The Chinese word for “crisis,” as generations of commencement speakers have reminded us, is written using the same character as “opportunity.” Whatever inspirational quality this chestnut may possess does not grow with repetition – and it is a curmudgeonly pleasure to learn that it’s wrong, or at best only fractionally true.
In fact both “crisis” and “opportunity” are written with two characters. The one they share can mean “quick-witted” or “device,” depending on context, and can be combined with another glyph to write “airplane.” (An airplane is uplifting, albeit not motivationally.) And Victor H. Mair, the professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania who debunked this hardy linguistic urban legend, points out that apart from the Sinological blunder, it’s terrible advice: “Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.”
But you don’t uproot a cultural weed all that easily -- especially not when crisis-mindedness has become totally normal. That’s a paradox but it’s also indisputable. A quick search of Google News finds 89.5 million articles with the word “crisis” in them as of this writing. Rhetorical inflation has a lot to do with it, of course. But it’s also the long-term effect of a state of mind that Susan Sontag characterized so well in an essay from 1988: “A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms … and it doesn’t occur. And it still looms. […] Modern life accustoms us to live with the intermittent awareness of monstrous, unthinkable – but, we are told, quite probable – disasters.”
The instances she had in mind were the threat of nuclear war and the AIDS epidemic. In 25 years, neither has disappeared, though other catastrophes (actual and potential) have moved to the fore. The crises change, but not the structure of feeling.
Anti-Crisis by Janet Roitman, published by Duke University Press, digs deeper than Sontag’s comments on apocalypse fatigue. Roitman, an associate professor of anthropology at the New School, approaches the ongoing discussion of subprime mortgage "crisis" (as it’s hard not to think of it) with questions about the assumptions and implicit limitations of a word so ubiquitous that it is normally taken for granted.
She does so by way of the late Reinhart Koselleck’s approach to intellectual history, known by a term even some of his English-language commentators have preferred to leave untranslated: Begriffsgeschichte. No way am I going to try to type that again, so let’s just refer to it as “conceptual history.” But arguably use of the full Teutonic monty is justified in order to distinguish Koselleck’s work from what, in the Anglo-American tradition, is called the history of ideas.
As Koselleck writes in an entry for a major conceptual-history handbook on social and political ideas, the term “crisis” played an important role in the work of the Young Hegelians, who took their master’s thinking about the philosophy of history as a starting point for the critique of existing institutions. Given that a key term in Hegel’s system is Begriff (the Concept) and that one of the Young Hegelians was Karl Marx, who maintained that recurrent crisis was an inescapable part of the history of capitalism itself – well, given all that, it’s possible to see how the word Begriffsgeschichte might carry layers of implication soon lost in translation.
The argument of Anti-Crisis is nothing if not oblique, and self-reflexive to boot, and paraphrasing it seems a fool’s errand. It is a good idea to grapple with Koselleck’s essay on crisis before reading Roitman’s book (so I learned the hard way) and no hard feelings on my part if you did so before finishing this column.
So now to run that errand. For Roitman, "crisis" is not simply a clichéd label for -- among other things -- recent economic developments, but a fraught and dubious concept. The word itself has roots in an ancient Greek medical term referring to the phase of an illness which will either kill the patient or end in recovery. It came into frequent use to describe social, political, and cultural phenomena beginning late in the 18th century -- one element in a very complex series of shifts of meaning between religious concepts of social and cosmic order and a (seemingly?) secular pattern of life.
The French Revolution, with the spectacle of comprehensive upheaval, doubtless made the word especially vivid. But Koselleck also cites Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, from 1776. “To Paine, the War of Independence was no mere political or military event,” he writes; “rather it was the completion of a universal world historical process, the final Day of Judgment that would entail the end of all tyranny and the ultimate victory over hell... .”
In sum, then, “crisis” came to possess small range of theological, political, and other connotations. Calling something a crisis implies its urgency or consequentiality. But it also posits that elements of the crisis are intelligible. They are the effects of departures from a norm, or aspects in the unfolding of some grand narrative. The crisis has causes, which we can discover. It has effects, which we begin to interpret even while enduring them.
