Following the advice of a colleague, says John McWhorter in The New York Times, I recently gave Henry James’s The Ambassadors a try. Frankly, “it was a bit of a slog”. James’s writing is not exactly “for the beach” at the best of times, but particularly in his later novels the “tapeworm sentences” create a kind of “obsessive obfuscation”. The author himself recommended reading just five pages at a time. But much of the challenge is that the meaning of so many words has changed since 1903. We’re used to dealing with this in, say, Chaucer or Shakespeare, but James demonstrates just how much lexical evolution can happen in a century.
When one character in The Ambassadors has a “wonderful look” at another, you remember that “wonderful” used to literally mean “full of wonder”. Another character declares “I’m incredible” – by which he means not “awesome”, but “unable to be believed” or non-credible. It’s a reminder that some words have been on very long journeys indeed. “Nice”, which today means “socially agreeable”, meant “dimwitted” back in 1205, and in the intervening years has variously meant “weak”, “careful”, “observant” and “distracted by idle fastidiousness”. “Silly” used to mean “blessed”, “obnoxious” once meant “subject to harm”, and today we speak of “heading” out from a party “without for a minute thinking it has anything to do with our noggins”. The fit between words and meanings is “much fuzzier” than we often think. “The fun is in looking back at how things have changed and always having an ear open to what might be next.”