Very Good Paragraphs

This one’s three paragraphs, the ones that end Dan Chiasson‘s great review in the Novermber 2012 Harper’s of the Dictionary of American Regional English, and of slang more generally. It’s a classic approach to an ending—find a way to sub-/invert the fundamental idea lying beneath your subject—but what makes these grafs very good is how they articulate something regarding reading, speech, and writing that describes my life as a user of language in a way I’d never been able to articulate:

Urban Dictionary is endless fun, but most of its raids on the language will almost certainly fail. I wish more attention were paid to language that will not fail, or vanish, or linger in colorful local obscurity. I tire of the notion that everything lively and real starts with the vernacular. If you grew up shy, friendless, and isolated, as I did, you spent more time reading than speaking, and the assumed priority of speech over writing was, in a very real sense, reversed. I still cannot really speak a sentence of any distinction until I have drafted it in my head first.

As a result, my spoken English sounds (to me, at least) very “written” and even stodgy—not because I am aping the upper classes or the British or whomever, but because writing has had to come before speaking. I mention this because it seems to me basically wrong that the language grows only in one direction—from speech to writing—with inclusion in the dictionary representing the crowning achievement for any word that started life in the humble vernacular. People worry about slang making it into the dictionary, but what if the reverse started happening? What if the strangest and most beautiful words in the dictionary spilled out into language, as though the book had sprung a leak? Robert Frost wrote about wanting to “bring to book” speech that had never been treated as worthy of poetry, but Frost himself constantly replenished his own spoken language by reading Milton and Herrick.

Someone should write a book about the persistence of literary vocabulary in our daily speech, and about the social disconnect caused when people are perceived by their communities as having bewilderingly large vocabularies. My guess is that a lot of the informants who contributed to DARE spent time in little rural libraries where they kept big tattered dictionaries on a stand in the reference room. That’s where you used to find the lonely provincial kids who loved big words, and who grew up to be our Langston Hugheses and our Marianne Moores. I hope those kinds of kids still exist somewhere.

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