Gordon Brown’s handwriting and spelling: is there a problem?

An interesting epilogue to the MacBride smear e-mails saga:  Gordon Brown’s personal letter of apology to Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP defamed in the e-mail, has been published in full-size facsimile by the Daily Mail in an article of 15 April by Ian Drury:

Prime Minister to Nadine Dorries MP

A post by John Sutherland on the Guardian’s Mortarboard blog speculates about whether this remarkable document reveals that our prime minister may be dyslexic. (According to his own mini-biography on the blog, John Sutherland is ‘Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL (“emeritus” being Latin for “scrapheap” and “Northcliffe” journalistic shorthand for “you cannot be serious”). He currently teaches at the California Institute of Technology and is the author of twenty-odd books…’)

The professor emeritus points out:

Any teacher, at whatever level, might have experienced a jolt of recognition on looking at Gordon Brown’s cacographic scrawl, drawing the astonished question: “Is the most powerful man in Britain dyslexic – and if so, how on earth did he keep it secret so long?” There were several misspellings in a handwritten note of some 70 words, including the addressee’s surname (“Dorres”), “politcal”, “knowlege”, “embarassment” and “advizer”. There was also the symptomatic cover-up of the dyslexic: the impenetrable handwriting, in which an odd guessed-at-but-wrong spelling can be tactically camouflaged.
It could, of course, have been an attack of stress dyslexia: something that typically afflicts pupils under the pressure of three-hour desk examinations. One spells best when one is relaxed. But it seems more likely that the inability of this most knowledgeable politician to spell “knowledge”or “political” is constitutional, not occasional.

(“Cacographic” is rather good, I think.)

There is also the worrying problem of the left-leaning slope of the prime minister’s handwriting, on which Sutherland recalls that when the handwriting experts were called in to examine the manuscript letter, “there was a lot of guff about the backward slope of the script indicating anal-retentiveness, paranoia, even incipient nervous breakdown.” But he concludes that:

The reason Brown writes as he now does is, one assumes, is that he changed his writing style after the terrible injury he suffered playing rugby in his last year at school. He now angles his script backwards the better to see it with his good eye, which he uses by swivelling his head sharply to the left. It is, however, implausible that his spelling was affected by the accident. But, take heart Britain. … Churchill was also dyslexic.

The Daily Mail article helpfully provided a corrected text of the Dorries letter for those of us who couldn’t decipher the manuscript version:

Print version of Brown letter

Part of the explanation for the deficiencies of this short letter must relate to Mr Brown’s rugby accident and the loss of the sight of one eye, as Professor Sutherland suggests. But it’s tempting to guess that another part of the explanation might be the prime minister’s profound aversion to making an apology, causing him to scrawl the letter in extreme haste and mental turmoil. Like the disastrous YouTube clip about MPs’ expenses, this dreadful letter surely ought to have been intercepted by a No. 10 private secretary or adviser with the discreet suggestion that the prime minister might consider re-writing it. Are they all so scared of him that no-one dares to save him from himself? What else are private secretaries for? Or is he surrounded by private secretaries and political advisers who are secretly quite relaxed about their boss’s apparent determination to self-destruct?   Perish the thought.


7 Responses

  1. Peter Harvey says:

    I was not aware that Brown had lost the sight of one eye. However, I did once work with a man who had had the same misfortune. It didn’t stop him being a perfectly good schoolteacher or playing a perfectly respectable game of squash.

  2. John Miles says:

    My one-time flight commander lost the sight of one eye through a wartime injury.
    It didn’t stop him being an exceptional pilot and an exceptional leader, or – when he left the Air Force -moving on to become a test pilot.
    He was also a reasonably good racing driver.

