Vocabulary 202 | Newberry

Vocabulary 202

We have occasionally discussed in this space bookselling terms which might be new or confusing, and have indulged in a few definitions of words used in the world of recorded sound. But it has been pointed out to me that there are words in the very titles of books which can mislead the reader.

This is because our language changes. The words shift and slide. If we wouldn’t know what Shakespeare meant by eftest or boggler, what would he have made of diss, or selfie? The word ‘sentimental’ meant something different three hundred years ago, and ‘chamber’ had meanings we have largely forgotten. So sometimes a book title says exactly what it means, and we don’t get it because we’re too young to understand. (Dwell on that for a moment; I, for one, don’t get to think about that very often these days.)

NATURAL HISTORY: We had a book called “The Natural; History of a Farm” this week, and someone sorted it into the History section. Unnatural history must be books about haunted houses, correct? Not so much. There are books which come in called just “Natural History”; some people spent their lives studying it. The nearest equivalent in our current vocabulary is probably “ecology”. See the word “nature” in “natural”? That’s the clue.

ROMANCE: There’s a book we see quite often called “Three French Romances”, and a paperback we get even more often called “Gothic Romances”. We’re on sure ground here, aren’t we? Those get sorted in among the Barbara Cartlands and Danielle Steeles and such. Actually, they don’t. They don’t even belong next to the paperback Gothic romances which were such a hit in the 1970s. “Romance” was once a tale for any work of fiction; the French still use the word “roman” for our word “novel”. Someone who translates with more speed than care will call any French novel a romance, and some writers in English like the word, using it to label just any novel they put together. The original Gothic romance was filled with walking corpses and evil noblemen and…yeah, this does sound like a lot of paperback romances of today. Just take my word for it: they belong on a different shelf.

MEMOIR: We have all sorts of Memoirs of Napoleon coming across the book sorting tables, and it is a little confusing to find that none of them were written by Napoleon. See, originally, a memoir was something you remembered, frequently about somebody or some place you wanted to talk about. A book of your recollections of meeting Napoleon would thus be your Memoir of Napoleon. Since books like this, ostensibly about someone else, discussed the author quite a lot, we got into the habit of referring to a person’s autobiography as their memoirs. But that’s not exactly the way our ancestors used it.

HISTORY: Yes, even without the word ‘natural” in front of it, this can be a problem. Our forebears of the distant past used this to mean any account of something, like the history of how the town well came to be dug in such an awkward place. We do much the same. They used it, however, for stories both fictional and factual. Hence, Henry Fielding wrote “The History of Tom Jones”, which was a novel. Publishers of Shakespeare gave us The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, knowing we wouldn’t be expecting a biography.

Yes, it’s awkward, but we need to deal with the words our ancestors gave us. I’m still wondering whether I should have been so harsh with the man who came to the Newberry asking to see the card catalog and wondering how many cards he was allowed to order from it.

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