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The Theory of Epithets—Moral as well as Rhetorical

The question of epithets cover so wide a range of morals, manner of mind as well as policy of speech, that several considerations are necessary to adequately understanding it. At every step an observing student is admonished how conscientiously a man will say things he will one day wish he could recall. Carlton tells truly—
Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds;
You can't do that way when you're flying words.
Careful with fire is good advice we know;
Careful with words is ten times doubly so,
Thoughts unexpress'd may sometimes fall back dead,
But God Himself can't kill them once they're said.

Many enter the quagmire of recrimination without adequate reflection. The question is commonly put, 'Ought we not to state all we know to be true?' Not unless it can be shown to be useful. Every man knows a thousand things which are true, but which it would advantage nobody to hear. When we speak, the rule is absolute that we speak the truth, but what truth we will voluntarily communicate good sense must be the judge. If all truth must be published, without regard to fitness or justice, William Rufus, who drew a tooth a day from a rich Jew's head, to induce him to tell truly where his treasures were concealed, was a great moral philosopher. 'Well, but what a man believes to be true and useful may he not state?' will be asked by some. Not unless he can prove it. If every man stated his suspicions, no character would be safe from aspersion, all society would be a school of scandal. Suspicion is the food of slander. There is already more evil in existence than the virtuous are likely soon to correct, and little necessity exists for suspicion to supply hypothetical cases. 'But,' observes the reader, 'if two disputants have respectively proved the fitness of the epithets they have mutually applied, are they not justified in having used them?' Better leave that to the audience, unless, as has been said, the object is to end the discussion, for the auditors assured they have two rascals before them, will leave the room. No disputant should unite the offices of witness, jury and judge, giving his own evidence, returning his own verdict, and pronouncing the sentence in his own favor. It is this habit which has been the discredit of religious, political and literary discussions. Lawyers are the philosophers of disputes, and have wisely taken out of the hands of interest, petulance and prejudice, the power of deciding upon their own case. Yet disputants will do that unhesitatingly with regard to each other, which, in a court of justice, would long tax the patience and discernment of twelve disinterested, dispassionate men. The difficulty of being right as to epithets shows the necessity of being sparing in their use. Epithets are more safely applied to the characterization of opinions than of persons. If you accuse certain stones of a certain property which is not possessed by all, the exceptional stones will not be scandalized, as the same number of men would whom you happened to include in a carelessly-worded, disparaging, general assertion. The wrongly accused are not pacified by your saying, 'Oh, I did not mean you; I meant to allow that there were exceptions.' Never forget that 'all' means everyone.

It is a wise maxim in law—in rhetoric as well—that ten guilty men had better escape than that one innocent man should suffer. So with personal judgments. The one innocent man condemned will do both judge and justice more harm than the ten guilty who escape.

Persons who deem duels with daggers or pistols absurd and murderous, will fight duels with their tongues or pens, though tragedies of domestic alienation, or public hatred and wreck of parties frequently follow therefrom. Since the perfect style of public invective can no longer be employed, why should the habit still linger? After Grattan had denounced Corrie as a liar, all progress in discussion was arrested until the two orators had attempted to murder each other.

Professor A. de Morgan, in his reply to Sir W. Hamilton, in their discussion on the origination of Formal Logic, makes these useful remarks:—
'In the days of swords it was one of the objects of public policy to prevent people from sticking them into each other's bodies on trivial grounds. We now wear pens; and it is as great a point to hinder ourselves from sticking them into each other's characters, without serious and well-considered reasons. To this end I have always considered it as one of the first and most special rules, that conviction of the truth of a charge is no sufficient reason for its promulgation. I assert that no one is justified in accusing another until lie has his proof ready; and that in the interval, if indeed it be right that there should be any interval between the charge and the attempt at substantiation, all the leisure and energies of the accuser are the property of the accused.'

