Thursday, March 03, 2016

`Tall, Opaque Words'

“Old words in old books convey meanings that we are often much the poorer for having lost, and much the richer for having worked to recover. When the language of the Bible or the prayer books is revised to be brought into conformity with present-day usage, what is lost is not easily expressed, since it was precisely the discarded older words that were needed to express it.”

So writes Wilfred M. McClay in “Disinterested,” his essay in the latest issue of The Hedgehog Review. McClay’s hobbyhorse is the casual misuse of “disinterested,” but he has a more interesting point to make. Words have consequences. They are not expedients. A writer – anyone -- cannot know enough words. There are no perfect synonyms, and knowledge is in the nuance. William Hazlitt puts it like this in “On Familiar Style” (1822):
“The proper force of words lies not in the words themselves, but in their application. A word may be a fine-sounding word, of an unusual length, and very imposing from its learning and novelty, and yet in the connection in which it is introduced may be quite pointless and irrelevant. It is not pomp or pretension, but the adaptation of the expression to the idea, that clinches a writer’s meaning.”

True enough. Hazlitt is objecting to verbal filigree, “persiflage,” as Mencken called it, decoration nailed on from the outside, not generated from the inside by thought and sound. Then Hazlitt takes a blundering detour:

“The reason why I object to Dr. Johnson’s style is that there is no discrimination, no selection, no variety in it. He uses none but `tall, opaque words,’ taken from the `first row of the rubric’ -- words with the greatest number of syllables, or Latin phrases with merely English terminations.”

Hazlitt’s objection to Johnson is probably less linguistic than political. Johnson’s prose is more various than Hazlitt alleges. Johnson has no aversion either to Latinate behemoths or Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. As the one-man assembler of a dictionary, his aim was precision. The vastness of Johnson’s vocabulary rivals the vastness of his mind. He implicitly endorses Swift’s dictum: “proper words in proper places.” In the second passage quoted above, Hazlitt deploys “tall, opaque words” without explanation. Its amusing as applied to Johnson because the source is a writer Johnson derided, Laurence Sterne. The phrase is drawn from Book III, Chap. 20 of Tristram Shandy:

“I hate set dissertations—and above all things in the world, ’tis one of the silliest things in one of them, to darken your hypothesis by placing a number of tall, opaque words, one before another, in a right line, betwixt your own and your reader’s conception—when in all likelihood, if you had looked about, you might have seen something standing, or hanging up, which would have cleared the point at once--`for what hindrance, hurt, or harm doth the laudable desire of knowledge bring to any man, if even from a sot, a pot, a fool, a stool, a winter-mitten, a truckle for a pully, the lid of a goldsmith’s crucible, an oil bottle, an old slipper, or a cane chair?’”

Sterne wasn’t afraid of rare or fancy words. What is a truckle? “A small wheel with a groove in its circumference round which a cord passes; a pulley, a sheave,” says the OED, citing Sterne’s usage. Tristram’s question is worth asking: “For what hindrance, hurt, or harm doth the laudable desire of knowledge bring to any man?” McClay might answer:

“. . . there is also a great deal to be said for the idea of language as a lamp, an instrument for the promulgation of ideas and ideals, one that does not merely take its bearings from the things it seeks to illuminate, but in fact reverses that set of relations, and brings its light to bear on a world that badly needs its guidance.”

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