chalk mark minimus

June 19, 2021
Simon Cook

… Le voleur qui avoit son mouchoir prêt, les lui banda, et il marcha à côté de lui, en partie en le conduisant, en partie en se laissant conduire par lui, jusqu’à ce qu’il s’arrêtât. «Il me semble, dit Baba Moustafa, que je n’ai point passé plus loin.» Et il se trouva véritablement devant la maison de Cassim, où Ali Baba demeurent alors. Avant de lui ôter le mouchoir de devant les yeux, le voleur fit promptement une marque à la porte avec de la craie qu’il tenoit prête; et quand il le lui eut ôté, il lui demanda s’il savoit à qui appartenoit la maison? Baba Moustafa lui répondit qu’il n’étoit pas du quartier, et ainsi qu’il ne pouvoit lui en rien dire. (Galland’s original text of Les Mille et Une Nuits, 1704–1717.)

… the robber tied his handkerchief over his eyes and then walked by his side, partly leading him and partly guided by him. “I think,” said Baba Mustapha at length, “I went no further,” and he stopped directly at Cassim’s house, where Ali Baba now lived. Before taking the handkerchief off the old man’s eyes, the thief carefully marked the door with a piece of chalk, which he had ready in his hand, and then asked if he knew whose house that was: to which Baba Mustapha replied, that as he did not live in that neighbourhood he could not tell. (W.H.D. Rouse’s edition, 1863, pp. 217-18)

If, like the robber in the Arabian Nights, we make a mark with chalk upon a house to enable us to know it again, the mark has a purpose, but it has not properly any meaning. The chalk does not declare anything about the house; it does not mean, This is such a person’s house, or This is a house which contains booty. The object of making the mark is merely distinction. I say to myself, All these houses are so nearly alike, that if I lose sight of them I shall not again be able to distinguish that which I am now looking at from any of the others; I must therefore contrive to make the appearance of this one house unlike that of the others, that I may hereafter know, when I see the mark – not indeed any attribute of the house – but simply that it is the same house which I am now looking at. Morgiana chalked all the other houses in a similar manner, and defeated the scheme: how? simply by obliterating the difference of appearance between that house and the others. The chalk was still there, but it no longer served the purpose of a distinctive mark. (J.S. Mill, ‘On Names’, A System of Logic, 1843).

The chalk mark is one of two door-marks in the story of two doors told by Hanna Diyab, the great Syrian grammarian of holes, who imagined his holes in Persia and told his story in Paris in 1709. The man he gave it to, Antoine Galland, included this modern masterpiece in his French translation of the medieval Arabic story collection, The 1001 Nights, soon translated in Britain as The Arabian Nights Entertainments. My concern in this essay is with an early episode in the curious and hitherto overlooked history of the British reception of Diyab’s story; overlooked, I think, because it heralded a cultural turn towards what I can only describe as a suburban Orientalism that, despite the (admittedly confused) intellectual foundations provided by Mill, was scorned by all but a few of the nation’s intellectual aristocracy.

What I present here as the origin story of this suburban Orientalism begins around a century after Diyab told Galland his tale. A Scotsman living in London, James Mill, borrowed a copy of the Arabian Nights to provide light reading for his son, John Stuart. A highly trained reader thanks to his father’s horrendous home-education regime, the precocious boy perceived a picture of a name at the heart of the story.

We now step with the boy into 1830, perhaps a decade and a half after his first reading of the story and now a young man walking to work at India House in the City. Mill puts himself into the shoes of “the robber in the Arabian Nights,” imagining himself chalking one of the houses that he walks past. Later, during office hours at India House, he puts his thoughts into writing, encouraging his readers to re-enact the fairy-tale marking in their own minds and then, in a second paragraph, declaring the robber’s action analogous to the imposition of a proper name before defining a proper name as a meaningless mark. The two paragraphs will become a consecutive passage of ‘On Names’, the second chapter of Mill’s great work, A System of Logic (1843).

