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The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

Yes, it’s still OK to like reference books – they’ll never be Starbucks cool. They only make them expensive to keep them away from the rabble, the great unwashed etc; or, to recompense the intensive tertiary scholarship that goes into them. Seriously. None besides grammar nerds and pedants read them, or copy-editors coveting sub-editing jobs ("Got the latest Chicago Style Manual the other day. Essential reading") and maybe the odd head of English looking to round off a budget application. Of course anything that promotes crisp and "maximally considerate" writing is good in itself, such materials need not be defended. But in case it ain’t obvious already, I’ve a rather persistent weakness for reference books that in no way corresponds to being a grammar fiend expounding subordinate clauses or squinting at modifiers. I like correct usage, efficient punctuation and well-cast prose. I don’t find reference boring in any way; it’s just another of the manifold entry points to superior writing-insight. As well as being etymologically interesting, and precision-ennobling, and usage-clarifying. Am I alone? Thank God, I thought I was alone!

Naturally there was a significant by-reason (ugh) for buying this particular thesaurus and that was DFW’s contributing editorship. Dave and me we’re like this * when it comes to reference. OK so his brain has far greater memorial firepower than mine (I must say part of the appeal of reference-reading lies in my inability to store facts for long. To which counter-laughs I respond that a slacker memory might leave the creative membranes looser and more responsive for improvising), and his upbringing was laced with hard-core grammar instruction and jollies compared to my lazy second langage. In fact, this is all starting to sound like my coming clean on a dirty or at least nerdy little secret: a) I buy reference books (lemme talk about Johnson, and later I will) and b) I brought a book purely because DFW’s name graced the cover. And worse, I brought an American reference book.

I should’ve guess from the flap byline "For the writer in everyone" that this is a beginner’s book. Which is not to say the book (1087 pages) is pedantically simple; but that in flipping through it the dominant impression is of standard-usage words being drawn to their nearest synonymous neighbours for everyday-acceptable essay writing. The dataset lacks a certain thoroughness or completeness that would otherwise gloss archaic or exotic words of limited but fecund usage. It feels limited to American English rather than Wordly Rich English (again, the title: my fault). This is a thesaurus for the average American college student: the kind that sits all robust and futile on a bookcase with a kegger in full swing next door. Mixed with a whole lotta usage guidelines and helpers and pointers. A college-usage-thesaurus then.

There’s stacks of guides (The Right Word) and Word Banks (taxonomic lists) and Word Spectrums (a scale of near-synonyms towards an antonym; see what I mean about undergraduate simplicities…), and, for the original purchase incentive, Word Notes by famous contributing editors (including Zadie Smith). DFW is on home turf here, dressed in full didactic regalia. He cannot but betray his teaching style and dry comedic precisions; and neither can he hide his mainline to grammar buzz & thrills. The man is a word fiend, and of all the contributors comes across most authoritative on usage for writers, and on rare and exotic sources and variants and the despicably changing state of usage and context (further, always pointing out he’s writing in 2004). But as always he’s well worth quoting in full:
WORD NOTE dysphesia
This is a medical noun with some timely nonmendical applications. Educated writers already use aphasia to refer to a brain-centred inability to use language, which is close but not identical to the medical meaning. Dysphesia can be similarly extended from its technical def to mean really severe difficulties with forming coherent sentences. As anyone who’s listened to our current president knows, there are speakers whose lack of facility goes way beyond the range of clumsy or inarticulate. Our president’s public English, like that of his father’s before him, is dysphesiac.
Actually, George W gets another nod somewhere else too. Regretably, these occasional glosses and rhymes (!) are just momentary personalisations, snapshots of the language in action from ardent practitioners; but this is by no means a thesaurus written by its contributors. Which is not to say that piffle and guff don’t have a place in reference, I mean, the peculiar inflections of interpretation that so humanise Johnson’s Dictionary are what make it a great work of reference. In any such text there’s a goal of prescriptive clarity and precision which overrides any descriptive rendering or accounting of the (historical) language at hand: which is always a matter of not un-subjective intelligence and perspective (just like encyclopeadias, dictionaries provide wide-screen pictures of how we understand ourselves and the world. And now to Wittgenstein). If the contributors worked on the floor of this book instead of just phoning in some anecdotal briefs, then maybe we’d have a nicely saucy and fallible and eminently quotable work of reference. We wouldn’t say, Oh, that Yankee Oxford, we’d say DFW’s Dictionary. We would have a thorough and indicative description of the state of English Of Our Time, with full glosses and footnotes. Such books, of course (and this deflates my argument completely) already litter the eye-level reference shelves: The Story of English. The Story of Johnson. The Story of the OED. The Story of the Comma etc. But I’m damned sure DFW would make an hilarious and maniacially thorough dictionary and pre/descriptive usage guide.

In the longest gloss in the book (1.25 column lengths), DFW kinda breaks down from his original and detailed explication of hairy (barbigerous, cirrose, crinite, glabrous, hirsute, hispid, lanate, pilose, piligerous, piliated, pilimiction, ulotrichous and tomentose ["covered with dense little matted hairs – baby chimps, hobbits’ feet, and Robin Williams are all tomentose"]) and provides the following, rather epiphanic footnote:
N.B. If you’re thinking of using any of the more esoteric adjectives here, you’d be well advised to keep an OED close at hand. This is not simply a gratuitous plug of another Oxford U. Press product. The fact is that some of these hair-related terms aren’t in other dictionaries; plus, the terms are often specialized enough that you’re going to want not just an abstract definition but a couple sample sentences so that you can see how the words are actually used. Only the OED has both defs and in-context samples for just about every significant word in the language. Actually, why not screw appearances and just state the obvious: No really serious writer should be without an OED, whether it’s bought or stolen or hacked into the online version of or whatever you need to do. Nothing else comes close.
Refreshingly honest, I’d say. Maybe the King’s English is next.

posted by rino breebaart  # 8:04 am
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