January 2, 2012
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD DICTIONARIES
John Ralston Saul, The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (New York: The Free Press, 1994) ("DEMOCRACY "An existential system in which words are more important than action. Not a judgemental system." "Democracy is not intended to be efficient, linear, logical, cheap, the source of absolute truth, manned by angels, saints or virgins, profitable, the justification for any particular economic system, a simple matter of majority rule or for that matter a simple matter of majorities. Nor is it an administrative procedure, patriotic, a reflection of tribalism, a passive servant of either law or regulation, elegant or particularly charming." "Democracy is the only system capable of reflecting the humanist premise of equilibrium or BALANCE. The key to its secret is the involvement of the citizen. . . . " Id. at 94. "DIRECT DEMOCRACY An appealing idea which has been unworkable for more than two thousand years. This makes it a favourite with political groups whose basic instincts are anti-democratic. . . ." "Direct democracy seems to push the citizen forward by emphasizing the importance of casting a ballot. Of course the vote is essential to the democratic process, but it is not the purpose. Consideration, reflection, doubt and debate were the primary purpose of the Athenian agora and ekklesia, as of the representative assemblies over the last few centuries. These four processes are the body of the democratic sentence. The vote is merely the punctuation. The body of the sentence, if properly expressed, makes it almost inevitable that sometimes there will be an uncertain question mark, a careful period or sometimes a determined exclamation. Without the body, these signals are clear and even exciting, but meaningless. Direct democracy is all punctuation, but denies functioning language. . . . " Id. at 10-109. "From the bookjacket: "A long and distinguished tradition of writers have used the form of a satirical dictionary to undermine the received ideas of their day. Voltaire wrote a sharply humorous 'Philosophical Dictionary,' while Samuel Johnson's dictionary of the English language was derisive and opinionated. These early dictionaries and encyclopedia were really weapons in a struggle for the soul of civilization between forces of orthodoxy and dogmatism. Their authors attacked and exposed the half-truths of their day by showing that it was possible to think differently about the social and political arrangements that everyone took for granted." "But as John Ralston Saul argues in this decidedly unorthodox new book modern dictionaries have once again been captured by the forces of orthodoxy--albeit this time a rationalist orthodoxy. Our language has become as predictable, fragmented, and rhetorical as it was in the 18th century, divided as it is by special interest groups into dialects o expertise that are hermetically sealed off and inaccessible to citizens . Now, in The Doubter's Companion a marvelous subversive contribution to the great 19th century tradition of the humanist dictionary, Saul skewers and discredits the accepted content of common terms like Advertising, Academics, and Air Conditioning (defined as 'an efficient means for spreading disease in enclosed public spaces'); Cannibal, Conservative, and Croissant; Dandruff, Death, and Dictionary ('opinions presented as truth in alphabetical order'). and several hundred others, including Biography ('a respectable form of pornography'), Museum ('safe storage for stolen objects'_, and Manners ('peopel are always splendid when they're dead'). " :There is much in this volume that will stimulate, offend, provoke, perplex, and entertain. But Saul deploys these tactics of guerrilla lexicography to advance these more serious purpose of reclaiming public language from the stultifying dialects of modern expertise." If only someone to such a stab at rewriting Black's Law Dictionary.).