VA: What is language?
IS: The use of standardized symbols to communicate in a structured and consistent fashion.
VA: Standardized symbols?
IS: Sounds make words and words are symbols. By circumscribing the sounds PE-YO-TE to the small, soft, thornless, blue-and-green cactus found in Mexico and in the Southwestern United States, society attaches a name to the object. The name represents the object and stands in its stead. Objects have specific words attached. This specificity is crucial, for if the cactus changed every minute, language would defeat its own purpose. It would be shaped by chaos.
VA: A dictionary, then, is a catalogue of symbols...
IS: ...pertaining to a specific group of people.
VA: Jean Cocteau once quipped that even the greatest masterpieces of literature are nothing but a dictionary out of order.
IS: Yes, the whole of Catcher in the Rye is in the Oxford English Dictionary, ready to be unscrambled. Similarly, one could argue that a dictionary is a narrative in a state of fragmentation. Or else, in discombobulated format.
VA: Lovely word, discombobulated. It is the kind of gem we call in Spanish a pentavocálica, for it has all five vowels. But going back to "dictionary," Thomas Aquinas warned us to "Beware the man of one book." Does this maxim apply to dictionaries?
IS: Lexicons are most dangerous artifacts: they surreptitiously get under our skin, influencing every thought we have, every aspect of culture we engage in. Yet, I'm in awe at the sheer courage they distill. Any attempt to catalogue an entire language is a quixotic effort.
VA: You called lexicons "artifacts."
IS: An "artifact" is an object crafted by humans, usually of cultural or historical interest. I like the familiarity the word has with "artifice," which denotes cleverness. Lexicons are also artifices in that they are cunning devices used to trick or deceive people. Dr. Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1755, calls attention to the Latin root for "dictionary," dictionarium, then states: "A book containing the words of any language in alphabetical order, with explanations of their meaning." And he quotes from Brown's Vulgar Errours: "That there is an Art, which without compact commandeth the powers of Hell; whence some have delivered the polity of spirits, and left an account even to their Provincial Dominions: that they stand in awe of Charms, Spels, and Conjurations; that he is afraid of letters and characters, of notes and dashes, which set together do signifie nothing, not only in the dictionary of man, but the subtiler vocabulary of Satan."
VA: One of my favorite etymologies is that of "intellect." According to the Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins (1991), it is derived from the Latin root intelligere: 'to perceive, to choose between.' This is a compound verb formed by the prefix inter- 'between' and legere: 'gather, choose, read.' Thus, "intellect" means being able to read between the lines. Do you have a favorite etymology?
IS: The word "persona," which in Latin means mask. It was also used to describe the character played on stage by an actor. Over time "persona" has come to be understood as the part of one's character in display for others. This was used in contrast with "anima," a reference to the soul. (In Spanish there is also the noun duende, used, among others, by Federico García Lorca.) Thus, "personable" means sociable, possessing a pleasant demeanor. And the endless variations: personal, personality, personate, personhood. In Anglo-Saxon, there are the synonyms "people" and "persons." In Romance languages, a "persona"a gorgeous word, by the wayis an individual.
VA: The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. In Emerson's words, "Language is fossil poetry." Oliver Wendell Holmes conveyed a similar idea when he defined "word" as the skin of a living thought and said that whenever he felt like reading poetry, he would read his dictionary. How would you define "word"?
IS: Words are the fabric we use to dress our thoughts.
VA: You suggest in your book Dictionary Days that each culture has the dictionaries it deserves, which echoes Gandhi's opinion that every man at fifty wears the face that he deserves. You added that dictionaries are like mirrors, and, as such, are a reflection of the people that produced and consumed them. Yet Jonathon Green, in Chasing the Sun, argued that of the two most influential lexicographers in the US and England, Noah Webster and Dr. Johnson, respectively, the former gives his readers a low church, Republican view of the world whereas the latter gives his readers an Anglican, Tory worldview. Green further claims that what both men were doing, although neither articulated it as such, was playing Godor, if not God, at least Moses descending from the Sinai with the Tablets of the Law. If dictionaries are indeed written by a theocracy, if they are canonical and have authority, do they truly reflect the wants of the consumer, as you claim they do?
IS: Playing G-d is a common attitude... Every artist and intellectual, regardless of talent, engages in it. The ultimate yet impossible dream of the human mind is to explain and codify the universe. The result must be legible to others. This means the piece produced has to please othersin mercantile terms, it needs to be "consumed." No lexicographer lives on an island: the data collected comes from the people and it goes back to them.
VA: Mark Twain quipped that in German a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. In French, "vagina" is masculine; in Italian, "flower" is masculine. Germany is a Fatherland while Russia is a Motherland. Furthermore, in Spanish we have issues of size and worth happening conceptually when we juxtapose certain nouns with gender desinences like barco/barca and charco/charca. Of the languages you speak, which is the most idiosyncratic and why?
IS: Each language has its own idiosyncrasy. This is because languages are shaped out of spontaneous historical changes, not in a laboratory. The reason why Esperanto, the 19th century "rational" language created by the linguist L.L. Zamenhof of Warsaw, Poland (part of Russia when he was active), and known today as "the language for the global village" (doesn't English now fulfill that role?), is so predictive is that it is genetically engineered, so to speak. With its 28 letters, it has little by way of surprise. Personally, I love gender desinences in Romance languages: el sexo is masculine but la sexualidad is feminine. This is telling, isn't it?
VA: When you come across a newly published dictionary in a store, or one in somebody's shelves, what crosses your mind?
IS: First, I must say I marvel at its sheer existence. I ask: Is this yet another attempt at cataloguing human language? How is this item different from any other? Might it be closer to perfection? Second, I browse through its pages, caressing them, jumping from one definition to another. My mind sets on a somewhat exotic target: what about the word "percolate"? Or else, "numismatic"? Third, I choose a mundane, consuetudinary word: "water," "fire," "air"... As you know, I have a passion for collecting lexicons. The collection is constantly expanding. In fact, these items have ended up pushing regular books out of the shelf. So, if I like what I find in the dictionary, there is a fourth step: I wonder if I can part ways from this appealing item. I generally end up poorer after these types of exposure. In time, though, after I study the dictionary in detail, I come to terms with its shortcomings. For the term perfection, although defined in them, doesn't apply to their achievement.
