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Sticks and Stones

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ is one of those expressions familiar to all of us, used from early childhood as a defence against name-calling and to build resilience.  The joy of looking things up on Wikipedia is often to find something new, in this case my discovery that the first three words are what is known as an ‘irreversible binomial’, which means that the word order cannot be changed without ruining the expression.  Other examples cited include ‘milk and honey’, ‘short and sweet’ and ‘do or die’ – so there you go.

The sentiment behind the expression of ‘sticks and stones’ is, of course, utter nonsense.  Words can do plenty of harm, often much more so than physical force, and perhaps now more than ever in a world where we can increasingly hide behind electronic anonymity.  Everyone can recall times when other people’s deliberate or thoughtlessly unkind words have caused upset – sometimes short-lived and quickly forgotten, but often lasting and relentlessly hurtful.  

In the book I talked about last week, ‘Devil-Land’ by Clare Jackson, there were some splendid examples of insults from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many of them directed at foreigners.  For example, at the time of the Spanish Armada xenophobic suspicion soared as lurid rumours started spreading.  Jackson explains that, despite having lived in England for nearly four decades, the Tuscan Protestant Petruccio Ubaldini observed how a credulous population developed ‘a mortal and dangerous hatred of all foreigners’, fearing that cargoes of invading Spanish ships would include ‘many instruments of torture’  As Ubaldini later recalled, ‘It had seemed easier to find flocks of white crows than one Englishman (and let him believe what he will about religion) who loves a foreigner.’

Over seventy years later, during a dispute about precedence in September 1661, the Spanish ambassador’s coach forced its way in front of the one belonging to the new French ambassador.  During the ensuing violent clash, the Spanish delegation opened fire on the French, killing several people and horses.  Observing popular cheering and bell ringing in response to the perceived Spanish triumph, Samuel Pepys admitted, ‘Indeed we do naturally all love the Spanish and hate the French.’

I have always thought that ‘xenophobia’ was a great word to have in one’s vocabulary, though only for the knowledge of its existence and never for any idea that is an acceptable school of thought.  My contempt for people who claim not to like people just because they are foreign knows no bounds.  ‘Oh, I don’t like Americans’, one of my grandparents used to say, to which I always retorted that there were well over 200 million of them, so this constituted a sweeping generalisation that was unjustifiable on any rational level.

My favourite insult that Jackson quoted in her book was preceded by the word ‘bdelygmia’, which I had never come across before and which apparently derives from a Greek word meaning ‘filth’ or ‘nastiness’, and is a technique used in rhetoric to express hatred of a person, word or action through a series of criticisms.  Given that I am struggling to work out how on earth you pronounce it, let alone how you might use it in everyday speech, I don’t think it will become a regular with me, but it is always good to know that there is still so much left to learn.

During the Civil War in the 1640s, the shocking prospect of fighting fellow subjects could prompt flights of literary bdelygmia.  Once hostilities had been averted, the notorious diatribe penned by Captain Thomas Windebank was prefaced by the soldier’s acknowledgement that he was self-consciously striving for rhetorical effect to describe simmering Anglo-Scottish ethnic tensions.  Writing from Berwick to his cousin, Windebank admitted, ‘We have had a most cold, wet and long time living in the field’, but the troops had: ‘…kept ourselves warm with the hopes of rubbing, fubbing and scrubbing those scurvy, filthy, dirty, nasty, lousy, itchy, scabby, stinking, slovenly, snotty-nosed, logger-headed, foolish, insolent, proud, beggarly, impertinent, absurd, grout-headed, villainous, barbarous, bestial, false, lying, roguish, devilish, long-eared, short-haired, damnable, atheistical, puritanical crew of the Scottish Covenant.’  There was another, even ruder, word in there somewhere that I have judiciously edited out, but I think you get the drift even without it.

The second century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, by contrast, was a Stoic philosopher whose ‘Meditations’ have come to be seen as words of immense wisdom to guide us through life’s trials and tribulations.  For example, when writing about other people’s unkind words, he said, ‘Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed.  Don’t feel harmed and you have not been.  Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought “I am hurt”: remove the thought “I am hurt” and the hurt itself is removed.’  This seems rather easier to say than to do, but I suppose that is the challenge with Stoicism.

There are plenty of other gems in the emperor’s collection of thoughts.  He reminds us, for example, that life is fleeting and often short, and we should therefore devote ourselves relentlessly to trying to be a better version of ourselves, ‘You do not have thousands of years to live.  Urgency is on you.  While you live, while you can, become good’, which is followed later by perceptive self-realisation, when he says, ‘If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change.  I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.’

Regardless of where we are on our journey through life, we would do well to remember that ‘Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced that your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.’  He goes on to say, ‘There was a time when I met luck at every turn.  But luck is the good fortune you determine for yourself: and good fortune consists in good inclinations of the soul, good impulses, good actions.’  In words that might resonate through the events we have witnessed with horror in the last two weeks, he counsels, ‘The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.’

The only difficulty I have with such overwhelming wisdom is to be reminded of the Eddie Izzard sketch about St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which is well worth looking up on YouTube, but please be aware that it contains some adult language.  Izzard imagines the people of Corinth receiving Paul’s words with a mix of incredulity and bewilderment: ‘Don’t do bad things, only do good things; always treat your neighbour like someone who lives near to you; never put a sock in a toaster; never put jam on a magnet; never throw your granny in a bag; never suck all the juice out of a vampire; never lean over on a Tuesday…’  Still, I suppose good advice can come in many different forms.  The trick is to spot it when it does and to act upon it accordingly.

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