"We have not the word because we have so much of the thing"

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Ardian Vehbiu wrote to draw my attention to a passage in Matthew Arnold's essay on Heinrich Heine:

Philistinism! — we have not the expression in English. Perhaps we have not the word because we have so much of the thing.

Ardian wrote "I found this quote counter-intuitive and funny. (I like the idea of the Inuit having no word for snow.)"

Curiously, the OED gives this as the (chronologically) fourth citation in its entry for philistinism:

1793 Philistines 29 (title)    Rise & Progress of Philistinism.
T. Carlyle Sartor Resartus ii. v. 51/2   One ‘Philistine’; who even now, to the general weariness, was dominantly pouring forth Philistinism (Philistriositäten).
R. A. Vaughan Hours with Mystics II. xiii. i. 298   The Romanticists were‥the sworn foes‥of that low-minded, prosaic narrowness which Germany calls Philistinism.
M. Arnold Ess. Crit. v. 157   Philistinism!—we have not the expression in English. Perhaps we have not the word because we have so much of the thing.

However,  two of the three earlier quotes are self-consciously presented as calques of the German usage. The remaining one, the 1793 volume titled Philistines, is not entirely clear. The OED's "citation details" in this case yields only "Philistines · 1793", which is not very helpful. Searching for a work with that title published in 1793, the only thing I turned up was a pamphlet by Thomas Paine, whose title in full is The Philistines, or, The Scotch tocsin sounders: a scene at the Jacobin Club, in Blackguard's Wynd : to which is added an Hudibrastic chapter, containing the rise, progress, and downfal of the doctrine of the Philistines, the woeful catastrophe of their great Goliath, and the destruction of the hideous temple wherein his ignorant votaries worshipped him.

This seems not to have been written by the Thomas Paine; and it seems to involve a different sense of philistinism, though it's hard to tell from the evidence I could find.

The context of Arnold's introduction of the word is worth reading:

In particular, here's his explanation of the metaphor behind the word:

Philistine must have originally meant, in the mind of those who invented the nickname, a strong, dogged, unenlightened opponent of the chosen people, of the children of the light. The party of change, the would-be remodellers of the old traditional European order, the invokers of reason against custom, the representatives of the modern spirit in every sphere where it is applicable, regarded themselves, with the robust self-confidence natural to reformers, as a chosen people, as children of the light. They regarded their adversaries as humdrum people, slaves to routine, enemies to light; stupid and oppressive, but at the same time very strong.

I was especially interested in Arnold's quote from Heine's description of William Cobett, whom we saw here before as the polemical opponent of Noah Webster ("All verbal assassins speak in the passive voice", 10/13/2005):

Our Cobbett is thus for him, much as he disliked our clergy and aristocracy whom Cobbett attacked, a Philistine with six fingers on every hand and on every foot six toes, four-and-twenty in number: a Philistine, the staff of whose spear is like a weaver's beam. Thus he speaks of him:

"While I translate Cobbett's words, the man himself comes bodily before my mind's eye, as I saw him at that uproarious dinner at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, with his scolding red face and his radical laugh, in which venemous hate mingles with a mocking exultation at his enemies' surely approaching downfall. He is a chained cur, who falls with equal fury on every one whom he does not know, often bites the best friend of the house in his calves, barks incessantly, and just because of this incessantness of his barking cannot get listened to, even when he barks at a real thief. Therefore the distinguished thieves who plunder England do not think it necessary to throw the growling Cobbett a bone to stop his mouth. This makes the dog furiously savage, and he shows all his hungry teeth. Poor old Cobbett! England's dog! I have no love for thee, for every vulgar nature my soul abhors; but thou touchest me to the inmost soul with pity, as I see how thou strainest in vain to break loose and get at those thieves, who make off with their booty before thy very eyes, and mock at thy fruitless springs and thine impotent howling."

In any case, Arnold has certainly given us an interesting variation on the "no word for X" trope.


  1. Jay Lake said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 6:56 am

    Yesterday whilst at lunch at one of my usual places with one of my usual dining companions (a fellow SF novelist), I referred to him as a "Philistine" in mockery of the order he placed. The waiter began laughing and said, "Only you guys would come in here and use that word."

  2. F said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 8:25 am

    I assume the intuition is "we have no word for it because we have nothing to contrast it with/we think of it as default."

  3. Joseph said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 8:31 am

    In a similar vein, a line in Small Gods by Terry Pratchett goes something like this:

    "'Slave' is an Ephebian word. In Omnia we have not even a word for slavery."

    "No doubt. No doubt fish have no word for water."

  4. Skullturf said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:24 am

    At one point in time, there was no word for "heterosexual", "cisgendered", or "neurotypical".

