While still working through the S-Z wordlist of potential misspellings in Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, I have found myself amidst a list of “Un-” vocabulary. Almost exactly a year ago, I reflected on the isolation of “self” and its implications as I remediated words that required a hyphen, separating “self” from terms like “alienation,” “complicating,” “defeating,” and “deluding” by adding a hyphen that the OCR had mistakenly removed. And now that I’ve reached the end of my list, I reflect again on what this work teaches me about William Blake scholarship, and about language more generally.
My “Un-” meanderings have unfortunately called a particular fiction to mind: George Orwell’s 1984. The dystopia has received popular attention following the recent presidential election, especially with the introduction of terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” to contemporary political discourse. The New York Times has touted 1984 as the must-read novel of 2017, especially after it sold out on Amazon in late January. So perhaps it is not surprising that the “Un-” words in Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly seemed to echo some of “The Principles of Newspeak” designed to reform the vocabulary of the people of Orwell’s Oceania:
“In addition, any word — this again applied in principle to every word in the language — could be negatived by adding the affix un-, or could be strengthened by the affix plus-, or, for still greater emphasis, doubleplus-. Thus, for example, uncold meant ‘warm’, while pluscold and doublepluscold meant, respectively, ‘very cold’ and ‘superlatively cold’[…] By such methods it was found possible to bring about an enormous diminution of vocabulary. Given, for instance, the word good, there was no need for such a word as bad, since the required meaning was equally well — indeed, better — expressed by ungood. All that was necessary, in any case where two words formed a natural pair of opposites, was to decide which of them to suppress. Dark, for example, could be replaced by unlight, or light by undark, according to preference.”
Fortunately, the stripping away of plethora is not the trend I observe in this “Un-” list. As a project assistant working through wordlists for Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, I am by no means a member of the Ministry of Truth, “eliminating undesirable words and […] stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings.” Instead I see a celebration of proliferating terms as I make my small adjustments. These “Un-” words do not bring about “an enormous diminution of vocabulary,” but instead illustrate the variety of language both in criticism and in literature. Take, for example, W. J. T. Mitchell’s humorous acknowledgment of an “Unaccustomed” role as he embraces his mortal ignorance and delineates the limited scope of his scholarly inquiry:
Other words have brought me to more sobering dystopian shores as reminders of human failure. “Unpurified” lead me William Cowper’s lovely reprise of Paradise Lost in “Yardley Oak,” where he imagines Milton’s postlapsarian Adam, who longs to cower in shadow, alone with his guilt:
But most fortunately, I have not spent fruitless hours as I worked through the unique words of BIQ. I have found many grateful digressions while wandering the wordlists. Even when the path has veered toward dystopia, overall I see an abundance of words as scholars and poets seek truth. What more could I ask for while spell checking?