Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Les mots n'existent pas

My late French master (the marvellous Cedric Baring-Gould, mentioned before in this blog, here for example) used to attribute this gnomic expression to Maurice Grévisse (who, appropriately, enough, looks not ungnome-like)  

I think it means something like A word without a context has no free-standing existence. There's more to a language than a set of dictionary definitions. If anyone ever wrote it, that is  (as I haven't been able to pin down chapter and verse). And even if nobody ever did write it, it's still true.

Some time ago I wrote (here)
...I've never been a great believer in the exactitude of synonyms. I've mentioned before (several times – check in the cloud of keywords in the left-right-hand column) my old French master Cedric Baring-Gould, who was fond of quoting Grévisse: 'Les mots n'existent pas'. I haven't been able to trace the quote, which is pretty gnomic; but I think it means that words don't have an independent existence, that has no regard for context. In any case where there can be said to be synonyms, one of them will – in that context – be le mot juste.

I thought of this  during the BBC  news coverage of the March 2018 Italian elections, the morning after which  a newspaper bore the headline Tutto cambia.  "All  change" mistranslated the reporter. I imagine he knew enough Italian to know it was wrong. A condottore, reaching the end of the line, says Si cambia. If I were being charitable, I suppose the reporter had been up all night, and reached for the nearest cliché (which, after all, looks like the  sort of thing that might appear in a tabloid).

But, wearing my less charitable (more usual?) garb, I smell the sterile whiff of a dictionary in the hands of an ignoramus. "What does tutto mean? 'All'. What does cambia mean? 'Change'. Put them together, and hey presto: ALL CHANGE. Simples."

Except... no. Tutto – everything (not everyone, as in "All change"); cambia it changes. So that headline means something more like "Everything is changing" – it gives information about the new situation, rather than issuing an irrelevant order.

Just saying...

But I must get back to THE BOOK #WVGTbk2.


PS – A couple of clues:
  • Concealed before place of concealment? Concealed. (6)
  • Old lag getting it back a third of the way in: near the knuckle. (8)

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