Wednesday 25 September 2013

English Lessons for Antiquities Dealers (1) - the word "illicit"

In the post above I mentioned that dealer Dave Welsh attempts to dissect the meaning of the word "licit" used in a text by me. This is most disheartening. Anyone with enough patience to wade through the mess that he's made of the archives of his Unidroit-L discussion list will find that a while ago he concurred that there is a difference in UK and US usage of this word. Guess which I am using.

 Mr Welsh's own proposed definition of the adjective is as follows:
 "In accordance with the requirements of the law(s) in effect in the jurisdiction(s) concerned"
He does not state which dictionary he got it from. It could be made up by himself for all we know. in fact I think it is. I bet Mr Welsh made this up (we'd like him to give the reference to the standard dictionary and page where he obtained it). Mr Welsh asserts  "Mr. Barford  [...] nor any other organ, individual or organization have any right whatsoever to assert that there is any other meaning of the word "Licit"  (than the one he himself just gave it?). Mr Welsh obviously retains for himself the "right" to define the meaning of the words I use. Like his earlier assertion that "scum" means "semen" I suppose.

In reality, the US definition of the word "licit" is a rather narrow definition of the term. The English language is far richer than that. Would Mr Welsh's proposed definition fit the phrase, a licit argument, a licit point? (answer for the verbally-challenged, no). A university lecturer can have an illicit relationship with one of his students, or assistants, but there need be nothing illegal in the union. In the course of doing something, one can come across useful information that few people know and make illicit use of it, but again that need not be illegal. One can make an illicit move in a board game. Again not illegal. All, though, are bad form. The word illicit (and therefore its antonym licit) are indeed much broader than Mr Welsh's US usage allows.

Indeed, if we look at some dictionaries we find this broader use. The New Oxford Dictionary of English , a massive weighty tome published in this form first in 1998 on p. 1063, defines licit (adj.) as "not forbidden, lawful" but the antonym as "forbidden by law, rules or custom". I have the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, defining "illicit" (London, 2009, p. 874) as  "not allowed by laws or rules, or strongly disapproved by society, compare illegal". Sadly the word "licit" is not defined there. A further Oxford dictionary ("Wordpower"), used in teaching (OUP 2008, p. 388) defines illicit "(used about an activity or substance) not allowed by law, or by the rules of society, the illicit trade in ivory, they were having an illicit affair".  

In any case, the ACCG officer seems unaware of the literature on the subject, these are not my definitions. I'd draw his lapsed attention to, for example, the online article ( 'Illicit Antiquities', 17 Aug 2012) of Simon Mackenzie on the subject which sets it out clear enough one would have thought for the person of average intelligence to follow.

Both of these types of issue are observable in the case of the global traffic in cultural objects—i.e. (a) sharp or unethical practices which are not illegal but we might reasonably say would be perceived by the majority of lay people as ‘wrong’; and (b) crimes or other contraventions of law which often cannot be proven to the standard required by the relevant legal system.[...] The criminological perspective outlined above, however, encourages us to be more nuanced in our approach, and to develop terms and concepts which can capture the uncertainty which the justice system has obscured with its harsh binary distinction. ‘Illicit’ antiquities is the term which has developed in the research literature to convey the perceived suspect origins of artefacts which cannot be, or have yet to be, proven illegal. Not all unprovenanced or unprovenienced antiquities will fall into this category, but some will.[...]  we therefore need terminology to use for academic analytical purposes rather than for legal ones. Again, the preferred language here seems to have settled, for the moment at least, on the term ‘illicit’. 
I suggest that if Mr Welsh has any problems with that, he take them up with Professor Mackenzie.

Those who dream that by collecting decontextualised dugup antiquities from the ancient world they become instant scholars of Classical civilization which lies at the root (they say) of their own Republican American culture might like to reflect on the significance for that world-view of the the US narrowing of the term "licit/illicit" proposed by Mr Welsh. The root of the adjective "legal" is the Latin legalis (derived from the root lex perhaps via Late Middle English or Norman French). The word "licit" (of late medieval origin) however clearly derives from the Latin licitus from the root verb licere, allow (Cf licence).

Now will Dave Welsh remember the meaning of these words please and stop wasting everybody's time by forcing us to tell him again and again the same things?

UPDATE 26.09.13:
Mr Welsh pondered hard this apparently new information about the terminology, and came up with his deeply considered answer showing just how well intellectually-prepared professional numismatists of the ACCG school are to engage in informed debate and how keen the representatives of this 'discipline' are to broaden their horizons by a open and honest confrontation of their views with others: here. In other words, not very much at all.

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