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MONTHLY BLOG 85, WORKING WITH WORDS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

A lot of the fun of being a writer comes from the sheer pleasure of working with words. Not only inventing new ones (see BLOG/84, November 2017). But additionally the multifarious challenges of finding the mot juste; of avoiding repetition of favoured words; and of avoiding clichéd combinations of nouns and adjectives Why should debates always turn out to be ‘heated’? or every array be denoted as ‘dazzling’? By the way, for those who enjoy nothing as much as a time-honoured cliché, there are splendid compilations to be consulted.1

2018-01 No1 Hogarth's distressed_poet

Fig.1 Detail from William Hogarth’s Distrest Poet,
from oil painting c.1736, engraved 1741.

My personal favourite is Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, which contains the following admirable dictum on ‘FEUDALISM: No need to have one single precise notion about it: thunder against!2

To keep myself alert when writing, I set myself three internal technical challenges – as well as thinking about my main message. One test is that no two paragraphs within an essay or book chapter should start with the same first word. That avoids visually boring readers with a page of prose that contains a repetitious string of ‘The …/ The… / The …/’.

The second test is to refrain from echoing key terms between one sentence and the next. It’s very easy to get one’s vocabulary stuck. But, fortunately, English is a rich and hybrid language, with many synonyms. So it is always possible to refer (say) to ‘Parliament’ in one sentence, and to ‘the ‘legislative’ in the next. And so on. That way, readers are not numbed by a monotonous repetition of the same word, again and again, within one paragraph. Adding variety can be tricky in the case of technical terms, for which there are few synonyms. Nonetheless, variation can be achieved by inserting short explanatory points in simpler language. Repetition (whether in terms of vocabulary or sentence structure) is a powerful stylistic device. Yet it entirely loses its punch if it is used all the time.

So my third challenge also requires diversification. Sentences should not all be alike in length. If every point is expressed with the utmost brevity, one after another, the result can be a mind-overwhelming rat-tat-tat of ideas, without time for thought and assimilation. Let alone qualifications and nuances.

Equally, however, too many very long sentences, end to end, can be so rich and intricate that they become soporific. I’ve expressed that viewpoint before (December 2015) and can’t resist quoting myself.3 ‘Alternatively, the full and unmitigated case for long, intricate, sinuous, thoughtful yet controlled sentences, winding their way gracefully and inexorably across vast tracts of crisp, white paper can be made not only in terms of academic pretentiousness – always the last resort of the petty-minded – but also in terms of intellectual expansiveness and mental ‘stretch’, with a capacity to reflect and inflect even the most subtle nuances of thought, although it should certainly be remembered that, without some authorial control or indeed domination in the form of a final full-stop, the impatient reader – eager to follow the by-ways yet equally anxious to seize the cardinal point – can find a numbing, not to say crushing, sense of boredom beginning to overtake the responsive mind, as it struggles to remember the opening gambit, let alone the many intermediate staging posts, as the overall argument staggers and reels towards what I can only describe, with some difficulty, as the ultimate conclusion or final verdict: The End!’ [162 words in one sentence, which were fun to write but rather exhausting to read].4

Ideally, every sequence of lengthy sentences, which are often unavoidable in academic writing, should be counter-balanced by a pithy dictum. (Something a bit weightier than a Tweet; but incorporating the same brevity). To my students, I define a pithy dictum as a meaningful statement that’s expressed in ten words or less. How to enjoy working with words? ‘Write with variety’.

1 J. Cresswell, The Penguin Book of Clichés (2000); N. Fountain, Clichés: Avoid Them Like the Plague (2012; 2015).

2 G. Flaubert, Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, transl. and ed. J. Barzun (1954), p. 38.

3 P.J.C., ‘Writing Through a Big Research Project, Not Writing Up’, Monthly Blog/60 (Dec. 2015).

4 This puny effort barely registers in the smallest foothills of long sentences in the English language, the best known example being Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), which is reportedly a sequence of almost 4,000 words (but including many shorter sentences put together without punctuation).

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MONTHLY BLOG 53, ELECTION SPECIAL: WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE OLD PRACTICE OF OPEN VOTING, STANDING UP TO BE COUNTED? 1

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Vote early! Generations of democratic activists have campaigned over centuries to give the franchise to all adult citizens. (Yes, and that right should extend to all citizens who are in prison too).2  Vote early and be proud to vote!

