Words: Literature

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Muriel Spark, accepting the David Cohen British Literature Prize last week, said she felt "fortunate in having been born in a rich century for literature". Being a literata (a word used by Coleridge, if by no one else) among literati, she didn't need to tell her audience what sort of literature she meant; she was talking about polite literature, or what news editors used to call the long-haired stuff. She did not have in mind the junk which comes through the post and which is embraced by the wider use of the word, though heaven knows we're rich enough in that too.

The idea that literature could be any old printed matter seems to be not much more than 100 years old. Before then there were only two sorts, literature in Dame Muriel's sense, and light literature, which was not quite a contradiction in terms. The OED has an indignant quote from the Daily News of 1895 (a year which had seen a second change of government in less than 18 months) about "canvassing, posters and the distribution of what, by a profane perversion of language, is called 'literature'". However, the perverters who upset the Daily News were actually going back to the first Latin meaning of litteratura - something made up of litterae or letters, or simply "the alphabet"; a litterator was a person who dabbled in grammar. It was not we who dropped the second "t", by the way. The supposedly literate Romans seemed unsure of the right spelling, as were the French, through whom we got the word.

Literature came into our language in the 14th century when at first it meant someone's greater or smaller degree of learning, then what learned people wrote. Since only the educated could read and write, this had some logic in it. Now almost any fool can be taught to write nonsense, which is why literature can be anything from a Muriel Spark novel down to an election address.