I was struck by Neil Tennant’s story (Diary, 23 May) about a message in a séance spelling out to a group of teenagers ‘My dear children, you are so young. Do not make my mistake. — Oscar Wilde.’ It reminded me of that passage in G.K. Chesterton’s Autobiography, where, having fallen into a period of dark nihilism at the Slade School of Art, he too had experimented with the planchette, which spelled out in its deceptive banality: ‘Orriblerevelationsinighlife’.
For two or three weeks now we have been reading orrible revelations in the Daily Telegraph. Should these be denominated revelations, disclosures or exposés? The Telegraph’s chosen tag is ‘The Expenses Files’. The information came from two million bits of paper — receipts for ginger biscuits and the like — stored, we are told, on a computer hard-drive. I have never been sure what a hard-drive is. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is ‘a high-capacity, self-contained storage device containing a read-write mechanism together with one or more hard disks inside a sealed unit’. I feel better informed now, but little wiser.
Files are indeed found on computers, for the word was current in computing from the 1950s, borrowed from the language of the filing clerk. I had not realised that file originally meant a string (from Latin filum) on which papers were strung, or that the Court of Chancery filed pleadings, which in Common Law courts were enrolled.
If the files provided revelations, the term revelation is quite modern, in the sense of ‘disclosure of something previously unknown’. It is first recorded in the writings of that plausible scientific pretender Herbert Spencer who, in 1862, wrote that ‘we have a veritable revelation in Science’ (with a reverential capital). Until then, revelation had come from a supernatural source, as in the Revelation of St John. (Those not in the habit of opening a Bible often refer to this book as ‘Revelations’. I was surprised to find that men of the standing of Robert Southey had done the same 200 years ago.)
A disclosure seems to me a voluntary act. The Telegraph disclosed things that the MPs would not disclose. As for an exposé, its connotations seem low or vulgar, no doubt because they are connected with journalists. In the 19th century the word was often pronounced as two syllables. Perhaps this can still be heard in a sentence from Elizabeth Banks’s autobiographical Newspaper Girl (1902): ‘Don’t go into it with the idea of an “expose”,’ says the editor. Those were the days for women journalists — well, they were not allowed to become MPs.