25 August 2008

History, (sch)mystery ... (1)

I had intended a post which weaved together a set ... no, a motley collection ... of things, linked by nothing more than my own meandering skein of thought, come together in my mind under the thin excuse offered by previously discussed provisionality of history. Alas, it sat in the pan and refused to gel without more time than I can give it at the moment ... so, I'll pick out some of the bits, wipe them off, and put them on the table individually.

First is a fragment of conversation with Ray Girvan, following his "Literary tw*ttery" post (wonderful title, by the way). I commented first on the word "twat", then went on with a gratuitous anecdote about my aunt and the word "bloody". Ray pointed out that my belief about this last word was exactly that, a belief – "one of many theories (see http://alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxbloody.html)". It was a fair cop: I was guilty of taking an explanation given early in my life as fact, without subsequent reexamination. Not for the first time.

The false provenance of "twit" is familiar to me, giving me a false sense of superiority. On "twat" I am in broad agreement, albeit with mildly discussable difference on the extent of anatomical usage. With "bloody", I bring myself back to earth. For someone who is always promoting critical habits of thought and the questioning of received authority, I make such pratfalls with distressing regularity.

Having made that upfront admission, I'd add that this sort of assumption constitutes a large part of what we "know". We all have such "knowledge", delivered to us by others or absorbed by osmosis, because we learn more than we can possibly find time to critically examine. Though it has to be said that some of us do better than others – while I regularly trip over my own assumptions, I have only once been able to catch Ray doing the same thing in the twenty years or so that I have known him.

My aunt, as a source of wisdom, had three relevant attributes. First, she was a warm, kindly, interesting person, who listened to me as a child and took an interest in what I had to say (as, I hasten to add, were both of my parents). Second, she was the most educated (and, more important, most widely and intellectually curious) figure in my early childhood. Third, however, she was a Roman Catholic nun.

My family was not a religious one. My father (my aunt's brother) had so little interest in religion that he couldn't even be bothered to be agnostic or atheist. My mother was deeply religious in a generic and eclectic sort of way, but saw it as no part of her parental brief to influence my own outlook. When my aunt visited, however, we all tried not to cause offence – and that included not using the word "bloody".

It was my aunt who introduced me before the age of ten to Beowulf, Chaucer, Homer, Juvenal, Langland, Thucydides, and many others ... including Shakespeare. And in Shakespeare I found evidence (as noted in case 2 of Ray's cited source above) to support her assertion that "bloody" originated in elision of a religious oath and, therefore (from her own perspective, presumably relative to some extension of the third Mosaic commandment) offensive.

I have, over my lifetime, had numerous examples of my aunt's fallibility. Elsewhere, I've written the following from a diplomatic corps dinner in my eleventh year:

The conversation had touched on a mutual acquaintance caught out in a social indiscretion. I saw my chance to try out a word, sound worldly-wise, and display my tolerance, all at the same time. "Well," I pronounced into a momentary conversational lull, "nobody's a virgin, are they?" I had checked out this word with my aunt ...[who]... seemed an obvious authority in this area; the Virgin Mary, my aunt explained, was so called because she had never, ever done anything bad or wrong. ... So why had the table gone so quiet, why were these glossy people staring at me in stunned disbelief, and why were my parents trying to smother laughter?

Why don't I learn my lesson, and check my facts? Partly, I suppose, because my aunt gave me oceans of fact and wisdom containing only very occasional reefs of fallacy. Sometimes, perhaps, though not in this case, because I do not consciously remember the origin of most items in the memory store. But mostly because I do not evaluate each item retrieved from that store before using it – as the old saying has it, I don't engage my brain before putting my mouth into gear.

In the context I have described here, my error has no excuse. I was writing at leisure, and I should have checked my "fact" before airing it. In life at large, however, we have no option but to rely on our imperfect body of learning as if it were homogenously true. Life is too short, and barrels past too fast, to permit checking of everything. We have to rely on a statistical tendency for what we "know" to either be true or, failing that, to work well enough in practice.

Which is where I come back to history. History is not what happened; history is an approximate consensus on what we (for the most part unconsciously) believe probably happened. Historians do their honest and professional best to refine that consensus by constantly testing it against sources but, as alt-usage-english.org illustrates, sources are not black and white. Even the best testing often comes down to balance of probabilities and differing opinion. It may seem strange to conflate one child's overdependence on his aunt with he nature of history; but the history of big events and distances is only the aggregate of histories comprising quotidian details.

