I started reading Moby-Dick, and I am going to (sort of) try and blog along as I read it. I have an “official” Tumblr for the project, but I am going to reproduce the first post of the project here for your reading pleasure.
We must, of course, begin at the beginning.
Herman Melville’s masterpiece, famous as it is, is probably most famous for its opening line, one of the best-known opening lines in all of American literature:
“Call me Ish—
(Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)
I guess Mr. Melville is gonna dick us around a bit with some prefatory material. Fine. I’m game. What have you got?
The pale Usher — threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.
This is book is crazy! This book is already crazy. Melville is cracking open the authorial first person so that he can personally tell us about a nameless existentialist schoolmaster who has a thing for dusting and maritime etymology. Sure! Why not.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I genuinely pity any teacher who has to teach this book to a class full of high school students. Not only does it have the word “Dick” in the title, but it also manages to hit the words “queer” and “gay” in sentence #2 of the preface.
And but so the etymologies we get from Melville here are pretty cool. We kick things off with a nice reference to Richard Hakluyt, who was basically 16th century England’s version of Don Draper, except instead of slide projectors he advertised the New World.1 Then there’s a quote from trusty old Webster’s, followed by one from the perhaps-less-trusty but equally-as-old Richardson’s.
This piqued my curiosity, so I looked up Charles Richardson on Wikipedia: he was an English philologist and lexicographer of the 19th century. Then I immediately closed the page, because I realized I was on the verge of falling into the enormous rat-hole that is the history of English lexicography. While potentially interesting, this diversion would be basically counterproductive to my primary aim: reading Moby-Dick.
Suffice it to say, a very great many people have felt (and continue to feel) very strongly about what makes a word a word in English, and how exactly to list those words in the dictionary. If you want more information on the topic, I’d highly recommend The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.
On the topic of whales and old dictionaries, however, I’d like to point out a really cool resource I came upon recently: an online searchable version of Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, including both the 1828 and 1913 editions.
You may ask why anyone would want to bother with a couple of weird, old, outdated dictionaries. Well! Where you say “weird”, I say “classy”. Where you say “old”, I say “super classy”. Instead of “outdated”, I say “classy-as-balls”.2 If you’ve made it this far into my essay concerning the “ETYMOLOGY” section of Moby-Dick, you’re probably someone who things weird, old, outdated things are actually pretty cool.
But here’s some proof. The definition of “whale”, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary that’s built into OS X:
whale 1 |(h)wāl| — a very large marine mammal with a streamlined hairless body, a horizontal tail fin, and a blowhole on top of the head for breathing.
Fine. But now let’s check out Webster’s circa 1828:
WHALE, n. [G., to stir, agitate or rove.] The general name of an order of animals inhabiting the ocean, arranged in zoology under the name of Cete or Cetacea, and belonging to the class Mammalia in the Linnean system. The common whale is of the genus Balaena. It is the largest animal of which we have any account, and probably the largest in the world. It is sometimes ninety feet in length in the northern seas, and in the torrid zone much larger. The whale furnishes us with oil, whalebone, &c. [See Cachalot.]
Holy moley! It’s like a little encyclopedia entry!
Instead of the streamlined, hairless prose of the NOAD, you get some honest-to-god personality. It’s like you’re talking to a fusty old academician. He hedges (“of which we have any account”), speculates ( “probably the largest in the world”), even throws in a bit of poetic language (“torrid zone”). There are also great sprinkles of old-tyme life (“The whale furnishes us with oil, whalebone”). And he uses “&c.” instead of “etc.”, which is totally outdated.
Anyway, the resource is there if you want it.
Back to Melville. Since I’ve gone on long enough already, I’ll let the etymologies be; you can ponder them yourself. Instead, I’ll just finish up by making two comments on the heterogloss of “whale” we get at the end of this mini-preface:
- “Fiji” is spelled as “Fegee”, which is delightful.
- I bet Mr. Melville thought he was pretty honking impressive by breaking out Erromangoan on us. But GUESS WHAT, Herman — there are FOUR LANGUAGES in the Erromangoan family. So which one didja mean? Huh? Sie? Or the moribund Ura? Huh? Maybe it was one of the extinct ones (Utaha or Sorung) (which maybe weren’t quite so extinct when this book was written)?
NOT SO CLEVER NOW, ARE YOU, HERMAN?!?
Sorry about that. I probably shouldn’t antagonize our pal Herman here quite so much. There’s a lot of book to go.
Anyway, next post, we’ll actually be able to begin the novel proper! Huzzah huzzah—
Wait, what’s that?