The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Rowan Williams, plunged into enormous controversy by saying in a radio interview and a lecture in early February 2008 that it is inevitable that some aspects of sharia law will have to be incorporated into UK law to accommodate our Muslim population. The lecture, at the Royal Courts of Justice before an audience of senior members of the legal profession, was a detailed and subtle academic argument, hard for a layperson to understand. Leaving aside the issues he raised and the reasons for the immense criticism he has since been subjected to, his half-apology to the meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England this week raised a linguistic issue.
He said, “I must take responsibility for any unclarity and for any misleading choice of words that has helped to cause distress or misunderstanding among the public.” Unclarity? Every journalist, broadcaster and cartoonist who quoted that sentence has focused on the word through some sort of emphasis. This may have been because it is rare. But why didn’t he use confusion or obscurity? Was it a scholar’s diffidence or was he trying to euphemise his error by means of a terribly British type of negative? I’m sure that it was the former and that he undoubtedly meant unclarity literally, an utterance that lacked clarity. But its history suggests its users often prefer it to retain a penumbra of imprecision.
It was employed in the sense of a deliberate attempt to confuse by hoaxer Alan Sokal, who wrote the famous fake article Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in Social Text in 1996. He was quoted in Scientific American in March 1998: “‘It took me a lot of writing and rewriting and rewriting before the article reached the desired level of unclarity,’ he chuckles.”
Unclarity has a longer history. It’s recorded in Webster’s Dictionary in 1934 and would therefore seem to be even older still in the US. Though it is most frequently encountered in the academic environment in which Dr Williams is most comfortable, it turns up surprisingly often in popular fiction. John Le Carré used it in Smiley’s People in 1980: “‘Vladimir telephoned the Circus at lunch-time today, sir,’ Mostyn began, leaving some unclarity as to which ‘sir’ he was addressing.”
Another example is in Ghost Ship by Diane Carey, a work from the Star Trek fiction franchise, dated 1988: “To offer unclarity in place of another unclarity — to replace ignorance with ambiguity — is this my only service?” That might be a message for Dr Williams.