When we impose a proper name, we perform an operation in some degree analogous to what the robber intended in chalking the house. We put a mark, not indeed upon the object itself, but, if I may so speak, upon the idea of the object. A proper name is but an unmeaning mark which we connect in our minds with the idea of the object, in order that whenever the mark meets our eyes or occurs to our thoughts, we may think of that individual object. Not being attached to the thing itself, it does not enable us, as the chalk did, to distinguish the object when we see it; but it enables us to distinguish it when it is spoken of, either in the records of our own experience, or in the discourse of others; to know that what we find asserted in any proposition of which it is the subject, is asserted of the individual thing with which we were previously acquainted.

Reaching Mill’s definition, I suspect most of his readers have breathed a sigh of relief to put aside a literary analogy they could make neither head nor tail of. Certainly, nobody who I have read has noticed in print that Mill makes a definition in the image of Sesame. I will draw out this image, but doing so is only a subordinate aim of this paper, which seeks to return from the magic of Sesame to the seemingly more mundane chalk mark at the center of Mill’s first paragraph, which I identify as the source of all the queerness in his passage and, as such, one reason why nobody noticed his magical definition – which is really rather a splendid definition, amply rewarding further consideration!

To make my case, it must first be said that Mill’s account of a proper name has not been recognized for what it is. Since Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity (1980), mainstream analytical philosophers have concluded that Mill was right when he declared proper names meaningless, and Bertrand Russell wrong when, in the early years of the twentieth century, he turned Mill’s doctrine on its head. Russell (who was Mill’s godson), argued that proper names (as actually used) are really disguised or abbreviated descriptions (and, as such, meaningful). He appears to have disliked his godfather’s fairy-story analogy with some passion, advocating a general ban on fictional examples in philosophy and reducing Mill’s analogy of a proper name, by way of the doctrine of ‘particulars’ set out in his 1918 lectures on Logical Atomism, to a chalk mark on the blackboard that he names ‘John’. Russell’s doctrine of proper names has today gone the way of the dinosaurs, but his artistic erasure endures. Philosophers may recall that in the early twentieth-century Ludwig Wittgenstein, to whom Russell’s lectures were movingly dedicated, observed: “A picture held us captive” (Phil. Inv. 115), but they have forgotten which picture.

Because Mill is today read as anticipating Kripke, what he actually says is read carelessly and the scattered commentary drawn by his passage before 1970 (when Kripke first gave his lectures) must be unearthed by research. It cannot be said, however, that the academic publishing industry has thereby overlooked a golden bouquet of late Victorian philosophical wisdom. While the first part of the present essay is worked out by way of engagement with the nuggets of insight that may be gleaned from even the most off the mark philosophers, perhaps the best that can be said of this collection of assorted ambiguities and errors is that there may be no faster road to appreciating the genius of Hanna Diyab, the Syrian storyteller who gave his story of two marked doors to Antoine Galland in 1709. There are no doubt various reasons behind the literary slips of the philosophers, of which the most obvious seems to be that the story has been received as folklore, with no known author, which apparently dissolves felt obligation to adhere to the text (presumably, deemed inherently fluid). Yet the errors are so pronounced that I have come to attribute some at least to the agency of the storyteller, whose art is brought into relief by the traps his readers fall into. Mill himself falls into one of these traps when he begins:

If, like the robber in the Arabian Nights, we make a mark with chalk upon a house to enable us to know it again, the mark has a purpose, but it has not properly any meaning.

Which robber in the Arabian Nights? Obviously, the story in question is that titled in English ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’. But in this story three robbers in succession set out from their burgled cave, cross the forest to town and fall into conversation with Baba Mustafa, the cobbler, who takes coins to don a blindfold and retrace the steps by which Morgiana had led him to the house where he had sewn together the four quarters of a man. The third robber is the Chief, who simply looks long and hard at the house so to know it again. But the first two robbers carefully mark the house with (different coloured) chalk. Mill begins his account of proper names with an ambiguous definite description that betrays a failure to distinguish two nameless robbers.

