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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A large example is dangerous

I look forward to Edward Rothstein's Connections columns in the NY Times. Yesterday's column, about the recent revisions to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a typical Rothstein piece: first he summarizes the book he's reading, and then he riffs for a while on something fascinating. (I hurry to get to the latter parts of his columns--except for this weird one about absinthe, which is funny in its inversion of the formula.) The end of the column is a funny critique of how the OED editors chose illustrative quotations:
But the biggest difficulties are in the "historical principles," which seem to have become historical themselves — held over from the past, only to be jettisoned when inconvenient. This is clearest in the use of quotations. Of course the first O.E.D. was skewed in its choices, reflecting few writers of the 18th century, and offering a selection not fully representative of the language’s powers. But now the O.E.D. does not even pretend to offer “all the great English writers of all ages.”

Diversity becomes a greater priority. The Shorter dictionary has 1,300 new quotations from writers like Susan Faludi, Spike Lee, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Zadie Smith, and the editors emphasize their broad demographic intentions. This can be illuminating. I like, for example, the Shorter’s definition for “mook”* (“a stupid or incompetent person”) with an illustration from Mr. Lee, “Who are you gonna listen to, me or that mook?” But in that case, there is also too little information: Only cross-references lead the reader to guess that the word evolved out of a racial slur.

And while it may be fine, in the old O.E.D., to cite authors like Shakespeare or Tennyson by first initial and last name, once the floodgates are opened, undated identifications become bewildering.

A. Cohen, for example, turns out to be the writer Arthur Cohen. But in what way does his quotation, “He could make no promises,” illuminate the evolution of the language or masterly use of the word promise? Similarly, the word smile is illustrated by a quotation from The Japan Times: “A smile creases his ...face.” There is no distinction in these examples other than the lexicographers’ desire to certify their broad representation of sources. To what linguistic end?

Does it matter, for example, that the word entrust is entrusted with a quote from L. Bruce — “I was entrusted with the unromantic job of weeding” — even if the L. in question is Lenny? As for a more obscure word, like enubilate, it might have been made as clear as its meaning (“make clear”) by providing some appropriate examples. For that you must turn to the unabridged O.E.D., where a 1903 citation from The Saturday Review establishes an enchantingly ornate context: “Maeterlinck is gradually enubilating himself from those enchanting mists in which first he strayed.”

Rothstein spends some time with Samuel Johnson's sense of incompleteness when he produced the 1755 Dictionary: reading Johnson's illustrations can be fascinating, as Henry Hitchings has found out in Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary (here's a nice review of the book in the NYRB). But the weirder version of Rothstein's investigation occurs in Richard Holmes's Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage, an imaginative biography of Johnson's relationship with ne'er-do-well poet Richard Savage. Holmes begins the book with a note about Johnson's Dictionary:
He was working at great speed, and he chose his illustrations entirely at random. Most of them are from the great classics of English literature, such as Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Pope. But of the 116,000 quotations eventually included, he chose seven from the works of his strange friend Richard Savage. These quotations, and the seven words they illustrate, may have a curious significance. Since they were chosen rapidly and at random, from such a vast source, they could be thought to reveal unconscious links and symbolic meanings. If considered as a form of 'association-test,' these seven words must instinctively have brought Richard Savage to Johnson's mind. Thus, to an analyst they might suggest something about the nature of that most puzzling relationship. Here are the seven words, and their illustrations, in alphabetical order.

1. 'Elevate': to raise with great conceptions.
Savage: 'Now rising fortune elevates his mind, He shines unclouded, and adorns mankind.'

2. 'Expanse' a body widely extended without inequalities.
Savage: 'Bright as the Etherial, glows the green expanse.'

3. 'Fondly': with great or extreme tenderness.
Savage: 'To be fondly or serenely kind.'

4. 'Lone': solitary, unfrequented, having no company.
Savage: 'Here the lone hour a blank of life displays.'

5. 'Squander': to scatter lavishly, to spend profusely, to throw away in idle prodigality.
Savage: 'They often squandered, but they never gave.'

6. 'Sterilise': to make barren, to deprive of fecundity or the power of production.
Savage: 'Go! sterilize the fertile with thy rage.'

7. 'Suicide': self-murder, the horrid crime of destroying one's self.
Savage: 'Child of despair, and Suicide my name.'

Holmes's book is a moving "biography of a biography" about Johnson's relationship with Savage. The researcher in me is skeptical of the 'association-test' that he invokes at the beginning--it's hard for me to reconcile my commitment to miscellany with the bit about the unconscious. Nevertheless, I'm fascinated in it as a writing experiment related to the fictional obituary of Savage he writes at the beginning of the book in order to outline the rambler's life and the alternate-universe obituary Holmes imagines for a Samuel Johnson who never finished the Dictionary and met with only disappointments in his professional career. Here's how Holmes imagines part of Johnson's obituary of failure:
At the time of his Death, perhaps hastened by Poverty and Overwork, he was engaged in a delusory Scheme to compile by his singular efforts a General Dictionary of the English Language, an enterprise more rationally undertaken in France by a Committee of scholars labouring over many years. The tribulations and disappointments of his Life have been summarised in a recent poetical satire, 'The Vanity of Human Wishes,' which some may take as his own Elegy.

I was especially taken with the part of the book when Holmes is describing Savage's painstaking corrections to the proofs of his long poem The Wanderer. The quotation is from Johnson's Life of Savage (1744):
Johnson himself, early hardened to the vicissitudes of journalistic publication and creeping misprints, noted this Quixotic desire for perfect typesetting with shrewd amusement. To him it revealed an obsession wholly characteristic of Savage's lack of realism in daily affairs:

'A superstitious Regard to the Correction of his Sheets was one of Mr Savage's Peculiarities; he often altered, revised, recurred to his first Reading or Punctuation, and again adopted the Alteration; he was dubious and irresolute without End, as on a Question of the last Importance, and at last was seldom satisfied; the Intrusion or Omission of a Comma was sufficient to discompose him, and he would lament an Error of a single Letter as a heavy Calamity.'

Ah, but here's Johnson's poem (translated from Latin) about his own Quixotism and sense of failure at not perfecting the Dictionary.

* Note from Ben: Any mention of "mook" would be remiss were it to omit either Treach from Naughty By Nature's classic befuddling couplet, "I step troops and leave proof / My problem-solver's name is Mook" (from "Hip Hop Hooray") or (with the benefit of foresight 9 years into the future) Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager--and classmate of Alice's and mine--Robbie Mook. If only HER problem-solver's name had been Mook!

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