So, if we are full of civic pride or even just wearily acquiescent, why don’t we vote openly? Stand up to be counted? That is, after all, how the voting process was first done. In most parliamentary elections in pre-democratic England (remembering that not all seats were regularly contested), the returning officer would simply call for a show of hands. If there was a clear winner, the result would be declared instantly. But in cases of doubt or disagreement a head-by-head count was ordered. It was known as a ‘poll’. Each elector in turn approached the polling booth, identified his qualifications for voting, and called his vote aloud.3
2015-5 No1 Detail from Hogarth Election 1754

William Hogarth’s Oxfordshire Election (1754) satirised the votes of the halt, the sick and the lame. Nonetheless, he shows the process of open voting in action, with officials checking the voters’ credentials, lawyers arguing, and candidates (at the back of the booth) whiling away the time, as voters declare their qualifications and call out their votes.

Open voting was the ‘manly’ thing to do, both literally and morally. Not only was the franchise, for many centuries, restricted to men;4  but polling was properly viewed as an exercise of constitutional virility. The electoral franchise was something special. It was a trust, which should be exercised accountably. Hence an Englishman should be proud to cast his vote openly, argued the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1861. He should cast his vote for the general good, rather than his personal interest. In other words, the elector was acting as a public citizen, before the eyes of the world – and, upon important occasions, his neighbours did come to hear the verdict being delivered. Furthermore, in many cases the Poll Books were published afterwards, so generating a historical record not only for contemporaries to peruse, and for canvassers to use at the following election, but also for later historians to study individual level voting (something impossible under today’s secret ballot).

Especially in the populous urban constituencies, some of the most protracted elections became carnival-like events.6  Crowds of voters and non-voters gathered at the open polling booths to cheer, heckle or boo the rival candidates. They sported election ribbons or cockades; and drank at the nearby hostelries. Since polling was sometimes extended over several days, running tallies of the state of the poll were posted daily, thus encouraging further efforts from the canvassers and the rival crowds of supporters. Sometimes, indeed, the partisanship got out of hand. There were election scuffles, affrays and even (rarely) riots. But generally, the crowds were good-humoured, peaceable and even playful. In a City of Westminster parliamentary by-election in 1819, for example, the hustings oratory from the candidate George Lamb was rendered inaudible by incessant Baaing from the onlookers. It was amusing for everyone but the candidate, though he did at least win.7

Performing one’s electoral duty openly was a practice that was widely known in constitutionalist systems around the world. Open voting continued in Britain until 1872; in some American states until 1898; in Denmark until 1900; in Prussia until 1918; and, remarkably, in Hungary until 1938.

Not only did the voter declare his stance publicly but the onlookers were simultaneously entitled to query his right to participate. Then the polling clerks, who sat at the hustings to record each vote, would check in the parish rate books (or appropriate records depending each variant local franchise) before the vote was cast.8  In the event of a subsequent challenge, moreover, the process was subject to vote-by-vote scrutiny. One elector at a parliamentary by-election in Westminster in 1734 was accused by several witnesses of being a foreigner. He was said to have a Dutch accent, a Dutch coat, and to smoke his pipe ‘like a Dutchman’. Hence ‘it is the common repute of the neighbourhood that he is a Dutchman’. In fact, the suspect, named Peter Harris, was a chandler living in Wardour Street and he outfaced his critics. The neighbours’ suspicions were not upheld and the vote remained valid. Nonetheless, public opinion had had a chance to intervene. Scrutiny of the electoral process remains crucial, now as then.
2015-5 No2 Mynheer Van Funk - Dutch Skipper 1730

Illustration/2: British satirical cartoon of Mynheer Van Funk, a Dutch Skipper (1730)
Was this what Peter Harris, of Wardour Street, Westminster, looked like?

Well then, why has open voting in parliamentary elections disappeared everywhere? There are good reasons. But there is also some loss as well as gain in the change. Now people can make a parade of their commitment (say) to some fashionable cause and yet, sneakily, vote against it in the polling booth. Talk about having one’s cake and eating it. That two-ways-facing factor explains why sometimes prior opinion polls or even immediate exit polls can give erroneous predictions of the actual result.

Overwhelmingly, however, the secret ballot was introduced to allow individual voters to withstand external pressures, which might otherwise encourage them to vote publicly against their true inner convictions. In agricultural constituencies, tenants might be unduly influenced by the great local landlord. In single-industry towns, industrial workers might be unduly influenced by the big local employer. In service and retail towns, shopkeepers and professionals might be unduly influenced by the desire not to offend rich clients and customers. And everywhere, voters might be unduly influenced by the power of majority opinion, especially if loudly expressed by crowds pressing around the polling booth.

