I’m in there somewhere


I was merely a boy when I first heard that Michelangelo, on being commended for his masterpiece David, made the somewhat flippant remark that it was already there, in the stone; that his job was only to remove the superfluous bits. A case of false modesty, at best.


But it made an impact on my teenage mind and I sought works of art in lumps of rock the world over, forests, seas, deserts, mountains, marshes, housing estates, motorways, betting shops, kitchen cabinets, rabbit coops and even worn-out cardigans with ragged sleeves.


I could not but reach one conclusion. Namely, that everything had already been dug out, separated from the extra rock. There was no hidden David waiting to be revealed by the artist, or if there was, he was jolly well going to stay hidden – serves you right for hiding yourself so well in the first place, Dave.


Imagine I came across a text like this and had to hack away till I found the “good bit” in the middle – what would it be? Would I have come across Adam Smith, Beatrix Potter or David Foster Wallace? Take your pick. (Please read that last little sentence again, I think you’ll enjoy it).



Whether we’re conscious of it or not, most of us are fluent in more than one major English dialect and in a large number of subdialects and are probably at least passable in countless others. Which dialect you choose to use depends, of course, on whom you’re addressing. More to the point, I submit that the dialect you use depends mostly on what sort of Group your listener is part of and whether you wish to present yourself as a fellow member of that Group. An obvious example is that traditional upper-class English has certain dialectal differences from lower-class English and that schools used to have courses in Elocution whose whole point was to teach people how to speak in an upper-class way. But usage-as-inclusion is about much more than class. Here’s another thought experiment: A bunch of U.S. teenagers in clothes that look far too large for them are sitting together in the local mall’s Food Court, and a 53-year-old man with a combover and clothes that fit comes over to them and says that he was scoping them and thinks they’re totally rad and/or phat and is it cool if he just kicks it and does the hang here with them. The kids’ reaction is going to be either scorn or embarrassment for the guy — most likely a mix of both. Q: Why? Or imagine that two hard-core urban black guys are standing there talking and I, who am resoundingly and in all ways white, come up and greet them with “Yo” and call them “Brothers” and ask “s’up, s’goin on,” pronouncing on with that NYCish oo-o diphthong that Young Urban Black English deploys for a standard o. Either these guys are going to be offended or they are going to think I am simply out of my mind. No other reaction is remotely foreseeable. Q: Why?


The tailor replied: “Simpkin, we shall make our fortune, but I am worn to a ravelling. Take this groat (which is our last fourpence), and, Simpkin, take a china pipkin, but a penn’orth of bread, a penn’orth of milk, and a penn’orth of sausages. And oh, Simpkin, with the last penny of our fourpence but me one penn’orth of cherry-coloured silk. But do not lose the last penny of the fourpence, Simpkin, or I am undone and worn to a thread-paper, for I have NO MORE TWIST.”

Then Simpkin again said “Miaw!” and took the groat and the pipkin, and went out into the dark.

The tailor was very tired and beginning to be ill. He sat down by the hearth and talked to himself about that wonderful coat.

“I shall make my fortune–to be cut bias–the Mayor of Gloucester is to be married on Christmas Day in the morning, and he hath ordered a coat and an embroidered waistcoat–”

Then the tailor started; for suddenly, interrupting him, from the dresser at the other side of the kitchen came a number of little noises–

Tip tap, tip tap, tip tap tip!

“Now what can that be?” said the Tailor of Gloucester, jumping up from his chair. The tailor crossed the kitchen, and stood quite still beside the dresser, listening, and peering through his spectacles.

“This is very peculiar,” said the Tailor of Gloucester, and he lifted up the tea-cup which was upside down.


