My maternal grandfather, a retired admiral, could recite The Hunting Of The Snark in its entirety. As a young midshipman he had committed it to memory and there it had stuck for the remaining seventy-odd years of his life. I still remember as a child shrieking with terror and delight when, with a flourish, he would declaim the final line: ‘for the Snark was a Boojum, you see.’
He had, as we say, learnt it by heart. But why do we say that? Without going into the niceties of where memory actually resides, wouldn’t it seem more rational to say that he had learnt it by head?
In fact, the expression is supposed to derive from the ancient Greeks’ belief that the heart was the seat of the intellect (and in a nice etymological parallel, the word record pursues the same train of thought, deriving from the Latin word cor for heart, thus to re-heart).
But the Greeks’ anatomical mistake serves as a useful reminder (in English we’ve got the anatomy right, you see) of something else – that most things worth remembering (not, in fact, re-member, as in reconstruct, but re-memor, Latin for mind) engage the heart as well as the head. Which, of course, is why so much that is written and spoken in the world of business is so instantly and permanently forgettable (Old English: for meaning far from or away from, plus get meaning get).
Except that sometimes it’s memorable for the wrong reasons. I heard a captain of industry speaking on television the other night about the success of his business. He expressed it this way: ‘our headcount has grown fifteen per cent in the last year.’
Our headcount? If all he recognises are heads, the chances are his company is not a great place to work, regardless of how successful it may be. Well, that’s just a perfectly normal piece of business jargon, you might say. Maybe so, but it’s still very revealing of the underlying thinking that persists in so many organisations, where – however much their leaders may assert the opposite – people are really thought of as ciphers, two-legged information processing machines.
Now if he’d said, ‘our heartcount has grown fifteen per cent in the last year’, it would have been a different matter altogether…