Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

Martin Amis and his use of the English language

In Intellectuals, Language on July 26, 2012 at 7:34 PM

I have finally begun reading Martin Amis’s own award winning memoirs, Experience, first published in 2000. He knows a lot about words. They are his specialisation and his career is dependent on how well he uses them. I wish to comment on one word that he has used: “prepotence.”

In 1973  Amis’s cousin Lucy Partington disappeared at the age of 21 without trace. The full horror of this trauma came to a fruition in 1994 when her decapitated and mutilated body was exhumed from the basement of a premises lived in by the serial killer, Frederick West. This horrific event is something with which Amis reflects on in Experience. After recounting how the event had affected him and other family members, he writes:

My family cannot understand the extraordinary collision that allowed him [Frederick West] to touch our lives, and I have no wish to prolong the contact. But he is here now, in my head; I want him exorcised. And Frederick West is uncontrollable: he is uncontrollable. For now he will get from me a one-sentence verdict and I will get from him a single detail. Here is the sentence.

The build up is dramatic. Those sentences are phenomenally well written leaving the reader keen to read the next sentence, one for which Amis must have put in a lot of thought. Frederick West, the brutal murderer of Amis’s cousin, summed up in a single sentence by Amis himself, a man who knows the power of language. Amis continues:

West was a sordid inadequate who was trained by his childhood to addict himself to the moment when impotence became prepotence.

I was completely and utterly deflated: I did not know the meaning of the word “prepotence.” This was the sentence that I was waiting for, the one for which there had been a build up and for me, it fell flat. I do not carry a dictionary and where I was there was no service on my mobile phone. It took me some time before I could visit the on line dictionary that I use as a standard: Dictionary.com. I was left with a wry smile when I realised that I had not misspelt the word: “prepotence” is so obscure that it is not in that particular dictionary. I did manage to locate to the word at thefreedictionary.com. It comes from the word prepotent which means “Greater in power, influence, or force than another or others; predominant.”

Given how annoyed I was about the use of the word, I asked four other people if, without using a dictionary, they knew its meaning. These people included a lawyer, an author of numerous bestselling books, someone who, like Martin Amis, had studied at Oxford University in the 1960s, and someone who is completing a doctorate at Oxford in contemporary history and who is also a published journalist and author. Of the four, in no particular order, two people had no idea of the meaning of the word and did not hazard a guess; one did not know but suggested as a guess that the word might have something to do with premature ejaculation; and the fourth suggested that they thought they knew the meaning and then accurately told me what it was. This fourth person has also read Amis’s Experience and could not say for certain if the reason he knew the word was because he had read it there. While emailing these friends with the question, I realised something else: I do not know what dictionary is built into my computer/web browser, but when I type the word “prepotence,” a squiggly red line appears beneath the word to inform me that the computer is unaware of the existence of a word with such a spelling.

I am going to extrapolate from this, including from my biased and tiny non-statistically significant sample, to suggest that most people do not know the meaning of “prepotence.” If anyone wishes to dispute me, I would be willing to place a bet on the point.

I am not against Amis using obscure words: he knows them and is able to use them with panache. I also do not mind looking up those words of which I am unfamiliar with the meaning. Indeed, earlier in Experience, Amis had used the word “consanguineous” that I did not know but it was hardly a chore to look it up and, in any event, the word was not used in such a crucial sentence. Amis is obviously a brilliant man; I suspect he is so brilliant that he might not have realised that mere mortals would not necessarily be familiar with “prepotence.” I think he should have done.


On comprehending numbers and the gleeful dismissal of mathematics

In Finance, Mathematics, Twitter on July 11, 2012 at 12:00 PM

This morning I started a fight on Twitter. I didn’t need to but I wrote something deliberately provocative. Nick Cohen quoted a line from Barbara Gunnell’s article “Staying alive in Britain: can the poor afford it?” The selected sentence quoted was this:

Like most financial figures, the estimate of personal debt has too many zeros to comprehend.

The personal debt figure that Ms. Gunnell refers to is £1,460,000,000,000. Her sentence annoyed me. I interpreted it as saying that the number 1.46 trillion is incomprehensible not just to herself, but to anyone. Why it annoyed me is that not only do I think I can comprehend a figure of that magnitude, but that I think many people with a reasonable aptitude for numbers can do so too. I responded as follows:

People without a mathematical background often say things like that. What would arts people think of those who might say “Charles Dickens’ novels have too many long words to comprehend.”  Howls of laughter and ridicule.