Improvement and not mortification of person or detraction of character should govern the employment of epithets as well as arguments. Disagreements are human and inevitable. Differences are in themselves as natural and as innocent as variation in form, color or strength. It is the manner in which those who differ seek to adjust their differences that constitutes any disgrace there may be in any divergence of opinion or belief. Philosophy has been preached to us in vain, if we ever take up arms against an opponent without at the same time keeping justice to him in view, as well as our own defense. To promote the welfare of those who probably hate us, is generous but difficult. Addison called his opponents 'miscreants,' Dr. Clarke 'crazy,' Paley 'insane,' which did not produce amity or instruction. The profit of controversy lies in contrast of argument ever fresh and instructive. Recrimination, if common to both disputants, has, like the common quantities in an equation, to be struck out of the dispute as only making delay in finding the true result. Epithets are better confined to error. Even in Parliament the Speaker seems to possess no dictionary of personal epithets. Members are not always checked when they use inadmissible terms, and when attention has been called to them the Speaker, for the time being, has not always been ready with a definition of the disputed word, and has sometimes been wrong when he has given it. Leaders of the House have sometimes been unready in supplying a decisive meaning, which shows that there is no Parliamentary Code of epithets in existence, and neither Sir Erskine May nor Mr. Palgrave, who have written on Parliamentary procedure and practice, appear to have compiled any such work. Mr Gladstone, who appears to know the meaning of every word, and never errs in terms of imputation, might compile such a code at will. Indeed, one might be made from episodes in his speeches. Take two instances. Sir Stafford Northcote one day complained of what Mr. Gladstone had just said. 'Of what do you complain?' Mr. Gladstone asked. 'Of misrepresentation,' answered Sir Stafford. 'The right honorable gentleman does not mend the matter by that rather rude expression.' Misrepresentation implies an intentional perversion of another's meaning. Speaking in reply to Lord R. Churchill, Mr. Gladstone remarked—'My reference was this. The noble lord distinctly accused me and accused the Liberal party of traducing an adversary. It is impossible to conceive a charge more disgraceful. It is a charge which implies falsehood in the first place. There is no traducing by error. Traducing is a willful act, and that willful act is imputed to me by the noble lord.'

A few examples of the meaning of terms disparaging or dishonoring may show the student the sort of attention which epithets meant to wound (the kind here considered) require.

Liar means that a person says what is not true and knows it to be untrue, and that he consciously and deliberately says what he does say with a view to deceive. 'Liar' is a favorite epithet with the lowest class of opponents. It puts a man who uses it out of any court, save a court of law. No court of honour would adjudicate upon it. It should be referred to a court of scavengers, whose business it would be to remove it. The term is not a matter of taste; it is a breach of the peace, and would be resented by a blow, or a duel, or contempt, which would keep him inexorably at a distance who used it. If a man thought his adversary was not to be believed on his word he might say so. But then he puts an end to the controversy, which it is useless to continue when one disputant does not believe what the other says. It is like cheating at cards. The playing is over as soon as the charge of cheating is made. One who wrote with authority said, if one says to another 'You lied there,' and we regard only the principal signification of that expression, it is the same thing as if he had said to him, 'You know the contrary of what you say.' But besides this principal signification, these words convey an idea of contempt and outrage; and they inspire the belief that he who uttered them would not hesitate to do us harm, which renders them offensive and injurious.

The minor terms of turpitude are many, which contain dishonoring imputations. Of such is the term 'traduce.' To say another traduces you, implies that he vilifies and defames you, not only falsely but knowingly. I have seen a memorial addressed to Lord Palmerston, in which he was accused of 'duplicity.' The term killed the memorial. What Minister could look at a request from persons who affixed to him the stigma of double dealing? To charge an opponent with 'quibbling' is to say he knows the truth is against him, and that he seeks to evade it. To accuse an adversary of' garbling' is equally offensive. It means that he knowingly quotes what gives a false impression. It is lawful to warn an opponent that what he imputes to you, you regard as insulting; but to charge him with insulting you is to charge him with an intentional outrage upon you, and if he be a person of self-respect he will not hold further intercourse with one while he persists in the charge. A 'falsehood' is not only something untrue, but known to be untrue by the teller. If it is not intended to imply this, the statement must be described as untrue, erroneous, or founded on misinformation.

Any man of reflection can tell by one test whether a term is fit to be applied to another by asking himself whether he would submit to have it applied to himself. No term that implies consciousness of moral wrong can be used towards another without offence. But there are a class of words which relate to errors of the mind which touch a man's capacity, and not his honor, which may be used. A sensible man is instructed by the most penetrating criticism or characterizations of his inconsistencies or narrowness of knowledge. To say a man is economical in the use of truth refers to the smallness of his hoard of it, and not to a fraudulent reservation of it. It may be allowable to refer to malformation in the mind in which the backbone of fact is evidently crooked. I have said to an adversary whom I did not intend to accuse of willful misrepresentation, that he had a 'refracting mind.' The straightest stick put into a pail of water appears bent, and the straightest fact put before some minds will appear distorted; the trouble being with the medium and not with the intent.

