Dec 5, 2013

Idiosyntaxies, Part One

posted by killre

It has been said the pen is mightier than the sword.

For once, the yahoos I employ as a research team earned the digitally transferred pennies I pay them, returning a list of links that were helpful in learning the origins of the above expression.  The site at the top of the list was located at  Clicking my way through three or four other sites confirmed and cross-referenced much of what they had to say.

"The pen is mightier than the sword," in that specific form, is almost universally attributed to an English writer named Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839-- although the attributors always hasten to add that the sentiment is far older.  (A footnote for fans of the cartoon character Snoopy:  Bulwer-Lytton was also the author of the opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night.")

The oldest-known expression of the sentiment is ascribed to the ancient Greek playwright Euripides more than 2400 years ago: "The tongue is mightier than the blade."

The first use of the same thought by an English-language writer was cited by as taking place in 1582 by a man whose name, given this context, was incredibly ironic: George Whetstone.  In case you're currently blanking on what a whetstone is, it's an implement used to sharpen blades.  Whetstone's choice of terms, in fact, hints at a possible attempt to avoid the inherent irony.  I will both paraphrase and translate from ye olde mispelde Englishe: The wound of the pen is more grievous than the wound of the lance.

In addition to the two I've noted, there were several references to the same essential thought being expressed in slightly different words --including by such luminaries as William Shakespeare (again with the irony) and Thomas Jefferson-- that precede Bulwer-Lytton's more well-known version.  Whatever the specific incarnation, the expression has the same basic meaning.

Meaning.  Ah, yes... there was one troubling item I encountered in my thumbnail search.  Addressing from the outset the question of what the pen is mightier than the sword actually means, the researchers at provided a ponderous two-word paragraph that they didn't even bother to capitalize: "literal meaning."  In other words, their esteemed estimation is that the pen is literally mightier than the sword.

That statement is so demonstrably untrue one is left to wonder if the boys and girls at know the meaning of the word literal.  "The pen is mightier than the sword" is not and never has been meant literally.  As evidence of my contention, I point out that in the whole of human history, no swordfight has ever been won by the guy wielding a goose quill.  Maybe I'm going out on a limb in saying that, but I feel every bit as confident as I would if I were about to fight, oh, you know where this joke is going.

One other site also claimed the expression has a literal meaning.  Having perused the entry, however, I am forced to conclude that the person who clickity-clacked the claim into cyber-existence is, if you'll pardon my use of a technical term, a goofball who thinks she's a writer and offers exactly zero evidence to support her assertion-- probably because there isn't any.

What the rest of us already know is that the expression --in all its various versions-- is and always has been a metaphor, from first letter to last and all the spaces in between.  The groundwork for the case is laid in the word choice of the three examples I've given.  All three writers chose terms that were at once familiar to their audience while being slightly out of fashion.  Euripides said, "The tongue is mightier than the blade," despite the fact that the pen, or stylus, was the, heh, cutting-edge technology of the day.  Shifting his attention to the other weapon, George Whetstone basically said the pen was mightier than the lance.  Whetstone did this in the late 16th century, two hundred years or more after the use of guns had become fairly widespread in Europe.  Likewise, Bulwer-Lytton chose to employ sword, even as that weapon was falling into disuse.  In all three cases, the writer was seeking to cast his idea in obvious symbolism-- specifically so it wouldn't be taken literally.

What the pen is mightier than the sword actually means, of course, is that words are ultimately more powerful than violence-- at least in the long run.  Words are the code by which we transmit ideas, be they profound or ordinary.  Well-thought ideas, communicated by well-chosen words, have the power to change the way others think... although it too-often takes a deal of time.  Violence, on the other hand, seeks only to quickly impose one's will on another.  It does not change their fundamental attitudes, and it leaves the underlying disagreement alive and festering.

[Unfortunately, but accurately, I have been known on numerous occasions to state --either to my fellow contributors or to you, Dear Reader-- that I have either a new or continued post coming soon, which I then fail to deliver.  To subvert whatever juju affects this phenomenon --Murphy's Law, writer's block, good old-fashioned laziness-- I will make no such promises here.  Instead, I will say only that I hope this post serves as a springboard to a sequel, which I intend to be both lighter and more recognizably relevant.]

P.S.... Dan "Yes I Can Afford A Better Tailor But I Choose To Look Like The Hobo Who Crashed The Cotillion" Hicks must go.

No comments: