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Thursday, 31 January 2013
Home arrow Writers and the dictionary arrow Literary issues arrow Connotation vs. denotation
Writers and dictionaries
The relationship between writers and dictionaries is a complex and fruitful one. As described in our pages on Johnson: Pleasure and instruction, this great lexicographer selected his quotations from a body of major literary and philosophical writers from up to two hundred years previous to his own time. One of his intentions was to record the language used by these writers and thus to influence the usage of modern writers: he hoped, he said, to 'contribute to the preservation of antient, and the improvement of modern writers' (Johnson 1958-: vol. 13, p. 57). Johnson printed these lines from one of Horace's Epistles as an epigraph to his dictionary:
[The good poet] will do well to unearth words that have been long hidden
from the people's view, bringing to light some splendid terms
employed in earlier days by Cato, Cethegus and others
which now lie buried by grimy dust and the years' neglect;[1]
and Horace's words remind us that writers as well as lexicographers may wish to preserve language, and by re-using a word keep it alive or even resurrect it from the past. This is certainly how the OED has been used. Burchfield's term 'literary instrument' (as he described the OED in a report to OUP on the progress of the second Supplement in 1962; Brewer 2007b: 165), suggests not only the Dictionary's role as key to great writers of the past, but also its function as quarry for great writers of the future. Many years later, he described how, 'in the nicest possible way, poets scavenge where they can' (Burchfield 1989: 68, giving instances from T. S. Eliot).

T. S. Eliot on language, writers and the dictionary, and tradition and innovation
The regenerative and formative role of a writer in the development of language is several times meditated on by T. S. Eliot, for example in a BBC radio discussion broadcast at a time of national crisis in November 1940. Here he drew a parallel, characteristic of nineteenth-century views at the time of the compilation of the first edition of OED (see Literature and the nation), between the greatness of a nation and the greatness of its language:
If a nation to be great must have a great language, it is the business of the writer as artist to help to preserve and extend the resources of that language.
Such a person must prevent 'the language from deteriorating or from getting ossified', helping 'to choose, from among the new words and idioms in current speech and in current journalism, those which justify themselves, which deserve to be fully licensed and preserved.' But writers do not do this on their own: there is 'a continuous collaboration between the few who can write it and everybody who speaks it', a collaboration which is recorded (Eliot's interlocutor Desmond Hawkins suggests) in the pages of the dictionary, a book in part written by the 'non-literary dead', 'the ancestral Man-in-the-Street', 'the ones who weren't writers'. The dictionary, consequently, is 'a book to which every professional writer is infinitely indebted'.

'Quite so,' Eliot replies, and proceeds to develop the idea:
The dictionary is the most important, the most inexhaustible book to a writer. Incidentally, I find it the best reading in the world when I am recovering from influenza, or any other temporary illness, except that one needs a bookrest for it across the bed. You want a big dictionary, because definitions are not enough by themselves: you want the quotations showing how a word has been used ever since it was first used.
(This tempts one to think that Eliot was thinking of the OED, but Valerie Eliot confirmed to Burchfield in 1988 that 'her husband possessed a copy of the Shorter Oxford but not of the OED itself'.)[2]

Eliot makes a similar point elsewhere, when he explains the relationship between (literary) tradition – as is traced in the OED's pages – and literary innovation, specifying James Joyce, a notable reader of dictionaries, as an exponent of both:
Whatever words a writer employs, he benefits by knowing as much as possible of the history of these words, of the uses to which they have already been applied. Such knowledge facilitates his task in giving to the word a new life and to the language a new idiom. The essential of tradition is in this; in getting as much as possible of the whole weight of the history of the language behind his word. Not every good writer need be conscious of this – I do not know to what extent Mr Wyndham Lewis has studied Elizabethan prose – Mr Joyce at least has not only the tradition but the consciousness of it. (Eliot 1922: 40)
Dictionary as treasure-house; words as poems
The unmatchable qualities of a dictionary as reading material, and its suggestive powers for poets and authors, have been observed by many other writers. Emerson believed that:
neither is a dictionary a bad book to read. There is no cant in it, no excess of explanation, and it is full of suggestion. The raw material of possible poems and histories
a sentiment chosen by Murray in 1895 as one of the illustrative quotations for the OED entry for dictionary (for original context, see reproduction of Emerson's essay, 'Books', on the Ralph Waldo Emerson site: http://www.rwe.org/ [accessed 7 January 2008]). In 1928, celebrating the completion of the OED, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin exclaimed on the same characteristic: 'our histories, our novels, our poems, our plays - they are all in this one book' (see reproduction of his speech here). Years later, OUP marketing staff found an echo of Emerson (perhaps deliberate) by the novelist E. Annie Proulx and printed it as one of the puffs on OED publicity material in 2003: 'Here is the greatest treasure of words waiting to be assembled...All the raw material a writer needs for a lifetime of work'.

Oliver Wendell Holmes had explained one of the reasons why in 1831:
When I feel inclined to read poetry I take down my Dictionary. The poetry of words is quite as beautiful as that of sentences. The author may arrange the gems effectively, but their shape and lustre have been given by the attrition of ages. Bring me the finest simile and I will show you a single word which conveys a more profound, a more accurate, and a more eloquent analogy (quoted Micklethwait 2000: 103-4)
thus anticipating Trench's later musings, quoted elsewhere on the site, on Emerson's term 'fossil poetry': 'Many a single word also is itself a concentrated poem, having stores of poetical thought and imagery laid up in it' (the OED also liked the formulation 'fossil poetry' and found two occasions to use it in the Dictionary – under characterization and fossil).

As we have seen, Auden said much the same in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry in Oxford in 1956 (perhaps attended by OED editor R. W. Burchfield, who was lecturer at Christ Church, Auden's college, at the time), when he remarked that 'the most poetical of all scholastic disciplines is, surely, Philology, the study of language in abstraction from its uses, so that words become, as it were, little lyrics about themselves' (Auden 1963: 35).

One way in which words can be thought of as 'little lyrics about themselves' is in etymological terms: how a word's philological components tell a story about its development through time. This brings us straight back to the dictionary, and more specifically to OED, whose individual entries on words might, however fancifully, be thought of as 'poems', often containing miniature essays on etymology as well as the mosaic of quotations illustrating a word's use in (canonical) literary sources. The same imagery is used by the current editor of the OED, John Simpson: 'I sometimes tell people that each OED entry should be a type of poem – a structured stone in a larger mosaic' (communication to the author).


Source: this page is based, with some additions, on Brewer 2007b: 190-2.


Footnotes
[1] Last four lines of Horace, Epistles, 2.2.110-18; translation from Rudd 2005: 118. The author of the German national dictionary, Deutsches Wörterbuch, Jacob Grimm, also wanted 'to put before the nation the wealth and poetic force of [the German language] so that writers and poets could see and learn what was available' (Ganz 1973: 21, quoting a letter from Grimm to Karl Lachmann).
[2] Burchfield had suspected as much, given that the title-page of Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) bore an epigraph 'purporting to be the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for sense 1 of the word definition. In fact it was from the Shorter (Burchfield 1989: 61; 79 n. 1). See Eliot 1940, also quoted in Taylor 1993: 234; see also Taylor's chapter 1.
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