#AtoZAprilChallenge: Revolution

For this challenge I have drawn a lot from Keywords by Raymond Williams. My reasons are that his essays are wonderfully erudite, and fun to read (I hope followers of this blog will agree!) A beautiful example is his essay on Revolution. I cannot not quote this in its entirety! As a reminder, in Keywords C19 means in/from the 19th century.

Frontispiece of Leviathan, 1651 “Revolution now has a predominant and specialised political meaning, but the historical development of this meaning is significant. The word came into English from C14, from revolucion, revolutionem, derived from Latin revolvere – to revolve. In all its early uses it indicated  a revolving movement in space or time: ‘in whiche the other Planetes, as well as the Sonne, do finyshe their revolution and course according to their true time’ (1559); ‘from the day of the date hereof, to the full term and revolution of seven yeeres next ensuing’ (1589); ‘they recoil again, and return in a Vortical motion, and so continue their revolution for ever’ (1664). This primary use, of a recurrent physical movement, survives mainly in the technical sense of engines: revolutions per minute, usually shortened to revs.

The emergence of the political sense is very complicated. It is necessary to look first at what previous word served for an action against an established order. There was of course treason (with its root sense of betraying lawful authority) but the most general word was rebellion. This was common in English from C14. The sense had developed in Latin form the literal ‘renewal of war’ to the general sense of armed rising or opposition and, by extension, to open resistance to authority. Rebellion and rebel (as adjective, verb and noun) were then the central words for what we would now normally (but significantly not always) call revolution and revolutionary. There was also from C16, the significant development of revolt, from révolter, revolutare – to roll or revolve, which from the beginning, in English, was used in a political sense. The development of two words, revolt and revolution, from the sense of a circular movement to the sense of a political rising, can hardly be simple coincidence.

Revolution was probably affected, in its political development,  by the closeness of revolt, but in English its sense of circular movement lasted at least a century longer. There are probably two underlying causes for the transfer (in both revolt and revolution) from a circular movement to a rising. On the one hand there was the simple physical sense of the normal distribution of power as that of the high  over the low. From the point of view of any established authority, a revolt is an attempt to turn over, to turn upside down, to make topsy-turvy, a normal political order: the low putting themselves against and in that sense above the high. This is still evident in Hobbes, Leviathan, II, 28: ‘such as are they, that having been by their own act Subjects, deliberately revolting, deny the Sovereign Power’ (1651). On the other hand, but eventually leading to the same emphasis, there was the important image of the Wheel of Fortune, through which so many of the movements of life and especially the most public movements were interpreted. In the simplest sense, men revolved, or more strictly were revolved, on Fortune’s wheel, setting them now up, now down. In practise, in most uses, it was the downward  movement , the fall, that was stressed. But in any case it was the reversal between up and down that was the main sense of the image: not so much the steady and continuous movement of a wheel as the particular isolation of a top and bottom points which were, as a matter of course, certain to change place. The crucial change in revolution was at least partly affected by this. As early as 1400 there was the eventually characteristic:

‘It is I, that am come down

Thurgh change and revolution.’

(Romance of the Rose, 1366)

A sense of revolution as alteration or change is certainly evident from C15: ‘of Elementys the Revoluciouns, Chaung of times and Complexiouns’ (Lydgate, c.1450). The association with fortune was explicit as late as mid C17: ‘whereby one may see, how great the revolutions of time and fortune are’ (1663).

The political sense, already well established in revolt, began to come through in revolution from early C17, but there was enough overlap with older ways of seeing change to make most early examples ambiguous. Cromwell made a revolution, but when he said that ‘God’s revolutions’ were not to be attributed to mere human invention (Abbott, Writings and Speeches of Cromwell, III, 590-2) he was probably still using the word with an older sense (as in Fortune, but now Providential) of external and Determining movements. Indeed the most fascinating aspect of this complex of words, in C17, is that Cromwell’s revolution was called, by its enemies, the Great Rebellion, while the relatively minor events of 1688 were called by their supporters the Great and eventually the Glorious Revolution. It is evident from several uses that revolution was gaining a political sense  through C17, though still, as has been noted, with overlap to general mutability or to the movements  of Fortune or Providence. But it is very significant that in late C17 the lesser event attracted the description Revolution while the greater event was till Rebellion. Revolution, that is to say, was till the more generally favourable word, and from as late as 1796 we can find that distinction: ‘Rebellion is the subversion of the laws, and Revolution is that of tyrants’. (Subversion, it will be noted, depends on the same physical image, of turning over from below; and cf. Overthrow.) The main reason for the preference of revolution to rebellion was that the cyclical sense of the former implied a restoration or renovation of an earlier lawful authority, as distinct from action against authority without such justification.

