Wednesday, 17 June 2009
When I did that post about TED a couple of weeks back, wordmeister Jeremy Edwards wrote to me recommending the talk above: Erin McKean on Lexicography. (Lexi-what? The art of compiling dictionaries.) She's one of the youngest dictionary-editors in the business and an extraordinarily vivacious and charming speaker. And her attitude is that the dictionary's job isn't to be a traffic cop but a fisherman. She wants us to use words in new and exciting ways - to create new ones where necessary, to make nouns out of verbs, to give them new contexts and connotations. To love words and make them real. "I find an undictionaried word in almost every book I read" she says - and thinks this is a good thing.
Challenging stuff. As a writer I'm proud of my ability to use words to convey meaning and atmosphere and story. I think my vocabulary is relatively broad. I am one of those people who sneer when they spot apostrophes out of place on shop hoardings, and I want to slap people who don't know the difference between "their" and "they're" - I mean, how difficult is that? Modern youth diction sends me into a middle-aged frenzy of despair at the future of the human race: "At the bottom end of the linguistic scale, kids are all, ‘like, innit, bruv, you know what I’m sayin...’ to the point where they are clearly not saying anything, and have reclaimed the condition of grunting primates that we took a million years to evolve from," as Giles Coren says (and if you want to read a truly hilarious writer's rant pop over and read his leaked letter to a copyeditor about the removal of the word "a" from one of his articles!). Okay, I am neither as rude nor as articulate as Giles Coren (nor would I EVER be confident enough to assert that my work doesn't need copy-editing), but I do want to use correct English if at all possible.
Yet sometimes you have to mess things up a bit. For example "susurration" is a perfectly good noun meaning "a sound of whispering or rustling" - so why isn't there a verb to go with it? Grass should be able to susurrate. Nipples should be able to pebble in reaction to cold air (yes, that's one I've used in the past).
The thing is, if you use English in novel ways you look like a poet. If you use it incorrectly you look like an idiot. Where the dividing line lies between those two ... now there's the rub. But Erin's talk has given me new heart to try and be more original and daring in future.
Anyone got any unorthodox English they want to admit to using?