Word Matters Podcast

Listener Questions: From Jane Austen to Dystopia

Word Matters, Episode 36

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We're going back to our inbox this week to answer some of your most pressing concerns. Such as: what did 'condescension' mean in the work of Jane Austen? Why does 'brilliant' mean "smart"? And what is it about the letter 'S' that strikes fear into a lexicographer's heart?

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Emily Brewster: Coming up Word Matters: it's audience participation, with your questions. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Each week, we put out a call to our listeners. And thanks to you, our inbox fills accordingly. Let's get to some of your letters.

Another question from our mailbag, Adrian writes, "I have always wondered about Jane Austen's use of the word condescension in her novel Pride and Prejudice. The character Mr. Collins uses the word frequently when speaking of his beloved patroness, the eminent Lady Catherine de Bourgh. He holds her in such exaggeratedly high regard that he speaks of her condescension with reverence, as in "she is all affability and condescension." And Adrian goes on to question this use of condescension. It is a use that is very different from our familiar use. But the word condescension first meant exactly what it means in this use in Pride and Prejudice, goes back to about the middle of the 17th century apparently, "voluntary descent from one's rank or dignity in relations with an inferior." So this is the willing and generous stooping of some eminent person to interact with an inferior. But what Adrian is pointing out, if Austen had knowledge of the more modern use of condescension, which is the one now familiar to all of us, this patronizing attitude or behavior, or, as our Unabridged Dictionary puts it, "disdain veiled by obvious indulgence or patience."

Now, to answer this question, I am no Austen scholar and we don't track when a word's new meaning develops aside from when we're actually defining it. But there is an Austen specialist, a lexicographer named Peter Chipman. Peter Chipman has written an entire lexicon of Jane Austen's language. It is yet to be published, but I really hope it is, because I'm very excited about the idea of this. Here's what Peter Chipman writes. He says that, "Of the 24 instances of condescend and its derivative words in Austen's novels, fully half refer to this Lady Catherine de Bourgh." And he says, "We have to suspect authorial irony here, given that Lady Catherine always maintains her hauteur, even when she is being most annoyingly officious. And it's the buffoonish obsequious Mr. Collins who uses the word most. So it certainly looks like Austen herself sees Lady Catherine's condescension as offensive rather than praiseworthy." And he notes that even though lexicographers, we did not define the modern use of condescension that we all know, it did not enter Merriam-Webster's dictionaries until, I believe, the 1961 Webster's Third. But Chipman's evidence shows that the use was actually developing before this. And again, this goes back to the idea of dialogue being a key to earlier usage than the prose of a news article, for example. He says that, "The pejorative use of condescension was clearly driving out the laudatory use in Austen's work." And so Adrian, shrewd reading on your part. And according to Peter Chipman, you're absolutely right.

Peter Sokolowski: And there's something else about this that made me think of the etymology, condescend. Con- is "together" or "with," and descend is "to go down." So it's to go down together. And there's an idea of, again, this class, this gentility. There's so much in English that's probably hidden because we have fewer obvious class distinctions, class markers today. One of the reasons the word hello didn't exist in English before the invention of the telephone is that one always knew the rank of the person one addressed. So you knew if it was Sir or Your Grace or Madam. And later, you didn't know who you were talking to. We needed a hail. We needed a salutation to begin a conversation with someone whose social status was unknown to us.

Emily Brewster: Hello did exist.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: But it was used more to express surprise.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. It was more like, "Hello, what's that on the bottom of my shoe?

Neil Serven: Peter, you mentioned the "with." There's this idea of balance, like, condescend, we're doing this together.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Neil Serven: So it equates the two classes in this weird way. I think that also speaks to this idea of who had the eye when it comes to some of these narratives and who got to use the words. The idea of condescension being a negative thing had to be pointed out. If you're from a certain class, the idea of condescension is a noble thing you think you're doing. And so it speaks to this idea that the same word, the same concept can have two different meanings depending on which end of the bargain you're on.

Peter Sokolowski: And of course, one of those two sides is vastly more represented in published literature than the other.

Emily Brewster: The semantic progression of this term is heartening, because the noble who was descending to be with the person they decided to be affable toward, they could use that word condescend to describe what they were doing. And then the people who were condescended to recognized it for what it was. And that's how we got the current meaning of condescend.

(music break)

Neil Serven has our next listener question.

Neil Serven: A listener named Daniel writes about the word brilliant. He asks, "Is the word brilliant used to mean 'smarts' because of our alternate meaning of bright or vice versa? Did all definitions of brightness coevolve to include meanings of intelligence?" So brilliant and bright, we've got two adjectives that both refer to shiny things, but also refer to intelligence. You can have a brilliant idea. You can have a bright pupil. These two words have separate etymologies. Brilliant, when it entered English, was originally used for diamonds. It was later used for a particular cut of diamond not that much later. It was pretty immediate when it jumped on the scene. But then gradually, it was used for things that shined and things that stood out just by being shiny. So to be a brilliant student, performer, you were standing out from the pack. And if you think about it, we use this metaphor a lot, this idea of standing out with something that twinkles or glitters. We use star for the same reason. A star glitters in the night sky. It carries the metaphor of sticking out to the eye from amid this field of darkness. And yet we talk about the star of a movie, the star of a class, the star athlete. So brilliant comes from French, from the past participle of a verb briller, meaning "to shine," and that comes from Italian. Bright comes from Old English, and back then, it meant the same thing as brilliant. And it was used for things like fire, for sunshine, also for stars, things that glittered. Separate etymology, but from there, bright took on referring to the vividness of color. So you've got a very bright red. It was still in Old English, then it took the same route as brilliant in describing things that stood out. And from there, it was describing personalities. People who were bright were people who were cheerful or optimistic, people who were sunny dispositions, people who you wanted-

Emily Brewster: Right.

