Archive for March 1st, 2010

March 1, 2010

YfL2: Turnip

I have been very silly. The writers of Blackadder, could they but see this, might possibly arrange for me to be assassinated.

(An edited version appeared today in the New Indian Express education supplement. I’m educational, internet.)

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Turnip: (noun) A round root with white or cream flesh which is eaten as a vegetable and also has edible leaves.

Recently a school in California banned a book, removing all copies from its shelves. This would not be particularly unusual (most schools choose not to stock certain books) except that the book in question was hardly something most people would consider racy. It was the Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary. Apparently a child had discovered the definition of “oral sex” in this dictionary, and the revelation that a book full of word definitions could potentially tell children what particular words mean was enough. Following widespread mockery the school reinstated the dictionary (though students now need written permission to consult it).

But could the revelation that students might look up certain words and phrases in the dictionary really be that much of a revelation to the school authorities? In an episode of Blackadder, Blackadder (played by Rowan Atkinson) and his turnip-obsessed sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) meet Dr. Samuel Johnson, the compiler of the first English dictionary. The following exchange takes place:

Dr. Johnson: Sir! I hope you’re not using the first English dictionary to look up rude words!

Blackadder: I wouldn’t be too hopeful — that’s what all the other ones will be used for.

Baldrick: Sir, can I look up `turnip’?

Blackadder: `Turnip’ isn’t a rude word, Baldrick.

Baldrick: It is if you sit on one.

While it’s notable that Blackadder, the scriptwriters and the audience all take for granted that most dictionaries are going to be used to look up rude words at some point, what is far more interesting is Baldrick’s contribution to the conversation. Of the three, Baldrick evinces the most sophisticated understanding of language. He realises that meaning is to a great extent dependent on context. The dictionary definition of a turnip is functional, but in the right circumstances a turnip can be an object of desire (as it seems to be for Baldrick himself), a lifesaver (if one were starving), or the source of a great deal of pain or the reason for much cursing, if one were to sit on it. Dr. Johnson’s contribution to the English language is to give it rules; words can only mean what the dictionary says they can mean. Baldrick immediately undermines this attempt at regulation by demonstrating that it is completely inadequate.

Of the two sides, I’m inclined towards Baldrick’s, and not just because everything one hears of Dr. Johnson makes him sound like one of the most insufferable men who ever lived. But then again, without setting some rules for the language it would be complete chaos.

If Baldrick is right about language, perhaps that school in California was right to ban the dictionary. After all, in the right context every word is potentially dangerous. But when language is that unstable, maybe we need dictionaries, with their illusion of creating some sort of order. Otherwise we’d all just run away screaming and nothing would ever get said.

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