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In defence of obscure words

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We chase "fast culture" at our peril - unusual words and difficult art are good for us, says Will Self.

We are living in a risk-averse culture - there's no doubt about that.

But the risk that people seem most reluctant taking is not a physical but a mental one: just as the concrete in children's playgrounds has been covered with rubber, so the hard truth about the effort needed for intellectual attainment is being softened by a sort of semantic padding.

Our arts and humanities education at secondary level seems particularly afflicted by falling standards - so much so that universities are now being called upon to help write new A-level syllabuses in order to cram our little chicks with knowledge that, in recent years, has come to seem unpalatable, if not indigestible - knowledge such as English vocabulary beyond that which is in common usage.

Both general readers and specialist critics often complain about my own use of English - not only in my books, but also in my newspaper articles and even in radio talks such as these. "I have to look them up in a dictionary", they complain - as if this were some kind of torture.

In over twenty years of publishing fiction and journalism, I've become pretty much inured to these slings and arrows, regarding them as par for the anti-intellectual course. I used to remonstrate with those who raised the S-word (S being for sesquipedalian, an obscure word that means 'a lover of obscure words).

I'd point out that my texts were as full of resolutely Anglo-Saxon slang as they were the flowery and the Latinate. I'd observe that English, being a mishmash of several different languages, had a large and exciting vocabulary, and that it seemed a shame not to use it - especially given that it went on growing all the time, spawning argot and specialist terminology as freely as an oyster does its milt.

But as time has gone by, I've stopped bothering - after all, one of the great things about writing, as opposed to other media, is that it makes no claims on people unless they engage with it: words, no matter how torturous, don't leap out of books and articles and assault you. You have to go looking for them.

No, now I confine myself to making the rueful point that although the subject matter of my stories and novels - which includes such phenomena as sexual deviance, drug addiction and mental illness - has become quite unexceptionable, the supposedly difficult language they are couched in seems to have become more and more offensive to readers.

"Difficult" is the key word here. In the past, before the withering away of censorship, it was the depiction of sexuality and the bodily in general - together with anything smacking of anti-authoritarianism - that was perceived as difficult.

Virginia Woolf objected to Joyce's Ulysses on the grounds of its being prurient, not because it contained such tropes as "ineluctable modality of the visible", while because Joyce himself refused to alter a single line in his short story Ivy Day in the Committee Room - one poking fun at the then Prince of Wales - his publisher delayed publication for more than a decade.

To a contemporary audience, who can access graphic pornographic imagery and treasonable extremism with a few facile keystrokes, such taboos may appear absurd; yet in a large part, the cultural history of the 20th Century - in the West at least - was taken up with one battle after another, as the territory formerly deemed "difficult" was conquered and renamed "commonplace".

The problem is that at the same time these victories were being won another province was being abandoned without a fight, and this is the realm where films, paintings, novels and even newspaper articles, radio and television programmes are intellectually challenging.

Read on

TAGGED: COMMENTARY, CRITICAL THINKING, EDUCATION, GENERAL INTEREST


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