VA: Indeed, Henri Meschonnic argues that "[Les] Dictionnaires [...] sont donc à merveille les lieux où lire entre lignes, où reconnaître, plus facilement qu'ailleurs, les conflits, les masquages des conflits, les clichés qui font l'album de famille d'une culture" [Dictionaries, [...] are the best examples of texts that one should read between the lines, where the conflicts, the hidden and ignored oppositions, the clichés that make up the family album of a culture can be detected more easily than anywhere else]. For a general dictionary to be successful commercially, do you think it must reflect the ideological values of the public that is supposed to buy itnot what is practiced, but what is seen as an ideal, a Norman Rockwell tableau of words, so-to-speak?
IS: Even if it attempted not to reflect that weltanschauung, it would inevitably do it. We're all prisoners of our own time and place.
VA: In the early 19th century, Constantin François de Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney, said that the first book of a nation is a dictionary of its language, but clearly he was not speaking about the chronology of events, as his statement is not borne out by facts he knew: the USA did not have its own dictionaryWebster'suntil 1806, thirty years after it declared its independence from England in 1776. What, then, do you think de Volney meant?
IS: Much like Beowolf for the Saxons, the Kalevala for the Finns, the Niebelunglied for the Germans, and the Icelandic sagas, the dictionary serves the function of a foundational saga, although not about a mythical hero in his quest for order, but about a language in search of collective definition.
VA: In all general lexicons, there are endogenous definitions that issue from the weltanschauung of the dictionary compilers about themselves, and exogenous definitions written by the compilers about those outside their own culture. Henri Béjoint said that "dictionary" is a term with a wide extension and a complex intention. In your travels through dictionaries, what have you found about identity?
IS: Lexicons aren't only reductivistic. They are also outright xenophobic. Still, they serve a purpose: to define a people's universe.
VA: Let's tackle the thorny issue of prescriptivism versus descriptivism in dictionaries.
IS: There are, as you know, two types of lexicographic approaches: the descriptive and the prescriptive. In the former the dictionary is but a record of the ways of speech available in a certain time and space. In the latter the dictionary has a normative approach: it doesn't only offer users a bank of available voices but it announces what is correct and what isn't. In my rebellious spirit, I tend to admire the absurd authority projected in prescriptive lexicons. Their dream is to normalize a language, to make it proper. This, needless to say, is utopian. Having said that, I must stress the dialectical nature between prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries. One cannot exist without the other. Language without limits descends to chaos: grammar, syntax, spelling... these are all prescriptive activities. But when the limits are set in stone without any room to be innovative, language becomes stagnant. For languages, to survive, need to be in a state of constant mutation. They need to engage in a give-and-take, to borrow and improvise new terms, and offer terms to other languages. In my eyes this type of promiscuous relationship is fundamental to keeping a healthy metabolism. They cannot take too much, otherwise their essence vanishes. Nor can they give too much because they would disintegrate the languages that surround them. This process is intimately connected to movements like imperialism, globalization and colonialism. Imperial tongues like Greek, Latin, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese conquered by erasingor at least eclipsingregional ways of communication. Nowadays imperialism might appear to be more subtle, though not less effective. English is not only the lingua franca of the present. It is also an imperial tongue. But it is a mistake to believe that it only lends words and doesn't borrow anything. In fact, English is constantly absorbing foreign terms. Actually, its survival for over a thousand years is the result of its admirable elasticity.
VA: You close Dictionary Days with a definition from Gustave Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idées reçues of 1881: Dictionary: Say of it: "It's only for ignoramuses!" Flaubert's dictionary has been labeled by Green as "a masterpiece of deflation" that picks away at the safe banalities of the 19th century French bourgeoisie. And there is, of course, Ambrose Bierce's cynical Devil's Dictionary of 1906. We might also add to this list Cheris Kramerae's and Paula Treichler's The Feminist Dictionary (1985) that defines "ability" as "ability is sexless." What do you make of word lists assuming dictionary forms?
IS: There is an essential difference between a lexicon and a word list. The first attempts to be comprehensive, covering every single aspect in a particular field, e.g., a dictionary of applied mechanics, a dictionary of fashion, a dictionary of Dostoievski's oeuvre, etc. Word lists are less ambitious, more arbitrary. Indeed, they are individual attempts to map out a person's temperamental inclinations. What I enjoy about these moody volumes is their unconcealed subjectivity. Standard dictionaries come to us surrounded with a clout of authority. Word lists don't presume to have any authority. Of course, the fact that the likes of Flaubert and Bierce produced them does give them muscle.
VA: What do you think of Adolfo Bioy Casares's Breve diccionario del argentino exquisito (1978)? By the way, it doesn't include the term mejicanada, which Argentines use to describe the act of stealing from smugglersan excess of what is seen as Mexicanness.
IS: Every culture has authors who, tired of creating Works of imagination, sit down to decipher their own lexicon. In Spanish, I love Bioy Casares's dictionary and also like Camilo José Cela's Diccionario secreto (1969) on cant, the language of crime and prostitution.
VA: To Anatole France, the dictionary was the universe in alphabetical order. In defining it, Dr. Johnson, preferred an analogy based on Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism: 'Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none,' even if 'the best cannot be expected to go quite true.' This interests me enormously, for I always start my translation classes with this question to my students: What is a dictionary? Of course, I get the expected answers from smart-alecks: Museums of words I have to carry in my backpack to come to your class.
IS: One needs to reach a certain age to fall in love with dictionaries. While one is young, one approaches language uncritically, as a tool. It is only after one realizes that words are not only malleable but transientjust like us allthat our relationship with these artifacts becomes more complex. I'm able to trace, with frightening precision, the moment this change occurred in me. In Mexico I had access to different languages (Hebrew, Spanish, Yiddish, French, English...), but I didn't pay too much attention to their differences. Silla, kisé, chairthe fact that a single object could be described in various ways didn't much concern me. Somehow language and identity were not conflictive categories for me. It was not until after I immigrated to the United States, in the mid eighties, that I realized that language defines us in an encompassing way. Dictionaries, of course, are more than museums of words; they are fashion stores, too.
