Lord Justice Brian Leveson with a summary of the Leveson report in central London in November 2012. The closing months of the year 2012 saw the escalating debate about the culture and ethics of journalism, following the report on the Lord Leveson inquiry. Photo: Carl Court/AFP (Carl Court/AFP)
Lord Justice Brian Leveson with a summary of the Leveson report in central London in November 2012. The closing months of the year 2012 saw the escalating debate about the culture and ethics of journalism, following the report on the Lord Leveson inquiry. Photo: Carl Court/AFP
(Carl Court/AFP)

A rule observed in the breach

A look at some of the ‘zingers’ produced by Robert Jay during his presentation on the findings of the Leveson inquiry

The closing months of the year 2012 saw the escalating debate about the culture and ethics of journalism, following the report on the Lord Leveson inquiry. Responsible citizens gave expression to their personal convictions on the issues raised during the inquiry.

Though the inquiry sparked serious discussion of major issues, it was not without its humorous interludes. The context was the presentation by Robert Jay QC on the findings of the inquiry. He had a unique style of expression. His vocabulary was “formidable" and he did not hesitate to put it on display. During the questioning he used some rare, low-frequency words, including propinquity, condign, nugatory, adventitious, adumbrate and recondite. The Guardian produced a video of this presentation and thought it prudent to show the words and their definitions on the screen to help listeners.

After this brief lexical pyrotechnics, the media wondered whether Robert Jay wasn’t the real star of the Leveson inquiry. This column looks at some of these “zingers" produced by the QC.

The first of these is a four-syllable word which will stand out in a sentence both by its sound and by its content. “Propinquity" means nearness, kinship, closeness. People remember it as used by Shakespeare at a crucial moment in King Lear. The king dismisses Cordelia from his presence, saying, “I disclaim all paternal care, /Propinquity and property of blood." The reference to blood is significant here; the play focuses on the flesh and blood relationship between father and daughter.

After Shakespeare’s time, the link with flesh and blood has receded and by the middle of the 20th century, the word assumed a spatial sense. This new meaning developed in America, and it meant moving close to the seat of power, represented by the president. Ian Fleming used this idea in the title of a chapter of the book Diamonds are Forever. Chapter 21 bears the title “Nothing propinks like propinquity". In the American context, this means that if you are close to the president you will be able to share some of his power.

When Robert Jay refers to “the excessive degree of propinquity to News International" on the part of the government and its individuals, the word represents the possibility of unethical collusion between politicians and the media.

“Condign" is a simple, two-syllable word, which came from Latin through Old French. The meaning was deserving, fitting, wholly worthy. By 1510, the meaning was virtually restricted to the phrase “condign punishment", with punishment matching the offence.

“Adumbrate" is a fancy word which means “give a faint or a general idea". In school we read about umbra and penumbra in the formation of an eclipse. Those words mean shadow, and have given us the word umbrella. Umbra is the root in adumbrate. If adumbrating was not good enough, the relevant points could be pellucidly set out. “Pellucid" is a synonym of lucid; it means transparent, easily understood, as in pellucid argument. It can also mean allowing light to pass through, as in a pellucid stream.

Perhaps the most unusual word in the list is nugatory. It is a legal term, which means inoperative, having no validity, of no importance. A nugatory trial is one which has not been brought to its normal conclusion, being terminated prematurely. “Deleterious" is the longest word in the list. In normal writing five-syllable words occur rarely. Deleterious means harmful, injurious to health, as in “deleterious effects of smoking". “Bailiwick" has echoes of its Middle English origin. It refers to the district of a bailiff, and figuratively to the sphere of operations of an official. The Leveson inquiry wanted “some of the decisions to be taken out of the bailiwick of ministers".

No wonder the Guardian video exhorted viewers to “learn to speak like Robert Jay QC".

V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and 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 are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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