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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 : 2004-04-6)

A couple of weeks ago my attention was drawn to the two words “homogenous” and “homogeneous”. I have to admit that formerly I had firmly believed that the first was a misspelling of the second, and it came as a mild surprise to hear a panel of learned people discussing these words on a radio programme. They are indeed separate and distinct, although the panel members agreed that there was little difference in meaning between them.

The difference is very slight. The Chambers Dictionary defines “”homogeneous” as “of the same kind or nature, having the constituent elements similar throughout.” The other word, “homogenous”, means similar owing to common descent.” I presume that this word would describe, say, a hatch of fruit flies. “Homogeneous”, however, could be more generally applied, perhaps to a collection of essays, or a group of people not directly related to one another. Let’s say simply that it’s the safer of the two for everyday use!

It is unlikely that a difference as slight as this one could have much practical effect. But there are occasions where the interpretation of a word can have a very marked effect on human behaviour and attitudes. In no 49 of this series I mentioned a woman whom I called “Jane”, an occasional contributor to our morning newspaper. In a recent article she devoted her column to the careers of two well-known South Africans, one of whom became a sportsman of international renown, the other a highly esteemed but less famous conservationist.

Jane pilloried one of the brothers, the sportsman, as a toady of the apartheid government, in serious need of forgiveness by present-day South Africans. (This has evidently been forthcoming, in the shape of the Ikhamanga Gold Award, “bestowed on honourable South Africans past and present.”)

Jane continues, “In honouring X today, despite his dubious role in the past, South Africa as a nation displays an attitude of reconciliation. He has currently immersed himself in…education clinics for disadvantaged children. He has pledged himself, it would appear, towards nation-building and in this respect we cannot expect his past to be a lifelong yoke around his neck.

“Yet, as we forgive we cannot forget, for there will always be a calibre of individuals who will pledge their allegiance at the drop of a hat to the changing of the guards.”

But wait a minute. In that case, what does “forgive” mean? The dictionaries are not very helpful. Chambers gives “forgive: to pardon” and “pardon: to forgive”, although, to be fair, it does give further definitions for both. The Shorter Oxford has this to say for “pardon”: “to pass over (an offence or offender) without punishment or blame,” and that seems to me to go to the root of the matter. Our common cliché “Forgive and forget”, suggests that these are two separate actions. But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that forgiving without forgetting doesn’t mean anything. If, as Jane puts it, “as we forgive we cannot forget,” then X’s past will indeed “be a lifelong yoke around his neck.” She can’t have it both ways. Her statements are nothing more than self-congratulation – a pat on the back for our nobility in forgiving, and another for our vigilance in never again trusting the person forgiven.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I think that is contemptible, as well as self-contradictory.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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