For those reasons, the right to privacy in voting was one of the six core demands made in the 1830s by Britain’s mass democratic movement known as Chartism.10 In fact, it was the first plank of their programme to be implemented. The Ballot Act was enacted in 1872, long before all adult males – let alone all adult females – had the vote. It was passed just before the death in 1873 of John Stuart Mill, who had tried to convince his fellow reformers to retain the system of open voting. (By the way, five points of the six-point Chartist programme have today been achieved, although the Chartist demand for annual parliaments remains unmet and is not much called for these days).

Does the actual voting process really matter? Secrecy allows people to get away with things that they might not wish to acknowledge publicly. They can vote frivolously and disclaim responsibility. Would the Monster Raving Loony Party get as many votes as it does (admittedly, not many) under a system of open voting? But I suppose that such votes are really the equivalent of spoilt ballot papers.

In general, then, there are good arguments, on John Stuart Millian grounds, for favouring public accountability wherever possible. MPs in Parliament have their votes recorded publicly – and rightly so. Indeed, in that context, it was good to learn recently that a last-minute bid by the outgoing Coalition Government of 2010-15 to switch the electoral rules for choosing the next Speaker from open voting to secret ballot was defeated, by a majority of votes from Labour plus 23 Conservative rebels and 10 Liberal Democrats. One unintentionally droll moment came when the MP moving the motion for change, the departing Conservative MP William Hague, defended the innovation as something ‘which the public wanted’.11

Electoral processes, however, are rarely matters of concern to electors – indeed, not as much as they should be. Overall, there is a good case for using the secret ballot in all mass elections, to avoid external pressures upon the voters. There is also a reasonable case for secrecy when individuals are voting, in small groups, clubs, or societies, to elect named individuals to specific offices. Otherwise, it might be hard (say) not to vote for a friend who is not really up to the job. (But MPs choosing the Speaker are voting as representatives of their constituencies, to whom their votes should be accountable). In addition, the long-term secrecy of jury deliberations and votes is another example that is amply justified in order to free jurors from intimidation or subsequent retribution.

But, in all circumstances, conscientious electors should always cast their votes in a manner that they would be prepared to defend, were their decision known publicly. And, in all circumstances, the precise totals of votes cast in secret ballots should be revealed. The custom in some small societies or groups, to announce merely that X or Y is elected but to refrain from reporting the number of votes cast, is open to serious abuse. Proper scrutiny of the voting process and the outcome is the democratic essence, along with fair electoral rules.

In Britain, as elsewhere, there is still scope for further improvements to the workings of the system. The lack of thoroughness in getting entitled citizens onto the voting register is the first scandal, which should be tackled even before the related question of electoral redistricting to produce much greater equality in the size of constituencies. It’s also essential to trust the Boundaries Commission which regularly redraws constituency boundaries (one of the six demands of the Chartists) to do so without political interference and gerrymandering. There are also continuing arguments about the rights and wrongs of the first-past-the-post system as compared with various forms of Alternative Voting.

Yet we are on a democratic pathway …. Hence, even if parliamentary elections are no longer occasions for carnival crowds to attend as collective witnesses at the hustings, let’s value our roles individually. The days of open voting showed that there’s enjoyment to be found in civic participation.
2015-5 No3 Rowlandson Westminster 1808

Thomas Rowlandson’s Westminster Election (published 1808), showing the polling booths in front of St Paul’s Covent Garden – and the carnivalesque crowds, coming either to vote or to witness.

1 With warm thanks to Edmund Green for sharing his research, and to Tony Belton, Helen Berry, Arthur Burns, Amanda Goodrich, Charles Harvey, Tim Hitchcock, Joanna Innes, and all participants at research seminars at London and Newcastle Universities for good debates.

2 On this, see A. Belton, BLOG entitled ‘Prisoners and the Right to Vote’, (2012), tonybelton.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/prisoners-and-the-right-to-vote/.

3 See J. Elklit, ‘Open Voting’, in R. Rose (ed.), International Encyclopaedia of Elections (2000), pp. 191-3; and outcomes of open voting in metropolitan London, 1700-1850, in www.londonelectoralhistory.com, incl. esp. section 2.1.1.

4 In Britain, adult women aged over 30 first got the vote for parliamentary elections in 1918; but women aged between 21 and 30 (the so-called ‘flappers’) not until 1928.

