Ambrose Bierce would surely have said that he liked English to be well-kept and not untidy. But he would never have said that he did not want it unkempt.

Do you know who Ambrose Bierce was? His best-known writing these days is probably the book most often called The Devil’s Dictionary, a lexicon of cynical definitions; I’ve quoted it in my tastings of ambsace and jape. He was, in his time (the late 1800s and very early 1900s), a noted newspaper columnist and short-story writer in San Francisco. He was known for his caustic wit. And, as Theodore M. Bernstein writes, “at the age of seventy-one, he departed for Mexico, where he mysteriously disappeared.” But a few years before he did, he wrote Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, which Bernstein handily included at the back of his book Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (a book greatly beloved of those editors who know it, and one that runs contrary to the spirit of Bierce’s prescriptions).

Bierce’s little work is, as the subtitle says, a blacklist of usages that were untidy, careless, thoughtless, et cetera. He dives in boldly: the very first entry is flatly wrong – he inveighs against “a hotel” and “a heroic man,” insisting that before unstressed “h” one should use “an.” The rest of the list is a nearly unrelenting jeremiad of similar twaddle. But many of his bugbears have survived to be bugs in the ears of more recent cranks – for instance, his objection to “a healthy climate” (“only a living thing can be healthy,” he writes), his insistence on using “fewer” rather than “less” in referring to numbers, his fussiness about the placement of “only” in a sentence, and his hatred for “very unique.”

And then there’s unkempt. Few people fuss about this word these days, but I’m sure a survey of the undersides of mossy rocks in the vicinity of libraries might turn up one or two who do. The objection? As fierce Mister Bierce says, “Unkempt means uncombed, and can be said of nothing but the hair.”

Oh deeaaarrrr.

Just as genetics are not culture (discovering that a previously unknown ancestor was Irish does not instantly make you Irish, for instance), etymology is not definition. But just like in those ads where someone discovers a bit of their genetic history (because they paid to give a company their genetic data) and suddenly is enthusiastic about a culture to which they had previously been indifferent, many a person, discovering the etymology of a word, is suddenly aflame with a passion for the word having to mean exactly literally that thing – and of course this combines with the rule-seeking behaviour common among those who see tidiness as among the greatest virtues. Dilapidated means the stones are falling apart? Then you must not use it for wooden buildings! Decrepit comes from Latin meaning ‘creaky’ as in a person’s joints? Then it cannot be used for a stone building! And unkempt is the negative of kempt, which is the past participle of kemb, which is an alternate form of the verb for comb (splitting in Old Germanic from kamb, which evolved to comb)? Then if you are not speaking of hair, things are about to get hairy!

I’m not entirely sure which is Bierce’s greater sin in this instance: the etymological fallacy or a disregard of metaphor. I’ve written at length about the etymological fallacy (including one of my favourite pieces, first published on the blog of Merriam-Webster), so I need not flog that horse here (dead or alive). But even if we want to allow the word unkempt still to have the literal meaning ‘uncombed’, who says we must always use words in their literal sense?

Not Edmund Spenser, just for starts. In his renowned 1590 Faerie Queene, he used the word unkempt to refer to uncouth words. Others after him were similarly liberal with it. If words can be unkempt, why not other things that are also not hair? 

Of course, Bierce knew quite well the use of metaphors, just as he knew that his list of no-noes was really at most a list of maybe not-maybe nots. You see both facts evidenced in his introduction, where he writes, “In neither taste nor precision is any man’s practice a court of last appeal, for writers all, both great and small, are habitual sinners against the light” – Bierce himself included.

That said, I do think he’s chosen the weaker flame to turn his eyes towards. Certainly, tidiness has its value – a fact that, in household matters, my wife reminds me of frequently, and a fact that, in literary matters, earns me an important part of my income. But the world of words is not a brush-cut or even a decent perm. It is fabulously unkempt, and if you comb it too hard, it will tangle with you.

2 responses to “unkempt

  1. I aspire to be a professional writer, and life would be so much easier if I could use a computer to prepare my manuscripts! But “manuscript” comes from two Latin words meaning “written by hand,” and I laboriously use pen and paper to write out all my books and articles. Funny thing, though – publishers keep complaining! Don’t they know Latin?

  2. In Latin, “manus” means hand, and “script” means written. But if you submit a handwritten manuscript to a publisher today, it will be thrown in the trash, unread.
    That’s a strong argument AGAINST confusing etymologies with definitions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s