VA: How are dictionaries fashion stores?
IS: They contain relics but also neologisms. Plus, in a Nietzschean cycle of eternal return, users rediscover terms and infuse them with new meaning. This is done by the so-called "retro" people. I have in my personal library the first two volumes (A-G and H-O) of J.E. Lighter's Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, a veritable lexicographic treasure-trove. Look at how words like "hot" and "mad" have changed meanings over the last 150 years.
VA: There is a quote attributed to Emperor Charles V that reads: "With ambassadors I speak in French, with the ladies in Italian, with God in Spanish, and with my horse in German." As you state it in On Borrowed Words, you speak four languages, are they all equally useful for expressing your fears, your desires, your innermost thoughts?
IS: Not at all. English is best for essays and lectures, Spanish for writing fiction and expressing emotion, Yiddish is unparalleled when it comes to offensive words, and Hebrew is perfect for etymological disquisitions.
VA: When you say that Spanish is best for fiction and emotion...
IS: I find Cervantes's tongue incredibly elastic and suitable to engage in day-dreaming.
VA: This makes me think of the extent to which lexicons are misogynistic. The Feminist Movement coined the term dicktionary arguing that whatever their intentions, dictionaries have functioned as linguistic legislators that perpetuate the stereotypes and prejudices of their male writers and editors, systematically rendering women invisible in their pages. This produced a number of dictionaries, such as the aforementioned The Feminist Dictionary (1985), which had a firm revisionist agenda. Then we also have works like The Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases (1991) compiled by a gaggle of journalists from a range of major American cities that warns against using words such as "community," for it implies a monolithic culture, or "articulate," for it can be considered offensive when referring to a minority. As Tom Lehrer put it: "In my days there were words you couldn't say in front of a girl; now you can't say girl." Should a lexicographer be allowed to re-write century-old history from contemporary viewpoints?
IS: It would be fascinating to study, in chronological fashion, the way the word "woman" has been defined by lexicographers from the 15th century to the present. My favorite definition, nevertheless, is in Spanish and comes from Sebastián de Covarrubias, whose Tesoro appeared in 1611 and was published under the aegis of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The first Spanish dictionary, however, was the Universal vocabulario en latín y en romance, published in 1490 by Alonso de Placencia. Next came Nebrija's Lexicon hoc est dictionarium ex sermone latino in hispaniensem and the following year he published Dictionarium latinum-hispanum. Even though in 1505 the Franciscan monk Pedro de Alcalá, making use of Nebrija's work, published his Vocabulario arábigo en letra castellana, the father of Spanish lexicography is considered to be Sebastián de Covarrubias. His Tesoro de la lengua española o castellana was used by the Real Academia Española as the prime source for the compilation of the Diccionario de Autoridades, which in turn became the Diccionario de la lengua española. In any case, Covarrubias writes about the word mujer: "Muchas cosas se pudieran decir de esta palabra; pero otros las dicen, y con más libertad de lo que sería razón." (Many things can be said of this word; but others say them, and with more freedom than reason allows.) Covarrubias then offers a long quote describing women for their lasciviousness. This is the only time in over 1,000 pages where the lexicographer refuses to define a word. Could it be because he is afraid to express his own wantonness?
VA: I came across the name Hester Lynch Piozzi, more widely known as Hester Lynch Thrale, Samuel Johnson's friend. I know that Johnson is a hero of yours, as is made clear in the chapter included in Dictionary Days in which he pays a posthumous visit to your home in Amherst.
IS: Johnson had a breakdown at the age of fifty-six. He was rescued by the Thrales, the distinguished Henry and his wife Hester Lynch Salisbury. Hester Lynch Piozzi (her second husband's name) wrote a couple of books on her famous friend, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, which came out in 1786, and Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson, in 1788. She was a hostess that rescued Johnson and had a literary salon frequented by the likes of Edmund Burke, David Garrick, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. But she was more than a hostess; she was a lexicographeralthough this aspect of her career generated much criticism. She authored an etymological study called British Synonymy in 1794 and a 2-volume history of words known as Retrospection, published in 1801. Some critics have disregarded her oeuvre as imitative of Johnson's, no doubt an offensive, nearsighted approach. In the annals of English lexicography, Piozzi holds a secure place, especially as a female role model. She met James Boswell in 1768 and had a famously competitive relationship with him, among other things because both tried to capitalize on Johnson's fame as biographers, although Boswell took much too long to complete his own assessment of his mentor.
VA: The total number of words found in Shakespeare's collected works and sonnets is 15,000, and some of these are hapax legomenawords used only once in the history of the printed wordsuch as honorificabilitudinitatibus, which appears in Love's Labour's Lost, act V, scene I. Linguistic studies have shown that the average American high school graduate has a vocabulary of 60,000 words. Steven Pinker has dubbed it a tetrabardian vocabulary. What do you make of this discrepancy?
IS: I'm surprised by the size: 60,000? I read somewhere that the average American uses only 2,000 different words a day. Who is to know? These quantitative studies are nothing if not intellectual pleasers, designed to prove whatever theory the researchers have set out to explain. Does a person today in Avon, England, use a smaller or larger vocabulary than his counterpart in the same place at the time of Shakespeare's death in 1616? The answer, I suspect, is more. There are, after all, more words in the English language in the 21st century than at any previous time. This has nothing to do with wisdom. There is simply much more to know nowadays and more accumulated ways to express it.
VA: Alison, your wife, is a speech pathologist and you are a writer. It is an interesting merging of views on language sleeping in the same bed, and this must have an influence on your children, Josh and Isaiah. In the first chapter of Dictionary Days, Isaiah asks you whether words die.
IS: At home we make endless jokes on and around language. You say potato and I say potahto... My kids are always correcting my English. Or else, they make fun of my accent and explain to me idioms I'm unfamiliar with as a non-native speaker. Isaiah's question about the death of words intrigues me deeply. He wanted to know if there is a heaven where words might go. I told him there was: the dictionary.
