The dictionary of delight

Johnson, a la BlackadderMohocks, Samuel Johnson informed us in 1755, was the “name of a cruel nation of America given to ruffians who infested, or rather were imagined to infest, the streets of London.” Moky meant dark, as in weather. Gallimatia was nonsense; talk without meaning. Commination was a threat; a denunciation of punishment, or of vengeance. Tachygraphy was the art of quick writing. Eftsoons meant soon afterwards. Saltinbanco was a quack or a mountebank. A dotard was a man whose age impaired his intellects (no Donald Trump jokes, please).

A lexicographer is a “harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” So reads the self-deprecating entry in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language.  It’s a wonderful book to read even today, and not only for those few of us who delight in reading dictionaries.

Reading through Samuel Johnson’s dictionary is, for anyone interested in words and history, a delightful, entertaining experience. Johnson’s wit and intelligence come through in every entry, more so when you consider it was a one-man project that took eight years to complete. A truly remarkable accomplishment. 

And it remained the basis of all subsequent dictionaries and remained in print right up until the absolute crown of dictionaries: the Oxford English Dictionary (compilation began in 1857, but  it didn’t start publishing until 1884, and the full dictionary itself did not see print until 1928!)

Johnson’s work is also a window into the literary and social world of the 18th century as seen through the language. Johnson was contemporary with Adam Smith,  Edward Gibbon,  Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Rousseau, Kant, Spinoza, Voltaire and many other great authors and thinkers. It was also the era of political upheaval: both the French and American revolutions erupted.

If you’ve seen the wonderfully funny Blackadder episode about Johnson’s dictionary (Ink and Incapability), you get a bit of the sense of how much fun a dictionary can be. Who can forget Blackadder’s contrafibularity? Anaspeptic? Interfrastically? Frasmotic? You probably even tried to look them up in a more modern dictionary (yes, of course I did…).

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Don Quixote times three

Don QuixotesAt roughly the same time Shakespeare was writing and performing King Lear, Measure for Measure, Othello and Macbeth (1604-1605), Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was publishing the first part (52 chapters) of his satiric novel, Don Quixote, or more properly titled (in English), The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha. The second part (another 74 chapters) was published in 1615, roughly two years after Shakespeare’s final play, The Two Noble Kinsmen (co-written with John Fletcher).

While it was probably always intended as a single novel, the decade of time between the publication of the two parts has suggested to some scholars it is really two novels (although Part 2 starts only a month after the events that close Part 1). And perhaps it should be marketed as such; the fat combined volume could easily deter readers. I know, I know: there are people who are deterred from reading by any document regardless of its length, and not just local politicians.

Both Cervantes and Shakespeare died in April, 1616, Cervantes a mere day before the Bard, a notable coincidence. Four hundred years later, their contributions to literature and culture still affect us. I heard a local resident comment on “tilting at windmills” only last week. And I still find references to Sancho Panzo in my online reading.

Don Quixote is considered the first “modern” novel. I suppose that means it was not a morality tale, a Christian allegory or written as an ethical training guide to nobility. But also it’s because of the narrative thread and the complexity of the characters.

It achieved international fame almost immediately – the first part was translated into English in 1612 and has been translated many times since. The most recent translation was 2012 (Gerald J Davis). In my own library, I have three translations: John Ormsby (1885, my edition was published 2015), J. M. Cohen (1951, in Penguin books 1985) and Edith Grossman (2003 – which achieved bestseller status that year, remarkable for a book 400 years old). A fourth, translated by Montgomery (2006) is on order.
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Cicero, Seneca and Confucius

As I wrote in my last post, I have been reading a lot of the classic philosophers of late, particularly the Stoics. And I’ve been going further afield.

My classical readings have included a lot of Seneca and Cicero of late (plus Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius), as well as interpretations of same. While Seneca was a confirmed Stoic, Cicero seems sympathetic if not entirely convinced, and may have had strong sympathies for the Epicureans as well. 

My reading also includes what I’ve found is the best single book explaining Confucius and his views: Confucius and Confucianism: The Essentials, by Lee Dian Rainey (Wiley, 2010). If you want to understand the most important philosopher and political commentator in China’s history, this is the place to start. This book has shown me some common threads between the Stoics and the Confucian philosophers, and highlighted shared themes in the Analects. I’m also reading a translation of The Analects by Annping Chin (Penguin, 2014), which is not only in clear, modern English, but is accompanied by very useful explanatory notes. Both books I highly recommend.

(N.B. I’ve been engaged in an email correspondence with Prof. Rainey about source material, translations, and other issues. She has been most gracious and patient in responding to my layperson’s comments and questions I’ll come back to her.)

I suppose I’m looking for a sort of universal field theory for philosophy to help me sort them out, establish the common ground, and then find my own balance within this eclectic melange. While I currently lean toward the Stoics, I like to look outside the confines of Western thought in my humble effort to develop a synthesis of ideals and views that makes personal sense both intellectually and emotionally.

