The Power of the Ellipsis

Anyone who has written for or about media, politics, or in fields like history know the power of the ellipsis to shave away important context. I came across this today when assembling some quotes on Churchill’s evolving views on employing terror as a matter of military strategic policy. Among them, one in particular is yet another demonstration of this.

I started with this quote, condemning terror polices, taken from a speech of his in parliament, as Secretary of State for War in the aftermath of the Amritsar Massacre in British colonial India:

“There is surely one general prohibition which we can make. I mean a prohibition against what is called ‘frightfulness.’ What I mean by frightfulness is the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or the whole country.” (1920)

I skipped his 1940 “and now set Europe ablaze” directive when establishing the British wartime SOE since it is a more complex case and made note of his often quoted 1942 statement:

“All the same, it would be a mistake to cast aside our original thought which, it may be mentioned, is also strong in American minds, namely, that the severe, ruthless bombing of Germany on an ever-increasing scale will not only cripple her war effort, including U-boat and aircraft production, but will create conditions intolerable to the mass of the German population.” (1942)

I then moved on to his famous post-Dresden 1945 statement in a draft letter he wrote:

“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. … The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.” (1945)

Now, almost every version of this quote I have seen online or in books, places an ellipsis before “The destruction of Dresden” and thus leaves us with the impression that Churchill was shocked at the scale of terror and that this is what lies at the heart of the justification for the “serious query” against terror bombing.

Now, let us fill in that quote with what has been removed:

“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. We shall not, for instance, be able to get housing materials out of Germany for our own needs because of some temporary provisions would have to be made for the Germans themselves. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.” (1945)

I would argue that this radically changes our interpretation of this quote. Churchill here points to the practical difficulties of running an occupation in a “ruined land” and the need to devote much needed provisions for the Germans – not an ounce of sympathy is shown in this full quote for the suffering of civilians or doubt shown for the moral underpinnings of terror bombing.

On a side note: am I missing other important quotes by Churchill for this little collection (related, for example, to 1920s Iraq, India, or during WWII with respect to bombing etc.?).

The Grapes of Canaan

“They inquired about the development of production in the light metal industry, like children asking the exact size of the grapes of Canaan.” – Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon

I now have a Russian aunt. Together with her son, from a previous marriage, she has added a wonderful new multi-cultural dimension to my trips back to my hometown in Stavanger, Norway, where I stay in my mother’s apartment just under my uncle’s house. I have enjoyed my many chances to talk to them both and learn more about Russia and Russian. This was made simple given the fact my aunt speaks fluent English and her son increasingly fluent Norwegian, even though the two of them have lived in Norway less than a year.

This summer, my aunt Lena’s parents, both doctors, visited from Russia. I met them first in my uncle’s garden, which they immediately – and spontaneously – assumed supervision of, and I took a liking to both of them immediately. They were both incredibly active, healthy, full of childish vigor, and curious about the country they were visiting.


Granpa Alex on the ropes, with my aunt Lena and cousin Max outside my uncle’s house in Stavanger, Norway.

Communication was always difficult, however, since I don’t speak Russian yet and neither of them speak any English. When my uncle and my aunt left for a week of vacation, my daily interaction with them mostly consisted of some dozen greeting related phrases of Russian I had learned, quick single word lookups in a Russian-English dictionary I had on my iPod Touch, and a few random German words we hoped the other would be able to understand.

We started with greater ambitions. I spent my first evening with the couple mostly with Alex, the father, and we tried to teach eachother some English and Russian, respectively, with the use of a well-worn phrase book he had brought with him from Russia:


Русско-английский разговорник

(Russian-English phrasebook)

Guessing from the first pages, it looks like it was published originally in 1957 and reprinted as late as 1991.

Most of the phrases were very basic and still good choices for a phrase book of this kind. “How are you,” and “I have a cold,” for example. However, in this small pocket booklet of perhaps 150 pages things quickly got more technical, with some fascinating entries which really have a classic Soviet appeal.