VA: You and Alison chose to name your second-born son in honor of Isaiah Berlin. Berlin, a political philosopher and the author of Two Concepts of Liberty, had Russian as his mother tongue and English as his adopted academic language. Both of these languages make a semantic distinction between "freedom" and "liberty." One of Berlin's maxims is "Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs." Why did Berlin choose "liberty" over "freedom"?
IS: According to the OED, "freedom" is the power or right to act, speak and think as one wishes without hindrance or restraint. It is the concern of the individual. "Liberty," on the other hand, approaches the same concept but from the societal view. It is a concept that affects people from the outside and structures their freedom. It is the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, and political views. Wolves and lambs are free to act as they wish. As animals they are motivated by sheer instinct, but as humans we live within moral confines. Liberty for Christians should not be death to other religious groups. Isaiah Berlin explored the concept of negative freedom, e.g., not offensive, destructive freedom, but freedom within certain parameters. One might ask: is restricted freedom still freedom? The answer is an unquestionable 'yes': there is no such thing as unrestricted freedom. Freedom invariably takes place within what is possible. And in society what is possible and what is necessary need to go hand in hand.
VA: Anne Fadiman has said that Americans admire success while the British admire heroic failure. I quote: "Who but an Englishman, Lieutenant William Edward Parry, would have decided, on reaching western Greenland, to wave a flag painted with an olive branch in order to ensure a peaceful first encounter with the polar Eskimos, [sic] who not only had they never seen an olive branch but had never seen a tree? Who but an Englishman, the legendary Sir John Franklin, could have managed to die of starvation and scurvy along with 129 of his men in a region of the Canadian Arctic whose game had supported an Eskimo [sic] colony for centuries? When the corpses of some of Franklin's officers and crew were later discovered, miles from their ships, the men were found to have left behind their guns but to have lugged such essentials as monogrammed silver cutlery, a backgammon board, a cigar case, a clothes brush, a tin of button polish, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield. These men may have been incompetent bunglers, but, by God, they were gentlemen." What cultural traits do you see on the pages of the OED?
IS: Was it George Bernard Shaw who said that England and the United States are two countries separated by the same language? Language is only a conduit to express oneself. Culture is a much larger category. In the Mexico of my adolescence one often heard jokes about Argentines, who are supposed to have huge egos. These jokes were often cruel: How does an Argentine commit suicide? He climbs up his ego and jumps. Why are Argentines buried in caskets with holes in them? Worms can't stand them either. By the way, there was a plethora of jokes about Mexicans in Argentina. Why don't Argentines eat Mexican refried beans? They know how to cook them right the first time around. Between these two nations there wasand still ismuch misunderstanding, as well as envy.
VA: The OED has been described as a dictionary for decoding literary texts. According to the Dictionary Society of North America, the writer it quotes the most is Shakespeare (32,886 quotes), then come Scott (15,499), Milton (11,967), and Chaucer (11,000). The bias toward literature is so strong that the OED contains literary hapaxes, and words of marginal importance used by these preferred writers are rarely omitted and are usually assigned main lemma status.
IS: From Dr. Johnson to the present, the British are a stuffy people. The goal of the OED was to legitimize the English language by calling attention to England's stellar literary tradition. As we move from words to graphic signs in our civilizationmiddle-class children today are raised on a hefty diet of DVDsliterary quotations appear useless. It is not improbable that in the not-so-distant future the OED will come out with a lexicon legitimized by movie references.
VA: The strongest criticisms leveled against Murray's OED (1928), were that its coverage of words native to North America was notably deficient, that words considered vulgar or taboo were not admitted, and that the vocabularies of science and technology, commerce and industry, were largely ignored.
IS: It is no secret that dictionaries are exclusive, not inclusive. No matter how hard one tries, one cannot avoid this shortcoming. After all, we're all prisoners of our own time and place. Plus, there is no denying in that each and every one of us approaches the world with a bias. Take James Murray, whose full name was James Augustus Henry Murray. He, whose patience, wisdom, and dedication made the first complete edition of the OED possible, was a Borgesean character. Simon Winchester succinctly described his life-long effort as wanting to tackle "the meaning of everything." His unrelenting appeal to readers for citations, the Spartan rigors of his Mill Hill Scriptorium, the overall fastidiousness with which he approached his endeavor are all admirable and without peer. But Murray still felt marginalized from academia, for the Oxford dons did not treat him as an equal. This, in part, was what made him decide to exclude commercial and technical terms from the fascicles he progressively produced. In his eyes, gentlemen did not talk about money, machines or business; gentlemen engaged in discourse about literature and ideas. Of course, contemporary bias in dictionary-making may be the result of an entity such as the Soviet Bureau, or, for that matter, of a monarchsuch as Queen Victoria. The first edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (1911) is full of subjective definitions, and so is the Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary up to its most recent edition, the 9th, in 2003. Such subjectivity, which John Algeo called the 'Johnsonian effect,' may now be more restrained, but is certainly not absent from modern dictionaries. Yet one could argue that those biases are no longer the result of individual idiosyncrasy, as they were in the times of Johnson, Emile Littré, Pierre Larrouse, and Noah Webster. Now the slants, the prejudices, are those of a team of compilersan Academy.
VA: In the essay "Of Jews and Canons" (The Essential Ilan Stavans), you mention that after reading Harold Bloom's book The Western Canon you came across a review in amazon.com from a reader in Spain who said that Bloom's book was not a Western canon at all, but "an English language one." You say that in Dr. Johnson's times, which you have branded a "less skeptical age than ours," Truth, with a capital 'T,' was "undeniable and absolute." Based on these observations, is the OED part of the Western canon?
IS: Without a doubt the OED is an integral part of the Western Canon. It is a masterpiece of epic proportions, and its views of the universe permeate everything.
IS: Nothing is alien to it. Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of 1921, said: "What can be said at all can be said clearly." Seven years later, James Murray proved Wittgenstein right.
