Pure Philology

AMONG the less prosaic delights of the dictionary is one that I have never heard or seen advocated. In fact, I have never known it even to be mentioned — not even in the preface of the dictionary itself. I refer to the delight of reading unintelligible definitions, preferably aloud.

This is not to imply that any definition in any reputable dictionary is intentionally unintelligible, or that, for dozens and scores of highly intelligent people, any definition is unintelligible unintentionally. I am speaking merely from the point of view of the average person like myself. For him unintelligibility may prove an actual blessing.

May I illustrate with a few citations from a single page of my dictionary?

Ac’lidœ. A family of marine ptenoglossate gastropods with a rimate turreted shell.

To get the full flavor of this definition, read it aloud slowly and in a musical tone of voice. Read it over several times until the words and syllables sing themselves into the consciousness. Ordinarily we are so preoccupied with the meanings of words that we fail to hear them as lovely sounds. Hence our common impression that French, Italian, ancient Greek, and so forth, are more musical languages than modern English.

Acmœt’idœ. A family of marine patelliform gastropods having one cervical gill.

Both these definitions are exquisite examples of that rhetorical rise and fall of sentence rhythm, that crescendodecrescendo effect, of which Sir Thomas Browne in the seventeenth century and Thomas De Quincey in the nineteenth were such consummate masters. Notice how both definitions begin quietly with the homely word ‘family,’ mount to a climax on ‘gastropods,’ and then sink to a gentle cadence on ‘shell’ and ‘gill’ — the liquid l’s trailing off like faint echoes.

Acœt’idæ. A family of aphroditoidean seaworms, with the alternate segments bearing elytra.

There is, it may as well be admitted, a type of person — matter-of-fact, relentlessly practical, scientific — to whom such innocent diversion as this is sheer perversity. A person of this stamp would turn at once to ‘aphroditoidean’ and ‘elytra’ (if he were not already familiar with the terms), and, having satisfied his immediate curiosity, slam the book shut.

Without wishing to provoke a quarrel with such undisguised utilitarianism, we must, in self-justification, insist that the æsthetic attitude toward the dictionary is really nobler than any other. Just as the greatest music has always been pure or absolute music, untrammeled by meanings and descriptions and programmes, and just as the most significant of modern poetry and painting eschews the realistic and representative, so a definition that can give the color, the flavor, the harmonies of words is far superior to one that manages to impart only the literal meaning.

Who, for instance (except possibly a zoölogist), face to face with these crowding, surging polysyllables, —

Acotyle’a. A group of polycladidean turbellarians, characterized by the subcentral situation of the mouth and the absence of suckers, —

would care a rap whether an Acotylea is a microbe or a mammoth?

Devotees of rare and supersensual hobbies often suffer from the obtusities and obtrusions of their philistine neighbors. Bird lovers are mistaken for escaped lunatics, and stargazers are accosted as dangerous prowlers. But the lover of pure philology — provided he be not too intelligent — can sit peacefully in his library, enjoying night after night the transcendent delights of the entire English language.