- Jargon: Its Uses and Abuses by Walter Nash
Blackwell, 214 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 631 18063 X
The reviewers’ quotes which, fifteen years I ago, Macmillan chose for the reprint of Kenneth Hudson’s The Jargon of the Professions were a moral lot. Auberon Waugh, writing for what should now be called Books and Bookpersons, declared that ‘Mr Hudson writes with the elegance, precision and wit of a Fowler ... a delight to read and a mine of useful instruction’, while Peter Clayton, in the sterner fashion befitting the Sunday Telegraph, thought that ‘it’s not often you get a hook so worthy of purpose, so forthright, so amusing and yet so balanced.’ The reviewer for the Scotsman, traditionally anonymous, was given pride of place: ‘If we all listened to Hudson,’ he said, ‘we would think and write a little better. Some of us might even say what we meant, and be understood.’ What a happy day that would be, here and in Laputa, but if Hudson’s book is still in print it is not readily to be found, at least in Heffers, and the volume of peevish complaint about the proliferation of jargon and the multilateral economies in the area of SALT (the Strategic Acronym Limitation Talks) has shown no tendency to downturn. If anything, it has shown more clearly than ever an applied nimbyfication: I am exact; you have rather a fondness for using several long words when one poor monosyllable would do adequately; and he (sic) networks technobabble.
Vol. 16 No. 4 · 24 February 1994
Although John Lennard (LRB, 27 January) quotes with approval Walter Nash’s statement that the phrase ‘economical with the truth’ was ‘invented and its application demonstrated by Sir Robert Armstrong (now Lord Armstrong)’, there can be few who do not wonder how it is that such a phrase had to be re-invented. For Sir Robert Armstrong was using the phrase, no doubt expecting it to be recognised, in the sense defined in the OED, S.V. Economy, III.6.b., and which had been in use in 1796. The OED sidesteps a multiplicity of illustrative quotations by offering a common example of its usage – ‘I do not impute falsehood to the Government, but I think there has been considerable economy of truth.’ It was a usage that descended from the serious theological concept of ‘economy’, developed (according to Cardinal Newman) from Christ’s ‘Cast not your pearls before swine.’ That is, starting with the notion of ‘economy’ as ‘a system of divine government suited to the needs of a particular nation or period of time, as the Mosaic economy’, it developed as ‘the judicious handling of doctrine, i.e. the presentation of it in such a manner as to suit the needs or to conciliate the prejudices of the persons addressed’. Thus if a pagan asked an early Christian about the Trinity, he answered: ‘I believe in one God.’ That was being ‘economical with the truth’ – there was no way the pagan was going to understand the Trinity, so one didn’t trouble him with a full answer. To an unsympathetic person (e.g. a Charles Kingsley) this would look like an economy in the sense of being sparing with the truth. And so Kingsley – who knew the medieval theological concept of ‘economy’ perfectly well – could bluntly write: ‘Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not be.’ And so there began a splendid controversy that led to Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua. Perhaps at the end of the 20th century we need the phrase ‘economical with the truth’ to be shorn of its history, but it is more entertaining with it.
John Lennard in his review of Walter Nash’s Jargon: Its Uses and Abuses describes Professor Nash’s account of the phrase ‘economical with the truth’, in which he states that it ‘was invented … by Sir Robert Armstrong (now Lord Armstrong)’, as ‘close to perfect’. Alas, the account is far from perfect.
Shortly after Sir Robert’s use of the phrase, the Times published (27 November 1986) a letter from me in which I observed that the British statesman, W.E. Forster, had regretfully reflected: ‘What is the use of lying, when truth, well distributed, serves the same purpose?’ (T. Wemyss Reid, Life, Vol. II, 1888). This provoked further correspondence in which earlier antecedents of the phrase were noted in Newman’s Apologia (1864) where, in discussion of the notion of Economy derived from some early Church Fathers, it was said that ‘This cautious dispensation of the truth, after the manner of a discreet and vigilant steward, is denoted by the word “economy” ’ (Appendix, no 7), and in Somerville and Ross’s story ‘Trinket’s Colt’ in which a character is described as ‘not … shrinking from that economy of truth that the situation required’ (Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., 1899). On 1 December 1986 the Times devoted a Third Leader to the phrase, and cited Burke’s First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796): ‘Falshood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever: But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an oeconomy of truth. It is a sort of temperance, by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may speak it the longer.’ Professor Nash’s account of the genesis of the phrase is, in the words of Alan Clark’s recent variant on it, ‘economical with the actualité’.
Worcester College, Oxford
Vol. 16 No. 6 · 24 March 1994
I am grateful to Arthur Johnston and Edward Wilson (Letters, 24 February) for denying Sir-Robert-now-Lord Armstrong the credit that Professor Nash and I wrongly gave him for coining the phrase ‘economical with the truth’: and I am sorry to have missed the latter’s letter to the Times and the replies it provoked. It is salutary to be reminded that the forms of veracious economy include both plagiarism and sloth. In the meantime I have been informed privately (but with no reference) that the real credit should go neither to Cardinal Newman nor to Edmund Burke, but to Francis Bacon (Sr). Can any reader supply that reference, or any other earlier than 1796?
Trinity Hall, Cambridge