Mind your language

The inappropriate history of ‘ventriloquising’

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

‘What! No one told me,’ my husband shouted when I explained that the Hebdomadal Council at Oxford no longer existed (nor had since 2000). I don’t know why anyone should have told him, but I too regret its demise. Its title was high-sounding but meant no more than ‘a weekly meeting’. Indeed until an Act of Parliament in 1854, it was simply the Hebdomadal Meeting of heads of houses.

We’d got on to that because my husband wanted the vice-chancellor of Oxford to jail some dons for writing a rude letter about her in the Daily Telegraph. He thought the proctors’ men could imprison them, in the Divinity Schools or somewhere, pending trial. Their offence in his obscurantist fantasy was to accuse her of ventriloquising. ‘She draws on Mandela’s words, seven years after his death,’ they had written, ‘to defend colonial-era statues. This would be inappropriate ventriloquising in any context.’


My husband thought the dons had invented ventriloquising, and blamed them for it. But, in an article on the burning issue of civil marriage in Prussia, The Spectator for 27 December 1873 wrote of ‘a Church in which the Minister of State might ventriloquise through his instruments, the official priests’. In 1832, Coleridge had complained of Wordsworth ‘ventriloquizing through another man’s mouth’ by expressing his ideas through a character in ‘The Ruined Cottage’.

These figurative senses differ a little from the dreary dons’. Their metaphor suggested that the vice-chancellor had dug up Mandela, as it were, and made him speak words of his own that happened to agree with her opinion.

Ventriloquising is not always ‘inappropriate’. Shakespeare had ‘the extraordinary ability to ventriloquise and stimulate our current concerns’ wrote Emma Smith last year in her book about him. Here Shakespeare (some dummy) speaks on subjects that interest us, almost as though taking the words out of our mouths. That is different from putting someone else’s words in our own mouths, like the vice-chancellor. Her ventriloquising was to quote, in support of an argument. If that is marked down in Oxford, it must have a strange effect on degree results.

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