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words from decay, and restore dying words to life. It may invent new words and phrases. It may raise colloquial words to literary rank. Let us see what is meant by these important functions. Words, like coins, are liable to get worn-out and rubbed. "Rubbed" itself suggests an example. If I had written that "words grow trite," the sentence would not have been as forcible, though "trite" means, literally, “rubbed” (Latin, tritum, past participle of tero, I rub). The cause of this is that "trite" has been used too frequently and familiarly. Its own keen edge has been rubbed off by too much circulation, and when we want to express the full force of its meaning we have to find a word less common in that signification. This natural decay of words may be called a loss of vigour or a depreciation of value. The point is that literature, when it comes to choose its words, has to reckon with the loss and to try to repair it. Sometimes it is enough for literature merely to correct speech. Most talkers, for instance, have a habit of exaggeration. They use a strong word to do the work of a weak one, speaking of an "awful” pain when they mean a "severe" pain, or of a "tragedy" when they mean a "grief." And, gradually, the strong word becomes a habit of speech; it becomes, that is to say, a kind of necessity of language in the
place where the weak word was formerly found sufficient. This growth of a habit of exaggeration is like the growth of a habit of drunkenness; a man who increases his dram day by day will grow inured to the use of strong drinks, and at last the strong draught will have no more effect upon him than the weak draught had at first. When the effect of words is weakened in this way, literature, by restoring them to their original strength, does a service to philology, which is the science of language. One often hears, for example, of an "awful hat," or an "awfully good holiday," but when Tennyson wrote
"God made Himself an awful rose of dawn,"
he succeeded in rescuing "awful" from its degraded place in common talk. He corrected the tendency of speech.
§ 3. The Excess of Purism.-The writer who uses this device is frequently called a purist, because he makes it his aim, in his selection of words, to use them in their pure or original significance. But it is a device of style which has a special danger of its own. Speech is alive, and a writer who goes too far in the process of purifying it is liable to become pedantic. He cultivates the scholarly style, but, by neglecting too much
the current signification and living spirit of words, he becomes archaic in his vocabulary. He fails to recognise the limits imposed on his choice of words by the vitality of language. An example will make this clearer. Walter Pater is an instance of the purist in style who frequently succumbed to the danger of which we are speaking. It is the risk, we remember, of paying excessive attention to the proper treatment of words, thus removing the written language too far from the language of speech. Now take Pater's account, in his essay on Style, of the devices to be used by "a lover of words for their own sake" :
"Currently recognising the incident, the colour, the physical elements or particles in words like absorb, consider, extract, to take the first that occur, he will avail himself of them, as further adding to the resources of expression. The elementary particles of language will be realised as colour and light and shade through his scholarly living in the full sense of them. opposing the constant degradation of language by those who use it carelessly, he will not treat coloured glass as if it were clear; and while half the world is using figure unconsciously, will be fully aware of all that latent figurative texture in speech, . . . and scrupulously
PURISM AND PEDANTRY
exact of it, from syllable to syllable, its precise value."
This is not quite easy to understand, but we see that Pater means much the same as we have been saying. Only he would go too far. As a scholar, "living in the full sense of words," and anxious to exact of them "from syllable to syllable" their "precise value," instead of accepting the value which they bear in common talk, his style would take us too far from the language in which he writes. The purist would degenerate into a pedant.
Exactly how far a purist may safely go without becoming pedantic we cannot here attempt to decide. Much depends on the occasion when the purifying experiment is made. Just as a schoolmaster may spoil the effect of a rebuke by introducing it at the wrong time, so the purist in style may spoil the effect of his correction by mistaking the occasion. Mr Stephen Phillips, for instance, is a poet of whom great things are justly expected, but at first especially his choice of words was marked by excessive purism. There is more of Pater's precision than of Tennyson's insight in his phrases,
"Oh gradual rose of the dim universe,"
A dreadful freshness exquisitely breathes."
"Dreadful," like "awful," requires to be restored to its legitimate use from the degradation it suffers on the lips of careless talkers. But, if the word is to be restored at all, it should be restored at once to its full force, and Mr Phillips has chosen an occasion which is far less exaltedand, therefore, less convincing-than the Tennysonian context in which the misuse of "awful" is corrected. Moreover, he has helped to spoil his effect by doubling his rebuke. The word "exquisitely" in this sense is likewise an instance of purism, and it is asking too much of the reader to expect him to be thankful for two rescued words in a sevenword sentence. Such "syllable to syllable" purism suggests the method of a League for the Promotion of Kindness to Philology. The writer, that is to say, draws too much attention to his style. He wearies us with his well-doing, and, by compelling us to recognise how fine a purist he is, he sins by excess of purity.
§ 4 Other Kinds of Literary Language.-Similar dangers attend the enrichment of language by the process of inventing new words, or of combining existing words in a new way, as well as by the process which we described as raising colloquial words to literary rank. These things cannot be classified in rigid departments, for the