Saturday, January 09, 2016

`Threads of the Homespun Woof of the Language'

I had never read a word written by the Irish poet and playwright John Todhunter (1839-1916) but for years had prized one of his sentences without knowing who had written it: “There is much good reading in a dictionary.” Serendipity led me to its source, “Reading a Dictionary,” an essay Todhunter published in 1898 in the Cornhill Magazine. A reader was irked when I wrote in Wednesday’s post: “The truest way to honor a writer is to read him with devotion, with the attention we bring to the Bible or a good dictionary.” This seemed harmless enough but, to paraphrase my reader’s response in milder language: No one reads a dictionary and no one should read the Bible. Todhunter’s chestnut came back to me, and I resolved to confirm its origin.

For his epigraph he selects Polonius’ question – “What do you read, my lord?” -- and Hamlet’s delirious reply: “Words, words, words.” The sentence I remembered begins the essay and is followed by: “Even where you find but an alphabetic list of words, with their meaning set over against them, like the terms of an equation, it appeals to the contemplative spirit; it moves imagination; it is like running one’s fingers over the keys of a noble instrument, striking a chord here and there, evoking a bar or two of slumbering music.”

The musical metaphors are particularly apt because sound is the first thing I usually notice about a word. Take farkakteh. Thanks to Terry Teachout’s review I’m reading The Man That Got Away: The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen by Walter Rimler. On the second page of the introduction, Rimler says of Arlen, “he’d referred to current popular music as `farkakteh stuff.’” It’s a word I knew from Jack E. Leonard, Don Rickles and other Jewish comedians. The Yiddish Dictionary Online gives “lousy; screwed up; washed up; (vulg., shitty, crappy, full of shit; fucked (vulg.)” [it earns not one `vulg.’ but two].” Leonard and the others relished the word for its pithiness, sure, but also because it came perilously close to sounding like English obscenities that are even pithier (which is why Leonard also favored alter kocker). I don’t remember ever seeing farkakteh in print, and Terry’s review led me to a book that sent me on a diverting detour through several dictionaries.

Todhunter is reading what we know as the Oxford English Dictionary, titled A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles when the first volume was published in 1884. He christens its editor, Sir James Augustus Henry Murray, “great Achilles, the indefatigable Murray.” Todhunter speaks for me when he writes: “To read a dictionary such as this is indeed a liberal education.” He goes on:

“Yet, for the butterfly reader, whose aim is imaginative pleasure, who would range in a moment from A to Z, sipping each word daintily like a wine, to taste the delicacy of its bouquet and flavour, the field it opens before him is somewhat too vast. It may, no doubt, present `a feast of nectar’d sweets’, but it can scarcely be said that `no crude surfeit reigns’ therein.”
Here, Todhunter is reveling in, and paying homage to, the OED’s mustering of citations. His samples are selected from Milton’s Comus:

“How charming is divine philosophy!
Not harsh and crabbèd, as dull fools suppose,
But musical as is Apollo's lute,
And a perpetual feast of nectar’d sweets
Where no crude surfeit reigns.”

Todhunter is steeped in the English literary tradition. For him, a dictionary is a romp among giants: “Open your Johnson at haphazard and run your eyes down the page. What arrests you? Speech, speed, and spell, all threads of the homespun woof of the language.”

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