When words don’t mean what they’re meant to mean

Plato, the inventor of the plate.

David Bentley Hart has written a witty, insightful, elegant and provocative piece on ‘How to write English prose’. Given the topic, it’s hard to judge the style and the substance separately.

On the whole, I enjoyed his writing. Savour this passage, on why cultures develop great prose far later than great poetry:

Poetry entered the world almost as early as words did; it is the first flowering of language’s intrinsic magic—its powers of invocation and apostrophe, of making the absent present and the present mysterious, of opening one mind to another. It comes most naturally to languages in their first dawn, when something elemental—something somehow pre-linguistic and not quite conscious—is still audible in them. Prose, however, evolves only when that force has been subdued by centuries upon centuries of refinement, after unconscious enchantment has been largely mastered by conscious artistry, and when the language has acquired a vocabulary of sufficient richness and a syntax of sufficient subtlety, and has fully discovered its native cadences.

That’s a gem.

I also relished his scorn for the unjustly famous writing advice of Strunk and White: “In fact, if you own a copy of The Elements of Style, just destroy the damned thing. It is a pestilential presence in your library. Most of the rules of style it contains are vacuous, arbitrary, or impossible to obey, and you are better off without them in your life.” He does Orwell too.

But Hart is a bit too fond of obscure words: within the space of a 200-word passage near the start, he introduced me to anfractuous, volutes, modillions and quadrature. I don’t mind being sent to the dictionary now and then – it’s good to learn new words – but each occasion acts as a dam that interrupts the flow of the piece. Too many, and the whole thing can dry up.

A proud indifference to the reader’s vocabulary, though, is part of his argument: great prose blends the simple and the complex, whereas nowadays too many writers hew to a bland, formulaic conception of plain English – “denuded of nuance, elegance, intricacy, and originality”.

I should point out that Hart means his recommendations to apply to literary prose – fiction, essays and the like – rather than more functional writing such as public health information leaflets. At least, for the sake of public health, I hope he does.

*

Time for some backstory.

I first encountered Hart’s writing a little over a decade ago, when he wrote a pair of pieces complaining about the myriad failings of common usage. He passed judgement on the correct meanings of words including infer, hopefully, fortuitous, intrigue, momentarily, presently, refute, restive, transpire, reticent, aggravate, enormity and fundament.

I’d say that on a majority of these words, his advice is sound – or at least that he raises a fair concern. But my way of thinking about these questions differs from his. I come at them looking at what aligns with current usage, while he seeks authority in the traditions of literature: “a word’s proper meaning must often be distinguished from its common use”.

On transpire, he’s particularly stern: “I am as inflexible as adamant, as constant as the coursing stars: it does not mean ‘occur,’ no matter how many persons use it that way.” Even allowing for theatrical exaggeration, the rejection of actual usage is unjustified dogmatism.

For me, the main factor is how readers will understand a word; for him, it’s how they ought to understand it. And this connects perfectly with his view on rarefied words.

In his new article, he offers a set of rules for writers. The very first one is:

1. Always use the word that most exactly means what you wish to say, in utter indifference to how common or familiar that word happens to be. A writer should never fret over what his or her readers may or may not know, and should worry only about underestimating them.

In a similar vein, his third rule is:

3. When the occasion presents itself for using an outlandishly obscure but absolutely precise and appropriate word, use it.

His merry indifference to the obscurity of a word, when it carries the precise meaning he wants, raises the same question as his prescriptivism: to whom does this word carry that precise meaning? In the esoteric cases of farraginous, purling, banausic and other selections he makes, the answer must be: not many people. Even, I suspect, among the readership of literary magazines.

You can view the Great Writers of yesteryear as the best guides to a word’s “proper meaning” if you want, but for the purposes of communication a word’s actual meaning is what – if anything – it means to the person reading it.

In this, I believe I’m in agreement with at least the spirit of Hart’s second rule:

2. Always use the word you judge most suitable for the effect you want to produce, in terms both of imagery and sound, as well as of the range of connotations and associations you want to evoke.

