Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Martin Amis and his use of the English language

In Intellectuals, Language on July 26, 2012 at 7:34 PM

I have finally begun reading Martin Amis’s own award winning memoirs, Experience, first published in 2000. He knows a lot about words. They are his specialisation and his career is dependent on how well he uses them. I wish to comment on one word that he has used: “prepotence.”

In 1973  Amis’s cousin Lucy Partington disappeared at the age of 21 without trace. The full horror of this trauma came to a fruition in 1994 when her decapitated and mutilated body was exhumed from the basement of a premises lived in by the serial killer, Frederick West. This horrific event is something with which Amis reflects on in Experience. After recounting how the event had affected him and other family members, he writes:

My family cannot understand the extraordinary collision that allowed him [Frederick West] to touch our lives, and I have no wish to prolong the contact. But he is here now, in my head; I want him exorcised. And Frederick West is uncontrollable: he is uncontrollable. For now he will get from me a one-sentence verdict and I will get from him a single detail. Here is the sentence.

The build up is dramatic. Those sentences are phenomenally well written leaving the reader keen to read the next sentence, one for which Amis must have put in a lot of thought. Frederick West, the brutal murderer of Amis’s cousin, summed up in a single sentence by Amis himself, a man who knows the power of language. Amis continues:

West was a sordid inadequate who was trained by his childhood to addict himself to the moment when impotence became prepotence.

I was completely and utterly deflated: I did not know the meaning of the word “prepotence.” This was the sentence that I was waiting for, the one for which there had been a build up and for me, it fell flat. I do not carry a dictionary and where I was there was no service on my mobile phone. It took me some time before I could visit the on line dictionary that I use as a standard: Dictionary.com. I was left with a wry smile when I realised that I had not misspelt the word: “prepotence” is so obscure that it is not in that particular dictionary. I did manage to locate to the word at thefreedictionary.com. It comes from the word prepotent which means “Greater in power, influence, or force than another or others; predominant.”

Given how annoyed I was about the use of the word, I asked four other people if, without using a dictionary, they knew its meaning. These people included a lawyer, an author of numerous bestselling books, someone who, like Martin Amis, had studied at Oxford University in the 1960s, and someone who is completing a doctorate at Oxford in contemporary history and who is also a published journalist and author. Of the four, in no particular order, two people had no idea of the meaning of the word and did not hazard a guess; one did not know but suggested as a guess that the word might have something to do with premature ejaculation; and the fourth suggested that they thought they knew the meaning and then accurately told me what it was. This fourth person has also read Amis’s Experience and could not say for certain if the reason he knew the word was because he had read it there. While emailing these friends with the question, I realised something else: I do not know what dictionary is built into my computer/web browser, but when I type the word “prepotence,” a squiggly red line appears beneath the word to inform me that the computer is unaware of the existence of a word with such a spelling.

I am going to extrapolate from this, including from my biased and tiny non-statistically significant sample, to suggest that most people do not know the meaning of “prepotence.” If anyone wishes to dispute me, I would be willing to place a bet on the point.

I am not against Amis using obscure words: he knows them and is able to use them with panache. I also do not mind looking up those words of which I am unfamiliar with the meaning. Indeed, earlier in Experience, Amis had used the word “consanguineous” that I did not know but it was hardly a chore to look it up and, in any event, the word was not used in such a crucial sentence. Amis is obviously a brilliant man; I suspect he is so brilliant that he might not have realised that mere mortals would not necessarily be familiar with “prepotence.” I think he should have done.