Where there’s a Willa away, Cather if you can

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) This is actually...

I’ve been reading Willa Cather‘s stories from “The Troll Garden,” which was published in 1905. It’s a while since I’ve read anything from this period and longer since I’ve read any Cather. This is good reading, but I sure am amazed at how much language has changed since 1905. I don’t think I’d even dare use a word like “celerity” in a story. (No, it has nothing to do with green vegetables; it means “rapidity of motion or action.”) One of my professors from the University of Nebraska says “celerity” is a favorite word of his, but then he doesn’t write for the public print. I’ve used plenty of words like “celerity,” which I would say is an obscure word, but this one today seems like a wooden leg in a sentence.

At the same time, I’ve also been writing a piece for Automobile about the history of automotive headlamps, with two sources being articles from The Horseless Age (1907) and Motor Age (1908); the way the sentences wind themselves up makes me snicker. But 100 years from now a reader might say the same about these sentences. There was a terrific piece in the Wall Street Journal a while ago (I knew I should’ve clipped it; I can’t find the link) about the rapid changes occurring in English, including the incorporation of graphic symbols. Decrepitude inheres.


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