Almost every style manual and grammar guide has a section on words often misused and confused, pairs of words such as canvas and canvass, imply and infer, conscious and conscience. You may hear people say, “He fell from his bike and lost his conscience.” One of my students once said to me: “Sir, yesterday I saw you at central station, but you were unconscious.”
These two words came to my notice again recently when I was listening to the swearing -in of our cabinet ministers. The oath has the phrase “faithfully and conscientiously execute...” I waited on their lips to hear them say “conscientious”. There were different articulations. I heard them come out with “consciously”, “consciently”, “consciencely”, and “consensusly”. There were several other close misses. In the marathon oath-taking by members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, the word conscientiously was omitted.
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Oath-taking is a part of the ritual associated with the inauguration of a new government in most countries of the world. Customs vary, but there is generally a statement or declaration, an administrator of the oath and a book such as the Bible or the Quran or the Constitution on which the oath is taken. When the oath is taken by a monarch, there may be the handing over of the insignia of royalty, such as a mace (Ukraine), or a sash or even a spear and shield (Tanzania). In most countries there is an option to swear in the name of God or solemnly affirm one’s commitment.
The main part of the oath is the declaration of allegiance to the Constitution. In fact this was the only promise contained in the oath passed by the first US Congress in 1789: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.”
Various synonyms are in use today: preserve, protect, defend, uphold, maintain, obey, observe and safeguard the Constitution.
Many other standard phrases can be found in oaths of different nations. “Without fear or favour, affection or ill will” is a stock phrase, particularly relevant to judiciary oaths. With this goes an assertion that no gifts have been given or received, and no kinship will be allowed to influence executive or judiciary decisions. In some countries, hand gestures are used to support the oath.
The US president holds up his hand as he takes the oath, and has the other hand on the Bible. In Hungary, the president-elect holds one hand over his heart, and with the other hand holds a corner of the national flag.
There are two formats in which oaths of office are taken. One is in the form of questions and answers: The administrator of the oath asks questions beginning with the words “Do you” or “Will you” and the oath is completed with the answer “I do” or “I will”. At the coronation of the British monarch, the Archbishop of Canterbury asks three questions. After responding to them affirmatively, the monarch walks to the altar and, with the hand on the Bible, says: “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.”
The second format is followed in the US presidential oath. The chief justice articulates the oath a few words at a time, and the president repeats the words. It is customary to add “So help me God” at the end of the oath. In the swearing in of India’s cabinet ministers, the president administers the oath by prompting with the word “I”. Actually, the “I” is part of the oath, and should be repeated by the oath-taker. But many ministers started with their own names without the pronoun.
What happens if the member advisedly or unwittingly makes a mistake in taking the oath? Does that invalidate the oath? On 20 January, Barack Obama stumbled while taking the oath, as the administrator of the oath had moved the word “faithfully” to the end of the clause. Obama paused, waiting for the correct words. But the second time, too, he was given the wrong prompt. Obama then repeated the oath retaining the first of the two errors. Can this oath stand? Though in substance and spirit the oath sounded right, Obama retook his oath the next day in the White House before a small group. A White House spokesperson said that since the Constitution had prescribed the words for the oath, they decided to retake the oath as a measure of abundant caution.
Closer home, 19 members of the Andhra Pradesh assembly took the oath again, as they had departed from the script in their first swearing in.
Oaths can be contentious too. Last week, the Israeli cabinet rejected a proposal from an extremist group requiring all Israeli citizens to take the loyalty oath, pledging allegiance to Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, democratic state. The last phrase itself is an oxymoron by any acceptable definition of democracy.
In 1935, the German public voted Adolf Hitler to absolute power. The day after this plebiscite, the oath taken by army officers and civil servants was amended to declare allegiance to the person of Hitler, and not to the Volk und Vaterland (“people and fatherland”). Some historians believe that the officers and men who plotted against Hitler for his war crimes failed to act as they felt bound by their oath of loyalty to him.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org