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October 31st, 2007

Truth to power / antique or antiques sale?

by Barbara Wallraff

Amber Rowland, of Dearborn, Mich., writes: “When did the phrase ‘truth to power’ come into use? What is the precise meaning of it?”

Dear Amber: “Speak truth to power” means to tell powerful people things they don’t want to hear. A variety of religious traditions, including Judaism, Islam and more than one Christian denomination, can lay claim to the phrase. Or at least, because none of these religions’ scriptures were originally written in English, they all can lay claim to the underlying idea. For instance, Muhammad is on record as having said, “The most excellent jihad (a ‘jihad’ can be any kind of campaign or struggle) is when one speaks a true word in the presence of a tyrannical ruler.” If that quotation had been translated more broadly, it might have ended with “speaks truth to power.”

The exact English phrase was coined by the American Friends Service Committee — that is, the Quakers — as the title of a pamphlet published in 1955, at the height of the Cold War. Among the powerful groups the AFSC sought to influence were “the American people who are the final reservoir of power in this country.” They were arguing for non-violence: “Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth (is) fundamental to the position which rejects reliance on the method of war.”

Looking for recent uses of the phrase online, I found some from the left wing, others from the right, and still others from people who weren’t talking about either religion or politics. All were admiring in tone. It made me proud to realize that across the spectrum we’re open to hearing from people whose only power lies in their ideas.

Joyce Seip, of Sigourney, Iowa, writes: “I see the phrase ‘antique sale’ or ‘antique store’ almost daily. Doesn’t this imply that the sale or the store is very old? Am I right in thinking the word should be ‘antiques’?”

Dear Joyce: There’s definitely a trend toward using “antiques,” plural, as an adjective, with “sale,” “store,” “dealer” and so on. But “antique,” singular, is more traditional. The tradition in English is that almost any noun we use as a non-possessive adjective is singular: A “grocery store” sells groceries, a “book sale” offers books for sale, a “rug dealer” deals in rugs and so on.

But an increasing number of exceptions to this rule have been creeping into English. We don’t say “teacher college” or “woman writers,” for instance. The reason we make those adjectives plural, though, is different from the reason “antiques” is catching on. “Antique” has been an adjective (as in “antique ideas”) for at least as long as it has been a noun. So when the noun (as in “antiques”) turns around and becomes an adjective again (as in “antique sale”), no wonder the singular brings us up short. Still, I prefer it, both because I prefer traditional usage and because I don’t think anyone really believes that an antique sale must have been going on for centuries. But at this point, neither the singular nor the plural version is truly wrong.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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