Television? No Good Will Come of This Device. The Word Is Half Greek and Half Latin

C. P. Scott? Kenneth Adam? Bernard Levin? Harvey W. Wiley? Ivor Brown? H. L. Mencken? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: While reading a book about woefully inaccurate predictions I came across a humorously incongruous statement about a wildly successful gadget:

Television? The word is half Greek, half Latin. No good can come of it.

British journalist C. P. Scott has received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: C. P. Scott (Charles Prestwich Scott) was the editor of “The Manchester Guardian” beginning in 1872. He relinquished the editorship in 1929 while continuing to work at the paper. He died a few years later in 1932.

The earliest germane citation known to QI occurred in “The Listener” magazine in 1955. Kenneth Adam wrote about his experiences as a neophyte journalist at “The Manchester Guardian” starting in 1930. Adam presented the words of C. P. Scott who described a groundbreaking invention worthy of a newspaper article. The term “cuttings” in the following excerpt referred to folders full of categorized articles clipped from periodicals which could be used to research a topic. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

‘Now here’s something promising. A new development in wireless broadcasting. They propose to add sight to sound. That raises interesting possibilities, don’t you think? There won’t be many cuttings, I’m afraid. But do your best. By the way, they seem to be calling it “television”. Not a nice word. Greek and Latin mixed. Clumsy. You might like to have a dig at that, eh? ’

Adam was unsure whether his article about television was published because many short pieces assigned by the inquisitive Scott were never printed. Interestingly, Adam did not mention the retrospectively humorous line “No good can come of it”. In 1956 another journalist, Bernard Levin, did attribute this line to Scott within the pages of “The Manchester Guardian”: 2

… C. P. Scott turning in his grave. (“Television?” he said. “No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin.”)

Unfortunately, both of these citations appeared many years after the death of C. P. Scott. Numerous people have criticized the hybrid etymology of “television”, and QI finds the report from Adam credible. Yet, the support for the comical line about the fate of television is weaker.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Remarks highlighting words derived from Greek and Latin have a long history. In 1833 the publication of an encyclical letter of Pope Gregory XVI included a footnote about the word “indifferentism”: 3

No wonder that this long word, half Greek, half Latin, strangely mixed, should have so far puzzled Mr. Coyne as to be twice misprinted in his edition.

Before the mixed origin of “television” received criticism, the roots of “automobile” generated similar disapproval. For example, in January 1899 “The New York Times” printed the following: 4

The French, who are usually orthodox in their etymology if in nothing else, have evolved “automobile,” which, being half Greek and half Latin, is so near to indecent that we print it with hesitation, while the speakers of English have been fatally attracted by the irrelevant word “horseless.”

In July 1899 “The Boston Sunday Globe” of Massachusetts mentioned a failed alternative name for the automobile: 5

The man who says that autokineton is a better word than automobile, because it is all Greek instead of half Greek and half Latin, is undoubtedly sound philologically, but the world will have none of him.

In September 1899 a newspaper in Blaine, Kansas expressed acceptance of the word “automobile”; however, the shortened form “auto” still inspired disgust: 6

“Automobile” is indeed a mongrel word, half Greek, half Latin, but having come into general use, it has gained nine points of the law, and may he looked upon as a fixture in the language. It is included in the “Century Dictionary,” which gives examples of its use in “Greer’s Dictionary of Electricity” and the Scientific American. The disposition to shorten it to “auto” is nearly as vulgar as the degradation of bicycle to “bike.”

In April 1927 the hybrid etymology of “television” was underscored within a letter sent to “The Washington Post” by Harvey W. Wiley. He proposed the alternative “teloptiky”: 7

We have had so many violations of etymology forced upon us that it is well to protest against further abuses of this kind. We have, for instance, the word automobile, which is a combination of Latin and Greek.

