Knowledge vs Pedantry

In the readers’ letters page of  the current issue of the New York Review, a bad linguist called Sam Abrams writes to complain about the use of the word inchoate in an article by Tony Judt. Here is Mr Abrams’ text:

To the Editor:
It is truly discouraging to see, in a column by Tony Judt about sensitivity to language, “inchoate” used as a synonym for “chaotic”. [Words, NYR July 15th]. Although this solecism is quite common, it still pains the ears of those few of us who are sensitive to etymological resonances of English words. Didn’t Professor Judt learn Latin at the fancy school he went to?

If Mr Abrams had written this snotty put-down about my use of inchoate, I might well have replied with a long essay about why Latin etymologies cannot determine 21st century English use. I would have insisted that I don’t need anyone to teach me what inchoate means, and I would have told him that the sooner he and his ‘sensitive to etymological resonances’ ilk shuffle off this mortal coil, the better for us all. In short, I would have been immoderately cross.
But Professor Judt’s reply to Mr Abrams, which the NYR prints immediately below the complaining letter, is so measured, so elegant and so perfect in its absolute crushing of this smug pedant, that I reproduce it in full for your admiration.

Like most people of your kind, you assume too much: regarding both what I wrote and what you are qualified to infer. “Inchoate” means: “Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature” (OED). And that is just what I meant– the words begin to form but do not complete. If I had meant to say they were “chaotic” I would have said so.

At the “fancy school” I attended (my education cost precisely nothing from the age of five to twenty-four: what about yours?) I was taught Latin, but also how to distinguish between knowledge and pedantry. I am glad to say that forty years later I can still smell the difference at fifty yards.

Tony Judt was an internationally renowned historian and Professor at New York University. He died on August 6th 2010,  just a few days after writing this reply to Mr Abrams. He had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2008 and by the time of his death it had completely paralysed everything except his mind. He was a remarkable man whose obituary you can read here:


5 thoughts on “Knowledge vs Pedantry

  1. I first came across ‘inchoate’ many years ago when I used to teach banking law. The Bills of Exchange Act 1882 talks of ‘inchoate instruments’. Not a word I can ever recall using in conversation.

  2. I would have enjoyed Mr. Judt’s elegant put-down more if I could be quite sure what "kind" Mr. Judt believes that Mr. Abrams belongs to. I have a feeling that this exchange, on both sides, is motivated by the justified animus borne by people of Mr. Abrams’ kind, and mine, against Tony Judt. No doubt Mr. Judt reciprocated. And yes, I know Tony Judt was Jewish, alav hashalom..

  3. <HTML dir=ltr><HEAD> <META content="text/html; charset=unicode" http-equiv=Content-Type> <META name=GENERATOR content="MSHTML 8.00.6001.18975"></HEAD> <BODY> <DIV dir=ltr id=idOWAReplyText49888> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman"></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman">It seemed, and seems, very clear to me that the kind of person Tony Judt takes Sam Abrams to be is a language pedant, pure and simple. </FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=4>I have no idea what other ‘kind’ of person you think Mr Abrams is, or why you count yourself among them, and I am at a complete loss why Jewishness comes into it. Perhaps you can clarify?</FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=4></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=4></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV></DIV> <DIV> <DIV style="LINE-HEIGHT: 18px; WIDTH: 600px; FONT-FAMILY: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; FONT-SIZE: 12px" class=PosterousEmail></DIV></DIV></BODY></HTML>

  4. I did not mean to be obscure. Mr. Judt, who began his career as a Zionist, published an astonishing article in the New York Review of Books in 2003 calling Israel, as a Jewish state, a "dysfunctional anachronism." He not only denied Israel’s right to exist; he denied the right of any Jewish state to exist. This was published during the Second Intifada, shortly after the suicide bombings in Israel reached their height. The article is Olympian in its disdain–rather the same tone Mr. Judt adopted vis-a-vis poor Mr. Abrams. It is an example of the school of writing about Israel that attempts to demonstrate syllogistically that the state cannot survive because it is doomed to collapse under the weight of its moral contradictions. Much could be said about this particular form of moralism, but it always reminds of scientific demonstrations that the bee or the hummingbird cannot fly. it is also representative of the iron rule that Israel is most intensely attacked for the affront it poses to an ordered universe when it is most in danger. Unfortunately, Mr. Judt reacted to the justified criticism he received over this article by traveling down the Walt-Mearsheimer road of denouncing the sinister influence of the Israel lobby. Abrams’ pathetic attempt at a put-down of Judt’s education, combined with his ignorance of the dictionary meaning of "inchoate," is a tip-off that this is a politically-motivated attack. "People of your kind are not qualified to to understand me" is a peculiarly personal reaction to linguistic pedantry. While I cannot prove that I have correctly read the subtext, in fact I am quite sure.Mr. Judt was no moral hero, The hideous wasting disease that cut short his life did not elevate him to that status, any more than it was a judgment upon him–the opinion of more than a few pious Jews. But for my part I cannot honor him. .

  5. <a href="">Generic Viagra</a>it’s a useful article and I hate that people… a person who is too interested in formal rules and small details that are not important is a pedantry. We can’t ignore those elements, specially if they are professionals.

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