From Mill on, the philosophers consistently fail to register the careful distribution of the One and the Many in the story. Theirs is a significant oversight because the storyteller’s subtlety in hiding singularity and disguising reiteration touches the heart of the matter of naming, which is where they came in. Ali Baba steps through three doors of the story: to the cave in the forest, his first house, and his brother’s house. So, what to make of the language of the Cambridge Idealist G.F. Stout, who refers to “the chalk mark placed by the robber on Ali Baba’s door”? (Mind 1891.) Properly speaking, the storyteller says the robber marks the house of Cassim; but Cassim is dead and his brother is his heir and already living in the house. The legal case could drag on for years. What about the woman who is Ali Baba’s wife? On changing address, our hero inherits also his brother’s wife, so then he has two. Only one of the 40 nameless Thieves, the Chief, and then only in the last part of the story, knows the proper name of Ali Baba, and none know the proper name of the burglar they catch and cut into four pieces. So, how many nameless thieves does this tale contain? Well, thanks to good luck and Morgiana, in conclusion only one is left standing: Ali Baba, master of one hole on the ground with two wives and one hole in the ground filled with treasure and, best of all, father-in-law to Morgiana.

One way to read the story is by seeking the singularities, of which Ali Baba is of course not the only one. Mill’s reading of the chalk mark as meaningless renders it as singular in the story as Morgiana. Of course, he does not distinguish the two chalkings; but this does not really matter for his argument if the marks are indeed meaningless, for they are then surely identical. But this singularity may hinge on the meaningless of the mark, which it self-evidently was not in the eyes of some commentators. One may quibble with the details but not reject out of hand the declaration of Thomas Shedden that the chalk mark is a cypher.

This example proves exactly the opposite of what Mr. Mill lays down. The robber did not mark the house for future identification, as a police official numbers the houses in a new street; on the contrary, when he marked it his concept of it was, that it was the house* where the cobbler had sewn together the four quarters of a man*, and to him that attribute of the house was connoted by the mark. The mark was a stenographic sign or cypher for that many-worded name. (The Elements of Logic, 1864. Cf. Latham 1856)

So, the first question to ask Shedden is, How many cyphers appear in the story? Because as soon as you perceive the chalk mark as a cypher you must decide if colour plays a role in shading meaning, or if the two differently coloured cyphers mean the same thing. Naturally, Shedden discusses only one mark, and his proposed concept should be dismissed. He is speaking to us from the context of a later Victorian Orientalism, which had already nativized the marking of a door (Mayhew 1849, Hotten 1859) and was familiar with W.E. Lane on the Egyptian romance with secret signs and codes (see Poole-Lane 1885). But Shedden betrays practical ignorance of criminal cyphers. A rough and ready communication through secret or hidden marks cannot number more than a few dozen before professional training is called for, and so is unlikely to include a mark with the elaborate meaning: “This is the house where the cobbler sewed together the four quarters of a man”. A philosopher should track the concept back to the cave, where we find the Chief entrusting the robber with the mission of tracking down the second nameless burglar.

We can revise Shedden’s concept by way of the obviously wrong declaration of W.R. Boyce Gibson, who says that “it was a sign which meant ‘The house of Ali Baba,’ to which it was attached.” Boyce Gibson honestly believes he has thereby refuted Mill’s characterization of the chalk mark as meaningless. But whatever the legal status of the property at this time, the bottom line here is that the cobbler answers the robber’s question ‘Who?’ with ‘I don’t know’. The cobbler echoes the question that the nameless thief asks out loud, a speech-act immediately following his chalking and so our best indication of what was in his mind when he made the mark, a meaning that appears in the story as a nameless thief in the shadow of a doorway.

Once we have arrived at a sign distinguishing the hole of a nameless burglar, I suspect the most sensible way for literary and philosophical analysis to proceed is by commencing a remix of the original elements. If you wish to spell it all out properly and formally, you need to deal with the apparent duality in meaning of the singularity, for which you may use the two differently coloured marks, assigning one the meaning burglar with the other signifying the nameless while holding clear in your mind that they are but two parts of one phrase like Good morning, a formula that joins two names to reveal meaning that alludes analysis of each individually (Jespersen). You could even separate the two parts of this linguistic element within the story, perhaps placing one on a door and dropping one outside a doorless hole. The name nameless would generate a curious drawing: a hole with no door containing a title but no chalk mark in sight. You could then put the name burglar on a door, show the door open to a door bell, and then put the magic of Sesame on a second door to a third hole where the 40 Thieves guard their treasure. Of course, this would be an altogether different story, but it might tease out further subtleties of the original.

