Tuesday, December 31, 2019

#shc20: Reverence & Revelry

I'm exploring reverence and revelry for the upcoming Southern Humanities Conference to be held in Baton Rouge, LA, this Jan 30 to Feb 01. I will be using Edgar Morin's concept of dialogic to make sense of the engagement and interactions of the two modes of human behavior, especially as these interactions relate to the Southern Humanities community itself. Let's start with some definitions.

The online Oxford English Dictionary defines revelry as "the action or an act of revelling; boisterous mirth or merrymaking; (also in plural) lively entertainments; wild or noisy festivities, esp. those involving drinking." The OED says that the word developed within English itself as a variation of the word revel, a French word that entered English with the Anglo-Normans and means "noisy merriment". The English reworked the term to better manage it into something like "an entertainment or festivity", and eventually institutionalized revelries as a "department of the British Royal Household headed by the Master of the Revels". The OED connects revelry to the term reverie, which has senses both of "wild and uncontrolled behavior" and the more contemplative "being lost in thought or daydreaming."

According to Google's Ngram Viewer, use of the term revelry in English writing peaked in 1850 (.0001497566% of all words used) and suffered a steady decline until 1987 (.0000334220%) at which time it started to recover slightly in usage among writers of English.

1850 saw the publication of Dickens' David Copperfield and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter, the Brownings's Sonnets from the Portuguese and Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day, Tennyson's In Memoriam A. H. H., and Wordsworth's The Prelude, and Soren Kierkegaard's Practice in Christianity.

Use of the word reverence peaked earlier in 1823:

But as you can see, it has declined steadily ever since, hitting its low water mark in 1988 and pretty much staying there. To my eye, the usage trends are similar: both peaking in the first half of the Nineteenth century and steadily declining to the present.

If we compare the frequency of usage of the two terms, we see that revelry was never as popular among English writers as was reverence:

I'm not quite sure what to make of this data. It is factual, but I don't know if it means much. I would have been more satisfied if the use of reverence had bottomed during the Romantic era of the early Nineteenth century and picked up during the ensuing Victorian Age and if the use of revelry had trended the reverse, as that would fit nicely my view of the Romantics favoring revelry and the Victorians favoring reverence, but this data does not fit that pattern.

Of course, neither word seems to have ever been prominent in English writing. Their rates of occurrence in 1835, a midpoint of their respective popularities, show that reverence, which was used 24 times as often as revelry, still occurred only .0024% of the time in English. Revelry occurred .0001% of the time. This seems like very small rates of occurrence, but how does it compare to other English words, especially more popular words such as the (the most frequently used English word) and this (the second most frequently used noun)? Google's NGram plots it rates for us:

The word the occurs at a rate of about 5-6% in English texts and this at about .3-.4%. In other words, the occurs 5 or 6 times in every 100 English words of text, and this occurs a little less than once in every 200 words. This is a lot, especially compared to reverence and revelry, but we can see that the frequency of occurrence for all four words declines from 1800 to 2000, which suggests to me that they are all swimming in a larger pool of words. Indeed, science writer Richard Alleyne reports in The Telegraph that the "English language has doubled in the last century." He adds that researchers at Harvard and Google report that "the language has grown by more than 70 per cent since 1950." As the number of available English words and English writers grows, then the frequency of occurrence for any single word -- even a popular word such as the -- decreases.

Still, the decline for both reverence and revelry is much steeper than for the and this. Reverence and revelry appear to be losing their purchase on the minds of writers of English. Why? I can guess that the explosion of new knowledge in the physical and social sciences and in technology (think of computing alone) has given us much more to discuss and diverted our attention away from the old human concerns with reverence and revelry. I associate reverence with God, and so I charted the rate of usage for God (with a capital G) and found a decline in usage similar to that of reverence and revelry:

As you can see, God bottomed out in English letters about 1940 and has not recovered much since. I strongly suspect that God herself is quite well, but English writers are distracted these days with quantum physics, quantum computing, relativity, artificial intelligence, the Internet, gene splicing, global warming, and the cults of personality -- among a google other topics associated with the rise of science and technology and six billion new humans. Really, there's just too much to think about these days, and none of us -- certainly not I -- are bright enough to consider it all.

At a first casual hearing, then, both reverence and revelry sound a bit quaint, as if I am in a medieval chancery court listening to its slow, arcane deliberations about the estates of lunatics and the disposition of foundlings while clarions sound through the cold, open windows. But these are the terms, the parameters, of our conversation, and so I'm wondering what to make of them. That's another post, I think.

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