Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Persiflage of Language

I have tried to avoid involvement in the Damien Hirst controversy. Mainly because I could disgrace myself with an uncontrollable outflow of profanity and derision. I was however taken with Robert Hughes's outflow of derision in his Guardian article of 13 September 08 concerning Hirst's upcoming Sothebys auction.

As I read the article my eye was caught by the word "persiflage". Initially I was taken aback by the use of a word containing more than two syllables by an Australian. But what did he mean by the use of this interesting word, as there seems to be more than one interpretation?


By now, with the enormous hype that has been spun around it, there probably isn't an earthworm between John O'Groats and Land's End that hasn't heard about the auction of Damien Hirst's work at Sotheby's on Monday and Tuesday - the special character of the event being that the artist is offering the work directly for sale, not through a dealer. This, of course, is persiflage. Christie's and Sotheby's are now scarcely distinguishable from private dealers anyway: they in effect manage and represent living artists, and the Hirst auction is merely another step in cutting gallery dealers out of the loop.

A quick Google produced a selection of definitions from reputable sources:-

1. Unabridged (v 1.1)
  • light, bantering talk or writing.
  • a frivolous or flippant style of treating a subject.

2. American Heritage Dictionary -
  • Light good-natured talk; banter.
  • Light or frivolous manner of discussing a subject.

3. Online Etymology Dictionary -
  • to banter
  • to whistle, hiss

4. WordNet -
  • light teasing

5. Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary -
  • to quiz, to whistle, hiss,
  • Frivolous or bantering talk; a frivolous manner of treating any subject, whether serious or otherwise;
  • Light raillery

Ah but which definition did Hughes have in mind when chose such a mellifluous word? Was he referring to his writing as banter (good humoured, playful conversation, To speak to in a playful or teasing way) or did he mean frivolous (unworthy of serious attention; trivia).

It's OK these word mongers using words of more than one syllable but are they using the word to clarify a point or to show off? Like so much writing about art there is a tendency not to use one syllable where you can use two or more. I appreciate a long word used correctly may save the use of many more smaller words but....................what do you think?

Whatever his intention my contention would be that he intended the interpretation "frivolous", for me that would sum up Damian Hirst and his work perfectly - "persiflage"! Or as an Englishman may say; frivolous, unworthy of serious attention!


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