו לאמר, כה תאמרו ליוסף אנא שא נא פשע אחיך. ומעולם לא צוה יעקב מכל אלו הדברים כלום, אלא מעצמם אמרו דבר זה. אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, כמה דיו משתפך, וכמה קולמוסין משתברין, וכמה עורות אבודים, וכמה תינוקין מתרצעין ללמד דבר שלא היה, בתורה. ראה כמה גדול כח השלום

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Great is peace, for the Holy One (blessed is He) allowed things that never occurred to be written into his Torah, only for the sake of peace. What are they? When Jacob died, “Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us?'” (Genesis 50:15, NRSV). What did they do? They went to Bilhah and they told her to go to Joseph and say to him, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers”” (Genesis 50:16-17, NRSV). Not once had Joseph instructed so much as a single matter in these words – they made these things up themselves! Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: How much ink has been spilled, how many quills have been broken, how many hides have been tanned, how many children have been caned, just to teach in the Torah something that never even happened! See how great is the power of peace!

This same drash is recorded in the name of the 4th century Palestinian sage, Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin, a disciple of Rabbi Levi (Tanchuma, Shoftim 18). There, it reads as follows, with the relevant part attributed anonymously:

אמר רבי יהושע דסכנין בשם רבי לוי, ראה כמה גדול כח השלום, שאמר הכתוב שתים ושלש תבות בשביל השלום, ואלו הן, כשנסתלק יעקב אבינו, נתיראו השבטים, שנאמר, ויראו אחי יוסף כי מת אביהם ויאמרו לו ישטמנו יוסף וגו’, ויצוו אל יוסף לאמר אביך צוה לפני מותו לאמר, כה תאמרו ליוסף אנא שא נא פשע אחיך וגו’. ולא מצינו שיעקב אבינו צוה הדברים האלה, אלא הם אמרו מעצמן. אמרו חכמינו זכרונם לברכה, כמה קלמוסים משתברין, וכמה דיו משתפכין לכתב הדברים האלה שלא היו. ומפני מה, מפני השלום

Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: See how great is the power of peace, for scripture recorded two or three words for the sake of peace, and they are these: when our father, Jacob, was taken up, the tribes were afraid – as it says, “Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us? … So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers”” (Genesis 50:15-17, NRSV). But we don’t find that our father Jacob ever said these things – they made these things up themselves! Our sages of blessed memory said: How many quills have been broken and how much ink has been spilled, to write these things that never happened! And why? For the sake of peace!

This same drash, concerning Joseph’s brothers and their legitimate lie, is also recorded in the name of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel in Leviticus Rabbah 9:9, Derekh Eretz Zutta 11:18, and – with a different emphasis – Yerushalmi Peah 1:1. It is also recorded in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon in Yevamot 65b, in which the Talmud declares that lying is permissible for the sake of maintaining peace (a stipulation recorded, mutatis mutandis in other places as well). In none of these other instances, however, do we find the expression that concerns the spilling of ink.

Notwithstanding the possibility that the expression’s employment in Tanchuma is not metaphorical, but is rather a figurative depiction of the amount of ink and the number of quills required to copy the Torah as many times as it has been copied, I wonder: is it possible that this expression made its way from Hebrew and, by however circuitous a route, into English? Do the two expressions share a common origin in another language of mutual impact? (The mind turns to Greek in this regard…)

Alternatively, is it possible that the connection between them is entirely coincidental, and that the nature of writing with a quill and an inkstand merely lends itself to such a poetic flourish? Modern Israeli academics who use the phrase are indebted to its English manifestation, although I hope that at least some of them are aware of its Hebrew pedigree. For now, however, it remains only to be noted that this particular literary trope, by virtue of its long-attested ubiquitousness, is probably more responsible than any other for the wastage of ink that it so decries.

Chomsky, redux

11 07 2013

In 1957, Noam Chomsky published “Syntactic Structures”, in which he provided the following example of a sentence that is both grammatically correct and semantically nonsensical at every level: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. Although green cannot be colourless, ideas can neither be green nor sleep, and one cannot sleep furiously, the line possesses a certain poetic charm. As such, in 1985, Stanford University held a competition: participants had to compose, in no more than 100 words of prose or 14 lines of verse, a text that would contain this line and give it actual meaning.

