Category Archives: Language

Dictionary of Sensibility

Picking up on Carrie Shanafelt’s remark about the term “sentiment”–and all its weight and baggage in the period–I was reminded of the marvellous online resource, “The Dictionary of Sensibility” by Corey Brady, Virginia Cope, Michael Millner, Ana Mitric, Kent Puckett and Danny Siegel.

There are 24 terms listed on the site, and each term is linked to primary and secondary resources. As the authors explain:

“This hypertext offers a new approach to understanding the language of sensibility, one that accounts for the multiple possibilities of meaning. Rather than attempting hard-line definitions, this project offers the tools for recognizing the multivalent connotations of such sensibilious words as ‘virtue,’ ‘sense,’ and ‘benevolence.’ Our hypertext groups excerpts from major words of sensibility according to 24 primary words; we imagine the sensibilious reader exploring these passages to glean a new understanding of the vocabulary and the literature of the period.”

Here’s the link:

The Dictionary could be an intriguing model for class projects and humanities computing projects as well.

Teaching 18th century Keywords

Miriam’s post about “effeminate” reminded me of the moment in my Clarissa class where I had to explain her use of the term, “friends.” My students, some of whom are reading an 18th century novel for the first time in this grad seminar, were a bit quizzical, until I could point to Doody’s fine discussion of its relatively broad meaning in the period, so that it encompassed one’s family and family-connections as well as one’s intimate, unrelated companions. Of course, the irony in every character’s use of the term grows stronger throughout the novel. Clarissa’s family are NOT her friends, and cannot be friends in the strong sense that Anna Howe is (with all the additional meanings that fill out and personalize our sense of authentic friendship: loyalty, integrity, and the desire to defend her friend).

Teaching the “keywords” of a particular era seems an important part of what we do when we try to provide context for literary works and interpretation, because these mediate between the primary text (which students have read) and all the secondary texts and subsidiary texts (which we have read and reflected upon). It is as necessary in survey courses as it is in grad seminars.

So how do we do it? Any ideas about imparting to students the period flavor of a term like “virtue” or “romance”? Do you handle it in lectures or supplemental reading or criticism? What terms have you found necessary to explain to your students, at any level?



Effeminate women

bradamante.jpg[Xposted to my blog]

Yesterday in my graduate seminar we discussed Margaret Cavendish’s Bell in Campo and The Sociable Companions. It was a lively discussion — they are an interested group — and at one point someone brought up the ways in which the two armies in Bell in Campo are described. “Masculine” is used to describe the army of men, while “feminine” and “effeminate” would seem to be used interchangeably to describe Lady Victoria’s army of women. It is also used to insultingly refer to men who prefer to stay home rather than fight. This led to a sweeping pronouncement from me about the ways in which the definitions of words often narrow and focus over time; it would seem that at one time “effeminate” could have been used to mean more or less “feminine” without any shading — though it was also used in our contemporary sense — but now it is used pretty exclusively as a pejorative applied to gay men who are perceived as lacking in “masculine” traits. We discussed various female equivalents and unpacked the some of the meanings “Amazon” held in the period.

This is one reason, among many, that I like the 18thc: English, always in flux, is just at enough of a remove after three centuries, give or take, that it is deceptively familiar. But upon closer examination there are significant little moments of vertigo, moments which can be useful as an entrée into a discussion of, say, gender roles.

[Speaking of language, awhile back on C18-L Jim Chevalier linked to a useful glossary of 18thc terms. I downloaded the list myself but have mislaid the link and invite you to post it again, Jim, if you are reading this.]