8 May 2017

All the Meanings They Have Worn

Walter Raleigh (1861-1922), Style (London: Edward Arnold, 1897), pp. 25-26:
Words are piled on words, and bricks on bricks, but of the two you are invited to think words the more intractable. Truly, it was a man of letters who said it, avenging himself on his profession for the never-ending toil it imposed, by miscalling it, with grim pleasantry, the architecture of the nursery. Finite and quite rigid words are not, in any sense that holds good of bricks. They move and change, they wax and wane, they wither and burgeon; from age to age, from place to place, from mouth to mouth, they are never at a stay. They take on colour, intensity, and vivacity from the infection of neighbourhood; the same word is of several shapes and diverse imports in one and the same sentence; they depend on the building that they compose for the very chemistry of the stuff that composes them. The same epithet is used in the phrases "a fine day" and "fine irony," in "fair trade" and "a fair goddess." Were different symbols to be invented for these sundry meanings the art of literature would perish. For words carry with them all the meanings they have worn, and the writer shall be judged by those that he selects for prominence in the train of his thought. A slight technical implication, a faint tinge of archaism, in the common turn of speech that you employ, and in a moment you have shaken off the mob that scours the rutted highway, and are addressing a select audience of ticket-holders with closed doors. A single natural phrase of peasant speech, a direct physical sense given to a word that genteel parlance authorises readily enough in its metaphorical sense, and at a touch you have blown the roof off the drawing-room of the villa, and have set its obscure inhabitants wriggling in the unaccustomed sun. In choosing a sense for your words you choose also an audience for them.