VA: I came across in A Guide to the Oxford English Dictionary, composed by Donna Lee Berg, a reference to a certain Marghanita Laski (1915-1988), a British writer and journalist who often wrote under the pseudonym of Sarah Russell..
IS: There are other female contributors too, among them Ms. E.F. Burton of Carlisle, who contributed 18,700 citations, and the sisters Edith and E. Perronet Thompson of Bath, who contributed 15,000 and are frequently acknowledged for their proof-reading efforts as well. And two of Murray's daughters, Rosfrith and Elsie, were important contributors, as was a daughter of editor Henry Bradley, whose name I have not been able to find and has perhaps been lost to history.
VA: What about Marghanita Laski?
IS: Although a professed atheist, she was a Marxist Jew from Manchester and the niece of Joseph Harold Laski, an Oxford alum who led the Labour Party between 1945 and 1946. Harold Laski taught political science at Yale and Harvard. Marghanita Laski has been the subject of some scholarship of late. She is the author of the book Ecstasy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences, which, to some, is of the caliber of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. In the annals of lexicography, with her quarter of a million citations submittedand all accepted, by the wayto the Supplement and the second edition of the OED, she stands as the supreme contributor, male or female, to the OED and is yet to receive the credit she deserves.
VA: In America, the tradition of "encyclopedicity" goes back at least as far as Noah Webster's A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) which had, among other things, tables of foreign currencies, ancient and modern weights and measures, a history of the world, Jewish, Greek and Roman calendars, and a complete list of all the post offices in the US. However, R. Bailey mentions an abridged edition of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary published not long after his death that includes weights and measures, a table of heathen deities, Archbishop Usher's history of the world with principal dates from the creation in 4004 B.C., and the market days in the principal towns of England and Wales.
IS: Johnson was always conscious of his stature. He understood his role as pathfinder.
VA: Yes, but would he have objected to these appendices or, more to the point, to the nature of these particular appendices?
IS: He would have, for sure. Johnson loved straight-forward language. The circumvolutions, academicisms, and metaliterary devices we're accustomed to would have driven him out of his mind.
VA: You have a meditation on him in Dictionary Days in which you imagine Johnson visiting you at your Amherst home to discuss lexicography.
IS: Have you ever been asked: "if you had to choose a luminary from the past to have a conversation with, who would it be?" Samuel Johnson is one of the most verbally sensitive, intellectually lucid minds ever to walk this Earth. I cherish his words like jewels. I have a solid collection of his oeuvre in my personal library. It sits next to my Don Quixotes and to my multiple Borgeses.
VA: In 1893 the US Supreme Court used the dictionary to define "tomato" either as a fruit or vegetable in order to determine whether importing tomatoes was subject to tariff. It is worth noting that the word "dictionary" is often used in the singular, and with the definite article, as if there was only one dictionary per language, which would come in different formats and different types of presentation, but would contain the same information. But what is extraordinary is that in most court cases where dictionaries have been used as evidence, neither the title nor the exact nature of the dictionary used were disclosed. This has prompted Rosamund Moon to call this fictitious legal dictionary the UAD: The Unidentified Authorizing Dictionary, a mythical object everyone uses yet no one ever sees. You have coined the term logotheism. Similarly, in 1989 historical linguist John Algeo coined the term lexicographicolatry. How do these terms differ? And, if there is a logotheism, are dictionaries Scripture?
IS: Logotheism is a religious manifestation where words have center stage. Judaism and Christianity are logotheistic. Just think back on the first line of Mathew: "In the beginning was the word." The original term is logos. Also, kabbalists from Moisés de León to Abraham Abulafia and Isaac Luria envisioned the universe as created by G-d through words. For them words preceded nature. Words were the purveyor's layout, the master plan.
VA: The Bible has spawned an impressive number of dictionaries. Might we also say that dictionaries have spawned an impressive number of bibles?
IS: In my view, some dictionarieslike the OEDare bibles.
VA: Are they sacred?
IS: They surely are...
VA: As you discovered in Dictionary Days when you looked at the ignominious definitions of día in María Moliner and the Diccionario de la lengua española (DRAE) of the Real Academia Española. The DRAE defines day as:"Tiempo que el Sol emplea en dar, aparentemente, una vuelta a la Tierra." (The time it takes the Sun to, apparently, circle the Earth.) and Moliner repeats the error albeit using slightly different words , lexicographers have always been accusing each other of plagiarism. In 1986 Fredric Dolezal suggested that rather than saying that dictionaries are the result of a sequence of clever and not so clever plagiarists, it would help if we indeed viewed the English Dictionary as a single text; then the different "authors" of the successive dictionaries would more felicitously be called "editors."
IS: That is a concept put forth by the 18th century thinker Emanuel Swedenborg and emphasized by Ralph Waldo Emerson: the Almighty is the sole Creator, whereas humans are mere scribes. By the way, María Moliner is among the most fascinating cases in the history of female lexicographers.
VA: How so?
IS: Moliner, who died in Madrid in 1981, was a housewife whose energy was committed to recording and cataloguing, by hand, the Spanish "usage." Thus the title Diccionario de uso del español. It was an extraordinary lexicon released in 1966-7, immediately applauded by the likes of Miguel Delibes and Gabriel García Márquez. The current edition contains more than 3,000 pages and is not only larger but, in my judgment, better that the DRAE put forth by the Spanish Academy. Who ever said housewives were wasted?
VA: In a polyglot dictionary published in Paris in 1548 by Pasquier Le Tellier, he included words for intimate functions of the human bodyin eight languages! Even staid Dr. Johnson has a six-line poem (by Jonathan Swift) to illustrate "fart" in his dictionary: "to fart. To break wind behind. As when we gun discharge, Although the bore be ne're so large, Before the flame from muzzle burst, Just at the breech it flashes first; So from my lord his passion broke, He farted first, and then he spoke." In Dictionary Days you comment on the puritanical aspects of modern dictionaries. What have you found?
IS: That the prudishness is embarrassing. Take the word "fuck." For decades is has been the most usedand abusedmonosyllabic term in the English language. Yet only when R.W. Burchfield, chief editor of the OED from 1971 to 1984, whose mission it was to register "offensive parlance" under the radar of the Oxford dons, that the expression made it to the lexicon. In my 1971 edition, for instance, it is absent, believe it or not.
