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← In defence of obscure words

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Jump to comment 12 by Jos Gibbons

I’ll try to keep this brief. I’ll fail miserably, with a word-count past a thousand, but I’ll try. And if anyone thinks me guilty of hypocrisy for the words I use in critiquing Self’s defence of certain words, bear in mind that my words herein are how I actually think, occasionally dumbed down if anything during the editing process. I’m not sure what Self argues for in this article involves that.

I have spent my whole life hearing that I must respect True Art, and above all else Great Art, on pain of qualifying as a Philestine, but have yet to receive a satisfactory answer to the two questions this immediately raises on my mind: How do you tell when X is art, and how do you assess the quality of a work of art? C P Snow drew attention to the double-standard whereby the definite non-Philestines manage to consider themselves intellectuals despite their (often proud) ignorance of even the most basic scientific knowledge. Yet we know why scientific knowledge is important, and why those who will never get the hang of it should at least learn how to appreciate it, much as we can appreciate music even if we cannot compose, or command an instrument. The reason is because of the results it gets, by which it proves its mettle and extends and enriches our lives, in every respect from medicine, transport and telecommunications to having something interesting to think about. What analogous defence can be offered for the intellectual, rather than mere entertainment, value of art? Let’s see how well Self addresses this question.

I’ve never taken to the idea that merely replacing words with more obscure synonyms in a manner an online thesaurus can facilitate automatically improves a work or requires us to lend it greater respect. Certainly, there are times when it has that effect. Part of what I love about Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories is the circumlocutory feel of her choice of words to report ultimately quite pedestrian in-universe facts. It has much the same literary value as litotes. The books in question are “children’s books” because that was their original audience, but it takes an adult wordsmith to understand them today, thanks to such words as perfunctory. Given the expansions in recent decades in access to dictionaries, including free digital ones, if anything Crompton should have been less demanding of the children of yesteryear than we are of those today.

And I think obscure words should survive where possible, within limits; Self may hope we retain quotidian, but I’m sure he wouldn’t want us to resurrect queynte merely so we can better take our Chaucer. Those of you who aren’t Cartomancer can always ask him for an explanation of his meaning. I single him out not because he has shown himself on this thread to be an unSelfist, so to speak, but because his expertise is in certain mediaeval writings. (In theology, IIRC?) I am grateful to have him in company on this, given the gravitas it lends my view that, eventually, words are worth letting slip. When will this fate befall osculate? It remains to be seen.

(By the way, Cartomancer, Yes, Prime Minister is to return to television with a new cast, I think you should try for Sir Humphrey. Please re-read that sentence, especially its first three words, in Sir Arnold’s voice.)

And if I cannot recall the circumstances of how I learned a word as being more academic than is true of typical words, I will act as a writer on the assumption my reader will know it, and the number of times I’ll be wrong will comprise such a small fraction of my pieces it shan’t matter. My language will have its critics, to be sure; my brother has challenged me on it, and I somewhat proved his point when I asked him (to clarify) whether he thought my words were too highfalutin. But since he won’t tolerate even my use of the word latter, since he can’t remember whether that means the first one or a subsequent one, I don’t really care about his opinion on language.

But one thing that worries me about the better-not-be-a-Philestine cohort, which we may call the Selfists in honour of the OP’s author, is they never seem to appreciate what is genuinely of intellectual importance. Self, for example, wants to see us finish long and dense novels and form our own opinions regarding their properties, without any assistance from those who have already developed a decent enough understanding of it that they were able to put it into a summarised form even teenagers can comprehend – which, in many minds, is what characterises insight into the issue. Indeed, while thinking for one’s self is important, the aspects of modern education Self rails against are the mechanisms by which education serves its role of allowing the new generation to stand on the shoulders of giants; and indeed, the same helpful techniques are found in all educational subjects, as I know from my experience of the last decade-plus in the system as a student. Where is Self’s call for us to make judgements based on evidence, or to know something about how the world works, or to improve our mathematical or critical thinking skills? If anything, clever words simply allow the vacuous and the fallacious to cover its tracks, as anyone familiar with the Postmodernism Generator – and its disturbing realism when compared with living and dead postmodernists’ writings – will attest.

It is worth noting that, when Self moves on from defending the even poorer metric of intellect with which he begins his piece, that of having a redundant$ vocabulary, to a desire to see us take culture in its originally constructed format rather than as a McKnowledge alternative, he commits a number of fallacies. He acts as if this second issue is pertinent to defending his original thesis, he extends his analogy further than is legitimate in comparing the education of modern students with obesity, he fails to explain why we should have bones in our cultural meat (are they not hazardous, if we are to take these analogies half as seriously as he does?), and similarly he omits the crucial difference between wanting our language more accessible and wanting our athletes’ performances of a lesser standard, namely that we can understand what’s going on, and hence assess it, when it’s an especially adept piece of athletics, but not necessarily when it is the sort of verbiage Self defends in his piece. In light of these issues, I hope the greater import of the intellectual priorities I championed in the paragraph above will be all too clear to see.

($ I mean this in the sense of having unnecessarily many options available to one regarding how to state one’s point. The closer the synonym, the less descriptive power it adds to the language.)

One last point: if Self thinks it a good idea that a work need artistic merit to get away with being obscene, he is discriminatorily censoring those with a poorer mastery of their language's diction.

Mon, 23 Apr 2012 17:26:37 UTC | #936744