“Crisis is a blind spot that enables the production of knowledge,” writes Roitman. “… More precisely, it is a distinction that secures ‘a world’ for observation.” The process rests upon “a distinction that generates and refers to an ‘inviolate level’ of order (not crisis)” that “is seen to be contingent (historical crises) and yet is likewise posited as beyond the play of contingency, being a logical necessity that is affirmed in paradox (the formal possibility of crisis).”
Now, assuming I understand her argument correctly, Roitman regards calling the great vertigo of financial free-fall a few years ago as something we can label a crisis -- at the risk of assuming we understand what it was, how it happened, and why.
That, in turn, posits that our ideas and information are adequate to the tasks: that government regulation distorts the healthy functioning of the marketplace (if you’re a neoclassicist) or that insufficient government regulation tips the market advantage to the unscrupulous (if you’re Keynes-minded) or that crisis is built into capitalism because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (as Marx believed, or didn’t believe, depending on which Marxist you ask).
The problem in any case being that the causal explanations now available rest on understandings of the economy that don’t take into account how crises (or, rather, judgments about the risk of crisis) are not only a factor in how decisions are made in financial markets but operate in instruments involved in the functioning of those markets.
Derivatives and credit default swaps are the examples that everyone has now of, at least. More have been invented, and still more will be. Risk management is a thriving field. So can we judge something to be in a crisis when expectations of crisis (and of profit from crisis) are operational – and bound to become more so? That isn’t a rhetorical question. I have no idea one way or the other, and if Anti-Crisis answers it, I did not mark the page.
“We persevere,” the author says, “in the hope that we can perceive the moments when history is alienated in terms of its philosophy – that is, that we can perceive a dissonance between historical events and representations…. We are left in a chasm: perplexed and immobilized by the supposed radical dissonance between the value of houses and the value of derivatives of houses.”
Perplexed? Yes. Immobilized? Not necessarily. (Epistemologically induced paralysis is only one of the possible responses to a foreclosured mortgage.) I respect Anti-Crisis for making me think hard, even if it occasionally felt like thinking in circles. Meanwhile, it turns out that that Simon & Schuster will be publishing something now listed simply as Untitled Financial Crisis Book, appearing under the company’s Books for Young Readers imprint in early 2015. Whatever baggage its conceptual history has laden it with, the notion of crisis seems to be making itself very much at home.
André Schiffrin, whose work at Pantheon Books of Random House and at the New Press was influential in promoting the work of many intellectuals, died Sunday at the age of 78, The New York Times reported. The cause was pancreatic cancer. Among the writers whose work Schiffin championed, the Times cited Jean-Paul Sartre, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, and R. D. Laing.
It's not that often that an author has the pleasure of seeing the second edition of a book come out several decades after it first appeared. When that does happen, the title in question is probably a novel or a work of belles lettres, rather than a monograph. Rarer still would be the book that has become topical again in the meantime – pertinent to the stress and strain of public life, perhaps even more than it was when first issued.
So the 50th anniversary edition of Walter Nugent’s The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism, now out from the University of Chicago Press, is an exceptional book on a number of counts. I’m by no means sure that the author, who is professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, would feel all that comfortable as a guest on one of those public-affairs TV programs where everybody yells, interrupting each other and stomping all over the fine points of any argument with cleated boots. He might get crushed.
But the book, which once intervened in a fierce historiographical debate, offers a challenge to how Americans understand and discuss politics now.
If taken seriously, Nugent’s book might do irreparable damage to a good deal of the prevailing nonsense, which is the sign of a career well-spent.
To put his contribution in context, we’d have to take a look back at a well-received and influential book published during the last really disastrous global economic crisis anyone alive still can remember. John D. Hicks’s The Populist Revolt (1931) stood as the definitive work on the subject almost as soon as it appeared in 1931 – the most comprehensive treatment, until that point, of the rise and fall of the People’s Party of the 1890s. Hicks treated it as a heroic if flawed challenge by Midwestern and Southern farmers to the economic powers-that-be driving them into the ground through tight credit, mortgage foreclosures, and monopolistic control of railroad shipping costs and the market prices of agricultural goods. The Populists (so dubbed, it is said, by a journalist with a little Latin) became a force to reckon with in some states, and their demand for reform to limit the power of monopolists and financiers resonated beyond the corn and cotton belts.