I meant it. Earlier this year I read Dickens’ Great Expectations. I used the dictionary to look up words that the celebrated author had used in that novel including, but not limited to, “betimes,” “chary,” “clew,” “contumaciously,” “epergne,” “equipage,” “fain,” “fetters,” “gewgaws,” “indite,” “jorum,” “prolix,” “sconces,” “slue,” “stolidity,” and “victualling.” I am not proud that I had to use a dictionary to find out the exact meanings of these words. It is an embarrassing fact. Woe betide anyone who said to a journalist, who by job definition should have an excellent command of language and a wide vocabulary, that Dickens is incomprehensible.

Just because I had to look up “gewgaws” as I had no idea what the word meant, it does not mean that Ms. Gunnell did not know either. She might well do. And just because she cannot comprehend a number such as 1.46 trillion, it does not mean that I can’t, as I can.

In her defence, Ms. Gunnell did not write that sentence without what she believed was a good reason to do so. In fact, she had an impeccable source. The Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman was recently interviewed for an article published in this week’s Observer. He stated:

Human beings cannot comprehend very large or very small numbers. It would be useful for us to acknowledge that fact.

Statements by Nobel Prize winners should not be dismissed lightly and it is perfectly reasonable for a journalist such as Ms. Gunnell to rely upon Kahneman. Thinking about this, I do not believe that Kahneman was referring to a number as small as 1.46 trillion when he said humans cannot comprehend very large numbers. The clue is that he also says that humans cannot comprehend very small numbers. Most people might think that, for example, the number 3 is a very small number. But if I said that humans cannot comprehend the number 3, I would not be taken seriously. Kahneman must therefore be referring to a number such as 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000001. This I cannot really comprehend and nor do I suspect many, if any, people can. 1,460,000,000,000 might sound like a very large number, but in mathematical term it is hardly a googolplex. Now that is a number that I cannot comprehend.

I have no desire to personally attack Ms. Gunnell, indeed I think her article is well worth reading; my concern is to defend finance and mathematics as important subjects and ones that should be encouraged to be studied rather than gleefully dismissed as incomprehensible.

Differences II

In Mozambique on July 10, 2012 at 8:14 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 10th 2012, 9:00 am

In a blog post last week I commented upon a NUS executive member who identified an important difference between anti-Zionist activists spending money in Israel and Zionist tourists spending money in the same country. I noted that it reminded me of the differences between capitalist lobotomies and socialist lobotomies in Cuba. Paul Bogdanor has brought to my attention a further important difference – one identified in Mozambique in 1983:

Officials repeatedly say that Frelimo flogging is different from colonial flogging because “it serves the people and not the oppressors”.

Alternative Conspiracy Theories

In Conspiracies on July 3, 2012 at 4:34 PM

In the Guardian today Sami Ramadani has an article where he refers to

a de facto alliance against the Shia ‘crescent’ between the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and al-Qaida.

The key addition of the words “de facto”  are, I assume, there to suggest that the alliance may not be an actual one.

Alternatively, Dr Mamdouh G Salameh, an International Oil Economist & Consultant to the World Bank on Oil & Energy, was interviewed on Voice of Russia. He posited the theory (25:55-26:10)  that:

There might be an unholy alliance between the United States, Israel and Iran to syphon off the oil and energy resources of the Arab Gulf.

The question I therefore have is this: are the Americans and Israelis working with the Sunni Arab states and Al Qaida against the Shiites or with the Iranian Shiites against the Sunni Arabs?

Hat Tips: Hegemony OrBust and David Patrikarakos.


In BDS, Israel, Trotskyism on July 2, 2012 at 8:48 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 2nd 2012, 2:27 pm

Yesterday I attended Ideas for Freedom, the annual summer weekend event of the Trotskyist group Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. One of the debates was between Sacha Ismail of the AWL against Michael Chessum, an executive member of the National Union of Students. Ostensibly the debate was on the left and Israel/Palestine, but in practice it was a debate on the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Chessum, who was eating a packet of Iranian pistachio nuts from the platform, was arguing in favour of boycotting Israel. His position was vigorously opposed by AWL supporters at the event. They made the point that he was hypocritical to argue in favour of boycotting Israel if he used a modern mobile phone that contained any Israeli technology or went on visits to Israel as an activist as part of his campaign against the country. Chessum argued that it was different for activists opposed to Israel to visit the county and spend money there than for tourists to the country. He implied that these differences meant that BDS activists do not need to boycott Israel if on a fact finding mission to the country whereas other people should.

This bizarre logic reminds me of an anecdote that Ronald Radosh recounted in his memoirs (Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, [Encounter Books, 2001], p127.) On a visit to Cuba, Radosh was given a tour of a psychiatric hospital in Havana. The doctor was proud to tell the tour group, “in our institution, we have a larger proportion of hospital inmates who have been lobotomised than any other mental hospital in the world.” One group member was horrified – but Suzanne Ross, a Castro loyalist, said, “We have to understand that there are differences between capitalist lobotomies and socialist lobotomies.”

Next Week: the SWP’s Marxism 2012. I can hardly wait.