Essays: Benefits of Doubt |
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There'll always be an English

by Frederic Raphael

Review of Collins English Dictionary, the New Oxford Dictionary of English, the Chambers Dictionary and the Cassell Concise Dictionary, in the Times Literary Supplement, 1998.

Katharevousa is defined, in the New Oxford Dictionary of English, as 'a heavily archaized form of modern Greek used in traditional literary writing, as opposed to the form which is spoken and used in everyday writing (called demotic)'. If there is nothing wrong with this definition, it fails to emphasise (or should that now be emphasize?) that Katharevousa was deliberately confected, as Chambers does say, from ancient sources. Inaugurated in the wake of the liberation from the Turks, it was intended to dignify Greeks by their common use of a language purged of servile slackness.

This wilful recovery of antique Greek may have inspired the Israelis' unifying resurrection of Hebrew. Katharevousa was less successful, however, in homogenising Greece: having failed to supplant demotic, it created a schism between the official class of neo-Phanariots (whose documents had to be expressed in it) and those who lacked the competence, or opportunity, to learn its convoluted formalities. When the Colonels took power in 1967, they sought to disadvantage the Left by once again denying official places to anyone unversed in the artificial language.

The Jacobins' largely successful attempt to centralise power and to suppress regionalism by standardising French was probably the model for both Greece and Italy, where Sicilian remained a separate, often separatist idiom. As Theodore Zeldin has pointed out, even of those living in France little over a century ago, only 50 per cent had French as their first language. In the days of their insular hegemony, the English/British were able to smile at the more or (often) less successful attempts of European states to grace themselves with a single linguistic currency within their own borders. By contrast, Scots and Welsh and Irish were condemned to idiolectic parochialism if they did not subscribe to the dominant English style (and accent). Local obstinacy might be poetic (Hugh MacDiarmid is the emblematic instance), but it could not lead to the prosaic dividends of emulation (not to mention epulation, which Cassell, Collins and the ODE do not, but Chambers does). Other nations might have 'language problems' but the British came to see themselves as free speakers of a 'naturally' coherent tongue, which the ODE collated but did not formally codify.

The King's English has changed a good deal since Osbern Bokenham first spoke in its favour in the mid-fifteenth century. However, the way the monarch presumably wished to express things, or to hear them expressed, set a steady theoretical standard for rectitude, even when the sovereign's own practical command of English was modified by alien provenance. An ability to use language subtly was the mark of the courtier; allusive artificiality tested the claims of the ambitious to mount the cursus honorum (not cited anywhere, though cursus, tout court, is there in Chambers). Although the English never had an official Katharevousa, those who spoke, and wrote, correctly could exclude the clumsy, in diction and in grammar, by the exercise of a discrimination which – almost by chance – fortified the ruling class and humiliated the unaspirated aspirant (those who dropped aitches were themselves apt to be dropped).

The English thus contrived a mandarin argot, which defined the well-spoken, without being vulnerable to precise definition. While social and political barriers were tricked out with unflagged pitfalls involving spelling and accent, women were, to some degree, exempt from their rigour, as they were from office and from access to bad – masculine – language. Byron's one-time mistress, Lady Oxford (whose children were known as the Harleian miscellany, on account of their eclectic paternity), spelt with an insolent eccentricity, which her aristocratic style alone distinguished from illiteracy.

If G.B. Shaw's desire to license her style of phonetic spelling can be construed as an addled attack on the ruling class's proprietorship of language, it could be argued that only with the rise of the bourgeoisie, and of the Arnoldian public schools designed to pump out the fathers of gentlemen by the imperial gallon, did English become standardised both in spelling and in pronunciation. By the time the empire was in its evening, grammars were among the first indoctrinating texts which schoolboys such as my eight-year-old self were handed. My little green book included, in an early chapter, instructions on the correct forms of deference when speaking to Ambassadors, Earls and Dukes (and their sons and daughters), Bishops, Archbishops, judges, Mayors (Lord and common) and Members of the Royal Family. Diligence in verbal niceties was essential for those desiring preferment: good form was essential to content.

Until the 1960s, accuracy continued to be more impressive than originality. In the days when classicists still composed verses and proses, teachers of Latin and Greek did not expect us to coin phrases, but rather to retrieve and collate pertinent ones from respectably golden sources. T.S. Eliot's compositional piracies and his normative suspicion of 'the individual talent' were a metic's tribute to the self-effacing stylistic arrogance which he had so decidedly adopted. To be educated was to be less one's unbridled self; sincerity, like outspokenness, was not an art form.

Well, things change, innit? Having said that, we can hopefully achieve a blend of what's good and what's – I didn't say bad – new, and... how about we agree on cool? Both the self-vaunting publicity and the editorial policy of the New Oxford Dictionary – which belongs, we are promised, to 'The World's Most Trusted Dictionaries' – struttingly endorse the classless demotic of post-hegemonic Brito-American chat, if you get me. Collins' 'Millennium Edition' of what has, it is claimed, been 'voted the world's best dictionary' takes the same low road. 'Usage' is, in both cases, determined by the voters' habits and not decreed by their betters.

