The book is continually interesting; never more so, from my point of view, than when it is plainly wrong; but it is usually right, I could not deny. More than 100 familiar words, usually with some derivatives and opposites thrown in, are examined for a few pages each, so that it goes at a fair pace. The primary aim is to clear up confusion, so the author describes not only the varieties of meaning in a word but the various controversies in which they get used. Also he recognizes that these different meanings within one word are liable to interact, so that they form “compacted doctrines,” as when native was taken to imply “all subjected peoples are biologically inferior”; and he decides that many of our common words regularly tempt us to accept wrong beliefs, usually political ones. He does not say that resistance to them is beyond human power, which would make his book useless, but his introduction offers very little hope from the technique he provides. For example: “to understand the complexities of the meanings of class contributes virtually nothing to the resolution…of actual class disputes”; “what can really be contributed is not resolution but perhaps, at times, just that extra edge of consciousness”—meaning perhaps that an enlightened orator might swing votes by understanding the psychology of his audience. It is a dark picture as a whole.
Part of the gloom, I think, comes from a theory which makes our minds feebler than they are—than they have to be, if they are to go through their usual performance with language. The entry on the word interest is a good example. Our modern uses of the word, he explains, derive from capitalist procedures, and at first ranged from “compensation for loss” to “investment with a right or share.” In medieval times, usury was forbidden, but compensation was allowed, so there could be a gradual development of capitalist practices; interest in the modern financial sense had arrived by the end of the sixteenth century. But the “subjective” use, for curiosity or attention, is not clear before the nineteenth century:
The question is whether this sense of an object generating such interest is related to the active sense of interest—of money generating money…. It seems probable that this now central word for attention, attraction and concern is saturated with the experience of a society based upon money relationships.
So the poor word is like an old prayer-book which had been clutched by Mary Queen of Scots at her beheading and is still saturated with her blood; it is accursed. But there is no evidence for this linguistic phenomenon. We would often like an influence from past uses to survive in a word, when it plainly doesn’t. Jane Austen was relentless in making phrases for her ladies such as “found herself obliged to be attached” (to a barely rich enough man); she would be bound to use the pun on interest, if it had not felt too …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.