WARNING: Snarky literary commentary ahead. Read on only if you are willing to share my readiness to obsess over points of style and accuracy that most normal people consider trivial.
I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Meaning of Everything, Simon Winchester’s brief history of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. I approached the book with great anticipation, partly because of the subject matter (I’m fascinated by lexicography, linguistics, and the history of English) and partly because of the uniformly good reviews the book received when it was published in 2003.
The book has its share of intriguing facts and stories, along with colorful portraits of some of the quirky characters involved in creating the OED. But I didn’t find much that was genuinely interesting or new.
However, Winchester’s prose is what really irks me. He writes in a self-consciously literary style, crafting longish periodic sentences decorated with an awkward mixture of British idioms (not always accurately used), pseudo-learned polysyllables, and occasional jolts of slang. (William F. Buckley, Jr., long considered by middlebrow critics the epitome of stylistic elegance, also writes this way.)
The result is prose that sounds impressive but falls apart on close examination. Here’s a typical passage from the book’s first chapter, where Winchester is describing the arrival in England of the medieval Nordic invaders whose language supplanted that of the Celts:
The invaders themselves had an easy time of it; the Romans had gone, and the remaining Celts were in no position to mount much of a defence. They were in consequence to be swiftly dominated by the newcomers, invaders who were linguistically of Germanic stock—Teutons. But though the invaders arrived at more or less the same time, they were not all the same people. Some, to an extent indicated by where their longboats had been launched, were Frisians, other were Jutes, still other Saxons, and—most importantly for the naming of both the English nation and the language that resulted—some of them were called Angles.
Let’s consider this passage point by point:
(1) In the first sentence, why the needless themselves? One of my pet peeves is the insertion of himself, itself, or themselves into sentences as a kind of padding. There are dozens of examples in the narration for Ric Burns’s documentary miniseries New York, which is filled with sentences like, “New York itself . . . had emerged as one of the most strangely paradoxical cities on earth,” and “David Rockefeller himself would soon be in a position to overcome any initial opposition to its involvement--at least within the agency itself.” Such sentences sound all right when read aloud in the plummy tones of David Ogden Stiers, but the meaningless reflexive pronouns are an annoying stylistic tic, a sign that the author is straining to sound grand.
(2) Why the adjective remaining, which in context (the remaining Celts) seems to be drawing a distinction between certain Celts who remained in England and others who had departed? I guess Winchester means to say that the Celts remained behind after the Romans left. If so, the sentence would be clearer if worded and the Celts, who remained behind, were in no position . . . But then it seems to me that the whole idea of remaining could be omitted with no loss of clarity: the Romans had gone, and the Celts were in no position etc.
(3) In the second sentence, who are They? There are three possible references for the pronoun, and it takes a while to figure out that Winchester is talking about those remaining Celts from the previous sentence.
(4) Why the non-idiomatic phrase in consequence? When I first read the sentence, I was brought up short; the clause They were in consequence seemed to be a unit, although I had no idea what it was supposed to mean. Only on a second reading did I figure out that Winchester is using in consequence to mean consequently, i.e. therefore. The sentence would be simpler and clearer if it began, Therefore, they were swiftly dominated . . . Better still, omit Therefore—the meaning is equally plain without it.
(5) What is meant by the phrase linguistically of Germanic stock? Stock refers to a kindred or lineage, but languages are not transmitted genetically. Were the ancient inhabitants of India linguistically of Sanskrit stock? Were Eastern European Jews of the 1880s linguistically of Yiddish stock? What Winchester wants to say is invaders who spoke Germanic tongues.
(6) In the fourth sentence, what does the phrase to an extent mean? Does it mean that the invaders were Frisians, Jutes, Saxons, etc. to a certain degree (i.e., to an extent)? If so, how could one be a Frisian only to a certain degree? (One is either a Frisian or not.) Or does the phrase mean that the tribal identity of the invaders was indicated partially (i.e., to an extent) by those launching-places? If so, is Winchester trying to suggest that there is also some other source of information about their tribal identity? If so, what is it? If it’s not important enough to name, why allude to it in the first place?
(7) Why is the pronoun other used (twice) in the singular form? If Some [of the invaders]. . . were Frisians, wouldn’t one say that others [with an s] were Jutes, etc.?
This is slipshod, confusing writing, not “eloquent,” “supremely readable,” and “lucid,” as the New York Times Book Review called it. (Oh, wait. The review was written by William F. Buckley, Jr. That explains a lot.)
Well, at least we can credit Winchester with a masterful job of literary and historical research . . . can’t we?
Maybe not. I’m just an amateur when it comes to linguistic studies. But I noticed one serious blooper in that same first chapter. Winchester claims that George Orwell, among other writers, “touted the notion of the Teutonically inspired Old English as being the purest form of English ever written and spoken.” Orwell, he goes on to say,
publicly yearned for English to be purged of all its Latin, French, Greek, and Norse loans, and to be centred round and dominated by the short, simpler words that were of an undeniable ‘Anglicity’—what some call the ‘common words’ of the English language. He keenly wanted English, as the sixteenth-century humanist John Cheke had once written, to be ‘written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangled with borrowings of other tunges’.
Winchester repeats this point about Orwell twice more in the book. But it’s nonsense. Orwell never advocated any such quixotic idea. (Since the great majority of English words are of non-English origin, urging writers to stop using such words and revert to the English of the tenth century would be like calling on Americans to abandon the automobile, train, and airplane and walk everywhere—only much more impractical.)
I suppose what Winchester has in mind is the famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell criticizes the unthinking preference of many writers for pretentious Latinate diction:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, sub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.
This is a far cry from calling for a “purging” of foreign influences from English. Orwell is merely saying that, where a fancy Latin word and a plain Anglo-Saxon equivalent are both available, the latter is generally preferable—for example, one should use underwater instead of sub-aqeuous. A few pages later, describing the kind of writing he prefers, Orwell explicitly says:
To begin with, it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting-up of a “standard English” which must never be departed from. . . . Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning.
Winchester ignores these clear statements, instead making Orwell sound like a crank. This is quite unfair.
George Orwell pondered deeply the relationship between language and clear thinking and not only wrote eloquently about the subject but also tried to practice his own precepts for vivid, precise writing in thousands of pages of essays, reviews, letters, pamphlets, articles, stories, radio broadcasts, and novels—nearly all composed with greater clarity and skill than any typical page of Winchester. For Winchester to so badly misconstrue the meaning of an important writer on linguistics in a work devoted to that subject leaves me with little confidence in his overall accuracy.
Too bad, since I really hoped and expected to enjoy The Meaning of Everything. I saw Simon Winchester on a C-SPAN Book TV program and he seems to be a delightful fellow. He also has an enviable lifestyle, living and working on a New England farm with a converted barn that serves as a huge, book-filled writer's studio. It's wonderful to see a fellow freelancer thrive like that. But I wish he'd arrange for his next best-seller to receive an extra round of editing before it's put to bed.