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Reading for words

I grew up in the golden era of standardized reading tests. We were taught to read for information, and our progress was tracked by multiple choice tests asking us, “What is the main point of the passage?” or “Which of the following is a detail the author provides to support the main claim?”

In retrospect, it was bad training for reading (and for writing), and it took me a long time to change my habits. I’ve become a slower reader, a re-reader, and a more reverential reader: I peruse the text to see how an author creates a particular effect, much as one might study a magic trick to deduce how it was done.

As a linguist, I sometimes just let myself read for words, rather than answers. I’ll stop and puzzle over the meaning of something, suddenly focused on the relationship of one use of the word to another.

Recently, I read this passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers: Montezuma “was a figure of almost surreal grandeur, carried on a litter embroidered with gold and silver and festooned with flowers and precious stones.” A couple of sentences later Montezuma “was lowered from his litter.” I was hooked. I know that a litter is a kind of bed on poles carried by servants, but what has this got to with the sense that was more familiar to me—the trashy one? Is there a connection?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, litter is related to Latin lectus and originally meant bed. William Caxton, the man who introduced the printing press to England, used it that way in his 1481 printing of The Historie of Reynart the Foxe: “Tho laye they doun on a lytier made of strawe, the foxe, hys wyf and hys chyldren wente alle to slepe.” It was also used to refer to a bed-like conveyance, as in this example from Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur: “He ordeyned lyttyers for the wounded knyghtes.”

In Jonathan Lydgate’s Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep, from 1430, we find litter used to refer specifically to animal bedding—the OED describes it as a mixture of dung and straw— “As pelows ben to chambres agreeable, so is harde strawe lytter for the stable.” The use of litter to refer to young animals is also present early on, perhaps because they would be born in the litter bedding.

The use of litter to mean animal bedding might also have led to the sense of litter as debris. By the eighteenth century, litter can refer to a disorderly mess or clutter, as in this example from Henry Fielding: “She was ashamed to be seen in such a Pickle, … her House was in such a Litter” (from Joseph Andrews II, 1742). And litter continued to accumulate meaning. In the twentieth century, we’ve got cat litter and litter boxes along with the earlier meanings. But they are not for sleeping.

The word prone also sent me down a rabbit hole. In Martin Booth’s The Doctor and the Detective, I read that “As a child he [Arthur Conan Doyle’s father] was prone to emotional outbursts and rages.” I think of prone as meaning “inclined toward,” as in accident-prone. But prone is also used to refer to someone or something lying flat, as in this example from Joyce’s Ulysses: “He [Stephen Dedalus, who has just been knocked down] lies prone, his face to the sky, his hat rolling to the wall.” So is prone inclined or flat?

It turns out prone can be both.

Looking into the word, I find that prone is used anatomically to refer an arm position which is palm back versus palm forward, which is supine. Of whole bodies, prone is often contrasted with supine to indicate a face up position rather than a face down position. Lying prone also suggests vulnerability and so perhaps susceptibility, hence a possible connection between the inclined and the flat senses of prone.

Plenty of other words have sent me to the dictionary: the verb tear, for example, can mean to rip or to run. A fault can be geological or human.

I’m prone to be a very slow reader these days.

Featured image: “British Museum Reading Room Panorama Feb 2006” by Diliff. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Roy Blount Jr

    Joyce nods. Prone means face down.

  2. Galar

    lies prone, his face to the sky

    Joyce nods or shakes?!

  3. Alison Armstrong

    “A genius makes no mistakes…,
    James Joyce.

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