The best place to enter the linguistic and social-psychological rabbit hole this post is about to drag you down is with one of the best and most well-known XKCD cartoons — “Duty Calls” (#386):
Recently, on Facebook, Duty Called upon me once again (as it often does in that wretched hive of memes and misinformation). Someone was wrong on the internet, and by golly, I was going to do something about it!
Yes. I am that person. I am that joyless buzzkill who actually insists that people not post outright bullshit as if it were decent content. I am the person who reports the spam posts.
I am vengeance. I am the night.
Someone Is Wrong On The Internet
Anyway…here’s a screenshot of the image in the post that caught my joyless buzzkill eye a few days ago:
Now, if you don’t know any ancient Greek or even a little Latin, there is nothing objectionable here. It’s sweet, really. Look at all of those words for love! How nice! The dusty ancient folks sure knew how love worked, right? If, on the other hand, you’ve got just enough Greek to get by (c’est moi — although I’ve obviously got no French to speak of) and enough Latin to get in silly trouble (it me), this is…painful. It is painful for at least two reasons:
- Ludus is Latin, not Greek, and it is not a Latin word for “love” as such, as far as I know. It is a word for play or sport or training (and related concepts — see its entry in Lewis & Short). While Spartacus might have blurred the lines for us a bit, the ludus gladiatorius was a place where gladiators trained and “played” at their particularly violent sport, not where they got their fun little flirty love game on. A school for young children might also be called a ludus. The term can be used figuratively for a dalliance, but play is its primary sense.
- Pragma is Greek, but it’s not a word for “love” in ancient Greek, at least not if we take Liddell & Scott seriously. The closest we get to “love” in that good ol’ L+S entry is an instance in which the word is used as a part of a phrase to describe a love affair (where pragma constitutes the “affair” bit, not the “love” bit, of that phrase).
I’m not going to go into the failure to distinguish between ancient Greek and Biblical Greek and whatever the heck C.S. Lewis was doing in The Four Loves (which also frequently shows up as a source for Greek words for love in Google searches). Mentioning it all is enough pain for one day.
Because I cannot abide Other People’s Wrongness on the Internet (even though, frankly, I’m no classicist, I’m probably missing something, I probably should have let it go, and I’m likely to be seven kinds of wrong myself here), I promptly suggested a correction to the Facebook friend who had reposted this particular crime against All That Is Good And True In The World. Mission Accomplished!
There is, however, something more interesting to be found in this wee love list, in all its not-really-correct glory, and being a joyless (and possibly not as right as I think I am) buzzkill in the comments on someone’s repost of someone else’s post doesn’t quite capture it. It becomes visible when we try to do the responsible, scholarly thing and source the list in the image above.
Misattribution, Erasure, and the Corruption of the Discourse
So what happened here? Who is responsible for this ridiculous list of not-really-all-Greek-words-for-love? The college student’s go-to strategy, Googling “Greek words for love”, turns up an appalling collection of folks who just perpetuate the error, some of them with actual scholarly training and advanced degrees who ought to know better. On the first page of those results when I initially ran the search, only two sources actually came close to being something other than wrong: the Wikipedia entry on Greek Words for Love (!) and a post by Neel Burton on the Psychology Today blog, both of which refer to the original thinker behind this particular selection of words: Canadian sociologist John Alan Lee. In the usual way of the Wild, Wild Internet, Lee’s work seems to have been detached from its author and telephone-gamed into a misleading life of its own as a comment on ancient Greek love vocabulary by people who either simply didn’t know better, were too lazy to check for the original source, or trusted other, similarly ignorant or lazy folks.
This collection of names for love is actually drawn from the term set for a typology of what Lee calls “love styles,” using Greek and Latin words that he either borrowed or re-purposed as terms of art; the beginnings of the “love styles” discussion appear in his 1973 book Colors of Love, and the concepts are worked out elsewhere by Lee and others in both theoretical and experimental contexts. Lee was not reporting on the cultural norms, philosophical concepts, or linguistic practices of the ancient world. As he explains in an article on his typology that he published in 1977, he was developing a way to talk about human social, sexual, and emotional relationships, and he chose to use Latin and Greek words to do it for the purpose of conceptual and clinical disambiguation (or at least so he could sound more science-y in his Official Science Version of the typology written for Actual Scientists).
