A ramble around quantum leaps anyone?

The Australian Solicitor-General, Justin Gleeson, told the International Court of Justice hearing the case about Australia’s seizure of Timor Leste’s lawyers’ documentation that it would be a ‘quantum leap’ for the court to agree that the seizure was an invasion of Timor Leste’s sovereignty.

Reading the comment prompted the blog to reflect, yet again, on changing usages and led to some rambling thoughts about how the changes are often driven by purposeful public relations and political rather than other forms of diffusion.

What the Solicitor-General said was actually right even though it wasn’t what he meant. The ‘quantum’ term has come to mean ‘very large’ in everyday usage. Yet the term, originating in physics, actually refers to the smallest possible quantities rather than the largest and it probably needs only the smallest possible leap of the imagination to believe that the Australian Government was behaving very badly.

So is the blog being a usage fuddy-duddy unable to cope with changing language developments? Well arguably no because the common usage of quantum leaps being large is not universal. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, for instance carefully avoids the phrase and uses as an alternative ‘qualitative leap’ when she wants to convey what Mr Gleeson was trying to say. But then Angela Merkel was a physicist in an earlier life and is famously cautious, civil, correct and inclusive – qualities generally absent from Australian politics.

Of course English’s great strength has been its adaptability and openness to other languages and new ideas. Public relations, particularly the political variety, has adapted to the adaptability with Orwellian enthusiasm and the Solicitor-General is being no more cavalier in this use of language than his political masters are. ‘Bias’, ‘left wing’ and similar terms when used by the current Australian Government, for instance, mean things we don’t agree with.

The Institute of Public Affairs doubts University of Melbourne historian, Professor Stuart McIntyre’s, view on the history curriculum because he was once a communist and is apparently still a socialist. Yet the same organisation praises Keith Windschuttle who was once a Maoist and never seems to mention that he was once a supporter of a regime even more murderous than Stalin’s. On a more prosaic level, in the US the term ‘middle class’ has little or no connection to what we in Australia think it means.

The obituaries for the late Ariel Sharon confirm the view that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. In Sharon’s case he has been variously described as a war criminal, a military genius, and a realist peacemaker who wanted to end the ‘occupation’ of Palestinian lands. In fact he was probably all of the above at various times even if which term you light upon as the major one depends on the political viewpoint you take.

In the years of neo-liberal dominance of economic discourse (revived in kindergarten book depth by Tony Abbott in Davos) Keynes’ phrase that “in the long term we are all dead” was condemned as cynical, irresponsible and wrong. Yet, as Derek Morris (Oriel College Oxford) pointed out in a letter to History Today (August 2013), the phrase had a precise intent within the terms of the macroeconomic analysis debate of the time. In contrast to the prevailing view of the time (advanced once again recently) that “in the long run it will all come right.”  Keynes’ “dictum neatly summarises the need to dismiss appeals to the long run as a supposed reason against more immediate policy action. Sadly, Keynes subsequent acolytes failed fully to understand the truly revolutionary nature of his insight,” Morris said. As, of course, did his opponents.

On another hand altogether a review of William Fitzgerald’s How to Read a Latin Poem (TLS June 21 2013) by Roy Gibson is a reminder – that despite the Romans emphasis on political and literary rhetoric – common and poetic discourse was far more basic and direct than that in most Western societies today. In particular Fitzgerald points to a Catullus line which he says is “the most disgusting line in Latin poetry”. The line is: aegroti culum lingere carnificis. The blog leaves it to readers to translate.