Virginia Woolf’s Birthday Today


Words, English words, are full of echoes,of memories, of associations. They have been
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out and about, on people’s lips, in theirhouses, in the streets, in the fields, for
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so many centuries. And that is one of thechief difficulties in writing them today –
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that they are stored with other meanings,with other memories, and they have contracted
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so many famous marriages in the past. Thesplendid word “incarnadine,” for example –
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who can use that without remembering “multitudinousseas”? In the old days, of course, when English
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was a new language, writers could invent newwords and use them. Nowadays it is easy enough
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to invent new words – they spring tothe lips whenever we see a new sight or feel
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a new sensation – but we cannot usethem because the English language is old.
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You cannot use a brand new word in an oldlanguage because of the very obvious yet always
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mysterious fact that a word is not a singleand separate entity, but part of other words.
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Indeed it is not a word until it is part ofa sentence. Words belong to each other, although,
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of course, only a great poet knows that theword “incarnadine” belongs to “multitudinous
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seas.” To combine new words with old wordsis fatal to the constitution of the sentence.
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In order to use new words properly you wouldhave to invent a whole new language; and that,
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though no doubt we shall come to it, is notat the moment our business. Our business is
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to see what we can do with the old Englishlanguage as it is. How can we combine the
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old words in new orders so that they survive,so that they create beauty, so that they tell
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the truth? That is the question.
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And the person who could answer that questionwould deserve whatever crown of glory the
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world has to offer. Think what it would meanif you could teach, or if you could learn
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the art of writing. Why, every book, everynewspaper you’d pick up, would tell the truth,
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or create beauty. But there is, it would appear,some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to
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the teaching of words. For though at thismoment at least a hundred professors are lecturing
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on the literature of the past, at least athousand critics are reviewing the literature
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of the present, and hundreds upon hundredsof young men and women are passing examinations
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in English literature with the utmost credit,still – do we write better, do we read
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better than we read and wrote four hundredyears ago when we were un-lectured, un-criticized,
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untaught? Is our modern Georgian literaturea patch on the Elizabethan? Well, where then
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are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors;not on our reviewers; not on our writers;
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but on words. It is words that are to blame.They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible,
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most un-teachable of all things. Of course,you can catch them and sort them and place
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them in alphabetical order in dictionaries.But words do not live in dictionaries; they
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live in the mind. If you want proof of this,consider how often in moments of emotion when
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we most need words we find none. Yet thereis the dictionary; there at our disposal are
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some half-a-million words all in alphabeticalorder. But can we use them? No, because words
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do not live in dictionaries, they live inthe mind. Look once more at the dictionary.
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There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendidthan Antony and Cleopatra; poems lovelier
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than the Ode to a Nightingale; novels besidewhich Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield
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are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It isonly a question of finding the right words
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and putting them in the right order. But wecannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries;
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they live in the mind. And how do they livein the mind? Variously and strangely, much
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as human beings live, ranging hither and thither,falling in love, and mating together. It is
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true that they are much less bound by ceremonyand convention than we are. Royal words mate
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with commoners. English words marry Frenchwords, German words, Indian words, Negro words,
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if they have a fancy. Indeed, the less weenquire into the past of our dear Mother English
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the better it will be for that lady’s reputation.For she has gone a-roving, a-roving fair maid.
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Thus to lay down any laws for such irreclaimablevagabonds is worse than useless. A few trifling
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rules of grammar and spelling is all the constraintwe can put on them. All we can say about them,
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as we peer at them over the edge of that deep,dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern
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in which they live – the mind –all we can say about them is that they seem
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to like people to think before they use them,and to feel before they use them, but to think
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and feel not about them, but about somethingdifferent. They are highly sensitive, easily
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made self-conscious. They do not like to havetheir purity or their impurity discussed.
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If you start a Society for Pure English, theywill show their resentment by starting another
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for impure English – hence the unnaturalviolence of much modern speech; it is a protest
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against the puritans. They are highly democratic,too; they believe that one word is as good
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as another; uneducated words are as good aseducated words, uncultivated words as good
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as cultivated words, there are no ranks ortitles in their society. Nor do they like
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being lifted out on the point of a pen andexamined separately. They hang together, in
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sentences, paragraphs, sometimes for wholepages at a time. They hate being useful; they
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hate making money; they hate being lecturedabout in public. In short, they hate anything
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that stamps them with one meaning or confinesthem to one attitude, for it is their nature
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to change.
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Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity– their need of change. It is because
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the truth they try to catch is many-sided,and they convey it by being many-sided, flashing
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first this way, then that. Thus they meanone thing to one person, another thing to
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another person; they are unintelligible toone generation, plain as a pikestaff to the
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next. And it is because of this complexity,this power to mean different things to different
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people, that they survive. Perhaps then onereason why we have no great poet, novelist
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or critic writing today is that we refuseto allow words their liberty. We pin them
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down to one meaning, their useful meaning,the meaning which makes us catch the train,
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the meaning which makes us pass the examination.

About jasminatesanovic

Jasmina Tešanović (Serbian: Јасмина Тешановић) (born March 7, 1954) is a feminist, political activist (Women in Black, Code Pink), translator, publisher and filmmaker. She was one of the organizers of the first Feminist conference in Eastern Europe "Drug-ca Zena" in 1978, in Belgrade. With Slavica Stojanovic, she ran the first feminist publishing house in the Balkans "Feminist 94" for 10 years. She is the author of Diary of a Political Idiot, a war diary written during the 1999 Kosovo War and widely distributed on the Internet. Ever since then she has been publishing all her work, diaries, stories and films on blogs and other Internet media.
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2 Responses to Virginia Woolf’s Birthday Today

  1. chgo_liz says:

    Your subject line is missing an “o” in Woolf.

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