Saturday, 19 January 2008

‘Dapper’ and the meaning of music

On my way back from the shops I was practising walking with longer strides (I've noticed they’ve got shorter; once, I used to overtake everyone) and holding myself upright as I advanced my stride vigorously in front, when the image came into my mind of one of my teachers who used to walk like that, perhaps because he had been a naval lieutenant, if indeed he had. The word ‘dapper’ came into my mind and I realised that it neatly illustrated how meaning gets attached to things (like words, or, strictly word-sounds or word-marks) that thereby become signs.

I could not define dapper, nor could most people who happily use the word; any definition would just gesture at what it is, picking out one or two partial indicators. (I'll look it up, but not yet.) But it’s there all right -- dapper exists; we all recognise it when we see it. Some of the connotations are pressed creases, smart (but not military: navy, not army), trim, neat, without anything excessive; any more so and it would be uptight, anal, repressed. Rather it might go the other way: canary-yellow waistcoat and bow tie (another of my teachers, but too lanky and languid to be dapper).

So, yes, that configuration of characteristics of person and dress exists. But so, presumably, do many other configurations that haven’t attracted names. Being able to attach the name to the phenomenon may indeed make it definite and identifiable, distinct from the general blur of overlapping similarities and differences in my field of awareness. Dapper becomes an object of cognition; as far as consciousness is concerned, the phenomenon of the dapper could be said to be brought into existence by the word. Conversely, the word wouldn’t work if there were not something already in our awareness for it to latch onto. It was a word that, when it was invented, we were ready and waiting for; we latched onto it for its truth.

Now, compare a piece of music that appears from nowhere and catches on, gets taken up, becomes known, gets played among friends, becomes an object of shared appreciation. I think it’s functioning like ‘dapper’. It enters the world beyond its producers as a signifier with a limited meaning produced by the references of the lyrics, and by features of sound and structure that suggest certain associations of mood or situation and perhaps generate direct physiological and psychological effects, as certain chemicals do. Then we, the listening public, attach the music to some state that we vaguely apprehend and that’s waiting to attain definition; the music becomes the word for the state; the state becomes the meaning of the music. The music, that is, becomes a full sign; a physical entity (sounds, audio effects), meaningless in itself (just noise) acquires meaning by being associated with something other than itself, a state (of feeling, of consciousness, of circumstances). It becomes the name for the state; but the state in a sense wasn’t there, not as a clear, discrete phenomenon, before it had this signifier, the music, attached to it. The state could not have been named in advance of the music; it wasn’t sharply enough there. But now the music stands for it and evokes it, making it a reality of which we deliberately induce the full consciousness by listening to the music or letting it come into our heads.

Turn back to language: certain words, like ‘dapper’, but more interestingly whole configurations of words, such as poems, operate like music. We (especially English teachers) are easily deceived by the fact that poems are composed of words, which we take to have definite meanings. Some words don’t, like ‘dapper’, but even if other words do, the meaning of the ensemble of words, the entire poem, can’t be got at by working through the meanings of the component words and syntactical structures. The whole thing ‘stands for’ something that otherwise has no name, for a state (to call it that again) or state of affairs or state of being; the experience of the poem is like recognition--we know what it’s referring to, even though that referred to state has never been named and can’t be named. It’s still like recognition even if we haven’t had any previous awareness of the state; even if, indeed, that state has been brought into existence, as a thing in our consciousness, only by the poem. Now the state has a name or a tune or a song, the poem, and can become an object of shared experience between all the people who share the language it’s written in.

Now let’s consult the OED online: dapper, a.

[Not found in OE. or ME. App. adopted in the end of the ME. period from Flemish or other LG. dialect (with modification of sense, perh. ironical or humorous): cf. MDu. dapper powerful, strong, stout, energetic, in mod.Du., valiant, brave, bold, MLG. dapper heavy, weighty, steady, stout, persevering, undaunted, OHG. tapfar, MHG. tapfer heavy, weighty, firm, in late MHG. and mod.G., warlike, brave. The sense of ON. dapr ‘sad, downcast’ appears to be developed from that of ‘heavy’. Possibly cognate with OSlav. dobr good.]

1. Of persons: Neat, trim, smart, spruce in dress or appearance. (Formerly appreciative; now more or less depreciative, with associations of littleness or pettiness; cf. b.)

c1440 Promp. Parv. 113 Dapyr, or praty, elegans. a1529 SKELTON Image Hypocr. 95 As dapper as any crowe And perte as any pie. 1530 PALSGR. 309/1 Daper, proper, mignon, godin. 1594 NASHE Unfort. Trav. 1 The dapper Mounsier Pages of the Court. 1648 HERRICK Hesper., The Temple, Their many mumbling masse-priests here, And many a dapper chorister. 1673 R. LEIGH Transproser Reh. 9 As if the dapper Stripling were to be heir to all the Fathers features. 1749 FIELDING Tom Jones I. xi, The idle and childish liking of a girl to a often fixed on..flowing locks, downy chins, dapper shapes. 1828 SCOTT F.M. Perth viii, The spruce and dapper importance of his ordinary appearance. 1861 Sat. Rev. Dec. 605 Our dapper curates, who only open their mouths to say ‘L'Eglise, c'est moi!’ 1885 M. E. BRADDON Wyllard's Weird I. 89 A good-looking man..well set up, neat without being dapper or priggish.

Well. It seems that in medieval England a word that was imprecisely understood, being Flemish for strong or heavy, (as dapper was imprecisely understood when I first came across it), and was thus an only-partly-formed signifier, was purloined by English speakers and used to name a state, dapperness, for which a word didn’t already exist but which was ready for one.

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