A word so dreadful and rotten

February 16, 2020

Antonia White’s coming-of-age novel Frost in May, published in 1933, became Virago Press’s first Modern Classic in 1978, which is the edition I recently read. It tells the story of Fernanda (‘Nanda’) as she progresses through the Convent of the Five Wounds, coming to terms with its norms and her evolving relationship with religion.

The top quarter of the book cover is dark green, with the text "Virago Modern Classics" in yellow, then, in larger white text, the author's name and the book title. Below them is a detail from Adolf Dietrich's painting "Mädchen mit Schürze", showing a young girl in three-quarter profile, with fair hair tied back with a black bow. She faces left and has an expression that could be either concentrating or absent-minded.Frost in May is apparently based on White’s own experiences in Catholic boarding school. Tessa Hadley describes it in the Guardian as ‘exquisitely poised between a condemnation of the school and a love letter to it’. The convent applies a severe form of discipline, which now and then encompasses language use:

Nanda dropped her lily with awe. It stood, she knew, for some mysterious possession . . . her Purity. What Purity was she was still uncertain, being too shy to ask, but she realised it was something very important. St. Aloysius Gonzaga had fainted when he heard an impure word. What could the word have been? Perhaps it was “___,” a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.

In the book, the unspeakable word appears within the quotation marks. I’ve removed it to see if you can guess what it is. The answer appears further down. I’ll give you a clue: it begins with ‘b’, and it’s not a slur or swear word.

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Where George Bernard Shaw got his style

January 30, 2014

An anecdote from G.B. Shaw’s Everybody’s Political What’s What (1944), quoted by James Sutherland in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, reveals the Irish author’s early stylistic inspiration:

That I can write as I do without having to think about my style is due to my having been as a child steeped in the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Cassell’s Illustrated Shakespeare. I was taught to hold the Bible in such reverence that when one day, as I was buying a pennyworth of sweets in a little shop in Dublin, the shopkeeper tore a leaf out of a dismembered Bible to wrap them in, I was horrified, and half expected to see him struck by lightning. All the same I took the sweets and ate them; for to my Protestant mind the shopkeeper, as a Roman Catholic, would go to hell as such, Bible or no Bible, and was no gentleman anyhow. Besides, I liked eating sweets.

That the Bible was already dismembered suggests it was a routine source of raw material for the shopkeeper. Had he a secular alternative to hand – old newspapers, for instance – he might have made a tóimhsín for the sweets and allayed his damnation.


The -tide of reform

May 2, 2011

Sometimes it behoves people to adopt and accelerate changes in the common vocabulary of their language for political or cultural reasons. Mankind, once the norm, is now widely and rightly considered an inadequate term for humankind. Ditto chairman for chairperson, fireman for firefighter, and similar sexist and androcentrist terms.

In other cases, though, such attempts to ‘fix’ a language are misguided to the point of absurdity. I think we’re better off without huperson, woperson, personslaughter and personhole covers.

Of course, it’s not always gender that’s at issue. Here’s an account of one mercifully short-lived attempt at linguistic reform in the name of religion:

In the nineteenth century, British politician Thomas Massey railed against Catholicisms in the English language and proposed to the House of Commons that Christmas should be renamed ‘Christ-tide’ to avoid reference to the Catholic mass. When Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli stood up, however, to ask Thomas Massey whether he was then also prepared to change his own name to ‘Tom-tide Tidey’, the matter was closed.

From A History of Language, by Steven Roger Fischer.

Previously: Aborting the sexist pronoun.

Bookmarking the pope’s visit

August 3, 2010

This improvised bookmark was left in a second-hand paperback I picked up recently. It’s a Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ) rail ticket to see Pope John Paul II on his visit to the Phoenix Park in Dublin in autumn 1979.

Whoever owned the ticket probably kept it as a memento of what became a milestone in modern Irish history — in some ways a turning point in our sense of ourselves. More than half of Ireland’s population attended a papal appearance during the historic three-day tour; it’s estimated that over a third went to see the pope in the Phoenix Park. Some places, such as Knock, came to a temporary standstill.

Such reverence is unimaginable today for many reasons. One stands out. A great many children in the care of the Catholic church were not exactly given return tickets to the park. Systematic abuse, its subsequent denial, and the reneging of responsibility, accountability, and basic humanity, revealed to the previously unaware a deep dark void where the moral centre of the institution ought to be.

Ireland’s complex relationship with the church is, for better and worse, part of our cultural and psychological heritage. In the midst of evil acts perpetrated by the powerful on the vulnerable, silence was ever complicit. Ours is a nation famed for its talkativeness, but we have a lesser known talent for leaving things unsaid. The pope’s last words before boarding at Shannon Airport were: “Ireland — semper fidelis, always faithful.” I think that was part of the problem.


Their puzzling devoutness

July 23, 2009

Two caveats: the law is not my strong point, and structure is not this post’s strong point – I wrote it in a hurried state of discombobulated semi-disbelief – so corrections and points of information are welcome.

Star MakerIn 1937, British historian and philosopher Olaf Stapledon published a science fiction novel called Star Maker. It is a book so imaginative, thoughtful and beautifully written that the great wonder is that it never achieved the same public renown as the works of, say, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells or Arthur C. Clarke. Certainly Star Maker is acclaimed as a masterpiece of science fiction, but its crossover success has been limited: it does not seem to be widely read by people who are not fans of the genre. (I would love to hear reports to the contrary.)

I was recently reminded of Stapledon’s story by the exasperating senselessness of those who saw fit to criminalise blasphemy in Ireland. As the Defamation Bill staggered through the Oireachtas (Irish national parliament), John Naughton examined the constitution of what he called a “backward statelet”, Bock described it as among other things a waste of the Garda Síochána’s time, Jason Walsh offered further analysis and historical context, and Martyn Turner’s satirical cartoons encapsulated the absurdity. In the Irish Times, Eoin O’Dell explained the bill’s dubious constitutionality; in the Guardian, Padraig Reidy observed that “Irish law has now enshrined the notion that the taking of offence is more important than free expression.” Despite an eleventh-hour twist and the best efforts of a newly formed lobby group, the defamation bill was passed today, including the aforementioned provisions on blasphemous libel. The links above are but a small selection of the critical commentary on the matter.

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