February 19, 2005

The lingering furor and the deepening rift.

I've been following the NYT stories about Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers. Yesterday, it was "Furor Lingers as Harvard Chief Gives Details of Talk on Women," and today, it's "Rift Deepens as Professors at Harvard See Remarks." It's essentially the same headline, but I think it's funny how a "furor" becomes a "rift" and I like to contemplate the possible difference between a problem "lingering" and "deepening." I think there's more trouble in "deepening," but maybe it's just the metaphorically consistent word choice when you're going with "rift." Of course, a rift could also "widen." And I actually don't like "lingering" with "furor." A "furor" seems too turbulent and furious to just "linger."

See, this is why it takes me forever to read the newspaper. I really am interested in the substance of the article, but I think I am more interested in the words themselves. Oh, perhaps, it's that verbal thing women are born with....

Anyway. Let's actually read today's article:
A mood of uncertainty settled over Harvard University on Friday in the aftermath of President Lawrence H. Summers's release of the transcript of his contentious remarks last month about the shortage of women in the sciences and engineering.

Many people were parsing and debating the often dense and rambling 7,000-word transcript, a long-awaited document that quickly became a must-read on campus....

Ah, yes, I tried to read that transcript yesterday. It was dense or I was dense because I just couldn't get through it. Well, this is Harvard's problem. Now there are two groups of professors gathering signatures, one for a letter supporting Summers and one for a letter against him.

I get distracted by words again. Is it right to call his remarks "contentious"? Isn't it the faculty that's contentious? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, "contentious" can mean controversial, and is not limited to meaning quarrelsome. My digression leads me to this entry in the "Dictionary of Phrase & Fable" for John Lilburne:
If no one else were alive, John would quarrel with Lilburne. John Lilburne was a contentious Leveller in the Commonwealth; so rancorous against rank that he could never satisfy himself that any two persons were exactly on the same level....

“Is John departed? and is Lilburne gone?

Farewell to both -- to Lilburne and to John.

Yet, being gone, take this advice from me:

Let them not both in one grave buried be.

Here lay ye John, lay Lilburne thereabout;

For if they both should meet, they would fall out.”

I love the old "Dictionary of Phrase & Fable" (written by E. Cobham Brewer and published in 1898). Let's look up something else: "Furor"! I love that word, and I wanted to check and make sure it really was related to "fury" (it is). Here's the entry in the "Phrase & Fable" book:

Son of Occasion, an old hag, who was quite bald behind. Sir Guyon bound him “with a hundred iron chains and a hundred knots.” (Spenser: Faërie Queene, book ii.)

Having explored "furor," why not "rift"? I found this story about Virgil, which might perhaps give the Harvard professors some idea of what to do about Summers:
Virgil was wise, and as craft was considered a part of wisdom, especially over-reaching the spirits of evil, so he is represented by mediæval writers as out witting the demon. On one occasion, it is said, he saw an imp in a hole of a mountain, and the imp promised to teach the poet the black art if he released him. Virgil did so, and after learning all the imp could teach him, expressed amazement that one of such imposing stature could be squeezed into so small a rift. The imp said, “Oh, that is not wonderful,” and crept into the hole to show Virgil how it was done, whereupon Virgil closed up the hole and kept the imp there. (Een Schone Historie Van Virgilius, 1552.)

There, now, wasn't that perfectly innately feminine of me?

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