A Point of View: In defence of obscure words

Text from Shakespeare sonnet

We chase "fast culture" at our peril - unusual words and difficult art are good for us, says Will Self.

We are living in a risk-averse culture - there's no doubt about that.

But the risk that people seem most reluctant taking is not a physical but a mental one: just as the concrete in children's playgrounds has been covered with rubber, so the hard truth about the effort needed for intellectual attainment is being softened by a sort of semantic padding.

Our arts and humanities education at secondary level seems particularly afflicted by falling standards - so much so that universities are now being called upon to help write new A-level syllabuses in order to cram our little chicks with knowledge that, in recent years, has come to seem unpalatable, if not indigestible - knowledge such as English vocabulary beyond that which is in common usage.

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Will Self
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST
  • Will Self is a novelist and journalist

Both general readers and specialist critics often complain about my own use of English - not only in my books, but also in my newspaper articles and even in radio talks such as these. "I have to look them up in a dictionary", they complain - as if this were some kind of torture.

In over twenty years of publishing fiction and journalism, I've become pretty much inured to these slings and arrows, regarding them as par for the anti-intellectual course. I used to remonstrate with those who raised the S-word (S being for sesquipedalian, an obscure word that means 'a lover of obscure words).

I'd point out that my texts were as full of resolutely Anglo-Saxon slang as they were the flowery and the Latinate. I'd observe that English, being a mishmash of several different languages, had a large and exciting vocabulary, and that it seemed a shame not to use it - especially given that it went on growing all the time, spawning argot and specialist terminology as freely as an oyster does its milt.

But as time has gone by, I've stopped bothering - after all, one of the great things about writing, as opposed to other media, is that it makes no claims on people unless they engage with it: words, no matter how torturous, don't leap out of books and articles and assault you. You have to go looking for them.

No, now I confine myself to making the rueful point that although the subject matter of my stories and novels - which includes such phenomena as sexual deviance, drug addiction and mental illness - has become quite unexceptionable, the supposedly difficult language they are couched in seems to have become more and more offensive to readers.

"Difficult" is the key word here. In the past, before the withering away of censorship, it was the depiction of sexuality and the bodily in general - together with anything smacking of anti-authoritarianism - that was perceived as difficult.

James Joyce James Joyce refused to alter "difficult" passages in his works

Virginia Woolf objected to Joyce's Ulysses on the grounds of its being prurient, not because it contained such tropes as "ineluctable modality of the visible", while because Joyce himself refused to alter a single line in his short story Ivy Day in the Committee Room - one poking fun at the then Prince of Wales - his publisher delayed publication for more than a decade.

To a contemporary audience, who can access graphic pornographic imagery and treasonable extremism with a few facile keystrokes, such taboos may appear absurd; yet in a large part, the cultural history of the 20th Century - in the West at least - was taken up with one battle after another, as the territory formerly deemed "difficult" was conquered and renamed "commonplace".

The problem is that at the same time these victories were being won another province was being abandoned without a fight, and this is the realm where films, paintings, novels and even newspaper articles, radio and television programmes are intellectually challenging.

Will's words of the week

Do you know what the following words mean? Click on each to reveal their respective definition...

I don't for a moment mean to suggest that no-one produces anymore cultural artefacts that are "difficult" in this sense - of course they do - it's just that these works are no longer regarded as the desiderata that any well-cultivated person aspires to an appreciation of. Rather, "difficult" works are parcelled off, and the great plurality and ubiquity of our media means that their specialist audience can be readily catered to - whether they are foot fetishists, or Fourierists or anything else.

The suspicion that mass media lead to a banal middlebrow culture is as old as the printing press - arguably even older, given that Plato thought that writing was itself an intolerable derogation of the poetry of the spoken word. But from the vantage of each successive wave crest of popularisation, the anxieties of preceding generations seem touchingly premature.

Take the American cultural critic Dwight MacDonald, who coined the expression "midcult" to refer to those works which "pretend to respect the standards of high culture, while in fact (they) water them down and vulgarize them". MacDonald was writing at a time when Nabokov's Lolita was the fastest-selling novel in American history.

"Aha!", you may say: "But that was purely because of its titillating subject matter'; to which I would reply: Quite possibly, but along with the paedophilia Nabokov managed to thrust into his readers' tender lexicons many other difficult words such as 'grue', 'heliotropic', 'solipsism', and 'venus febriculosa' - often at a rate of more than one a page!

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The displacement of aesthetically and intellectually difficult art as the zenith has resulted in all sorts of sad and interrelated phenomena”

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The coincidence of these two kinds of difficulty, was, I believe, nothing of the kind: in attempting to push forward into the realm of deadening conformity, the artists and writers of the 20th Century employed all the weapons that there were to hand - and by making their works intellectually challenging, they deflected the accusation that their sexual or violent content was only there to arouse. Recall, the defence against a charge of obscenity remains, to this day, that a work exhibit genuine artistic merit.

But now that all formerly difficult subject matter is, if not exactly permitted, readily accessible, cultural artificers have no need to aim high. The displacement of aesthetically and intellectually difficult art as the zenith has resulted in all sorts of sad and interrelated phenomena.

In the literary world, books intended for child readers are repackaged and sold to kidult ones, while even notionally highbrow arbiters - such as Booker judges - are obsessed by that nauseous confection "a jolly good read". That Shakespeare remains our national writer is, frankly, bizarre, given that with his recondite vocabulary, myriad historical references, and convoluted metaphorical language, were he to be seeking publication in the current milieu, his sonnets and plays would undoubtedly also be branded as 'too difficult'.

Members of the public view artwork by Damien Hirst entitled 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' in the Tate Modern art gallery. Damien Hirst is an "artificer", says Self

As for visual arts, the current Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern is a perfect opportunity to see what becomes of an artificer whose impulse towards difficult subject matter was unsupported by any capacity for hard cogitation or challenging artistry. The early works - the stuffed animals and fly-bedizened carcasses - retain a certain - albeit recherché - shock value, while the subsequent ones degenerate steadily to the condition of knocked-off merchandise, making the barrier between the gift shop and the exhibition space evaporate in a puff of consumerism.

But the most disturbing result of this retreat from the difficult is to be found in arts and humanities education, where the traditional set texts are now chopped up into boneless nuggets of McKnowledge, and students are encouraged to do their research - such as it is - on the web.

In place of the difficulty involved in seeking out the literary canon, younger people are coming to rely on search engines to do their thinking for them. The end result of this will be a standardisation of understanding itself, as people become unable to think outside of the box-shaped screen.

Person eating a hamburger Are we consuming culture like fast food?

The nadir came for me when my daughter - who had been assigned Great Expectations as a GCSE text - was told the novel's ending by her English teacher, on the grounds that, having read the little gobbets served up for interpretation, according to her pedagogue there was no necessity for her to try and choke down the whole indigestible meal.

My figures of food are entirely fitting, because we are in danger of becoming morbidly obese through the consumption of such fast culture. The contrast with sport is instructive: in both realms of human endeavour, the consumers are largely passive, but at least sports fans - unlike cultural ones - don't protest against elite athletes, or bar them from competing on the grounds that they are too fast, too strong, or too limber.

On the contrary, we are repeatedly told by the likes of Sebastian Coe that athletes capable of the most difficult feats offer vital inspiration to couch-potato kids.

Let the same be the case for mental athletics, because without the bar to jump over set high, we'll all end up simply playing in the sandpit.

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