Friday, October 28, 2011


Put ten-million chimpanzees in front of typewriters and one of them will produce the equivalent of Hamlet. Put this blogger in cyberspace and you will get the point d'ironie aka the "snark mark." If this is (fair & balanced) orthographic bling, so be it.

[x Wall Street Fishwrap]
Is This The Future Of Punctuation!?
By Henry Hitchings

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Punctuation arouses strong feelings. You have probably come across the pen-wielding vigilantes who skulk around defacing movie posters and amending handwritten signs that advertise "Rest Room's" or "Puppy's For Sale."

People fuss about punctuation not only because it clarifies meaning but also because its neglect appears to reflect wider social decline. And while the big social battles seem intractable, smaller battles over the use of the apostrophe feel like they can be won.

Yet the status of this and other cherished marks has long been precarious. The story of punctuation is one of comings and goings.

Early manuscripts had no punctuation at all, and those from the medieval period suggest haphazard innovation, with more than 30 different marks. The modern repertoire of punctuation emerged as printers in the 15th and 16th centuries strove to limit this miscellany.

Many punctuation marks are less venerable than we might imagine. Parentheses were first used around 1500, having been observed by English writers and printers in Italian books. Commas were not employed until the 16th century; in early printed books in English one sees a virgule (a slash like this /), which the comma replaced around 1520.

Other marks enjoyed briefer success. There used to be a clunky paragraph sign known as a pilcrow ; initially it was a C with a slash drawn through it. Similar in its effect was one of the oldest punctuation symbols, a horizontal ivy leaf called a hedera. It appears in 8th-century manuscripts, separating text from commentary, and after a period out of fashion it made an unexpected return in early printed books. Then it faded from view.

Another mark, now obscure, is the point d'ironie, sometimes known as a "snark." A back-to-front question mark [؟], it was deployed by the 16th-century printer Henry Denham to signal rhetorical questions, and in 1899 the French poet Alcanter de Brahm suggested reviving it. More recently, the difficulty of detecting irony and sarcasm in electronic communication has prompted fresh calls for a revival of the point d'ironie. But the chances are slim that it will make a comeback.

In fact, Internet culture generally favors a lighter, more informal style of punctuation. True, emoticons have sprung up to convey nuances of mood and tone. Moreover, typing makes it easy to amplify punctuation: splattering 20 exclamation marks on a page, or using multiple question marks to signify theatrical incredulity. But, overall, punctuation is being renounced.

How might punctuation now evolve? The dystopian view is that it will vanish. I find this conceivable, though not likely. But we can see harbingers of such change: editorial austerity with commas, the newsroom preference for the period over all other marks, and the taste for visual crispness.

Though it is not unusual to hear calls for new punctuation, the marks proposed tend to cannibalize existing ones. In this vein, you may have encountered the interrobang , which signals excited disbelief.

Such marks are symptoms of an increasing tendency to punctuate for rhetorical rather than grammatical effect. Instead of presenting syntactical and logical relationships, punctuation reproduces the patterns of speech.

One manifestation of this is the advance of the dash. It imitates the jagged urgency of conversation, in which we change direction sharply and with punch. Dashes became common only in the 18th century. Their appeal is visual, their shape dramatic. That's what a modern, talky style of writing seems to demand.

By contrast, use of the semicolon is dwindling. Although colons were common as early as the 14th century, the semicolon was rare in English books before the 17th century. It has always been regarded as a useful hybrid—a separator that's also a connector—but it's a trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.

More surprising is the eclipse of the hyphen. Traditionally, it has been used to link two halves of a compound noun and has suggested that a new coinage is on probation. But now the noun is split (fig leaf, hobby horse) or rendered without a hyphen (crybaby, bumblebee). It may be that the hyphen's last outpost will be in emoticons, where it plays a leading role.

Graphic designers, who favor an uncluttered aesthetic, dislike hyphens. They are also partly responsible for the disappearance of the apostrophe. This little squiggle first appeared in an English text in 1559. Its use has never been completely stable, and today confusion leads to the overcompensation that we see in those handwritten signs. The alternative is not to use apostrophes at all—an act of pragmatism easily mistaken for ignorance.

Defenders of the apostrophe insist that it minimizes ambiguity, but there are few situations in which its omission can lead to real misunderstanding.

The apostrophe is mainly a device for the eye, not the ear. And while I plan to keep handling apostrophes in accordance with the principles I was shown as a child, I am confident that they will either disappear or be reduced to little baubles of orthographic bling. Ω

[Henry Hitchings is an author, reviewer and critic, specializing in narrative non-fiction, with a particular emphasis on language and cultural history. His second of his four books, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, won the 2008 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford before researching his PhD, on Samuel Johnson, at University College London. He has written for the Financial Times, the New Statesman, The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement.

Copyright © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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"Don't Worry, Be Happy"

This blogger attempted to pursue happiness this past Wednesday morning when he hit the power button on his laptop. Nothing. Nada. Zip. A trip to the computer repair center confirmed that the laptop was now in the boat-anchor category. So, this blogger is in start-your-computing-life-over and that led to this meditation on the pursuit of happiness from the Declaration of Independence (not the U.S. Constitution as most Dumbos believe). In the course of human events, this was BIG. If this is the (fair & balanced) pursuit of eudaimonia, so be it.

Note: Anyone interested in this issue should read Arthur M. Schlesinger's "The Lost Meaning of 'The Pursuit of Happiness,'" William and Mary Quarterly (1964): 325-27.

[x HNN]
The Surprising Origins And Meaning Of The “Pursuit of Happiness”
By Carol V. Hamilton

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“The pursuit of happiness” is the most famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence. Conventional history and popular wisdom attribute the phrase to the genius of Thomas Jefferson when in an imaginative leap, he replaced the third term of John Locke’s trinity, “life, liberty, and property.” It was a felicitous, even thrilling, substitution. Yet the true history and philosophical meaning of the famous phrase are apparently unknown.

In an article entitled “The Pursuit of Happiness,” posted at the Huffington Post July 4, 2007, Daniel Brook summed up what most of us learned in school: “The eighteenth-century British political philosopher John Locke wrote that governments are instituted to secure people's rights to ‘life, liberty, and property.’ And in 1776, Thomas Jefferson begged to differ. When he penned the Declaration of Independence, ratified on the Fourth of July, he edited out Locke's right to ‘property’ and substituted his own more broad-minded, distinctly American concept: the right to ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ "

Familiar as all this sounds, Brook is wrong on three points. John Locke lived from 1634 to 1704, making him a man of the seventeenth century, not the eighteenth. Jefferson did not substitute his “own” phrase. Nor is that concept “distinctly American.” It is an import, and Jefferson borrowed it.

The phrase has meant different things to different people. To Europeans it has suggested the core claim—or delusion—of American exceptionalism. To cross-racial or gay couples bringing lawsuits in court, it has meant, or included, the right to marry. And sadly, for many Americans, Jefferson might just as well have left “property” in place. To them the pursuit of happiness means no more than the pursuit of wealth and status as embodied in a McMansion, a Lexus, and membership in a country club. Even more sadly, Jefferson’s own “property” included about two hundred human beings whom he did not permit to pursue their own happiness.

The “pursuit of happiness” has led its own life in popular culture. It provided the title for a 1933-34 Broadway comedy written by Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall. That comedy became a musical of the same title in the 1940s. In the 1980s it was the name of a Canadian rock group whose first big hit was the single, “I’m an Adult Now.” In 1993 the phrase served as the title of a self-help book whose subtitle was “Discovering the Pathway to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy.” The phrase, coyly misspelled, was appropriated for the title of a 2006 Will Smith movie about upward mobility, the acquisition of wealth, and the triumph of talent over adversity. Blogging on the subject on November 8, 2007, Arianna Huffington lamented contemporary greed, our happy hours and Happy Meals, but concluded, “but the American idea, embedded deep in our cultural DNA, is inspiring us to pursue a much less shallow happiness.” Most recently, in his new book Kids are Americans Too, Bill O‘Reilly erroneously wrote, “the Constitution guarantees us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He was corrected by an American kid, Courtney Yong of San Francisco, a city O’Reilly often castigates.

