World O’ Words: Persona non grata, and Damnatio Memoriae

World O’ Words: Persona non grata, and Damnatio Memoriae

What a world, what a world!

Well, maybe this World O’ Words is not melting down yet, even though John Bolton, the most hawkish of the hawks, is joining the White House to advise President Trump on national security matters. While that should result in fun times ahead, the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats around the world, and the quid pro quo expulsion of Western diplomats from Russia, is what is holding our attention as of this writing.

Nothing like a good old-fashioned expulsion of diplomats to set the stage for a good old-fashioned war.*

As of this writing, countries around the world, including 14 European Union countries, the U.S., Canada, Australia and Ukraine have announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats, thus joining in solidarity the United Kingdom,which has accused Russia of poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a suspected nerve agent.

Skripal, a former Russian military man turned double agent for the West is in critical condition along with his daughter.

Skripal is certainly not the first Russian spy or dissident in London to have met a violent end. So finally the British government took action, followed by other countries.

All these diplomats are being sent home in vicarious disgrace as personae non gratae — a great Latin phrase defining those persons who are prohibited from entering or remaining in a country by that country’s government. Diplomatic immunity usually protects a diplomat from being arrested — so instead he or she is given the boot as a persona non grata.

Persona non grata is a diplomatic term, though it has crossed etymological class boundaries to also mean one who is ostracized from the group to which he or she has belonged. You can also use it at street level — if one has been banned from the “Bucket of Blood” bar for getting too drunk and brawling too often, you can say one is persona non grata at the “Bucket of Blood.”

In any case, we shall see where this mass, tit for tat creation of personae non gratae ends up. All eyes are on Russia.

Speaking of Russia, and back to the poisoning of Russian double agents in London, which has been accomplished by means that make all those James Bond fictions look very quaint indeed: A nerve agent for Skripal; lethal polonium-210-induced acute radiation for Alexander Litvinenko; being poked with a poison umbrella for Georgi Markov (he was actually Bulgarian) … strange, horrifying methods of assassination that strike me as a practice unique to Russian or Soviet espionage.

There is related term, a which like persona non grata is a creation of the Romans — Damnatio Memoriae — “may the memory of him be damned,” or “this person shall not be remembered.” Romans considered banishment a punishment worse than death, so to be erased from memory for all time was to be sentenced to living hell.

In more modern times, the Soviet Union had a unique take on Damnatio Memoriae. Internal enemies of the state (or of Josef Stalin) were purged from the public record, erased from history, a practice that was parodied brilliantly in George Orwell’s “1984,” which describes a world in which not only Damnatio Memoriae is king, but “Fake News,” as well.

It remains to see how life will imitate art, as they say, with our current state of affairs.

* The term “good old-fashioned war” is an oxymoron — two terms that don’t go together at all. War is never “old-fashioned.” War always brings the very latest fashions and innovations in weaponry or destruction, be that the tanks and gas attacks of the Great War, the bombing of civilians in the Spanish Civil War, the concentration camps of the Second World War, the Strategic Hamlet program of the Vietnam War, and so on.

However, people often expect War to be old-fashioned. It was expected that a single dramatic cavalry charge would solve all problems in 1914, for example.

Anyway, fun times ahead.


The correct name of Randy Bachman’s bass player, mentioned in last week’s column on the Guess Who and Generation Jones is Mick Dalla-Vee.