Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/February 1900/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


IT must be a matter of deep regret to all right-thinking men that there should have been during the latter half of the century now expiring so marked a revival of the war spirit. In the middle of the century it was thought by many that the world had learned wisdom from the terrible experiences of the past, and that with the development of international trade war would become an outworn mode of settling international controversies. How different a turn things were destined to take need not here be told. Coming to recent events, however, we may say that it is lamentable our own country could not have won by peaceful means whatever advantages it has secured by its recent war with Spain. Equally lamentable is it that Great Britain, the other great representative of Anglo-Saxon civilization, should at this moment be engaged in a still bloodier struggle over questions which it is hard to believe could not have been settled by negotiation. "Whence come wars and fightings among you?" is a question that was asked very long ago, and we do not know that it is possible to improve on the answer then given: "From your lusts."

We do not say that a nation should not resist to the death a distinct aggression on its liberties or its independence. We do not say that when horrors are being enacted in any part of the world force may not righteously be employed to arrest them; but it is clear to our mind that, in the present age, wars between civilized countries might be almost wholly avoided if more reliance were placed upon moral force and less rein given to the impulse to employ physical force. This is a matter for the people in any state enjoying free institutions to take to heart. Let every man in a time of national difficulty ask himself this question: "Do I personally want to have blood shed over this matter?" Or this one: "Am I personally indifferent whether or not this dispute ends in bloodshed?" If a nation or the majority of a nation wants to have blood shed over a dispute with another nation, or is indifferent as to whether that shall be the outcome, the discussion will be carried on in a very different spirit from what it would be if there were a pronounced aversion to such a result. With nations, as with individuals, everything depends upon the spirit and ulterior purpose with which a question is approached. The cases must be very few in which a great nation, safe itself from attack, might not, in any matter in which minor interests are involved, resolve within itself that it will not resort to war—that it will work, and continue to work, on moral lines, trusting that, if it has right on its side, it will in due time carry its point. If blood cries from the ground against the slayer, what must be the responsibility of those who heedlessly and ruthlessly give their voices for war, when patience, moderation, and disinterestedness would have better accomplished every legitimate purpose? Slaughter is slaughter, murder is murder, however we may seek to weaken their import by a conventional treatment. War is mutual murder carried on professionally and systematically. Yet the primal command still makes its solemn appeal to the human heart and conscience: "Thou shalt not kill." It is, unfortunately, only too easy to cultivate the military spirit in almost any nation, and the military spirit, it need hardly be said, is the spirit that seeks quarrels. To the military man war means excitement, emulation, reputation, promotion, subject of course to the possibility of injury or death. No one denies that deeds of heroism and self-devotion are done on the battlefield; but that men should acquit themselves nobly in the field is no compensation for the horrors of a war brought on by the predominance of the military spirit.

"'Great fame the Duke of Marlborough won,
And our good Prince Eugene.'—
'Oh, 'twas a very wicked thing,'
Said little Wilhelmine."

And every war is wicked and detestable that could consistently with national honor be avoided. When we say "honor" we do not mean "reputation." Reputation depends on the canons of judgment prevailing among those who presume to award it. In a dueling community a man's reputation might suffer by declining a challenge, but his honor would be intact if he declined from sincere unwillingness to do a wrong act. There is much honor sometimes in sacrificing reputation, particularly the "bubble reputation" that is won "in the cannon's mouth." Every appeal to the sword weakens the reliance placed upon principles of justice, and thus undoes a vast amount of the work of peace. When war is once set on foot, the national judgment is more or less blinded. True, it is the action of a majority of the people only—admitting that a majority wanted it—but who is uncompromising enough, when his country's armies are in the field, to proclaim that they are fighting in a wrong cause? A few may do it, but they do it at their peril. In all other matters a minority may censure with any degree of severity the policy of the majority, but not in the matter of a war once entered on. Yet how perverting such a situation is to right judgment, and how injurious an effect it must have on the rising generation, are only too apparent.

These reflections may not at first sight seem to have a very direct bearing on the interests for which this magazine is supposed to stand, but to our mind science, in the broad sense, has no function so important as that of settling the education of the young upon a right moral basis. No system of education deserves to be called scientific that does not place the idea of justice at the very foundation of human life. You can not do this, however, without making it a working principle, and without inculcating a belief in it as such. Applying the principle to national affairs, we see at once that a strong nation which desires to be just will take no advantage of its strength in its dealings with other nations. If it has a demand to make, it will make it simply in the name of justice, and cast no sidelong glances at its up-to-date battle ships or its well-equipped battalions. It will have unbounded patience with weaker communities, which, rightly or wrongly, may seem to think they have right on their side. It will not be ashamed to shrink from the shedding of blood. The "young barbarians" of our public schools are always only too ready to exalt might above right; but the judicious teacher into whom the true spirit of science has entered will seize every favorable opportunity for inculcating the great lesson that the moral law has a way of vindicating itself in the end, and that the inheritance of the earth has been promised not to the quarrelsome or the overweening, but to the meek. A generation brought up on these principles would be slow to make war, and their influence on the world would be in every way powerful for good.


The ordinary school education in language and grammar is doubtless responsible for the impression which we find existing in so many minds that, in all matters of verbal expression, there is some one absolute standard of authority to which it implies simply ignorance not to bow—some supreme court, as it were, empowered to decide for us what words we are to use, how we are to pronounce them, and what rules of syntax we are to follow. It would be difficult, doubtless, to impart to children or very young people the wider and more scientific view of language, inasmuch as they need, in the first place, clear guidance as regards usage rather than correct theory. The idea, therefore, with which they grow up, if their school studies take any hold upon them at all and if no wider culture comes to change their way of looking at things, is that some very wise man made an infallible grammar and another very wise man an infallible dictionary, and that no one need be in doubt in regard to what is orthodox in language who has access to these tables of the law. We have known grown-up persons to turn away with a very skeptical air, and a kind of look as if they had found out a weak spot in your educational armor, when they were told that really it was impossible to say which of two pronunciations of a word was right and which was wrong—that either might be employed without mortal offense against elegance of speech or good breeding.

