Monthly Archives: January 2017
I’d been meaning for quite some time to write an “Editor Pontificates” post on a couple of phrases that are bugging me when people use them incorrectly. They’re the kind of thing that make me want to pull out my big rubber stamp and slap on a fat, juicy WRONG! But then, I had to change my mind on both of those matters. Well, okay, maybe didn’t have to, but I did anyway.
The phrases in question are “from whence” and “begging the question”.
“Begging the question” is actually a specific term that comes from formal logical debate. In that context, it means “a circular argument”: if something begs the question, it’s stating as a fact the very question that started the discussion in the first place. The way the phrase is misused is that people use it as a synonym for “bringing up the question”: “My socks got wet wading through the snow, which begs the question why I didn’t wear boots today.” That’s wrong – or is it?
“From whence”, on the other hand, is a case of messed up archaic language. It’s rarely used nowadays in ordinary speech, which is why people (those pesky people) aren’t familiar enough with it to use it properly. “From whence” is a redundancy (as is its partner, “from hence”): “Whence” means “from where” (and hence “from here”). So, “from whence” really means “from from where”. WRONG!
So what made me change my mind on the big fat rubber stamp? It’s two different issues.
In the case of “begging the question”, the point is that language is not static. Yes, the phrase properly has a very specific use and meaning – formal debate, logical fallacy, blah blah. But this isn’t the Middle Ages, and we’re not engaged in university debates where we decimate our opponents by shouting out, preferably in Latin, the labels of the logic mistakes they made – “Ad hominem!”, “Strawman!”, “Begging the question!” No, this is the 21st century. Meanings of words and phrases change; language is democratic. And so, in informal talk today, “it begs the question” means “it brings up the question”. I heard an extremely erudite and eloquent friend of mine use it that way the other day, and as he can talk rings around everyone else where vocabulary and phrasing are concerned, it clinched the matter for me. I still wouldn’t recommend using the new meaning in an academic paper, but my bet is that before long it’ll become an accepted dictionary definition of the phrase.
“From whence” fell on the opposite end of the scale. “Whence” is an old word, and I thought people just didn’t know any more what it meant. But then, I was re-reading Sense and Sensibility. And there it was, jumping out at me: “He earnestly pressed her … to come with her daughters to Barton Park …, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage … could … be made comfortable to her.” Well, stay me with flagons. Austen says “from whence”?!? And she does it not just once, which might be considered a fluke, but five times in S&S alone! Well, then. Who am I to complain? Furthermore, a quick Google search turns up the fact that even Shakespeare used it, in Sonnet 48: “…the gentle closure of my breast / From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part“. Austen and Shakespeare – all that’s left is for me to be glad I didn’t pontificate about “from whence” before, or I’d be wiping egg off my face now.
So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and an Editor’s Changed Mind. Which begs the question, From whence do people get their language?
For this year’s New Year’s Eve movie marathon, we watched Star Wars, the original three movies (on VHS, no less. Yup, we still have a VCR). I’m not a huge Star Wars aficionado, so I haven’t got these films memorised, verbally or visually; when I watch them, they’re always quite new-ish to me. And what struck me this time through is how utterly pristine Princess Leia’s appearance is.
I mean, the first time Luke Skywalker sees this woman, she’s just been through torture (so we’re told – not shown, thankfully), and now she’s imprisoned in a bare cell without even sheets on the bed – no place to hide a comb, let alone a shower or laundry facilities. Yet here she is, with not a hair in her elaborate coiffure out of place, wearing a spotless, unwrinkled white gown.
I used to have long hair when I was a kid, and I can tell you that with fairly straight hair like Carrie Fisher’s was then, pinned-up styles do not stay tidy long. They slip out of their hairpins very quickly, get straggly and messy (which is why I gave up fairly early on trying to put up my hair – I just can’t be bothered). Yet Princess Leia never, ever has even a single strand hanging loose – not even after she goes tobogganing down the garbage chute. And her gown – good grief, wearing white? With all she goes through, by rights she should look like she’s wearing Dobby the House Elf’s ragged kitchen towel.
But she doesn’t. She never looks like anything but – a princess.
Leia is a wonderful character. Carrie Fisher’s passing has brought out in countless tributes what a great inspiration and role model Princess Leia was and still is for now several generations of viewers – a woman of strength, of determination, of agency; a larger-than-life hero.
And part of that larger-than-life effect comes from having a hairdo that never sheds a single bobby pin.
Disney’s cartoon princesses don’t have anything on Leia. You see, in cartoons we know not to expect realism – we know it’s just a drawing, “just” a story. But in a live action film, we think that what we’re seeing is real. So when we see Cinderella’s flowing golden locks and the gown that just appears on her body with a wave of the fairy godmother’s wand, that’s one thing – but we never think that Leia’s glossy dark snail shells and her snowy robe come under the same heading, because, obviously, they’re real. We can see them with our own two eyes, can’t we? What we’re not seeing is the army at Leia’s (or rather Carrie’s) command, an army not of rebel soldiers, but of hairdressers, make-up artists and wardrobe staff, as befits a princess. (“Ah, Recruit Skywalker – you’re in wardrobe today. The princess spilt oatmeal on her dress this morning; go do your duty to the cause.” “What?!? What about flying a fighter plane?” “Never mind that, anyone can handle that. Go make your mark where it counts!”)
We need that army to make us believe in Leia the Princess. We need her to have the superpower of never-a-hair-out-of-place and never-a-spot-on-her-dress because she is a princess. And princesses are mythical creatures on the order of dragons, unicorns and superheroes. In cartoons, that’s easy to handle, but in “realistic” fiction, it takes a bit more doing. Yet when it’s done well, as it is in Star Wars, the impact is tremendous. Because we believe with all our hearts, informed by our disbelief-suspended senses, that what we are seeing is real, that it actually happened, we also believe in the power of The Princess to do what she has set out to do, which is to save the world.
And in that, there is hope.
Life, the Universe, and the Power of the Unreality of Realism. And here we thought she just had funny hair.