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:30 am

    A cliché for this is "Fish have no word for water."

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:35 am

    One (perhaps the?) common explanation for the origin of "Philistine" in this sense is that it started in the jargon of German university culture, where it was more or less student slang for "townie." It's certainly possible that the Biblical light-v.-darkness notion expounded by Arnold was meant seriously in that context, given the all-too-common arrogance of the academic subculture when dealing with the wider world. But it also seems possible that the original usage was more or less jocose, with Heine/Arnold in subsequent generations losing that lightness of touch. Unless, of course, academic German lacks a word for "humorlessness" …

  7. Mr Fnortner said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:50 am

    Of course, fish have no word for bicycle or piano for that matter.

  8. Toma said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    But fishermen have 88 words for "bait."

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    Toma: But fishermen have 88 words for "bait."

    Or mud.

  10. Michael said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    Time is so relative:
    "Mortenson told the programme the discrepancy could be because the "Balti people have a completely different notion about time.""

  11. Adam said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    There's an English-speaking place where we don't have philistinism? Can I move to Arnold's World?

  12. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    I suspect there are whole categories of things we have no specific word for until something happens to change that. We settle for stock phrases or nonce phrases, and then suddenly we have philistine or yuppie, and somehow it sounds so right we adopt it whole-cloth. (Yes, I know the derivation of yuppie, but once it turned into a word qua word, there was no turning back, and that is my point.)

    What I wonder, though, is if the adoption of a word in this way might subtly change our understanding of the concept it represents. I mean, did the public perception of philistines or yuppies change every so slightly once we nailed the concept shut with a single word.

    Sorry, but it is a Whorfian sort of topic.

  13. KevinM said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

    Certainly that sense of "Philistine" was well established by 1834, when Schumann founded his magazine, the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik. In it, he wrote on behalf of the "Davidsbundler," a confederacy of artists who would fight philistinism as the biblical David fought the Philistines. Needless to say, this was more a concept than a formal organization, and its "members" tended to be personae of Schumann himself.

  14. Victoria Martin said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

    Only a philistine would accuse Heine of having no "lightness of touch".

  15. Matt said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

    Maybe we should all send a potato or two to the Quechua people of Bolivia – with so many words for potato* they must really need some!

    (it appears they have forgiveness in spades)

  16. Matt said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    Here's another repetition of the potato-word nonsense….


  17. John Cowan said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

    The last, though certainly not the first, word on the Philistines was written by the novelist James Branch Cabell in Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919). Here are two teasers, but beware of clicking on the link, because if you are anything like me, the next several hours will slip away from you unnoticed!

    From the Foreword to the 1926 edition (published after Jurgen had survived a prosecution for obscenity):

    But in Philistia to make literature and to make trouble for yourself are synonyms," the tumblebug explained. "I know, for already we of Philistia have been pestered by three of these makers of literature. Yes, there was Edgar, whom I starved and hunted until I was tired of it: then I chased him up a back alley one night, and knocked out those annoying brains of his. And there was Walt, whom I chivvied and battered from place to place, and made a paralytic of him: and him, too, I labelled offensive and lewd and lascivious and indecent. Then later there was Mark, whom I frightened into disguising himself in a clown's suit, so that nobody might suspect him to be a maker of literature: indeed, I frightened him so that he hid away the greater part of what he had made until after he was dead, and I could not get at him. That was a disgusting trick to play on me, I consider. Still, these are the only three detected makers of literature that have ever infested Philistia, thanks be to goodness and my vigilance, but for both of which we might have been no more free from makers of literature than are the other countries."

    And from Chapter 32, "Sundry Devices of the Philistines":

    So the Fields were captured by the Philistines, and Chloris and Jurgen and all the People of the Field were judged summarily. They were declared to be obsolete illusions, whose merited doom was to be relegated to limbo. To Jurgen this appeared unreasonable.

    "For I am no illusion," he asserted. "I am manifestly flesh and blood, and in addition, I am the high King of Eubonia [a place invented by Jurgen], and no less. Why, in disputing these facts you contest circumstances that are so well known hereabouts as to rank among mathematical certainties. And that makes you look foolish, as I tell you for your own good."

    This vexed the leaders of the Philistines, as it always vexes people to be told anything for their own good. "We would have you know," said they, "that we are not mathematicians; and that moreover, we have no kings in Philistia, where all must do what seems to be expected of them [emphasis added], and have no other law."

    "How then can you be the leaders of Philistia?"