You can view a collection of my favorite pages from the book here, but here are a just few phrases that were included in this beginner’s phrase book:

-We want to see the new types of reinforced concrete (metal) structures)

-Show us the agricultural machinery.

-What is the capacity of the lathe?

-We should like to see designs of apartment houses (industrial buildings).

-What special combine harvesters have you?

-Are you a member of the National Farmer’s Union?

-We should like to meet some members of Parliament.

-What is the membership of the National Union of Railwaymen (the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers, the Amalgamated Engineering Union)?

Well Written History

The majority of the research is done. The sources have been found. The books and documents have been photographed or photocopied. Some of them have even been read.

I’ve got ideas. I’ve got outlines. I’ve got hundreds of pages of notes.

I have years of training in the destruction and dismissal of other people’s arguments. They call it grad school.

Now the time has come when I too must write – and not one of those research papers churned out in the day or two before the deadline arrives. I must write the dissertation. I am to write chapters that connect to each other in some logical fashion. Chapters. Even the word itself sounds like so many heavy links of metal to be hung around the necks of PhD students back from those green pastures they call “the field.”

I have seen them. They wander the campus with a pale look; the clank and rattle of their invisible burden almost audible as they walk. Nearby a third year history grad student might be seen skipping away, “I’m off to the archives!”

I forge my first link this fall. Getting a summer head start on my procrastination, this week I sat down to read a few books on the craft of writing, including a simple but handy book of “writing tools” aimed mostly at journalists and fiction writers. Reading through the short examples of good writing, I realized that I didn’t really know what good writing looked like in history.

Don’t get me wrong. In historiography classes, I have read plenty of “classic” works, from a full range of “schools” of historical inquiry and their most radical theoretical rivals. A year spent mostly reading in preparation for oral examinations brought me in close contact – “reading” wasn’t always the best description of what that contact consisted of – with hundreds of history books, but in all cases my eyes were trained on the content, not the form. The only times I really paid much attention to form was when some theoretically ambitious works were so frustratingly obtuse that one wondered how these historians who claim sensitivity to the subtleties of discourse could have nurtured such talent for linguistic slaughter.

I can think of plenty of works of history that took an approach I liked, had an argument that persuaded me, or simply benefited me in my own research. However, I am embarrassed to admit, I can’t name any history books that I thought were well written. That is to say, I have apparently paid so little attention to the writing of history at the level of phrase, sentence, and paragraph, and so much to the arguments and their support instead, that I now feel particularly naked as I go forward in my own writing.

Of course, I suspect good writing in history resembles good writing everywhere else. Surely many of the lessons of good writing taught in a journalism class, at a college writing center, or in Mrs. Gould’s seventh grade English class back in Aberdeen, Scotland are applicable to the writing of one’s history dissertation. I am also doubtlessly influenced by the rhetorical strategies and sentence structures of at least some of the hundreds of works that I have read in the past few years. Hopefully that influence is partly born of an intuitive recognition of quality. Even if that assumption is flawed, it is too late for me to revisit those blissful days of wide secondary source reading now. But if I get a chance to speak to incoming grad students in my last two years in the program, perhaps in the form of a wailing spirit in the night, I think I will advise them to pay closer attention to the language of historical works; to occasionally wield the eyeglass, and not merely the sword when they confront the works both in their own fields and the broader historiography.

Eco and Defamiliarization in Reverse

I am a huge fan of Eco. One of the many things I love about his work is the way his historical fiction does not stop at building an “accurate” portrayal of the physical universe of whatever time period his story takes place in, but works to accomplish the far more difficult task of building an alien intellectual universe in which religion, ideas, and ways of thinking differ from our own, or in which material objects have entirely different meanings for those who interact with them. On every page you can feel his enthusiasm for playing with long lost categories, and helping us all come closer to understanding the rich world of his characters. You can see this in all his fiction, including the three I enjoyed the most The Name of the Rose, Baudolino, and The Island of the Day Before. One day I hope to make use some of his techniques in some fictional writing of my own. For many readers, who feel overwhelmed by the detail and long discussions of obscure topics, it turns them forever away from his writing, but for others, such as myself, his passion filled writing has the capacity to ignite a curiosity and excitement few writers can match.