5 J.S. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (1861), ed. C.V. Shields (New York, 1958), pp. 154-71.

6> See F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons and Parties: The Unreformed Electorate of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832 (Oxford, 1989).

7 British Library, Broughton Papers, Add. MS 56,540, fo. 55. Lamb then lost the seat at the next general election in 1820.

8 Before the 1832 Reform Act, there was no standardised electoral register; and many variant franchises, especially in the parliamentary boroughs.

9 Report of 1734 Westminster Scrutiny in British Library, Lansdowne MS 509a, fos. 286-7.

10 For a good overview, consult M. Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007).

11 BBC News, 26 March 2015: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32061097.

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MONTHLY BLOG 52, FACTS AND FACTOIDS IN HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Is it a fact or a factoid? There are lots of those impostors around. Historical films perpetrate new examples daily and the web circulates them with impartial zeal. Items of information that can be verified and cross-checked with reference to other sources count as facts. But even apparently well-established truths can turn out to be no more than factoids. That useful noun was coined in 1973 by Norman Mailer when writing about Marilyn Monroe, about whom myths and legends still gather.1
2015-4 No1 norman mailer

Norman Mailer (1923-2007) – maverick American author who experimented with creative literature, confessional writing, journalism, biography and non-fiction.

A factoid is an item of information, which has gained by frequent repetition a fact-like status, even though it is actually erroneous. It may have been spawned by an outright invention or, more subtly, grown by an accretion of myth and repetition. So factoids are like lies or untruths, but they are not necessarily circulated as knowingly false. Instead these purported facts tend to be recycled again and again as non-controversial data that ‘everyone knows’. Thus factoids convey culturally-embedded information which people would like to be true or feel ought to be true. For that reason, these phoney-facts are hard to kill. And, even when slain, they may well rise and circulate again.

Eighteenth-century English history, like most periods, has generated some notable factoids of its own. One features the so-called Calendar Riots of September 1752. They have been frequently cited by historians; and one or two experts have even supplied details of their location (for example, in Bristol). I might have mentioned them in print myself, since I used to believe in their historical reality. But I didn’t commit myself publicly. That’s just as well, since there were no riots. It’s true that there was some popular grumbling and discontent in and after September 1752, when the old, lagging Julian calendar (until then standard in England and Wales) was officially jettisoned in favour of catching up with the astronomically more accurate Gregorian calendar (already in use in Scotland and across continental Europe). The gap was eleven days.

It was later myth which turned the grumbles of 1752 into riots. In one of his election satires, Hogarth included, casually amongst the chaos, an opposition poster demanding: ‘Give us our Eleven Days’. It was an irresistible formula: belligerent but anguished. Such an attitude matched with what later generations rather snobbishly considered would be the ‘natural’ response of the uneducated masses to such calendrical reforms. Expanded into ‘Give us Back our Eleven Days!’ the phrase still has resonance: we have been robbed of our time. Moreover, once embroidered into a story of riots in the early nineteenth century, the tale gained weight and encrusted detail with continued retellings.2
2015-4 No2 Hogarth's elevendays

William Hogarth’s satirical Election Entertainment (1755) shows a captured placard against calendar reform, casually discarded underfoot.

Yet, in reality, the masses in England and Wales proved quite capable of adapting to the change, which had parliamentary authority, trading convenience, congruence with Scotland, and scientific time-measurement on its side. As part of the reform process, 1 January was adopted as the start of the official year, instead of the old choice of 26 March (the quarterly Lady Day). But, in a nod to continuity, the inauguration of the tax year was left unchanged, although updated by eleven days from 26 March to 6 April (as it still remains today). Thenceforth, England and Wales adhered without difficulty to the Gregorian calendar which, once synchronised across greater Europe, continued its long journey to becoming today’s global standard. The story is interesting enough without the addition of factoids. Instead, the significant fact is that the riotous English population did not riot upon this occasion.3

Another factoid features prominently in an oversimplified version of the history of English women before women’s liberation. It is an example which is fuelled by righteous indignation against men. Or rather, not against men individually, but against the traditional legal position of men vis à vis women. It takes the form of the bald assertion that husbands ‘owned’ their wives, under common law. According to this factoid history, married women were considered as legally on a par with domestic ‘chattels’ or household goods; they were thus the property of their husbands; in effect, legally slaves. But not so.