The notion of rectitude is programmatically abandoned: so much for Katharevousa. Those who balk at 'very unique', for instance, are slightly rebuked in both Collins and ODE ('go with the flow' is their common advice), though Chambers' definition 'without a like' disdains debasement. Like some sighing, equivocal Jeeves (cited in ODE but – unlike Jeez – not chez Cassell or Collins or Chambers), the ODE comments:

"Words like unique have a core sense but they often also have a secondary, less precise sense: in this case, the meaning, ‘very remarkable or unusual', as in a really unique opportunity. In its secondary sense, unique does not relate to an absolute concept, and so the use of submodifying adverbs is grammatically acceptable."

This dodges the vexed issue, since it appears to, but does not quite, license 'very unique': 'really – i.e. genuinely – unique' is not of a piece with 'very unique', is it?

In the same spirit, ODE promises that 'decimate' can (even should) now mean 'kill or destroy (a large proportion of'). Although the root meaning is acknowledged afterwards, Collins' first definition is 'To destroy or kill a large proportion of.’ Chambers is more correct, while Cassell offers a classic fudge, citing both 'meanings' as alternatives. In other words, No Rules Rule, OK?

Happy? The Old Oligarch isn't; the O.O., with his obsolete pedantry, is putting it about – in one sense of that phrase – that the New Oxford Mathematics, when it comes out, is probably going to state that twice two doesn't have to be four, more fourish, because, well, it depends who's counting, and on whose fingers (and how about people who don't run to four digits, how are they, going to feel? Fink about it!). The O.O. would like to know what the adverb 'grammatically' is doing in qualifying 'acceptable' when it comes to warranting what makes the language less precise, less geared to truthful declaration, less honest, less grammatical. Well, he would, wouldn't he? (Yes, Keeler, Christine, is ODE listed, but Rice-Davies, Mandy is not; call that democratic?)

The O.O. – yeah, yeah, still wittering on – wonders how soon 'perjury,' will be acceptably defined as 'a subjective way of telling the truth'. The suppression of irony (effective only by virtue of a common awareness of sources and nuances) and hence of all allusive accuracy will soon follow, he complains. Can literature survive the wilful evacuation of all meaning? OK, look, sorry to intrupt, but who says we – the people – need litricher? Bang on about it and there may, well, have to be a democratic referendum, innit? Meanwhile, George Orwell's 'Some Animals are more Equal than Others' is ceasing to be a joke, since 'more equal' too gets the Oxford/Collins nod. Orwell's contradictory slogan thus becomes an unparadoxical (you what?) explanation of, for instance, why transport policy does not envisage ministers legging it to the Commons and why some People (not necessarily better than the rest of us, but equaller) now find their names alphabetically ordered in reference books.

Byron wrote to Douglas Kinnaird from Venice wanting to know the latest gossip – who's in, who's out – in the London rogues' gallery. Today, he would hear that, for Oxford purposes, Jeeves is among the (small) fictional in-group, but Sam Weller ain't. As for glitterati, Amis père et fils, the sisters Drabble (as Dame Edna, not cited, might say, 'Hands up anyone who finished reading The Virgin in the Garden') and the brothers Attenborough are among the chosen (by Collins too). The Lord A. is lauded for the movie of Oh! What a Lovely War, an anodyne travesty of Joan Littlewood's 1963 production, and for Shadowlands, a clumping revision of a much better TV 'play'. Ms Littlewood is, in her turn, ambered for posterity, though defined by her early left-wing allegiance rather than by her mature devotion to the Baron Rothschild. The late Lindsay Anderson is included (though If... was followed only by buts), but he is unaccompanied by his Oscar-winning chum from Free Cinema days, Tony Richardson. Cary Grant is there, but of the two credits cited, one is a forgettable movie called Holiday (1938). Gene Kelly is acknowledged to be a director and actor by Collins, but not by Oxford.

Neither Ken Tynan – the first man to deliver 'fuck' to our living rooms – nor Bernard Levin (whose pseudonym, Taper, was arguably – which is hopefully OK – the Junius de nos jours) makes the cut. Junius himself – one of the great polemicists in our language – is mentioned by Collins, but not Oxford, unlike Ms Brookner and David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury (one good taxonomist clearly deserves another). When Jeffrey Lord Archer is sanctified as a novelist, who shall complain at lacking a halo?

As for playwrights, there is room in the ODE for Stoppard, Pinter, Osborne and Wesker. 'Pinteresque' is defined by Collins, but not Oxford, though neither mentions the playwright's radio or screenplay work. Neither of the latter forms rates much attention; though Dennis Potter is in, Paddy Chayevsky, a much more important TV writer, is unmentioned in both volumes containing proper names.