Today I was delighted to come across a passage in which he talks about this aspect of his work:

…the only essay I have ever written on the semiotics of the theater begins with the story of Averroes. What is so extraordinary about that story? It is that Borges‘s Averroes is stupid not in personal terms but culturally, because he has reality before his eyes (the children playing) and yet he cannot make that relate to what the book is describing to him…Averroes’s situation is that of the poetics of “defamiliarization,” which the Russian formalists describe as representing something in such a way that one feels as if one were seeing it for the first time, thus making the perception of the object difficult for the reader. I would say that in my novels I reverse the “Averroes model”: the (culturally ignorant) character often describes with astonishment something he sees and about which he does not understand very much, whereby the reader is led to understand it. That is to say, I work to produce an intelligent Averroes.

As someone said, it may be that this is one of the reasons for the popularity of my fiction: mine is the opposite of the “defamiliarization” technique; I make the reader familiar with something he did not know until then. I take a reader from Texas, who has never seen Europe, into a medieval abbey (or into a Templar commandery, or a museum full of complicated objects, or into a Baroque room) and make them feel at ease. I show him the medieval character who takes out a pair of glasses as if it were completely natural, and I depict his contemporaries, who are astonished at this sight; at first the reader does not understand why they are amazed, but in the end he realizes that spectacles were invented in the Middle Ages, this is not a Borgesian technique; mine is an “anti-Averroes model,” but without Borges’s model before me I would never have been able to conceive of it.”1

  1. Eco, Umberto “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence” On Literature, 127-8 []

Quotational Quarantines

As historians, we often engage in the liberal use of quotations to sanitize and quarantine distasteful terms or phrases that lend legitimacy to a category or a way of referring to an institution or other body. The use of these quotes, which I confess to frequently using, presumably robs such terms of their nomenclatural power and further serves to establish distance between us and the ideas and terms we enlist to talk about the past.

Finally, use of these quotation marks excuses us from having to spend time analyzing the terms themselves, putting them aside as if to say, “Yes, yes, this is a very inappropriate term that needs careful and sensitive discussion, but since I’ve a lot to do in this essay, I just can’t be bothered at the moment to deal with it.”

Some people seem to feel that the aesthetic impact on one’s work is such that the frequent use of quotations is just not worth it, or perhaps feel that we simply aren’t accomplishing anything useful by using them for direct translations or referrals to terms as they were used decades or centuries ago. However, not using quotations or confronting problematic terms can earn the ire of book reviewers, as I discussed in a response to a review of the book Collaboration by Timothy Brooks. Brooks was criticized for used the term “pacification teams” to refer to the units the Japanese called “pacification teams” in occupied China during the war even if he is anything but sympathetic to the Japanese in his book.

One strategy is to use quotations once, and then announce that you won’t be using them anymore. I came across this tactic today when reading a Chinese translation of an essay by Matsuda Toshihiko, called 日本帝國在殖民地的憲兵警察制度:從朝鮮,關東州致滿洲國的統治樣式遷移 (English title was listed as “The ‘Gendarme-oriented’ Police System in the Japanese Colonial Empire: The Transfer of Models of Rule Used in Colonial Korea to Kwantung Province and Manchukuo”) After putting Japan’s 內地 (the interior of Japan = Japan proper excluding its colonies) and terms like 滿洲 (Manchuria, 滿洲國 Manchukuo, the largely Japanese controlled Manchurian state from 1932-1945, often called 僞滿州 or the “puppet Manchukuo”) in quotations, he follows each with “一下省略括號” (“Brackets left out below”).

