15 February, 2006

Style, type, character

The true logophile soon tires of isolated etymologies. Many words in the language possess curious roots: I might mention gossamer, nice, viper, test, masturbate, for instance. But singly these only amount to a clutch of diverting anecdotes. The richness of English is better demonstrated by patterns and processes, structures of semantic and morphological developments within the whole. These clusters of history can demonstrate the progression of thought and association itself. C. S. Lewis demonstrates the history of some typical clusters in his book Studies in Words, for instance 'nature', 'conscience', 'sense', although I found his treatment a little dull.

So of late I have turned myself to collecting examples of these patterns, and have been rolling particular groups of words around in my head for a few days. One such group is indicated in the title. All three of these terms progress from the language of material impressions, via that of letters, to that of human beings.

L. stilus, 'pointed stick' (preserved in English 'stylus').
Gk. τύπος, 'impression', from τύπτειν, 'to strike'.
Gk. χαρακτήρ, 'impress or stamp', from χαράττειν, 'to cut furrows'.

The word-senses proceed as follows:

Style: pointed stick used for writing, metonymic symbol of writing itself, writing, a written work, a manner of writing associated with an individual or school (now recognisable), manner of speaking, manner of custom or attire, that which suits an individual's taste.

Type: impression, stamp, block used in printing letters of the alphabet, form of printed letter (as in 'typeface'), distinguishing mark, kind or class distinguished by such a mark, individual representative of a class, person of a particular sort.

Character: stamp, engraved mark, distinguishing mark, graphic symbol representing a sound or syllable, letter of the alphabet, writing itself, handwriting or individual style of writing, a significant mark or token, aggregate of distinguishing marks in a thing, the sum of qualities which distinguish a class or race of men, moral qualities strongly displayed in an individual, person regarded as a collection of such qualities, a personality invested with a distinctive collection of qualities (as in a play), an eccentric person.

The reader will notice that these meanings tend to overlap one another. What is noteworthy is that each word provides a link between the individual and the group, the particular and the genus. Metonymy pushes the sense back and forth between these poles in each case, from a member of a set regarded as representative of that set, to the set itself, and vice versa. The parallel histories of these words also tell us something about the interrelations between printed literature and the development of "characterization"; the Harold Bloom in me wants to locate that connection in Shakespeare and his Tudor / Stuart cronies. Indeed, we see the transition manifested in a pun from King Lear (Act 1, Scene 2). Edmund has just forged a letter in his brother's hand, which he presents 'innocently' to his father Gloucester:
Gloucester. You know the character to be your brother's?

Edmund. If the matter were good, my lord, I durst swear it were his; but in respect of that, I would fain think it were not.
Here the word character switches between its senses of 'handwriting' and 'moral qualities', and compresses both. The pun also reflects what so very many of Shakespeare's puns reflect, namely the identity and non-identity of the inner and outward aspects of a man: 'There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face'. Arthur Danto writes in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981) that the development of conscious style in classical Greece was caused by (or concurrent with) a realization of the distinction 'between reality and something else—appearance, illusion, representation'. He goes on to push a rather Whorfian line, that 'the structure of a style is like the structure of a personality'. We might say that the structure of a character is like the structure of a character, and be done with it.

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