Take a familiar instance of the difficulties of explicit expression. 'I said the gentleman lied, it is true. I am sorry for it.' What is true? Did the gentleman lie? I said I was sorry for it. Does it mean he did not lie, and that I was sorry I said he did, or that it is true he did lie, and that I am sorry to have to admit it? This is a case which shows how difficult it is sometimes to say straight off what is intended.

If men understood half the trouble there is in making out what the truth really is, and half the trouble there is in making it plain to others, so that they cannot possibly misunderstand it, there would not be half the anger or half the wonder there now is, when one person differs from another in opinion—and more hesitancy in applying disparaging epithets upon first impressions.

There is a point of extreme interest attaching to this question which it may be useful to mention, but irrelevant to discuss. What is to be done with persons who make dishonoring imputations? Should they be noticed? If persons 'of no importance'—as Oscar Wilde would sayshould be raised from their noisome obscurity by reference to them as though they were authorities on manners and their opinion had weight, imputation would be good policy for the obscure. Should a man like Thackeray, having cause of offence against Edmund Yates, withdraw from his club unless Mr. Yates was expelled? When a person who has a character to lose, uses aspersive words towards another, it seems sufficient to show they were unfounded, when their untruth must be admitted, and it is the asperser who is damaged and not the aspersed. The asperser is regarded as belonging to a class who have no sense of honor in the use of terms.

When a young man, I was appointed secretary to the Garibaldi Committee. Hearing one day an inquiry as to the accounts, I made them up and sent a check for the balance to the treasurer; whereupon a member of the committee, then in Parliament and afterwards in the Cabinet, came down and expressed vehement indignation, saying gentlemen were not as other people who go by suspicion, but act on facts, and what I had done was an imputation upon themadding, in a cordial tone, 'Remember, if I had not had great respect for you I would not have taken the trouble to express this resentment.' The storm broke in a compliment. But I never forgot the lesson that with a sensible man personal dissent from you, and the rectification of your error, depends upon the respect in which an adversary holds the person to be put right. In a society a good deal turns upon how far a man should tolerate the comradeship of those who have made aspersive charges. Excellent and most useful members of a party will resign and leave it very much the poorer by their loss, because of some offensive thing said of them. We see this done in the House of Commons, and sometimes those driven from their party seek to destroy it in resentment. Why is it that some dishonoring epithet used by some coarse-minded, ill-tempered, inconsiderate member of a party should have conceded to it the power of driving its best members out of it, and even of breaking it up? This is not the place to pursue the subject, but so much as is said may serve to show the danger that lurks in evil epithets and phrases.

It is worthwhile asking—Cannot honor protect itself; cannot it stand upon its own well-earned repute without the hot explosion which a vicious epithet often calls forth? Lord Coleridge had the most silvery tongue on the Bench, but if assailed he could defend himself with words which had vitriol in them and burnt where they fell; yet he did not intend that the object of his resentment should believe all he said. How often are noble friendships cancelled, acts of kindness and generosity obliterated, and all for a word, probably spoken in choler, or under excitement, misinformation, or pressure of care which paralyze, if not unhinge, the mind. There is a good deal of empty, mean, timid pride which goes by the name of 'honor.'

Let two persons talk together with all deliberation and caution, and note how many expletives they employ—how many errors they commit—how insequential are their thoughts, and often how inexact their language. How few ready writers or speakers are precise—how few are continuously coherent—how much is said which is never meant, even by those who are careful! How few acquire the habit of thinking before they speak! Does not the lawyer, whose life is a study of accuracy, find the carefully debated Act of Parliament open to three or four interpretations? And does not the philosopher daily regret the vagueness of human language? Then on what principle of good sense can men, without careful inquiry as to the actual meaning of others, hurl at them noxious epithets? All might usefully bear in mind the Arab saying (which, indeed, is the moral of this chapter) lately rendered by Constantia Brooks in the Century:—
Remember, three things come not back;
The arrow sent upon its track
It will not swerve, it will not stay
Its speed; it flies to wound or slay.
The spoken word, so soon forgot
By thee; but it has perished not;
In other hearts 'tis living still,
And doing work for good or ill.
And the lost opportunity,
That cometh back no more to thee.
In vain thou weepest, in vain dost yearn,
Those three will never more return.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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