Tuesday, July 26, 2016

`Symmetry and Balance in Sentences'

The Fletcher Henderson Story: A Study in Frustration, which contains sixty-four numbers recorded between 1923 and 1938, is somewhat like reissuing Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. Both Henderson’s band and Johnson’s work were seminal affairs, both were training schools, both were widely copied, both had serious faults, and both, despite their considerable period appeal, are outdated.”

Well, yes, but Johnson’s Dictionary retains an attractive readability that exceeds “period appeal.” Whitney Balliett, reviewing the Henderson reissue for The New Yorker in 1961, is right on both counts – Henderson and Johnson – but right in a way that is of little consequence. “Outdated” is a vaporous criticism, and implies that “up-to-the-minute” is always a term of praise (the opposite, I suspect, may be true). I still listen to Henderson – “King Porter Stomp” – and still read Johnson because both are reliable sources of pleasure. 

Most often I consult dictionaries for etymologies and occasionally for definitions, and that means the Oxford English Dictionary, which in turn usually means the digital version. The hard copy is cumbersome but reassuring, and I would never discard it. I say “consult,” but most of the time I spend in dictionaries is motivated by something less utilitarian -- a faith in serendipity. You can start an hours-long ramble by looking up a single word. Consider, in the OED, “Johnsonian”:

“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.”

A conventional enough definition, accurate though shading into disapproval. Other potential synonyms for Johnsonian I might propose: noble, tortured, learned, compassionate, opinionated, argumentative, hard-working, idleness-prone, guilt-wracked, devout, neurotic. In short, thoroughly contradictory and thus, human. The OED gives secondary definitions -- “a student or admirer of Dr. Johnson” – and offers Johnsonism, Johnsonianism and Johnsonise (the last, from Boswell: “I have Johnsonised the land; and I trust they will not only talk but think Johnson.”) Best of all, as is usually the case, are the citations. My favorite, one I quoted here more than eight years ago, is from Ruskin’s Praeterita:  “Johnsonian symmetry and balance in sentences.”

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