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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins


The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the truth of the central thesis of the twentieth-century philosopher of language Willard Van Orman Quine, colloquially known as "the indeterminacy of translation", to the effect that precisely the same words even in the same language can have entirely different meanings. Thus, concluded Quine, it is not just that one cannot translate accurately and with certainty one language into another; you cannot translate a language accurately and with certainty even into itself. This is an extraordinary insight, naked so boldly stated, and to explain just what it means we have to give a concrete example.

The example we shall provide is four differing possible interpretations of a single limerick. The origins of the limerick are the curious empiricist philosophy of an eighteenth century philosopher and fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, named Bishop Berkeley. Berkeley famously averred that esse est percipi, which roughly means "to exist is to be perceived". This philosophical theory was a natural extension of John Locke's empiricism, in which he distinguished physical objects in the world and sense-perceptions, which are (according to him) human experiences of engaging with those objects. Berkeley's innovation, if we want to call it that, was to infer that actually there are no physical objects in the world behind our experiences of them; all there is is experiences themselves. Therefore it follows that if nobody is observing an object, then there is no ontology (i.e. existence) to it. Or, to capture the infamous philosophical question,

If a tree falls down in a forest and there is nobody there to see it, then does it make a sound?

-- Berkeley's answer was "no".

This point of view is instinctively odd. It seems counterintuitive. It also has the consequence of atheism, because nobody observes God and therefore (s)he does not exist. So here we had a British Bishop in the pious Eighteenth century exposing a form of empiricist sceptical atheism.

Berkeley was regarded by his peers as rather a fool. His fallback defence of theism, in the face of the atheistic scepticism his theory seemed to imply, was that in fact we have no reason to be sceptical because God is omniscient and is looking at everything all the time and therefore that tree that falls over in the forest really does make a sound even though nobody is there to see it because God is watching it. His ideas became the source of ridicule. Ronald Knox, the early twentieth century theologian, parodied Berkeley's ideas in a limerick, which read as follows:

There was a young man who said "God Must find it exceedingly odd To think that the tree Should continue to be When there's no one about in the Quad." "Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd; I am always about in the quad. And that's why the tree Will continue to be Since observed by, Yours faithfully, GOD."

This is not an essay about empiricism or theism or scepticism or anything else of that philosophical ilk. This website contributes essays to the field of cryptology, not to the philosophy of religion. This is an essay about how words' meaning is different in the context of different contexts. The point about Knox's limerick is that it was replete with hidden meaning, and now we are going to explain what it was.

The shaded commentary on the right reveals in each case the true meaning of the words used in the limerick.

There was a young man who said "God

Berkeley you are such a fool

Your theory implies atheism

Must find it exceedingly odd

How can a bishop be advancing atheism?

To think that the tree

You are an empiricist sceptic

Should continue to be

We should have removed you from your Christ's College fellowship

When there's no one about in the Quad."

You are an atheist nihilist

"Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;

You are quite insane

I am always about in the quad.

We your opponents are true Christians and theists

And that's why the tree Will continue to be

Your virulent disloyal attacks on Christianity have not succeeded

Since observed by,

Yours faithfully, GOD."

We are the true Christians and you will burn in hell

Now we have created a Russian version of Knox's parody of Bishop Berkeley, which focuses upon themes of state murder and uses the same words as in Knox's limerick to convey those concepts clearly to people with a Russian Nomenklatura mindset. In Russia he was wrong, of course; it is the other way round. Anyone not observed is no longer.


There was a young man who said "God,

Inexperienced FSB traitor

Vladimir Putin

I find it exceedingly odd,

It will be brutal and unexpected

I know I am going to die

That this tree that I see

A place that is used for executing people by firing squad

I won't see it coming

ceases to be

I am going to be murdered

When there's no-one around in the Quad"

I will be murdered in a quiet solitary place

It will probably be a military prison exercise yard or something similar

"Dear Sir,

We know exactly who you are

Your astonishment's odd

No it's not. You are going to die

I am always about in the Quad

We have placed you under constant surveillance

And that's why this tree

This is a final decision

You will be shot

Will continue to be

I have not changed my decision. You are going to die

Since observed by

I will be overseeing your murder personally

Yours faithfully,

Goodbye, dead man


This was the personal decision of me, Vladimir Putin, to have you executed


Now if you know the original limerick, whose words have been copied exactly; and if you find this funny, or more likely deeply disturbing, then you have just started to understand the real meaning of the Most Russian World. It is a deeply harrowing, disturbing, alarming and psychologically destructive place, in which every single word uttered might be interpreted in some sinister murderous way. And the worst thing about all of this is that the foregoing represents precisely how the Russians think about language. What to English speaking academics is a light parody on an eccentric view in empiricist epistemology in the eighteenth century, in Russia sounds like a horrifying and disturbing death sentence.

