When words can be very misleading

The World of Books

“Words alone are certain good,” the poet Yeats believed. But they can also be misleading, and in some situations, dangerous.

An example of this came to hand recently during my desultory researches for a book about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was in connection with controversies over the Boer War, of which Conan Doyle wrote the first popular history.

In 1902 Conan Doyle published a pamphlet The Cause and Conduct of the South African War. This was written to counteract the wave of anti-British feeling that swept the Continent

The war had ended officially in 1901, but the conflict dragged out in the veldt for a further while, before petering out. It was at this point that the wave of anti-British feeling that swept the Continent over the British treatment of Boers civilians, especially women and children left on the farms, who were moved into concentrations camps.

It was said that they were deliberately ill-treated. This was a claim often repeated in later years by Irish Republicans who spoke of the British “inventing the concentration camp”, which by the 1940s had become an image of totalitarian evil.


At one point the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Lansdowne, made a speech in London. But when this was reported in Paris and Berlin it caused great indignation. However, a commentator of the day pointed out that the versions of the speech published in those capitals were mistranslated. Not, he thought, in the French or German newspapers offices, but actually by the news agency in London which had circulated the story.

Sometime matters of great importance, matters of war and peace, life and death, depend on one single word.

In 1945 the Allies, or perhaps one should say, the United Nations issued an ultimatum to the Japanese government. They could surrender or face fearful consequences. The Japanese regime considered the ultimatum and issued an official response.

But the Japanese news agency, Domei, which reported this, mistranslated a word, mokusatsu, as meaning “ignore”, not as “withholding comment [pending a decision]”.

The allies, not realising that the Japanese cabinet was still considering the ultimatum, went ahead and dropped the first atom bombs at breakfast time on August 6, 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so ushering in the atomic age, and period of sustained fear around the world.

Cynics believe that the Americans would have used the bomb anyway, as they wanted to see how it worked. But whatever the truth about that here was a case where one single word wrought terrible and lasting evil.

Mixed idioms

Such misreporting is still with us. Agencies still catch at a sound bite and broadcast worldwide much to the dismay of the original speaker. An instance was the Pope’s speech at Regensburg where what was perhaps a maladroit expression, but one understandable in the academic context, was broadcast as a pontifical slight of Islam.

Pope Benedict even as Cardinal Ratzinger was not always well represented. As I recall (and I quote this instance from memory) towards a document which h issued from the Congregation of the Faith on the position of women in the modern world, there was a phrase “we despair of the family in modern times”.

It was clear that what was really meant was “we despair for the family in modern times”. Somewhere in the passage of the text from the original German into Italian then into official Latin and back into English, someone had got their idioms mixed.

What was intended as an expression of warm support became a near heresy, for the Church simply cannot despair of the family at all. But as people only read the commentary provided by L’Ossevatore Romano on such documents rather than the documents themselves no one noticed this laché at all.

Every day in the modern world in the almost spontaneous transmission of information around the world such errors, such disasters, must be more common that we suspect.

We should at all times keep in mind the maxim of an ancient Roman writer that our aim should be not to write so as to be understood, but that we should write so that we cannot possibly be misunderstood. It is good advice for us all.