Thursday, September 12, 2013

"His letters disgust me": On Definitions and a Very Jealous Mr. Knightley

During the last year I have been steadily reading through annotated versions of Austen's novels. So far, I've gotten The Annotated Emma for Christmas from my brother and his wife and The Annotated Pride and Prejudice for my birthday from my husband. I'm hoping to read The Annotated Persuasion next. (*Ahem*, *cough, cough* Are you reading this, Parke? :-)

These versions are edited by David Shapard and include details on the historical and cultural context, illustrations, definitions, explanations, maps and literary analysis on the events and characters of the novels.

Of course I've read the novels countless times, but this is the first time I've read annotated versions. It's funny, I thought I really understood the novels before, but suddenly I realize how little I did, or rather how much I have misunderstood them. Ok, maybe that's a slight exaggeration -- I've not had any mind-blowing over the top re-imaginings of the story. I did not discover through the notes that actually Harriet marries Mr. Elton or Elizabeth Bennet secretly still hates Mr. Darcy at the end of the novel. :)

But 200 years after Austen wrote, the shifts in word meanings and lost cultural knowledge often mean we miss some details that would have been crystal clear to her contemporary readers. Thus we see a mostly complete portrait of Elizabeth Bennet...but wait, she's got a hole through her nose. And some missing teeth. :-) Ha, metaphorically, of course. While we still "get" Elizabeth Bennet, those missing pieces are annoying. When they are finally put in place....well... feels so good.
Hugh Thomson's Illustrations: Mrs. Bennet Unable to Utter a Syllable

So that's what reading David Shapard's notes feels like to me. I'm coloring in the portrait of my favorite characters. And while I loved the black and white versions, the color ones are even better.

So, for example, DEFINITIONS.

Wait, definitions, you say? Ummmm, I'm a highly educated, well-read native speaker of English. I don't need definitions! (That's what I said at first :-).

Ok, so sometimes his definitions are a bit superfluous. I didn't need him to tell me that connections means relatives:

"[Mr Knightley] lived about a mile from Highbury, was a frequent visitor and always welcome, and at this time more welcome than usual, as coming directly from their mutual connections in London."

But there are some ideas that I have completely misunderstood because the modern definition of a word has shifted since Austen's time.

For example, Mr. Knightley and Emma discussing Frank Churchill's non-appearance. Mr. Knightley is none too pleased with the delinquent Frank:

"He can sit down and write a fine flourishing letter, full of professions and falsehoods, and persuade himself that he has hit upon the very best method in the world of preserving peace at home and preventing his father's having any right to complain. His letters disgust me."

Whoa, Mr. Knightley, that's harsh! Frank Churchill's letters disgust you? Ok, well, we know you're just jealous anyway. :)

Or the charming Mr. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility:

"How horrid all this is!" said he. "Such weather makes everything and everybody disgusting. Dulness is as much produced within doors as without by rain. It makes one detest all one's acquaintance. What the devil does Sir John mean by not having a billiard room in his house? How few people know what comfort is! Sir John is as stupid as the weather."

Oh Mr. Palmer, I know. Rain makes everybody disgusting.... Wait. Disgusting??? Isn't that a little extreme? I'm afraid I have to disagree with you, Mr. Palmer. Rain makes everything perfect! 

[On an unrelated note, the insult, Sir John is as stupid as the weather, is brilliant. Right up there with Shakespearean insults. :)]

And then, poor, poor Emma. She's been a know-it-all the entire year and suddenly...

She was most sorrowfully indignant; ashamed of every sensation but the one revealed to her -- her affection for Mr. Knightley. Every other part of her mind was disgusting...

Yikes. How horrible to feel disgusted by your own mind. And how does that happen anyway?

Shapard gives us a helpful gloss. According to him, in these cases, disgusting did not have the intensive connotation that it does today. It meant something closer to distasteful. So Mr. Knightley still doesn't like Frank's letters, but he finds them distasteful, rather than loathsome and revolting.

I think this is one case of semantic shift where connotation rather than strict denotation has changed. The essential meaning of the word hasn't changed, but the contexts people use it in has. So for example, nowadays we wouldn't say that rainy weather makes us feel disgusting. We might say, instead, that the weather makes us feel depressed. (Though I certainly wouldn't say that! Rainy days are beautiful and make me feel so happy.)

I checked out the OED and disgust originally referred to "a strong distaste for or repugnance" in regards to food. So literally a food or drink that you strongly disliked. Still pretty strong-sounding meaning, though:

              "to loathe, disrelish, dislike, regard with aversion or displeasure.... lit. of food."

Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary also gives this definition. His first entry for disgust is

             "aversion of the palate from anything" 

However, the word appears to have a more general meaning concurrent to the food-specific context:

            "To offend the sensibilities of; to excite aversion, repugnance, or sickening displeasure in (a     person). (OED)

This definition sounds like how I would use the word today. Aversion, repugnance, sickening displeasure....that sounds right to me. The OED includes examples for this definition from 1656 to 1863, so I would expect Austen, writing around 1815, to have had these definitions at her disposal.  So not very helpful for determining what Jane Austen really means.

The OED also gives an additional definition which is currently obsolete:

            "To be very distasteful."

...and a very helpful example sentence from 1763:

            The Music and Dance of the first disgusts. 
            (J. Brown Diss. Poetry & Music v. 75)   

Hmm... not very flattering. :(

This third definition seems to fit the bill. Or at least, that is what I think Shapard suggests. And I'm inclined to agree with him.  In teaching vocabulary to students who are learning English as a foreign language, I've often found that knowing the definition of a word is nearly useless until a student can learn the myriad of contexts in which it is appropriate to use that word. Definitions, after all, are only feeble attempts to capture how we use words. We use them first, then define them -- not the other way around. Meaning in language is dynamic. So disgust maintains its core meaning of causing aversion or loathing but the negative contexts it occurs in have seriously intensified since 1815.  

Though who knows, perhaps Austen is trying to tell us something drastic about these apparently laconic, refined English gentlemen. :)

On a completely unrelated note, check out Johnson's definition of a dish-washer

          Dish-washer: n.s. [dish and washer] The name of a bird.

HA. Samuel Johnson, you are a dish-washer.

Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin

If you want to read a little more, the BBC has an article discussing the shift in meaning of disgust.


  1. I had a thought . . . would you be willing to lead an autumn reading of a Jane Austen novel? We could see who's interested, pick a book, set a schedule, and discuss it on your blog. I want to reread one of the novels, but with everything else I read, I think I would be more successful with a deadline and discussion. No pressure, though! :-)

    1. I would LOVE to do that!! Sounds like a fabulous idea! I've never actually done a book club/reading--virtual or otherwise (hard to believe!) -- although I've always wanted to. I will work on a post this weekend and see if we can get the word out to people who might be interested. Thanks Andrea! :-)

    2. By the way Andrea, I love when you post what you've been reading on Facebook/Goodreads. If I'm looking for a new book to read and not sure what to try, I check out your book list. :-)

  2. Yay! I will spread the word, too!