Wednesday, April 03, 2013


Protector of Fallacies and Quackeries

John Hill Burton (1809-1881), The Book-Hunter etc. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1862), pp. 2-4:
No doubt, the ductile inflections and wonderful facilities for decomposition and reconstruction make Greek an excellent vehicle of scientific precision, and the use of a dead language saves your nomenclature from being confounded with your common talk. The use of a Greek derivative gives notice that you are scientific. If you speak of an acanthopterygian, it is plain that you are not discussing perch in reference to its culinary merits; and if you make an allusion to monomyarian malacology, it will not naturally be supposed to have reference to the cooking of oyster-sauce.

Like many other meritorious things, however, Greek nomenclature is much abused. The very reverence it is held in—the strong disinclination on the part of the public to question the accuracy of anything stated under the shadow of a Greek name, or to doubt the infallibility of the man who uses it—makes this kind of nomenclature the frequent protector of fallacies and quackeries. It is an instrument for silencing inquiry and handing over the judgment to implicit belief. Get the passive student once into palaeozoology, and he takes your other hard names—your ichthyodorulite, trogontherium, lepidodendron, and bothrodendron—for granted, contemplating them, indeed, with a kind of religious awe or devotional reverence. If it be a question, whether a term is categorematic, or is of a quite opposite description, and ought to be described as suncategorematic, one may take up a very absolute positive position without finding many people prepared to assail it.

Antiquarianism, which used to be an easy-going slipshod sort of pursuit, has sought this all-powerful protection and called itself Archaeology. An obliterated manuscript written over again is called a palimpsest, and the man who can restore and read it a paleographist. The great erect stone on the moor, which has hitherto defied all learning to find the faintest trace of the age in which it was erected, its purpose, or the people who placed it there, seems as it were to be rescued from the heathen darkness in which it has dwelt, and to be admitted within the community of scientific truth, by being christened a monolith. If there be any remains of sculpture on the stone, it becomes a lythoglyph or a hieroglyph; and if the nature and end of this sculpture be quite incomprehensible to the adepts, they may term it a cryptoglyph, and thus dignify, by a sort of title of honour, the absoluteness of their ignorance. It were a pity if any more ingenious man should afterwards find a key to the mystery, and destroy the significance of the established nomenclature.

The vendors of quack medicines and cosmetics are aware of the power of Greek nomenclature, and apparently subsidise scholars of some kind or other to supply them with the article. A sort of shaving soap used frequently to be advertised under a title which was as complexly adjusted a piece of mosaic work as the geologists or the conchologists ever turned out. But perhaps the confidence in the protective power of Greek designations has just at this moment reached its climax, in an attempt to save thieves from punishment by calling them kleptomaniacs.

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