March 20th, 2013


Pseudodoxia Etymologica - Masterpieces and Schrödinger's Boggart

For years, I've been carrying around in my head, as one of those nuggety truths that are so pleasant to take out and burnish of a winter's evening, the fact that the word "masterpiece" may refer not only to the crowning achievement of someone's career, but also to the work that proves they have learned their craft, allowing them to slough off the name of apprentice. For a scholar, it's the PhD thesis; for a Shaolin monk (from my memory of 1970s TV) it's snatching the pebbles from his master's hand; for a joiner, a really nice cabinet. These are the pieces that prove their mastery and earn their membership of the guild - hence masterpiece.

Is this sense of "masterpiece" well known? Can I use it in a piece for undergraduates without having to stop and explain it?

In another part of the forest... it's well known that J. K. Rowling uses various creatures from folklore and myth, etc. Mostly, she uses them fairly "straight" - a werewolf in the Potterverse is much like a werewolf in most other places one encounters them, and is subject to the same rules. So why does she play such silly buggers with the good old boggart? This mischievous household spirit of the genus Poltergeist is hardly the most obscure - but when a boggart makes an appearance in The Prisoner of Azkaban it's quite different from its traditional manifestation, being described as "a shape-shifter [that...] can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most". No one knows what Rowling's boggart looks like when it is unobserved, making it some kind of cross between Schrödinger's cat and Room 101 - in fact, nothing like a boggart at all except in its desire to mischief humans. Yet now, to my students (and no doubt to their contemporaries the world over) that is what a boggart is. I find that regrettable - but also out of character for Rowling, who tends to play things fairly straight.

"A bruised reed, on which if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it"

So now we have the PCC's ruling on the Burchill affair. It reads, in summary: "No Individual could resent, Where Thousands equally were meant."

This is one of the main reasons why the PCC has always been a useless body. Things that would break the rules if you said them about a single identifiable individual you can say quite freely about a group of identifiable individuals. It's a bit like ruling that blowing up one person is against the law, but blowing up a coachload is fine. Nor is it clear that the problem will be fixed under any new regime, whether dreamt up by the government or by the press itself.