The word “television” is likewise half Latin and half Greek. Words from foreign languages should be all of one language and not a mixture of various languages. Automobile should have been “suimobile,” and “television” should be “teloptiky.”

The letter in “The Washington Post” was noticed by other journalists. For example, in May 1927 a columnist in “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Ohio reprinted the section protesting the word “television” because of its mixed derivation. 8

In 1928 Harvey W. Wiley revisited the topic in a piece he published in the “Indiana Magazine of History”: 9

The word telegraph is composed of two Greek words meaning, “writing at a distance.” When William Cullen Bryant wrote his beautiful ode on “death” he also understood Greek when he named it Thanatopsis. When, however, at the present day, we discover vision at a distance we fail to understand how to express that fact properly in Greek. We do not call it “telopsis,” or “teloptky.” We call it that mongrel word, “television,” half Greek and half Latin.

In 1930 drama critic Ivor Brown wrote the following in “The Manchester Guardian”: 10

When the men of other crafts become manufacturers of words they do so with a fine flourish and a supreme contempt for the niceties of etymology. “Teleoptics” might have been cumbrous, but at least it would not have been a hideous bastard like “television.”

In 1931 the “Los Angeles Times” also referred to “television” as a mongrel word: 11

But to what graveyard of languages will science go for names for its new inventions? The latest is the receiver of “television” and is called “teleceptor,” both mongrel words half Greek and half Latin.

In 1935 the London humor magazine “Punch” printed the following: 12

“Television” is a monster—half-Greek, half-Latin; but we might have had worse; certainly it seemed impossible to find a better word.

In 1938 the “Daily Mirror” of London published a letter decrying the word “television”: 13

Television
Your correspondent is right in denouncing this hideous hybrid, half Latin and half Greek.

In 1945 a short item in “The Yorkshire Post” expressed distaste for the word “television”: 14

“television” itself, half Greek half Latin, is a horrid hybrid

In 1955 Kenneth Adam recalled the words of C. P. Scott as mentioned previously: 15

By the way, they seem to be calling it “television”. Not a nice word. Greek and Latin mixed. Clumsy.

In 1956 journalist Bernard Levin attributed the saying under examination to C. P. Scott as mentioned previously: 16

… C. P. Scott turning in his grave. (“Television?” he said. “No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin.”)

In 1959 “The Manchester Guardian” changed its name to “The Guardian”. In 1960 an advertisement in the paper curiously credited C. P. Scott with a variant statement concerning the “telephone” instead of the “television”: 17

‘No good will come of this device,’ said C. P. Scott of the telephone. ‘the word is half Greek, and half Latin.’ The same could be said of sociology, and there are even people who would maintain that little good had come of it.

In 1963 a columnist in the “Chicago Tribune” of Illinois credited the saying to C. P. Scott: 18

“Television? No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin.”
—C. P. Scott

In 1966 the television columnist in “The Guardian” credited Scott with a reordered version of the saying: 19

It is the sort of thing that contradicts entirely C. P. Scott’s unforgettable phrase: “Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it.”

In 1981 “Facts and Fallacies: A Book of Definitive Mistakes and Misguided Predictions” included a chapter about the arts which concluded with the following: 20

And even now it is hard to refute this last and most damning observation:

Television? No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin.
C. P. Scott (1846-1932)

In 1984 the famous U.S. curmudgeon H.L. Mencken received credit for the remark in a syndicated puzzle called Cryptoquotes: 21

Saturday’s Cryptoquote: TELEVISION? THE WORD IS HALF LATIN AND HALF GREEK. NO GOOD CAN COME OF IT.—H.L. MENCKEN

In conclusion, the word “television” has attracted criticism repeatedly since the 1920s because it combines Greek “tele” together with Latin “vision”. Journalist Kenneth Adam wrote in 1955 that C. P. Scott raised this criticism during a conversation in 1930 which QI finds plausible. In 1956 journalist Bernard Levin ascribed the full comical quotation under examination to Scott who died in 1932. QI believes that the long delay reduced the certainty of this attribution.

