Monday, October 26, 2015

Woolf words vs. Wodehouse words

It should surprise no one that P.G. Wodehouse used different words (and words differently) in his novels than Virginia Woolf did in hers. They were, after all, very different writers. Even so, a study of the two writers' use of words, reported by Vivian Cook in It's All in a Word, makes fascinating reading.

In a typical Wodehouse novel, Cook writes, the word girl appears an average of once every 869 words. In written English in general, that word appears just once out of every 3,942 words. In a Woolf novel, girl shows up once every 2,865 words. The reason for this is that a Wodehouse novel usually involves a young man's difficulties in love with a young woman, and in Wodehouse's world, a young, unmarried woman is always called a girl. Woolf sometimes referred to young women as girls, too, but her books are not the light-hearted romantic romps that Wodehouse's are, so the words appears much less often.

Also, Cook says, the Woolf novel The Voyage  uses 9,542 different words, twice as many as are found in Wodehouse's My Man Jeeves. Nothing shocking here. Woolf wrote more challenging books for more sophisticated readers. Of course they employ a much larger vocabulary.

Cook goes on to say, "P.G. Wodehouse uses absolutely and pretty ten times as often, boy eight times as often, girl five times as often and old 3.5 times as often. In reverse Virginia Woolf uses people and Mrs. nine times more often, men and women five times more often and world four times more often."

Cook wonders, too, why Wodehouse uses the pronoun I three times as often as Woolf. "Is it just that his characters spend their time in light badinage about each other or is it a more profound aspect of their worldviews?" Or is it because Wodehouse often wrote in first person?

At one time literary critics didn't concern themselves with questions like these. Thanks to the computer, however, they have, for better or worse, so much more to talk about.

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