As for those who share a surname, James, P.D., is in the ODE, but not Clive; Steiner, Rudolph, but not George; Hall, Radclyffe, but not Peter; Collins, Michael and Joan (!!); Burgess, A. and Burgess, Guy (wrongly stated to have been 'charged' with espionage). However, J.R. (Ewing) – the iconic TV anti-hero – is in the oubliette. Both Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand sont là, perhaps more because they are difficult to spell than on account of their immortal deeds. Oxford's inclusion of Madonna, at the expense of Lady Antonia Fraser, is bound to cause widespread indignation.

There is a certain snobbism in the ODE's sporting choices: Sir Stanley Matthews and Sir Tom Finney (shorn of his nickname, the Preston plumber) are on the wings, but Tommy Lawton is missing in the middle. Shilton is in goal, but his abbreviation to Shilts is omitted. As for Gazza, the lad will be understandably disappointed (he has, so to say, been 'gazundered'). In cricket, Hutton and Compton make it, but Edrich (with whom Denis will always be associated by those who watched them from the Large Mound Stand) does not. 'Wicket, sticky' gets a Collins but not an Oxonian explanation; 'dog, sticky' is not there, though Oz iz.

In malis partibus there is little flinching. The F-word gets all the coverage its celebrity deserves, though some squeamishness can be detected in the ODE. 'Reaming' and 'rimming' are bravely defined, but 'butt-fucking' is left in the dark, as is 'fist-fucking'. The latter term may well be a pleonasm, since 'fuck' itself is possibly derived from 'an Indo-European root meaning "strike", shared by Latin pugnus, "fist".' Thus the Andrea Dworkinian view of male sexuality as essentially an assault gets radical backing. The ODE accurately defines 'Short-arm' as '... a blow or throw executed with the arm not fully extended', but – although American usage includes 'pooper scooper' – no account is offered of 'short-arm inspection', a US army term for a genital examination for VD. The black provenance of 'motherfucker' is tactfully ignored everywhere; 'pizza' is said generally to be 'of Italian origin', where Neapolitan is more accurate. (Some scholars say that Acneas and his companions ate pizza, thus fulfilling the prophecy that they would one day 'eat the tables at which they fed'.) Its etymology is said, by Cassell, to be the feminine of pinceus, by Collins to be piceus.

Is the pursuit of the American language, and market, necessary to Oxford's trusty activities? The minting of catchy neologisms is so industrious in the US that tabulation seems impossible, especially when coinage and obsolescence can be almost simultaneous (how long will 'Monicagate' be current?). What logic omits 'squaresville' – a 1956 term for a boring place – and retains 'dullsville', which is questionably said to be adjectival? The locus classicus is The Facts of Life (1960), a movie in which Bob Hope falls illicitly in love with Lucille Ball while on a weekend trip. Later a friend asks him (I quote from memory): 'What was it like up there all alone with her? Dullsville?' As for 'technopaegnia', surely an everyday term in literary theory, it is not to be found in any of the volumes under review. Diabolical, right?

In literary (as opposed to fashionable) matters, the Oxford touch is uneasy. Vladimir Nabokov is duly cited, and 'Lolita n.' is attributed to him, but 'nymphet', although dated from the 1950s, has no source reference in Lolita ('nympha(e)', incidentally, is omitted by ODE, but accessible in the three C's). The ODE/Collins definition of 'Lolita' as 'sexually precocious' and of ‘nymphet’ as 'sexually mature young girl' are both surely wide of the mark. It was Lolita's pre-pubescent immaturity which excited the unmentionable Humbert Humbert.

In the prevailing all-shall-have-prizes climate of English literary life, it is fair to say that all these dictionaries have their merits: Chambers and Cassells are both compendious and, as promised, concise as well as clear for crosswords and Scrabble; Collins is plumply thorough without quite being overweight. As for the ODE, it is, no doubt, a very modern volume, but I did sometimes see its editor as Ludovico Manin, the last sad, impotent Doge of Venice, who signified his enforced resignation from authority by throwing his ducal hat into the Adriatic. A dictionary of noble provenance which defers systematically to admass journalistic usage, even when it unhinges the logic of the language, and disdains the humane refinement which derives from nuance, may still have its guide-book charm, as Venice does, but by sorta endorsing whatever might, in another time, have discountenanced the lazy or rebuked the vulgar, the ODE risks betraying the tradition to which it affects to belong. In a recent novel, Ian McEwan (absent here) quotes Stendhal: 'Le mauvais goût mène aux crimes'. See what I'm getting at?

Perhaps each of these variously useful, programmatically po-faced volumes can best be attacked, and defended, in the light of Ambrose Bierce's (1906) definition of 'Dictionary', in his The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary:

'A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. The present dictionary, however, is one of the most useful... ever produced. It is designed to be a compendium of everything that is known up to the date of its completion, and will drive a screw, repair a red wagon or apply for divorce. It is a good substitute for measles, and will make rats come out of their holes to die. It is a dead shot for worms, and children cry for it.'