By way of an example, C.M. Street wrote a short piece about planting in the autumn, in which he observed that, “While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. Neither he nor Bryan O. Wright won the competition, but the latter’s contribution is beautiful and deserves to be read in full:

Behold the pent-up power of the winter tree;
Leafless it stands, in lifeless slumber.
Yet its very resting is revival and renewal:
Inside the dark gnarled world of trunk and roots,
Cradled in the chemistry of cell and sap,
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously
In deep and dedicated doormancy,
Concentrating, conserving, constructing:
Knowing, by some ancient quantum law
Of chlorophyll and sun
That come the sudden surge of spring,
Dreams become reality, and ideas action.
– Bryan O. Wright


1 12 2011

There is a sociolect of English with which few people are aware. Known as “Yinglish”, it was once mentioned under Ethnologue’s section on Eastern Yiddish, where they observed that the number of proficient speakers increases with one’s proximity to New York City. While it is most certainly an English sociolect, the high number of Yiddish words that are employed make it impossible for those who are unfamiliar with Yiddish to understand it. In Australia, many people know what it is to schlepp to the bank, to be a bit of a klutz, to be in awe of a maven or to work for a schmuck. But how many of them shvitz in the summer, do gornisht in the winter, spend time with the mishpocheh, have a nosh, plotz or kibbitz?

In truth, while “Yinglish” proficiency amongst non-Jews might increase as one approaches Brooklyn, the phenomenon of “Yeshivish” (the sociolect of the Haredi yeshiva system) can be found in all places where people speak English and where such institutions exist. As a sociolect, it constitutes something of a mirror image of Yinglish. Yinglish is English, with a number of Yiddish words – primarily nouns. Yeshivish, on the other hand, is most definitely Yiddish, but a Yiddish in which the speaker occasionally inserts English phrases or uses English words. Consider the following excerpt, taken from a talk by Rav Nissan Kaplan (the mashgiach ruchani, or “spiritual advisor” at the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem):

The sample is taken from his website, where a very large number of his classes are available for download. At the top of the page, you will note a series of hespedim (“eulogies”) for Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who was the Rosh Yeshiva at the Mir and who passed away almost a month ago. After that, the classes are organised by theme and by year. I recommend his mussar schmuessen in particular, as they provide an insight into the general lifestyle of the Yeshiva students:

5767 (2007)
5768 (2008)
5769 (2009)
5770 (2010)
5771 (2011) – current.

If it is halakha that interests you, I especially recommend three Shabbat-related lectures: one deals with the permissibility of dancing, one with religious Jews who work in ambulances, and one is the first part of a two-part lecture that discusses the legality of asking non-Jews to do work for you. His Talmud classes are probably also excellent, but considerably too advanced for me. If they are of interest to you, they each come with a scanned copy of his notes, which can be used to guide your study of the relevant sugya before listening to the class.

The above audio snippet, which runs for a little more than one-and-a-half minutes, is from Rav Kaplan’s introduction to the new zman (“semester”), in which the students are to be learning Tractate Bava Batra. He begins by opining on the quality of this tractate for an understanding of key rabbinic concepts, but then continues by stressing the importance of devoting oneself in all respects to its study. The main part of the segment revolves around the dangers of sitting in the study hall and being less than 100% committed to the task of learning. You can hear the large number of English phrases that he employs, but they are dwarfed by the number of Hebrew phrases (he quotes liberally from the biblical and rabbinic literature – chiefly the latter), and by a generous smattering of Yiddish, which influences his usage of English syntax.

This brings me, of course, to the crux of the matter. If it is linguistics that interests you, over and above philosophy, halakha or the rabbinic literature, this website is a veritable treasure trove for the beautiful Yeshivish sociolect, and is absolutely bursting with potential for discourse analysis. The anonymous sages of Wikipedia declare that “only a few serious studies have been written about Yeshivish”. Perhaps, with the ready availability of this incredible resource, that may soon change.

