Sentences — October 20, 2008, 4:05 pm

Little Men in Themselves

namesontheland

“A lexicographer has godlike powers,” wrote Guy Davenport in an an essay on America’s last and greatest such household deity, Noah Webster (1758-1843). Lexicographers, Davenport continued:

can, like Johnson, define Pope as “the bishop of Rome,” in grand dismissal of the word, or whig as “a faction.” He can omit noisome words, ride his hobbies (Webster defined democrat as “synonymous with the word Jacobian) [sic] in France”), and play not only tyrant but God himself creating the world.

In these final weeks before End Times are upon us; or, alternately, before we may reapply ourselves undistractedly to the enjoyment of the annual rotting of lifeless, colorless things unto the earth, we’re being subjected, daily, to definitions that none of us, no matter our ZIP code, likely well abides. New Hampshire, for example, which has the winning motto “Live Free or Die” and sobriquet “The Granite State,” has lately been called—along with Florida, Ohio, Colorado, et al—a battleground state. In 2004, it was slapped with the less bellicose and surely sweeter term of “swing” state.

Language takes the civic temperature as dependably as the back of a mother’s hand. These narrow, service-oriented definitions, like so many recent notional narrowings—hero; maverick; terrorist; socialist—drive me to distraction. This season’s most useful cure for a feeling I have three times a day to (rhetorically speaking) dive off my roof and disappear into the still colorful woods, is a book that takes as its task the expansion of our sense of what some of these states we live in were and are before they became nothing more than little levers to be yanked:

Once, from eastern ocean to western ocean, the land stretched away without names. Nameless headlands split the surf; nameless lakes reflected nameless mountains; and nameless rivers flowed through nameless valleys into nameless bays.

So begins George R. Stewart’s entirely diverting Names on the Land, recently reissued by New York Review Books. A compendium of nomenclatural gems that may be read with equal attention to its style, Stewart’s 1945 book was the work of a novelist pursuing an enthusiasm. I don’t know his novels, but plan on looking into this one. His writing in Names on the Land (which is to say his thinking) suggests time intelligently spent:

A war is always more than the battle-front, and so all over the colonies the wars affected the names. More and more towns and counties were named for governors and ministers of state. These men became symbols of national power and unity, although they were often little men in themselves.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“This is not a fable about a young woman whose dreams were dashed by a sexual predator. Maya’s narrative is one of institutional failure at a school desperately trying to adapt.”
Photograph © AP/Josh Reynolds
Article
Kandahar’s Mystery Executions·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He told me he was made to stand on an ice block for thirty minutes at a time, and would then be forced to run barefoot across the gravel while an officer cable-whipped him.”
Photograph (detail) © Victor J. Blue
Article
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
Post
Art Beyond Politics·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
Criticism
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia

Percentage of G.O.P. House and Senate members in an April 2006 poll who believed humans are causing climate change:

23

Bees can remember human faces, but only if they are tricked into thinking that we are strange flowers.

“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today