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Home DUCTS.ORG Issue 12 | Winter 2003 the webzine of personal stories
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Of Philology, Pentimento and Precision

Elliot Ravetz

How does Moby Dick begin? Put the question to 100 people and it's likely that 99 will respond, "Call me Ishmael." Ninety-nine mistaken responses, 99 important oversights, 99 deflected readings yielding incomplete appreciations of a great novel.

The novel begins with the word "Etymology," followed by a mock-scholarly etymology of "whale" along with numerous illustrative sentences taken from world literature in which the word or a synonym for it is used. This alters our reading of what follows. Moby Dick is, finally, a book largely about perceiving, naming, and understanding.* Melville offers an extensive inventory of whaling terminology: names for whales and whale parts, for whaling instrumentalities and procedures. Clearly, though, Moby Dick is rather more about perceiving and comprehending (relationships primarily: man/nature, man/man, man/God, man/himself) than whaling. The true vessel for the undertaking is the English language, not the Pequod.

* * *

What follows is an elliptical view of words and usage as they relate to thinking, feeling, comprehending, and writing.

* * *

Words are the medium of thought. Logos , reports the OED,

"A term used by Greek philosophers...developed from...its ordinary senses 'reason' and 'word'..." And J. Mitchell Morse observes in The Irrelevant English Teacher , "to the extent that we recognize our feelings we even feel in words...." People whose command of language is weak "have little command of their thoughts or even of their feelings." "The thought is born with the sentence that constitutes it, or not at all; the sentence is the thought...thinking is a process of composition." Cf., Wittgenstein: "The limits of my language means the limits of my world." Boswell: "Johnson's comprehension of mind was the mould for his language. Had his conceptions been narrower, his expression would have been easier." And Hugh Kenner: "One senses that Hegel was possible only in German, and finds it natural that Locke in a language where large and red precede apple would have arrived at the thing after sorting out its sensory qualities, whereas Descartes in a language where grosse et rouge follows pomme should have come to the attributes after the distinct idea." [I necessarily prescind here from the mental processes that enable Paul Morphy to excel in chess, Einstein to grasp and elucidate physical laws, Bach to compose music, and Balanchine to discover art in the controlled patterns of bodies moving in space. All involve mental discipline, a well-developed critical faculty, and other properties of thinking, which, though perhaps co-extensive with the kind that concerns me, differ from logos in ways that are both subtle and obvious.]

* * *

English was reinvented for us in the mid-18 th century (see Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era and his brilliantly alembicated The Stoic Comedians ). This was primarily a consequence of the birth of lexicography, itself a byproduct of the Gutenberg Revolution. The new widespread availability of print hastened the transformation of literature from a primarily oral medium to a medium that is primarily visual, and it precipitated the sense of need for standardization of the way the spoken word would be rendered in print.

With his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language , Samuel Johnson (the first modern lexicographer) aimed to stabilize language, which was "exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation." He sought to bring discipline to "the boundless chaos of a living speech," to "catch [words] on the brink of utter inanity, to circumscribe them by any limitations, or interpret them by any words of distinct and settled meaning...." He recognized that "Words are seldom synonimous (sic); a new term was not introduced, but because the former was thought inadequate...."; and "Most men think indistinctly, and therefore cannot speak with exactness...."

Johnson's dictionary, seeking to create stability and order, seeking to differentiate and disambiguate words, provided 40,000-plus definitions, along with approximately 114,000 illustrative quotations to demonstrate the shades and hues of individual words as employed by the best English writers known to Johnson, which, together with the etymologies Johnson deduced, also helped to trace the permutations the words had undergone in their histories. Why the labor-intensive bother with historical illustrations and etymologies that often, and sometimes anfractuously, travel through foreign tongues? Johnson: "Such is the exuberance of signification which many words have obtained, that it was scarcely possible to collect all their senses; sometimes the meaning of derivatives must be sought in the mother term."

Because Johnson also knew that language is a living organism, he sought judicious stability (presciently fearing that willy-nilly change risked the loss of Milton and Shakespeare's English to future generations), not intractability. Thus, before definition and illustration, we find etymology, the "mother term(s)," the roots of verbal life: an organism, notes Kenner, "that can maintain its identity as it grows and evolves in time...that can remember ...anticipate...mutate...."

James Joyce also knew this: "The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh" -- Joyce's form also illustrating different possibilities of the oral and written language. Beyond performing visual operations ("strandentwining," many puns lost to the ear are disclosed to the eye, etc.), we usually expect serious writers to be more conscious of discrete word-values, to be discriminating and more accurate (from ad + curare , taking care).

