Weekly Assignment 2 Lexis

Weekly Assignment 2: Reading for Lexis or Diction
ENG 3010
Lexis is Greek for “word” (think of “lexicon”), and diction (related to “dictionary”)
comes from the Latin dicere: “to say.” Both words can be used to describe the
particular kinds of words a writer uses. Specialized vocabularies or jargons or
discourses develop in the niches of any society. There are words that belong to the
technical lexicons of, say, medicine, or beauty salons, or accounting departments,
though they are nevertheless part of the English language. Dictionaries often identify
one of the uses of such words as belonging to that lexicon, while other uses of the
word might belong to the culture at large. The lexical affiliations of words provide a
palette of meaning for the poet, who can combine different lexicons to produce
intricate effects of elevation or comedy or criticism. For instance, a poet can produce
a very different result by describing love using medical terms (“His kiss produced
atrial fibrillation”) than she can using baseball terminology (“He tried to kiss her but
struck out”).
As you’re reading the General Prologue, look for the jargons of social niches of
medieval English culture. Sometimes Chaucer uses a word that has a specialized
meaning in a way that plays that meaning against its normal street use; sometimes
the result encourages the reader to take an attitude of praise, sometimes of
skepticism, sometimes of outright disgust.
For example, the description of the “Sergeant of the Lawe” (the Lawyer) uses quite a
lot of specialized legal terminology (“assise,” patente,” “fee simple,” etc.), especially
for such a short passage. The portrait of the Sergeant of Lawe is fairly neutral, but the
narrator does say that he “seemed bisier than he was” (324)—that is, he is the kind of
man who cultivates the appearance of his own importance. The saturation of legal
terminology in this passage produces a similar effect: it encourages the reader to be
impressed with him, even if they have no real evidence of his abilities. Perhaps it is
these fancy words that make him sound “so wise” (315).
Find an interesting example of a jargon word in the Prologue and explain, in a
couple of paragraphs, how it works. Use the Middle English Dictionary
(http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/) to try to confirm whether your word is drawn
from a specialized lexicon. Can you find other examples of that jargon in the
Prologue? You may need evidence from the ME dictionary to prove your point
because words, as you’ve probably noticed while reading Chaucer, change their
meanings over time.
As always, this assignment is due before class on Thursday (2/6), either in an email
to me or in hard copy.