In every other art and manufacture, the effects of the division of labour are similar to what they are in this very trifling one; though, in many of them, the labour can neither be so much subdivided, nor reduced to so great a simplicity of operation. The division of labour, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labour. The separation of different trades and employments from one another seems to have taken place in consequence of this advantage. This separation, too, is generally called furthest in those countries which enjoy the highest degree of industry and improvement; what is the work of one man in a rude state of society being generally that of several in an improved one. In every improved society, the farmer is generally nothing but a farmer; the manufacturer, nothing but a manufacturer. The labour, too, which is necessary to produce any one complete manufacture is almost always divided among a great number of hands. How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woollen manufactures from the growers of the flax and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth! The nature of agriculture, indeed, does not admit of so many subdivisions of labour, nor of so complete a separation of one business from another, as manufactures. It is impossible to separate so entirely the business of the grazier from that of the corn-farmer as the trade of the carpenter is commonly separated from that of the smith. The spinner is almost always a distinct person from the weaver; but the ploughman, the harrower, the sower of the seed, and the reaper of the corn, are often the same. The occasions for those different sorts of labour returning with the different seasons of the year, it is impossible that one man should be constantly employed in any one of them. This impossibility of making so complete and entire a separation of all the different branches of labour employed in agriculture is perhaps the reason why the improvement of the productive powers of labour in this art does not always keep pace with their improvement in manufactures. The most opulent nations, indeed, generally excel all their neighbours in agriculture as well as in manufactures; but they are commonly more distinguished by their superiority in the latter than in the former. Their lands are in general better cultivated, and having more labour and expense bestowed upon them, produce more in proportion to the extent and natural fertility of the ground. But this superiority of produce is seldom much more than in proportion to the superiority of labour and expense. In agriculture, the labour of the rich country is not always much more productive than that of the poor; or, at least, it is never so much more productive as it commonly is in manufactures. The corn of the rich country, therefore, will not always, in the same degree of goodness, come cheaper to market than that of the poor. The corn of Poland, in the same degree of goodness, is as cheap as that of France, notwithstanding the superior opulence and improvement of the latter country. The corn of France is, in the corn provinces, fully as good, and in most years nearly about the same price with the corn of England, though, in opulence and improvement, France is perhaps inferior to England. The corn-lands of England, however, are better cultivated than those of France, and the corn-lands of France are said to be much better cultivated than those of Poland. But though the poor country, notwithstanding the inferiority of its cultivation, can, in some measure, rival the rich in the cheapness and goodness of its corn, it can pretend to no such competition in its manufactures; at least if those manufactures suit the soil, climate, and situation of the rich country. The silks of France are better and cheaper than those of England, because the silk manufacture, at least under the present high duties upon the importation of raw silk, does not so well suit the climate of England as that of France. But the hardware and the coarse woollens of England are beyond all comparison superior to those of France, and much cheaper too in the same degree of goodness. In Poland there are said to be scarce any manufactures of any kind, a few of those coarser household manufactures excepted, without which no country can well subsist.


The point of the analogy is that claims to objectivity in language study are now the stuff of jokes and shudders. The epistemological assumptions that underlie Methodological Descriptivism have been thoroughly debunked and displaced — n Lit by the rise of post-structuralism, Reader-Response Criticism, and Jaussian Reception Theory; in linguistics by the rise of Pragmatics — and it’s now pretty much universally accepted that (a) meaning is inseparable from some act of interpretation and (b) an act of interpretation is always somewhat biased, i.e., informed by the interpreter’s particular ideology. And the consequence of (a) and (b) is that there’s no way around it — decisions about what to put in The Dictionary and what to exclude are going to be based on a lexicographer’s ideology. And every lexicographer’s got one. To presume that dictionary-making can somehow avoid or transcend ideology is simply to subscribe to a particular ideology, one that might aptly be called Unbelievably Naive Positivism.



The chipping away will take me the best part of the month of November. I have a feeling that the Tailor of Gloucester is in here, somewhere, and I shall leave no Adam Smith-flavoured stone unturned and I’ll brush aside any DFW rubble until I have unearthed my very own David.



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