Sunday, August 27, 2006

And just who are the madmen, anyway?

I think it was two Christmases ago that I gave my brother Simon Winchester's two books on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary: The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything. At the same time, I bought copies of the books for myself. I think the idea was that we would read them more or less simultaneously. My brother read his copies promptly. Now it's almost two years later and last weekend I just finished the first one, The Professor and the Madman. Oops.

Honestly, it's not my fault. I have very little time for recreational reading, and what little I have I reserve for fiction, which is my passion. I do read non-fiction, but usually on topics along the lines of Cascading Style Sheets, PHP programming techniques, and .NET Framework.

But now I have, at long last, read The Professor and the Madman. It was pretty good. I enjoyed it. I have to admit it has flaws: The prose is sometimes gratuitously flamboyant. Winchester occasionally flies off into hyperbole. The parts where he speculates on what triggered Dr. Minor's madness are simply overreaching. An editor could have done some good here. But then there are other places where I simply could not put the book down, and I think that's high praise for non-fiction. Winchester has taken several stories which, by themselves, might not have amounted to much, and very skillfully woven them into a whole that stands well. The book is very much a tapestry.

Moving on to the point of this post (yes, Virginia, this long post has a point), I first want to tell you, my three readers, that I am a curmudgeon when it comes to language and correct usage. I will, if it can be done without causing long-term hard feelings, correct someone who confuses insure, ensure, and assure. Likewise for effect and affect. And, like Nero Wolfe, I do not accept the contention that infer and imply can be interchanged. I am also horrified when nouns are used as verbs -- a practice that people who agree with me call by the tongue-in-cheek name "verbing." For a time, I was even collecting specimens of verbing for a gallery on this Web page.

All this said, as I was reading The Professor and the Madman, I was given pause in chapter four ("Gathering Earth's Daughters"), when Winchester lamented (to the extent of four pages) that Shakespeare (not to mention Bacon, Spenser, Marlowe, Donne, and others whom Winchester does mention) did not have the use of a dictionary in his time. Not even one:
Whenever he [Shakespeare] came to use an unusual word, or to set a word in what seemed an unusual context -- and his plays are extraordinarily rich with examples -- he had almost no way of checking the propriety of what he was about to do.

He could not check the propriety! Horror! But there's more:
Consider, for instance, Shakespeare's writing of Twelfth Night, which he completed sometime at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. {snip} Sebastian and Antonio, the shipwrecked sailor and his rescuer, have just arrived in port and are wondering where they might stay the night. Sebastian considers the question for a moment, and then, in the manner of one who has read and well remembered his Good Hotel Guide of the day, declares quite simply: "In the south suburbs at the Elephant/Is best to lodge."

Now what, exactly, did William Shakespeare know about Elephants? Moreover, what did he know of Elephants as hotels? The name was one given to a number of lodging houses in various cities dotted around Europe. This particular elephant, given that this was Twelfth Night, happened to be in Illyria; but there were many others, two of them at least in London. But however many there were -- just why was this the case? Why name an inn after such a beast? And what was such a beast, anyway? All of these are questions that, one would think, a writer should at least have been able to answer.

"One would think," Winchester says. The only thing I think is that Winchester had caught a small and thankfully short-lived case of diarrhea of the keyboard. Let's go on:
One might think he [Shakespeare, still] would want to look up things all the time. "Am I not consanguineous?" he writes in the same play. A few lines on he talks of "thy doublet of changeable taffeta." He then declares: "Now is the woodcock near the gin." Shakespeare's vocabulary was evidently prodigious: But how could he be certain that in all cases where he employed unfamiliar words, he was grammatically and factually right?

Winchester is trying very, very hard to impress upon us that humanity suffered immeasurable and doubtless irreversible loss because Shakespeare did not have access to a dictionary, and could not be certain that he used words in a manner that was "factually right."

What gave me pause, of course, as I'm sure it has done you, is that I read exactly the opposite message in Winchester's words: Could Shakespeare's greatness have been due, in part at least, to his not having a dictionary? To his not being encumbered by the burden of being "factually right?" To his freedom in letting his linguistic fancy fly free? Part of the magic of Shakespeare is his often startling use of words -- of which even Winchester says "his plays are extraordinarily rich with examples." Could he have achieved this extraordinary richness if his audience continually pointed and said, for example, "Shame, shame, you used a noun as a verb -- why didn't you look that up in your dictionary?"

I, the language curmudgeon, am beginning to think he could not.... It's Winchester, ironically, who is convincing me.

And that leads to some disturbing conclusions (to me, anyway): What great works of creative, mind-bending literature could we produce, today, if we were not hemmed in by our dictionaries? Are we in fact doing harm to humanity by fastening the handcuffs of correct usage? I present as an example a phrase that I admire very much, from Caribbean usage: downpresser-man. It's so much more vivid and visceral than its conventional synonym, oppressor, as you would expect from a word coined by those who actually suffered the oppression -- the downpressed.

I have always admired the OED immensely -- I consider it the greatest single compendium in all of human history. I have always looked to it as, well, the final word. So it has been a revelation to me to learn that the editors of the OED do not recognize the concept of "correct usage." They only recognize usage. If a word is used, then it is, ipso facto, correct. What a concept. The editors of the OED are certainly not, in the eternal words of William Shakespeare (King Lear) "finical rogues."


O, the tyranny of dictionaries! I used to be as you are before coming to the conclusion that language is a folk tradition. English in particular seems well suited to adaptability so as to give people the ability to speak to their times. It has been a couple of years since I read the book, but I remember coming away from the experience thinking that dictionaries are not, as I previously thought, enforcers of English but are instead merely reporters of how the language is used by it true masters - those who speak it everyday.

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