An effect produced is produced only in a reader’s mind; connotations and associations are always for someone; meaning is not independent of the community of language users and their understanding of words, an understanding that may vary from person to person, generation to generation.

*

Whether on obscure words or disputed words, Hart almost – almost – seems to believe that meanings are perfect Platonic forms, abstracted from the grubby, flawed, mundane business of human communication and existing in some transcendent realm to which mere mortals have only limited access.

I knew that Hart is a theologian, so I did a bit of googling (look, if you want proper research then you’re going to have start paying me), and it turns out that, yes, he is a Platonist.

Here he is, some years back, on the idea of “truths deeply hidden in language”:

Consider, for instance, the wonderful ambiguity one finds in the word invention when one considers its derivation. The Latin invenire means principally “to find,” “to encounter,” or (literally) “to come upon.” Only secondarily does it mean “to create” or “to originate.” Even in English, where the secondary sense has now entirely displaced the primary, the word retained this dual connotation right through the seventeenth century. This pleases me for two reasons. The first is that, as an instinctive Platonist, I naturally believe that every genuine act of human creativity is simultaneously an innovation and a discovery, a marriage of poetic craft and contemplative vision that captures traces of eternity’s radiance in fugitive splendors here below by translating our tacit knowledge of the eternal forms into finite objects of reflection…

And in another essay:

A god… whose works are then unnecessary but perfectly expressive signs of this delight, fashioned for his pleasure and for the gracious sharing of his joy with creatures for whom he had no need, is a God of beauty in the fullest imaginable sense. In such a God, beauty and the infinite coincide; the very life of God is one of, so to speak, infinite form; and when he creates, the difference between worldly beauty and the divine beauty it reflects subsists… in the analogy between the determinate particularities of the world and that always greater, supereminent determinacy in which they participate.

For me to pontificate on Christian theology would be ultracrepidarian, but the analogy between Hart’s view of divine creation and his prescriptivism about meaning does seem striking.

I doubt he believes that every English word (and every word in French, Japanese, Yoruba, Cherokee, Farsi, etc, etc) really has a Platonic true meaning independent of usage. I think it’s more likely that when he writes, he strives to emulate in some small way the spirit of creative, self-expressive joy that he describes above. He then shares his joy with readers – although we’re readers for whom he has no need. If we like what he writes, that’s great, but we’re not really the point. Hence his disregard for semantic understanding other than his own.

That’s a defensible (if self-indulgent) position for a literary stylist, but as a general philosophy of usage and meaning its authoritarianism literally defies comprehension.

*

Clearly Hart has a magnificent vocabulary, and revelling in language is a fine thing to do. And yet… of the seven words in his article that I didn’t know (not counting passages quoted from elsewhere), four appeared in the first 5% of the text, and two more in the following 15%. The remaining 80% contained only one. Maybe that’s just chance, or maybe he got bored of searching for those exact meanings as the task of writing wore on – or maybe he deliberately front-loaded the piece with a display of exotica to dazzle the reader before settling down to the business or arguing more intelligibly for linguistic complexity.

Who can say?

But consider this: in his article he offers as examples of great prose ten passages from other writers, totalling nearly 1,200 words – only one word of which caused me trouble (cunctation, from Thomas Browne more than 350 years ago). His star witnesses prove that brilliance can dazzle without blinding.

And so does he. Let’s end on a positive note, with another passage of Hart’s that I loved:

Language is magic. It is invocation and conjuration. With words, we summon the seas and the forests, the stars and distant galaxies, the past and the future and the fabulous, the real and the unreal, the possible and the impossible. With words, we create worlds—in imagination, in the realm of ideas, in the arena of history. With words, we disclose things otherwise hidden, including even our inward selves. And so on. When you write, attempt to weave a spell. If this is not your intention, do not write.

So maybe the effect on the reader does matter after all. Why not see what effect the piece has on you?

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