Knowledge vs. Pedantry

Tony Judt, reply by Sam Abrams
In response to:

Words from the July 15, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

It is truly discouraging to see, in a column by Tony Judt about sensitivity to language, “inchoate” used as a synonym for “chaotic” [“Words,” NYR, July 15]. Although this solecism is quite common, it still pains the ears of those few of us who are sensitive to the etymological resonances of English words. Didn’t Professor Judt learn Latin at the fancy school he went to?

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”—Tom Paine

Sam Abrams
Rochester, New York

Before his death on August 6, Tony Judt replied as follows:

Like most people of your kind, you assume too much: regarding both what I wrote and what you are qualified to infer. “Inchoate” means: “Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature” (OED). And that is just what I meant—the words begin to form but do not complete. If I had meant to say that they were “chaotic” I would have said so.

At the “fancy school” I attended (my education cost precisely nothing from the age of five to twenty-four: what about yours?) I was taught Latin, but also how to distinguish between knowledge and pedantry. I am glad to say that forty years later I can still smell the difference at fifty yards.