Cf. supra? Wevs, bro.

This is a rant, and it’s a rant about language. I have been having an intermittent altercation with a friend on Facebook—

a reader [who we could just as well call the plain people of ireland, so nakedly is this device stolen from Myles na gCopaleen]: Facebook? Again? Are you ever off that dratted site?

me: Look, buster, it’s my only contact with the world at the moment. I just moved to a new city where I have no social circle and have had no time to form one, what with the hours spent producing beautiful Arabic/English books, writing witty invective such as this and, um, faffing around on Facebook.

—concerning certain items in use in certain registers of English, and the time has come for me to set out my views clearly for the world to hear. Tremble, you pillars of academe, for it is at you that my guns are turned. My thesis is simple, and it is the following:

Enough! Enough with your cfs and your vide supras. Enough with your flourits and enough with your ibids. Your passims are passé. I am counter-contra, I oppose your opus, I vilify your videlicet. And the loc where you may cit your anno domini, well, in ano est.

These and similar abbreviated Latinities are, in my possibly not-so-humble opinion, stuffy and antiquated relics that serve no purpose other than to obfuscate and obscure, and should be done away with, with immediate effect. There is not a single one of them for which a simple English-language formulation will not perform an exactly synonymous function, with the added benefit of not sending newcomers hunting through abbreviation lists or glossaries.

I am not opposed to jargon. In fact, as a sociolinguist and lover of all things meta, I would have to point out that “jargon” can itself be jargon. Every specialist domain needs words for things not in general use (such as “quark” or “alveolar flap”), or more constrained meanings to words in common use (such as the physicist’s understanding of “energy” or the linguist’s understanding of “jargon”). But these, the objects of my ire, are not specialist terms, they do not have specific meanings that require a special word. They have simple and exactly synonymous English cognates.

Here’s a piece of jargon for you, in fact. Barrier to entry. This term, from economics, applies in its narrow meaning to costs that have to be incurred by newcomers to a market, that are not borne by existing participants in that market. But in its wider sense, it can be seen as “anything that prevents entry when entry is socially beneficial” (Franklin M. Fisher). Free market comparisons? Do they really stand? I suppose it’s whether you think academe should be a self-selecting elect guarded by portals such as grammar schools, the Oxford entrance exam, and the ability to conjugate the verb “to go” in a language not productively used since the nineteenth century, and vernacularly not since long before that. But I take a different view. Karl Popper, in The Poverty of Historicism observed that “Science, and more especially scientific progress, are the results not of isolated efforts, but of the free competition of thought.” Amen to that. And these Latinities are nothing more than barriers to entry, unnecessary hurdles placed to socially restrict access to certain types of text by making them abstruse and difficult to the uninitiate — regardless of whether that individual would actually have the ability to understand the content itself.

I’m a publisher, and I have spent the majority of my career working in the academic sector on supposedly audience-broadening texts, and it boils my blood that many of these books, which are purportedly intended to draw in new readers to the wonders of non-western literatures, speckle themselves with these alienating italicised lexical affronts. In fact, one of my authors — an Emeritus at Oxford, no less — routinely confused q.v. and s.v. Presumably, in fifty years of publishing, he has had editors fix them for him. If you really must know, q.v. is quod vide (“which see”) and comes after a mention of a topic or word indicating it is discussed in depth elsewhere, whereas s.v. is sub verbo (“under the word”), comes before said word, and is specifically and only used to give the headword in a glossary or dictionary under which to look. If he’d have been able to bring himself to simply write “see elsewhere” and “see under” then he wouldn’t have made these errors. And if an Oxford don can’t actually correctly handle this vocabulary, what chance for the rest of us?

Here is my golden rule: if the expansion of a term in your abbreviations list itself requires a gloss then there is something very wrong with your idea of clarity.

Enough! I have more on this topic: so far I have only covered the first part of the title. Wevs, bro is to come, and will clearly and simply, with no obscure Latinities and no italicised alienation, explain why initialised and contracted slang terms are a whole different issue: they are to be celebrated and savoured as part of the joyous innovation that keeps language alive and exciting, not fossilised, elitist, and occult. But no tl;dr posts from me, so I shall save that for later. Vide infra, when it comes. Bah!

2 thoughts on “Cf. supra? Wevs, bro.

