Shall not weary them

As I sort out papers with a view to submitting a tax return various items that had been stowed away earlier in the year are surfacing, among them an order for a dawn service on Anzac Day. While the observance of Australia Day in January falters, partly because Indigenous Australians understandably see it as Invasion Day, Anzac Day goes from strength to strength in a way few foresaw a few decades ago. Being part of a large crowd of all ages that has come together before an illuminated cenotaph in the dark to commemorate fallen soldiers is an unexpectedly moving experience. We joined in reciting the Ode, in the following form:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn…

It is not generally known that the last word sometimes occurs in the form contemn, meaning ‘treat with contempt’. Kipling uses it: ‘True, but thou art a Sahib and the son of  a Sahib. Therefore, do not at any time be led to contemn the black men.’ But the existence of two possible words raises the question of what strategies one might use to determine which was correct. Classical scholars, faced with alternate readings of a passage in their manuscripts, generally adopt the lectio difficilior, the more difficult or unlikely reading, on the principle that an unusual word is more likely to be replaced by a common one than a common one by an unusual one. On this principle, ‘contemn’ is more likely to be correct. And when you think about it, it gives at least as much sense.

The spelling of my surname can be settled in the same way. Faced with the possibilities of Moorhead and Morehead, the lectio difficilior is obviously the first form, which is therefore more likely to be correct. And it makes far better sense, for rather than having a swollen head, my ancestors lived at the head of a moor!

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