VA: We cannot expect general-purpose monolingual dictionaries to be so all-encompassing that they turn into encyclopedias. However, when I read the definition of judío in the Diccionario de la lengua española (2003), and compare it to its definition of moro, I find marked differences in their treatment. The Jewish presence in the Iberian peninsula spans from the 2nd century CE through March 31, 1492yet no mention of this 14-century presence or forced departure appears in the definition. In comparison, the Islamic presence spans 8 centuries, from 711 CE through the expulsion of the Mozárabes by Isabella on February 11th, 1502. The definition of moro, however, does include historical information regarding their arrival in Spain and their forced departurealthough its historicity is not perfect, for, if we are to be precise, they were expelled in the 16th century, not in the 15th as stated in the definition. Do lexicographers (and in this case, the Real Academia proper) have special responsibilities when it comes to encyclopedicity regarding definitions pertaining to their own history?
IS: They surely have... A lexicon is a map of its nation's psyche. Lexicographers have a responsibility to describe historical tides.
VA: Ah, the Academy. Over the last few years you've clashed with the Real Academia. Jean Cocteau said: "The trouble about the Académie is that by the time they get around to electing us to a seat, we really need a bed." What is the role of these institutions?
IS: Academies are designed to be the authority on language. The function of authority is complex, of course. It records and catalogues. But should it also prescribe? I believe in correctness but not when it is achieved through coercion or when it limits freedom.
VA: The Diccionario de la lengua (DRAE) released in 2003, because of its haphazard encyclopedicity and rudimentary scientificity, tells us that a pantera is the same as a leopardo. To my merriment, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate defines panther as "a. A leopard of a hypothetical exceptionally large fierce variety, b. A leopard of the black color phase, 2. Cougar; 3. Jaguar." Furthermore, both dictionaries refuse to tell us where we may encounter panthers, whether as panthers or dressed as leopards, cougars, or jaguars; rather irresponsible on their part. Unless, of course, the beasts' fierceness is indeed hypothetical, their size not worth mentioning, and that black phase they're going through, well, it is just a phase. When I asked the people of the Diccionario what a tinge was, they got angry at me, Ilan, and shouted: Gosh, woman, what a question! Everyone knows that a tinge is 'An owl that is stronger and larger than the common one' (Búho mayor y más fuerte que el común.) This definition brought to mind Kersey's New Dictionary (1702) where he defined "dog" as 'a beast' and his Dictionnarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708), where he simply defines it as 'a well-known creature.' Lexicographers, it seems, have a very hard time defining animals. You've noticed quite a number of peculiarities in dictionary definitions of animals. What intrigued you about the OED's encyclopedicity when it comes to animals?
IS: The OED defines "zebra" as "a South African equine quadruped (Equus or Hippotigris Zebra), of whitish ground-colour striped all over with regular bars of black, inhabiting mountainous regions, and noted for its wildness and swiftness." But is it "whitish ground-colour" with black stripes or blackish-ground color with white stripes, as other dictionaries put it? It is all in the eye of the beholder. Yet that beholder is partial, subjective, biased... Is a white-based "equine" less threatening than a black-based one?
VA: If you were asked to produce the smallest virtual lexicon ever, a vademecum for the eternally busy reader of today, capable of being transported in a Palm Pilot, what would it contain?
IS: The vademecum (from the Latin "go with me," a word that originated in the 17th century) would list words whose definitions would change depending on the date you access it. That, I suspect, is the model of the lexicons of tomorrow: instantly mutating vocabularies.
VA: Would names change too?
IS: With a few exceptions, such as Collins, lexiconsunless expressly devoted to toponimy and onomasticsrefuse to include names.
VA: Yet names are identity cards. For instance, when Alice asked "Must a name mean something?" Humpty Dumpty answered with a short laugh "Of course it must. My name means the shape I amand a good, handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."
IS: Yes, names become things and vice versa, especially with people. People's characters are collapsed into Platonic categories instantly organized in our mind. Do all the Johns you know have something in common, to such degree that the word John becomes an archetype? The answer is yes, although subjectively. John for me is attached to slim, serious, blond, speckled individuals, who tend to be too formal. This is because I've synthesized all the Johns I've come across. The same with Jeremy, Brigitte, Antonio, and Olivia. Of course, every so often a John will break the pattern, which, of course, simply proves that such a pattern does exist. And my archetype of John will be different from yours because you've met Johns I'm unacquainted with and vice versa. Are all Alices like the Alice in Wonderland? Of course not, but Lewis Carroll's Alice predisposes us to find similes.
VA: Some horses, whether real or imagined, have made their mark in history. There's Robert E. Lee's Traveller, George Washington's Nelson, Alexander's Bucephalus; Don Quixote's Rocinante, Caligula's Incitatus, Napoleon's Marengo... But there's one that piques my curiosity: the Cid Campeador's Babieca. I don't know about you, but I picture Rodrigo as a macho de pelo en pecho riding a powerful stallion across the Spanish plains. What do you make of his horse's rather inane name?
IS: And let's not forget Bellerophon's Pegasus, Reinaldos of Montalván's Bayard and Ruggiero's Frontino. In any event, Babieca is an emblematic name and it has a curious mythological past. It isn't until the second Cantar of the Poema de Mío Cid that Babieca makes an appearance. Like the manuscript of Don Quixote, which Cervantes's narrator buys in Toledo and is supposedly in Arabic, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivarthe Campeadoracquires Babieca from the emir of Seville, although there are some legends that claim the horse was from León. Yakov Malkiel, whose philological work has opened our eyes to the Hebraic roots of medieval Iberian culture, suggested that Babieca is a nickname probably meaning "el baboso," a dumbo. The equivalent practice nowadays, I assume, might be found in the way car companies name their products: Cherokee, Explorer, Touareg, etc.
