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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2005-04-9)

Take courage, classicists – Latin is alive in South Africa, if not exactly well. Perhaps spurred on by the letter-writer mentioned in my last column, who confused “decorum” with “modicum”, another reader of our morning paper has resorted to classical terminology in a letter to the editor.

The letter was prompted by the unfortunate case of a man who was killed by a crocodile, while fishing at night in a nature reserve near Durban. The crocodile was subsequently shot. This roused the sympathy of our reader, a retired veterinarian, who wrote to point out that the crocodile was only doing what “crocs are here to do.” He ended, courteously, “May both the soul of Mr X and the old croc ‘Requiem in pace.’”

Well, he got it nearly right. “Requiem” does indeed mean “rest”, but it’s a noun, not a verb. It is the first word of the introit to a memorial service, “Requiem aeternam dona eis…Rest eternal grant unto them…”, and it is colloquially used as the name of the service itself. What our letter-writer wanted was the word “Requiescant (May they rest)”. For the record, that’s the third person plural present subjunctive active of the verb “requiesco”, and I’m sure you feel better for knowing that.

A much more disturbing item was printed in a Durban Saturday newspaper. It was written by an academic about “transforming” institutions of higher learning, i.e. making them more “African.” He wrote, “Senior management (of tertiary institutions) often make an excuse that there are no qualified African academics to fill positions advertised. Although this excuse may sometimes be used as a scapegoat, it remains valid in many instances because there may indeed be no African applicants with the requisite credentials.”

What annoys me about this is his use (twice) of the word “excuse.” (The Chambers Dictionary defines this usage as “a plea offered in extenuation…in order to avoid punishment.”) He goes on to admit, without apparent embarrassment, that the “excuse…remains valid in many instances.” If the excuse is valid, it is no longer an excuse; it is a reason, a sound basis for action. Why should anyone expect, or try to avoid, punishment for acting in the only sensible way? Unhappily, this kind of accusatory language is extremely common in present-day South Africa. It reveals a corrosive, suppressed resentment at every intellectual level, and it can do nothing but retard the process of mutual acceptance which is supposed to be our objective.

Incidentally, you can’t use an excuse as a scapegoat, but let’s not split hairs.

Two valuable books about the English language have crossed my path recently. One is The Adventure of English by Melvin Bragg (Sceptre, London, 2004), a highly readable account of how the language came into being in the first place and how it evolved to its present form. The other is The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003), which tells the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary was created.

It is an extraordinary tale. This monumental work took nearly 71 years to complete; it contained nearly 228 million letters and numbers in 178 miles of type. Its creation involved a huge number of volunteer readers, who submitted their contributions on slips of paper which had to be sorted and stored. On more than one occasion the project was almost abandoned, but the completed work was finally unveiled on Wednesday, 6th June 1928, Derby Day, at a splendid dinner. The speaker was the Rt Hon Stanley Baldwin, the (Conservative) Prime Minister, in his third term of office. Near the end of his speech, he quoted Samuel Johnson, in a paragraph that is a rallying cry for all lovers of the English language:

“If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible…it remains that we retard what we cannot repel; that we palliate what we cannot cure. Life may be lengthened by care, though death cannot be ultimately defeated; tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution; let us make some struggle for our language.”

Let us indeed do so; say it again, Sam.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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