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Mind your language

Big changes in little words

Why scholars need to annotate ‘ill’, ‘out’, ‘free’ and ‘perfect’

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

I managed to grab the TLS last week before my husband stuffed it in his overcoat pocket and lost it at his club. It had a very enjoyable review by Sir Brian Vickers of the Cambridge edition of Ben Jonson. I understood much of it and agreed with most. A point I applauded was the need to annotate not only rare words but also deceptively simple words with a different meaning in Jonson’s day. They include ill, perfect, action, subtlety, free and accident. So, when Thomas More wrote of the ‘sottle suggestion of vice’, he did not mean a fine-tuned or even imperceptible suggestion, but one that was deceitful. Since Jonson named one of his characters Subtle, it is an important word to understand aright.

We still see such dangerous ambiguity today, with words in transit between meanings. Who can say issue now and hope to be understood to mean ‘a matter to be decided’? Forty years ago, poor old Tony Benn was always talking of the ‘ishoos’ — meaning policies not personalities. Today he’d be taken to be talking about problems. Little words are slipperiest, the prepositions, adverbs and particles that articulate sentences. Such a word is out. There’s a big difference between a flower, a fire, or my husband being out. Sir Brian notes that in the 16th and 17th centuries, for a performer, out meant ‘to have forgotten lines’, as Coriolanus says: ‘Like a dull actor now,/ I have forgot my part, And I am out.’ The obsoleteness of this meaning makes it hard to retell without rephrasing John Aubrey’s observation on Robert Sanderson, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. ‘He had no great memory,’ he wrote. ‘When I was a Fresh-man and heard him read his first Lecture, he was out in the Lord’s Prayer.’

The penultimate sentence of Sir Brian’s review, a sort of colophon, says: ‘Using the Cambridge Jonson will surely inspire a creative engagement across the whole of his massive body of work.’ That across, which in 2011 I suggested was the word of the year, in the sense ‘throughout’ (‘across a range of design disciplines’, ‘across Britain’), is a newly popular meaning for which future scholars, if there be any, will need to watch out.


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