Ex Libris: From the Reference Desk

The Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary has no rival, and most would say, “Thank goodness for that. Eight volumes of verbal minutia is enough.”

For the average user of the English language—those for whom a dictionary and thesaurus are sources of pedantic, annoying correction only occasionally consulted—the OED could be a nightmare. For the linguaphile it can produce hours of amusement, amazement, insight, and beauty.

A student of Norwegian, Danish, Old Norse, English, German, and French, and also a singer of Latin and Italian, I’m reasonably comfortable navigating through the landscape of Indo-European languages. I can triangulate my way to a rudimentary understanding of Dutch by relying on Norwegian, German, and English. Among the major modern languages of Western Europe, only Spanish and Portuguese remain a mystery to me.

Lacking knowledge of Ancient Greek poses a greater obstacle to historical research. But never mind, the Internet holds an astonishing amount of excellent translations.

For those who are fascinated with etymology and the history of the Indo-European languages, the OED offers an outstanding window on the linguistic evolution, cross-pollination, and borrowings that take place over centuries and across hundreds, even thousands, of miles.

The field of linguistics tells as much about history as does biography, geography, topography, or geology. Ancient languages long in disuse still hold the same kind of clues to life in the past as do fossils or skeletal remains.

Like forensic scientists piecing together a picture of events from evidence left behind, the linguist. or any other type of lover of language, uses words as data to create detailed computer graphics models of any timeframe or cultural entity. Based solely on what is known about the language a people spoke, linguists can resurrect the lifestyle and conditions of our ancestors and give us entrance into their world.

The spelling and pronunciation of a word can be placed on the timeline with the accuracy of carbon dating. Its latitude, environment, and growth rate can be ascertained with the certainty offered by studying tree rings.

Words trace trade routes and migration patterns, conquests, and the spread of religious ideas. They reveal people’s relationship to the divine, their ideals and mores, the structure of their society, and their literature and technology.

In short, language is a key to consciousness, and the OED is a key to language. It is therefore much more than a reference book for spelling and definitions; it is at once a telescope and a microscope that allows us to see distant times and people in great detail. Not many literary works can claim such far-reaching powers.

What Would R.W. Say?

It appears to be Emerson month around here on a consistent basis lately. And why not — Ralph Waldo had something true and helpful to say about just about everything. He was therefore a man for all seasons.

Emerson was perhaps America’s most influential 19th Century writer and philosopher. A quintessential American individualist thinker, his non-conformist and slightly Gnostic religious understanding was typical of his Transcendentalism. He believed that consciousness, not matter, was the fundamental stuff and state of the universe. His division of humans into two groups, the materialists and the idealists, recall the classical difference between Aristotle and Plato — the one looking to the sensory world for answers, the other to the realm of consciousness as the ultimate source of our knowledge of life. It also applies in the 20th and 21st centuries in the separation between the secular socialist (materialist) forces and those who believe in a transcendent reality beyond the realm of matter affecting human lives.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a long discussion with the old man. We should think he’d be pleased to know that his unique take on things is still appreciated more than 130 years (April 27, 2012) after his death. Being quoted would probably annoy him, however. One of the many quotes attributed to Emerson is, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

He had a point. But then he lost it again, right around the time he decided to impress upon that malleable consciousness of ours his own particular brand of perception. Were he to object to being quoted, we might have to resort to using his own words against him: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Take that, buddy. If we’re still crowding onto your front porch, that’s what you get for building a better philosophical body of writing. What’s true for the inventor and merchant bringing new goods to the market also applies to the dealer in ideas. He would surely have acquiesced, at least once we reminded him that, “The man of genius inspires us with a boundless confidence in our own powers.” Inspire, and you get quoted. Live with it. Or, if you’re long dead, as the great poets tend to be, deal with it anyway. In Emerson’s case, it is the price of genius.

