Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Dot Wordsworth

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Dot Wordsworth

Article excerpt

I had long associated the phrase trahison des clercs with the writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft, though I can't put my finger on examples in his oeuvre.

In any case, I wrongly presumed that trahison des clercs dated from the Middle Ages, when clerks in orders were the learned ones, like Chaucer's Clerk of Oxford, responsible for faithfulness to the knowledge they had. The old proverb went: Les bons livres font les bons clercs -- 'Good books make good scholars.'

But I now discover that the phrase goes back no further than 1927, when Julien Benda used it as the title of a book, translated into English as The Great Betrayal a year later by Richard Aldington, who turned more than 30 books into English in the 1920s, years before he got his teeth into T.E. Lawrence.

In America it was published as The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, which was ambiguous for those not already informed as to whether the intellectuals were betraying or being betrayed.

William Empson, in the poem 'Just a Smack at Auden' (1938), making fun of the poet who lent him the money to return from China on the eve of the second world war, gives the phrase as treason of the clerks: 'What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend? …

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