Monthly Archives: May, 2012

Can I Quote You?

Obi Wan and Yoda

“Use only for direct speech,” said Obi Wan.

‘Agree with you, we do,’ said Yoda.

Should I be using double marks or single? The answer is yes. And no. British and Commonwealth countries (though not all) favour single quotation marks, while many US writers, editors and style guides (though not all) prefer double marks. Who’s right? When in doubt, I consult an in-house style guide – if there is one. But many organisations don’t have such a handy resource. Even some publishing houses don’t have them. So who decides what is acceptable? Does it really matter? Yes. The uncertainty can cause confusion. Whatever my own preference, there’s a problem of internal consistency. If I quote using one set of marks, I must use the other set for speech within those marks or I might lose the thread of meaning. For example: ‘He said “Rosebud,” ’ reported Welles. Therefore I can use either these (“) or these (‘) so long as I’m consistent with my own usage.

But how do I describe those funny little scratches on the page or screen? Some people call them ‘quotation marks,’ ‘quotes’ or ‘speech marks’. I call them ‘inverted commas’. Is this confusing? You say tomato and I say solanum lycopersicum. Mostly it’s not. Mostly we know what we mean but the word ‘quote’ can irritate some people, because of its potential to cause confusion. After all, ‘quote’ can also refer to the words within those marks. ‘Put quotes around your quotes’. Misuse of this word can add injury to irritation for certain listeners and readers.

Although formal writing favours ‘quotation’ over ‘quote’ when citing direct speech, the conversational use of ‘quote’ as a noun commonly occurs in print these days. In this era of globalised English usage, there’s many a punctuation slip between text and the tongue. So is this a usage or abusage? Is the choice solely a matter of tradition or might there be justification for the distinction? ‘Quotation,’ as used in its popular sense, often connotes a literary or historical origin. If a David Letterman or a Jay Leno were to announce their Top Ten Quotations from Great Leaders, we might reasonably expect words of wisdom uttered in earlier epochs: biblical times, the Elizabethan age, or the Founding Fathers. For an excerpt of a more recent speech or published material, the word ‘quote’ is more commonly heard.


What about its misuse in the commercial world? Tradespeople and service suppliers often provide ‘free quotes’. A few even offer the more elevated-sounding (i.e. pretentious) alternative ‘quotation’. Which is preferable? Mixing up the two can cause confusion and, occasionally, amusement. Not long ago I participated in a staff meeting about salary packaging. One prospective contractor we considered was called Shakespeare & Associates. A colleague asked if I could get a quote from Shakespeare. I said I already had one. Such comic opportunities don’t come along that often. I launched into Henry V’s speech delivered at the gates of Harfleur (‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends…’). It was a free quotation, wasn’t it? If I were a plumber named Wordsworth or a builder named Chaucer, I’d provide many quotations free of charge. To quote two famous quotes about quotes:

Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, 1995): “It’s like a quote: it’s the nearest any of us gets to being in the movies.”

Or the other kind. Rudyard Kipling (The Finest Story in the World, 1893): ‘He wrapped himself in quotations- as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors.’

No charge for the above quotations.

Is that a compliment or are you having a go at me?

Compliment insult

If I describe someone as ‘a gentleman,’ I obviously intend this as a compliment. But if another person with a different attitude describes that individual as ‘a rich bludger,’ no praise is intended. ‘A real worker’ can be reframed as ‘just one of the workers’. ‘Educated’ can be somebody else’s code for ‘privileged’. ‘He has a real way with words’ can be turned into an insult with ‘he has verbal diarrhoea’. And a ‘plain-spoken man’ can be re-framed as ‘this man has Van Gogh’s ear for oratory’. The context hasn’t changed; only the attitude.

If I call an Englishman a ‘conservative’ he may assume I’m referring to his membership of the Conservative Party. To call a man in Australia a liberal is to insult him if that person considers himself a left-winger. It’s all about attitude, and that extends to the naming of institutions. Down under, where the seasons are inverted, our principal right-of-centre political organisation is oxymoronically known as the Liberal Party. When dealing with language, attitude is all. To call someone a republican in Australia implies that a person would rather not have Britain’s monarch as our head of state. That person might have no animosity towards the Queen but he or she considers that it’s time to cut the empire umbilical cord. As for being called a democrat, that’s a national joke in Australia, meaning that you support a once-worthy but now moribund minor party. Attitudes affect names, and become insults.

