Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Deplorable Atrocity
I like to listen to interviews on C-Span's Book TV, but sometimes I wonder whether the interviewer was aware of what he or she said and, even more, whether author, whose new book was in his hand, had had the services of a competent editor; it seems very often that he hadn't.  In any case he was unconscious of the effect of his (or her) speech on the meaning of what he meant to say.  For example, one author habitually ended most sentences with "etc.", over and over, as if periods or any other meaningful punctuation were unavailable.  And he gesticulated a lot with his hands, though without any apparent special emphasis.  If he writes as he speaks, reading his book will be a dreary, irritating experience.
I started fussing this way after Hillary Clinton was made to regret saying "deplorable".  I understood her meaning that the positions held by her opponents made her unhappy.  But commentators of both parties seemed unanimous in accusing her of calling him deplorable.  First, her syntax made clear that she meant that the state of discussion in the campaigns had become deplorable, and, second, that it is conditions, opinions, and the like,  that are fit to make one weep.
Of course, even half a century ago (even, in fact, a whole century ago), it was emphasized that languages change, so that a Latin original might have changed its meaning.  Certainly!  Just as our remote ancestors who walked out of Africa had skeletons fascinatingly different from ours, both from regular evolution and in response to different environments (and Dobzhansky was certainly right to go to the trouble of proving that we continue to evolve—it was less universally realized half a century ago than it is today), so, too, our speech.  If not, all the ancestors of modern speakers of Romance languages would have transmitted their Latin to them unaltered.  Indeed, philologists of the Enlightenment had already sorted out the descent of Indo-European tongues pretty well.
Thus, "deplorable", it seems, first came to us in its French form (though we have to rely on texts as evidence), but no matter: deplorare already meant in Latin "to weep bitterly", and Roget gives us many alternatives for use as context and style may demand, of which "lament", "bemoan", and "bewail" are only three.  Now, don't let me get started on the misuse of Roget as a source of 'synonyms' to stuff into bad sentences as ornaments.  It's too late now, and hardly anyone would care, but Hillary was exactly right that the level of the political exchanges last week was 'fit to make one weep'.
Atrocity is much harsher.  On the News someone was trying to explain how, legally, ever since Nuremburg, acts of war, atrocities, terrorism, ... I forget the fourth one, ought not to be used interchangeably, just for emphasis.  I do agree that they ought to be used thoughtfully, but he did not succeed in enlightening me.
Anyway, atrox is a more specialized and interesting word, even having a possible Greek cognate, and having the same stem as the ater of atrium, originally the sooty, ashy, fire pit in the center of the primitive round hut.  Anyhow, in classical Latin atrox, atrocis (3rd decl. adj.) means 'cruel', 'fierce', and also 'savage' and 'brutal'.  That last may suggest the bridge to the primitive fire pit?  It is not so commonplace a word as deplorare.
For that reason, 'atrocious' seems to have entered modern English, like most of the 'worsened words' (those that have been demoted to cheap overstatement) to mean, colloquially, 'very bad', 'abominable', as it appears in the margin of a student paper or in an impatient book review of a lousy novel.  You can look up 'abominable' for yourselves.