Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The Etymologist's dilemma and a butterfly of words

If there's one thing academics and lawyers have in common, it is an adherence to a certain code or form in writing and speaking that involves precision in the use of terms and language, although some might argue for very different ends. For Tiersma discussing the use of language in the legal profession '...technical terminology promotes communication in the profession by allowing lawyers to express in a word or short phrase what would otherwise require a much longer explanation.'(1) Within academia the opposite is more usually the case. Language can appear purposely convoluted and texts often impenetrable, crammed with the jargon of the day which seem to make opaque and confusing that which they should be making transparent and intelligible. There are a variety of reasons for this although Thomas remarks that "[a]cademics often disguise their own confusion by means of wilful obscurity..."(2) New scholastic appellations are endlessly created to replace their simpler (read more easily understood) now outmoded lexicographal* forerunners. Simple ideas and basicly Engly twentyfido** are often shrouded in a series of arcane phonological acrobatics that would confuse the most rabid post-enlightenment linguistical luminaries such as the late and revered Professor Stanley Unwin.

Prof Unley Stanwidlyo

The etymological rationale

There is of course a perfectly good reason for this. Why would one wish to make simple what are oftenly complexidlo theoratum?*** After all, the road to becoming an academic is a longly, arduouosee and a now very expensively businesslyo. With this comes a certain responsibility to ensure that unintelligibly conceptua are translated into philological incoherencies. Some have suggested that the Daedelean-obscura that passes for academia-speak is purposely linguistically convoluted and discursively Machiavellian in order to buttress academic elitism and an artificial divide between the holders and interpreters of knowledge and the vast mass of citizenry that do not partake of University education. There may be an element of truth in this. However, if we are to avoid what Judith Butler(3) sees as a retreat into the language of 'common sense' (as opposed to good sense), then framing new concepts and confronting common sense ideas in the field of knowledge and theorising inevitably demands a certain linguistic 'comprehensivity'.(4) But a word of warning: there is a world of difference between having sharp tools and talking a lot of incomprehensible cobblers.

My dear Dr Duke. You are on
record as talking unmitigated shite

Avoiding the Butterfly Effect

At this juncture I would like to raise my hand as being personally culpable of committing the most heinous of crimes against the English language, to which my long-suffering former PHD supervisor and other more than patient academic friends will attest. It hasn't yet been made a disciplinary offence but I'm sure there's still time. It's also highly likely I'll commit a few more over the coming months on this blog for which I apologise in advance.  There is however an important point to this brief exploration in linguistical elaboration. It concerns absolute precision in the use of language when issues of a legal nature are raised publicly, particularly one might add, when academics are involved. In addition to precision, brevity or caution are more usually exercised as the slightest deviation from the letter can induce a veritable allegorical 'butterfly effect' and potential calumnious feedback. Considering this, I reprint a recent exchange from the Vice Chancellor's blog in response to a comment/posting left by one Rupert Bayer of Paris on his . It read:

"Professor Hall,

Your response to the other contributors is disingenuous in part and omits to respond to some salient points put forward. First, you do not address Longley’s charge that the University sought personal details of private individuals who were not subject to any allegations of defamation. Apart from the fact that this is an attempt to breach both the right of free speech and of privacy, it also amounts, in my view, to cyber bullying. You therefore need to provide a detailed explanation of why the University sought to breach fundamental rights of some anonymous individuals. You also need to explain why this does not amount to cyber bullying.

You do not appear to accept the right of anonymity. This can be particularly important where those being critiscised [sic] are in a position to be vindictive and punish their critics. Unless you publicly support the right of anonymity then you will be charged with siding with the forces of oppression. Democracy is based upon the absolute right of the secret ballot. Similarly, the right of free speech relies absolutely on the right of anonymity. Are you prepared to guarantee the right of individuals to free speech at Salford University?"

Professor Hall stated categorically:

"I’ve made my position on anonymity quite clear. In addition, the University of Salford has not sought, nor will seek, the identity of all people posting to any site. We have rather requested through the courts the minimum information necessary to identify those responsible for specific postings for which there is a prima facie case of defamation."

The honing of one's tool

Before I venture any further, it might be worth dwelling for a moment on the more general achievements of the Vice Chancellor. Hall is a well published academic of some deserved repute. Like many of his peers he's achieved this partly through years of intensive training attained during his studies as a Cambridge undergraduate, through working in the field and years of academic research and writing. As such, Hall is no doubt well versed in the precision use of language as a vital adjunct of analysis. As noted above, he has also added another string to his bow of repute: with Registrar Dr Adrian Graves and University Council Chair of Audit Mr Ian Austin acting for them, he has embarked upon the issuing of libel proceedings in the High Court against someone not a million miles from... well me.(5)

Compare and contrast...

This is not the post to go into the highly pertinent issues of rights of anonymity and freedom of speech. There will be plenty of time for this over the coming weeks and months. What is of interest is the use of language and the precise meaning of words, particularly those in his above reply. I would like to draw readers' attention to the two exhibits below (para 8). The below documents, stamped by the  UK courts, were sent by the University's lawyers to Mr Toni Schneider at Automattic Inc (host of Wordpress).

Exhibit A

Er... exhibit B

I'm sure Hall has chosen his words very carefully given his previously discussed academic training allied to the vast practical and theoretical knowledge on matters of a libel nature held by Ian Austin and an extensive pool of highly paid law firms he can draw from if he so wishes. But I'd like to draw your waning attention to the wording of paragraph 8. It is true, the University (such an impersonal term) did not seek the identity of "all people posting to any site..." as he states. According to the legal document drafted carefully by expert commercial litigator Ian Austin of Heatons with one assumes the full knowledge, understanding and authorisation of Hall and his corporate subordinate Registrar Graves, it would appear that the University merely sought the 'minimum information necessary' which according to their own document submitted to the UK courts translates to the: 'User access log records and writings... which evidence and identify each IP address (including date and time of use of said IP address) associated with and/or used at any time by any person in relation to creating or modifying or posting to the Theratcatchersofthesewers.wordpress.com Account.'

You tomato and I say... well tomato

Vice Chancellor Hall's interpretation of the word 'minimum' sits oddly with my own interpretation of the word a point that was raised in court last December. Moreover, in the context of the Vice Chancellor's above statement and the court papers, other than the spelling, I can't for the life of me discern any significant difference in meaning between the word "all" and the word 'any'. I don't relish the thought of being drawn into a war of interpretations as I'd probably end up being accused of being anti-semantic, but if  "all"... sorry 'any' of you would like to contact me and let me know the difference, I'd be most grateful. 

* Note: I think I've just made this word up.
**Courtesy S Unwin
*** Also made up.
(1) Tiersma PM, Legal Language, Chicago University Press, London, 1999

(2) Thomas Mark L, Review of The Idea of Commmunism eds Zizek S & Douzinas C, Verso, 2011, in Socialist Review, February 2011
(3) Butler J, A Bad Writer Bites Back, New York Times March 20 1999.
(4) I thought I'd just dreamed this one up but apparently it does already exist... it means 'comprehensiveness' but gives an idea how jargon-ese is disseminates promoted by a new generation of social scientists and academics.
(5) Legal proceedings have been instigated but the Claim has yet to be served.

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