Interestingly, Lee asserts in 1977 that ludus is a word for love found in the works of Ovid. What I think is more likely the case is that Lee (apparently no more of a classicist than I am, and certainly not a Latin specialist) was familiar with Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (AKA The Art of Love), where Ovid doesn’t appear to use the word ludus to refer to love as such. Rather, Ovid talks at some length about love as a sort of play, and in that context he more frequently uses amor, not ludus, as a literal word for love, with the latter term used to modify the former. It’s at best a figurative usage that Lee takes up (“ludic love”). I don’t believe, however, that this implies or supports the claim that Ovid himself used or understood ludus as a word for love. It’s probably more accurate to say that Ovid treated some kinds of love as forms of play (not the other way ’round), and spoke of it in those terms (hence the figurative use of ludus to describe a dalliance or a flirtation). Lee himself was, in asserting this as a definition or usage drawn from Ovid, also accidentally perpetuating a misleading deployment of Ovid, and lending his scholarly cred to the error.
Of course, you probably shouldn’t quote me as an authority on any of this. I Am Not A Classicist, and I will happily bow to the expertise of people whose Latin and whose acquaintance with Ovid is better and deeper than mine. My scholarly cred here is certainly no better than Lee’s!
The above disclaimer is the point of this post, at which we have finally arrived.
Why On Earth Are You Trusting Me?
While it may seem hard to believe given everything I’ve already written above, I am ultimately less concerned with the language issues raised by this oddball little moment of Possible Internet Wrongness than I am with the way attribution failure and ignorance of the languages or subject matter at hand result in the propagation of errors and the erasure of original authorship over time. The Love Words example is of a piece with the case of poor Agnes Pratt and her constantly stolen poem and the apparently unstoppable mistaken identification of Jacobi’s portrait as Kant’s.
So much of human communication depends on some kind of trust. Scholarly communication in particular depends on its own variety of trust, characterized by research methods tested and judged to be reliable over time, dissemination procedures designed to check for the appropriate deployment of said methods, and elaborate educational credentialing systems designed to signal the likely presence of procedural and methodological trustworthiness. When library instruction focuses on training students to seek out “scholarly” or “reliable” sources, it often invokes the trust-mechanisms of scholarship as a shorthand for the quality (i.e. accuracy, rigor, etc.) of those sources. At the introductory level, we don’t talk at any length (if at all) about scholarship controversies or spend a lot of time on the sacred work of the good folks at Retraction Watch. We mostly try to steer students away from dodgy material spat up by Google and toward the less dodgy stuff in our collections (presumably selected to be there by virtue of the aforementioned signs and mechanisms of scholarly trustworthiness). Sometimes, both before and in college, students are taught other shorthands for trustworthiness (the “use .org and .edu and avoid .com” nonsense advice, for example, which I think is worse than useless).
Yet we can’t shorthand our way past the fact that even the existing scholarly record has its own little corruptions, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and outright errors, and that these little corruptions were there long before there was so fast and easy a way to spread them around as the internet. We need, somehow, to cultivate practices of judgment and habits of critical engagement with material that really do privilege better work over nonsense. We are hampered in doing so by the little fissures in scholarly trust that become chasms over time under the corrosive flood of repeated and popularized errors that are often given unwarranted trust because the searcher who comes across them isn’t yet competent to recognize the signs of error and doesn’t know where the edges of scholarly trustworthiness really lie.
Put another way: When our students turn to Google before they turn to CREDO Reference (for example) and find goofy nonsense, the real danger lies not in the flood of popular mistakes to which they’ve gained access. It lies instead at the intersection of ignorance and trust, at which stand many or most of the people who are Wrong On The Internet.