Panegyric to dictionaries

July 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Dictionaries, by their own definition, are the touchstones of our vocabulary, allowing us to source any word at the flick of a page. They are densely packed with etymologies, translations, pronunciations, providing endless possibilities for those seeking an intellectual edge to their conversation. More importantly, they reveal the journey of our vernacular, from then to now. However, the dictionary has acquired a rival which threatens to override its significance, rendering it an archaic practice: the internet.   

Those with access to this inconceivable plethora of information can simply type in a word to Google, and within seconds its definition is revealed. I often find myself guilty of such convenience; too lazy to walk the extra metre to my dictionary to labour through its pages. The internet remains a truly thrilling and terrifying notion to me: thrilling because of its possibilities; terrifying because of its omniscience. To resort to a cliché, it is a blessing and a curse. Not only does it threaten the use of dictionaries, it also places the future of physical novels, the ink-written and printed word, in jeopardy.

Perhaps the internet’s astronomical rise was the catalyst in the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to include the first graphic image into its new edition. The love-heart, ♥, has become a ubiquitous feature of ‘the social network’. Some may assert that it breaks up a monotony of words, injecting a slice of individuality and colour into a mundane sentence. Yet, it remains neither truly colourful nor unique. Its meanings are multifaceted: as a cheap declaration of ‘love’, an example of wordless excitement, affection, gratitude, joy. Cheap merely because it is not verbal, instead acting as a very public and empty expression. This should not prevent its use online; it should merely indicate the love-heart’s anomalous position amongst written words.

This abbreviation of an arguably significant word, ‘love’, is not the first. Other recent acronyms such as ‘OMG’ and ‘LOL’ have also been added to the OED. All of these terms are synonymous with social networking sites, thus becoming representative of the hi-tech generation. Whilst the love-heart may not the symbol of the 21st Century zeitgeist, it encapsulates a certain element of modern times. Abbreviations reflect our age to an extent. As Stephen Fry recently stated in the Radio Times, language is “entirely your own and that of your clan, your tribe, your nation and your people”. Vernacular is at the centre of our world, forming the basis of our expression and communication. It changes through us. Yet, to place an unpronounceable symbol amongst spoken words feels wrong. Dictionaries are not sacred tombs but they are important artefacts in our lives. Whilst they are not necessarily necessities, they are indisputably valuable in the pursuit of understanding the aetiology of language. A love-heart will hardly illuminate the foundations of dialect.

Although criticising the inclusion of graphic imagery within dictionaries seems needless, it is a practice which can only grow. It reminds me of the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak Dictionary in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, the perfect culmination of language in which no word is obsolete. Language is dumbed down following the erasure of numerous adjectives and verbs, rendering humans as verbally unconscious and incapable of individual expression. The introduction of ♥ to dictionaries resembles the eradication of complex thought, since it is essentially a ‘destruction of words’ (to quote Orwell) in favour of a simpler ocular approach. Perhaps this is merely the progression of the English language; perhaps in a hundred years our own dialect will be superseded. Yet, my mind continues to rebel against the heart sign. There is no meaning or emotion in someone saying ‘I ♥ you’ whilst clumsily gesturing the love-heart symbol with their hands. All romance is drained from the image, leaving it dry and hollow.

The underlying issue is that the boundaries between cyberspace and reality have become increasingly blurred. Speech is now punctuated by ‘OMG’ and ‘totes’, whilst technology is slowly replacing books. It is this loss of the corporeal which riles me most. The heart-shaped graphic is entirely ocular; it has no sound, no senses, no physicality or imagination which words and language possess. Words are associated with objects, with all of our senses, not merely sight. They conjure images of their own which do not require special graphic references in dictionaries. The inclusion of the ♥ is clearly an attempt to provide the Oxford English Dictionary with a dose of ‘youth culture’, stemming from a paltry desire to highlight the modern relevance of (supposed) words. Ironically, it fails to understand the real meaning of ‘dictionary’: to unveil the beauty and significance of our spoken and written language. 


