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Essay Two: Verbs of Thinking and Speaking
Verbs are the workhorse of our language. They take you places; they help you to express degrees of emotion, from ecstasy to depression; they allow you to say precisely what you want to say at any moment. In this chapter I will explore five verbs that help us express our opinion about something. They are aver, avow, allege, surmise and opine. These verbs run the gamut from statements that you affirm as true to beliefs or even speculations you may have about something. Several of them also have considerable “play” in them, making it more important than ever for you to know the range of their meanings. I will spend most attention on an overlooked but very useful word—aver.
You remember, I hope, the following scene from the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s house just landed in Munchkin Land and inadvertently squished the Wicked Witch of the East. All that remains are her zebra stockings and the glittering ruby slippers. As Dorothy gets her wits, she is greeted by Glenda, the (good) Witch of the North, who acquaints her with the habits of the little people of the land. There follows one of the more endearing scenes in film, where a parade of Munchkins expresses their gratitude to Dorothy for delivering them from the clutches of the evil Witch. The music then changes, and a grave figure, so to speak, emerges: the coroner. In solemn song, with trilled “r’s” and determined look, he chants the following 13-second song:
“As coroner, I must aver. I thoroughly examined her. And she’s not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.” (1)
(1) See the story on the 91 year-old Meinhardt Raabe, who played the coroner in the 1939 film, who now lives in retirement in Florida [He has since died]. The story appeared in section 1 of the New York Times, February 18, 2007.
One web site has called this death notice “the most repeatable, unbeatable death announcement ever recorded.” (2) When he says, “I must aver,” he means that he is pledged to say what is true. The Wicked Witch indeed is dead. A coroner’s duty is, in the first instance, not to determine cause of death but simply to declare, without equivocation, that a death has occurred. This he does, and his use of the little word aver carries the weight of his statement. As Meinhard Raabe, the man who played the coroner, says:
“For the past 62 years, you can't believe how many people have asked me what 'I aver' means. It is simply the legal equivalent of 'I swear.'" (3)
The word aver is closely associated with the idea of truth. It is derived from two Latin words, ad which means “toward,” and verus, which means “true.” We have a slew of words in English with the “ver” root, all of which have something to do with truth (e.g., verity, verisimilitude, verify, veracious, veridical). Thus the word aver, literally, means “toward the truth.” Over the years it has taken on such fine shades of meaning as “to assert the truth of,” “to affirm with confidence,” “to prove to be true,” or “to assert the existence of.” In every instance, however, aver has the “ring” of truth. As the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms has it,
“Aver suggests complete confidence and certainty of truth.” (4)
(4) Published in 1984, p. 68.
You are often called upon to express the confidence of your state of knowledge of something. If you are sure of it, don’t say, “I am sure of it.” Say, “I aver.” The verb takes either a direct object, the infinitive “to be” or the word “that.” You can say “I aver that the paper was completed on time” or “I aver the paper was completed on time.” Something can be averred to be a calamity or a good fit or an appropriate response.
The coroner in the Wizard of Oz wasn’t the only one to use this term. Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address (March 4, 1861), was confronted with the immense challenge of seceding states. He famously articulated the difference between the country’s two regions as follows:
“One section believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended.” (5)
Just before this statement, he quoted a resolution from the 1856 Republican Convention, and then said:
“In addition to this, I aver that, to my knowledge, no sub-division, or individual, of the Republican party has ever avowed, or entertained, a purpose to destroy or to interfere with the property of the Southern people.” (6)
(5) Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, p. 258. The works are online, and you can get to the works simply by doing a Google search on the title.
(6) Ibid. Note that at this point in his career, he had not resolved on the strategy which would be announced only 18 months later, of an emancipation of the Southern slaves.
Lincoln is stating a matter of the most solemn and deliberate truth. Lincoln is not the only man of his time who used the term. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the great English romantic poet, used it in his lengthy Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In that poem, a captivating mariner takes the arm of the next of kin of the bridegroom (the man is about to go into the wedding) and tells the riveting tale of a wreck at sea and the loss of the entire crew except himself. One of the memorable events in Part I and early Part II of the Rime is the coming of the Albatross, a large sea bird, to accompany the sailors. For some unexplained reason, the Mariner shoots the bird. This was a dastardly thing to do.
“And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!” (7)
(7) Part II, lines 9-14. Text is here:
All swore to the fact that the mariner killed the Albatross. Other examples of aver could be cited, but this should suffice to bring it to your working vocabulary.
Avow, Allege, Surmise, Opine
The verb avow:
“implies open and emphatic declaration and personal responsibility for the statement.”
(8) Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 84.
While aver stresses your commitment to the truth of what is said, avow emphasizes your fervid engagement with the statement you make. You are not so much emphasizing the truth of the matter, though you are probably committed to its truth. When you avow something you, as it were, own it, you acknowledge it, you admit it, you confess it. While aver focuses on what is being claimed, avow tends to focus on who is saying it.
Yet it still has a rather close association with what you believe to be true. Let’s return to Lincoln’s use of aver and avow in the same sentence, just quoted:
“I aver that..no individual…has ever avowed, or entertained..”
The key to Lincoln’s rhetoric is to understand how he uses adversatives or seeming lesser thoughts to cover the full panoply of options. “The world will little note, nor long remember…” (9). No individual has avowed or even entertained. None are committed to the proposition, nor has it even entered their minds.
(9) From the Gettysburg Address.