From late C17 the sense of revolution in English was dominated by specific reference to the events of 1688. The ordinary reference (Steele, 1710; Burke, 1790) was to ‘the Revolution’, and revolutioner, the first noun for one engaged in or supporting revolution, was used primarily in that specific context. Yet a new general sense was slowly making its way through, and there was renewed cause for distinction between rebellion and revolution, according to the point of view, in the rising and declaration of independence of the American states. Revolution won through in that case, both locally and generally. In a new climate of political thought, in which the adequacy of a political system rather than loyalty to a particular sovereign was more and more taken as the real issue, revolution came to be preferred to rebellion, by anyone who supported independent change. There is a surviving significance in this, in our own time. Rebellion is still ordinarily used by a dominant power and its friends, until (or even after) it has to admit that what has been taking place – with its own independent cause and loyalties – is a revolution, though also with an added sense of scale: ‘Sire… it is not a revolt, it is a revolution’ (Carlyle, French Revolution, V, vii; 1837). (It is worth noting that revolt and revolting had acquired, from mid C18, an application to feeling as well as to action: a feeling of disgust, of turning away, of revulsion; this probably accentuated the distinction. It is curious that revulsion is etymologically associated with revel, which itself goes back to Latin rebellare – to rebel. Revel became specialised, through a sense of riotous mirth, to any lively festivity; rebel took its separate unfavourable course; revulsion, from physical sense of drawing away, took on from early C19 its sense of drawing away in disgust.)

It was in this state of interaction between the words that the specific effects of the French Revolution made the modern sense of revolution decisive. The older sense of a restoration of lawful authority, though used in occasional justification, was overridden by the sense of necessary innovation of a new order, supported by the increasingly positive sense of Progress. Of course the sense of achievement of the original rights of man was also relevant. This sense of making a new human order was always as important as that of overthrowing the old order. That, after all, was now the crucial  distinction from rebellion or from what was eventually distinguished as a palace revolution (changing the leaders but not the forms of society). Yet in political controversy arising from the actual history of armed risings and conflicts, revolution took on a specialised meaning of violent overthrow, and by late C19 was being contrasted with Evolution in its sense of a new social order brought about by peaceful and constitutional means. The sense of revolution as bringing about a wholly new social order was greatly strengthened by the socialist movement, and this led to some complexity in the distinction between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism. From one point of view the distinction was between violent overthrow of the old order and peaceful and constitutional change. From another point of view, which is at least equally valid, the distinction was between working for a wholly new social order (Socialism as opposed to Capitalism)  and the more limited modification or Reform of an existing order (‘the pursuit of equality’ within a ‘mixed economy’ or ‘post-capitalist society’). The argument about means, which has often been used to specialize revolution, is also an argument about ends.

Revolution and revolutionary and revolutionize have of course also come to be used, outside political contexts, to indicate fundamental changes, or fundamentally new developments, in a very wide range of activities. It can seem curious to read of ‘a revolution in shopping habits’ or of the ‘revolution in transport’, and of course there are cases when this is simply the language of publicity, to describe some ‘dynamic’ new product. But in some ways this is at least no more strange than the association of revolution with Violence, since one of the crucial senses of the word, early and late, restorative or innovative, has been simply important or fundamental change. Once the factory system and the new technology of late C18 and early C19 had been called, by analogy with the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, one basis for description of new institutions and new technologies as revolutionary had been laid. Variations in interpretation of the Industrial Revolution – from a new social system to simply new inventions – had their effect on this use. The transistor revolution might seem a loose or trivial phrase to someone who has taken the full weight of the sense of social revolution, and a technological or second industrial revolution might seem merely polemical or distracting descriptions. Yet the history of the word supports each kind of use. What is more significant, in a century of major revolutions, is the evident discrimination of application and tone, so that the storm-clouds that have gathered around the political sense become fresh and invigorating winds when they blow in almost any direction.”

“France could have readily reinforced her own resources with those of the European revolution; as indeed all revolutionaries hoped she would. But the implications of such a leap into revolutionary war frightened moderate liberal French governments as much as Metternich. No French government between 1815 and 1848 would jeopardise general peace in its own state interests.”

(Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848)

List of Revolutions and Rebellions in Wikipedia

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Quibble

Pythia A quibble, from Google, is a “slight objection or criticism”. This is not to be confused with a squabble, “a noisy quarrel about something trivial”.

The verb quibble, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to evade the point of an argument by cavilling (“to raise trivial objections”) about words”.

From Wikipedia: “In terms of fiction, a quibble is a plot device, used to fulfill the exact verbal conditions of an agreement in order to avoid the intended meaning. Typically quibbles are used in legal bargains and, in fantasy, magically enforced ones.

In one of the best known examples, William Shakespeare used a quibble in The Merchant of Venice. Portia saves Antonio in a court of law by pointing out that the agreement called for a pound of flesh, but no blood, and therefore Shylock can collect only if he sheds no blood.”

Image: John Collier (1850-1934), Priestess of Delphi

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Pragmatic

Joseph Stalin, 1912 Williams writes: “Pragmatic is now most often used, especially of politicians and politics, in contrast either with dogmatic or with principled, according to point of view.” I find this definition interesting, since the latter would imply that it may be difficult to be both pragmatic and principled!

I would prefer the opposition, or contrast, between pragmatic and cartesian, the latter implying adherence to reason and logic. But Williams concludes: “…the word has been useful as a dignified alternative to unprincipled or timeserving, especially in political movements which profess a set of beliefs and which decide, under pressure, to neglect discard or betray them, but with a show of skill and intelligence.”

Related: article on Cartesianism on Wikipedia. Note that this article does not oppose the two!

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Liberal

Women's march on Versailles From Wiktionary: “adjective: either

Of or relating to the Liberal party, its membership, or its platform, policy, or viewpoint


Generous, in great amount, a large proportion.

Noun: (politics) a member or supporter of a liberal party

UK (historically) Whig

In Raymond Williams: “Liberal has, at first sight, so clear a political meaning that some of its further associations are puzzling. Yet the political meaning is comparatively modern, and much of the interesting history of the word is earlier.

It began in a specific social distinction, to refer to a class of free men as distinct from others who were not free… In its use in liberal arts – ‘artis liberalis’ (1375) – it was predominantly a class term: the skills and pursuits appropriate, as we should now say, to men of independent means and assured social position, as distinct from other skills and pursuits appropriate to a lower class…

The most serious sense of the socialist use… is the accurate observation that liberalism is a doctrine based on individualist theories of man and society and is thus  in fundamental conflict not only with socialist but with most strictly social theories. The further observation, that liberalism is the highest form of thought  developed within bourgeois society and in terms of capitalism, is also relevant,  for when liberal is not being used as a loose swear-word, it is to this mixture of liberating and limiting ideas that it is intended to refer. Liberalism is then the doctrine of certain necessary kinds of freedom but also, and essentially, a doctrine of possessive individualism.”

See also article on Liberalism and Neoliberalism in Wikipedia.

To my US readers: this post has a definite British flavour, and I do acknowledge that the words liberal, liberalism, Whig etc. have a somewhat different notation in American history and language.

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Keywords

Raymond Williams at Saffron Walden
Original photo by GwydionM (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:GwydionM)

For the purpose of this challenge: Raymond Williams’s book “Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society” (1976-1983)

Author of Culture and Society, published in 1958, Cambridge academic and member of Plaid Cymru, Williams was inspired by his country, Wales, and his love of words, their history and their meaning.  I owe to Williams to participate to this year’s A to Z since without him I may have lacked the motivation!

I invite followers of this blog to read Keywords.

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Jargon

Jargon “Jargon, it might be said, has become, in some modern uses, a jargon word. It is now most commonly used to describe, unfavourably or contemptuously,  the vocabulary of certain unfamiliar branches of knowledge or intellectual positions.” From Keywords, where Williams also remarks that: “…it is also true that the use of a new term or the new definition of a concept is often the necessary form of a challenge to other ways of thinking or of indication of new and alternative ways.”

From Wikipedia: Modern versus Post-Modern opinions on the use of jargon – “George Orwell, a socialist, leftist, and Marxist, believes in the modern style of language, deeming that good writing is clear and simple. In his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” he states the following arguments: technical language is nothing but an oratorical trick, simple language is required to clarify difficult concepts, while complex language is needed to explain simple concepts, and lastly, political language is structured to make lies seem like the truth. In short, Orwell is articulating that specialized language is not essential.

