Misprints, Miscommunications and Lies

In his highly entertaining inspection of the many uses and abuses of the English language, The King’s English, Kingsley Amis addresses the struggle between “illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms” [1] by identifying two distinct sorts of offender of whose linguistic habits one is impelled to “deplore if not abhor.” Amis classifies members of each camps as being either Berks or Wankers.

Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially H’s. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

I mention Amis as I recently experienced what I can candidly assert to be my first official Wanker moment. The circumstances in which I reached this point alone qualify me as such. While bored at work, my mind did that peculiar thing of wandering onto the always hazardous terrain of poetic recollection. Who amongst us hasn’t, in times of office induced lassitude, occupied their mind by attempting to recall school instilled stanzas? “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, “Up, black, striped and demasked like the chasuble”, “Oh, but it is dirty! This little filling station,oil-soaked, oil-permeated to a disturbing, over-all black translucency. Be careful with that match!.” Admittedly, in this instance, I wasn’t concerned with the prescribed verses of the Irish Leaving Certificate syllabus but with a section of poetry featured in George Orwell’s Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War; an essay which I have only recently become acquainted. Almost immediately fruitless with my recall, I entered as much as I could into Google. As is the magic of Google, I was immediately furnished with a multitude of results, including what I would regard to be an authority on the matter, The Orwell Prize Website. It was with some confusion, however, that I was greeted with:

Those who are neither Orwell enthusiasts nor slightly maladjusted obsessives could be forgiven for not immediately noticing the minor and seemingly inconsequential error in the above verse. For fear of turning this article into a protracted and joyless guessing game, the offense is to be found in the line “And he was born knowing that I had learned”. “That” should be “What”.[2]

In the great scheme of things, such a matter is a rather trivial concern, however, it’s fascinating how the alteration of a single seemingly innocuous letter can completely transform the tone and message of a statement. In his talk at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival, Peter Davison, editor of Orwell’s Complete Works (and the recent Life in Letters ), outlined some of various misprints and production problems that have occurred with Orwell’s work over the years:

While, I am sure, the error here is an innocent one, I cannot help but reflect on the instances whereby Orwell – and indeed all literature – has been intentionally distorted to suit the most unsavory of agendas. The misleading distortion of excerpts from 1984 in the closing chapter of Michael Moore’s inflammatory Fahrenheit 9/11, for instance, immediately springs to mind.

One cannot help but be overwhelmed by the irony of such brazen and underhanded manipulation of Orwell on Moore’s part. To align early twentieth century American policy with the tyrannical methods of the Inner Party journeys beyond the politically naive and into the downright sinister. Perhaps more worrying than a lie, however, is how readily that lie is accepted. Duped by slapdash contrarian rhetoric, the late and respected film journalist Rogert Ebert described Fahrenheit 9/11 as “A compelling, persuasive film, at odds with the White House effort to present Bush as a strong leader”, characterizing Moore as “one of the most valuable figures on the political landscape, a populist rabble-rouser, humorous and effective.” Never a man to hesitate in criticizing the persons and things of which he disapproved, Christopher Hitchens was swift in highlighting Moore’s shortcomings in the truth department. In an article published by Slate in 2004, The Hitch tore through Fahrenheit 9/11 like a chainsaw through a warm turd:

To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of ‘dissenting’ bravery.[3]

As it stands, there are so many mis-communications, refutations, revisions and rebuttals vying for attention on our screens, newspapers and radios that one could almost be forgiven the admission of having absolutely no idea what is really going on in the world.

[1] Amis, M, 2011, Introduction, The King’s English, Penguin, London

[2]By no means exclusive only to the website, the blemish can also be found in Penguin’s 2003 collection Shooting the Elephant.

[3]Hitchens, Christopher. Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays. Nation Books, 2004.

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