The old fable of the kingdom lost for want of a nail, repeated in one variant or another across times, cultures and geographies, illustrates what military theorists call "the hinge factor": a crucial moment deciding the direction of a larger event which could have gone either way. At Waterloo, the hinge factor was lack of a handful of nails when the French needed them – not for horseshoes, but to spike British guns. In one of my former incarnations, researching structures of small but intense conflicts, I became very familiar with the scenario where one person in a fight, a riot, a smoke filled room, a jammed elevator, suddenly "cracks" and a coherent group instantaneously changes state to become a mob. Hinge factors are analogous to crystallisation or condensation foci in physics. But, crucially, hinge factors are not, in the main, reliably predictable.

Any situation is composed of huge quantities of detail and any detail has the potential to be crucial. History will consciously remember the detail which became a hinge; but it is built from all of the others as well, as are the forces which combine to decide where the hinge actually occurs. And beliefs, about large issues such as human rights and small ones like the origin of the word bloody, are part of that mix. History with a capital "H" can never be more than a blurred approximation assembled around "best guesses" at what caused what in the summary headlines of real history (small "h").

And the meanings of words such as "bloody", "twat" or "virgin" can, in the doings of human beings, be at least as crucial as any other detail. Remember the throwaway bit in Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy when an everyday English sentence travels down a wormhole to be misunderstood and thus trigger a long and bloody (in the literal sense) war untold light years away? Remove the wormhole and it's not as off the wall as it sounds.

8 comments:

Poor Pothecary said...

"Bloody" is an interesting one. One view is that a religious connection is in there somewhere, but more to do with generally unspoken connections between religion and blood as a dark and potent symbol of life and death. I can't find the reference at this instance, but I recall reading about the mutual horror experienced by Aztec priests and Catholic friars with the Conquistadores, when they found that the religion of "the enemy" had so much in commmon: particularly the emblems and practices (symbolic in Christianity - or if you're Catholic, not literal in a mundane sense) surrounding blood, sacrifice and ritual cannibalism.

Julie Heyward said...

[Before I start annoying Felix, I will say that I really enjoyed this post.]

Good grief, Felix, you're so negative.

Boo-boos can be fun. How come you always tell doom-and-gloom stories about the missing nail that ended life as we know it? How about a happy ending once in a while?

I can tell you from my attemtps at cooking, that accidents can be quite tasty.

And, before all that, even chaos is determistic so what the hell. Relax.

[ignoring the "history" rat-trap]

Poor Pothecary said...

you're so negative
Not really. It's only human to cringe in hindsight - even though it's logically absurd, we do tend at some level to blame our child selves for not acting as rationally as we would now. I have a similar memories of the HM Bateman -esque family reaction, when I was 7 or so, at my describing Benny Hill as a "sexual maniac" (no idea where I picked up the term, but it has a newspaperese flavour to it). And another occasion at about the same age, there was the ridicule on a walking holiday for happily repeating the factoid that a patch of snow on Scafell was a salt lake (Mr Wilson, a family friend, said so, and being a bit geeky I didn't grasp that it was a joke).

Felix Grant said...

Not annoyed at all, Julie - just amused that you mistake humorous self mockery for negativity!

It's given me a laugh for the evening - thanks :-)

Julie Heyward said...

I'm going to have to resort to emoticons. I *meant* "you're so negative..." to be humerous Felix-mockery. How about if I call him a wonderfully tolerant worry-wart?

At least I got Ray to confess two more (along with the one in the original post) [carefully choosing my word] mishaps -- in his whole life??!

I think I've committed at leasts three mishaps -- no, make that major blunders -- in the last 24 hours.

[Why isn't Benny Hill a sexual maniac? Is he an asexual maniac?]

Felix Grant said...

Poor Pothecary: the Aztec/RCatholic thing is intriguing. Since your correction of my assumption, I've discussed this with others ... a Muslim colleague, for example, said he'd always assumed the word to be derived from Abrahamic religions' shared superstitious fears of menstruation.

Felix Grant said...

Julie Heyward: Arrrr ... tha'ss awroit, then...

Poor Pothecary said...

Why isn't Benny Hill a sexual maniac?

Oh, it's just a stock phrase with implications more appropriate to, say, Peter Kürten than a mildly risqué comedian.