Sunday, April 6, 2008


I've been thinking about vocabulary while reading "The Mill on the Floss".  Remember studying for the SATs, and trying to learn a bunch of new vocabulary words?  I do.  I remember wondering (a) how many of the words I'd remember once the SATs were done and (b) whether I would actually use any of them.  I think I do use some of them..."salient" is one word I remember learning, and I definitely use that one.  I'm finding it quite interesting to read Eliot, because every few pages or so I find myself reaching for the dictionary to look up a word.  Oftentimes it's one I think I know what it means, but am not totally sure, while other times I definitely do not know what it means.  And I think I have a pretty decent vocabulary.  So what's up, then?  Did educated Victorians use a lot of words that have fallen out of the common vernacular?  Or was Eliot just, like, totally literary and threw in a lot of obscure words just to obfuscate things?  I tend to think it's the former.  Which makes me wonder why some words fall out of the language more than others.  Is it just that people don't need those words anymore, perhaps because there are more common synonyms?  Or perhaps most people can only remember a certain number of vocabulary words, and some of the old, less frequently used Victorian words got crowded out by newer words that the Victorians never used, like internet and genome and Wii.  Apparently even Samuel Johnson worried about obsolete words when making his dictionary...he thought that there were some words that were found only in dictionaries and were never really used, and he was probably right!

Meanwhile, back at the mill, things aren't looking so good.  Maggie and Tom's childhood seems to be rapidly coming to an end as their father has just lost a lawsuit, and will lose the mill and the house and all their belongings as a result.  I guess they didn't have umbrella liability policies back in Eliot's day...

1 comment:

Blair said...

My husband and I were having this same conversation re: vocab in Mill on the Floss. I'm reading it on the Kindle for Iphone app and have kept a running list of the words I have looked up on It's a long list, and I'm only on chapter nine or so!