Controlled Revelation #6: Words Matter

“The Ancient Mariner would not have taken so well if it had been called The Old Sailor.”
Samuel Butler

I confess that I love words.  Every word choice is fraught with possibilities. Whenever I teach a literature class—or, for that matter, whenever I teach any English class—I encourage my students to pay attention to a writer’s word choice.  I encourage my students to ask themselves, “Why did the writer choose that word instead of another one?  What are the consequences of that particular word choice?  What impact does that word choice have on the meaning?  What words does the writer use frequently?   Why?”

I think that you get my point:  words matter.  Pay close attention to them.

Samuel Butler makes the point ever so poignantly in the headnote to today’s post.  Can you imagine Samuel Taylor Coleridge giving his “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the title “The Old Sailor”?  Of course, not!  It would be preposterous!  It would be a different poem entirely. (So, we have Ancient instead of Old, and we have Mariner instead of Sailor.  And, while we’re pondering over the poem’s title, we also have Rime instead of Rhyme.  Selecting Rime goes far, far beyond mere metrics.)

But I digress.  What led me to ruminate so was my close reading of The Humourist’s essay of January 15, 1754.  As  I read and read and re-read that essay—just as I read and read and re-read—each of his essays, I had an epiphany of sorts.  I realized that I was mulling over—savoring, if you will—each and every word.

Some of those words captured my fancy more than others.  The single, solitary word from that essay that gained possession of me with greatest satisfaction was the word Records.   In context, the word appears “Records of Drama.”

Records.  “Anything preserving information and constituting a piece of evidence about past events; esp. an account kept in writing or some other permanent form; (also) a document, monument, etc., on which such an account is inscribed” (Oxford English Dictionary, the 4th definition of the noun).

I’m not sure why, but the phrase Records of Drama struck me as unusual, and it still does.  I started asking myself the same questions that I advise my students to ask:   “Why did the writer choose that word instead of another one?  What are the consequences of that particular word choice?  What impact does that word choice have on the meaning?  What words does the writer use frequently?   Why?”

It was in the answering of those questions that my minor epiphany came:  The Humourist uses the word Records (as a noun) with some frequency.  I could recall—though I knew not where—that he had used it in several of his essays.

So, I set about the task of re-reading—well, actually, skimming and scanning—all of the essays to see if my recollection served me well.

Indeed it did.

In his December 10, 1753, essay The Humourist comments:  “Search the records of old time.”  (Note, too, that he follows that with “and look into the annals of the present.”  RecordsAnnals.  How similar,  I need to ferret out Annals as well.)

Then in his January 1, 1754, essay we find, “These Gifts create a most happy Emulation amongst the juvenile part of Mankind, and are so many Records of Friendship for the Fathers and the Grandfathers to transmit to Posterity.”

And, as we have seen already, he uses the phrase “Records of drama”  in the essay that we are exploring today.

While I am reluctant to ascribe too great a significance to one mere word, it strikes me that The Humourist’s use of the noun Records strengthens the appellation that I gave him in my Controlled Revelation # 1.  The Humourist is a Historian.

My goodness!  One word has led me—and you—all over the place.  Note, however, that it is exactly this kind of close reading that fosters and enables greater understanding and greater appreciation of any passage.

What else did I discover as I gave The Humourist’s January 15, 1754, essay a close reading?  Aside from confirming my notion that The Humourist is a historian, it confirms as well that The Humourist is well versed in drama.   Indeed this essay stands as perhaps the earliest essay in American Literature to exalt positive impact that tragedy has on mankind.

Thus we have still another confirmation of an earlier claim:  The Humourist is a lover of literature with a preference for drama.

Finally, this essay confirms The Humourist’s interest in and knowledge of painting:  “nothing discovering that close Connexion between Poets and Painters more graphically, than the different Peinture they excel in, the one in the outward Lineaments of the Face and Body, the other in the inward Temperament of the Mind.”

Now, I going to take up the task of perusing The Humourist’s essays for the word Annals!  (As I searched for Records, I discovered something that I had not quite noticed before:  nearly every essay touches upon poetry and drama.)

I’ll share my results with you next week.  In the meantime, remember:  words matter. Pay attention to them.