From the passage in the original story, it is simply not possible to determine if the chalk mark is a meaningless mark, as Mill insists, or a cypher. But the dispute is a red herring, arising only from Mill’s pedagogical desire to show the working of a proper name. Mill’s philosophical position is that all words denote (refer or mark) but most names also mean, while proper names only denote. But any meaningful mark may be used, as occasion demands, as a meaningless mark and the possibility that the mark is also a cypher does not negate its power of distinguishing the house by serving also as a meaningless mark. But because Mill shunts aside any possible meaning of the chalk mark in his first paragraph he passes over the curious title of the nameless that glimmers in the shadow of the doorway. Consequently, Mill begins his definition of a proper name by unwittingly comparing it to a sign that suggests a person unknown.

As already suggested, it may be that Mill once saw the whole story but gradually forgot about it. Be that as it may, his is an odd oversight given that Sesame is, as the storyteller tells us, a type of grain. Still, the dual usage of names is no doubt more familiar to us today, who routinely invent new passwords to unlock online accounts, words with personal meanings that help anchor them in memory, which serve to open virtual doors by virtue of a distinctive pattern of characters that takes no meaning. In any case, I suggest that the source of the queerness of Mill’s passage is a failure to observe that allowing meaning to the chalk mark of the story illuminates the story without negating his model of a meaningless mark in action.

Mill’s combination of acute discernment of the story’s architecture and blindness to its meaning illuminates the ways in which, in his first paragraph, his usually sober prose anticipates the art of later Victorian fantasy. His reasoning for why he intends to mark the door of a random house he is walking past are simply preposterous.

I say to myself, All these houses are so nearly alike, that if I lose sight of them I shall not again be able to distinguish that which I am now looking at from any of the others; I must therefore contrive to make the appearance of this one house unlike that of the others, that I may hereafter know, when I see the mark – not indeed any attribute of the house – but simply that it is the same house which I am now looking at.

I say to myself, the Chief-robber knew the house again without recourse to chalk. I look again at the house and say, If I chalk this London house at 9.45 a.m. on this Tuesday morning, the occupant who is even now peering out behind a net curtain will step out of the door and give me what for. Reflecting, I ask, Why do I wish to know again this random house on a random street near the River Thames? I wonder, Is this man encouraging me to chalk a random house an anarchist? Because I appear to have stepped into a story by G.K. Chesterton. Perhaps the man is the Philosopher in the Club of Queer Trades, who earns his living chalking random houses? After seemingly endless reflection I conclude, John Stuart Mill is the founder of the suburban Victorian Orientalism that, as Borges says, Chesterton learned from Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882).

The very idea that we imitate the two robbers of the Arabian Nights seems, from a mere moment’s literary reflection, a bad one. Mill’s choice of model-namer is astonishingly uninviting, not because the two nameless robbers are criminals, nor because they are fairytale characters, but because the first is an idiot and the second apparently even more stupid, and their chalk marks spell their doom – drawing attention to themselves with their marking and so foiled by Morgiana, they are both executed by their Chief for having failed. Then there were 38 nameless thieves. You suggest to me that, “like the robber in the Arabian Nights, we make a mark with chalk upon a house”. Alarm bells sound in my head as a warning mark flashes a red light on a door opening on some distant chamber of literary records in my memory. I say to you, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Mill’s first paragraph is extraordinary. Once over his opening ambiguity, he compares a proper name to a chalk mark that, in context, is (twice) a stupid and fatal mistake, giving no good reason for imposing this mark in the first place. Crucially, he fails to anticipate the alternative reading of the chalk mark as some (meaningful) cypher. This latter failure seems to be the heart of the matter, for it indicates an incomplete reading of the story, which thereby drops him, as it were, into a great pit of his own making. While his comparison of the chalk mark and a proper name is insightful, his subsequent distinction between marks in the mind and marks on things in the world is largely beside the point; the chalk mark is indeed like a proper name but it is precisely not like a proper name because it is a sign of someone who is and remains in the mind of the namer, nameless. A sign of the nameless is, of course, a title, a meaningful mark of the kind that should be inside a hole, but this is no way contradicts the model of naming that Mill perceives because, as emphasized, a meaningful mark taken from inside the hole and placed on the door (like Sesame) can also serve as a meaningless mark in just the way Mill describes.

