Tag Archives: English language

The Synge Festival – Quintessence Theatre Group, October 2019

John Millington Synge.jpg

Last weekend I attended The Synge Festival at Quintessence Theatre Group. In one day, I saw all of John Millington Synge’s plays, with the exception of the unfinished Diedre of the Sorrows. Synge died at age 37, having published five plays and some poetry. Synge was so controversial that riots broke out after some early performances. In Philadelphia, authorities arrested actors and served an injunction against Playboy of the Western World in 1912, after Synge was dead.

Why was Synge controversial? Many of his characters are immoral or at least conniving, but Synge portrays them as comical and often sympathetic, not necessarily detestable. And Synge was wildly anti-clerical. His priests are clownish. Catholics and others found this offensive.

Synge’s best known work is Playboy of the Western World. It’s a sardonic comedy. The young farmer Christopher Mahon assaults his father and leaves him for dead. After more than a week on the run, he stops in a tavern, begging for shelter. The locals (especially the young women) are impressed and begin to compete for Christopher’s attention. Suddenly, his father turns up, unexpectedly alive, complicating the action. Soon father and son flee the outraged community.

The other plays were also comedy, except for Riders to the Sea, one of his first dramas. It is a snapshot of loss and grief, as if someone had told Synge to write the saddest play he could imagine. An old woman loses her last surviving son to the violent ocean. It’s a brief one-act play. Perhaps it would have engaged me more if we learned more about the characters, especially the sons.

Synge set his works in rural Ireland and wrote in an old fashioned rural northern Irish dialect which is almost incomprehensible to the modern, English speaking ear. The theatre program contained an extensive glossary of terms, but it’s helpful to follow a printed script if possible or to see each play more than once.

Synge loved the unrefined language of rural Ireland. In the theatre program he is quoted as follows:

When I was writing The Shadow of the Glen…I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen.

Listening to Synge is a challenge, but, like listening to Shakespear, it’s well worth the effort.


“The Word Detective – A Memoir – Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary” by John Simpson

This book sounds dry, but it’s not! John Simpson worked for/on the Oxford English Dictionary for 40 years, but never got bored, and his autobiography, likewise, is consistently interesting. (Yes, there is a bound, hard back copy of the OED in my house, two volumes, along with a magnifying glass. Yes, I have consulted it. But not often.)

The OED deals with the origins of words, as well as their contemporary meanings. As technology changes, unexpectedly old uses of words are often uncovered.

Where does the OED find its words? When Simpson began at the OED, they still employed readers, a technique highlighted in Simon Winchester’s wonderful book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. With this technique, books for perusal had to be carefully selected, in order to keep the volunteer readers interested.

Now, digital search techniques allow a far wider range. The OED looks for unfamiliar and/or new words everywhere – in catalogs and manuals and popular literature. They do require that a word achieve some level of use. A made up term that is used just once won’t turn up in the dictionary, but a word like “muggle” (non-magical person, JK Rowling) is included, because it has passed into general speech.

I realized (to my surprise) that I am a word snob! I’ve been rejecting neologisms like “blog” when I play Banagrams! Oh, dear… Time to loosen up a little. I’ve also rejected words on the basis of foreign origin, when Simpson would welcome them in. Words like “taco”.

Throughout the book, Simpson includes short essays on interesting words. Like “paraphernalia”, “redux” and “juggernaut”, as well as very familiar words like “marriage” and “deadline”.

The OED also includes phrases – up to three words, or is it four? For example “the thin red line”. Where was it first used? What did it mean then? How is it used now?

I wonder what would have happened if the information revolution hadn’t made it possible to convert the OED into an online “database”? Language is changing so quickly! I better learn to enjoy it.