Words: Turbulent

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The Independent Culture
The old soundbites are often the best. The Independent dug up a serviceable one last week from a former Bishop of Chelmsford who had once numbered Wesley Carr, the modernising Dean of Westminster, among his cathedral's canons. "Who will rid me," he is reported to have said of Dr Carr, "of this turbulent priest?" Yes, yes, we know it had been said before - rather more than 800 years ago, in fact - but it still has the punch, still gets the message across.

There are, however, difficulties about it. When Henry II came out with it in 1170 he was definitely out of order; the turbulent priest in question was the saintly Thomas a Becket, whose only sin was that he had refused to co-operate with his monarch, and who sounds as though he was not at all like Dr Carr. The other problem is that the king couldn't have said it anyway, because the word turbulent was not to be found in the Old English that was current at the time, and didn't arrive here until the 15th century, or perhaps even after that.

The quote must have come from a later chronicler writing in Latin; and indeed there is a perfectly good Latin word, turbulentus, which was used by the best authors such as Cicero, Tacitus and Pliny, and conveys just what Henry thought of the archbishop. This in turn came from turba, which meant a commotion, and also a mob. I used to think turbulentus came from the word for an unruly crowd, but it seems to have been the other way round, and was first used of the weather before being applied metaphorically to a demo.

Anyway, perturb was used by Caxton and Chaucer of people who disrupted the proceedings (where we would say "disturb"), while people who were personally upset were more likely to have said they were "conturbed", like the 16th-century Scots poet William Dunbar who confessed to being "conturbed" by the fear of death.

Turbulence used to be a popular word among poets. Shakespeare used it of the mobs he so despised, and that great 18th-century nature poet James Thomson reverted to the old Latin meaning and applied it to the weather, as did a number of fellow-versifiers. But there's not much poetry left in it now that the meteorologists have got hold of it and the rest of us associate it only with a bumpy ride in a Boeing. As for perturbation, I doubt if anyone uses it now, except for physicists and mathematicians with their "perturbation theory" (don't ask) - and you can't get much more prosaic than that.

Incidentally, I note that Dr Carr, who is said to be a great man for exactitude, was less than exact in one of his statements after last week's ruling against his organist. "We acknowledge," he told the Independent, "that we now have to introduce more modern financial controls ...", thus falling into the old trap that awaits those who use "more" with an adjective. Did he mean that the existing controls needed further modernising, or that they were modern enough but that he wanted more of them? Who knows? Probably, alas, both.