We must fight this with all our hearts.


Just to show how easy it is to assign words in any given language dramatically different meanings from those they appear to have, by applying a different context to the words, here is a third example of the use of the same limerick to convey a quite different method. This limerick is about the efforts of a major international Serbian criminal to interfere in the loving relationship between his estranged wife and this author.

There was a young man who said "God

Mr Perunovic (for that is the name of the criminal) you have

some extremely serious problems

Must find it exceedingly odd

I am deeply unimpressed with your behaviour

and I have discussed it with some very important people

To think that the tree Should continue to be When there's no one about in the Quad."

Why do I have to keep coming back to this ridiculous issue of your estranged wife?

Her relationship is now with me, not with you. "Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;

You may think you can get away with it but in fact you can't

I am always about in the quad.

I have the full support of the world's most capable "opticians"

(i.e. security and intelligence services)

And that's why the tree Will continue to be

Your wife will continue to be mine forever more

Since observed by, Yours faithfully, GOD."

Everyone is watching you including some of the world's most powerful people,

and in all likelihood you face an extended term of imprisonment

for the crimes you have committed


The context in which language operates, even complex sentence structures and sophisticated linguistic mechanisms like limericks, leaves open a potential infinity of methods of interpretation depending upon the context of the communication, the identities of the speakers, and the common information each to the other. What in Anglo-American religious and academic circles might be perceived as a barbed attack upon a form of empiricism and scepticism in epistemology (the branch of philosophy that asks what it is we know and why), and a vigorous defence of theism against an intriguing historical philosopher who is in modern times regarded as something of a hypocrite, can be transformed into a "Russian poem" all about the imminent murder of a treacherous FSB official on the orders of the Russian President (an event that sadly happens all too often in Putin's Russia); and can then be transformed again into a summary of a legal dispute in which an international criminal senselessly decided to insert himself into a relationship between an influential international person and his estranged wife.

Language is a remarkable tool. It can do all these things and more. That is what makes it so dangerous; it can drive multiple meanings in multiple directions simultaneously, motivating others to act in different ways all convivial to the user, if the user of the language is sufficiently intelligent, educated and resourceful to be able to deploy language in these sophisticated ways. To quote the French philosopher René Descartes, but to use his words to mean something quite different:


("I think, therefore I am")

Or, another way to put the same thing, might be to quote Shakespeare in observing that the pen is mightier than the sword. But the contemporary cryptologist must understand the constraints upon his work in consequence of this curious feature of language that we call the indeterminacy of translation. What it means is that all language is ambiguous; and therefore the quest for a perfect cipher that will translate one set of words into an identically understood set of words when heard by someone else, is a misconceived one. The meaning of every communication, encrypted or otherwise, depends upon the use and context that the specific communicants have in mind when they are making those communications. Indeed this feature of language is common both to what we imagine to be encrypted communications and unencrypted ones. The indeterminacy of translation entails that the concept of encryption is not in fact a binary one. Rather encryption is a scaled concept, in which something may be more or less encrypted depending on the circumstances.

In fact encryption turns out to be relative to a variable C, which we will define as the knowledge common to the general community of communicating persons, howsoever they may be defined. The degree of encryption is a matter of the level of specific knowledge the reader requires to ascertain the true meaning, in light of the general knowledge assumed on the part of the readership. So to give some examples:

  • The Robert Knox limerick was not heavily encrypted relative to the standards of the Christian theology community of the day who first became acquainted with his materials, because they all knew that this in truth a searing attack on a hypocritical atheist.

  • However it has generally been heavily encrypted amongst the school of philosophy students, who have tended to assume that Knox's limerick was just poking fun at rather a silly idea.

  • The "Russian" version of the same limerick is, very sadly, not heavily encrypted at all amongst the Nomenklatura classes of the Russian Federation, all of whom would read such words knowing pretty much exactly what the author was talking about.

  • The limerick about the international criminal becomes fairly obvious to follow for a very small and limited group of people who know about this affair in detail and the specific nicknames and other features of people involved in the affair.

Encryption is a slippery concept, and that is because language, onto which encryption seeks to apply itself as a deterministic function, is also extremely slippery. However confusing modern language may be when used inexpertly, the application of encryption methods to it may render the problems of linguistic understanding embodied in the indeterminacy of translation exponentially more onerous.

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