By 1896 the party had effectively fused with the Democrats – in roughly the sense, as one Populist put it, that Jonah fused with the whale. In the wake of FDR, the populists of the 1890s could be seen as proto-New Dealers. And so they were understood, in keeping with Hicks’s overall rendering of their history, for the next 20 or 30 years. But a revisionist perspective on the People’s Party emerged in the 1950s for which the Populists embodied something much more problematic: a mass movement animated as much by feelings of powerless rage as by rational economic concerns. Other figures worked out some of the argument before Richard Hofstadter published The Age of Reform (1955). But for the sake of convenience, and in recognition of the range and depth of his influence, we might as well call it the Hofstadter thesis. Aspects of it also appeared in his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (1964).
In contrast to Hicks’s understanding of the People’s Party as an early force for progressive reforms (including the graduated income tax), the Hofstadter thesis saw populism as a reactionary response to industrial production, urbanization, and the role of the United States in the world market place. These forces were undermining the status of the independent, rural farmer – who responded with nativism, conspiracy theories, and a rather hysterical yearning to return to the fine old ways of the good old days. Hofstadter quoted anti-Semitic statements by populist figures, sounding like something from a speech delivered at the end of a torchlight parade in Germany circa 1932. While he stopped short of calling the People’s Party proto-fascist, Hofstadter did situate the populists in a continuum of episodes of irrational American civic life running from the Salem witch trials to McCarthyism. (More recent examples might be adduced here, of course.)
The revisionist perspective held that the populists of the 1890s were suffering from “status anxiety,” leading to political protest directed as much against cultural change as economic conditions. And if populists and McCarthyites alike were xenophobic, anti-intellectual, and belligerently nationalistic – well, in that case the Hofstadter thesis seemed to make some compelling points.
A very big “if,” that one. Hofstadter drew on then-recent psychoanalytic and sociological ideas, and wrote with such power and grace that the two Pulitzer Prizes he received (one of them for The Age of Reform) seem like a matter of course. But the doctoral dissertation that Walter Nugent wrote at the University of Chicago – published, two years after it was accepted, as The Tolerant Populists – went after the Hofstadter thesis with hammer and tongs on its one major weakness: the senior historian hadn’t logged much time in the archives.
Nugent did, and it shows. He focused on Kansas – the epicenter of the Populist political earthquake, where the movement began and quickly established the state’s second most powerful party. Besides analyzing the available demographic and electoral data for the 1890s, Nugent went over scores of newspapers, large and small, including papers published by and for the state’s German-language communities.
The picture emerging from his research is anything but one of close-minded and nostalgic people who gloried in their status as native Kansans, obsessed with bitter feelings about foreigners, paranoid about the outside world, and ready to take it out on immigrants in general or Jews in particular.
In fact the evidence shows, time and again, exactly the opposite. People’s Party organizers appealed for support from every immigrant group in the state and often won their votes. Populist speakers and editorialists were infuriated that Kansans were being dispossessed from their homes by foreign investors who bought up real estate on speculation. A basic populist demand was that the law should ensure that land would be held by people who worked it, but the hostility was directed at foreign landlords; the populists made no effort to restrict the purchase of land by the non-native born who wanted to farm.
The anti-Semitic rants that Hofstadter quoted from populist writings were indeed virulent, but Nugent reports finding only a few examples of anything like them out of the countless documents he read from Kansas. Attacks on the Rothschilds, an eminent Anglo-Jewish banking family, certainly did show up in Populist denunciations – as did similar denunciations of the Morgans and the families of various robber barons. Nugent points out that Jew-baiting and immigrant-bashing were far more common among mainstream politicians and shapers of elite opinion, and that one Jewish writer “had heard so little about Populist anti-Semitism that he sent the Populist governor [of Kansas]… a pamphlet beginning, ‘Moses, the Populist Law-Giver.’ ”
People’s Party candidates in Kansas included an African-American minister (for state auditor), a woman (for state superintendent for public instruction), and a Jew (for postmaster) -- plus too many recently naturalized citizens of German, Welsh, Irish, Swiss, Czech, and other stock, running for too many positions, to list.
