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Dictionary Trouble with Bill Bryson

Dictionary Trouble with Bill Bryson

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


June 5, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Language is complicated. There are simply too many places to begin this discussion. Take, for example, the word “set.” According to the Guinness Book of World Records, “set” has the most definitions at 430. According to Bill Bryson, author of the Dictionary of Troublesome Words, “set” has “126 meanings as a verb, 58 as a noun, and 10 as a participial adjective.” So, when selecting the right word you already have to know how it is used in speech. You have to choose between phrases such as: to set on, set out upon, set down, set in motion, etc. You don’t need to know what a participial adjective is, but you do have to have an idea about how the term “set” is used, or not used. A lot of people will test this by whether or not something “sounds funny” to the ear. So, for example, if I say “I set on a journey,” it sounds funny until I add “out,” as in, “I set out on a journey.” Unfortunately, this is not foolproof and people often disagree on correct usage, which is because we do not pay attention to the grammar as closely as someone like Bill Bryson. Sentences that are correct, however, sometimes sound strange too. There are many examples and already you can see the beginnings of a language problem.

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words offers some excellent advice for how to handle a wide variety of prickly situations. His tongue-in-cheek style also alerts you to the fact that, on some level at least, language is inherently troublesome. To illustrate his point, Bryson examines one of the most common mistakes: when to use lay or lie. Bryson cites a sentence he found in a publication, and then offers his own explanation. He writes: “Laying on his back, Dalton used a long exposure of two seconds so as to achieve maximum depth of field” (Photography magazine). Unless Dalton was producing eggs, he was lying on his back. Lay and lie, in all their manifestations, are a constant source of errors. There are no simple rules for dealing with them. You must either commit their various forms to memory or avoid them altogether.” (For the rules on this, visit Grammarly) .

While some questions have a straightforward answer, others do not. Bryson notes that while researching this book, he asked colleagues for advice and found that many entries elicited different responses. One person thinks this, while another denies the same. Clearly, then, language is not completely formulaic. In the Introduction to the Dictionary of Troublesome Words, he writes:

“Seeking the guidance of colleagues, I discovered, is dangerous: raise almost any point of usage with two journalists and you will almost certainly get two confident but contradictory answers. Traditional reference works are often little more helpful, because they so frequently assume from the reader a familiarity with the intricacies of grammar that is – in my case, at any rate – generous. Because of such difficulties, many users of English continue to make usage decisions based on little more than durable superstitions and half-formed understandings.”

With a nod to antiquated patterns of speech, he continues, “Too often … the notion of good English has less to do with expressing ideas clearly than with making words conform to some arbitrary pattern.” For this and many reasons, language is messy and complicated. Yet, somehow, we use it to communicate, even though we are constantly creating categories (Millenial, for example), and defying categories (we invented the term woke for such reasons). We also tend to oversaturate a word with meanings as in the case of “set.” I also include terms such as “green” as another example of oversaturation. Just think of its many metaphors, such as money, environment, green thumbs, etc. And finally, not only do we oversaturate words with meaning, but some words can also mean their opposite. We call words like “cleave” and “clip” contronyms, or Janus words, because of their oppositional relationship to themselves.

Bryson’s Introduction explains why English functions as it does. He writes:

“One of the abiding glories of English is that it has no governing authority, no group of august worthies empowered to decree how words may be spelled and deployed. We are a messy democracy, and all the more delightful for it. We spell eight as we do not because it makes sense, but because that is the way we like to spell it. When we tire of a meaning or usage or spelling – when we decide, for example, that masque would be niftier as mask – we change it, not by fiat but by consensus. The result is a language that is wonderfully fluid and accommodating, but also complex, undirected and often puzzling – in a word, troublesome.”

Working around definitions and remaking language is one of the things that we look for from great authors. Shakespeare coined many phrases, as did Milton. They changed nouns into verbs and created hilarious puns. Chaucer, too, wrote in a style all his own, combining phrases from three different languages (French, Latin, English) into Chaucerian English (check back next week for more on Chaucer). Comedians, too, know how to flip the script and play with language’s preconceived notions. We admire these artists for their dexterity with language, but perhaps we should also admire language’s dexterity. In other words, embrace language’s messiness and use it to communicate with an awareness and appreciation of the richness that allows so many individual users to taper it to fit their individual style.

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