C.S. Lewis put the matter this way:

…words constantly take on new meanings. Since these do not necessarily, nor even usually, obliterate the old ones, we should picture this process not on the analogy of an insect undergoing metamorphoses but rather on that of a tree throwing out new branches, which themselves throw out subordinate branches; in fact, as ramification. The new branches sometimes overshadow and kill the old ones but by no means always. We shall again and again find the earliest senses of a word flourishing for centuries despite a vast overgrowth of later senses which might have been expected to kill them.

Etymology, then: the morphology of logos, the word, the necessary, irreducible constituent of thought, reason, and comprehension. To understand the nature of something -- its quiddity -- perhaps a whale, perhaps good and evil, or perhaps the particular meaning when we say it of "I love you," for any of us wishing to individualize and particularize the sentiment in order to give it personal value, we will have to come to terms with the nature and singularity of the words we select to define it. Only by means of the painstaking choices and ordering of words, by careful amplification and specification, can we retrieve and recrudesce the words "I love you" -- words as talismanically potent as they are vague -- from what Beatrice Webb called "the dustbin of emotions."

* * *

We are indebted to Lillian Hellman for calling her memoir Pentimento and thereby introducing (or reintroducing) us to that word: "Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter 'repented,' changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again."

Gore Vidal took a similarly evocative path in calling his own memoir Palimpsest. The American Heritage Dictionary defines palimpsest as a "manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible."

Streets that followed like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question...

When T.S. Eliot composed these lines for the first stanza of "Prufrock," his fastidious choice of the word "overwhelming" adumbrated the poem's denouement for readers with some knowledge of etymology and a willingness to credit certain writers with precise, accurate usage. Webster's Second cites these as the first two meanings for "overwhelm": 1. To overturn, upset, or overthrow. 2. To cover over completely, as by a great wave; ...submerge...; ...immerse....

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

As Eliot says in the "Four Quartets," The end is where we start from and In my beginning is my end." In this way, careful writers may create a pentimento effect -- the drowning being perhaps partially discernible in the overwhelming -- and thereby enrich the text. To the eye of the attentive reader, words can suggest histories that enrich the present, adumbrate the future, and even superimpose meanings.

Richard Chenevix Trench, a philologist and an instigator of the New English Dictionary (which became the OED ), noted that "Many a single word...is itself a concentrated poem, having stores of poetical thought and imagery laid up in it." We know that James Joyce spent many hours reading Walter Skeat's Etymological Dictionary (1882), a habit (Joyce ever reluctant to waste experience) he imparted to Stephen Hero, who, like his creator and model, "was often hypnotized by the most commonplace conversation." "People seemed to him strangely ignorant of the value of the words they used so glibly." Like Flaubert, who struggled to find le seul mot juste (“the exactly right word”), "When literature attains the precision of an exact science, that's something!" and like that ironic genius and formidable lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov, who often referred to "the precision of art and the passion of science," Joyce was a verbal retentive, a compulsive logophiliac, continually looking up words, learning their roots and their histories and their proper meanings; and having registered the sense in which they occurred, then stripping away layers of obnubilation and distortion with which marketplace negligence has encrusted them, he would enlist them to his purposes.

Again like Flaubert, who wrote the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas -- a compendium of overheard clichés and platitudes, the unconsidered ideas polluting people's minds -- and others who are discriminating in the application of words, An acquaintance had trouble accepting the fact that Joyce, the greatest master of the English language after Shakespeare, had spent two days working on two sentences. "Yes," Joyce responded, "I had the words. What I was working at was the order of the fifteen words in the sentences. There is an order in every way exact. I think I have found it." That is, usage. Grammar and syntax. Rules and traditions that were designed to serve clarity and precision.

There's a significant difference, for instance, between "I can say only that it's brilliant" and "I can only say that it's brilliant." Ambiguities may have serious consequences: to wit, "People who eat this often get sick," wherein the two-way adverb invites confusion, misinterpretation, and potential health problems. And just as misplaced modifiers invite confusion: "There are many reasons why lawyers lie, some better than others," so too do the ill-considered proximity of relative pronouns to the nouns they modify: "She's the mother of an infant daughter who works twelve hours a day."