Image Notes: Illustration of a television from Clker-Free-Vector-Images at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, resized, and cropped.

(Great thanks to Jamie Medhurst and Edward the Elder whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Tom May who located the valuable 1955 citation in “The Listener”. Many thanks to Jeff Graf who accessed scans of the 1955 and 1935 citations. Additional thanks to the twitter discussants: Tom May, Jackie Fox, Philip Sewell, Lilly Evans, and Ralf Bülow. Thanks also to Bill Mullins who independently found the 1927 citation in “The Washington Post”.)

Notes:

  1. 1955 July 7, The Listener, Volume 54, Number 1375, Memories of ‘The Manchester Guardian’ by Kenneth Adam, Start Page 19, Quote Page 19, Column 1, Published by British Broadcasting Corporation, London. (Gale Cengage “The Listener” Historical Archive)
  2. 1956 June 9, The Manchester Guardian, The Traveling Eye by Bernard Levin, Quote Page 5, Column 6, Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1833, The Encyclical Letter of Pope Gregory XVI, Bearing Date August 16th, 1832, (Letter on the authority of the Church), (Footnote for asterisk notation), Quote Page 11, Printed for Richard Moore Tims, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1899 January 3, The New York Times, Topics of the Times, Quote Page 8, Column 4, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1899 July 23, The Boston Sunday Globe, Editorial Points, Quote Page 30, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1899 September 22, The News, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Blaine, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1927 April 15, The Washington Post, Section: Letters to the Editor, Letter Title: Objects to “Television”, Letter Author: Harvey W. Wiley, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Washington, D.C. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1927 May 1, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Topics of Life in Washington, Quote Page 25, Column 4 and 5, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1928 June, Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 24, Number 2, The Education of A Backwoods Hoosier by Harvey W. Wiley (Washington, D.C.), (Address delivered to the Literary Society of Washington, April 14, 1928), Start Page 78, Quote Page 81, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. (JSTOR) link
  10. 1930 October 4, The Manchester Guardian, These -Eses by Ivor Brown, Quote Page 11, Column 1, Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1931 June 22, Los Angeles Times, Teleceptor, Section 2, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1935 July 17, Punch or The London Charivari, Volume 189, Number 4937, The Word War, Quote Page 64, Column 2, Published at the Office of Punch, London. (Gale Cengage “Punch” Historical Archive)
  13. 1938 April 18, Daily Mirror, (Letter to the “Daily Mirror” from Frank C. Britten of Bridgnorth, Salop), Quote Page 11, Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  14. 1945 March 10, The Yorkshire Post, This World of Ours: Televising the Derby, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  15. 1955 July 7, The Listener, Volume 54, Number 1375, Memories of ‘The Manchester Guardian’ by Kenneth Adam, Start Page 19, Quote Page 19, Column 1, Published by British Broadcasting Corporation, London. (Gale Cengage “The Listener” Historical Archive)
  16. 1956 June 9, The Manchester Guardian, The Traveling Eye by Bernard Levin, Quote Page 5, Column 6, Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1960 December 2, The Guardian, (Advertisement for the “Spectator” journal), Quote Page 11, Column 1, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  18. 1963 December 13, Chicago Tribune, Cromie Looks at Authors and Books: Military Deadlock Predicted by Robert Cromie, Section 2, Quote Page 15, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  19. 1966 July 5, The Guardian, Television by Gerard Fay, Quote Page 9, Column 6, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  20. 1981 Copyright, Facts and Fallacies: A Book of Definitive Mistakes and Misguided Predictions by Chris Morgan and David Langford, Chapter: The Arts, Quote Page 20, John Wiley & Sons, Canada Limited, Toronto, Canada. (Verified with hardcopy)
  21. 1984 July 16, The News and Observer, Daily Cryptoquotes, (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 2C, Column 2, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)