Here, by the way, is how I arrived at the biography with which I began. It seems to me exceedingly strange that someone could perceive the model of language in the story but not take the next step of considering it in relation to the (far more obvious) meaning spelled out by the story. But this is the oversight we discover in Mill’s Logic, while he tells us in his Autobiography about reading the Arabian Nights as a boy. I therefore suppose that the boy saw more of the story but that, over the years, as he bent his memory to his philosophical concerns in what became the first part his Logic, Mill forgot about the meaning drawn by the story.

Whatever the explanation for the queerness of the first paragraph, such an unpromising beginning may go some way to explaining why Mill’s readers were unwilling to follow him to Sesame in his next paragraph. Before leaving this strange first paragraph, however, it is important to appreciate how wonderful is the work it is really intended to perform. Behind all the cloud of confusion we discover that the usually prosaic Mill is here working real philosophical magic. Seemingly calling for an act of vandalism, Mill has a hobbit’s respect for property, and desires you to perform the experiment only in the privacy of your own mind. Once you do this, he believes, you will find in your mind an image of the naked house and an image of the chalked house, and to Mill’s way of thinking you will thereby have in your mind an idea of the house and a picture of a proper name as a private mark of the mind imposed upon this idea. In other words, Mill has the idea that he is drawing the proper name in your mind in this opening paragraph as a step towards defining what is in your mind in the second. You may not yet recognize your mental picture of a chalk mark as a proper name, but this is (in part) because it is a newly minted name and you have yet to see how it appears in ordinary, everyday use.

A proper name is but an unmeaning mark which we connect in our minds with the idea of the object, in order that whenever the mark meets our eyes or occurs to our thoughts, we may think of that individual object.

Prior to this moment of the mark occurring again we were not thinking of this individual, who is pictured in the model as a hole. So, picturing our minds prior to this moment, we discern no sign of a hole, no sign of a door, and no mark in sight. Hole and door are present in the mind, but the door hides the hole, and what was a visible door (previously chalked) is now a hidden door, which entails that the chalk mark has vanished too (or it would give the door and the hole away). But as we are not newborn but speakers of a language that allows us to name individuals we must assume, too, that even if the holes surrounding the chalked door are not marked, many other holes on other streets or even out in the forest and wild hills of the mind have been marked, and that they too, when these various holes are not in our thoughts, are hidden from our waking minds. The mind appears blank, aside from its immediate focus of attention. What now happens when the chalk mark meets our eyes or our ears or occurs to our thoughts? Open Sesame! A hole appears as a hidden door opens somewhere inside our minds, distinguishing the contents of the hole in our thought. (The whole scenario rather calls for a map of the mindscape so we know where the door will open, which is perhaps a weak point in the original story: how did Cassim ever locate the hidden door without one?)

For the sake of articulating Mill’s model, let us abstract the two holes and two doors of the story and imagine one hole with one door that takes one mark, which may be drawn or spoken. We must then imagine, as the robber and the cobbler walk away from the newly chalked door, the houses and the streets behind them fading until all is but an empty page of the mind. When the mark is next pronounced, this time spoken as Sesame, a hidden door appears as it opens to reveal the hole inside. The mark appears magic: no longer on the door, it now opens the door! This jump from chalk mark to key is not magic but a metaphorical description of a proper name in operation in the mind, a realm where the laws of physics do not work as they do in the world. Only when this model of a name as it appears in the mind is projected into the world, as in the story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’, do we find that the proper name in use has become a magical spell, revealing a hole by opening a hidden door.

Those who commented on Mill’s passage (at least those whose comments I have dug up) all seem to suppose that in his step from analogy to definition Mill puts aside the story in the Arabian Nights. Perhaps Mill was coy because of the apparent magic of Sesame? But though he does not spell it out, he defines a proper name simply by turning from a picture of the imposition of a mental mark on an idea to a picture of that idea now distinguished by the pronunciation of that mark. In fact, we have not left behind the Arabian Nights even in the next paragraph, a third, where immediately following the definition we find ourselves in the company of familiar English proper names, beholding before our eyes the cathedral-town of York.