Another strategy that can sometimes be used, which is one I follow for some words like “traitors,” is to embrace a word and use it quite shamelessly in order to deliberately provoke the reader. In English, the word traitor has lost much of its punch of late – a good thing in my opinion – but still holds great power in many other places and languages. The discomfort generated by the word and the way it forces readers to think about what it really means is part of what I aim to achieve when I use the term. Far from wanting to contribute to the term’s legitimacy, my deliberate use of it is partly out of a kind of mockery, but more importantly out of a desire to help set the scene of the politically charged context in which it was used.

Though I can’t speak for them, I suspect something similar is being done in some other famous cases of this. Some scholars of Korean history have been strongly criticized for using words like “terrorist” to describe Korea’s national tragic hero Kim Koo. I suspect these same critics would have much less opposition to him be referred to by his popular nickname, “the assassin.” I really don’t have strong feelings on this issue and I don’t think it is as straightforward as my own case, but it raises some interesting questions. What if these scholars are also engaging in a dual process of linguistic mockery and deliberate attempt at reviving a historical scene? Should the word be off limits entirely, should it necessarily be accompanied with quotations, or are there alternatives? What I think escapes some critics of such scholars is that I believe at least some of them are using the word terrorist not as a way to conjure images of Kim Koo as a suicide bomber in a crowded market but, on the contrary, to show how the word terrorist has itself a history and potentially embraces a wide range of figures we might be less willing to unconditionally condemn. In doing so, they potentially open a space in which to critique the way the word has come to be used and what it now narrowly represents, as well as the wide range of activities and contexts it covered both in the past and now. Can we only engage in such a rhetorical technique through the use of quotations?

I’d be interested in hearing from other students and scholars about this. What strategies do others take when they are faced with the need or potential need to establish quotational quarantines? What conventions do you follow?

Script for Creating a Chinese Vocab List

The Problem: Let us say you have a list of Chinese words or single Chinese characters in a file. There are a lot of them. You want some easy and fast way of getting the pinyin and English definitions of that list of words or single characters and you want this in a format that can be easily imported into a flashcard program so you can practice these words.

Today I faced this kind of problem. There are lots of “annotator” websites online that make use of the free CEDICT Chinese dictionary but I have yet to find one which outputs a simple, and nicely formated (with all […], and /…/ stuff removed) tab delimited vocab lists.

I have recently been frustrated by the fact that I often come across Chinese characters that I haven’t learn, or, more often, characters that I only know how to pronounce in Japanese or Korean. I also am frustrated at the fact that I have forgotten the tones for a lot of characters I knew well many years ago when I studied Chinese formally.

Over the summer I want to review or learn the 3500 most frequently used Chinese characters, particularly their pronunciation, so that I can improve my tones and more quickly lookup compounds I don’t know.1

I found a few frequency lists online (see here and here for example) and I stripped out the data I didn’t need to create a list with nothing but one character on each line.2 Although it is an older list based on a huge set of Usenet postings from ’93-’94 you can download an already converted list of 3500 characters here.3

Since I’m not in the mood to look up 3500 characters one by one, I spent a few hours this evening using this problem as an excuse to write my second script in the Ruby programming language.

In the remote possibility that others find it useful who are using Mac OS X, you can download the result of my tinkering here:

Cedict Vocabulary List Generator 1.1

This download includes the 2007.8 version of CEDICT, the latest I could find here.4

How this script works:

1. After unzipping the download, boot up the “” applescript application. It will ask you to identify the file you want to annotate. It is looking for a text file (not a word or rich text file) in Unicode (UTF-8) format with either simplified or traditional Chinese characters or word compounds, one on each line.

2. This application will then send this information to the convert.rb ruby script which will search for the words in the CEDICT dictionary in the same folder, format the information it finds (the hanzi, pinyin, and English definition), including the putting of multiple hits for the same character/word within the same entry with the definitions numbered. It does not currently add the alternate form of the hanzi (it won’t add simplified version to traditional or vice versa).

