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Elizabeth Inchbald: War, a choice of words

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

Women writers on peace and war

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Elizabeth Inchbald
From Nature and Art

In addition to his ignorant conversation upon many topics, young Henry had an incorrigible misconception and misapplication of many words. His father having had but few opportunities of discoursing with him, upon account of his attendance at the court of the savages, and not having books in the island, he had consequently many words to learn of this country’s language when he arrived in England. This task his retentive memory made easy to him; but his childish inattention to their proper signification still made his want of education conspicuous.

He would call compliments, lies; reserve, he would call pride; stateliness, affectation; and for the words war and battle, he constantly substituted the word massacre.

“Sir,” said William to his father one morning, as he entered the room, “do you hear how the cannons are firing, and the bells ringing?”

“Then I dare say,” cried Henry, “there has been another massacre.”

The dean called to him in anger, “Will you never learn the right use of words? You mean to say a battle.”

“Then what is a massacre?” cried the frightened, but still curious Henry.

“A massacre,” replied his uncle, “is when a number of people are slain -”

“I thought,” returned Henry, “soldiers had been people!”

“You interrupted me,” said the dean, “before I finished my sentence. Certainly, both soldiers and sailors are people, but they engage to die by their own free will and consent.”

“What! all of them?”

“Most of them.”

“But the rest are massacred?”

The dean answered, “The number who go to battle unwillingly, and by force, are few; and for the others, they have previously sold their lives to the state.”

“For what?”

“For soldiers’ and sailors’ pay.”

“My father used to tell me, we must not take away our own lives; but he forgot to tell me we might sell them for others to take away.”

“William,” said the dean to his son, his patience tired with his nephew’s persevering nonsense, “explain to your cousin the difference between a battle and a massacre.”

“A massacre,” said William, rising from his seat, and fixing his eyes alternately upon his father, his mother, and the bishop (all of whom were present) for their approbation, rather than the person’s to whom his instructions were to be addressed – “a massacre,” said William, “is when human beings are slain, who have it not in their power to defend themselves.”

“Dear cousin William,” said Henry, “that must ever be the case with every one who is killed.”

After a short hesitation, William replied: “In massacres people are put to death for no crime, but merely because they are objects of suspicion.”

“But in battle,” said Henry, “the persons put to death are not even suspected.”

The bishop now condescended to end this disputation by saying emphatically,

“Consider, young savage, that in battle neither the infant, the aged, the sick, nor infirm are involved, but only those in the full prime of health and vigour.”

As this argument came from so great and reverend a man as the bishop, Henry was obliged, by a frown from his uncle, to submit, as one refuted; although he had an answer at the veriest tip of his tongue, which it was torture to him not to utter. What he wished to say must ever remain a secret….

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