In the USA, reverse all of the above. There is no Conservative Party. There is no Liberal Party. It’s the Republicans who favour the status quo – and they favour the colour red. While the Democrats, even if they aren’t all wild about being lumped on the left, favour the colour blue. That country has reversed the colour polarity. Every other nation favours red for left and blue for right, don’t they? Not really. Even colour is an attitude, and a potential insult. In the Republic of Ireland, everyone’s a republican, while in Northern Ireland the loyalists (i.e. royalists) predominate. The Irish don’t subscribe to a neat colour-coding of red and blue. They favour shades of green—and orange. While over in the Ukraine, orange denotes political reform. Same words, same colours: different attitudes.

Men and women have always had divergent attitudes to transmitting messages. Insult can be heard as compliment and vice versa. For example, if a man says ‘I’d like to take you out to dinner’ he may not have dinner on his mind, even if the woman does. If a woman says ‘You’re so manly’ she may mean that her partner hasn’t shaved in two days and he stinks. When a woman asks if her bottom looks big in this outfit she doesn’t want to hear anything except a loud No. And if a man says ‘nice dress,’ he may not give a damn for the dress, only what the dress is revealing. Attitude informs language choice but it’s also code. This may emerge in the way a woman describes herself or how someone else describes her. If she is ‘childless’ there is an implication of fatalism, and it can be insulting, but if she is ‘child free’ there is a sense of choice or preference.

Manipulative language has long been a propaganda weapon of the military. The euphemism ‘defoliation’ is a less barbaric way of describing the wanton torching or chemical destruction of forests. Rather an extreme form of ecological insult. The old favourite ‘friendly fire’ is surely preferable to unfriendly fire. And ‘collateral damage’ might be no worse than breaking eggs to make omelettes; except we know what it means. The insult here is to our intelligence. We resent being manipulated by the abuse of language.

Political propaganda has been insulting us for a long time. My current favourite abused term is ‘the mainstream’. This is classic code. It goes hand in glove with ‘extremist views’: a way of sidelining anyone who strongly disagrees with the speaker. These ‘extremes’ may fall to the right or left of the ideological spectrum but they are labelled thus to minimise their credibility. They insult the fairness of any argument with a language sneer. For example: ‘ultra-liberal views,’ ‘reactionary views,’ the loony left,’ ‘the fundamentalist right’. Once these phrases enter the discussion, all semblance of open-mindedness can evaporate.

Of course it’s not easy to suspend prejudices when we hear a [insert your own hot-button phrase here] climate-change sceptic (you mean ‘climate change denial merchant’) or a reformer (you mean ‘revolutionary’) or an agnostic (you mean ‘atheist’) or pro-Jewish (you mean ‘Zionist’) or enthusiast for the ‘war on terror’ (oh, you mean the war not on terrorists but on nation states we don’t much like). As soon as we feel insulted by language, attitudes can ossify. Real discussion has no chance. Attitudes can be already encoded in the names of organisations. To the ears of some listeners, ‘Friends of the Earth’ may imply that its critics are enemies of the Earth. Likewise advocates for ‘Pro-life’ may be regarded by sceptical listeners as begging the question, when the starting point of human conception remains a matter of contention. It can be as easy to insult somebody else’s opinion as to compliment them; all we need is the magic phrase.

So if I call you a God-fearing gun-toting fanatic, you might well reply in the affirmative, and say ‘Yep, I’m a patriot.’ Nor have I insulted you, though I might have wanted to. And if you call me a lefty bookish nerd I would thank you, but you might have hoped for an insult. Sometimes it’s all in the word attitude.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

In the unlikely event that you haven’t seen Life of Brian (1979) the following is an immortal sentiment expressed by would-be revolutionary leader Reg, played by John Cleese:

‘All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’

We could all add further achievements to this list. My personal favourite is language. Sure, we don’t speak Latin in the street any more or even in church, but I’m not talking about grammatical structures or vocabulary. I’m talking about Rome itself: and derivations thereof, thanks to Romulus, the supposed founder (sorry Remus, but you’ve gone the way of the Jutes in sharing any cultural credit). There are two branches to the Roman stream, and they flow in different directions.

Derivation 1: Romance.

Romans were not romantic; quite the reverse. They didn’t bequeath this adjective to the world. Instead the term ‘romantic’ arose by way of the Vulgar Latin word ‘romance:’ a heroic ballad or prose narrative that was popular in the medieval courts of Western Europe. The term ‘romance’ was also applied, in retrospect, to extended prose narratives of the Greek Hellenic period. Romances of the mediaeval court were more than just love stories. They involved knights errant undertaking quests, with monsters and heroic archetypes from folk tale, legends and fairy stories. These days we might classify them as ‘Fantasy fiction’ or ‘Sword and sorcery’. Popular books in the Harry Potter and Twilight series fit within these confines. Not very Roman though. What’s that about then?

