Musing about Peccavi and Twitter and accessibility

I was born in Calcutta, the city that served as British India’s capital for the majority of the Raj years, born a bare ten years after India gained independence from the Empire. British India was still very much a part of people’s lives when I was growing up, with tales, often apocryphal, of unusual events and traditions.

One of the Raj “traditions” that used to make me laugh was the insistence that the First Secretary of the Bengal Government could not see visitors until after he’d fiinished the day’s Times crossword. Never proven, but fun to think about, particularly if you were in a queue in Writers’ Building.

There were many apocryphal stories; one set (of three stories) in particular was of considerable interest to me, given my passion for words and puzzles.

  • Charles Napier, when capturing the province of Sindh in 1843, was meant to have sent a telegram with just one word on it: Peccavi.
  • Colin Campbell, similarly, is meant to have sent one that just said Nunc Fortunatus Sum when he arrived in Lucknow.
  • And, to complete the set, Lord Dalhousie is credited with sending just Vovi when annexing Oudh.

Peccavi. I have sinned. Nunc Fortunatus Sum. I am in luck now. Vovi. I have vowed.

There are many arguments as to whether any of these events actually happened, with people focusing on particular angels and particular pins. For example, it is said that a 17-year old girl named Catherine Winkworth wrote in to Punch to say that Napier should have said Peccavi, and that the Punch cartoon published in May 1844 was directly as a result of the letter, that Napier never said it.

I don’t know the answer, there is no evidence that Napier actually sent the telegram. But there is evidence that Napier was born in Whitehall, that he went to school in Celbridge in Eire, a place with a history of 5000 years of habitation, a place that had a school since 1709, that “Ireland’s richest man” then, William “Speaker” Conolly, built his mansion there at the turn of the 18th century. So there is some likelihood that Napier was educated enough to have said it. As I study the other pronouncements attributed to Napier, I tend to have some sympathy with the view that he actually sent the message, even if Miss Winkworth did write a letter a year later.

For the purposes of this post, it doesn’t actually matter whether Napier said it or not. What matters is the accessibility of the story.

In the past, the Peccavi story would only have made sense to people who understood Latin and who had a facility with Empire history and geography. A limited set of people.

Today, if Napier were alive and he used Twitter to send his message, he could have sent one that looked like this:

This ability to compress context and associate it with communication is critical. It is an example of what David Weinberger was referring to when he said “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchies”.

The implications for accessibility should not be underestimated. In the past, Peccavi was an “in” joke amongst well-read people. Now, it can be shared by all, with links providing the context and background required to “understand the joke”.

I think this is a big deal. It is one of the reasons why the web is different, the ability to associate content and communication with compressed context.

14 thoughts on “Musing about Peccavi and Twitter and accessibility”

  1. Although, it is possible that Navier might have done the opposite–kept it an in-joke a la 4chan with a reference to a highly obscure meme. Or resorted to a suitably arcane internet acronym.

    But I like your imagined situation better!

  2. Interesting artcile. But if you reduce the boundries to entry then the “joke” losses the only thing that made it funny in the first place. The exclusiveness of boundries impossed by the need to be well-read enough to get “Peccavi.”


  3. JP:

    I differ slightly.

    There may be more inclusivity on the web but there is the great exclusivity of those not “webbed” yet.

    It is the human condition. When it all gets “too inclusive”, “too well understood” we yearn to find ways to differentiate, to exclude. Within Oxford, there is Bullingdon; within Iranians, there are Persians and so on. We seek to stand out, not be anonymous.

  4. When it comes to finding the most appropriate and most pithy phrase, being multilingual helps too. English is a language that typically uses a lot of auxiliary verbs and modifiers, resulting in short messages that typically have many short words. But Latin and many languages have far greater diversity of verb form, so it is much easier for one short “word” to represent the complete subject-verb-object-tense idea that requires expression. So texts I receive are increasingly littered with bad transcriptions as well as bad contractions. Tik bolechi?

  5. Thanks for all your comments. Lary, Shefaly, the point I was trying to make was slightly different. In the past the *only* people to “get” the reference or pun or joke would be the in-crowd. Today the in-crowd still get that, they don’t need to climb into the hyperlink holes. If others (who would otherwise not be able to get it) chose to climb into the hyperlink holes then they can. That is the inclusion I was looking for.

    @rana I think we will see more and more terms from other languages come into the language; in the same way as the Raj gave English many many terms: Shampoo, verandah, bungalow, Blighty, chokey, cushty, just to name a few…. the web and social tools will add to the language word set

    Steve, the opposite is only possible when there was no limit to the number of characters or words used. Or no cost associated. Fable cables sound like they must have been sent by civil servants.

  6. Clearly, there has developed a distinctive “text style” within the last decade – in the same manner as the distinctive “telegraph style” of the 19th century – we all know this uses particular common abbreviations, removing vowels and replacing letters with numbers, hideous to me but obvious to many. I think the new insight here was that by incorporating certain “foreign” words into short text messages, a complete phrase can often be expressed in a single short word – in cases like “peccavi” very appropriately. And even if we don’t all get the lingo, then use of hyperlink can make the message clear to all.

  7. I realise it does not affect the point you are making about language and the internet, but as someone connected with telecommunications I think you should note it was not possible to send a telegram in Sind in 1843. I think I must have been told about the “Peccavi” story at school. Last year I recounted it to someone, and as soon as I had finished, it struck me how implausible it was. Regardless of how good a classical education Napier may have had, is it likely after a bloody battle, he would have turned his brainpower to composing a one word Latin tag to let the world know of his victory, and one with a double meaning at that? Perhaps he had thought of it before and was just itching to show off his brilliant mind.

  8. (I began this before seeing Richard’s post above.. so the first part simply expands on the key point he made.)

    Such a telegram from Napier in 1842 would have been impossible. The simple fact is that the telegraph was just then being developed in England and America 9Morse’s famous demonstration came in 1844), and would not reach the subcontinent till the 1850s. And if the telegram is held to have been sent to London the problem increases since the lines connecting India & Europe were not in place till ca. 1865.

    Another difficulty with the story is that Ellenborough’s ordering the taking of Sind was counter his commands and caused some consternation in Britain. (As a result the traditional vote of Thanks was delayed for two years.) Such a joke would have been most out-of-place under the circumstances.

    On the other hand, the reading of the joke as a veiled criticism is plausible on the face — it explains both the wordplay and the obviously negative implications of the Latin word. (Attributing it to Napier requires reading it in as almost cynical — perhaps not outside Napier’s character, but all the less likely to be included in an official communication reporting a dubious action.)

    As for Winkworth herself, I would not be surprised at her doing so, as her ability with words is well-known. She is best-known for her translation of numerous German chorales into English. These versions, which are often the “standards” in English hymnbooks, played a major role in popularizing Lutheran chorales in English-speaking churches. (FWIW, if you check, you’ll find she was indeed 17-years old at the time this letter is said to have appeared.)

  9. Bruce, thanks for the comments. It helped me understand more about the context and about Napier per se.

  10. Thanks for an interesting read. I only heard of Catherine Winkworth today. I think it’s probable that Napier would have known enough Latin to make a similar pun. If Kipling is to be believed, Latin was a common enough subject at school.

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