When we predicate of anything its proper name; when we say, pointing to a man, this is Brown or Smith, or pointing to a city, that is York, we do not, merely by so doing, convey to the reader (sic) any information about them except that those are their names. By enabling him to identify the individuals, we may connect them with information previously possessed by him; by saying, This is York, we may tell him that it contains the Minster. But this is in virtue of what he has previously heard concerning York; not by anything implied in the name…

In a nutshell, the proper names like Brown, Smith, and York are door-marks while behind the doors are holes containing records with titles and descriptions, information conveyed by meaningful marks. So, assuming Brown is sufficiently knowledgeable that a door in his mind has already received a chalk mark that sounds York, and that already in the hole behind the door is stored the requisite title, when Smith points to the city on the horizon and says York the magic of Sesame is enacted: a hitherto hidden door opens in Brown’s mind, distinguishing the city before him with the title cathedral-town.


My disparaging observations as to the philosophers’ handling of the story should not be mistaken for the claim that they did not understand Mill’s philosophical ideas. On the whole, Laura Stedding in London and Joseph in Oxford seem to miss the mark in their attempts to explode the very idea of a meaningless mark, yet both display a sound instinct to avoid entanglement with the story. In Cambridge, where Mill was read by generations of moral sciences students, his chief disciple John Venn simply began his account of proper names with the definition, passing over any mention of the Arabian Nights. (Not that Venn did not read the analogy – his distinction between names (mental marks) and terms (expressions of mental marks in the world) silently corrects Mill’s tendency in this passage to use the term name indiscriminately for both - thereby conjuring up a most peculiar image of the chalk mark and Sesame as real names magically appearing in the world.) And as already noted, Russell’s demolition of Mill’s position in his 1918 lectures seems designed to erase all but the (now named) chalk mark of the analogy.

None of these philosophers was stupid, they merely declined Mill’s invitation to think about the story in relation to a name. And the wrongheaded readings of the story given by the philosophers above indicate that they were right to be wary – what Mill presents as a simple thought-experiment catches all but the most careful readers. Mill himself is a different kettle of fish, successfully re-enacting the stupidity of the robber, but doing so because he has seen the simple picture of a name drawn by the story.

The problem in the literature seems to arise from Mill’s suggestion that we understand a proper name by comparison with the chalk mark. Now, a proper name is more readily recognized or spoken than defined, yet it is an ordinary, everyday linguistic element of our lives, while the chalk mark on the door is rather singular, appearing in this fairy story but echoed both in other stories, some quite ancient, and some told as facts about the world we live in. Really, a proper name is more readily apprehended than the chalk mark. Hence the reverse order of the present essay, which seeks Mill’s definition of a proper name to illuminate the chalk mark. And in the second half of this paper from the scattered comments of many philosophers to one commentary by a single philologist, a man who was a bad reader of the Arabian Nights but a good reader of Mill.

Rummaging in virtual libraries seeking illumination of Mill’s passage, I unearthed a short book, little read but singularly illuminating, titled The Theory of Proper Names: A Controversial Essay (1940). The author, Sir Alan Gardiner, was an Egyptologist who had distinguished himself as a young man in 1916 by identifying some inscriptions in the Sinai Peninsula as a missing link between hieroglyphics and the alphabet. Gardiner in 1940 sounded a voice in the wilderness by defending Mill’s account of proper names. What Gardiner says about proper names completes Mill’s picture of a name, and though he has little time for Mill’s analogy, I argue that it supports my reading of Sesame whilst illuminating the singularity of the chalk mark.

Gardiner deemed Russell’s revisionist account of a proper name, then philosophical orthodoxy, “a wholly pernicious aberration of thought” (p. 4). The last part of his essay gives verbatim Russell’s 1918 formulation, and then takes no quarter in a quest to obliterate it. Prior to this, however, Gardiner quotes the first part of what I refer to above as Mill’s third paragraph to combat the version of the new orthodoxy trotted out for the linguists by the Danish philologist Otto Jespersen. Without mentioning the chalk mark, Jespersen in his Philosophy of Grammar (1924) says that Mill’s position must be turned on its head. Where Mill says that a proper name is meaningless, Jespersen argues as follows: a common name (e.g. burglar) identifies one attribute found in many individuals but a proper name identifies all known attributes of one individual, so proper names not only have meaning but have more meaning than common names:

