What’s in a word?

From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Image: cycleinfrastructurenextstep.com

“The constant interchange of design ideas between architects and clients; clients and their friends; architects and their peers is one of design’s most distinctive qualities, yet it is often neglected by researchers,” I read out, reading from the papers in my hand.

“I’m sorry,” my supervisor, John Lee, interrupted me. “You can’t say that.”

My gaze snapped at him. “What?? Why not?”

“If you state it as a fact, you need to prove it. Or cite someone who has.”

I looked down at my papers again and a light bulb went on over my head. It flickered momentarily, then faded away (it was an old building). “What if I put it like this,” I offered. “The constant interchange of design ideas between architects and clients; clients and their friends; architects and their peers is arguably one of design’s most distinctive qualities, yet it is often neglected by researchers.”


The first time that the importance of using just the right word sunk in was while I was writing my PhD thesis. Just strategically adding an “arguably” or a “probably” here and there has saved me pages of arguing over points that would bore even a politician in the middle of a filibuster.

Just don’t call it a Genocide

Continuing on the subject of the power of narrative, I’ve recently been thinking about the power of words. What prompted this was a book by Suny, Gocek and Naimark titled, “A Question of Genocide.” Published by Oxford University Press, it deals with the topic of the Armenian genocide, whose centennial is today.

From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Crucified Armenian girls, 1915
Image: orontes.jimdo.com

Or is that the Armenian massacres? You see, as a recent Economist article points out, Turkey claims that around 500,000 Armenians died of hunger and disease en route to the Syrian desert, as a regrettable side-effect of the war with Russia between 1915-16. Survivors and their scattered descendants put the toll as high as 1.5m, insist the deaths were largely intentional rather than a side-effect, and want the events recognized as genocide. They point out the Turks’ cruelty and methodical extermination of Armenians, plus the fact that exactly 100 years ago, on April 24th 1915, scores of Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in Istanbul – miles and miles away from the Russian border – thus sparking the massacres. Most were later murdered.

A growing number of academics and governments agree and use the term – which was anyway first coined by Raphael Lemkin explicitly to describe the Armenian massacres. Hitler himself once referred to the massacres as an example for the Holocaust a few decades later. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” he asked in 1939.

Turkey, however, is mounting a vigorous counter-campaign. Disagreeing with the official version is against the law – and brings other risks, too. Hrant Dink, an intrepid Turkish newspaper editor of Armenian extraction, was shot dead by a nationalist teenager in 2007 after revealing that Sabiha Gokcen, the adopted daughter of Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founder, was an Armenian who had been orphaned during the genocide. There is mounting evidence that rogue security officials orchestrated his killing.

Enter the Pope

Then, on April 12th 2015, Pope Francis delivered an address at a mass for the 100 years since the massacres, during which he called it “the first genocide of the 20th century”.

Turkey was incensed. It recalled its ambassador to the Holy See for consultations and declared that the pope’s remarks were based on “prejudice”.

The reason behind the Vatican’s decision to ignore the furious Turkish lobbying seems to be growing desperation over Islamist persecution of Christians, and what officials see as the failure of Muslim clerics and politicians to effectively oppose it. Recent months have seen mass killings of Christians by Muslims in Nigeria, Libya and Kenya. Top of the Vatican’s list of concerns are Iraq and Syria, where the pope and his advisers believe they are witnessing a decisive phase in the eradication of Christianity from countries where it has been present for millennia. Turkey’s equivocal response to the activities of Islamic State has not helped.

Lost in translation

From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

St. Augustine. If only his and St. Jerome’s Greek were a little better…

The root of many of these evils, however, can in fact be found in another conflict. Ironically enough, it involves another Pope – and a mistranslation. In 396 AD, St. Jerome translated the Gospels into Latin, from the original Greek (Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, but the Gospels were written in Greek between 70 and 90 AD). The result was the Vulgate; the Latin Bible, commissioned by Rome to assert its independence from the east.

St. Augustine built on that to form his teachings. Sadly, his translating prowess was less than what one might expect, and he made three crucial errors. One was to translate the parable of the wedding guests as to have the king say, “Compel them to come in” (in the original Greek, it’s “Bring them in”). In years to come, this would be used by the Pope as an excuse for one of Christianity’s worst atrocities; the Crusades.

Interestingly enough, Augustine himself used this passage to justify the persecution of Donatists (one of early Christianity’s  sects) in Africa, whereas at first he argued that “no one should be coerced into the unity of Christ.” When other bishops demonstrated that physical persecution worked better than sermons, he became an apologist for violence.

The second one was the concept of the original sin. The inheritance of Adam’s guilt is based on the translation of the relevant passage as “in whom all men have sinned,” when in fact the original is closer to, “because all have sinned.”

Even worse, he mistranslated certain passages regarding the Holy Trinity. Without dwelling too deep into theology, he was confused by the fact that the Greek word for “person” was deceptively like the Latin one for “substance”. As a result, the Latin Creed and the Orthodox one differ in a single word; the infamous filioque. Meaning “and the Son,” this was added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed by the Church of Rome in the 11th century, and was one of the major factors leading to the Great Schism between East and West. A Schism that led to the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the rise of the Ottoman one, and the Armenian genocide/massacres. See how it all ties in together?

In more than one ways, the thinking and outlook Augustine developed dominated the west for over 1,000 years. He is the architect of the Middle Ages – and his thinking, arguably, has shaped the world we live in. A thinking, ironically enough, based on a few mistranslated passages. Rarely has history so turned on one child’s school grades.

Any ol’ word won’t do

Upon reading all the controversy surrounding the Armenian genocide (or massacres, if you prefer) last week, I was amazed at the power of one little word to cause all that trouble. People have literally been killed over it. Empires have fought and fallen. Chat rooms and forums are – figuratively – on fire. And dozens of diplomatic skirmishes have already been fought – most recently between Turkey and the European, French and German Parliaments. Even the Kardashians have had their say.

Now, I know that none of us are the Kardashians. Or His Holiness, the Pope, for that matter (well, except for Electra when she gives me directions).

From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Image: flickriver-com

The point is that we don’t have millions of people watching us and reading our every word (not yet, anyway – though I keep my fingers crossed every day).

Still, we need to remember that there is no such thing as privacy online. We have to watch what we say. Chances are that most of our tweets or Facebook posts will be forgotten within minutes. All the ones about my book seem to, anyway. But just you wait until I have written something ill-thought or offensive, in which case it’s guaranteed to come back and haunt me for years.

Also, we’re writers and authors. Why use lazy expressions like “she walked slowly” when the English language has beauties like, “she sauntered”? Why not read our prose a few times, to make sure that we avoid repetition and that our prose sparkles as much as possible. This is what edits are for, and I’m always excited when I read a book by an author who has taken the time to go through their work with a fine comb, making sure that every word is in the right place.

And if you think these are all new concerns, think again: Verba volant, scripta manent (“spoken words fly away, written words remain”) was first uttered by Caius Titus in a speech to the Roman Senate.

How do we know? Why, someone wrote it down, of course!

Interested in finding out more about the Christianity’s history, warts and all, and how it has shaped the modern world? Check out Stephen Tomkins’ A Short History of Christianity. Where else can you learn about the Pope who built a brothel in the Vatican?

I apologize if the subject matter was a bit on the heavy side today. Perhaps I can console you with something lighter, like my children’s book, Runaway Smile, which you can read for free?