Jacob Rees-Mogg is an elongated, nanny-fixated toff with a penchant for hard Brexit and double-breasted gentswear. His political and sartorial preferences repel me, but a language blog is not the place to critique the politics or dress sense of the pseudo-aristocratic anachronism known as ‘the honourable member for the C18th’. Instead I want to analyse his use of language, which I think shows he is not as clever as he or some of his admirers think he is, fully justifying that other label, ‘the stupid person’s idea of a clever man’.
First, his aptly named sesquipedalianism, or unnecessary use of long words. Rees-Mogg is in ‘the record books’ (or at least Hansard) for using the longest-ever word in the House of Commons: floccinaucinihilipilification. It means ‘act or habit of estimating as worthless’ and he claimed it “came to mind as it does from time to time”, adding revealingly, “it’s one of those words I’ve known since I was a schoolboy.” Well quite. But as any schoolboy sesquipedalian who ever grows up knows, using long words for the sake of it is neither big nor clever. It’s just showing off.
Pressed by fearsome non-mincer of words Andrew Neil on the precise Latin derivation of the 29-letter excrescence, Rees-Mogg was at a loss. But in a subsequent interview with Channel 4’s Jon Snow, he seemed stubbornly wedded to the idea that etymology is the best guide to a word’s meaning. Responding to Snow’s suggestion that the 2017 general election had been a ‘shambles’, he countered: “Hold on, you call it a shambles, you call it a butcher’s slaughterhouse. That’s what a shambles means, I’m surprised you don’t know, most uncharacteristic.”
In fact, according to the OED, shambles means ‘a state of total disorder’. It did once mean a butcher’s slaughterhouse, but that is now archaic except in place names. Rees-Mogg is guilty of what linguists call the etymological fallacy – the category error of confusing a word’s origin with its meaning. Meanings change over time, so for example awful no longer means inspiring awe, to orient is not to set towards the east, and when I am appalled by the likes of Rees-Mogg, I don’t literally go pale. Housed in a cognitive shambles of his own wilful misconstrual, our long-legged etymological stickler from Eton turns out to be a literal-minded simpleton, deficient in lexical understanding.
Rees-Mogg famously tweets in Latin. For all I know, he also farts in Greek, but as to the quality of the tweets, I never had the Latin for the judging. I do, though, have the English, and his tweets in our language leave something to be desired. On 28 August 2018 he portentously tweeted: “Trust in politics will evaporate if Brexit were not delivered.” What’s weird about this is the combination of a first conditional with a second conditional structure. He makes a real possibility – the evaporation of trust in politics – depend on one that is expressed as unlikely or hypothetical, the non-delivery of Brexit. And grammatically you can’t have it both ways. He should have written either Trust in politics will evaporate if Brexit is not delivered (first conditional, real possibility) or Trust in politics would evaporate if Brexit were not delivered (second conditional, hypothesis). We can and do ‘mix’ conditionals in English – but typically second with third, and almost never first with second. It’s simply not logical.
Maybe Rees-Mogg’s unorthodox formulation reflects some deep underlying tension between an awareness that trust in politics will evaporate whatever happens and his zealous desire for the non-delivery of Brexit to remain only ever a hypothetical possibility. Or maybe it just means that despite the most expensive education money can buy, he is not master of his own conditionals – or basic English grammar.
One of my fellow translators recently picked him up on Twitter for a hyphenation fail (translators are like that) when he characterised pro-remain protesters as “Bird brained”. It should, of course, have been Bird-brained or Birdbrained. Arguably such details are strictly for the pedants and language obsessives, if not the birds, but people’s view of language and how they use it tells us a lot about them. And in Rees-Mogg’s case, there’s a bit of pattern: a cursory proof-reader’s survey of his letter of no-confidence in Theresa May (16/11/18) reveals two comma splices and a couple of mispunctuated relative clauses to match. He might know which fork to use or button to leave undone, but not how to punctuate an Important Letter.
It wouldn’t matter so much if he didn’t present as linguistically proper and punctilious, when the reality is rather a mess. You feel he needs some kind of language nanny to soothe his split infinitives, tuck in his dangling participles and pick his dropped commas up off the floor. Linguistically, as in so many other aspects of his persona – the aristo, the democrat, the honest patriot concerned for the welfare of his fellow countrymen, the honourable politician, the penetrating Oxbridge intellect – he is not what he purports to be. He is essentially a sham. A schoolboy sesquipedalian, an etymological truther, a comma splicer with iffy conditionals: in language and in life, the man’s a damnable dud.