Loving Words III
Bill Long 8/26/08
Finishing on Trench--And What About You?
And, it is in making that decision to return to words that I have come across an earlier work of Richard Trench that has fired my enthusiasm. Seven years before his book on Synonyms came out Trench, then teaching theology at King's College London, came out with The Study of Words, originally a collection of lectures to students but eventually expanded and directed to teachers, also. The work has many obvious limitations, among which are: (1) some incorrect etymologies (when, for example, he explains the origin of the word "Franks" as "fierce" people); (2) a 19th century British world-view which tended to look at what we would call the "developing world" (where has "Third World" gone now?) as, to quote the great missionary hymn, "From Greenlands Icy Mountains" as heathen locked in "error's chains;" or (3) a long and largely irrelevant discussion on how language originated with humans. Without question, however, these deficiencies are outweighed by the insights that he drops in like jewels throughout.
I think it is valuable to listen to Trench's language throughout his introductory chapter because his sentiments capture what I am about in these "words" essays. He begins with the commonplace that books and "connected oral discourse" are chief sources of knowledge for us, but that words themselves, the smallest building blocks of this knowledge are comparatively ignored. He says:
"It [i.e., the study of words] will indeed repay you far better than you can easily believe. I am sure, at least, that for many a young man his first discovery of the fact that words are living power, are the vesture, yea, even the body, which thoughts weave for themselves, has been like the dropping of scales from his eyes, like the acquiring of another sense, or the introduction into a new world," p.2.
Citing Coleridge and Emerson
He then uses two felicitous phrases, one from Coleridge and one from Ralph Waldo Emerson, to describe the riches of our words. From Coleridge:
"In a language like ours, where so many words are derived from other languages, there are few modes of instruction more useful or more amusing than that of accustoming young people to seek for the etymology or primary meaning of the words they use. There are cases in which more knowledge of more value may be conveyed by the history of a word than by the history of a campaign," pp. 4-5.
This, from Samuel Coleridge, one of the pre-eminent wordsmiths of English in the early 19th century. More value from the "history of a word" than of a campaign... And, he was living through the Napoleonic years. Then, he quotes Emerson as "somewhere" having characterized language as "fossil poetry." He explains:
"just as in some fossil, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life, the graceful fern or the finely vertebrated lizard, such as now, it may be, have been extinct for thousands of years, are permanently bound up with the stone, and rescued from that perishing which would have else have been their portion--so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and feeling of past ages, of men long since in their graves, of men whose very names have perished, there are these, which might so easily have perished too, perserved and made safe for ever," Ibid.
But Trench doesn't think that Emerson has gone far enough with this paleontological image. Rather, he thinks that language is also "fossil history" as well. In the words are the battles, the longings, the aspirations of people of other places and times, longings that try to leap out at us, to struggle for escape from their time so that we would recognize them in our day. Words capture the essence of thought:
"'Terms,' says Whewell, 'record discoveries.' That which was seen, it may be with crystal clearness, and in bold outline, in the consciousness of an individual thinker, may fail to become the property and possession of mankind at large because it is not transferred from the individual to the general mind, by means of a precise phraseology and a rigorous terminology," p. 25.
Since nothing is more fugacious and shifting than thought, a conception that is plain and accurate to the "first" person becomes obscure and false in the second because it was not "grasped and firmly held in the form and proportions with which it first came up, and then is handed over to other minds, a fixed and scientific quantity," p. 25.
A Few More Thoughts on Words
I can do no better than finish these three essays with a few more quotations from Trench's 1851 work (the Wikipedia article on him says that it was his 1857 work pointing out deficiencies in English dictionaries that served as a stimulus for the Oxford English Dictionary). When discussing genius and language/words, he says:
"Language is the amber in which a thousand precious and subtle thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved. It has arrested ten thousand lightning flashs of genius, which, unless thus fixed and arrested, might habe been as bright, but would have also been as quickly passing and perishing, as the lightning," p. 28.
In fact, "words convey the mental treasures of one period to the generations that follow," Ibid. Empires may suffer shipwreck, but words persist. Even great works of literature, like the Iliad in Greek or Paradise Lost in English are not as noble as the language in which they are expressed.
As is so characteristic of mid-19th century writing, he tells a story about the value of words:
"A friend of Balzac's, who has written some Recollections of him, tells us that he would sometimes wander for days through the streets of Paris, studying the names over the shops, as being sure that there was a name more appropriate than any other to some character which he had conceived and hoping to light on it there," p. 30.
Can't you just see Balzac, in your mind's eye, wandering the streets of Paris, to find his words? After giving several examples of writers who used plays on words to make their work more effective, Trench closes his chapter with the exhoration to teachers to take up the life of words with their students:
"Only try your pupils, and mark the kindling of the eye, the lighting up of the countenance, the revival of the flagging attention, with which the humblest lecture upon words, and on the words especially which they are daily using, which are familar to them in their play or at their church, will be welcomed by them. There is a sense of reality about children which makes them rejoice to discover that there is also a reality about words, that they are not merely arbitrary signs, but living powers; that,...they are the wise man's money; not, like the sands of the sea, innumberable disconnected atoms, but growing out of roots, clustering in families, connecting and intertwining themselves with all that men have been doing and thinking and feeling from the beginning of the world till now," pp. 43-44.
Comment and Conclusion
Because of his audience (schoolboys and teachers), Trench confines his exhortations to the young, but I think the message of Trench for today is that it is never to young to open the treasury of words. It drips with the most precious gold and diamonds. Sutter's Creek or the de Beers mines have nothing to compare with the wealth available to us all through the simple instrument of word-mastery.
Even though Trench's thoughts are richly nuanced and very inspiring, and I am indebted to his spirit, I would state my four reasons for studying words here. Lots could be written about each, but I will be satisfied with just stating my princples. First, words encourage us to strive for precision of expression, precisely when all around us flee precison. Second, they provide the most suggestive pictures of life, which I have tried to illustrate in nearly every essay I write on words. Third, related to the previous, words bring the world alive for us. Fourth, the are a "shortcut" to history, since in many of them there is a distinct historical event which either spawned them or led to their further development. Words, in short, are the means that God used in creation. Even He couldn't do any better than that.
As one Portlander said with great excitement after attending a local book fair, "I can't wait to get home to....read!" So, I can hardly wait to return to my dictionaries. How about you?