The layered literary lexicon



Adamson, Sylvia. “Literary language.” Volume III 1476-1776, ed. Roger

Lass. The Cambridge history of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 1999.

Adamson, Sylvia. “The grand style.” Reading Shakespeare’s dramatic

language: a guide. Ed. Sylvia Adamson, Lynette Hunter, Lynne Magnusson, Ann Thompson and Katie Wales. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001.



The latinate vocabulary and “the grand style”


Technical genres

§         new (latinate) words often really needed (uterus, etc.)


Literary genres

§       new (latinate) words often synonymous with old words

o       “The motive for borrowing in this case is purely stylistic”

o        look at how latinate vocabulary functions in “the grand style”




the simple style for proving


the middle style for pleasing


the vehement style for persuading

the great or mightie kinde, when we vse great wordes, or vehement figures




Milton, Paradise Lost:


What in me is dark

Illumine, what is low raise and support.    



Native words like dark or low

§        “typically learned early”

§        “learned through speech”

§        “context of physical experience”

o       “Hence no one needs to be told the meaning of light or strong: they consult their memories of all the experiences with which the word is connected”

o       “associated with private and intimate discourse”

o       “their semantic range is characteristically experiential: they encode perceptions, emotions, evaluations”


Latinate words like illumine (14th) or support (14th)

§        “learned late”

§         “learned through education”

§          “interpreted by reference to explicit definition”

§         “associated not only with a formal public style but also with a range of meaning that is primarily abstract and ideational”


We need both

§       “Any discourse aiming to encompass both kinds of meaning is likely to incorporate both kinds of word”

§        “Perhaps because the grand style was so clearly defined in functional terms .. and because its function was so clearly understood to be persuasion or moving, most renaissance writers ground the magniloquent latinate in the homely Saxon.”


C16th cultural obsession with ‘copiousness’ of language

§        not just for its own sake but as a persuasive tool

§        Erasmus, De copia: hundreds of ways of saying “Your letters have delighted me very much”

o       Thy Letter hath affected me with a singular Pleasure

o       I am affected with an incredible Pleasure by thy Letter.

o       Thy letter was no small Joy

o       Thy writings have been sweeter than either Ambrosia or Nectar. (etc.)

§         I’m getting this from an c18th English translation!



What in me is dark

Illumine, what is low raise and support.     (Milton, Paradise Lost)


Illumine, support

§        describe and epitomize “the epic qualities Milton desires”

Dark, low

§        their negative counterparts”



Shakespeare (Hamlet urging Horatio not to commit suicide):


Absent thee from felicitie a while,

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in paine.


Absent, felicity

§       words “used to convey an intellectual apprehension of a state of stoical endurance, which they simultaneously dignify by their own stylistic formality


And in this harsh world draw thy breath in paine:

§       “turns to the physical reality of living on and expresses it in predominantly Saxon vocabulary” (pain isn’t native, but is old and monosyllabic!)



(How) can you distinguish seriousness from pomposity or bombast?


Agamemnon in Troilus and Cressida “persuades his despondent allies to continue the war against Troy, arguing that the setbacks in their seven-year campaign should be regarded as (1) knots in a piece of wood, or (2) trials of stamina imposed by the gods:”


                                      Checks and disasters

Grow in the veins of actions highest reared,

As (1) knots, by the conflux of meeting sap,

Infects the sound pine, and diverts his grain

Tortive and errant from his course of growth ...


                             Why then, you princes,

Do you with cheeks abashed behold our works,

And think them shames which are indeed naught else

But (2) the protractive trials of great Jove

To find persistive constancy in men?


This is an insistently latinate passage


(1) Synonymia:

§       glosses one Latinate hard word not with a native word but with another latinate word: tortive and errant


(2) Paradiastole (restatement in other terms)

§       restates shames in increasingly obscurer terms: protractive trials, persistive constancy


Effect of all this latinity characterizes the speaker as a

§        “pompous nonentity, divorced from the rude realities of military stalemate”?

§        “crafty politician, who uses rhetoric for purposes of deceit, disguising unpalatable facts so as to cheer the troops and prolong a shameful war”?



More examples


Milton, Paradise Lost

-“let dry land appear”: vernacular solidity after polysyllabic chaos?


-serpent error “creeping wandering”: etymological Latin meaning possible only in prelapsarian world?


Wordsworth, Prelude

-“Hush’d … /Was the under soul,” “I had stood / in my own mind remote from human life”:


Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry:

“If as a poet you seek the simplest and most permanent forms of language, you are bound to give special importance to prepositions and conjunctions – those humble fundamentals, in, up, and, but, of, and so on. If as a poet you are concerned above all with relations and relationships, you are bound to give special importance to words which express relationships: prepositions and conjunctions.”