A hidebound view of language tends so much to narrow thought on general subjects that it seems to us of importance that the true and scientific view of the subject should be brought forward whenever opportunity offers. Mr. William Archer, the well-known English critic, contributed an article not long ago to the Pall Mall Magazine which might be read with much advantage by pedants and purists, and all blind followers of authority. He takes the broad ground that language is a transcript, as it were, of life, and that as life widens and becomes more varied, language must do the same. It must reflect the fancy, the imagination, and the humor of the day, and not merely the fancy, imagination, and humor of past generations. If we want a language that is fixed and unalterable in its forms we must seek one that has ceased to be spoken by men. Even then we can not always get absolute decisions. Cicero is perhaps the best standard of Latin prose, but no competent critic would say that his writing was flawless. We know that grammatical questions were much debated among the ancients, and we have no doubt that many such questions were left unsettled. In a living language there must be unsettled questions. There is a constant struggle for life going on among the words and phrases with which men endeavor to express their ideas, and, at a given moment, it is impossible to say which shall prosper, this or that. The word or phrase that prospers—that commends itself, after adequate trial, for expressiveness, convenience, or euphony, or for any combination of useful qualities—will survive and become classic; the expression that has nothing special to commend it, beyond its novelty and slanginess, will probably pass, after a brief and partial currency, into the vast limbo of the unfit. All we can say of a word at a given moment is how far it has actually become current and what kind of society it keeps. What its fortune will be we can only guess. Just as in the financial world great fortunes are sometimes very suddenly made and names before obscure spring into world-wide notoriety, so, in the realm of language, a word of very uncertain ancestry and no social repute may assert its right to recognition and take its place among the best.

It does not follow from this that it can ever be a matter of indifference what words we use or what tricks we play with language, any more than it can be a matter of indifference what personal habits we adopt. Language is the clothing of our thoughts, and as such it may exhibit the same qualities which attach to the clothing of our bodies. It may be marked by neatness and propriety, or by slovenliness and want of taste. Some men are overdressed, and some affect over-fine language. Some go after the latest novelties in the tailoring world, and some after the latest slang, asserting thereby their resolution to be up to date. It is needless to draw the parallel further, but it is evident that there is wide scope in the choice of language for the exhibition of personal preference and personal character. We think it safe to say that the interests of a language, considered as an instrument of thought, will be best promoted by those who pay due respect to its established forms, and only countenance such neologisms as make good their claim to acceptance by supplying a real want. Mr. Archer, in the article we have referred to, states, and we do not doubt with truth, that the English language has been greatly enriched and strengthened by the fact that it has been spoken and written by millions of people on this side of the Atlantic, leading an intense and vigorous life of their own, under conditions very different in many respects from those prevailing in the mother country. The language moves with a freer step, beats with a stronger pulse, and assumes a more imperial bearing from the fact that it expresses the activity and sums up the life of the foremost communities of the human race in both hemispheres.

A great classical scholar not long ago wrote a letter to an English weekly newspaper expressing a very contemptuous estimate of the French language, as being only a degraded form of Latin. He thought it a great disgrace to the language that it had no better word for "much" than beaucoup, which, as he learnedly explained, came from two Latin words meaning "fine" and "blow." The most cursory examination of any language will show that it abounds in just such verbal devices. We do not in English put the words "great" and "stroke" together, but, using them separately, we say "a great stroke" of luck and of many other things when there is no question of "striking" at all. In the same way we would say "a great hit," when there is no question of hitting, except by remote analogy. Languages grow rich and flexible precisely by the adoption of such convenient combinations. What they may originally have meant becomes a matter of little moment when once they have become thoroughly accepted and thoroughly expressive. After they have become welded together, as sometimes happens, in one word, it is an advantage rather than otherwise if the separate meanings of their constituent parts become lost to all except the professional etymologist. As long as the separate parts retain their separate meaning some sense of incongruity will sometimes arise in connection with the use of the term. Thus to say "a handful of corn" is all right, but one might feel that it was not all right to say "a mere handful of men." Yet it would be futile to criticise the expression which has become idiomatic English. If the word "handful" had parted with its essential meaning as completely as say the word "troop" has, for all but etymologists, there would be no kind of incongruity in its employment for any small number or quantity whatsoever.

The scientific view of language, then, is that it represents the effort of mankind to use audible symbols for the expression of thought; that it follows the development of man's activity and enlarges with his enlarging knowledge, and comprehension of things; that while its object is essentially a practical one it gathers beauty with use and age, and begins to react on the minds of its makers; that its makers are the people, not the grammarians, these being merely its policemen, who, useful in general, are sometimes too officious; that great writers are the architects who felicitously arrange materials which the people have gathered and shaped, placing the best of such materials where they can be seen to best advantage; finally, that the language of each nation is its most precious possession, the record of its civilization, and the repository of all that is best in its moral and intellectual life, and that it is therefore the duty of all who make any pretensions to liberal training to watch over their heritage and, while allowing all reasonable scope for further development, to guard it by all means in their power against degradation and pollution. A great people will have a great language: when a language shows signs of weakness or declension, there is reason to fear for the civilization of which it is the expression.