Grammar Nazis, Word Power, and Shakespeare’s LibraryLeave a comment
May 8, 2014 by libroshombre
Truly, I’m no grammar nazi. I’ve known real ones – some of my best friends are grammatical storm troopers – but I know that some slang evolves into perfectly good vocabulary fodder. English’s embracing flexibility is what makes it so fresh and vibrant, yet my soul writhes when our language is needlessly mutilated by cumbersomely-formed terms. Take the new verb “efforting,” for example. “Effort,” defined by Macmillan Dictionary as “an attempt to do something thatis difficult,” is a widely-recognized noun, but “efforting,” which means “trying,” is only defined in one of the 1,061 dictionaries in the OneLook.com database. That singularity is the user-written UrbanDictionary.com which defines itself as “A place formerly used to find out about slang, and now a place that teens with no life use as a burn book to whine about celebrities, their friends, etc., let out their sexual frustrations, show off their racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-(insert religion here) opinions, troll, and babble about things they know nothing about.”
It’s certainly not the American Heritage, Oxford English, or even Webster’s Collegiate Dictionaries, where you won’t find “efforting” but will see “attempt,” “endeavor,” “try,” “strive,” “venture,” “work at,” among others. “Efforting’s” awkwardness exacerbates matters. It’s not like so many graceful English expressions that have dropped by time’s wayside, like in the Victorian sentence, “Those skilamalink bludgers are all gigglemugged what with their mafficking nanty-narking and smothering a parrot or two.” It translates as “Those shady criminals are constantly smiling thanks to their boisterous fun at the pub following their imbibing the hallucinatory beverage absinthe.”
“The power of words is immense,” as the 19th century French journalist Emile de Girardin pointed out. “A well-chosen word has often sufficed to stop a flying army, to change defeat into victory, and to save an empire.” Nobody’s combined words as well as Shakespeare. His inventions include such house-hold words and phrases as “house-hold words,” “foregone conclusion,” “fool’s paradise,” “a sorry sight,” “dead as a doornail,” “a charmed life,” “one fell swoop,” “fair play,” “in a pickle,” “exceedingly well read,” and well over a hundred more.
So where did Shakespeare pick up his wide vocabulary, not to mention his grasp of French, Italian, and Latin? Few people have been so thoroughly researched, and the sources of most of his plays have been determined. The 1587 edition of “Holingshed’s Chronicles,” for instance, was a comprehensive history of Britain, and it closely corresponds to the events in “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” and most of Shakespeare’s history plays. He also had a friend ‘s library to draw upon for new storylines and words.
London had no public libraries then, but Richard Field, a boyhood friend from Stratford, was an apprentice to a leading London printer. Printers were also publishers and booksellers, and one of Field’s masters was a French refugee named Vautrollier. Field was accepted into the printer’s guild days before Vautrollier died, whereupon he married Vautrollier’s widow and took over the business, including the extensive bookstock, at age 26.
Field went on to publish a slew of books Shakespeare would utilize, including French and Latin word books, that enabled the self-starting Bard the means to work his verbal magic.
Two rare bookdealers believe they’ve bought Shakespeare’s own polyglot dictionary on eBay for $4,300 and want to sell it for a bit more. A recent New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik says the sixteenth century book, “a second edition of John Baret’s ‘Alvearie’ (a variant of ‘apiary’), is not exactly a dictionary in the modern sense … a word appears in English and its equivalents are usually offered in French and Latin and Greek, often with a proverbial expression or citation from a classical author. It is a compendium of allusions.” Perfect for a word-lover like the Bard, and it might include his margin notes.
“What’s sure,” Gopnik adds, “is that Shakespeare was, like many other self-taught people, a bookish guy … he got himself educated in modern languages and literature by buying or borrowing books, and burrowing inside them.” Today he’d utilize his public library, which provides the resources for everyone to educate, entertain, enlighten, and express themselves. And if you’re among the minority who don’t, then, as Shakespeare put it, “more fool you.”