The World of Books – by the Books Editor

The World of Books – by the Books Editor WB Yeats

The poet Yeats (to distinguish him from the painter Yeats) was of the opinion that ”Words alone are certain good”.

And so they are, but only if we know what they mean, and use them properly.

The other day, in discussing the consequences of a burglary, a friend remarked to me that the Civic Guard who was investigating the crime seemed ”quite disinterested”.

As a good citizen I should hope so. Disinterestedness is what we have a right to expect from our public servants.

For, of course, my friend did not mean ‘disinterested’ at all. He meant ‘uninterested’.

It struck me that this confusion of words and the concepts for which they strand, revealed a lot about the state of the world today.

What is the difference between these words? ‘Uninterested’ means to have no interest or special concern with some matter or person. It is an indication often enough of complete indifference and boredom.

‘Disinterested’, however, is quite different. This indicates that a person acts towards some matter or person in an altruistic way, that they have no personal interest in them in the sense of deriving a benefit from them.

We talk of TDs interests in the sense of those activities outside of their public position from which they derive a financial or other kind of benefit; from what they also own (such as Mr Kenny’s now famous four properties). Interest on a deposit in a bank account is a benefit we derive from usury, and so on.

However, to be ‘disinterested’ is to act for the common good, or the good of an individual, without any concern of deriving any personal immediate benefit, aside I suppose from the simple Christian pleasure of aiding someone.

‘Disinterest’ implies altruism, not boredom or indifference.

It seems to me that the now common confusion of these words demonstrates that over the last quarter century or so we have lost a sense of the public value of altruism. Indeed we have lost any sense of the notion of altruism.

The English administrator Sir Richard Titmuss once wrote a book called The Gift Relationship. It was about blood donation — but his insight could as well be applied to organ donation.

He observed that in the United States, where blood is commonly a commercial transaction, with hobos and down-and-outs selling their blood to clinics just to survive, the blood was as often as not of very poor quality, being often tainted with infections. This was the source of the devastating Hepatitis-C crisis here in Ireland some years ago.

In Britain and Ireland, where blood is donated altruistically by disinterested people, it is of the best quality. These people are making a gift to others for a common good.

These days, as blood and organ donors dwindle, it has been suggested that even here such people might be paid, replacing the ‘gift relationship’ with a simple commercial transaction. This would be quite in keeping with the attitudes of greed and personal gain, of the promotion of self-interest above all things, that has brought us to our present sorry state.

Where did my friend’s verbal confusion come from? I suspect it was from the United States, where most of the corruptions of our language come from — ‘ball-park figure’, ‘behind the curve’, ‘three strikes and you’re out’, and so on.

The usage is seen as analogous to ‘like’ and ‘dislike’, and akin to the American use of ‘flammable’ instead of the English ‘inflammable’, on the analogy of ‘secure’ and ‘insecure’.

Careless use in conversation and by politicians — whose main aim is to avoid clarity of statement — is to blame only in part. Far worse is the misuse of the words by lazy commentators and journalists — not of course in The Irish Catholic, where such solecisms are never passed by the sharp eyed copy staff.

This widespread indifference to the correct use of words displays an indifference to truth, which has infected the bloodstream of discourse in the body politic.

This is not a matter of mere pedantry, as my friend thought when I remarked on his confusion over the two words. It is a matter of respect for truth and meaning, without which we as individuals, and as a community, are lost, and without which literature of any kind becomes a fraud.

We should take care in conversation, in speaking, and in writing that we try to use the right word in the right place. Then perhaps, in the best of all possible worlds, only then might ”words alone be certain good”.