Not an easy task, I admit, since despite some parallel concepts, East and West were (are) separated by great gulfs of spirituality, governance, language, and culture that affect the interpretation and understanding. Language in particular is challenging since everything I read is a translation and the meaning is highly dependent on the translator’s choice of words and phrases to convey the original ideas (you have probably read my earlier comments on translation as an art).*

Still, the journey is the thing, isn’t it? And, of course, the reading to get there is enjoyable, as reading to learn always is. I’ve found a lot of seriously relevant material, some of which also parallels what I’ve learned in my studies of, and on-again-off-again practice of, Buddhism. So there are connections here; I just need to sort them out.
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Gilgamesh four thousand years later

GilgameshGilgamesh continues to enthrall us, even after more than 100 years of translations and interpretations. The story continues to be told and retold and even re-imagined. There’s even a children’s version of the tale.

You can read a version here, in PDF format or an online version here.Translations and transliterations (if you know your Akkadian…) are here. There was likely an oral version shared even before writing was invented – if you really want to know what that might have sounded like, listen to some modern recordings of old Babylonian poetry here.

Gilgamesh is not simply humankind’s earliest written legend – it’s also a powerful story that tells us about what it means to be human, to be part of a greater community. It’s about growing up, about friendship, fear, loss, death, sex, magic, faith, pride, finding wisdom and the meaning of life.

Several texts of the Gilgamesh epic have been found, all of them fragmentary, so part of the retelling is collecting the pieces and assembling them into a whole. They are also in other languages including Elamite and Hurrian. It is also a personal tale based on a man many archaeologists believe to have been real: the King of the city-state of Uruk,* some time between 2750 and 2500 BCE.

While the story itself dates back to the late third millennium BCE, the earliest tablets – Sumerian versions of the epic – date come from the city of Ur around 2150-2000 BCE. The Akkadian version is from about 1900 BCE.

The Gilgamesh story is the earliest work of literature known, and was so popular it spread throughout the great Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumeria, Babylon, Akkad and others. The great epic was still being repeated and written down on clay tablets during the Hittite rule a thousand years later. That alone shows the power of its storytelling.

Some parts – like the Flood myth – even made their way into the Bible, albeit wrapped in a different religious blanket.Four thousand years later, this story still captures our imagination.
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Misquoting Shakespeare. Again.

Folded toilet paper memeLet me begin with a digression on memes. Like a virus, a meme can spread uncontrollably in the right environment and infect millions with an idea or goal. This, of course, is good for such advocates of social ideals as Greenpeace or PETA, but like viruses, there can be bad memes that do more damage than good. More, it seems, than good or socially constructive memes.

A meme is the self-propagating cultural equivalent of a virus*, but rather than spreading its DNA, a meme spreads ideas, cultural practices, thoughts, symbols, ideals, aesthetics and icons of popular imagination.

Like a virus, a meme requires the communication between people to spread – talk, mail, the medium of literature, TV or music, and of course the Internet. A good example of a wildfire meme in popular culture was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Another pop-culture meme is the spread of tattoos as fashion. Fashion itself is a seasonal meme, not unlike a seasonal cold.

But there can be bad memes as well; memes that poison, memes that distort and damage. Similar to Ebola virus or prions, these memes can jump cultures like viruses jump species.

Anti-semitism – disturbingly on the rise in France and the USA today – is a bad and infectious meme. So is any form of religious fundamentalism – look at how the meme of the jihad has spread across the Middle East. Computer hoaxes like the email chain letter that promises you riches if you forward the email to everyone on your mailing list, is another bad meme albeit more innocuous. Donald Trump’s tweets become memes almost as soon as he posts them.

One of the factors that accelerates a meme’s spread is its brevity. In an age when deep reading is a dying art and skim reading is the new normal (to disastrous effect ion our collective education and society), a meme finds easy access to hosts online.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976 to describe evolutionary principles help explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. As Wikipedia points out,

He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, and beliefs (notably religious belief, clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches).
Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Theorists point out that memes which replicate the most effectively spread best, and some memes may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.

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Dictionary vs Dictionary.com

Concise OEDDid you know that doxastic is a philosophical adjective relating to an individual’s beliefs? Or that doxorubicin was an antibiotic used in treating leukemia? Or that doxy is a 16th century word for mistress and prostitute? That drack is Australian slang for unattractive or dreary? Drabble means to make wet and dirty in muddy water? A downwarp is a broad depression in the earth’s surface? Drail is a weighted fish hook? Dragonnade means quartering troops on a population while dragonet is a small fish but a dragoman is an interpreter? That a dramaturge is a literary editor on a theatre staff?

These are words I read when I was looking up the word doxology last night. They all appear close to doxology, either on the same or the adjacent page. Anyone with even a modicum of curiosity opening a dictionary can find these and other words in your search for the meaning of an unfamiliar or uncommon word. In fact, it’s quite entertaining to simply open a dictionary at any random page and read because you are likely to learn something new each time (well, perhaps less so if you use one of the generic no-name dictionaries you bought in the box store).

My bedside dictionary is the Concise Oxford, but I also have several other Oxford editions, a Random House, Merriam Webster, and Chambers, plus some others. I often refer to several for a more comprehensive understanding of a word. And yes, I do keep one by the bed because I read a lot before sleep and sometimes encounter unfamiliar words. Oxford because it’s simply the best, I like the layout and typography, and it’s English, not American.
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