* * *

Though language is itself a congeries of arbitrary conventions and rules (to an extent, historical accidents) whose purpose is intelligibility, we may speak of the "natural" use of words in two senses. There is, first, the way in which a word is used --the norm, the standard, the ideal -- that reflects back on its nature (its origins, its history, including accretions of meaning that have altered without deracinating it) and, alternatively, descriptive linguists argue that the use of words is natural whenever people use them, irrespective of how, so long as the intended meaning is conveyed. Presupposing sufficient numbers of people adopting a new usage, however coarse or ultimately damaging to clarity, modern lexicographers are there -- too eagerly it sometimes seems -- to codify and legitimize that usage as they update dictionaries.

Words do accrue new meanings in time, and change is natural when the new meanings are cognates of earlier ones or are metaphorically related to them. We have seen this in Eliot's use of "overwhelming," whose present sense is clearly derived from previous senses. Perusing (which is not skimming or scanning) the OED or [Merriam-] Webster's New international Dictionary , Second Edition evinces the point. What descriptivists fail to appreciate, it seems, is that word-growth resembles and is part of human-growth: it should be guided by caring adults who wish, by precept and practice, to help shape healthy, responsive and responsible lives (word or human). Too readily to condone or approve verbal corruption and irresponsibility is to invite correspondingly dissolute or diminished thinking, feeling and behaving.

As standards have steadily loosened, instances of verbal sloppiness, catachreses and solecisms seem to be proliferating at a geometric rate. They appear not only in casual speech, where it is somewhat more pardonable, but also in the formal address of lawyers in courtrooms and elected officials in Congress, in newspapers, magazines, books, and in the copy read by television newscasters -- alas, the source on which a majority of Americans most depend for their knowledge of current events. Among the common abuses are: Between you and I. Ten items or less. The reason is because. My family and myself. Ironic for coincidental or paradoxical. Merge together. Self-confessed. Mingle or mix together. Future plans. Free gift. Surrounded on all sides. Throughout the entire. Misrepresent for lie. At this point in time. Fulsome for robust or generous. Visible to the eye. Data as singular, media as singular, phenomena and graffiti as singular. Tragedy or tragic for something that may be exceedingly sad or unfortunate. Postmodern. To impact. To critique. To mentor. To e-mail. Prioritize. Notorious for celebrated, well-known or famous. Fortuitous for fortunate. Disinterested/uninterested. Imply/infer. Anxious/eager. Masterly/masterful. Further/farther. Quote/quotation. Nauseous/nauseated. Transpire for occur. From whence. Indicated for said. Precise estimate.

* * *

English is rich in near-synonyms, and the ability to chose intelligently from among, say, inextirpable , inexpungable, inextinguishable, ineradicable, impregnable, indestructible, and inviolable or, say, skinny, emaciated, cadaverous, skeletal, slender, spindly, and wizened allows us to clarify and refine what we say, think and feel -- that is, our identities -- to give them and us greater value, nuance, subtlety and individuality.

* * *

Forty or more years ago, when academic standards were consistently higher, reflecting a less heterogeneous culture for which something resembling a classical education was still a common goal of unquestioned importance, it was possible to speak of a language war between descriptivists and prescriptivists.

The publication of the Third Edition of Webster's New International Dictionary (Unabridged) in 1961 marks a cultural watershed: its appearance revealed a great deal about the changes in our culture since the publication in 1934 of the great Second Edition of Webster's. The salient difference between the editions is that Webster's Third accepts as standard English most of the words to which Webster's Second attached warning labels: slang, colloquial, erroneous, incorrect, illiterate.

The differences between the editions reflected the philosophies of their editors. Dr. William A. Neilson, the editor of Webster's Second, followed the lexical practice that had governed since Samuel Johnson's time. He assumed that there was such a thing as correct English and that it was his and his colleagues' responsibility as lexicographers to decide what it was. He included substandard words, of course, because of their common use, but these words came with warning and usage labels. His approach was normative: it assumed an ideal standard that he sought to clarify for anyone consulting his dictionary; it also assumed that people often consulted a dictionary for expert guidance.

Dr. Philip Gore, the editor of Webster's Third, was, like Neilson, a dedicated scholar, but he was also a Structural Linguist who sought to apply scientific methodology to his editorial task. A dictionary, he wrote, "should have no traffic with...artificial notions of correctness or superiority. It was to be descriptive and not prescriptive." Consequently, Webster's Third described ain't as "used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers [sic]" and it included such terms as heighth and irregardless without any monitory labels on them.

About descriptivists in general and Gore's dictionary in particular, Dwight Macdonald wrote, "They seem imperfectly aware of the fact that the past of a language is part of its present, that tradition is as much a fact as the violation of tradition."

