Tuesday, November 12, 2013

`Symmetry and Balance in Sentences'

Ignore the corny, anachronistic soundtrack and enjoy this film about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, produced in 1925 by the Federation of British Industry. Artfully detailed accounts of any human procedure, whether baking a cake or tooth extraction, are inherently interesting. We enjoy seeing ideas realized. Watch the fellow casting type with a balletic flourish, the compositors working letter by letter and, as the title card says, “Printing the Oxford English Dictionary on a 70-year-old machine at a speed of 1,750 pages per hour.” 

No book is so reliably browseable in the Borgesian sense as the OED, because at least potentially it contains every other book. For instance, when was film first used in its cinematic sense?  Meaning “a cinematographic representation of a story, drama, episode, event, etc.; a cinema performance; pl. the cinema, the ‘pictures’, the movies,” its first recorded use dates from 1905 in The Westminster Gazette:  “A firm who took cinematograph films of his operations... The films once obtained have been sold and even exhibited at country fairs.” In the sense of “film-making considered as an art-form,” we jump forward to 1920. In 1925, the year of the OED documentary, we saw Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. 

While browsing, I decided to check on Johnsonian, in reference to James Murray’s great lexicographical precursor, and found this: “Of, belonging to, or characteristic of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709–84), a celebrated English man of letters and lexicographer; applied esp. to a style of English abounding in words derived or made up from Latin, such as that of Dr. Johnson.” Even more gratifying was the first citation of the adjective form, dating from 1791: “The concluding line is much more Johnsonian than it was afterwards printed.” That’s Boswell, of course, in his Life. The passage concerns an early, disputed poem by Johnson, “The Winter’s Walk,” which prompts Boswell to say, “A horrour at life in general is more consonant with Johnson's habitual gloomy cast of thought.” 

The third citation for Johnsonian is drawn from another admirable source, Ruskin’s Praeterita (1886): “Johnsonian symmetry and balance in sentences.” The dictionary defines the noun form simply as “a student or admirer of Dr. Johnson.” It adds what the editors label a “nonce-word,” the verb form Johnsonize, meaning “to clothe in or imbue with the style or language of Dr. Johnson.” The source is an advertisement printed in the second edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1793), in Boswell’s voice: “I have Johnsonised the land; and I trust they will not only talk but think Johnson.” 

For serious readers and writers, the OED is dangerous because addictive. It happily enslaved us long before the internet.


Denkof Zwemmen said...

Along the same lines – readable lexicons: Read the old Roget’s Thesaurus (arranged not alphabetically, but arbitrarily, by subject matter) from beginning to end and you will find a detailed portrait of 19th century philosophy, from metaphysics through the physical world, human behavior and morality to religion.
It begins with Existence and Nonexistence (1 & 2), Substantiality and Unsubstantiality (sic)(3 & 4) and moves gradually through the whole of human experience, finally finishing with Religious Rites, Ecclesiastical Attire and Religious Institutions.
Starting at metaphysics and ending with religion may seem to us a circular route, but I suspect that Roget regarded it as a one-way, upward journey.
Not only is the sequence of the entries indicative of Victorian thought, the very fact that Roget had so much confidence in his vision of the universe gives us a sense of how different that world was from our own relativistic one.

D. G. Myers said...

So how would our blogger’s name be transformed into an adjective? Kurpy?

Denkof Zwemmen said...

Well, I just took a look (on Amazon) at the latest edition of Roget’s. The categories have been completely re-arranged. The first entry is Birth; the last entries have to do with astronomy and space travel. Is it now a great work of 20th century or 21st century philosophy? Somehow, I think not – but then again I am an old curmudgeon.

And as for an adjective for Our Beloved Blogger, Kurpesque is more dignified than Kurpy, but I would opt for Kurpian -- it has a nice American can-do feeling about it.

Buce said...

I think "Kurpwise" has possibilities, following the example of Theodore Bernstein who once proposed "rabbiwise." But I draw the line at "Kurplich."