The first time you hear of a person or read his name in a newspaper, he is ‘a mere name’ to you, but the more you hear and see of him the more will the name mean to you. Observe also the way in which your familiarity with a person in a novel grows the farther you read. (Jespersen, p. 64)

A curious notion, which suggests that a proper name is, or at least becomes, a symbol that means everything a person is, or at least all the titles and descriptions that might be found in his or her story; a symbol that could only be read properly once a story is concluded (and would be undermined by a sequel). This is just the kind of pernicious nonsense that Gardiner wishes to stamp out. He replies: “But Mill has anticipated this argument,” and gives verbatim the first part of Mill’s third paragraph, to which he adds the following gloss:

Ordinary words, among which general names [common names] play a prominent part, directly convey information; proper names merely provide the key to information. To hark back to Mill’s own example, York certainly does not mean cathedral-town, but it provides any knowledgeable listener with a datum which, after only the slightest interval for reflection, will bring to his consciousness the fact that the town he is beholding possesses a cathedral; the same name will doubtless recall to his memory other information as well. Ultimately York will prove much more informative than cathedral-town, but in itself it does no more than establish the identity of the town spoken about. (p. 32)

We are still not returned to the Arabian Nights, but we are standing before the city of York with a metaphorical key in our hand. As is often the way with occasional metaphors, it is hard to tell just what the author intended: did he have in mind that the information about the Minster is to be read on a map, discovered inside a box without hinges or lid, or read in a dusty collection of records stored behind a door? In all cases, I think, we are in some variant of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’, with the last, and I think most obvious reading, a straightforward variation in which Open Sesame appears as a physical key. Pedagogically, a key nicely pictures a meaningless yet distinctive mark, the pattern of the teeth visible to the eye, if properly read only by the right lock. On the other hand, and as highlighted in the story of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins published by the Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon in 1937, a hidden door opening to a physical key requires dwarvish ingenuity when it comes to picturing the appearance of the keyhole.

That Gardiner himself drew a connection between his metaphorical key and Sesame seems unlikely. On my informal commentator rankings, he falls together with Edmund Husserl (1900) on the second lowest rung – both declare that the chalk mark indicates that the house is to be robbed (a literary peccadillo crowned only by Gordon Latham in 1856, who thought Mill was referring to the novels of Haji Baba by the British diplomat James Justinian Morier). Gardiner also twists Mill’s paragraph to make Morgiana the model-namer (a distortion that perhaps betrays sound instincts, as she alone in the story knows how to do things with marks). Nevertheless, he has genuine cause for complaint that Mill’s analogy is unhappy:

[The comparison] would have been apposite only if Morgiana had placed different chalk marks upon all the doors, thus making it needful for the robber to know, not merely that the house to be plundered (sic) was marked with chalk, but through what particular mark the house could be identified. The name John serves to distinguish its bearer from Philip and Arthur and Percival, not because these companions of his are nameless, but because his name is different from theirs. (pp. 38-9?)

A simple, yet powerful criticism, illuminating another oddity of Mill’s analogy, namely that he frames an indistinct distinguishing mark. We, who are not nameless thieves in a fairy story, give proper names to many individuals, if not all the same ones, and the various distinguishing marks that we use must themselves have distinctive appearance if they are to serve our pleasure and not sow confusion. But as with the queer sign that means burglar that the wizard puts on the door of the hobbit-hole in J.R.R. Tolkien’s story, the appearance of the chalk mark is never described (I envisage it as a dot or a dash, but the movies invariably draw a cross). From Gardiner’s linguistic viewpoint, this makes the chalk mark singularly unhelpful. Indeed, he evidently associated the analogy from the Arabian Nights with the chief defect of Mill’s analysis.

Gardiner puts his criticism formally as follows: Mill’s “otherwise correct analysis needs rectification” because it places exclusive emphasis upon the negative criterion of the meaninglessness of proper names and strangely neglects “the indicative power of the distinctive sounds of proper names” (p. 32?). To my mind, this draws out Mill’s account so that it begins to make sense. All words that I hear you speak are sounds, and most convey meaning; but a (pure) proper name is (as Mill says) a meaningless use of a name, performing (as Gardiner points out) all its work of identifiable distinction by sound alone.