3. It will then produce a new file with the word “converted” added to its name. It will create tab-delimited files by default but you can change this by changing this option at the top of the convert.rb file in a text editor.

4. Though this version of the script doesn’t do this yet, you may want to run the resulting text through the Pinyin Tone dashboard widget or a similar online tool such as the one here or here. That will get rid of the syllable final tone numbers and add the appropriate tone marks. I am having a bit of trouble converting the JavaScript that my widget and this site uses into Ruby so if anyone is interested in working on this let me know!

If the script doesn’t work: make sure you are saving your text file as UTF-8 before you convert. I am also having trouble when my script is placed somewhere on a hard disk where the path has lots of spaces. Try putting the script folder on your Desktop.

Note: If you don’t have Mac OS X but can run Ruby scripts on your operating system, you may be able to run my script convert.rb from the command line. It takes this format:

convert.rb /path/to/file.txt /path/to/cedict.u8

UPDATE 1.1: The script now replaces “u:” with “ü” (CEDICT uses u:).

  1. The top 3000 make up some 98-99% when their cumulative frequency is considered. []
  2. A few of the frequency lists I have seen have Cedict dictionary data included but not in a very clean format []
  3. I notice that there is a high frequency of phonetic hanzi for expression emotion in the postings and some other characters one doesn’t come across as often in more formal texts, I actually don’t mind []
  4. If you find a newer version (in UTF-8) put it in the same directory as my script and name it cedict.u8 []

Presidential English


“Let Obama teach you charming English”

Above is an advertisement at some kind of English academy near Chinese Culture University in Taipei. Somehow I don’t think this concept would have worked with our sitting president as a model.

Pinyin Tone Dashboard Widget

Icon.pngI’m happy to announce the results of a few hours of tinkering: The Pinyin Tone Widget. This OS X dashboard widget will take a series of Chinese pinyin words with tone numbers appended at the end of each syllable and will add the tone marks where appropriate (e.g. zhong1guo2 becomes zhōngguó).

Many years ago, before Unicode became dominant, I used a Microsoft Word macro written by a Chinese language scholar, James Dew, as the basis for making an old Mac OS 9 application that translated texts between various pinyin fonts that were floating around online. Later, I made an online script that could convert tone numbers into unicode tone marks. I was surprised to hear from various Chinese language instructors at a conference I presented at a few years later (2003) that many of them used the script regularly when preparing texts for their Chinese language classes.

The online script still works but there is a much more elegantly written online script which does the same thing written by a more skilled programmer in Taiwan named Mark Wilbur hosted on his site Doubting to Shuō. You can find his tool here: Pinyin Tone Tool.

My old PHP script is ugly by comparison to Mark’s compact javascript so I have essentially installed his script to work in an OS X dashboard widget. You can download the widget here:

Pinyin Tone Widget v. 1.02
Continue reading Pinyin Tone Dashboard Widget

That Very Special Day Has Arrived

Google Korea has offered something really special for this year’s offering on this very special date:

Google 사투리 번역을 소개합니다
Introducing the New Google Dialect Translation Service


If you read Korean, check out the hilarious webpage showing examples of translations between various Korean dialects, how to attach dialect “modes” for translation of dialects in Google Talk and an explanation of how Gmail will provide one click translations of those dialect filled emails into standard Korean.


I think the idea would be just as hilarious if Google Norway (as well as countless other localized Google sites in countries where there is a high degree of dialect variation) were to try it.

Code-Switching Spotting and Living Korean History

I spent the afternoon in a coffee shop mining footnotes of various secondary accounts of the violence in the autumn of 1946 (it is also known as the Autumn Harvest Uprising, the October People’s Resistance, the October Riot Incident, the October Rebellion, and the Taegu Uprising) to see if I have been missing anything.

