The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Virginia Woolf was first published in 1900 and was a landmark in English literature. The book took English Literature to new heights with its powerful language, profound metaphor, and literary allusions. Its impact was universal.
The author Virginia Woolf took the most basic vocabularies and constructed them into complex structures that made it all seem extremely rich, complicated, and intricate. The author created an entirely new vocabulary for her readers that changed the very definition of English.
During a radio appearance in 1929, Virgina Woolf said the following about words:
Virginia’s “echoes, memories” and “associations” are now better known as connotations, and each person will have a different view or opinion on what these connotations are. The word field (see previous quote) will be assigned associations differently by different people. A farmer may think of ‘fields’ in terms of crops or grazing animals, while someone who has lived their whole life in the city may think of green grass and open space.
If we really want to know word, we must also take care to understand these connotations in the way that they are shared between native speakers. What is a meadow or a pasture and what makes them so different?
Collocations: Echoes, Memories & Associations
Here she smartly captures the interdependence of words, and that understanding a phrase means not simply knowing its connotations but knowing the words that it generally occurs with – its collocations.
So it follows that knowing a word is also knowing it has different meanings when combined with other words. Think of the difference in meaning between field trip, gas field, magnetic field, and soccer field, for example.
A third function of word know-how that Woolf identifies is the way that this know-how is organised into semantic networks.
The kind that are way more convoluted than the exceedingly limited world-list in your favourite ESL textbook.
It's all about context
It was clearly evident to Woolf, long before linguists had documented and studied it, that words are context sensitive. As English teachers will happily attested to, trying to teach vocabulary out of context can often be futile.
Words seem to fight against definition and classification. Language is constantly evolving as new users change and adapt their words to suit their individual needs and situations.
And here lies the challenge for us, both as learners and as teachers.
Let us not forget of course that while new words form new meanings, old meanings are not instantly lost. Take the words of Virginia herself, still as powerful today as they were on that day in 1929.