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May 20, 2009

Too Many Topics

When I have gone for a long period without writing, I tend to get over-ambitious and choose a rather complex topic to start up again. This spring has been particularly busy with happenings - both in terms of items in the news and in terms of anniversaries of past events. In keeping with this awkward tradition, this post covers sonnets, detective stories, and the entire English language.

One recent study in the news commented that while English is only the 3rd most commonly spoken language (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish), it is still by far the most common language on-line. The widespread use of English around the globe contributes to its continuing evolution as a language – particularly in terms of vocabulary. Sometime this spring the 1,000,000 word was recognized. When does something earn the status of being an official word in the language?

The gold standard used to be inclusion in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) – which has a staff devoted to assessing usage an judging when common usage reaches a level to be recognized. The OED remains the gold standard for dictionaries (http://www.oed.com/ ) but its editors admit that since we have a living language, no one book (regardless of how many volumes it contains) captures the language in its entirety. Web-based search engines now scout for words on-line, and count frequency of use for ‘new’ words – this is where the estimate of one million English words comes from.

One of the most prolific, and the most recognized writer in the English language was English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. Today marks the 400th anniversary of the publishing of Shakespeare’s sonnets. While he is most known for his plays, his 154 sonnets (http://theotherpages.org/poems/sonnet01.htmloems/sonnet01.html)  show how wonderfully concise he could be in shaping the language to make a point. Shakespeare is credited with adding (or at least being the first to use in print) over 16,000 words to the language.

His sonnets also showcase his technique of ‘playing’ on words – using a well chosen word that carries two meanings – both of which make sense in the context of the work, though the meanings may be very different. Most of the sonnets take an individual metaphor, and carry it through in great detail, with a twist or a turn toward the end to grab attention or make a point. Sonnet 143 is a good example:


Lo! as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feather'd creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe and makes an swift dispatch
In pursuit of the thing she would have stay,
Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,
Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent
To follow that which flies before her face,
Not prizing her poor infant's discontent;
So runn'st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind;
But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,
And play the mother's part, kiss me, be kind:
    So will I pray that thou mayst have thy 'Will,'
     If thou turn back, and my loud crying still.

There are many mysteries associated with Shakespeare’s sonnets, including who the major characters were in real life (the Fair Youth, the Dark Lady, the Rival Poet), whether Shakespeare actually wrote all of them, how they came to be published, and who the inscription to the book refers to.

This should be no surprise to anyone who has read or seen Shakespeare’s plays performed. His comedies (the ones in which everyone gets married at the end) all depend on misdirection and, of course, mistaken identity – with the truth not revealed until the end.

If you’ll excuse a rather strained topical and temporal segue -- modern readers, moviegoers, TV watchers, etc. have become addicted to a similar concept or literary conceit in the form of the ‘mystery’, or more specifically, the ‘detective story’ – where we follow the logic of the search until the truth is revealed at the end.

An American author and poet, Edgar Allen Poe, is credited with writing the first ‘Modern’ detective stories, featuring C. Auguste Dupin. We know Poe mostly for his darkly themed poetry and short stories, but “The Murders in the Rue Morgue (in the street of the dead)”, published in 1841, established the key elements for a seemingly infinite procession of detective stories and police procedural dramas to come. In keeping with Poe’s predominantly dark themes it starts off with a particularly horrific and graphic crime to grip the reader’s attention.

The story is also a ‘locked room’ puzzle -- the kind especially well suited to a master of deductive reasoning ….. like Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and this week marks the sesquicentennial (150 year anniversary) of Doyle’s birth in Edinburgh, Scotland. Doyle wrote 56 stories around the characters of Sherlock Holmes and his friend/biographer Dr. Watson. Watson, who, like Doyle himself was a medical doctor, provided an effective foil for Holmes, making the obvious assumptions and errors that made Holmes’ leaps of deduction all the more dramatic.
Actor Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Doyle was not much for writing verse. There are only two poems in the collection (http://theotherpages.org/poems/poem-cd.html#doyle2oems/poem-cd.html#doyle2 ) by him, and they lack the excitement of his prose. His famous detective and his descriptions of London crowded out his other characters and settings, except one. Doyle’s Professor Challenger – whose Lost World was an archetype for many more stories, and perhaps deserves an article of his own.

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