The purest of proper names are those of which the sounds strike us as wholly arbitrary, yet perfectly distinctive, and about which we should feel, if ignorant of their bearers, no trace of meaning or significance. Such names are Vercingetorix and Popocatepetl. (p. 40)

Gardiner suggests that when we pronounce a proper name it is as if our voices make a purely instrumental music of speech, underlining that to speak a list of proper names is to utter a string of distinctive sounds. So, if we draw a proper name as a visible mark, its distinct appearance should suggest other marks that are like it but different, as does perhaps the shape of one knight on a chessboard. But colour seems the only way of distinguishing one indistinct chalk mark on a door from another, and the spectrum will hardly exhaust even a local range of ‘pure’ proper names.

Let’s bring into the picture a mark that would satisfy Gardiner. In 1775 the young Englishman Nicholas Creswell copied into his journal a complex picture he saw drawn on a tree in Ohio. The drawing recorded the participation a decade earlier of a local Delaware warband in what is called Pontiac’s War (misleadingly, in this case, as this Delaware band did not travel north to the Great Lakes). Chief White Eyes, who read the drawing to Creswell and had been with the warband at the siege of Fort Pitt, told him it was led by Chief Wingemund, who had also drawn the marks, and that the queer sign between the tortoise and the sun at the top of the drawing was his mark. Creswell reports: “The Cross and the two Halfmoons are the Characters by which he is personally distinguished among his nation.” (110) Wingemund’s personal marks as he put them on a tree may be imagined chalked on a door in Old Persia, with Morgiana chalking on the doors either side distinguishing marks of other Delaware chiefs – this would make for just the kind of distinction Gardiner requires. But then the chalk marks would not be like proper names, they would be proper names.

Mill is quite correct to hold up the chalk mark as like a proper name. But he does not clarify the ways in which the two chalk marks of the story are not like proper names. Whether the mark is put on the thing of the idea is a point that Mill’s language at least occasionally looses sight of in this passage, as Venn noted, but it is hardly the fundamental point, which turns on the use of the mark according to the context in which it is read. Successfully re-enacting the mental act of a stupid robber by abstracting the mark from its context to such a degree that a public sign, for all to see, is imagined a private mark of the mind, Mill in the privacy of his own mind chalks an indistinct mark on a random house for no good reason. Only so does he allow himself not to see, as he asks us to follow him in an imaginary marking of a real house, that the story draws one nameless thief unwittingly bestowing his own title on another.

Nevertheless, and appearances notwithstanding, Mill’s picture of a name is robust. Certainly, it would be useful to explore it with some further thought experiments and historical research into the odd relationship between proper names and titles in time. But all would have been much clearer at the beginning if Mill had only acknowledged that the chalk mark that he compares to a proper name is a title of a nameless individual, whose other title is burglar. Neither title is a proper name, but both meaningful marks may be recruited to play the part of a meaningless mark on the door. The model allows us to compare suggestive uses of names in the ‘wrong’ place (a title inside the hole put on the door, for example) with the permanent shifts that have evidently generated proper names like Smith and Cook. The duality of the model, the picture of a name that both conveys meaning but works irrespective of any meaning, is a virtue of the picture when drawn out in full, and underlines that this model of a name allows us to trace meaning as it changes before a name ever falls into use as a door-mark. But to make his point Mill hides an instrument of etymological reflection in a cloud of unknowing. The philosophers then made their own clouds, while Gardiner saw his way to the way of words by putting the Arabian Nights aside.

One English philologist who does seem to have read carefully both Mill and the story of Hanna Diyab is Tolkien, as may be glimpsed through my occasional references to The Hobbit. But looking at his sequel, where he turns the magic of the original hidden door from appearance to opening, we may guess this combined reading simply from a careful inspection of the Doors of Durin, by which the Fellowship of the Ring step into the Mines of Moria: A hidden door located in the rockface is made visible by some inarticulate magic of the wizard; on the door various queer signs and marks inscribed on the stone. The signs declare the border and the friendship of the two neighbouring houses, dwarf and high-elf, while the marks spell the proper names of the maker of the door and the drawer of the marks, and spell out too the elvish name Friend as the password. When the password is spoken the doors open, and the Company step into what, in another age of the world, was the great dwarf-kingdom under the Mountain, a hole in the ground currently occupied by a Balrog of Morgoth.