Words Are Funny Things
March 11, 2011
I was reading a press release about the winners of the National Book Critics Circle Awards and read this:
"Nonfiction: Isabel Wilkerson for The Warmth of Other Suns (Random House). "A magisterial work, taking its title from a poem by Richard Wright, that chronicles the movement of the six million African Americans who left the Jim Crow South starting in the early 20th century and spread throughout the country."
My understanding of the word "magisterial" was a little vague. I tended to define it as "majestic," but I didn't think I was right, so I looked it up.
According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary, there are a couple definitions.
1 A(1): of, relating to, or having the characteristics of a master or teacher: Authoritative
Okay. That makes sense and in fact, I would guess that whoever wrote that little description of this book probably had that in mind. But because the NBCC Awards can be a bit snooty and self-important, I continued to read further and found the second definition:
(2): marked by an overbearingly dignified or assured manner or aspect
Well, interesting. Not nearly as complimentary as the first definition. "Overbearingly" seems to be the key word there. According to the same dictionary, "overbearing" means:
1 a: tending to overwhelm: Overpowering
b: decisively important: Dominant
2: harshly and haughtily arrogant
"Overbearingly" is the adverbial form of overbearing.
Another definition of Magisterial is: "of, or relating to, or required for a master's degree."
That's interesting, because it shifts the meaning of the writer's description of Ms. Wilkerson's book.
So let me get this right. With the use of a single word and however one tends to interpret that word, the description could be interpreted to mean:
"An arrogant, overbearing work that reads like a Master's degree dissertation."
Well, like I said, words are funny things. I believe the NBCC's intention was to describe it as authoritative. Now, that's a good word. It's definitions are:
1 a: having or proceeding from authority: official
b: clearly accurate or knowledgeable
Of course, the second definition is:
2: Dictatorial (with no definition)
1a: of, relating to, or befitting a dictator
b: ruled by a dictator
2: oppressive to or arrogantly overbearing toward others.
Okay, so it's possible we've circled back...
Ah yes, words are funny things.
But I'm sure it's a fine book.