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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Words, words, words

Ok, now that I have fully recovered from last night's over-eating and over-drinking, I will see if I can remember what I planned to blog about yesterday. I don't know if it's something about the layout of the Hyatt, which is completely bizarre and confusing, or if there are more people attending this year, but the lobby of the main English hotel seems even more insane than usual. While there seem to be an extra thousand people milling around, though, what hasn't changed is what they are doing: glancing at each others' nametags while hurriedly trying to find the room for their session or interview; desperately trying to find somewhere to sit down for a few seconds; standing in twenty-minute lines for a muffin or cup of coffee; and wandering dazedly around a large body of indoor water with a fountain.

In the elevator of my hotel, a family of civilians looked shell-shocked, as Travelocity had clearly neglected to tell them the most important amenity of the hotel: the constant hassle of negotiating life with several thousand academics. The paterfamilias said to me, "They've got you working on New Year's Weekend, huh?" "Yeah," I reply knowingly, as though I had a clue who that "They" were (the Man, I guess). "What's the conference for?" he said (translation: who are you freaks?) and when I told him, he said: "We always try to teach our girls to talk good." Get it?

The title of this post alludes to the session I saw yesterday, a really interesting set of papers on "150 Years of the Oxford English Dictionary." For those of you finding this site via a Google search for "oxford english dictionary," yes, you read that right. The session, arranged by the Discussion Group of Lexicography, was actually kind of enthralling. The first talk was about entries for which the first or only citation is to George Eliot, and the conclusion was that Eliot got to make up a lot of new words because she was a famous philosophical author, while other words were excluded because they appeared only in journalistic or other less classy contexts, even though many of Eliot's words are a bit crazy and violate certain principles used to exclude other words. Examples of amusing Eliotic word formations:

rare. The quality of being approximative.
1879 GEO. ELIOT Theo. Such xvii. 301 A slovenly approximativeness and self-defeating inaccuracy.

That may be invited; fit to be invited.
1879 GEO. ELIOT Theo. Such ix. 165 Without being proportionately amusing and invitable.

poet. rare. That has been shut out.
1868 GEO. ELIOT Spanish Gypsy IV. 297 Chanting, in wild notes Recurrent like the moan of outshut winds.

1857 GEO. ELIOT Scenes Clerical Life, Amos Barton v, An unfecundated egg, which the waves of time wash away into nonentity.

1854 GEO. ELIOT tr. Feuerbach's Essence Christianity 310 The unhypocritical, honest acknowledgment of sensual life is the acknowledgment of sensual pleasure.

Scrabblers take note.

There was another interesting talk about how dictionaries handle reappropriated derogatory terms, and the third was an ethnographic report on how users of Livejournal talk about the OED (not surprisingly, we learned that they mainly use the dictionary to look up definitions).

Later, I tried to attend the session, "Why Teach Literature Anyway?", but there were 300 other people packed into a room that seated about 20, and so I was only able to hear the first paper, by David Bromwich, which consisted of two lovely close readings of moments in "Rape of the Lock" and Macbeth followed by the claim that teaching literature enables us to move from ignorance (about life, about books) to knowledge through a kind of Socratic conversation, at least occasionally, if we're paying attention, and reading things two or three times. Which is true, I think, maybe, but it helps if you're sitting in a nice, ten-person seminar at Yale. After that talk, I began to melt into a tiny puddle of suffocation as the room filled with carbon dioxide from the hordes of people who, it turns out, wouldn't mind if someone told them why they're doing what they do for a living. Or at least, why they're teaching.

That was all followed by the aforementioned eating and drinking. More about today, perhaps, tomorrow. I seem to be living my MLA analeptically.

(P.S. Analepsis appears in Wikipedia, but not in the OED.)

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