It’s Alive!


Cacophony. Sexploitation. Oblat. Jazz. Sleepaway. Perro.

Ilan Stavans defines these words and scores more in his latest work, and doesn’t dance around terms such as cocksucker or shy away from telling readers how many times he’s looked up dictionary. And while he’s at it, he kicks a little dirt on Samuel Johnson’s grave.

Stavans, the young academic powerhouse at Amherst whom The New York Times called “the czar of Latino literature in the United States,” has four books out in the first five months of 2005, ranging from a collection of Sephardic literature to a massive $500 Latino-culture encyclopedia. But his most intrepid work this year might just be his lecture-inspired memoir, which is not only charming and sweet enough to sip, but also an attempt to turn the arguments of lingual purists on their heads.

“As of late, we are looking at the dictionary as something less plain and less dead,” Stavans tells the Voice. “We use it as a template of sorts on which we can see our own circumstance and dreams.”

In his new Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion (Graywolf), Stavans pushes the limits of how reference books can be read. He does so by pointing out their necessary imperfections, such as trying to lock a language in its time and place, à la Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. To Stavans, a dictionary takes on many other roles: sharp consultant, witty comrade, flip arm candy, live-in partner. In an ode to the rigid orthographic volumes, he even titles a chapter “Sleeping With My OED.”

The book is a brave feat not only because it shows he’s got academic boxing gloves on, but also for the intimate vantage point it affords readers. By opening up his personal life, Stavans seems to enhance his linguistic argument, recognizing that this intimacy—e.g., the hyper-detailed description of Stavans’s personal library bookshelves and his eight-year-old son’s talk of heaven—is part of why people read. Even the most pomo, Foucault-following reader can’t help glance at a biography now and then, or wonder if Kafka had as severe a roach problem as did the reader’s last Bushwick flat. Stavans takes this to another level by reading dictionaries as if they were blogs.

But reading a dictionary is also serious business. Stavans is deeply concerned with the stagnancy of lexicons such as the Oxford English Dictionary or Webster’s due to the manners linguists insist on. The first major dictionaries that showed up in the 16th and 17th centuries were compiled as tools to cleanse language from geographic and class dialect differences. They weren’t reference books for the people. They weren’t embedded in Microsoft Word programs.

Still, Stavans argues, most mass-market dictionaries in America aren’t utilitarian. He has found a definition of dog that classifies it as an animal that lifts its leg when urinating. And everyday objects like the Q-tip are nowhere to be found. Nor are many common curses.

“Happily, more recent editions of the OED have opened up, finally: motherfucker and cocksucker are in it now, safeguarded for the ages,” Stavans rejoices in his book. And he says: “Only recently do you have fuck in the dictionary. It is absurd that it wasn’t there before; it is one of the most used words in the English language, and one of the most elastic.”

Elasticity is a fine adjective to describe Stavans’s linguistic life—as well as his philosophy of language. A self-described Jewish Mexican American whose Eastern European parents raised him in the Jewish ghetto of Mexico City, Stavans grew up with Hebrew, Spanish, and American English chaotically intermixing like a tricolored pile of pickup sticks.

Stavans’s more controversial recent projects view that pile of colors from a distance and see a beautiful blur. For instance, his dictionary Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (2003) compiles thousands of American words with both Spanish and English etymological roots, born in barrios from Spanish Harlem to south Los Angeles.

“The purists believe that we in academia should not be paying attention to Spanglish,” Stavans says. “They tell me that any serious consideration undermines the standards of English.”

In his new memoir, Stavans projects the same “mixed-up is OK” approach to structure as he does to language. If he had categorized his thoughts more strictly, it would be easy to place Dictionary Days in the spectrum of reference-structured memoirs currently in bookstores. A few: Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s delightful Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (palatable even for those who aren’t charmed by an entry for “lollipop tree”), Steven Church’s ode to oddity and “memoir of record” The Guinness Book of Me, and The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs’s journey through the Encyclopedia Britannica into autodidacticism. Instead, Stavans keeps his thoughts tucked in a succinct memoir form, interjecting occasional dream-state revelations and fantastical visits from dead lexicographers. It opens with a birth scene of sorts (his son discovers a fascination with words) and ends by questioning whether dictionaries believe in the afterlife (they seem not to).

The lifespan theme is appropriate because some of the most tossed-around words in the academic debate over language today are creation and destruction. And Stavans is one of a small group of U.S. scholars introducing street speak to the ivory tower and arguing that language is not being destroyed, but rather, words that die are replaced by new ones. He has taught full classes on Spanglish and hopes to lecture soon on a language he calls “American.” And these are exactly the growing dialects that lexicographers fear.

The purist argument is easy to hear, as thinkers from Thomas Paine and Johnson back to Cicero were enchanted by the eloquence with which their predecessors from hundreds of years prior had spoken. But most of the time, according to Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher’s forthcoming The Unfolding of Language (Random House), it’s exactly the forces of destruction such purists fear that create new words. Anyone who’s ever used “gonna” contributes. And Stavans is fascinated.

His latest academic spar is one to watch: He’s translating Don Quijote de la Mancha into Spanglish, to the dismay of all those orthographic purists. But why cast an entire text into a piecemeal dialect? Ironically, for the same reason Johnson, Webster, and even encyclopedists like Flaubert made lexicons: to preserve and promote.

For Stavans, lover of mixed-up Portuñol and Franglais words, deviant curses and hip-hop graffiti (an insider language of sorts), his work conflicts with his ideology. Some say by codifying street speak into a dictionary, one is stealing it from the people and turning it into something that can be studied.

“True,” Stavans said. “But every intellectual pursuit is a theft, is it not?”