VA: In 2004, the British Council conducted a survey (it sampled 40,000) amongst English-language students in 46 countries and asked them what they thought were the most beautiful words in the English language. According to the results, non English-speakers voted the following 10 words as the most beautiful:  Mother,  Passion,  Smile,  Love,  Eternity,  Fantastic,  Destiny,  Freedom,  Liberty and  Tranquility. What do you think of this survey's responses?
IS: I find the list a cliché. Since there are no forty-six countries in the world where English is the English of daily activity, was the survey done among non-English speakers? That would explain the inclusion of words like "Passion," "Smile," and "Love." There is the fact that "Mother" is #1 but "Father" is absent altogether. Is this because "madre sólo hay una," as the Mexican saying goes, but anyone can be a father? Then there is the difference, about which we've talked already in reference to Isaiah Berlin, between "freedom" and "liberty." The inclusion of these two terms on the list is especially conspicuous, since few languages outside of Russian, Polish, Englishand perhaps Hebrewmake a distinction between these two concepts. And what is the adjective "Fantastic" doing in the list? And "Tranquility"? Is there a feminine aspect to the list, by the way? And are these "the most beautiful words in the English language" or are they the words about the most beautiful things in the language? I suspect it's the latter. In terms of beautiful words, I vote for "moon," "wolverine," "anaphora" and "precocious."
VA: Regarding "love," you mentioned in Dictionary Days that Acadians, Caldeans, Phoenicians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Normans, Toltecs, Vikings, and Quechuas didn't have a word for it. Knowing that images are an important part of how you see the world, what would you have done had you been born speaking Latin, that according to linguists doesn't have a lexeme for gray or brown, or born to that of the Dani of New Guinea, whose only color words are for black and white, or speaking a 4-color language like Hanunóo that has words only for black, white, green and red?
IS: The limits of our language are the limits of our worldview.
VA: In Dictionary Days you state that there are English words you dislike, amongst them "here" and "now." Yet, terms pertaining to space and time are ubiquitous in English, our borrowed language, because the culture of which we now partake measures its history in timelines and timeframes, its pace in New York minutes, its inventorying in FIFO or LIFO, its production line must run like clockwork, its products delivered in just-in-time and time-to-market frameworks, its manpower is measured in man-hours and clock-hours, its academics in credit-hours... and we all live under the pressure of deadlines and due dates and such. In short, we live by the here and now and the don't-be-late-tomorrows. How have you managed to avoid the "heres" and "nows" in your writing when most of your writing is in English?
IS: My strategy has been to let the reader infer these words. The act of reading takes place in an eternal present. Why re-emphasize the time frame in the text? Now that I'm thinking about it, my allergy to these coordinates might be linked to the obsession with them by the Mexican middle class: when people are anxious about their economic and cultural status, they stress the need to enjoy the "here and now," which is what I used to hear, among relatives and friends, all the time. I, for one, don't want to limit my bet to the present. The past and the future are far more important tenses for me.
VA: A few years ago I learned a lovely word, "noumenon."
IS: It comes from Kantian philosophy and implies the impossibility of knowing things as they actually are, for they are not experienced through any of the five senses. Human experience filters everything, and in so doing, it perverts the universe. But that perversion is who we are and, as such, is beautiful.
VA: Love, for instance, is a noumenon, yet its name is absent in many languages. You have a beautiful chapter in Dictionary Days about the definition of "love" in Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, and English dictionaries. By the way, do you like the world "beautiful"?
IS: Not particularly.
VA: Having talked about English words that you dislike, I would now like to bring up Spanish words that you're fond of. In particular, I've noticed you attraction to "rascuache" and "rascuachismo."
IS: These words denote taste as it is defined by class. "Rascuache" is an esthetic experience filtered through the eyes of the have-nots. If everything we do is defined by who we are, classalong with religion, politics, and ethnicityis one of the circumstances shaping our worldview. I fell in love with the concept of "Rascuache" when I moved to the United States, in the mid eighties, and quickly found out that "lo mexicano," things Mexican, were considered, in the cultural arena, of low quality. Yet I was shaped by this weltanschauung. Was I therefore inferior? "Rascuachismo," it follows, is a political stand through which the have-nots affirm their worldview. The have-nots often suffer from an inferiority complex but only in the eyes of the cultural elite. Their life, in their own perception, is meaningful.
VA: A few days ago, my doorbell rang. When I picked up the intercom and asked "Who is it?," I got a very Mexican response: "No, si no es nadie, Vero, nomás soy yo." (No, it's no one, Vero, it's just me). I noticed that in Dictionary Days you mention the word donnadie: a nobody. And then there is another Mexicanism: ningunear.
IS: A verb denoting the actand artof turning someone into a nobody. Octavio Paz, in The Labyrinth of Solitude, makes a deal out of this lack of self. Yet does it mean that Mexicans have no self-esteem? Only when people from opposing social statuses interact does it come into play. I have never heard a poor Mexican saying "no soy nadie" to a peer. Needless to say, the behavior is universal: I've seen Italians, French, and Germans ningunearse, ignoring or making less of one another. In the Middle East, it is a most common activity: Jews giving the back to Palestinians and vice versa. It is sheer Mexican genius to have come with a term for it: ningunear. Another Mexicanism I adore is engentar, to over-saturate oneself with people, i.e., to be "peopled out."
VA: Bartlett's Roget Thesaurus, published in 1996, within is conceptual categories of synonyms, includes many lists of types of things, among them a lengthy list of phobias. Interestingly, there is "logophobia," but there isn't a phobia listed for fearing dictionaries.
IS: Should it be called "lexicophobia"?
VA: Have you ever come across someone suffering from it?
IS: Oh, thousands and thousands. How often does one come across a student who thinks looking up a term in the dictionary is a form of torture? Maybe we should establish a jail system in which inmates are forced to memorize definitions from dictionaries. Depending on the severity of the crime, one would need to memorize 2,000, 50,000, 100,000.
VA: In your essay "Gladys," part of Dictionary Days, you mentioned a gift you gave to the Salvadoran immigrant that is your protagonist.
IS: It was a pocket-size dictionary.
VA: Did she appreciate it?
