The joys of older literature

Storm and I live in reasonable proximity to a fantastic book store, Planet Books, which is full of the kind of folk I could imagine myself chatting to over coffee, scrabble and acoustic accompaniments and the kind of books I’d love to sink my teeth into. In our first outing there, while Storm was engaged in the Dance and Autobiographical sections, I meandered to the Classics area, keen to make good on my internal promise to attempt to read a number of the classics and by extension the Top100 book list.

Ignoring the urge to read another Dickens tome at the expense of other lesser known (to me) authors, my eye drifted to the familiar orange and white backdrop of a pile of Penguin classics. I perused the pile at length, at last settling on two distinct yet equally appealing titles: ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ and ‘Jane Eyre’.

I digested the former first, assuming a pace commensurate with the goings on of McMurphy and his band of nuts. Whilst mildly discomforting and unsettling, the second half of the book was very hard to lay aside and a couple of decent sessions enabled me to polish it off in relatively short order. Storm will now have the pleasure of wishing to continue and cease reading simultaneously…

While I’m only 6 chapters into Jane Eyre, reading it has reminded me why I love delving into older literature. A familiarity with modern vernacular and turns of phrase (perhaps with the exception of the likes of David Foster Wallace and authors with a propensity to unnecessarily drop obscure, difficult words, like trophies, into their prose) means that the English language takes a back seat.

In older novels, however, the dynamism (and evolution) of the English language is brought to the fore. Euphemistic and linguistic oddities (at least to the modern eye) pique an interest in the language itself, no longer consigning it to the analogous equivalent of a ‘Coolibah tree’ in a primary school theatrical rendering.

We’re (or at least I’m) encouraged to think about the roots of words that we use mutliple times in quotidian life. Once firmly established linguistic pairings, where one has now fallen into obscurity, become reunited and illuminated.

The simple example that dragged me down this path of drivel is the word ‘ruth’. I have no memory of reading or hearing or using this word in isolation yet it abounds in the form ‘ruthless’.

“ruth – /ru?/ [rooth]
– noun
1. pity or compassion.
2. sorrow or grief.
3. self-reproach; contrition; remorse.

Origin:
1125–75; ME ruthe, reuthe.”

Other examples include the use of dread as an adjective “a dread place”, the use of ‘quail’ as a verb, and the employment of words such as ‘opprobrium’ and ‘animadversions’.

In other instances, I’m happy to see that words like ‘dingy’ have a heritage much longer than I would’ve presumed. Who knows what other gems will be turned over in the course of the next 500 pages?

On the topic of language, I did notice the phrase ‘they’d of’ in Cuckoo. Would there be anything wrong with taking two well entrenched abbreviations ‘d and ‘ve and making a triple composite “they’d’ve”? Is there a precedent, or a future, for such a contraption as this?!? Or will it meet with a tumult of insuperable animadversions and dread opprobrium?!? Ummm… ok…

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