Except for “a brogue here and an umlaut there,” says Nugent, they were no different from other Populists. The policies they championed – such as state ownership of railroads and telephone providers, inflationary monetary policies that would reduce the value of their mortgages, and laws prohibiting alien ownership of land – were in response to real economic hardship, not murky unconscious impulses or complaints about cultural disrespect.
“A strong assertion is easier to make than a strong case,” writes Nugent about the revisionists of the 1950s. Around the time The Tolerant Populists first appeared, Norman Pollack and C. Vann Woodward made broadly similar critiques of the Hofstadter thesis, with Michael Rogin continuing the challenge a few years later. But when Nugent took on the Pulitzer-winning historian in the early 1960s, it must have looked like David sizing up Goliath. By the end of the book, the giant has hit the ground but the counter-evidence just keeps flying.
In his preface to the new edition, Nugent makes a very quick sweep over developments in the historiography on populism in the intervening years (to do more than that would have undoubtedly required something as long as the original text) and fulminates over how imprecisely the word populism is used now. It “has become a useful word in dodging informed thinking,” he says. “In American media, it has become an all-purpose put-down.”
Worse, it is most often applied to phenomena, such as the Tea Party, which tend to be as nativist and prone to flight-of-thought as anything subsumed under the Hofstadter thesis. The common element in the reforms proposed by the Populists 120 years ago was, Nugent writes, “to use the government as an instrument on the people’s behalf, rather than on behalf of special interests, monopolies, unregulated banks and other corporations, and (to use today’s term) the one percent.”
The movement “wanted to augment the use of governments, not diminish or circumvent them, because, as the Populist congressman Jerry Simpson put it, ‘the government is the people, and we are the people.’ ”
I don’t know if “Sockless Jerry” would have much of a chance in today’s electoral arena, but sentiments like that wouldn’t get him many well-paid speaking engagements.
Elsevier on Tuesday became the latest academic publisher to add an adaptive learning component to its products. The company announced it will use a memory management tool provided by Cerego, a company based in California and Japan, to help nursing students learn basic concepts.
Cerego is content agnostic, meaning the technology can be applied to any topic. With textbooks, for example, subject matter experts can go through a chapter, highlight important concepts and feed the data to Cerego, which will turn the concepts into review exercises. As students complete the exercises, the system will tailor the content to test students on gaps in their knowledge, and also calculate how often they should review.
“Our vision for this goes beyond what we have today, but our current app is really, really good at translating that foundational information into personal knowledge,” founder and executive chairman Andrew Smith Lewis said.
Elsevier is looking to add the adaptive learning technology to the majority of its titles, Smith Lewis said. The company will roll out titles throughout the year.
Not long ago,this column took up the perennial issue of academic prose and how it gets that way. On hand, fortunately, was Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly, a smart and shrewd volume that avoids mere complaint or satirical overkill.
Bad scholarly writing is, after all, something like Chevy Chase’s movie career. People think that making fun of it is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel: to borrow Todd Berry’s assessment of his comedic colleague, “It’s as easy as looking at fish in a barrel. It’s as easy as being somewhere near a barrel.” Besides, it’s gone on for at least 500 years (the mockery began with Rabelais, if not before) so it’s not as if there are many new jokes on the subject.
But Billig did make an original and telling point in his critique of pure unreadability – one I neglected to emphasize in that earlier column. It has come into clearer view since then thanks to a new book by Carl H. Klaus called A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (University of Iowa Press).
Klaus is professor emeritus of English at the University of Iowa and founder, there, of the Nonfiction Writing Program. He is also a practitioner and critic of the genre of the personal essay, and A Self Made of Words seems largely addressed to the students, formal or otherwise, who want to learn the craft. Scholarly discourse rarely assumes the guise of the personal essay, of course. But Klaus’s insights and advice are not restricted to that literary form, and his book should have a tonic effect on anyone who wants his or her writing to do more than paint gray on gray.
