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Thread: In Defence of Obscure Words

  1. #1
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    Website In Defence of Obscure Words

    In the BBC Magazine author Will Self has contributed In Defence of Obscure Words, an article full of lesser used words.

    In the literary world, books intended for child readers are repackaged and sold to kidult ones, while even notionally highbrow arbiters - such as Booker judges - are obsessed by that nauseous confection "a jolly good read". That Shakespeare remains our national writer is, frankly, bizarre, given that with his recondite vocabulary, myriad historical references, and convoluted metaphorical language, were he to be seeking publication in the current milieu, his sonnets and plays would undoubtedly also be branded as 'too difficult'.
    Never read Self myself, so don't know the level to which he showcases his vocabulary, but I think I broadly agree with what he's saying here. His reference to Booker judges wanting "a jolly good read" is likely just a dig at the recent prize, where the judges openly said it, although recent years have seen what I would consider a more judging by numbers approach.

    When Self talks of McKnowledge being imparted to kids these days, it's hard to know what can be done when more than half of primary teachers 'are unable to name three poets'. When I was at school, I remember studying William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and Edwin Morgan, all three of whom used language that is either outdated or in dialect. Back then the teachers were older, of an earlier generation that knew and loved what they were teaching. Not saying that teachers nowadays don't love what they teach, but I suspect that what's taught is watered down because, as it's regularly reporting exam passes are higher, exam pass marks are lower.

    On difficult books, I do note the differences in approach. When I've told people I won't read Harry Potter novels because it's for kids and I'm not a kid, I get strange looks as if I've sat myself on some sort of pedestal. Not true. However, when they talk about what I read - which is really what I've just found that I like to read over years of reading - my books get called weird rather than difficult. Or pretentious; that old favourite empty statement.

    No real argument here, on my part. Just thinking aloud and bring the article to the forum's attention.

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    Default Re: In Defence of Obscure Words

    You will notice that I used the expression "there's the rub" just now in another posting about diacritical marks. That expression comes straight out of Shakespeare (Hamlet). The use of "rub" is not that of modern English, but there's no reason why words and expressions cannot be re-introduced in moderation. After all, that rather trendy word "churlish" must have been re-introduced at some point.

    I was actually talking about using older, somewhat forgotten words with a native-speaker of Swedish a week or two ago. She's a novelist and playwright, but likes slightly archa´c words. If such words are introduced, either mockingly or seriously, in sitcoms or newspaper articles or blogs, they are likely to catch on if the person doing the introducing is important or well-known enough.

    However, having said all that, I cannot stand Will Selfcentred, the know-all of the air waves. I shall not be reading his books to find out whether he re-introduces grand old words of yore into current usage.

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    Default Re: In Defence of Obscure Words

    I've been listening to Will Self quite a lot recently, as you say, he's prolific Eric and on this occasion he was on Radio4 discussing Oscar Wilde, he's writen a book about Wilde or something along those lines.

    I've been dipping into Self's fiction, on a cursory thumb/peak basis, I'm not able to make up my mind, would I read him, or not?

    Sympathetic to the archaic or difficult words argument, if it stretches the intellect, even Shakespeare, I understand, used words occasionally which had already dropped out of usage, so it's an old technique... for writers at least.

    But should I read Will Self?

    I may pick up one of his novels from the library, and give it a shot?
    "Man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard"
    Myth of Sysyphus ~ Albert Camus

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    Default Re: In Defence of Obscure Words

    You read Will Self, Hamlet, that'll save me the trouble. And you will be more objective and can tell us all whether he is a genuinely good novelist who happens to be an insufferable bighead on TV, or whether his books are also mere exercises in showing off.

    As for archa´c words and expressions, I think that every 21st century reader of Shakespeare must look at the copious notes, because there are masses of words and expressions that are no longer used. And half the skill and fun with Shakespeare is his jokes and puns. So you have to immerse yourself in his vocabulary before you can really appreciate him.

    Occasionally, you come across an old word that describes something better than any modern one, or a word that is part of a period in history. Then it is legitimate to take it out of its cotton wool and maybe start using it. But using obscure words just to pretend to be more educated, erudite, or intelligent than others, i.e. as a mere put-down, is just an exercise in being pseudo-intellectual.

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    Default Re: In Defence of Obscure Words

    Words seems to me to by like little rocket ships travelling throught literary history, sometimes they shed ballast, and along the way they also collect meanings like dust.

    Take "genius"; and to keep with Shakespeare, at the time it meant 'personality' or the distinguishing features of a person's nature, so they didn't have a word for the Einsteins, and Shakespeare's as we think of them, and now, in a slightly debased form, it seems to be used for everybody, if a footballer scores a goal, and he's a highly skilled striker, he's a ... genius.
    Last edited by Hamlet; 24-Apr-2012 at 12:18.
    "Man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard"
    Myth of Sysyphus ~ Albert Camus

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    Default Re: In Defence of Obscure Words

    nb, splitting my post slightly, as this forum sticks and seems to lose longer posts... I've learnt to post quickly and contritely! Ha ha.

    .... words are incredible things, I recall reading last year Anthony Burgess advancing their magical-like properties, almost superstitious, or such like aspects...

    As you said, you can resurrect them, and yet, even if the word is hundreds of years old, it still has meaning. Take Shakespeare, I first read Macbeth in my teens, and was confused by many terms, expresssions, 'sightless couriers of the air' being one of them, these are clouds, but for me, having learned the definition later on, both expanded my knowledge, and detracted from it (I have David Crystal's book on Shakespeare's language) and I'm now a little suspicious of definitions, because something seems to be lost, but we all get the subtext, by feel, in many of these words, but I know, I'll never understand how!

    I'lll pick up some Self and apply myself to a couple of his books, and see what I get out of them. And report back.


    I tend to pick up a lot of books at the libary in one go, nine or so, but mainly just skim them, read say two, but it expands the amount you get to consider at hiome, in peace, without time constaints when you're there and on the hop.... seems to work, a rucksack helps, no 'carrying issues', just sling 'em in the car and go off shopping or on other business. I may patent the method, it's a good way to get to more books.

    I still buy too many, I have around a 150 on Shakespeare alone by now, an avid reader of anything Eliz, Jacobean, including the history, it builds up over time, unconsciously... I don't feel like I've even scrratched the surface, at times, it's such a large topic.... other dramatists and poets and the history rolled in.
    Last edited by Hamlet; 24-Apr-2012 at 12:16.
    "Man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard"
    Myth of Sysyphus ~ Albert Camus

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    Default Re: In Defence of Obscure Words

    I think nowadays young people just don't read literature. They don't have patience for this, since their world is too saturated by TV, Internet, video games. And when they read it's a serial rubbish like Paolo Brown Coelho with copy pasted platitudes packaged as spiritual revelations. Then there is internet. And it is probably true for most languages (I notice it with Russian clearly), that the quality of language use on the internet deteriorates by year. Blogging and hasty digital journalism routinely butcher the language and there is little control over quality. And since less and less people read paper newspapers and more and more get their information from the blogs and digital media, you get what you get. On the other hand, for example, in social sciences I see a proliferation of an incomprehensible jargon, the use of which is not only tolerated by professors and publishers, but actually encouraged, so in the end so many books on politics or sociology are virtually unreadable.

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