    Brian writes: I wasn’t suggesting — and AFAIK no-one else is suggesting either — that being blind in one eye has hampered Gordon Brown in his political career or in any other way: still less that it excuses any defects of character or performance that commentators profess to identify, whether or not convincingly. He seems to play a very respectable game of tennis, for example. In the present case, the eye problem was cited only as a possible reason for the backward-sloping hand-writing, perhaps the least of the prime minister’s current problems.

  3. John Miles says:

    And how about Mick Mannock?
    And Wiley Post?

  4. John Miles says:

    Post postscript.
    I’m ashamed to say I’d forgotten that my son has always been, for practical purposes, one-eyed.
    It doesn’t seem to have handicapped him in any way.

  5. Dave says:

    We live and learn.  Intuitively I would have expected “cackographic”, but evidently not.

  6. Peter Harvey says:

    Caco- is a Greek root meaning bad, found in cacophony for example. The graph root is also Greek. The word is not in the Concise Oxford Dictionary but is perfectly well formed.

    Brian writes: Yes: what little remains of my classical education had allowed me to work it out, too. ‘Cacography’ is in the big online OED:

    [perh. a. F. cacographie (16th c.), or ad. med. Gr. {kappa}{alpha}{kappa}{omicron}-{gamma}{rho}{alpha}{phi}{giacu}{alpha} = bad writing. The analogous {olenis}{rho}{theta}{omicron}{gamma}{rho}{alpha}{phi}{giacu}{alpha} orthography, {kappa}{alpha}{lambda}{lambda}{iota}{gamma}{rho}{alpha}{phi}{giacu}{alpha} calligraphy, and some of their derivatives, were used in classical Greek.]

    1. Bad writing; bad handwriting. (Opposed to calligraphy).
    1656 BLOUNT Glossogr., Cacography, ill writing, or a writing of evil things. 1760 SWINTON in Phil. Trans. LI. 858 The cacography of the Etruscans, as their rude and uncouth manner of writing is termed. 1864 BURTON Scot Abr. II. 297 The crabbed cacography of the original manuscript. 1864 Daily Tel. 28 June, The compositors made very light of cacography.

    2. Incorrect spelling; a bad system of spelling, such as that of current English. (Commonly opposed to orthography.)
    1580 BARET Alv. Let. E. We may still wonder and find fault with our Orthographie (or rather Cacographie in deed). 1655 Com. Hist. Francion I. iii. 63 His clerk used a certain kinde of Cacographie, that admitted a multitude of superfluous letters. 1633 C. BUTLER Eng. Gram. in A. J. Ellis E.E. Pronunc. 155 The cause of this cacography which causeth such difficulty is a causeless affectation of the French dialect. 1806 SOUTHEY Ann. Review IV. 8 The orthography or rather kakography of many of the names is French. 1820 Blackw. Mag. VIII. 318 A celebrated critic who sometimes condescends to amend my cacography.

    Hence ca{sm}cographer, a bad writer or speller; caco{sm}graphic, -al a., of or pertaining to bad writing or incorrect spelling.
    1838 Athenæum No. 3099 (1887) 383 A stupid series of cacographical errors. 1864 Even. Standard 29 Sept., The most remarkably ungrammatical and cacographical production. 1880 J. A. H. MURRAY Addr. Philol. Soc. 35 Before Norman cacographers spelt them with o.

  7. Dave says:

    My error was to think “cacography” might have been linked with cack-handedness, an apposite connection for some of us.

    You don’t have to find as scholarly a dictionary as the OED, interesting though the results are.  The edition of the COD I used as a schoolboy has “cacography”, though not “cacographical” or “cacographic”.  However, they can all be found in Chambers, Collins and the Collins Tournament & Club Scrabble Word List.

    Chambers gives several interesting words with the caco- root, eg “cacoepy”, bad pronunciation, “cacology”, also bad pronunciation and bad choice of words as well.  Odd that no one, sfaik, has used them in referring to G W Bush or John Prescott.

    Lastly, inveterate bloggers might like to think about “cacoethes scribendi”, a mania for writing or getting things into print.

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