To put it another way, A Self Made of Words doesn't stress writing in the personal voice, but rather the persona that always operates in writing, of whatever variety, whether formal or informal, autobiographical or otherwise.
Klaus wrote an earlier book called The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa), which I have not had a chance to read, but I assume he there goes into the original use of the word persona, meaning, in Latin, a mask, of the stylized kind ancient actors wore on stage to project a character. The author of even the flattest and most objective or empirically minded paper creates or displays a persona while writing: one that is self-effacing and indistinct, yes, but that manifests its authority through self-effacement and the absence of first- and second-person communication.
Impersonality, in other words, implies a persona. So does the introspective voice and intimate tone of a memoirist, with countless shades of formality and casualness, of candor and disguise, possible in between. The persona is not something that stands behind or apart from the written work, though it may seem to do so. The raw material of the persona is language itself -- not just the vocabulary or syntax an author uses, but the differences in intonation that come from using contractions or avoiding them, from the mixture of concrete and abstract terms, and from the balance of long and short words.
Klaus devotes most of the new book to how those elements, among others, combine to create effective writing -- which is, in his words “the result of a complex interaction between our private intentions and the public circumstances of our communication.” It is not a style guide but a course of instruction on the options available to the writer who might otherwise be unable to craft a persona fit to purpose.
Which, alas, is often the case. Michael Billig did not discuss the academic author’s persona in his book on how to write badly and influence tenure committees – at least, not as such. But it is implicit in his argument about how apprentice scholars orient themselves within the peculiar, restricted language-worlds their elders have created while fighting to establish their claims to disciplinary claims.
In effect, they learn how to write by wearing the personae they’ve been given. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in itself; the experience can be instructive. But the pressure to publish (and in quantity!) makes it more economical to rely on a prefabricated writerly persona, stamped out in plastic on an assembly line, rather than to shape one, as Klaus encourages the reader to do.
No reader of The Sociological Imagination (1959) will soon forget C. Wright Mills's “translations” of a few passages from The Social System by Talcott Parsons, one of the most eminent American social scientists of the day. Here's a representative selection from The Social System, in the original Parsonian idiom:
“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions. Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has a ‘moral’ aspect in that to some degree this conformity defines the ‘responsibility’ of the actor in the wider, that is, social action systems in which he participates.”
And here is how Mills put the same thoughts into demotic English:
“When people share the same values, they tend to behave in accordance with the way they expect one another to behave. Moreover, they often treat such conformity as a very good thing – even when it seems to go against their immediate interests.”
To get the full effect, you have to see Mills perform the operation upon much larger chunks of ore – a solid page of Parsons, massy and leaden, followed by its rendering into three or four spry statements of the relatively obvious. “I do not pretend that my translation is excellent,” Mills writes, “but only that in the translation no meaning is lost.” He later quotes a suggestion by Edmund Wilson that social scientists get help from their colleagues in the English department.
That advice dates the book considerably, of course. Michael Billig, the author of Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press) is a professor of social sciences at Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, and the examples he cites come chiefly from sociology and psychology. But the techniques and strategies he describes work just as well in humanities and education departments, among others.
Billig’s title is sardonic, but the text itself, for the most part, is not. I half expected an annotated scrapbook of scholarly bloviation -- and it does give you a feel for the state of the art. But description and complaint are secondary to Billig’s much more interesting effort to understand the purpose and enabling conditions of successful bad writing. For despite the note of sarcasm, even the book’s title is serious: people do not come into the world knowing how to be verbose and evasive, or to prop up a shaky idea with resonant jargon. It has to be learned, and there must be incentives to learn it.
In the 1890s, William James complained that trendy psychological jargon of his day, such as “apperception,” served little purpose beyond, as Billig puts it, “enabl[ing] professors to be professorial” so as “to impress the impressionable.” The exotic word was assumed to be exact and rigorous, but apperception, James said, meant “nothing more than the act of taking a thing into the mind” -- an act more precisely characterized in already available terms such as “assimilation,” “elaboration,” or “interpretation,” among others. James was ambivalent about the then-emerging tendency toward ever-narrower academic specialization. But he seemed to think (in some moods anyway) that the need to communicate outside one’s professional peer group might limit the linguistic damage.
