01.23.09

Junk Culture, c. 1855

Posted in Figuratively Speaking, On writing, Writers at 8:58 am by Marion

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

Today, a slightly different look at language, within the context of culture.

A Christmas gift from my husband of a calendar named Forgotten English has given me much more food for thought. It features a word or phrase each day from past centuries of spoken and written English along with a story. It’s a project of Jeffrey Kacirk. (Love words? Visit his site here).

Last week, I came across an entry that just made me laugh.

Turns out that on a trip to see the British Museum in 1855, our beloved American author Nathaniel Hawthorne was not amused.

It is a hopeless — and to me generally a depressing — business to go through an immense, multifarious show like this glancing at a thousand things, and conscious of some little titillation of mind from them, but really taking in nothing and getting no good from anything.

The face is the world is accumulating too many materials for knowledge. We do not recognize for rubbish what is really rubbish, and under this head might be reckoned almost everything one sees in the British Museum. And as each generation leaves its fragments and potshards behind it, such will finally be the desperate conclusion of the learned.

How apt an observation, how modern. A reflection made more than 150 years ago. About an institution we might consider august and respected, the British Museum, which opened in 1759, almost 300 years ago.

Yet Mr. Hawthorne recognized something universal about us human beings. So crow-like are we; the shining glint of a button or piece of glass will draw us in, elicit desire for possession and generate all kinds of jealousy.

That’s what makes Mr. Hawthorne, with our greatest writers, a jewel, himself — he keenly understands our complex, yet juvenile, human natures and has the power to describe them with precision.

A NOTE FOR WORD LOVERS: If you enjoy scoffing at overused, meaningless phrases, then visit the 2009 List of Banished Words from Lake Superior State University.

The university publishes the list each year in an effort purge our language of its loafers, drifters and bums who aren’t pulling their weight.

Friend and Daily Reflector columnist Kim Grizzard gave the list her own signature review, and you can read it here.

High on the list this year? Green, maverick, bailout and others. Do check it out.

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