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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2004-01-28)

Shakespeare is our field this time, but before we start on him I must pay tribute to a journalist and a lawyer who have enlivened the last couple of days for me. We’ll hear the lawyer first.

Our newspapers have been preoccupied for some days with a case of alleged rape, supposed to have taken place in Bombay/Mumbai. The advocate representing the accused suggested that rape in that city made no sense, on the grounds that “…there are girls available for just the asking, at a price, of any beauty or magnitude.” A fine tribute to that city’s attractions, but does one pay more per kilogram?

Now the journalist, who is none other than the editor of the Sunday Tribune, Durban. He wrote a thoughtful piece on the fact that South Africans in general seem to be losing interest in politics. “Ordinary people,” he wrote, “from different walks of life and different social strata seem to want to give up the goat.” (Understandable, if you’ve ever been near a goat.)

Warming to his theme, he went on, “What we know is that our society is in transition, still drifting somewhat on shifting sand, so to speak, and yet to find its anchor. It will take a while for us to be able to read or understand ourselves.”

It will indeed. His “goat” for “ghost” was just the wrong word for the context. But even if he had written “ghost”, he would not have been saying what he meant, which was “to lose hope”. To “give up the ghost” means “to die”, and suicide has not yet become a national obsession in this part of the world.

In his next foray into figurative language, he obviously had some kind of boat in mind, perhaps that overworked “Ship of State” of Longfellow’s poem. But ships and boats don’t drift on shifting sand; they drift on water. Admittedly a shifting, sandy bottom beneath the water could be a problem, but that’s no place to look for the anchor, which is on board, somewhere up near the sharp end. Perhaps he was thinking of “anchorage”.

And so, at last, to Shakespeare, and a contextual problem with the little word “one”. In what actors refer to as “the Scottish play”, Macbeth, having murdered Duncan the king, looks at his bloody hands and wonders aloud, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hands? No; this my hand will rather/ The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/ Making the green one red.”

The meaning of the italicised line depends on the meaning of the word “one”, and on the placing of a pause which makes that meaning clear. I heard a South African actor of some eminence speak the line as “Making the green one…red.” He hadn’t understood what he was saying. He should have said, “Making the green…one red.”

What’s the difference? It all hinges on the meaning of “one”, which as an adjective can mean “undivided”. This was Shakespeare’s intention: Macbeth’s hands, far from being washed clean, would stain the green (seas) an undivided red. Our actor’s version of the line turned “one” into a noun. As such, it can mean “an individual thing…identified by implied reference to a known noun,” as in “two black cars and a white one,” a very common everyday usage. In the actor’s version, “the green one” requires a previous (singular) noun to relate to, and there isn’t one; the nearest noun is “seas”, which is plural. In other words, there is no “green one.”

It is a little unnerving to realise that something as tiny as a pause in the wrong place can so affect meaning. It’s a wonder that we dare to speak at all.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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