    "Why, it is expected that women and priests should behave unaccountably. Therefore all we who are women or priests do what we will in Philistia, and the men there obey us. And it is we, the priests of Philistia, who do not think you can possibly have any flesh and blood under a shirt which we recognize to be a conventional figure of speech. It does not stand to reason. And certainly you could not ever prove such a thing by mathematics; and to say so is nonsense."

  18. Breffni said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

    The Irish have no word for jaywalking. Well, there's "jaywalking", I suppose, but it's rarely used and somewhat exotic; I'm still a bit hazy on the concept. For years I thought it had something to do with public nudity. It never occurred to me that there would be a special word for what I think of as "crossing the street".

  19. Ray Dillinger said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    I've usually heard "Philistine" or "Philistinism" used in the modern era as a slur on one's aesthetic tastes. It refers to someone who endorses or gleefully consumes goods which those of more refined tastes eschew. The words are used particularly when such consumption or the creation of such goods entails the destruction of things that the aesthetes of superior taste might have enjoyed.

    Of all the snowclones I can think of, the one about Fish having no word for water is notable as being the one which is completely true. Of course fish have no words for anything, so that doesn't mean much.

  20. Atmir Ilias said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

    1. Fillim /filim/ , noun
    the first part of something
    2. fillistar / filistar/ ;noun;singular maschulin -fillistari;singular feminine -fillistarja, plural masculine -fillistarët, plural femimine-fillistaret.
    someone who has started to learn or do something
    3. fillistar / filistar/adjective
    just starting to learn or do something.

  21. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 4:05 am

    Ray, I was speaking with a fish just the other day and I can assure you that you're incorrect.

  22. Anthony said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    W. C. Fields had no word for water, either.

  23. Ben Hemmens said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    The Inuit had to stop talking about snow in order to get rid of the anthropologists ;-)

  24. Acilius said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    This phenomenon should be familiar to anyone who is called upon to introduce students to technical terms in linguistics. For example, I sometimes have occasion to explain to classes the term "hyponym" in the sense "a word denoting a subcategory of a larger class." So, "desk" is a hyponym of "table," is a hyponym of "furniture," etc. They often respond with bafflement that it the word so uncommon, since the thing it names is so very common.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    I don't know how I missed Joseph's post when I was posting the same thing.

    @Ray Dillinger: For the pedantic among us, there are examples like "If fish could talk, they would have no word for water." See Social Progress and Small Change here. (There are fewer hits for this than I expected, even with some other wordings.)

    @Keith M Ellis: How many moves did it take you to checkmate him or her?

  26. Rod Johnson said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    "Desk" is a hyponym of "table"? I would not have said so.

  27. maidhc said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

    The French have no word for food.

    You have to use a different word when you're talking about dog food than when you talk about Chinese food.

  28. maidhc said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

    Here's another story about potatoes. Supposedly in the early 19th century a visitor to an Irish village asked one of the inhabitants "Don't you ever get tired of potatoes?" The answer was "How could a man get tired of eating?"

    I've noticed in Ireland that when farmers sell potatoes by the side of the road, they don't put up a sign that says "potatoes", it's always a specific type like "Banners" or "Queens" ("British Queens" only in the Six Counties).

  29. Keith said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 2:35 pm


    I think that here, you are contrasting the word "aliment" (here in the singular form, though in everyday use it is almost exclusively used in the plural) with the word "nourriture".

    In my experience, though, French uses at least three words for "food", and possibly four.

    – "aliment(s)",
    – "nourriture",
    – "bouffe",
    – "alimentation".

    OK, so "bouffe" is very informal, often pejorative, and would be considered vulgar in polite society, maybe akin to the American usage of "eats". "T'as de la bouffe?" could be translated as "Do you got some eats?"

    And let's not forget that the word "cuisine" can mean "kitchen", "cookery/cooking" or "[prepared] food".

    To the list, I could add a couple of others that I sometimes use, especially when I don't want small children to understand an overheard conversation: "victuailles" and "ravitaillement".


  30. marie-lucie said,

    April 26, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

    Keith, you forget the simple "manger", as in

    "On peut apporter son manger"
    You can bring your own food

    (as used to be written in some small, out of the way country bars where food was not necessarily obtainable – for instance, where Sunday anglers would bring a picnic lunch that they ate in the bar, while sipping the glass of local wine that they bought there).(This custom is perhaps obsolete nowadays).

  31. John Cowan said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    Maidhc: For similar reasons, you cannot go into an anglophone restaurant and order "meat"; you have to be more specific.

  32. Milan said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 6:25 am

    Byron came up with the same conceit in Don Juan, Canto XIII, stanza 101 (published 1823):

    For ennui is a growth of English root,
    Though nameless in our language: – we retort
    The fact for words, and let the French translate
    That awful yawn which sleep can not abate.

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