The Secret Lives of Words

John McWhorter in the New York Times:

Some time ago, I fell into conversation with a colleague about what we had been reading lately, and the person suggested that I absolutely must give Henry James’s “The Ambassadors” a try.

The pandemic intervened, and I forgot the recommendation. But I remembered recently and picked up the novel. Frankly, despite my profound respect for the book, it was a bit of a slog. James’s writing, especially in his last few novels, is not exactly for the beach. His tapeworm sentences qualify as literary Cubism at best or obsessive obfuscation at worst. Even James once recommended reading only five pages of “The Ambassadors” at a time.

But I was struck repeatedly by the fact that, sentence structure aside, so much of the challenge posed by James’s prose is that words often had different meanings around the turn of the century than they do now. This quiet evolution of language is a facet that can be damnably hard to notice day to day, yet its importance is hard to overstate.

More here.