Words are a dangerous thing

A campaign aimed at promoting the work of poet C.P. Cavafy by printing extracts of his verses on buses, trolley buses and the walls of metro stations all over Athens has triggered a plethora of reactions on social media and news sites, most of which have been sarcastic and highly critical.

Over the past few days, social media have been flooded by trolls distorting and digressing from the original message that the Onassis Cultural Center was trying to convey with its campaign.

However, most of the criticism has been drawn by the line “Haste is a dangerous thing.” In Greek, the word used for haste (“via”) can also mean violence, so the line could also be read as “Violence is a dangerous thing.”

Taken out of context – this particular line is from the prose piece “In a Large Greek Colony, 200 BC,” in which Cavafy writes: “Maybe the moment has not yet arrived. Let’s not be too hasty: Haste is a dangerous thing. Untimely measures bring repentance” – the line is a tautology and verges on the ridiculous: Of course violence is a dangerous thing.

But what the poet is referring to is not violence but haste, giving the line a much greater quality.

Standing alone in huge letters on buses and trolley buses with a cubist-style caricature of Cavafy’s face beside it, the line is given no context other than the overall catchy design, the vehicle, the urban landscape and the social and political conditions of 2013. The line is transformed into a slogan – and an incomprehensible one at that – even before it can be misunderstood or further fray the nerves of the people on the city streets.

The slogan is saying it’s own thing and it doesn’t matter what the poet was trying to say.

The fact is that the crisis has had a catalytic effect on words. How many words have made their way into our vocabulary to define everyday things and how many words have lost their old meaning and been given a new one? Just look at words such as reform, restructuring, responsibility, rights, center, extremes, happiness, vision, future and violence.

When words are redefined they are given additional weight and they are never neutral, and never were, as Lewis Carroll wrote: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less. ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”

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