If Thomas Jefferson did not coin the phrase, who did? Wikipedia (drawing on, I think, an old edition of the Encylopedia Britannica) attributes its coinage to Dr. Samuel Johnson in his long fable Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, published in 1759. Rasselas is an Abyssinian prince who lives in the Happy Valley, a paradise in every respect imaginable. But the Prince is discontented. Accompanied by his sister Nekayah and a wise, well-traveled poet, he escapes from his utopia and travels around the known world. They visit the Great Pyramid, where a dear friend of Nekayah is kidnapped by Arabs. Wounded by this loss, the Princess laments: “what is to be expected from our pursuit of happiness when we find the state of life to be such, that happiness itself is the cause of misery?”

In 1770 Dr. Johnson used the phrase again in a political essay entitled “The False Alarm.” He began by observing that the “improvement and diffusion of philosophy” among his contemporaries had led to a diminution of “false alarms” about events such as solar eclipses, which once aroused terror in the populace. He predicted that advances in “political knowledge” and the “theory of man” will further erode “causeless discontent and seditious violence.” But while humans are neutral about scientific discoveries, they will never be neutral about politics. “The politician’s improvements,” he observed, in a statement that still resonates today, “are opposed by every passion that can exclude conviction or suppress it; by ambition, by avarice, by hope, and by terror, by public faction, and private animosity.”

What Dr. Johnson called “civil wisdom” was, he wrote, lacking in the English public. Therefore, in another resonant passage, he declared: “We are still so much unacquainted with our own state, and so unskillful in the pursuit of happiness, that we shudder without danger, complain without grievances, and suffer our quiet to be disturbed, and our commerce to be interrupted, by an opposition to the government, raised only by interest, and supported only by clamor, which yet has so far prevailed upon ignorance and timidity, that many favor it, as reasonable, and many dread it, as powerful.”

It seems unlikely that Jefferson plucked “the pursuit of happiness” from the prose of a Tory like Dr. Johnson. Jefferson’s intellectual heroes were Newton, Bacon, and Locke, and it was actually in Locke that he must have found the phrase. It appears not in the Two Treatises on Government but in the 1690 essay Concerning Human Understanding. There, in a long and thorny passage, Locke wrote:

The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with, our real happiness: and therefore, till we are as much informed upon this inquiry as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands, we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.

Just the ideas that inspired our intellectual Founders were primarily European imports, so that defining American phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” is not native to our shores. Furthermore, as the quotation from Locke demonstrates, “the pursuit of happiness” is a complicated concept. It is not merely sensual or hedonistic, but engages the intellect, requiring the careful discrimination of imaginary happiness from “true and solid” happiness. It is the “foundation of liberty” because it frees us from enslavement to particular desires.

The Greek word for “happiness” is eudaimonia. In the passage above, Locke is invoking Greek and Roman ethics in which eudaimonia is linked to aretĂȘ, the Greek word for “virtue” or “excellence.” In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote, “the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.” Happiness is not, he argued, equivalent to wealth, honor, or pleasure. It is an end in itself, not the means to an end. The philosophical lineage of happiness can be traced from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle through the Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans.

Jefferson admired Epicurus and owned eight copies of De rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, a Roman disciple of Epicurus. In a letter Jefferson wrote to William Short on October 13, 1819, he declared, “I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” At the end of the letter, Jefferson made a summary of the key points of Epicurean doctrine, including:

Moral.—Happiness the aim of life.
Virtue.—the foundation of happiness.
Utility.—the test of virtue.

Properly understood, therefore, when John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the pursuit of happiness,” they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are civic virtues, not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia. The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to “social happiness.” During this political season, as Americans are scrutinizing presidential candidates, we would do well to ponder that. Ω

{In addition to this third essay for The History News Network [HNN], Carol V. Hamilton has been published in such academic journals as The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, Ctheory, Oxford German Studies, and Anarchist Studies. She holds the following degrees: a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an MFA from Vermont College, and a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.]

Copyright © 2011 Carol V. Hamilton

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