Jane Eyre

July 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

So, in this in-between time, I have been to Haworth to visit Bronte country and everything it entails. Since I’m doing ‘Jane Eyre’ for my dissertation, my mum figured it would be an idea to revisit the museum and get a feel for the Brontes’ surroundings. I especially enjoyed seeing a large cupboard with paintings on its panels of the twelve apostles, which resided in the Eyre family’s ancestral household. The cupboard pops up in ‘Jane Eyre’: as Jane nurses Bertha Mason’s brother after she attacks him, it looms over her with the apostles’ eyes staring from the panels, intensifying the chilling environment on the third story. Then, last night, I watched the 2011 film adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’, with (be still, my beating heart) Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. The same cupboard featured in the same scene. I like that kind of continuity.

I am almost almost finished re-rereading ‘Jane Eyre’. It is getting a little silly. Really, I should be reading in the evenings, instead of watching random things – although, I don’t know if you would call ‘The Hollow Crown’ random. Although, we now have the boxset of Hitchcock’s most famous films, and I plan on watching Big Fish (as recommended). There is also Chariots of Fire (Bring me my chariot of fire! – apparently, in order to be an ‘educated person’, one must know this poem by heart) to watch. Plus, Midnight in Paris. And all other decidedly ‘indie’ classics. 

At this point in my minimal dissertation reading, I’m largely looking at the scene in which Rochester threatens to rape Jane. When I first read the novel at seventeen, I evidently skipped over that passage. That, in itself, is quite odd, almost disturbing, that I should so clearly dismiss such a moment. I wonder whether other readers noticed the instant, and whether it altered their perception of the novel, of Rochester and of its ending. It has certainly altered mine. It diminishes his romantic appeal, placing him in a repugnant realm of sexual violence, even simply a hint of it. This is, broadly speaking, the sort of direction I want to take – to explore the appeal of Rochester, and to look at masculine sexuality (and its association with violence), as a bit of respite from overdone feminist theory. Cheery stuff, as ever!


July 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s been a lazy few days. I’m back home and am now free (for a bit, anyway) to sleep in, watch numerous episodes of 2 Broke Girls and How I Met Your Mother, and not feel too ashamed about wasting time like that. I’m not sure why I should always feel so guilty for just doing ‘nothing’, which actually amounts to simply getting some rest. So long as I achieve what I need to by the end of July, a little bit of rest-time won’t hurt eh!

I read an essay by Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, which is part of the reading list of my Virginia Woolf module for next term. From my initial reading of the essay, I think she is expressing the difficulty of expression in novels, especially when it comes to creating ‘believable’ characters. She centres on the ‘character’ of Mrs Brown, who kind of transcends all kinds of personalities, because she is every one and no one – she represents humanity. Finally, she emphasises the significance of the relationship between reader and writer. She says, these created characters, these Mrs Browns, are just as visible to the reader as to the writer. The mistake readers make, is to assume that writers are filled with higher knowledge of people and humanity, that their observations are beyond the capacity of a reader:

“It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us. Hence spring those sleek, smooth novels, those portentous and ridiculous biographies, that milk and watery criticism, those poems melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep which pass so plausibly for literature at the present time.”

Judging by that last line, I sense Woolf wasn’t a great fan of William Blake… I really love Woolf’s essays. Her voice is so distinct and she always looks at every angle of an argument. She is constantly questioning answers that we readily accept, querying things that we take for granted, like the knowledge of an author or the passivity of a reader. Her writing straddles the line between complexity and simplicity, enabling anyone to catch on to her ideas.

I also bought ‘The Waves’ by Woolf – one of my fellow English-literature-lovers tells me it is a difficult novel but very much worth the trouble. I also bought ‘Big Fish’ and ‘Amelie’ – can you tell I went on a spending spree on Amazon?! Whoops…

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