During the period known as Gothic Revival, the term ‘Romanticism’ was born: a literary, musical and artistic movement sweeping across Europe in the eighteenth century and extending into the early nineteenth, contemporaneous with the Industrial Revolution. It was characterised by a creative and intellectual revolt against the Enlightenment period’s aristocratic and political qualities, as well as a reaction against the dominance of science and rationalism. Many of the Romantic poets (e.g. Byron, Shelley, Keats) and composers (e.g. Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner) expressed powerful emotion as an integral part of the aesthetic experience, with untamed nature as a source of human inspiration. Doesn’t sound very Roman? It wasn’t.

The Romans were a rational lot. Let’s consider Reg’s list of exceptions, none of which is ‘romantic’ as we have come to use the term in common parlance. There are various theories but none of them sounds especially convincing. The most plausible—and common—is a nostalgic appeal to a mythical past and an ideal of so-called ‘Roman virtues’, rather than genuine aspects of Roman society or culture, in the same manner as ‘classical’ appeals to an idealised past. In this light ‘Hellenistic romance’ sounds like an oxymoron but we all know what’s intended because the term ‘romance’ has long diverged from any association with Rome.

For the term ‘romanticism’, we need to consider another source entirely: German culture. The word ‘romantic’ is usually attributed to the daughter of a Director-General of Finance at the time of Louis XVI, a name well known to students of French revolutionary history as Jacques Necker. His daughter was one Madame de Staël. In her 1813 publication entitled De l’Allemagne (On Germany) she recounted her travels in that region, and coined the term ‘romantic’ to describe ‘sturm und drang’ (storm and stress) poets of the late eighteenth century. These men rebelled against the classical style and emphasised flouting social convention. But the word ‘romantic’ has an even earlier claimant. Friedrich Schlegel used ‘romantische’ to describe elements of medieval romance in Renaissance writers such as Shakespeare and Cervantes.

So how did we get from Lancelot and Parsifal to Hugh Grant and Cary Grant? Is our contemporary use of ‘romantic’ from the medieval or the Germanic? Perhaps a little of each, and less of both. Courtly romances had qualities of Lord of the Rings and Camelot; while Romantic Poetry often featured horror, tragedy, madness and torment. Nowadays ‘romantic comedy’ means a light and fluffy date movie. ‘Romantic’ feelings are confined to lovey-dovey St Valentine’s Day cards. Sex and its complications do not sit comfortably with this Disney confection of romance. Happy endings are mandatory. Boy meets girl, boy and girl quarrel, romance wins out in the end, and they live happily ever after. Today’s ‘romance’ is often a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. The term has come to mean little more than sentimentality. A person may be accused of not being ‘romantic’ when she or she does not behave according to someone else’s norms. What have the Romans ever done for us? They didn’t do this. We can blame Queen Victoria or Mills & Boon or Hollywood but it’s too late. The ideals of medievalism and Gothic Revival have diminished. Knights are no longer errant and Goths no longer sack cities. Romance has been devalued until it’s just an ingredient in a formula. Caesar is a salad.

Derivation 2: Romance languages

By contrast the Romans did give us languages other than Latin. The so-called ‘Vulgar’ Latin (‘vulgar’ being another victim to devaluation of meaning, sliding from a term for the vernacular to a synonym for ‘uncouth’ and ‘coarse’) was not a proto-language, nor a description for the state of post-Latin languages. Instead it was a branching-off phenomenon that occurred over many centuries. The obvious Romance languages are Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian. But there have been others during the long decline and fall of the Roman Empire; languages such as Sardinian, Romansh, Cantabrian, Galician, Provençal, Dalmatian, Catalan and Occitan. Each of these has informed and influenced the spread of further languages and dialects. With time and conquest and cultural migration, the Roman language river has continued to flow, and to sprout new tributaries. The Romany people, also known as Gypsies, claim Roman origins for not only their gene pool but also their language roots.

What have the Romans ever done for us? In my opinion, all the Romanesque architecture and all the aqueducts in the former empire don’t measure up against the achievement of this one legacy. Rome’s linguistic gift continues to feed languages of the world. And for that, Reg, we should be grateful. Perhaps such a rational acknowledgement isn’t very romantic but the Romans might appreciate the gesture.