Certainly, the independence of a married woman was legally circumscribed. Hence the eighteenth-century joke that the only truly happy female state was to be a wealthy widow. As the cynical thief-taker Peachum explains to his daughter Polly in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728): ‘The comfortable Estate of Widow-hood, is the only Hope that keeps up a Wife’s Spirits’.4

All the same, married women were not legally defined as property, capable of being bought and sold. Instead, after marriage, the legal identity of a woman (with the exception of a Queen reigning in her own right) was merged with that of her husband. Under the common law of ‘couverture’, they were one person. It was a legal fiction, which meant that a husband could not sue or be sued by his wife (though they still had to behave lawfully to one another). The law of ‘couverture’ also meant that they shared their assets and debts, unless they had some separate pre-nuptial agreement (as a considerable number of women did). Both partners, in theory at least, gained a helpmeet and the social status that came with matrimony.
2015-4 No3 regency proposal

Regency print of The Proposal.

Needless to say, in practice there were plenty of provisos. Personalities always affected the de facto balance of power within a marriage. Friends, families and servants could keep an unofficial lookout to ward against unacceptable individual behaviour. Some women also had separate pre-nuptial financial arrangements, leaving them in charge of their own money.5  And a number of married businesswomen traded in their own right, if necessary going to the equity Court of Chancery to provide a way round the rigidities of common law. The doctrine of matrimonial unity was potent but remained a legal fiction not a universal fact.
2015-4 No4 Matrimonial scene 1849

German print showing A Matrimonial Scene (1849)

Publicly and legally, the cards always remained stacked in the husbands’ favour. To make the legal fiction work, entrenched custom dictated that it was the male who acted on behalf of the couple. Hence the tongue-in-cheek dictum attributed to many a proudly married man: ‘My wife and I are one – and I am he’.7

Given this inequity at the heart of marriage according to traditional common law, there was a very good case for the legal liberation of married women, which happened piecemeal in the course of the nineteenth century.8  But the case didn’t and doesn’t need the support of a clunking factoid. Married women were not disposable property. Their plight was compared with that of slaves by some feminist reformers. That’s more or less understandable as campaign rhetoric, even if it significantly underplays the sufferings of slaves. But the factoid should not be mistaken for fact.

Real reforms are made more difficult if the target is misrepresented. Let’s keep an eye out for pseudo-history and reject it whenever possible.9  We don’t want to fetishise ‘facts and facts alone’ since much knowledge depends upon evaluating ideas/theories/experience/analysis/assumptions/intuitions/propositions/opinions/ debates/probabilities/possibilities and all the evidence which lies between certainty and uncertainty.10  Yet, given all those complexities, we don’t need factoids muddying the water as well.

1 N. Mailer, Marilyn: A Biography (New York, 1973). The term is sometimes also used, chiefly in the USA, to refer to a trivial fact or ‘factlet’: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factoid.

2 Historian Robert Poole provides an admirable analysis in R. Poole, Time’s Alteration: Calendar Reform in Early Modern England (1998), esp. pp. 1-18, 159-78; and idem, ‘“Give Us our Eleven Days!” Calendar Reform in Eighteenth-Century England’, Past & Present, 149 (1995), pp. 95-139.

3 See variously E.P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowds’, in his Customs in Common (1991), pp. 185-258, and ‘The Moral Economy Reviewed’, in ibid., pp. 259-351; J. Stevenson, Popular Disturbances in England, 1700-1870 (1979); A. Randall and A. Charlesworth (eds), Markets, Market Culture and Popular Protests in Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland (Liverpool, 1996); R.B. Shoemaker, The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England (2004); and J. Bohstedt, The Politics of Provision: Food Riots, Moral Economy and Market Transition in England, c.1550-1850 (Aldershot, 2010).

4 J. Gay, The Beggar’s Opera (1728), Act 1, sc. 10.

5 A.L. Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (1993).

6 N. Phillips, Women in Business, 1700-1850 (Woodbridge, 2006).

7 E.O. Hellerstein, L.P. Hume and K.M. Offen (eds), Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States (Stanford, Calif., 1981), Part 2, section 33, pp. 161-6: ‘“My Wife and I are One, and I am He”: The Laws and Rituals of Marriage’.

8 M.L. Shanley, Feminism, Marriage, and Law in Victorian England, 1850-95 (Princeton, 1989); A. Chernock, Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism (Stanford, Calif., 2010).

9 That’s why it’s good that these days freelance websites regularly highlight inaccuracies, omissions and inventions in historical films, before new factoids gain currency.

10 For opposition to the tyranny of facts, see Dickens’s critique of Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854); L. Hudson, The Cult of the Fact (1972). With thanks to Tom Barney for a good conversation on this theme at the recent West London Local History Conference.

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