Neil Serven: ... were happy to be around. Then it came to be used for things like wit in writing. And from there, it was used for intelligence. The original question, does bright influence brilliant or does brilliant influence bright, they seem to have come by their own separate routes to mean someone of wicked intelligence or someone who's just standing out well in a field because of being very talented or just being very adept, whether it has to do with learning or something else.

Emily Brewster: It seems like the metaphor exists and the language has adopted these different words to fit the metaphor. There's also scintillating, right? A scintillating, shining, shimmering wit. The idea of brightness, the idea of light amidst darkness, as you said, it is reminiscent of the way intelligence can shine light in the darkness.

Neil Serven: We've used the term enlightenment for the period of the 17th century when great thinkers rose in prominence with John Locke and Rousseau and Isaac Newton. We talk about enlightenment in Buddhism as well when you have this superior knowledge, when you reach nirvana.

Emily Brewster: And then there's the metaphorical lightbulb over the head in cartoons, right? Of course, we do it in imagery also, not just in words. This idea of light and intelligence or knowledge or understanding is pervasive.

Neil Serven: The image of the lightbulb, meaning a great idea, that occurred only shortly after the real light bulb was invented. Apparently used in Felix the Cat comic strips, whenever someone would have an idea, the bulb would just appear right above it the character, and then [crosstalk 00:08:37].

Emily Brewster: I love that. That must have seemed so modern.

Neil Serven: It must have been a joke that maybe not even everybody had access to in that they might not have all had light bulbs yet.

Emily Brewster: Right. At a time when people didn't have them in their houses, but they were aware of them as these phenomena. I want to see the oil lamp above the head of somebody, the wick-

Neil Serven: Yes.

Emily Brewster: ... and the ... I want to see the predecessor.

Peter Sokolowski: We don't say a shiny student, but we say the student shined in math, for example, so that this image is broad. And it strikes me that bright and brilliant is another one of these pairs that English is so rich in, pairs of words that are essentially synonymous, but have different roots, that typically one has Old English roots and the other has Latin or French roots. There's so many. The words new and novel, for example, or same and equal or doable and feasible or buy and purchase. There's a million of these things that English has as pairs or doublets. This is one of them. They share semantic fields, but they have completely different etymologies. And that's one of the reasons English is so rich and nuanced.

Emily Brewster: This is an interesting case because it didn't begin that way with many of those cases. The fact that brilliant began with this technical use referring to diamonds distinguishes it. And I think also brilliant is quite a bit newer than the typical Latinate borrowing that we got in Anglo-French.

Peter Sokolowski: That's a really good point. It's a really late borrowing, in fact, and it seems weird because it's such a big, important word in English. And it was borrowed, what, in the early 1600s? Is that right?

Ammon Shea: I think it was slightly later. I think it was definitely the 17th century.

Peter Sokolowski: Amazing.

Ammon Shea: But I think it was the late 17th century.

Peter Sokolowski: In the history of the language, that's recent.

Ammon Shea: It is recent, especially for a Norman term, many of which came in the 15th and 14th century.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. So you're right. Brilliant is clearly a special case. And also, of course, it's pretty much spelled the same way in English as it was in French.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. We'll be back after the break with another of your questions. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at WordMatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for The Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at NEPM.org.

Emily Brewster: Here's Peter with our next question.

Peter Sokoloski: So we got a note from John. He says he was curious to know what we meant when we said that the letter S was a difficult letter. And that's a really good question. We might've let that go quickly. And there's sometimes inside baseball in dictionary world. And there is a method to this madness. There is a reason that S is difficult. And part of it is just because it's a really big letter. There's a lot of words and a lot of hard words that have to be defined that begin with the letter S. This is a familiar thing for working lexicographers.

Ammon Shea: We even have a very technical term for this, which is alphabet fatigue.

Peter Sokolowski: I love it.

Ammon Shea: It's the reason why, if you look at many, many, especially older dictionaries or reference works, and you look what is thought of as the traditional midway point of the alphabet, M and N, the section from A to M is significantly larger than the section from N to Zed or Z. This has long been the case with a lot of research works in our own dictionary of English usage. The midway point comes around H, and I think it was that we were very enthusiastic in putting it together. And at some point, we realized we probably can't make this thousands and thousands of pages long. So for the rest of this, we have to cut it short. I think that's actually the most common thing, is that a lot of reference works tend to run longer than they thought they would. And at some point, the powers that be, the people funding the projects, say, "We're not going to publish a 50,000 page work. You have to make this shorter." And so the second half gets short shrift.

