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“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.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”