Page 6, 25th December 1970

25th December 1970
Page 6
Page 6, 25th December 1970 — Mumpsimus and Mr. Shah

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Mumpsimus and Mr. Shah


IHAD thought that this year was going to simply one more in which I failed to use in print my favourite word "mumpsimus." But what a Christmas present! As Saturday's One Pair of Eyes began

realised that at last my chance had come.

A mumpsimus — missing, I am delighted to say, from both the standard dictionaries that hover angel-like over my desk — is a word best explained through a story.

In days long ago they revised the words of the Mass (yes, even then) and where a corrupt printing had put Quod ore mumpsimus for the priest to say in taking the first ablution they changed it into the better Latin, but to some startlingly ugly. Quod ore swnpsimuY, So ugly was this to one old priest indeed that he stoutly declared: "Theymay do what they like, I shall keep my old mumpsimus."

He thus became one of the selected band of men, Lord Raglan, Lewis Carroll and Mr. Mackintosh among them. who have given a word to the language. A mumpsimus is something which, although discovered to be false, is still retained as true.

And Saturday's "One Pair of Eyes" began with an ingenious Afghan gentleman. long resident in Britain, nn

Idrics Shah, demonstrating with the aid of a wonderful, growing and grasping five -year old just this trick of continuing to speak of an ephelant even when more than a suspicion lurked in his mind that "elcpbant" was the more usual pronunciation.

From this endearing lad Mr. Shah went on to a less endearing phychologicaL statistician who had found (take it with a pinch of salt) that as many as one third of your human beings are incapable of altering an opinion despite factual evidence that it is false. Mumpsimus upon mumpsimus.

Mr. Shah. who I understand is by way of being a bit of a Sufi mystic, went on to demonstrate a wide variety of similar blindnesses he, as an oriental, had found among us westerners. A curious clutch of oddities he produced, some telling. some hard to see the relevance of.

There was an attractive South African journalist, Pat Williams, confessing that having spent her youth strenuously, and even a little dangerously, demonstrating against. the colour bar, when she first went to a no-bar country and was served in a shoe shop by a negro she found, such was her conditioning from birth, that she could hardly bear his touch on her foot.

There was Dr. William Setgin!. the distinguished prac

titioner of psychological medicine, always good for something startling, telling us that one third of the population in western countries is neurotic or at least obsessive, and adding that it is from these nuts that all the advances and discoveries come.

Or there was Marty Feldman telling us, I think, that we all wish to kick authorityfigures but rely on the cornediansto do it for us. I suppose Mr. Shah sees this lack of kicking in the western world as yet one more lost opportunity. Personally I beg to have reservations.

Then there was the matter of attention giving something I admit do not altogether see the relevance of. But the need for giving each other attention was, Mr. Shah assured us, the basis of civilisation and. he implored us to give each other more of it,.

If you give a person who is going on and on about a subject a little attention, he said, you will find their arguments becoming rational and calm.

He had mentioned Enoch Powell in another context, but suddenly the thought came into my head that at the price of a few articles closely considering some of his statistics we might gain vast stretches of unlooked for calm and rationality in our national life. There would be an unexpected bonus for 1971.

What else did we have? Well, there was the Case of the Four-minute Mile. That was Mr. Shah pointing out that until Roger Bannister ran a mile in that magic time no one had been able to do so, whereas now the feat was quite common.

We westerners, it seems, set up magic symbols and think of them as goals to be reached but all along what we are doing is building barriers against just those achievements.

And finally we come to the storyteller, Nasruddin, a Sancho Panza-like sage whom Mr. Shah has previously englished. Nasruddin. I gathered, is a great one for taking the unorthodox solution to a prob lent. And Mr. Shah, by way of illustration, had a number of simple western citizens failing to perform odd feats like balancing a glass of water over a bowl with the aid of three short twins because they had allowed themselves to be hidebound by the apparent terms of the test.

So let me end in a burst of riotous Christmassiness (and that's not in my angel dictionaries either) by telling you a Nasruddin story replete with camels and anyhow one wise man. It illustrates Mr. Shah's thesis too.

Once upon a time there was a patriarch who had three sons. Wishing on his deathbed to inculcate in them the ability to break out of artificial limits, he combined all his wordly goods into a herd of 17 camels and wrote a will.

When his son came to read this they found he had bequeathed to the eldest half of his possessions, to the next son he had left one third and to the Benjamin he had given one ninth. Desperate calculations followed, from which it emerged that 17 could be divided neither by 2, by 3, nor by 9.

Wild expedients like cutting innocent and tough-skinned camels into odd-shaped hunks were rejected. And then as the sons were puzzling still, who should come riding by but a wise man. They called on him to stop, and when he had got down from his camel they explained the difficulty.

The wise man smiled. "Allow me," he said "to put my camel in with your herd." At once the eldest son saw that half of 18 was 9 and he took that many camels. The second son took his share of six and the third son took the two camels that were one-ninth of 18. Then the wise man mounted his own remaining camel and rode off at a fast but dignified lope wishing all and sundry, no doubt, the heartiest season's greetings.

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