The Grammarphobia Blog

Politics and transparency

Q: I’m pretty certain the political use of “transparency” is European in origin, quite possibly of academic origin. I first noticed it about 15 years ago in UN speak and in the name of an NGO (non-governmental organization) called Transparency International (it’s dedicated to openness in government and fighting corruption).

A: Well, the usage does indeed seem to be of European origin, but it may be a lot older than you imagine – a century and a half older if you count Thomas Carlyle’s use of it to make a political point.

The Scottish man of letters uses the term in Past and Present (1843), a work in which he argues that authoritarianism, not democracy, is the remedy for political corruption.

In the book, Carlyle compares the chaotic democracy of industrial Britain in the 19th century with the ordered, hierarchical life of the English monastery Bury St. Edmunds in the 12th century.

He writes that Jocelyn de Brakelond, a monk at Bury St. Edmunds, chronicled life at the monastery with “child-like transparency, in its innocent good-humour, not without touches of ready pleasant wit and many kinds of worth.”

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary credits Shakespeare with being the first to use the adjective “transparent” in a figurative way to mean “frank, open, candid, ingenuous.”

Here’s the citation, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590): “Transparent Helena, nature shewes art, / That through thy bosome makes me see thy heart.”

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