What he could not foresee, as Billig says, is the explosive and continuing growth of higher education as a whole (“the numbers of tertiary education teachers across the word rose from just under 6.5 million in 1999 to over 9.5 million in 2007”) and the paradoxical effects of disciplines becoming “too big to control and too powerful to avoid.” Within a given field of study are “communities or subdisciplinary tribes” using their niche vocabularies not just to communicate research but to establish affiliations and establish institutional power.
“For most journals in the social sciences,” Billig writes, and the point can be generalized further, “there will be some sets of terminology that will identify the author as belonging to an approved approach, discipline, or subdiscipline. This means that many journal editors are likely to practice, without conscious intention, a restriction upon free use of language…. Some words will have to pass stringent tests before they can gain admittance. Others will be protected currency, circulating untaxed between authors and readers.”
The hint of protectionism here is not accidental. A terminology signals an approach -- and an approach implies a social and professional network. Becoming comfortable and proficient within a subdiscipline’s semantic field is the prerequisite for disciplinary socialization. (Billig has some amusing and revealing pages on the expression “semantic field,” while “socialization” is a boilerplate example of the ubiquitous reliance on “-ization” and “-ification” to create words of a pleasing vagueness. The author considers the latter tendency a form of reification, then discusses how the term very "reification" is itself an example of the problem,)
One standard explanation of the value of a theoretically informed and narrowly circulating vocabulary is that it avoids the assumptions and restrictions of ordinary language. And it very well may, though Billig has some sharp points to make about the simple-mindedness of treating “ordinary language” as some homogenous and uniformly contaminated medium.
But his more important point, I think, is that apprentice scholars don’t typically “find that their research meets an impasse which they can only overcome by seeking out different words or phrases, either because they are confronting new problems, which cannot be expressed in the old ways, or because they have been discovering new phenomena, for which there are no existing names.” Instead, they assimilate “this odd way of writing and speaking as a sign that they are entering into the world of research, thereby leaving behind their ordinary ways of talking and writing.” Otherwise, Billig says, your peers won’t know that you aren’t just somebody who’s just wandered in out of the rain.
So in a way Billig is confirming what Talcott Parsons said in that passage quoted earlier:
“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions.”
Very seldom in writing about scholarly publishing have I had an occasion to use the word “fun” -- actually, this may be the first time -- but with a couple of recent titles, nothing else will do.
They are not frivolous books by any means. Sober and learned reviews by experts may appear in specialist journals two or three years from now, and they will be instructive. But the books in question should generate some interest outside the field of J. Redding Ware studies.
Nobody who appreciates the history and color of the English language can fail to enjoy the University of Oxford Bodleian Library’s new facsimile edition of Ware’s masterpiece, the invaluable Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase. First published in 1909, shortly after Ware’s death, it is now available as Ware’s Victorian Dictionary of Slang and Phrase -- a title that is more marketable, perhaps, but decidedly wanting in precision. Most of the lingo it covers is Victorian, but the dictionary itself, appearing as it did in the final month of the king’s life, is Edwardian. (A pedant’s work is never done.) The new edition contains a valuable introduction by John Simpson, who retires this month as chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
It covers almost everything currently known about Ware (i.e., not much) and assesses his contribution to lexicography, which was considerable. Ware’s dictionary is cited in the OED more than 150 times, including “almost 50 times for the first recorded evidence for a word or meaning.” My earlier reference to Ware studies was a bit of a stretch, since nobody has ever written a book about him, nor a dissertation -- nor even, it seems, a journal article devoted solely to his life or works. A couple of papers by Joyce scholars identify his dictionary as a source the novelist consulted while writing Ulysses. Simpson’s introduction is the landmark in a nearly barren field.
Ware was born in 1832 and his first name was James, after his father, who was a grocer. In his teens the future author served a short jail sentence following a violent family quarrel, during which he grabbed a bacon knife and threatened to kill James the elder. He worked as mercantile clerk while writing his first novel, published in 1860. From that point on Ware seems to have eked out a hardscrabble existence along the lines George Gissing depicts in New Grub Street, cranking out fiction, journalism, and quite a few plays, along with a handbook on playing whist and a tourist’s guide to the Isle of Wight.
