You Got Burn'd

"Wilt thou egg me on so much?" said Juss.
"Ay," said Brandoch Daha, "if thou wilt be assish."

The Worm Ouroboros

Having given it some thought, I am willing to admit that languages not only grow but, like snakes, shed lengthy carcasses of dead skin and leave that skin behind as they move on. And I am willing to admit the futility of trying to go back to a time in the past and live it out, word for word, definition for definition. This will make you absurd, irrelevant, and universally misunderstood. Words move on. Words die. Words are born. But neither do I subscribe to pessimism or fatalism or nihilism. There are some words that ought not be given up. There are words which, though of past ages, give a renewing spice to current ones. There are concepts of reality that have built higher than even Babel could reach, and need, therefore, new terms to define them. If I might be so bold to say, a good writer can bring out of his storehouses words both old and new.

I said once that a writer and a reader is caught up in a sort of unspoken conversation which stretches across all of history (we have but the mute charades of prehistory, and they say nothing), and I had the delight of being privy to such a war for words as made me laugh on several accounts, on accounts not merely that of diction. Upon hearing that some of his poetry had been written off by a critic as containing an abundance of "obscure language" and "imperfect grammar," Robert Burns replied with the following letter.

Dear Sir:

Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.

(signed) R.B.

To know half the vocabulary in this little letter (which I'm relieved to say I do), to have half the wit in wielding it (which I'm ashamed to say I do not), would be a thing of game skill and humour. What an art! what an art, which we must not let die.

Hail, Robbie Burns. We salute thee.

7 ripostes:

  1. Hurrah! Yay for a Scotsman! :) Oh mercy, I can see his Highland temper flare there. :D That had me laughing, Jenny.

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  2. I took my harp down from the willows.... and beat someone over the head with it!

    "thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense" - if someone called me this I would shake their hand and then go home and drink and cry myself into a stupor.

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  3. The Scotsman does have a way with words, doesn't he?

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  4. His expert use of the semicolon nearly brought me to tears.

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  5. I think what amazes me most is that he can go from embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography to flow gently, sweet river, disturb not her dreams... Burn'd indeed!

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  6. How I love this letter. There's a reason Robert Burns is considered a classic author. :) Thanks for sharing it, Jenny!

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  7. Jenny, I loved your opening comments of language necessarily changing, but hopefully retaining what is best. Those were interesting thoughts and I loved the metaphor of the snake sloughing its skin.

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