Peter Sokolowski: There are examples of this. A famous one is the Encyclopedia Britannica, that first edition, which I think is 1768, in three volumes that are roughly the same size. Volume one is A and B, volume two is C through L, and volume three is M to Z. So it's almost like they started walking and then started jogging, and then started running, and then started sprinting.

Emily Brewster: No, the alphabet is clearly to blame here. It is all the alphabet's fault. And it is the fault of having to work alphabetically, which we no longer do for the most part. We do still have some alphabetically informed, or dictated actually, editorial projects. For example, when we do a new edition of the Collegiate Dictionary, we go through the entire alphabet. But it used to be that every project was done alphabetically. You might not start with A. We never start with A. You would be working alphabetically through sections of the alphabet. And so by the time you get to S, everybody is exhausted, there are pressures to wrap the project up, and yet S, there are just so many words that begin with S.

Neil Serven: There are so many words because there are so many blends. There's S-H, there's S-L, there's S-M, there's S-N, there's S-P, and then you've got words that just start with S on their own.

Emily Brewster: That's right. You've also got some prefixes like semi-, that generates a lot of...

Neil Serven: Right. I think statistically it's...

Emily Brewster: ... any productive prefix.

Neil Serven: I think statistically, it's got the largest number of words in the dictionary, I think, right.

Ammon Shea: It also has a number of huge individual words like set.

Neil Serven: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: Set is, I think, the biggest one in Merriam Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, I think.

Ammon Shea: Right. It's usually neck and neck between set and put and things like that. But set is traditionally the largest.

Peter Sokolowski: Page after page after page.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. Just the sheer number. And Emily, didn't you define set?

Emily Brewster: I don't think I did do set. I may have worked on it for the Learner's Dictionary, but no. And I have to say that in my personal experience, I have experienced a letter that I would say is far more difficult than S.

Neil Serven: Which is?

Emily Brewster: And this was years ago, we were working on our Learner's Dictionary. And the project was done alphabetically, and I think we started ... We went D through F and then went back to A, and did A through C, and then continued on through the alphabet. But by the time the project got to E and F, it was clear to the director of defining, Steve Perrault, that the project was going to be very different than the concept was when D was first defined. And so the letter D had to be redone entirely. And I was one of two editors assigned to redo D. And D is difficult because of words like do. That's another beastly word. Great fun, but beastly. But what I learned in spending, I don't even remember how long it was, because this was a long time ago, but really just two editors doing all of the content in the letter D, that's a big project. What I learned is that D is just full of really dark, depressing, deathly, dismal words.

Neil Serven: Dolorous.

Emily Brewster: Dolorous. Yes. Like dilapidated, die, death. All of it is in there. There's so many desperately depressing D words.

Ammon Shea: Yeah, and you even end with the prefix of dys-, which for dysphemism or ...

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Dystopia.

Ammon Shea: Dysphonious and things like that.

Emily Brewster: Oh, wow. And something, I think, people don't think about that really ... As a definer, when you are defining a term, you are steeped in evidence of the word in use. That is how you do the act of defining, is by really just sinking into all these examples of these words in use. So if you are defining the word dystopia, you are going to be reading hundreds of examples of the word dystopia in use.

Ammon Shea: Do you find that when you're defining utopia, that you leave the office with a spring in your step, you feel atomous, more infused, uplifting?

Emily Brewster: I admit to being affected by the citations I encounter, yes.

Neil Serven: See, by then, we're in U, anyway. So we see the end of the horizon coming. So we feel great anyway. U through Z are just taking weight off your shoulders. You're just swimming through. And it doesn't feel like any effort. It feels like you know the end is coming at that point.

Ammon Shea: Right, because X doesn't even really count. It's just...

Emily Brewster: Oh, if you're lucky enough to be the editor assigned to X, you're golden.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: You just plow through that.

Peter Sokolowski: And Emily, your anecdote just brings up something that I think people don't think about, which is that that particular project was a dictionary written from scratch that was so new that we changed the way that we were writing it as we were writing it. And then we had to go back and redo some of the early work. And that just shows you also this honest labor that goes into dictionaries, a lot of thought. And then we think, "Oh, we could do this better or differently or have a different set of rules," because we do need rules because it's a team project. You need a bunch of people exerting effort in the same direction. And that's interesting. And also, the other two things that this makes me think of is how axiomatically long it takes to write dictionaries. It's always longer than you think.

Emily Brewster: It was John Morse, former president of Merriam-Webster, he used to talk about how defining the Collegiate Dictionary was like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You get to the end and you really just have to start over.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Emily Brewster: And that's always true in lexicography. When you get to the end of the alphabet, it actually is time to start reviewing the vocabulary in A.

Ammon Shea: Do you think that we'll ever come up with our own in-house idiom, "As easy as X?"

Emily Brewster: I like it. I like it. Thank you to all who have written to us. If you have a question or a comment, email us at WordMatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at NEPM.org. And for The Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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