Simpson unfortunately neglects to mention one other documented occasion when Ware went to court, seeking relief from a downstairs neighbor who played the piano at all hours. The outcome remains unclear but it seems no bacon-knife was involved.
Not quite a gentleman, then, nor by profession a scholar. Ware’s dictionary was commissioned by Routledge as a supplement to another volume on colloquial English. “His lexicographical method is arguably modern,” Simpson notes, “as he based his selection largely on printed evidence that he (and, one imagines, other interested parties) had collected principally from newspapers and other ephemeral sources… The latest quotations date from 1902, though the majority date from the 1880s and 1890s.”
No don would have come up with what Simpson calls Ware’s “idiosyncratic labeling system,” which identifies the provenance of a given piece of slang through categories such as “Slums,” “Italian Organ-Grinders,” “Music Hall,” or “Colloquial Imbecile.” He clearly spent a good bit of time hanging around theaters and pubs, and “was painfully aware of changes in hairstyles and fashion generally over the decades, and can with the help of his printed evidence place the introduction of a new ‘look’ to a precise year.”
Some of the expressions Ware includes have passed into accepted use. He identifies opportunism as a piece of political slang from the 1860s, explaining: “Used rather in contempt, as subserving conscience to convenience, or to personal advantage.” It turns out that flappers -- young women of an immodest sort -- were on the scene well before the 1920s, And while Susan Sontag doesn't mention it in wrote her notes, Ware identified camp as an adjective applying to “actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis," noting that it was “used chiefly by persons of exceptional want of character.” By that Ware undoubtedly means sissies, “effeminate men in society,” a term he indicates (citing an American newspaper) caught on in the 1890s.
I would have assumed the slang word narc -- pertaining to an informer, and used as both noun and verb -- derived from narcotics. Apparently not: copper’s nark is defined as thieves’ argot, also from the 1890s, meaning “a policeman’s civilian spy.” Ware indicates that police were called coppers from 1868 on, and you’d have found a copper-slosher (“individual with the mania for ‘going for’ policemen”) hanging around a copper’s shanty, as the station house was known. A working-class person thought to be blustering risked the taunt “Copper! Copper!” – implying that he was “giving himself the airs of police authority.”
But where did cop itself come from? “There has been more discussion over this widely applied word than any other in the kingdom of phrase,” writes Ward in one of his longer entries. It is incredibly polysemic, meaning “taken, seized, thrashed, struck, caught by disease, well-scolded, discovered in cheating,” and could also be used as a verb meaning “to take too much to drink” (hence copping the brewery). Thunderous applause for an especially good show at a music hall show would cop the curtain, so that the performer could take a bow.
The vast majority of Ware’s 4,000 entries define expressions that vanished without a trace. Hence his original title: "passing English" comes and goes. It's the vigor of language that drives the vitality of the book.
One craze of the 1880s was corpse-worship – “the extreme use of flowers at funerals” – which got so bad that by the ‘90s “many death notices in the press were followed by the legend ‘No flowers.’ ” Slang words often come from the contraction of common expressions; for example, damirish, “damned Irish,” and damfino, “I am damned if I know.”
Nobody still describes an egg gone bad as suitable for electioneering purposes (derived from “the exercise of projecting them at antagonistic candidates”) and the culture is all the poorer for it. Then again, it's a relief that suggestionize -- an old bit of legal jargon meaning “to prompt,” as with a witness – never caught on. Now if we could just euthanize “finalize.”
Decades before the birth of Jerry Garcia, deadhead was the entertainment-industry label for an audience member who got in without buying a ticket. It applied to critics and “’theatrical people’… [who] never pay to enter a theatre.” Ware, as a playwright, resented them, and the dictionary vents his frustration in an amusing manner:
“The experienced eye can always divide the deadheads from the ‘plank-downers’ in a theatre. The deadheads are always dressed badly, and give themselves airs when looking at the inferior parts of the house. The plank-downers never give themselves airs, mean business, and only look at the stage. Deadheads are very emphatically described by a theatrical official: ‘Here come two more deadheads; look at their boots.’”