The descriptivists have probably won the war. Even the great Samuel Johnson had to concede: “Pronunciation will be varied by levity or ignorance...illiterate writers will at one time or another, by publick infatuation, rise into renown, who, not knowing the original import of words, will use them with colloquial licentiousness, confound distinction, and forget propriety....”

But some lost wars are still worth fighting. With his concession, Johnson also issued a rallying cry: “But if the changes that we fear be thus irresistible...it remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure.”

* * *

H.W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) and Eric Partridge's Usage & Abusage: A Guide to Good English (1942) are still invaluable -- and brimming with wit, elegance and lively intelligence, they are also fun to use and even to browse through. Fowler's Dictionary was gracefully updated by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1965, and this second edition is the one to get. But take pains to avoid Robert W. Burchfield's The New Fowler's Modern English Usage , 1996. It is unseemly for Burchfield to have appropriated Fowler's name and for Oxford, Fowler's publisher, to have permitted it. For though Burchfield is a serious student of language and for a time edited the OED , he is, unlike Fowler and Partridge, permissive about usage; he is unwilling much of the time to make important discriminations or to issue those informed warnings and judgments that can help us to elevate the quality – the strength, clarity and grace -- of our writing.

Bryan A. Garner has inherited the mantle of Fowler and Partridge. Garner is already one of the most important figures in Anglo-American linguistics and dictionary-making, and his Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998; second edition 2003) is indispensable for anyone who is passionate about the language. He manages, somewhat miraculously, to wield his unsurpassable knowledge of the language with natural grace, to be firm and agile (he's a nonrigid prescriptivist), wise and reasonable, confident and confidence-inspiring, as he guides us through even the thorniest issues of usage.

* * *

William Gass's inspired title, The World Within The Word , succinctly captures what I have been trying to say. Ponder that title. Savor it. Words are valuable and they are powerful. As the breadth and versatility of our vocabularies expand, so does our ability to understand ourselves and others. Yet there are some who are put off, even antagonized, by the use of unfamiliar words; to these people, I suspect, such words seem pretentious or pedantic, and dictionaries are an inconvenience rather than sources of potential wonder and revelation. Charles Harrington Elster shared such an experience.

It is almost a truism to say that words have the power to transform us and crystallize our vision of the world. I say almost because, though the statement may seem trite, it is unassailable. Every literate one of us has experienced its truth.

My crowning moment in word serendipity is seared into my brain. I was thumbing through Paul Hellweg's ''Insomniac's Dictionary'' when I stumbled upon the word resistentialism, which Hellweg defines as ''seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects.''

Reading that definition, I had what can only be described as a revelation. I felt that an entire category of my experience had been uplifted from the Cimmerian realm of the Inexpressible into the clear, comforting light of the Known.

* * *

I admire Nabokov's response to Edmund Wilson who, of all unlikely people, attacked Nabokov for an "addiction to rare and unfamiliar words." Nabokov: "It does not occur to [Wilson] that I may have rare and unfamiliar things to convey.... Mr. Wilson can hardly be unaware that once a writer chooses to youthen or resurrect a word, it lives again...and will keep annoying stodgy grave-diggers as long as that writer's book endures." (Cf., Samuel Johnson: "Obsolete words are admitted" -- into his dictionary -- "when they are found in authours not obsolete, or when they have force or beauty that may deserve revival.")

Wilson may be taken as a representative for all who would circumscribe language (the range of expression) to a breadth approximating their own; those who abstractly preconize the abundance of English vocabulary but are vexed when comfortable theory is occasionally put into challenging practice. This, like a laissez faire toleration of sloppy usage, can be self-perpetuating: those editors and writers who fear taxing and perhaps losing readers may simultaneously impose vitiating constraints on less demotic, more rarefied language and tolerate slovenly formulations because they are growing commonplace. The practice truncates the living language and impoverishes for all the extent to which we can be more precisely and imaginatively expressive, and more fully realized human beings. To lose a word is to lose part of ourselves (or potential selves), our heritage, and our abilities to understand our connections to the past and to grow. When departing from or seeking to alter the traditional stock of words, we're better off in the direction of neologism.

Civilized mankind defines reality and itself primarily through language, and we are obliged to ourselves and to civilization (past, present, and future) to preserve and extend the health and vitality of the language, our most important living legacy.


*Since Moby Dick is no longer protected by copyright laws, it is available from many publishers. Some editions omit Melville's dedication of the novel to Nathaniel Hawthorne and its proper opening. I suspect that most of the publishers who delete Melville's opening have glanced at it just fleetingly and have mistaken it for someone else's appended material.

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