The Syntax of Slander

24 11 2011

I refuse to believe that lexicographers don’t have a sense of humour. Having recently looked up the word “malignity” in the Oxford American Dictionary, the better to assure myself that it was really a word (though what it could be if it were not a word, I don’t know), I was pleased to note the following sagely advice:

The Right Word
Do you want to ruin someone’s life? You can malign someone, which is to say or write something evil without necessarily lying (: she was maligned for her past association with radical causes).
To calumniate is to make false and malicious statements about someone; the word often implies that you have seriously damaged that person’s good name (: after leaving his job, he spent most of his time calumniating and ridiculing his former boss).
To defame is to cause actual injury to someone’s good name or reputation (: he defamed her by accusing her of being a spy).
If you don’t mind risking a lawsuit, you can libel the person, which is to write or print something that defames him or her (: the tabloid libeled the celebrity and ended up paying the price).
Slander, which is to defame someone orally, is seldom a basis for court action but can nevertheless cause injury to someone’s reputation (: after a loud and very public argument, she accused him of slandering her).
If all else fails, you can vilify the person, which is to engage in abusive name-calling (: even though he was found innocent by the jury, he was vilified by his neighbors).

It’s always good to know that I have options. In the meantime, there is an interesting discussion ensuing between two respectable linguists at Language Log. Geoffrey Pullum says that the OED’s Word of the Year should actually be a word for a change, and filed his post under “Ignorance of Linguistics”. Ben Zimmer, who is the chair of the New Words Committee at the American Dialect Society, strongly disagrees with him, but filed his post under a friendlier file name and left the comments open. So far I see nothing malignant, calumniating, defaming, slanderous nor vilifying, but you never know with these people. Linguists. You really don’t want to upset them.

In Memoriam

6 11 2011

It has been just over one year since Professor Alan Crown passed away, and I spent a couple of days last week at a Dead Sea Scrolls conference that was organised in his honour by Associate Professor Ian Young and Dr Shani Tzoref. Our keynote speaker was Emeritus Professor Emanuel Tov, whose paper on the pre-Samaritan Qumran scrolls and their relationship to the Samaritan Pentateuch was one of the conference’s highlights. A former editor-in-chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls Publication Project, Professor Tov remains one of the foremost experts in Qumranic scribal practise, the development of the Hebrew Masoretic Text, and the Septuagint. His most recent publication is the third edition of his highly-recommended Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, which I have been assiduously using in its first edition for several years.

We were also very pleased to welcome Dr Shani Tzoref, one of the two conveners of the conference, whose paper on the history of Dead Sea Scrolls research was fascinating. Dividing it into three successive periods, Shani remarked upon the various stages of Qumranic research, and the impact that they have had upon the presentation of the results (not to mention the nature of the results themselves), and their reception by the general scholarly community. Shani is presently involved in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Digitization Project, scanning the fragments using multi-spectral imaging and, in partnership with Google, uploading them to the internet. The five scrolls that they have finished uploading so far are 1QIsaa (“Great Isaiah Scroll”), 1QM (“War Scroll”), 1QpHab (“Pesher Habakkuk”), 11Q19 (“The Temple Scrolla“) and 1QS (“Community Rule”). They can all now be viewed online, and prompt an important question: what does the future hold for the expansion of Qumranic research as an open, inter-disciplinary enterprise?

Other highlights included Ian Young’s “Loose Language in 1QIsaa“, in which he considered the linguistic profile of the Great Isaiah Scroll, a paper on the layout of 1QpHab that was delivered by three Macquarie University students (Stephanie Ng, Alexandra Wrathall and Gareth Wearne), and Prof. William Loader’s paper on eschatology and sexuality in Qumran. Unfortunately, as neither Prof. Loader nor Prof. Albert Baumgarten could be with us (the former stuck in Perth and the latter in Alice Springs – both with tickets to fly Qantas to Sydney), Prof. Loader’s paper was read by Ian and Prof. Baumgarten’s paper was replaced with an opportunity for general discussion.

Alan would have been rather bemused by so many people turning up to an event in his honour, but the papers all dealt with topics that were close to his heart and his expertise was certainly missed.

By Any Other Metre

14 09 2011

The difference between two different metres has never been so pronounced – nor half so fun to discover. The following was composed by Arthur Connor, while in prison for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The pomps of Courts and pride of kings
I prize above all earthly things;
I love my country, but the King,
Above all men, his praise I sing.
The Royal banners are displayed,
And may success the standard aid.

I fain would banish far from hence
The “Rights of Man” and “Common Sense.”
Confusion to his odious reign,
That foe to princes, Thomas Paine.
Defeat and ruin seize the cause
Of France, its liberties and laws.

A fiercely nationalistic poem, belied by his subsequently being made a general of the French army upon his escape in 1807. There is another way to read it, however, which is truer to his ideology.

[HT: Futility Closet]