Monday, November 12, 2007

Spelling Out Enlightenment

In the last post, I discussed a conversation with Erin McKean, lexicographer and assessor for the CAGSE Latin programs in literacy.

Erin accuses good spellers of brutal moralizing -- using particular fixed meanings for words to instill shame and (they hope) submission and conformity to their points of view.

Erin thinks that good spellers have got their talent from one of their genes -- much in the same way that some people find it easier to do sums or match colors. Or they've been beaten and repressed so much that they want to impose the same treatment on others.

So Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Frankly, I blame Samuel Johnson.

As the first dictionary writer, he inevitably set a trend for those with a fear of change. Let's face it: Johnson believed in right and wrong. All of his epigrams, witty as they might be, inevitably moralize.

I mean really -- if a London dispatch rider is tired of London -- the smoke, the traffic, the congestion charge -- is he really, necessarily tired of life?

The Alternative

It's important to remember that Johnson wasn't the only 18th C thinker publishing like mad (and being read). The 18th C was one that was defined by an overarching argument about what it means to know.

There are those, like Johnson, Pope, and that crowd who defied change in meaning -- of custom, in fashion, and all the other things that went into building and maintaining the British Empire by force.

Then there was the other set -- Swift, Sterne, Susanna Centlivre and others -- who believed everything that one knows is defined by perspective.

Wouldn't advocacy of sort of play argue for a creative take on spelling and meaning?

And have you noticed that all (Western) arguments always come back to Plato and Aristotle?

More in the next post.

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