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The politics of wordplay

The Future Dictionary of America: A Book to Benefit Progressive Causes in the 2004 Elections Featuring Over 170 of America's Best Writers and Artists, Edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, Nicole Krauss, and Eli Horowitz, McSweeney's Books/Barsuk Records: 208 pp., $28 with audio CD

September 26, 2004|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Faultline Between Reason and Faith" and the editor of "Another City: Writing From Los Angeles" and "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology."

Samuel JOHNSON'S "Dictionary of the English Language" essentially spawned the form. It's not that there were no dictionaries prior to Johnson's; dozens had appeared in the 150 years before his book was published in 1755. What these proto-lexicons lacked, however, was an appreciation of the nuances of language, the way words and usage evolve through the refining filter of daily speech. If Johnson's dictionary has a lesson, it is that language is organic, a living thing, and words and how we use them become a window on our time. His dictionary "provides a record of a fascinating age," notes Johnson scholar Jack Lynch. "It was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the time of Ben Franklin's experiments with electricity. Britain's Empire was expanding as its colonies in America were beginning to show signs of discontent. [It] is a portrait of that rapidly changing world."

This notion of engagement, of the dictionary as a scrapbook of its culture, is very much at the heart of "The Future Dictionary of America," the latest project from McSweeney's Books. Edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, Nicole Krauss and Eli Horowitz, it functions in its own way as a speculative riff on Johnson, in which writers and artists collectively seek to reinvent the language, offering a vision not of English as it exists but as it might one day become. The conceit is simple: The editors want us to imagine that we are reading at some point in the future, when (according to the book's jacket) "all or most of our country's problems are solved and the present administration is a distant memory." That gives "The Future Dictionary" an air of whimsy, of conjecture, but at the same time an introductory note informs us that it "was conceived as a way for a great number of American writers and artists to voice their displeasure with the current political leadership, and to collectively imagine a brighter future.... Thus, all proceeds from the sales of this dictionary go directly to groups devoted to expressing their outrage over the Bush Administration's assault on free speech, overtime, drinking water, truth, the rule of law, humility, the separation of Church and State, a woman's right to choose, clear air, and every other good idea this country has ever had."

The idea of a dictionary fulfilling a political purpose may seem a stretch, but language -- like most human endeavors -- is inherently political, loaded with markers of privilege and power. For proof, just look at any campaign speech or the latest bulletin from the Department of Homeland Security. These writers mean to re-appropriate the language, to reprogram it. Often, this takes the form of puns or neologisms, plays on words that have as much to say about our current moment as the brave new world this book purports to represent. Kurt Vonnegut recasts "rumsfeld" as a common noun meaning "one who can stomach casualties." Katha Pollitt evokes a phenomenon called "the Rupture," defined as "the collapse of the religious right following the failure of the so-called Rapture to occur on January 1, 2023, as predicted by Rev. Tim la Haye Jr; any big entirely predictable disappointment; a foolish conviction that ends in embarrassment; a fanciful misreading of the Bible." There's a wishful quality to many of these definitions, an almost palpable sense of yearning, as if imagination had become our last refuge. Others are simply funny, like Brian McMullen's "spunctual" ("excited, on time, and excited to be on time") or Art Spiegelman's "Puritangential" ("a form of argument used to obfuscate an important issue by diverting attention to an irrelevant one").

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