Thursday, October 18, 2007

Glossary: My Glosses' Ossuary (1925)

A monstrous aberration causes people to believe that language came into being to facilitate their relations with one another. It is with this end in mind, of usefulness, that they make dictionaries in ..which words are cataloged and given a well-defined meaning (they believe), based on usage and etymology. Now, etymology is a perfectly ineffectual science that is not at all informative about the true meaning of a word, that is, the particular, personal signification that each individual ought to assign it, as his mind pleases. As for usage, it is superfluous to say that that is the lowest criterion to which one could refer.

The everyday meaning and the etymological meaning of a word can teach us nothing about ourselves, since they represent the collective part of language, which was made for all people and not each of us individually.

By dissecting the words we like, without bothering about conforming either to their etymologies or to their accepted significations, we discover their most hidden qualities and the secret ramifications that are propagated through their whole language, channeled by associations of sounds, forms, and ideas. Then language changes into an oracle, and there we have a thread (however slender it may be) to guide us through the Babel of our minds.

--Michel Leiris (trs. Lydia Davis) First published in La Révolution surrealiste I, no. 3 (1925)

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