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WORDS: Perceive

ANARCHISTS ARE targeting Railtrack, said a report in the Times, "and hope to play on the company's perceived unpopularity after the Paddington disaster". I was not at all sure what the Times's reporter meant by "perceived unpopularity". That everyone knew how unpopular Railtrack was? Or that people generally thought it was, but that he himself did not necessarily share their view? Perceived speaks with a mealy mouth. To say, as the Times seemed to be saying here, that "people think it is unpopular" is to commit a thumping tautology, since the popularity of a thing depends, by definition, on what people think of it. Or perhaps the Times meant that the anarchists, at any rate, perceived Railtrack as unpopular. That's the trouble with passives. "It was thought that the plan was too risky." Who thought that? Passives pass the buck.

Apart from that, perceive is a tricky word at the best of times. You can never be sure whether the person said to be doing the perceiving has actually spotted something or whether they only think they have. This ambiguity has often bothered philosophers. In the spring of 1772 Samuel Johnson, as reported by Boswell, had a political argument with Adam Ferguson, professor of pneumatics and moral philosophy (I did not make that up) at Edinburgh University, in which Ferguson said it was "surely of importance to keep up the spirit of the people, so as to preserve a balance against the Crown". "Sir," replied the sage, "I perceive you are a vile Whig. Why all this childish jealousy of the power of the Crown?" To Dr Johnson, who had vigorously dismissed George Berkeley's theory of the non-existence of matter as mere sophistry, it was obvious that if he, or anyone else for that matter, perceived something, it must be objectively true, though not everyone would have agreed.

Today he might possibly have used the word see - "I see you are a vile Whig." Some handbooks of advice to young writers, taking their cue from George Orwell and Sir Ernest Gowers, insist that short Germanic words are always better than longer ones derived from Latin (perceive is from percipere, to grasp). They would like to rewrite Shakespeare, who has Valentine's servant in The Two Gentlemen of Verona say to him: "Do you not perceive the jest?" (Boring modern translation: "Don't you see the joke?") I hate such reductionism. It impoverishes the language.

Johnson is always being accused of orotundity. However, he wasn't a lexicographer for nothing; he knew the meaning of words. His understanding of perceive may have been different from ours. It carried a certainty that it now lacks. But he knew exactly what he meant when he said that he perceived the Whiggishness of Professor Ferguson. He was implying that he saw through the professor's bien pensant talk of constitutional liberty and the rest. He was being perceptive. It was an active function of the mind, not a passive activity like mere seeing.

It's true that hardly anyone says or writes perceive now for fear of being thought pompous. That is rather a pity. But I wouldn't much mind if I never saw the adjective perceived again.