Friday, May 12, 2017

`The Best Reading of All'

Rose Macaulay loved guide-books as a form of stay-at-home travel, and judged them “the best reading.” In “Problems of a Reader’s Life” (A Casual Commentary, 1925), she adds a qualification:

“Always excepting the Oxford [English] Dictionary. If you can manage to lift one of the volumes of this from its shelf, you will find it the best reading of all, infinitely varied in its contents, and full of elegant and brief extracts from the English literature of all times.”

I recognize a kindred spirit. The most valuable gift of the Digital Age is having effortless access (no hernia-inducing volumes) to the OED. Macaulay, who died in 1957 at age seventy-seven, would have loved it. Some surf the web; I surf the Dictionary, and waste hours tracing etymologies and juicy citations, and looking up the definitions of words I pretend to know. Take “umbrage,” or rather, consider the word umbrage. When someone said, “I take umbrage at that,” I understood it to mean offense or touchiness. I was close. After reading Macaulay’s “Taking Umbrage” (Personal Pleasures, 1936), I decided to look it up in the OED. From the Latin umbra, it first meant “shade” or “shadow,” and later the foliage that creates shade or a shadow. As usual in our infinitely elastic English, the word morphed across centuries, mutating, adopting and abandoning new meanings. Around 1700, the modern sense emerged: “displeasure, annoyance, offence, resentment.” English-speakers have been taking umbrage since at least since 1683, and it turns out you can also give umbrage, which is useful to know. 

Macaulay obviously was familiar with the word’s etymology. She begins her essay with an anecdote. In a shop, she waits for a clerk while customers who entered after her are being waited on. She articulates the pleasure we take in taking umbrage: “I will not, even by a look, convey that I demand to be served; I coldly stand and wait: I have taken umbrage. I am wrapped in silence, an umbrageous mantle; I am shadowed about and umbraged with my pride; I have taken pet. I have joined the great company of the umbraged of all time. How they hover and shadow umbrageously about.” All of which reminds me of a Monty Python sketch. Macaulay goes on to celebrate the umbrageous tradition among writers, including Milton, Pope, Swift, Marvell and Jonson. She writes:

“With what gusto have these beaten their pens into swords, envenomed them, and plunged them into the quivering breasts of rivals, calumniators [delicious word], mockers, and reviewers.”

Macaulay is best-known, if at all, as a novelist, especially for The Towers of Trebizond (1956) and its first sentence: “`Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” But I prefer her essays, travel books (see Fabled Shore: From the Pyrenees to Portugal, 1949) and the always rereadable The Pleasure of Ruins (1953). Her prose balances learning and lightness. In her three-paragraph “Improving the Dictionary” from Personal Pleasures, she captures the allure of lexicography:
“On a blank page at the beginning of the Supplementary Volume [published in 1933] of my [OED], I record emendations, corrections, additions, earlier uses of words, as I come on them in reading. Ah, I say, congratulating myself, here Messrs. Murray, Bradley, Craigie and Onions are nearly a century out; here were sailors, travellers and philosophers chattering of sea turtles from the fifteen-sixties on, and the Dictionary will not have them before the sixteen-fifties. And how late they are with estancias, iguanas, anthropophagi, maize, cochineal, canoes, troglodytes, cannibals and hammocks. As to aniles, or old wives’ tales, they will not let us have this excellent noun at all.

“Thus I say to myself, as I enter my words and dates. To amend so great a work gives me pleasure; I feel myself one of its architects; I am Sir James Murray, Dr. Bradley, Sir William Craigie, Dr. Onions, I belong to the Philological Society; I have delusions of grandeur. Had I but world enough and time, I would find earlier uses of all the half million words, I would publish another supplement of my own, I would achieve at last my early ambition to be a lexicographer.

“If there is a drawback to this pure pleasure of doing good to a dictionary, I have not yet found it. Except that, naturally, it takes time.”

No comments: