Thursday, August 21, 2014


“Good Morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it....

"What do you mean?" said Gandalf. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

"All of them at once," said Bilbo.

      The Hobbit

A very clever monkey can sometimes work out that if he makes the sign for "want" and the sign for "banana" there is a very good chance that his keeper will give him a banana. 

But human language is more complicated than that. A group of words means something different from what those words mean individually. And that meaning can't be found on a look-up table. It has to do with who is speaking, and who is listening, and where the conversation is happening, and in what tone of voice, and what was said earlier in the conversation, and what was meant by that particular group of words the last 99 times someone said them.

What do the words "I am going to make you an offer you can't refuse" mean?

1: I am going to make you an offer you can't refuse
2: I am going to kill your favourite horse and put the severed head on your pillow
3: I am big fan of 1970s gangster movies

I assume that the answer is "All of them together".

Hobbits understand this kind of thing. Wizards, monkeys and biologists seem not to. Wizards pretend that they can only hear the literal meaning of what you say to them. Words mean what words mean and nothing else. Teach these boys and girls facts; facts alone are what is wanted in life. Try telling a Wizard that, at the end of the day, what makes a good school is happy children and devoted teachers, and the Wizard will ask if those things are not equally important in the morning? (I have mentioned Mr Simon Heffer's guide to the English language before in these column. It is very funny indeed.)

A sensible person might perfectly well criticize "at the end of the day" on stylistic grounds: it's a cliché, it calls to mind a particular kind of sports journalists, and my comment would read better if I'd found a fresher way of expressing it. But at the end of the day, the reality is that the vast majority of people up and down the country would understand perfectly what you meant. ("We could have a very long discussion about what makes a good school, and that discussion would go on all day, but I feel sure that we would eventually reach the following conclusion....") Only a wizard could be confused by it. 

If I were to say "Hello, hello, hello: what's all this then?" I think that most Hobbits would be able to work out what the words mean. They mean something like "I have noticed you, and I want to make it clear that I am keeping and eye on you, although you haven't done anything wrong so far." But if someone does say that, it's most unlikely that that is what they mean. The words, taken together, send out a sort of signal, and they signify something along the lines of: "I am a very old fashioned police officer." But it is most unlikely that they mean that, either. Most likely, they are signalling something like "I am a character in a play which is so old fashioned that the policemen still use this kind of cliché," or, more succinctly, "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not take this play too seriously."  You can't find this out by looking up the word "Hello" in the dictionary, or studying its etymology. You can only find it out by knowing about plays and policemen. The words don't mean what they mean. There isn't anything but social context.

People sometimes use the expression "dog whistles" to describe the practice of planting phrases, innocuous in themselves, into political speeches, which the specific intention of signalling "I am on your side" to a particular segment of their audience. The late Michael Gove communicated almost entirely in signals of this kind. His actual theories about faith schools, classroom management and the examination system were more or less irrelevant: but speeches which contained words like "detention...lines...prefects...latin...eleven entrance exam" signaled to some of his listeners "I am an old fashioned, nostalgic chap who thinks that everything was better in the olden days. Please make me leader of the Conservative Party." 

It may sometimes happen that someone accidentally sends out a signal of this kind without really meaning to. If you do this, the best thing to do is to say "Whoops, sorry, that wasn't what I meant at all". (If the speaker does this, the best thing for everybody else to do is to assume he's telling the truth.) Perhaps I am convinced that a group of Jewish people in Bristol are planning to vote together at a PTA meeting to make local schools celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas. Perhaps I am right. Stranger things have happened. But it would be silly of me to describe the situation as a "Jewish conspiracy". Because the words "Jewish" and "Conspiracy" together signal "I believe in a secret Zionist plot to rule the universe" or more succinctly "I am a racist idiot." 

"Oh, Andrew, so now I am a racist for pointing out that Mr Abrahams and Mr Cohen and Mr Joseph always vote together at school board meetings? But it's true. I can prove that it's true."

I daresay you can. But, by accident or design, you chose to use antisemitic language to express yourself. If it was by accident, then apologize and rephrase your concern using a less loaded phrase. Otherwise, I will continue to believe that you are a racist idiot. Or, at any rate, a wizard.

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong --  The Book

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