IS: Lexicons for Gladys are objects from outer space. She didn't even complete 3rd grade. But as a self-taught woman with little time to spare, she tries to compensate for her limited knowledge with spontaneous efforts at reading. Last time I saw the dictionary, it looked as if it was in constant use...
VA: Even though the first thing she looked for in it was her name and couldn't find it?
IS: Her effort reminded me of a scene in Flaubert's "A Simple Heart" in which the female protagonist, also uneducated, is shown a portion of a map to explain where someone she loves has moved to. What does the protagonist do? She looks for the actual person in the map.
VA: At the Primer Congreso Internacional de la Lengua in Zacatecas in 1997, Gabriel García Márquez caused a ruckus when he proposed simplifying Spanish orthography. There have been numerous proposals to do the same to English spelling, and there is even a Simplified Spelling Society in the United States. German-speaking countries signed an agreement in 1996 for a major spelling reform, and a new recommended orthography, albeit limited, has been adopted by Belgium, France and Quebec. What are your views on spelling reform?
IS: Even though orthography is somehow an invitation to look at words from a historical perspectiveto trace their etymologyI'm in favor of spelling reform, particularly in Spanish. Andrés Bello, the Antonio de Nebrija of the Americas and one of the most illustrious thinkers in the Hispanic world, made a solid orthographic proposal in the 19th century, but only a minuscule fraction of his recommendations were implemented. Diacritics, the difference between s, c, and z, as well as b and v, the silent h, are in need of reexamination. Globalism should be an invitation to look at language anew. The use of language in the Internet, in particular, begs for simplification. But simplification should not be confused with stupidity: to simplify an orthography isn't the same as designing a language for idiots only.
VA: Riddling is an intellectual game that is found in many cultures, in all continents and throughout history. But riddling is not universal. Pukapuka is the most isolated island in the Cooks group and was immortalized by the American writer Robert Dean Frisbie in his books The Book of Puka Puka and The Island of Desire. But, according to linguist David Crystal, in Pukapuka and in Manus in the Admiralty Islands, you would not be able to play Lotería. Neither could you play it with the Miao of China. What attracted you to explore riddling?
IS: Riddles and tongue-twisters are favorite pastimes of mine. I'm not a poet but I love building these linguistic structures, among other reasons because they allow us to be challenged by randomness. The lotería is a game of random and language, which, although standardized, is also defined by randomness: what we say and how we say it is decided by the climate, the time of day, our mood... Isaiah, my eight-year-old, recited this tongue-twister yesterday:
Whether the weather is fine,
or whether the weather is not.
Whether the weather is cold,
or whether the weather is hot.
We weather the weather,
whatever the weather,
whether we like it or not.
VA: What is your favorite tongue-twister in Spanish?
IS: How about this one?
Si tu gusto gustara del gusto
que gusta mi gusto,
mi gusto gustaría del gusto
que gusta tu gusto.
Pero como tu gusto
no gusta del gusto
que gusta mi gusto,
mi gusto no gusta del gusto
que gusta tu gusto.
VA: What linguistic internal resources do you think monolingual people must tap in order to express the multiple aspects of their personality?
IS: Monolinguals are imprisoned in a single-channeled existence. Imagine having a radio capable of broadcasting only a single channel. Or else, buying clothes at a store selling only black garments.
VA: Living in two or more cultures, two or more languages, produces some rifts and upheavals; it requires a constant rearranging of schemata. According to Eliezer Nowodworski, among those who attempt to overcome this cultural schizophrenia, even make money out of it, are translators. Nowodworski is fond of saying that translation is neither a profession nor a trade, not even a calling, but rather a pathology. You have written extensively on life on the hyphen in The Essential Ilan Stavans. In the same volume you also have essays on translation per se. Is translation a pathology?
IS: I wouldn't describe it as such. Translation is an essential human activity, older than the archetypical Tower of Babel. In the Bible, the moment G-d communicates with Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:1, an act of translation takes place building a bridge between the "lashon ha-koddesh," the divine language, and the "lashon bnei adam," the language of humankind. Translation is everywhere: on the movie screen, in the classroom, in the doctor's office, among lovers... Of course, translators are prone to become obsessed with their endeavor. But there is most joy, even spontaneity, in the activity. Furthermore, translation always involves wonderment and surprise: what is the speaker really saying? Is there a way to convey the message in my own language? Is it possible to avoid becoming a falsifier? The answer to the last question, obviously, is no. Every translation is a misrepresentation.
VA: In 1963 Bishop John Robinson's Honest to God became a national best-seller with over a million copies sold. Robinson argued that theologians, when speaking about God, use terminology that distances God from the believers. He questioned the tradition of using either highly abstract and mystical terms such as Infinite One, The Unknowable, and crude spatial metaphors as if He were up there or out there. The book argued that, to contemporary audiences, such language was outmoded. Several experiments in religious communication followed the publication of his book and a new academic discipline, theography¸ was proposed. Its aim was to 'draw a map' of the language that people use to talk about God. Is this proposed theography an academic utopia, or is it a dystopia? As Nowodworski has phrased it, would the concept of God, in a place like New York Citywith its plurality of languages and creedsbe the same in Washington Heights, in The Village or in Murray Hill?
IS: Isaac Luria, a kabbalist in Safed in the 16th century, said that all names for the divine are subterfuges. For G-d is beyond human language. But, of course, what other recourse do we have to address the higher powers that surround and overwhelm us other than our imperfect human language? And human languages are shaped by their users. So the divine in Bombay, Lublin and San José is different as is Its appellation.
VA: Thank you, Ilan, for your thoughts on words and words on thoughts, as well as for the riddles, the risas and the rippling ride.
© 2005 by Verónica Albin and Ilan Stavans.
To my friend Gabe Bokor, obrigada, Gabinho, for your unwavering support throughout the years. Gracias, Martín Felipe Yriart (Madrid), journalist and wonderful friend, for trying to keep me from lecturing instead of questioning. If you did not always succeed, it is because I'm stubborn and impossible. To my translator friend Eliezer Nowodworski (Israel), my heartfelt todah for walking me through many interesting paths while preparing this interview.
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