Better then than now
I was listening to Simon Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman” while exercising this morning and hit a point in the story where I just had to stop. Then I had to analyze why it irritated me so much. On the surface the discussion was innocuous and related to how early writers knew and were sure that they were using words correctly in selection, meaning and pronunciation.
I almost fell off the treadmill in shock.
Excuse me? Isn’t that a rather modern and arrogant assumption? Started in Victorian England by scholars with the absolute assurance of learned men of that time that there was TRUTH.
Didn’t it occur to them that perhaps authors were perfectly happy to use the words that felt right to them? That Shakespeare was know for coining words and phrases? That the English language since the 400s (CE) had happily, cheerfully and bloodily ripped words willy nilly from what every source took its fancy at the time?
I don’t think in the 1500 and 1600s that authors were as worried about fact checking as they are at present. For one thing, facts were acknowledged as a lot more fluid and subject to personal beliefs. For another, stories are stories. As such, truth is mutable and the story is the thing.
Today’s authors, whether fiction or non-fiction have to meet style, spelling, formatting and data rules that would have left those of former centuries shaking their heads. Structure and correctness have triumphed over story telling capability and content.
Perhaps this is why fantasy and science fiction are popular: they are built worlds subject to their own rules and as such are pretty much exempt from the pettiness of fans writing via that wonderful media of the Internet about a street in San Francisco being one way in the opposite direction or a restaurant in Chicago being four doors from the corner rather than three.
Admittedly the book to which I am listening is the story of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), that extensive and codified tome that attempts to define what is and is not proper to use in the English Language. Perhaps in the late 1800s such an undertaking made sense the same way that Wikipedia developed over the last 15 years in response to a perceived need.
What also must be remembered about the Victorian time was the CofE argument. Spreading English (and doing it properly) was to the benefit of the Empire and not at all of benefit to Rome. God’s work – as delegated to the Englishmen and their self appointed rightful place in the world.
I would hate to think of such minds as Shakespeare and Chaucher having been limited by the Chicago Manual of Style, or the precise definitions of English as defined by learned men. Would they have written such interesting, occasionally elegant or baudy works which have survived the centuries had they been so constrained? What is the effect on authors today who are picked to death by readers who focus in the one-way street reference and lose the whole context of the story.
I need to finish listening to the book, knowing that all is never as it seems on the surface with classification, regimentation, and categorization lending clarity, structure and occasionally choking the life out of ideas.