I thought to myself, you know, it is kind of depressing to see how little is actually available in Korean sources, as far as I have been able to find out so far, and especially when compared to the wealth of materials of widely varying quality coming out on the various violent uprisings in South Korea in 1948 (Yŏsu, Cheju-do, and so on). Though American military materials abound, in general, I been somewhat underwhelmed by the relative lack of accounts of the 1945-50 period on the Korean side. The explanation I hear everywhere is that the devastation of the Korean War of 1950-3 is much to blame.

Just as I was pondering this problem, two elderly men sat down next to me and carried on a conversation. Although the loud espresso machine in the background made it difficult, I overheard some of their conversation and could recognize my favorite linguistic phenomenon:

わざわざ…followed by some Korean
しがつはつか(四月二十日)완전히…more Korean
근대おれは…more Japanese
すまないな, 지난번…more Korean
あれはね、…followed by Korean sentence.

Some excellent code-switching going on. Sentences seemed to only switch completely into Korean when discussion got fast or emotional, but would switch back to Japanese at the beginning of a new topic with Korean words sprinkled in here and there in the middle of sentences, and the middle of Korean sentences throughout the conversation would get a Japanese word here and there, as if for emphasis.

This is something I have written about here at Muninn on several occasions (A code switching family in Seoul, code-switching in Taiwan, Japanese-Chinese code-switching couple in Taiwan, Chinese-English code switching in a Harvard campus coffee shop). It was something I saw on a number of occasions in Taiwan amongst older Taiwanese though, with the exception of older Koreans speaking to me in Japanese (such the Korean war stories I heard from this gentleman and this retired policeman) I have been looking forward to finding the same thing in Korea, where I know it happens.

After listening for a few minutes, I took advantage of a moment of silence between the two elderly friends and jumped in, using Japanese. A delightful conversation ensued, which eventually ended up in exactly the kind of code-switching between Korean and Japanese that was going on before I joined in, but now with some English thrown in (one of the two had worked 4 years in the US) here and there as well.

Both learnt their Japanese as children, having completed primary school during the colonial period. They were 13 and 14 when the colonial period ended, and were both a small minority in a good quality school made up of mostly Japanese students. “One day, our Japanese friends suddenly told us they had to go to Japan because they lost the war,” said one, “to which I replied, ‘Why do you have to go to Japan? Weren’t you born here?'” One was born and raised in Taegu, but was now living and still working in Japan, while the other grew up in Seoul. I asked the man from Taegu if he remembers anything about the violence in the autumn of 1946, he said someone told him about seeing the corpses of policemen being dragged by ropes through the streets, but he didn’t see anything himself.

I asked them about their Korean war experience. The man from Seoul says that he and his family were kidnapped by North Korean militia and taken to a town north of P’yŏngyang and put into a labor team, and that he was held for 100 days. He said every day was a nightmare there, his mother praying for their survival every day. He says he has almost blocked every memory of the experience out, “When I close my eyes all I can see is an image of the 태극기 flag.” He said that he escaped with his family when the US troops reached the area in the autumn of 1950. He then walked back to South Korea. His friend sitting across the table said, “I have never heard this story! Why do you tell this stranger but you’ve never told me this story?” He replied that this was a really painful (つらい) memory for him and he doesn’t want to recall it (思い出したくない).

I told them the biggest obstacle for people like me studying the period 1945-50 is the lack of materials. Even if the memories are painful, I encouraged them both to write down their stories, and like the boom of Japanese publishing their memoirs and diaries of wartime experiences in Japan in the last few decades has done, give historians and younger generations a chance to hear their stories. One of the guys answered, “いや、韓国は日本じゃない。ここでは、そういうような書く문화がない。” (Korea is not Japan. Here we don’t have that kind of culture of writing) Is that fair? Perhaps that generation just needs a bit more time and a bit more encouragement?