Words: Clarification

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER the motives of Sinn Fein's leaders when they ask for 'clarification', we need not conclude that they are being particularly friendly. This is, after all, a politician's word, a word of diplomatic exchange. It hasn't much to do with the soft answer that turneth away wrath.

How sad, though, to see a once noble word put to hard use. This one came from the Latin clarus, which also gave us the humdrum clear (as in 'Let me make myself clear'); but clarus was a more exciting word than that. The sound of the trumpet was clarus, as was the Mediterranean sun that picked out the fluted columns of temples; so was the character of good and famous people. The earliest instance of clarify cited in the OED is from 1340, when it meant 'glorify'. In the 17th century clarification was still a word for the transfiguration of Christ, when, says St Matthew, 'his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light'. Pastors called on their flocks to clarify their souls.

All of which is a long way from the world of telegrams and anger: these don't seem to have come into it until our own century. Now it looks as though the word's brightness has been permanently tarnished: an adequate word for what little it has to say, but a dull one all the same.

There may be hope for it yet. Poetry may come to its rescue. T S Eliot in the 1920s and 1930s took many banal and pompous words - the sort that Orwell, Gowers and Harold Evans keep on telling us to avoid if we want to write good prose - and gave them a glow they did not have before. This sort of thing (from 'Burnt Norton'):

What might have been is an


Remaining a perpetual


Only in a world of speculation.

But perhaps it takes an Eliot or two to work such magic.

There is a bit of romance left in clarification. You can still use it for what miraculously happens to butter and honey when you heat them.