What’s in a word?
“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.
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
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).
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?
Nicolas …I admit this is a valuable article and material to be share in a university . this is a great complex, complication and a presentation with message of history and vision!!
Thanks! I thought you’d like it 🙂
Yes, heavy, and I’ll admit to a few rereads on particular sentences to be sure I understood, but certainly worth every minute I spent on it.
I agree with your ending point regarding reading a well edited piece of writing. It’s much more enjoyable, and can be the difference between reading anything further from the author or choosing not to.
Thanks – and special thanks for reading and re-reading 🙂
Audience and medium will often dictate prose..but that’s just my opinion. 😉
That’s very true!
You are so right! I’ve often sat for, what seemed like, hours trying to come up with just the right word. Sometimes it’s so frustrating when it’s on the tip of your tongue. However, once you do find that perfect word it makes the passage so much stronger. The perfect word is like finding a sunny spot on the grass on a gloomy day. Great post, Nicholas, as usual!
Thank you! I, too, love it when you find that one perfect word for your sentence 🙂
Although Augustine might have done a Latin translation of the Bible himself, it was Saint Jerome who did the Latin translation known as the Vulgate.
Nice catch! You’re right, the Vulgate was written by St. Jerome. I’ll edit that 🙂
You’ll now be able to use this as an example of words coming back to haunt one. 😀
Lol – or I could edit everything away. But it’s more fun to leave it 😀
I noticed your reference to Ataturk.
Have you ever heard this theory that claimed Ataturk was a member of the Dohmeh- that secretive Judaic sect within Islam who believed that Sabbatai Zevi was the Messiah (he caught the imagination of the Jewish world in Europe and the Middle East back in the year 1666 interestingly enough) and converted to Islam along with their founder when Sabbatai couldn’t prove he was the Messiah when the Sultan gave him 3 choices- prove he was the Messiah or get beheaded or convert to Islam so Sabbatai opted for the third choice.
His followers continue to exist within Islam even today in a sect known as the Dohmeh.
This is all news to me. Very impressive!
Another good, thought provoking post. I think there were 16 girls crucified along the road. “Truth is never pure, and rarely simple”; half-truths, however, suffer neither inconvenience, so have always proved more popular. –Oscar Wilde . . . I think. The last part may have been added by John Tremble. I agree that we haven’t come that far. Technology advanced ( mostly as we searched for more efficient ways to kill), but people are still the same. Under the right circumstances, we would stack heads at the gates of Carthage just as high, with just as much enthusiasm as the Romans, while the people call for bread and games. Panem et circenses.
Panem et circenses indeed. Thank you for the great comment!
Excellent post, Nicholas. I enjoyed reading it, as always.
So glad to hear it! Thank you 🙂
Great post, Nicholas! Reminds me why I always have to shake my head and walk away when someone starts quoting questionable passages from the Bible–any flavor. The translation from Aramaic to Greek is one opportunity to get things out of whack, but the Bible was also translated from Greek into Latin, from Latin to German and who knows how many other languages. And, not to forget that before Gutenberg, the Bible was copied by hand by many monks, and each had an opportunity to tweak the text. Great history lesson–thanks!
So glad you enjoyed it – and welcome! 🙂
Even the original Greek was largely a copy of the oral traditions of the first Churches. Hence several minor contradictions in the Gospels – I think there’s about 400 of them. Plus a score of so-called Apocryphal Gospels – Gospels that didn’t make the cut into official dogma at Nicea (eg. Thomas’ Gospel).
Interestingly enough, the monks seem to have made a great job of keeping the text as it was. This is because of a widespread belief that changing even a single word would land you straight to hell! 🙂
A word mistaken here and a another misplaced there and confusion reigns, or too much room is left for interpretation. I like when everything is specific and clear.
Fantastic article, Nicholas!
Exactly. Thanks, Tess! So glad you liked it 🙂
I did and you are welcome.
Oooooh… a very juicy post from you today Nick! Yesterdays was good, todays is even better. I learned a few things. And anything to do with the ancient world and the origins of Christianity has me rapt straight away!
Lol – that’s so kind of you; thanks. I was thinking of you as I was writing it, as it happens. If you wish to learn more about Christianity’s history, warts and all, I highly recommend Stephen Tomkins’ “A Short History Of Christianity.” It somehow manages to keep a light tone on an often dreary subject, and is surprisingly balanced (Dawkins’ polemic tires me). You can find it on https://www.amazon.co.uk/Short-History-Christianity-Stephen-Tomkins/dp/0745951449 (sadly, I don’t think it’s available on Kindle)
Hey thanks Nick! Its a shame its not on Kindle… who doesnt produce an ebook version these days???… but I enjoy reading the odd physical book now and then. Although as I mostly read in bed these days, they do have an annoying habit of hitting me in the face as I drift off to sleep, unfortunately! Lol!