You usually follow avow with the word “that” or with the direct object, though it suffices to end the thought simply with avow. Samuel Johnson could say in 1778: “Many a man thinks, what he is ashamed to avow.” (10) Or, one could say, “the boldness with which he avowed his opinion.” One can avow miracles or one’s belief in the supernatural or one’s trust in the equity markets. A memorable use of the term comes from the preface to the King James Version of 1611:
“we affirm and avow…that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English. . . containeth the word of God.”
(10) Oxford English Dictionary (OED), avow, Def. 5.
(11) Quoted in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 84.
We recognize the legal setting of allege immediately when we realize it comes from two Latin terms suggesting movement towards and law. The OED presents a complicated lineage of the word, but suffice it to say that it includes two fields of meaning in our day. First, it means “to advance (a statement) as being able to prove it; hence, to assert without proof; to affirm.” This meaning of allege is what we might call one step short of proof, one rung down from the higher step of aver. A 1676 quotation shows its historical connection with truth:
“Who…will ever venture to allege any matter of fact that he is not sure of?” (12)
(12) OED, allege (2), Def. 4.
In the next century, Edward Gibbon, in his authoritative Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, used the word similarly: “Where much is alleged, something must be true.” An allegation, here, is a statement that is one step short of proof but is probably able to be proved.
Yet, that isn’t the end of the story. The term has evolved in our day and now can suggest a mere statement, with little connection to truth.
“It may on the other hand stress doubt about an assertion or convey a warning about or disclaimer of responsibility for the truth of the matter under discussion.” (13)
(13) Merriam-Webster's, op. cit., p. 19.
This is most prevalent when the form alleged is used. If we say something is an alleged miracle, we are saying that someone might believe it to be a miracle but we probably aren’t convinced. John Dewey, one of the great public philosophers of the 20th century, used the term alleged in this way:
“History shows that more than once social unity has been promoted by the presence, real or alleged, of some hostile group.” (14)
(14) Freedom and Culture (1939), p. 37.
Thus, we see a lot of slippage in the meaning of allege. What was once a word used to express something that is true but only lacks proof now only includes the notion of an assertion made without convincing substantiation. 'It is a mere allegation,' we say. We can use the word effectively to ward off accusations. When someone says that we have done something, we can retort, “She is simply alleging something.” By using the word you can effectively stop the rush to judgment by reminding others that is it “only an allegation” and that most searches for truth require an element of due process to them. Allege, then, can be a true friend.
Surmise has also gone through a considerable transformation since it was first attested in 1400. Derived from the Old French surmettre, which means to accuse, by the time of Shakespeare in 1600 and Dryden in 1680 it had evolved to mean “to conjecture, suspect” or “to infer or guess upon slight evidence.” Thus, its linguistic range includes allege, but the focus is more on the person doing the act of surmising than the truth or falsity of the thought. An example of the “guesslike” nature of surmise is from an 1835 quotation: “The Governor-General surmised a circumstance, which always seems to have animated him to peculiar severity.”
The noun surmise means the same thing as the verb. It is a guess, a conjecture, a suspicion of something. Two uses of it are arresting. First, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (I.3.140-142):
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not"
(15) Macbeth is speaking. He means, by "function," "my ability to act" is stifled by diverse thoughts and speculations.
Then, from one of my favorite poems--John Keats’ 1816 work On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer. His literary breath was taken away as he read this rather old, but new to him, translation of Homer’s Iliad. He describes the exhilarating sense of discovery he experienced in reading Homer’s words:
“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien." (16)
(16) Text is here:
The “wild surmise” was the men’s confusion, conjecture, guess, supposition of what this vast ocean portended. Surmise is a good and sturdy word, to be used when you have some inkling of something but you fall short of proof. You can’t really avow anything, and you certainly can’t aver it. But you can surmise; indeed, we seem to spend most of our life surmising.
Let’s finish this essay with a few words about an even less definite word: opine. In fact, opine has two usages, and it appears more in written than oral speech, though it is permissible to say “I opine.” On the one hand, the word is used synonymously with to think, suppose, consider or hold an opinion. It may or may not be based on evidence, though when one opines, one usually makes an inference from some evidence. The word opine is used to translate the Greek verb dokein in Plato’s Timaeus, probably his most useful dialogue describing the differences between types of knowledge. (17) It thus can be used to express an opinion without any real backing for it. From 1609: “Some opined, That they must goe by Arborosa.” Or, from 1866, “The clergyman would opine that he was a reprobate.” From the New York Times Magazine in 2000: The California slanguist, has no citation to offer but opines that ‘don’t go there started with black drug queens.’” Thus, we see the “iffy” character of opining.
(17) Pages 27-28 of the Stephanus pagination of the Timaeus gives a rich discussion.
Yet it can also be used to describe a thought of an authoritative body, such as a court or government official. Even though the opinion might eventually be shown to be wrong or irrelevant, it is uttered by a body or individual in a position of authority, and thus carries more weight than the voice of a single citizen. Thus, opine may or may not have a pejorative connotation. You can play on the uncertainty by creating a sense of doubt regarding the validity of another’s point. “Well, Jody opined that we would get raises this year” (and Jody is probably out to lunch). But then you can use the word with seriousness if you attach it to an authoritative body making a pronouncement. “The state economist opined that the job losses have finally been stanched.”
Not every word has scintillating precision. Yet, there is enough specificity here to give you several different and good ways of expressing your opinion on something. Always remember the Munchkin coroner, and you will be on your way.