The Dictionary

Lazarus Woolfson, my literary mentor, becomes unsettled every time a revised dictionary is published. He knows that yet again he must, like some O-level student, try to acquaint himself with the ever-changing vernacular which he feels is gradually adulterating and trivialising the vocabulary from which he has managed to scratch a living since he limped back from Salonika, permanently weakened by malaria, in 1918.

(Few of you will have heard of Lazarus, or Larry, as he prefers to be called. His writing, though not unprofitable, has turned up in obscure collections of verse, short stories, and even those strange sci-fi magazines of the 50s. For a brief period between the wars, he managed to sell a few articles to the Jewish Chronicle. From time to time, he has even stooped to joining that curious group of second-rate writers who churn out Mills and Boon.

Writers, like painters, are often not recognised in their own lifetimes, although heaven knows, at 96 (thus preceding suffragettes, jazz and girl-guides,) Larry’s life has lasted rather well so far.)
“The language is becoming more and more sophisticated” he grumbled to me, only a day or so ago. But of course he did not mean that as a compliment.

“Sophisticated – originally derived from sophistry” he said, as I sat in his gloomy and rather shabby little study in London’s Grape Street, all ears as usual, swigging on my Hooper’s Hooch Alcopop. “In my day it meant ‘adulterated, impure, not genuine.’ And sophistication was defined as ‘injuring by mixture’ ”
Well, to be honest, I did remember something of the sort from my moderate schooling, but even in the pre-hovercraft days of 1958, this was of merely academic interest.

With the new millennium almost upon us, Larry is particularly anxious. Now little short of his own personal century, he found the recent attempt by the people at Collins Dictionaries to define the 20th century in a hundred words utterly depressing.

Perhaps it reminded him that times winged chariot was gaining fast. Perhaps it crystallised his 70 year fight to save the language. Either way, he found it unexpectedly comforting to retrieve his still pristine first edition of Chambers – a prize at Mercer’s School – from the attic for a nostalgic reunion with the language he loved so much that he thought it would never desert him.

“Look at this, Arnold” he barked in his still resonant baritone voice. (He is one of the few friends I allow to address me thus.)

“Decimate – another word that has now completed a ridiculously slipshod transformation.

“When I started writing after the First War, back in the days when Bolsheviks and Fascists hadn’t really got going with killing people yet, it meant ‘to take the 10th part of, or to put to death every tenth man’. Now, of course, today’s ignoramuses use it to mean ‘destroy a large proportion of’.

“Thank God for the Oxford dictionary. At least it has the integrity to say that this is ‘often deeply deplored as an inappropriate use.’ But for how much longer?
“Unfortunately, Thomas Davidson, the editor of my old Chambers was spot on when he wrote: ‘It is not the editor’s to judge whether a word is or is not to be added to the treasury of English, but merely to register such words…..hence he must admit many words he would not himself use. But he would have turned in his grave if he could have seen some of the ghastly words in use today. ”

Warming to his task, Lazarus leafed through the pages.

“Look here – in those days they didn’t even realise that the Sun was a star. See ? It says ‘one of the brighter bodies in the heavens, except the sun and moon.’

“And I’ll bet you didn’t know that Leyton Orient started out in the French league as just plain Orient. Nottingham Forest beat them in a friendly in 1898 – just before they won the FA cup. There were a lot of jokes about who put the “rien” and “O” in Orient. That’s how we got the word disoriented !”

Trepanning was a surprise too. “Look” said Larry. “It’s also from the French: “très” and “panne”. Very broken down. Often applied to the brain. So when they started drilling holes in people’s skulls, it got the name trepanning. Crazy idea, really. Half of them died.”

“That’s amazing” I said. “They must have been decimated.”
Ignoring my wit, Larry pressed on. “Look at this” he said. ‘Air-Space.’ What d’you think that meant in 1898 ?” I shrugged.

“I’ll tell you: it was the cubic content of a room, hospital ward or the like with reference to the respirable air in it.”

“Let’s look up sleaze, Larry” I suggested. “They can’t possibly have known what that was a century ago. “Let’s see” he growled. “Sleaze. Here we are: sleaze was something ‘thin and flimsy’. And ‘sleaziness’ meant ‘worn out, readily split’.

This talk of sleaze had made me wonder what Chambers was like on naughty words of the late 19th century.

But I was not entirely sure if Larry would want to lower the tone by discussing such matters himself. Luckily, at this stage, he had to pop out to the loo – make an excursion to the lavatory, as he put it – and I seized my opportunity.

Chambers was pretty tough on prostitutes. To prostitute, was ‘to sell to wickedness or lewdness: a female who indulges in lewdness, especially for hire: a base hireling.’ While prostitution was ‘being devoted to infamous purposes.’

Of homosexuals there was, predictably, no mention as doubtless there were none in 1898. But at least Lesbian got a mention, albeit as ‘pertaining to the Island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea and the adjoining part of the coast of Asian Minor, together forming Aeolis, the home of a famous school of lyric poets.’ The only hint of any sexual connotation came in a secondary meaning: ‘Amatory, erotic.’
Larry suddenly re-entered, and, like a schoolboy caught looking at a nude-calendar, I quickly turned the pages to escape from the L-word.
“Look at this, Larry” I said, trying to cover up my embarrassment.

“New-woman had already been invented when you were a small boy. See – it says ‘a name humorously applied to such modern women as rebel against the conventional restrictions of their sex and ape men in their freedom, education, pursuits, amusements, clothing, manners, and sometimes, morals.’ Now that does surprise me !”

“Oh, the concept of ‘new woman’ is as old the hills” he grunted. “You young people think you’ve invented everything. I suppose we did too.”

Inspired by this thought, I looked up “blue stocking” – “a name given to learned and literary ladies who display their acquirements in a vain and pedantic manner to the neglect of womanly graces.”
“A bit sexist in your day, weren’t they, Larry ?”
“Sexist ?” he harrumphed. “Another of your ghastly fin de siècle words !”
“Strictly speaking, Larry” I said, “that means the end of the 19th century, not the 20th.” Even mentors must occasionally get their comeuppance.

© Arnie Wilson