Lol – yes, that can be a problem. My edition was from 2005, which explains the lack of a Kindle edition 🙂
The power of one word. Gets really bad if people take it out of context or don’t know the emotions behind it. That tends to be the case with Internet conversations. I probably see at least one ‘fight’ a week because somebody misread a FB post or tweet. It does tend to be one word that gets translated in two different ways by the combatants.
Do you think we as a species have become a little too hung up on the word instead of the action and emotion that they’re connected to? Odd for an author to say that, but I just see people fighting over syntax and nuances, which overshadows whatever they are referring to.
Just think “jihad” (alternatively interpreted as a personal voyage of self-improvement or a holy war against infidels), and I think you have your answer on just how far we’ve come as a species…
Also the ‘shalt not suffer a witch to live’ was a mistranslation. I believe the original was ‘poisoner’, but somebody translated it to ‘herbalist’. That pinpointed the medicine women of the time or something like that. Then you get your Witch Trials.
Every society needs its witches – someone we hate unreservedly. Just think pedophile.
In ancient Greek cities, one unhappy goat would be chosen every year to bear the sins of the city. This goat would then be driven away from the city, thus freeing it from the gods’ wrath. Hence the word scapegoat.
Interesting origin of the term. Kind of strange how a society ‘needs’ something or someone to hate in order to survive. Doesn’t make us sound as civilized and evolved as we claim.
It’s a question of identity. The easiest way to build one, is by contrasting yourself to someone else, who is everything you’re not.
As we like to think of ourselves as angels, this makes the “Other” a devil.
Similar to advancement only comes from conflict. People need that ‘enemy’ to defeat in order to claim victory. Our first choice tends to be a physical thing instead of something intangible like fear or hate.
Excellent post, fascinating and insightful. Definitely ok to go ‘heavy’ with this one.
I really appreciate you saying so. Thank you 🙂
As one, permanently accused of heavy or over-serious I welcome a fellow. It has become a new and insidious kind of control that all must be light flippant or inspiring to which only hugs and mwah’s are the response. Not that I am averse to fun or flippant or satirical. Yet with the prevailing ‘ethos’ of soundbite ‘content’ it takes courage to just get serious.
This was a great education tying things together. Always had me doubts about Augustine, but the weight placed upon words (when they suit the existent agenda) continues. Care is needed because there are so many waiting to pick a fight, (Charlie Hebdo being the extreme case) and your ‘qualifyers’ smooth the path, but in the end we need to take courage- and in a small way- you did.
Worth knowing this, in the light of Turkey’s current ambivalence. Ataturk would turk in his grave.
Thanks, I appreciate the kind comment 🙂
It’s hard to know what Ataturk would do. I’ve studied his life, and it’s remarkably hard to distinguish between the man and the legend. Things get even more complicated due to the cacophony of people claiming to speak in his name, when in fact they’re simply promoting their own agendas.
Promoting agendas always harnesses the ‘authority’ of others. I know little about him except the secularisation attributed and I celebrate that wherever it happens. It makes (or made) Turkey a very welcoming place. That welcome for tourists benefits all the young students who live off hard seasonal work to fund their language skills and education. That seems now in jeopardy.
I don’t think it affects everyday life. This is just silly politics by the bigwigs. There’s much to appreciate and admire about Turkey, just like there’s much to dislike. Isn’t that the case with every country, though? 🙂
Certainly it is. Britain is hardly flawless. The bigwigs unfortunately get the attention of the Press and create false images that then spiral down to ‘everyday life’.
Reblogged this on Books and More.
Great article! Language is fascinating. People are even more so. I’ve met people who thought the (singular) Bible was written in English.
Ah, well, there is that… 🙂
A great post and definitely not too heavy – I love history. The Armenian massacre was something I was not aware of, although, I had heard about the Pope’s comments and at the time I wondered what it was about. Top marks for helping me learn about this event in history – just shows us all the power of words can be both good and bad 😀
Thank you so much, Catherine! It is amazing how much of history depends on small things like that.
Excellent article. I like heavy.
I’m relieved to hear it! Thanks 🙂