Monday, December 07, 2009


Some words are fading out of the English language that really ought to be kept. A lot of the new words we are used to using, or the new meanings of old words, have nothing to do with The Real and one of the charming aspects of pre-20th century English is that it usually insists that words, the phonemes we make with our various pieces of equippment, actually correspond to something real.

Here is one I like:


Tolkien uses it all through his big book, usually describing the distance the Nine Walkers walked through Middle Earth on their quest with that term. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, ran the tremendous distance from the Falls of Rauros to Fanghorn forest in pursuit of Merry and Pippin, and he measured it in leagues.

A league is a deeply Real, and very practical, unit of measurement that was originally Celtic, and was the distance a person could walk in one hour. It was about three miles.

Words should always mean real things. Whenever you read something, an article about politics, a book of literary criticism, philosophy, a speech, anything at all, ask the question, what Real Thing does this pertain to?

Only Real Things count.


Martial Artist said...

Dear Miss White,

I have a serious question, i.e., I do not mean it in any way critically or humorously, but rather wish to ensure that I understand the implications of your comment.

By "Real Things," I suspect that you are attempting to describe either physical entities or quantitatively descriptive units of measurements that directly refer to physical entities. The meaning that I have just stated would then, applied to the concept of a "league," include the person traveling, the ground covered and the particular unit of measurement which makes communicable the magnitude of the distance covered.

Have I got the sense of what you intend to convey by Real Things, or have I missed something?

Sincere thanks,

Keith Töpfer

Anonymous said...

I am not Miss White, but it is an interesting question you raise. Should we not allow both spiritual and material things to be Real (and the spiritual Realer), but disallow abstract conceptions that have no foundation in spiritual or physical Reality? As to whether our words refer primarily to physical things or to spiritual reality there is an interesting book by Owen Barfield called _Poetic Diction_ that discusses and interprets the evidence.

Mark S. Abeln said...

Much of the southern part of the City of Saint Louis was once called the Gratiot League Square - being a square piece of ground granted by the Spanish Crown to Charles Gratiot, one league on a side.

Many property descriptions here still use the 'arpent' as the unit of measure.

HJW said...

Keith, I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

By Real Things, I mean things that are not steeped in our personal fantasies and subjective preferences.

Try to keep up, but also, probably n ot helpful to go running off ahead either.