False world, good-night!


Washington, Hollywood, Wall Street, the Pentagon: These names have a social meaning apart from geography. Each one indicates a certain world of activity—and the word world, in its primary sense, refers not to a planet but to the realm of human doings. The dictionary tells me that the Old English “weoruld” means something like “human life” or “age of man.” Worldly has an ambiguous, shifting place on the scale from negative to positive adjectives. To be unworldly might signify being a dupe, and worldly knowledge is desirable. Too much worldly knowledge, though, may suggest a villain played by Alan Rickman. Those good and bad connotations are epitomized by another place name that, in 16th- and 17th-century England, was a synonym for “the world” in the urbane, social sense: the royal court. In Ben Jonson’s time, the court was all of the above. It was Washington and Hollywood, the Pentagon and Wall Street, and more: a single seat of all kinds of power, concentrated in a few buildings in one city, a worldly magnet attracting all the most ambitious, gifted people in the worlds of art, money, politics, religion, sex, learning, and glamour. The court embodied worldliness at its most alluring and at its most treacherous.

more from Robert Pinsky at Slate here.