‘Always rich and dishevelled, it (English) is fast becoming very rich and dishevelled.’
William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity p 236).
Dishevelled – what a wonderful word! It’s one of those pleasant-sounding English words we all use from time to time, readily understood and unquestioned, which refers to an absence, disruption or diminution of a quality described by a never-, or hardly ever, heard adjective. I mean, have you ever found something hevelled, appointing, traught or even ruptive? And as for combobulated...
I was reminded of the richness of our language when reading an interview with the admirable Judith Kerr, who's just died. I've admired her and her books for a long time, thanks yet again to my children for introducing me to someone I wouldn't otherwise have known. Surely one of the most shevelled of people and fluent in three languages, she was comparing French and English, the former distinguished by its precision, the latter by its wealth of synonyms – well, its richness. She also contrasted the brevity of French with ‘endless sentences in German.’
Our sentences – mine, to be sure – can go on a bit. Or be very short. But we can say something in so many different ways, sometimes clearer than others, which can mean different things, to different people, at different times. Which brings me back to Empson’s ambiguities.
I found that book difficult, understanding parts for a while and then losing the plot, finding myself presently unable to recall all seven with any clarity. In another interview, Judith Kerr told the story of Einstein, a family friend, explaining the theory of relativity to her mother, who said she totally understood it at the time, only couldn’t remember it afterwards.
Well, ambiguity is about more than one meaning, if not frank inexactness.
Oh yes, the First Ambiguity was the simple (do I mean that?) metaphor. And I seem to remember that if you build a story on a metaphor, you create an allegory. But I might have that wrong, as indeed might be the suggestion that the tiger who came to tea was actually Hitler.
No apologies then for such unkempt thoughts, if not ramblings, which might even be the richer for not being brushed neatly into place. Dishevelled: from the old French deschevele, the hair being uncombed, it gives an untidy appearance.
Feeling ignorant and foolish, I’ve just googled those seven, and warm to the sixth, which is ‘when a statement says nothing and the readers are forced to invent a statement of their own, most likely in conflict with that of the author.’
Here’s a very short dishevelled poem playing with words – words that aren’t for the most part mine, words unsure of their own meaning and words which could do with a sound brushing.
I wish I could draw like Judith Kerr did, let alone speak three languages fluently. But it’s good to be reminded of what we do have, in English.
Very rich and dishevelled
not poor at all
we’ve never been hevelled
rather rich as a dish-
us from evell,
may we ever stay evel
I think I meant level
for ever and ever
our men? We shall be rich
very rich and dishevelled
not poor at all
and fast becoming…
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