Judith Butler presents several postmodernist rebuttals to Orwell’s arguments. She states that difficult concepts need to be expressed with specialized vocabulary, or jargon. She quotes Marcuse, who believes that if people could use plain language to describe something, they would. She is attempting to prove that jargon is natural and necessary. Butler also says “language conditions thought,” meaning that the words we use shape the way we think. Stephen Roney responds to that by saying that if language fully conditioned thought, we would not be able to think about language. The last argument that Butler states is “if you’re talking about something obscure, your language should be obscure to reflect this accurately.”

Butler believes that specialized vocabulary is essential in writing and oratory because language should mirror reality. Orwell opposes most of her arguments with his modern style of language by saying that simplicity is the key to good writing and dialect because language should be easy for the audience to comprehend.”

#AToZAprilChallenge: Genius

Salvatore Bruno Wikipedia: “A genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of an unprecedented leap of insight. This may refer to a particular aspect of an individual, or the individual in his or her entirety; to a scholar in many subjects (e.g. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz or Leonardo da Vinci)[1] or a scholar in a single subject (e.g., Albert Einstein or Charles Darwin). There is no scientifically precise definition of genius, and the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate.”

Genius came into English from C14, in its main Latin sense  – from genius – a guardian spirit. It was extended to mean ‘a characteristic disposition or quality’ from C16, as still in ‘every man has his genius’ (Johnson, 1780), and ‘barbarous and violent genius of the age’ (Hume, 1754). The development towards the dominate modern meaning of ‘extraordinary ability’ is complex; it occurred, interactively, in both English and French, and later German. It seems to have been originally connected with the idea of ‘spirit’ through the notion of ‘inspiration’… This sense is always close to the developing sense of Creative… A good test case is ‘the English genius for compromise’. (Keywords)

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Fiction

You can't stop me “Fiction has the interesting double sense of a kind of Imaginative Literature and of pure (sometimes deliberately deceptive) invention… A general use, ranging between a consciously formed hypothesis (‘mathematical fictions’ 1579) and an artificial  and questionable assumption (‘of his own fiction’), was equally common. Fictitious, from C17, ranged from this to the sense of deceptive invention; the literary use required the later fictional. The popularity of novels led to a curious C20 back-formation, in library and book-trade use, in non-fiction (at time made equivalent to ‘serious’ reading…)

Novel, now so nearly synonymous with fiction, has its own interesting history. The two senses now indicated by the noun (prose fiction) and the adjective (new, innovating, whence novelty) represent different branches of development from Latin novus – new. Until C18 novel, as a noun, carried both senses: (i) a tale; (ii) what we now call, with the same sense, news…

(In) Fielding: – ‘What novel’s this? – Faith! It may be a pleasant one to you.’

It was from this range of senses that novelist meant successively any kind of innovator (C17), a newsmonger (C18) and a writer of prose fiction.” (Keywords)

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Dialectic

Plato According to Williams dialectic “appeared in English from the fourteenth century, in its Latin sense to describe what we would now call logic. Dialectique, dialectica, dialektike, were all, in their primary senses, the art of discussion and debate, and then, by derivation, the investigation of truth and discussion… Plato’s version has an important subsequent history: dialektike meant the art of defining ideas and, related to this, the method of determining the interrelations of ideas in the light of a single principle. These two senses would later be distinguished as logic and metaphysics respectively…

There was then a special and influential use of dialectic in German idealist philosophy. This extended the notion of contradiction in the course of a discussion or dispute to a notion of contradiction in reality. For Kant, dialectical criticism showed the mutually contradictory character of the principles of knowledge when these were extended to metaphysical realities. For Hegel, such contradictions were surpassed, both in thought and in the world-history… in a higher and unified truth: the dialectical process was then the continual unification of opposites, in the complex relation of parts to a whole. A version of this process – the famous triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis – was given by Fichte. It was then in Marxism that the sense of dialectic to indicate a progressive unification  through the contradiction of opposites was given a specific reference in what Engels called dialectical materialism.”

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Communication

Do not speak Raymond Williams, author of “Keywords” (see entry for “K” on April 12) wrote:

Communication in its most general modern meaning has been in the language since C15” (15th century). The word stems from Latin communis – common: “hence communicate – make common to many, impart. Communication was first this action, and then, the object thus made common: a communication… It was in C20, with the development of other means of passing information and maintaining social contact, that communications came also and perhaps predominantly to refer to such Media as the press and broadcasting.”

Our age has been called “the information age”, but would it be better named “communication age” with that last meaning, to include “social media”?