  1. Do I “think academe should be a self-selecting elect guarded by portals such as grammar schools, the Oxford entrance exam, and the ability to conjugate the verb “to go” in a language not productively used since the nineteenth century”? Yes. Shorn of the emotive language, I do think academic tests are appropriate ways of deciding whether to invest public money in giving people a state pension to futz around in libraries for their whole lives. “Guarded by portals” is just your phrase for “getting people to pass GCSEs”, I imagine.

    The little Latin abbreviations are just a notation used by scholars in some disciplines to communicate efficiently. Every subject has them. Of course they are silly, abused, unnecessary, can be replaced by “proper English” etc. Tell mathematicians they can’t have their symbols already why dontcha.

    Oh dear, what about that “etc”, then? We can’t be having that. Off with his head!

    How long is it before you start on the borrowings from “foreign” languages, and ask us to embrace “proper old Anglo-Saxon” words?

    Yore bruvs and wevs and awks haf thair place, 2b sure. Frightfully colourful, I am sure. But surely the issue is that they have their right place? in the same way as I don’t write “pragmatically, bros, we cannot like keep everything for ever, awks” in the document in another window, nor yet do I expect a younger Paul McCartney to sing “Your day breaks, your mind aches (ache] Hibbard, ibid. l.56) You find that all her words of kindness (vide supra) linger on”.


    • OK, well a few of my points could do with a touch of rewording, which I will do. But I think you have misread the core of the argument. I am not arguing against the fact that academia naturally is intellectually elitist. I am arguing that certain aspects of academic discourse are socially exclusionary, and they have no right to be. Post two was going to cover some of this, but I delayed in my writing partly because I don’t like overlong blog posts, and partly because I had to think carefully myself about how to express it without using too much, well, jargon like “shibboleth,” “in-group,” “out-group,” and so forth.

      Clearly, certain groups have certain linguistic features, which indicate membership, and are used to exclude nonmembers. Sociologically, this is a simple fact, and usually merits neither approbation nor repudiation. But we can contrast such terms with jargon in as discussed in this post, and it should be clear that I think that these Latinities fall into the socio-functional vocabularies, not the technical group.

      Usually, as I say, as a good sociologist I describe and do not judge. However, in the case of academia, I think we can make value judgements about their use. There are several reasons for this.

      The first is that this is hardly naturally acquired, spoken language. These terms are almost exclusively used in the written domain, which —contra Derrida et al (pshaw!) — is by its very nature deliberate and unilateral. It would be very hard to defend the idea that identities were negotiated in such a circumstance — and the majority of sociolinguistic views see the use of shibboleths and the like as a negotiatory process.

      Secondly, I would argue that this language is not about membership of the intellectual elite. It is about preserving membership of the elite to certain social groups. You contrasted my comments on Oxford entrance exams and grammar schools with GCSEs. But these illustrate exactly my point. GCSEs are (or should be) a simple measure of achievement. I was suggesting that entrance to the halls of academia is also restricted, still, to people of a certain class, and that a range of tools are used by those within academia to maintain this situation. The Oxford interview (which, sorry, I should have referenced instead of the exams), the equivalent policies in US Ivy League universities of favouring children of alumni, the gowns, and the language are all designed, or at least maintained, to discomfort those who may have attained the requisite level of intellectual achievement, but are from a social group unaccustomed to such frippery.

      Finally, if this was a matter of just any old institution choosing to be socially elitist, then I would consider it distasteful, but I would not consider it rant-worthy. However academia is different. As an institution, it is generally still considered a public good, and is consequentially supported by the state (admittedly rather less so nowadays, but I think we both agree that that is not a desirable situation). OUP, for instance, gets away with being a highly successful publishing venture and yet not having to pay tax, by virtue of its integration within an educational establishment. That by itself would not annoy me. But if you, and your institutions, are privileged by the state because you are held to be producing a public good, it is incumbent upon you to make that good available to all, not just those who didn’t get their pocket money as children unless they successfully completed that day’s Latin drill. This is the crux of my objection. Knowledge should be produced for the maximum possible audience, not withheld and obscured. Anyone should be free to try and learn, and as long as the centres of learning are supported by the state, they are responsible to maximise this, not to seal themselves off in their ivory towers.

      So I reject the claim that I’m somehow regressive in my language views. I am not seeking to return us to Anglo-Saxon, however fond I am some of their four-letter lexical items. I am not even arguing for heterogeneity of language across all social groups. I am arguing that the public good should be a public good, and not an oligarchal one.


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