What is a Carillion anyway? Does it even exist? Well, no, I guess it doesn’t any more. Now, a carillon – that rings a bell. Not to be confused with a clarion, a carillon is a contraption that lurks in bell towers and makes pleasant chimes. Longfellow wrote a poem about one in Bruges and, in a moment of inspiration, he named it Carillon.
In the ancient town of Bruges,
In the quaint old Flemish city,
As the evening shades descended,
Low and loud and sweetly blended,
Low at times and loud at times,
And changing like a poet’s rhymes,
Rang the beautiful wild chimes
From the Belfry in the market
Of the ancient town of Bruges.
And so it goes on. Where’s the interest in this? I’ll tell you.
Interestingly, the carillon was invented at almost exactly the same time as the word ‘interest’. The two events are unconnected, other than that whoever invented the carillon should have had an ‘interest’ in it – an ‘interest’ being a legal claim or right.
The original definition of ‘interest’ came from the Latin ‘inter esse’ – literally ‘among to be’, or, put another way, ‘to be among’ – which sort of could have I suppose been interpreted as involvement or concern – and indeed was. In France they interpreted it as damage or loss, as they do so many things in France, and that led to ‘interest’ being used to mean compensation.
From there it was a simple matter to define it as compensation for an unpaid debt, which evolved into the interest we talk about today – the 73p annual savings interest you have to declare on your Tax Return, or the £40million interest you have to pay on a £1.5billion debt. And can’t.
I tried really hard to find some interesting facts about the etymology of the word ‘interest’ but that part of the story is simply not very interesting. Suffice it to say that by the end of the 19th century, ‘interest’ had somehow assumed all its modern meanings: money charged on a loan; personal involvement; curious appreciation; advantage or benefit; to stir the curiosity.
It’s a frustratingly hard word to define precisely without using the word ‘interest’ – a word that, for all its good intentions, often ends up doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. I was on a car journey once with my old friend John the Dog and I was recounting a fairly mundane anecdote (I know, hard to believe, eh?) and at the end of it I looked to him for a response and he said:
“Quite interesting.” (He’s not really a dog).
Never mind damning with faint praise, I felt I’d been skewered on Satan’s own pitchfork. My self-esteem deflated faster than an overstretched conglomerate’s share price. Steve Davis must have had a similar feeling when Spitting Image dubbed him Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis.
The word ‘interest’ only becomes interesting when things become uninteresting. You can interest someone in something but you can’t uninterest them. You can be uninteresting (ha! tell me about it) but you can’t be disinteresting. See, now things are hotting up.
For years a particularly popular pastime among pedants like me has been pulling people up for saying ‘disinterested’ when they mean ‘uninterested’. Uninterested, as you know, means having no curiosity or desire for something, whereas disinterested means having no personal stake in something.
The trouble with using disinterested to mean uninterested is that you don’t then have a word to mean disinterested, which is a dangerous omission, for example, when it comes to deciding what should and shouldn’t be published. ‘In the public interest’, upon which principle many an exposé has gone to print, is supposed to mean for the welfare of the general public, not something that the public find interesting to read.
Are the public disinterested in how the Government awards contracts? No. Are we disinterested in the size of Kim Kardashian’s bottom? Unless we’re sharing a park bench or a dodgem car, you would have to say yes. Yet a significant proportion of the population would say the latter is more interesting than the former. Such is the contrary nature of the word ‘interest’ – possibly the most uninteresting of all words.