The Pointe of Precision

A friend I’ll call Margaret teaches dance. One day I visited the school to watch a class. A narrow entrance in an old brick building led to steep stairs up to the second floor. There, a balustrade guided us down an old-fashioned hallway interrupted frequently by tall doors leading in all directions. Beyond lay a series of large and small rooms in which ballet students learned plié, jeté, arabesque, and eventually how to dance en pointe like the professionals.

Margaret’s class took place in the largest hall, a ballroom with moldings, double doors, and a raised ceiling lifting the space a dozen feet in all. Now a little worse for wear, it had been painted a plain ivory from head to toe as a neutral background for instructional purposes. It was still easy to envision how, once upon a time, it must have been dressed up for festive social occasions or perhaps somber association meetings, the sort of thing that represented culture in late Victorian times and took place in small and medium-sized towns across the country.

But on that day, it housed an elegant flock of fifteen or eighteen adolescent swans in formal ballet attire (a sign on the door warned them to be properly dressed or sit out the class). Mild flapping and a few wobbles aside, the mostly attentive high schoolers were on the whole impressive. They had the conditioning and stamina to stay in motion for the better part of two hours—arms up and out, spinning and leaning, sometimes one leg raised heavenward with a flexibility that seemed unearthly, at least from the seated viewpoint of a woman in her 50’s.

Margaret is German and well trained in the rigors of classical dance; patient and gentle by nature, she is also disciplined and persistent by culture and education. As she made her rounds among the students lined up at the bars—a long index finger silently adjusting the angle of a foot here and the level of an elbow there, or giving a brief verbal correction—I could not help but see the Old World Fräulein coming through.

As a former European myself, and a student (and later teacher) of classical music, I recognized the attention to detail: I still recall the sonorous voice of our choir conductor cutting off our hundred voices with incontestable and precise instructions such as “a little flat in the tenors there on the De-o in bar nine” or “altos, in bar sixteen, don’t all take a breath at once at the comma.”

After days of exhausting rehearsals, her quibbling sometimes seemed petty then. But was she ever actually wrong? Hardly. So I smiled appreciatively as my lanky friend glided up and down among the pliés and the arabesques, her sharp eye catching things the students missed.

Good for her, I thought. And, undoubtedly, good for them. However they felt about their teacher’s precise approach at that moment, someday soon they would thank her for it. As I had learned under the tutelage of a teacher who would not compromise on quality and artistic merit, they would come to know that anything worth doing should be done well, and that does not happen without utmost attention to detail.

Excellence lies in the little things, not in talent applied with a broad brush. Precision makes the difference between a pro and a decent amateur and is only achieved through exact aim and diligent practice. Keenly aware of that difference, Margaret will continue to keep her students on their toes.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

What Else Is Blank Paper for?

An incorrigible writer of marginalia, I have given up on library books. Kindle books and smartphone texts are equally useless. If I can’t underline, circle, highlight, and write vertically in the margin with a fountain pen, it’s not for me.

I don’t just read, I process. I study and contemplate, chew and digest until I have milked every idea for hidden inferences and conclusions and turned over every conceptual stone in search of the truth. This cannot be accomplished without putting pen to paper.

And not just any paper either, but every square inch of blank paper adjacent to the words that launched the investigation in the first place; the closer the better. There is a particular satisfaction in the immediacy of time and space. It offers a canvas for an intuitive blending of colors – the author’s ideas and mine, mixing to form a new shade if we think synchronously, or contrasting until the colors pop when placed side by side if we don’t see eye to eye.

Either way, our experience of life will remain linked in a verbal duet or concerto grosso, my quartet chiming in – or impetuously interrupting, as the case may be – the author’s rich orchestral tones.

Why let blank paper go to waste? Why turn down an opportunity for a debate with an ancient scholar, a duet with a dead poet, or a fan letter to a brilliant thinker? Blank paper beckons us – nay, it compels us – to get involved, to live life out loud, to speak up even in the margins. There is no time like the present for taking part in life’s grand discourse and letting our unique voice soar.

Copyright 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.