Many entries are no doubt the only record of a term or catchphrase, and in some cases the lexicographer can just guess what they originally signified. Who stole the goose? is an “interjection of contempt, which appears to have some hidden meaning, probably of an erotic nature.” in the case of Who took it out of you?, Ware doesn't even try. The meaning is “wholly unknown to people not absolutely of lower class.”
Of comparable subaltern origins, but easier to understand, is the slang term label for sausage: bags o’ mystery. That one should come back into circulation. Its use could be extended to the hot dog.
Speaking of mystery, another book recently reissued in facsimile is Andrew Forrester, Jr.’s The Female Detective, a collection of short fiction from 1864, reprinted by the British Library and distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press. A digital edition is available from Amazon.
You can find the book online in PDF for free -- which is also true with Ware’s dictionary, although Simpson’s introduction is not to be missed. With The Female Detective, the new material consists of a foreword by Alexander McCall Smith (best known for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, but also the author of What W.H. Auden Can Do For You, just out from Princeton University Press) and an introduction by Mike Ashley, whose books include a biography of Algernon Blackwood.
The Female Detective is offered as a collection of reports from the files of the elusive Miss G----- (she is nothing if not discreet) as edited by Forrester. The detective’s “casebook” was a very popular genre at the time, part of the “railroad literature” that sprang up to meet the demand of commuters. Forrester later wrote at least two more such collections, but his place in the history of the genre comes from having created Miss G---- (a.k.a. Mrs. Gladden), the first female professional detective in fiction. Kathleen Gregory Klein devoted several pages to the book in The Woman Detective: Gender & Genre (University of Illinois Press, 1988) and puzzlement over Forrester's identity – was it a pseudonym? – has echoed down the scholarship ever since.
It now seems very likely that the author was, in fact, J. Redding Ware. Simpson accepts it as credible in his introduction to the dictionary, as does Mike Ashley in the opening pages of the short-story collection. The identification was proposed by Kate Summerscale in the notes to her nonfiction novel The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008). In researching her book, Summerscale noticed that Ware published a pamphlet about the crime in question: a child murder that occurred in a country house in 1860. (The circumstances are oddly reminiscent of the JonBenet Ramsey case.) He seems to have incorporated the text into a chapter of The Female Detective.
Mrs. Gladden had keen powers of observation and deduction, and a reader can’t help thinking of the much better-remembered private eye who came on the scene later in Victoria’s reign. Ware must have felt that Arthur Conan Doyle had stolen his thunder – though that seems like a rather peculiar phrase, come to think of it.
Wade lists it in his dictionary, explaining that it means “annexing another man’s idea, or work, without remunerating him, and to your own advantage.” It was first used, he writes, by one John Dennis, “a play-writer of the 17th century, who invented stage thunder for a piece of his own which failed.” The theater manager incorporated the technique in the production of someone else’s play, prompting the enraged Dennis to yell out, “They won’t act my piece, but they steal my thunder.”
I hope J. Redding Ware studies comes into its own, or at least that others discover him. How often is it worth reading a dictionary just for the stories?
University presses -- like other publishers -- know that not all reviews will be favorable, and generally don't respond to most critiques of their books. But the debate over a new book published by Harvard University Press has led its director to issue a defense of the decision to publish. The book in question is The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler, by Ben Urwand, a fellow at Harvard. The book has been praised by some for revealing the extent to which Hollywood avoided offending the Nazis, but has been harshly criticized by others for oversimplifying the history. The New Yorker has been particularly critical, with David Denby first publishing a negative review and then following up with a piece called "How Could Harvard Have Published Ben Urwand's The Collaboration?" In that piece Denby outlines what he considers to be numerous "omissions and blunders."
A statement from Harvard University Press says in part: "We stand by the integrity of our refereeing and editorial procedures. A thorough review process is standard at Harvard, where we take very seriously the imprimatur of the university’s name. Though not all reviewers agree with Urwand’s interpretation of the actions he describes, nearly 60 pages of notes and documentation enable readers to judge for themselves the strength and validity of his presentation. Via his agent Urwand has responded to Denby and the New Yorker, but as yet we have no indication that his response has been published."