LectureHop: The Treasury of City Words

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Looking for a new window onto our urban culture, Bwog’s Lexicography Bureau Chief Hannah Goldstein found herself yesterday in the Maison Française, where she was promptly encouraged to read the dictionary.  As it turns out, that was a great idea.

Christian Topalov is a man of many words – three hundred of them, to be exact. Over the past ten years, Topalov has become acutely familiar with one entire class of words: city words, i.e., words ascribed to the various landmarks and architectural structures that develop against the backdrop of cities. With generous funding from UNESCO, Topalov, who has held numerous positions at institutions like Harvard, Cambridge, Colegio de Mexico, and – clearly the best of all – Columbia (Go Lions!), recently finished compiling the extensive dictionary-thesaurus Le Trésor des mots de la ville (The Treasury of City Words), whose three hundred thousand entries come from both Topalov himself and other leaders in the fields of history, sociology, urban studies, and linguistics.

During a two-hour presentation yesterday in the intimate space of the Maison Française, Topalov, speaking from his experiences as a scholar of the social sciences, traced the evolution of several such words to indicate what one might find within his book. What new meanings have city words taken on from our using them in common speech?, he asked. And how might a linguist present his findings to a reader in another language without sacrificing the integrity of the word at hand in its original language? Pulling from his thesaurus the entries on the words “square” and “plaza,” he sought to explain to his audience the process by which he avoids losing any component of a word’s dynamic power: by placing words in their historical and linguistic contexts and never forcing direct parallels between languages.

“Plaza” was a particularly interesting word to examine because of its presence in many languages other than its original (which is, for the language-impaired, Spanish). The meaning of the word “plaza” has changed greatly since its early usage: while it originally meant a place of residence, it now means an open area or a public square in a city. In fact, the American Heritage Dictionary now defines it as not only a city square, but as a shopping center, or even a parking area or tollbooth cluster around a highway; Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, quoting “California English,” defines the word as “a strip mall or shopping center [. . .] anchored by big-box stores.”

Though they may seem a bit crude, these definitions have become just as linguistically valid as their more formal architectural counterparts because of their significantly common usage. That was the big message of the lecture: that since usage shapes meaning, meaning must come from the people – not from some God of Words, and not even from some language-regulating force in the government.

City words are in and of the city – they arise within cities, and they refer back to cities. This was an empowering message to deliver at the campus of a city school with its own host of squares and plazas. But one city word he didn’t cover? “Quad.” Guess we’ll just have to buy the thesaurus for that.

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  1. cqf

    sounds interesting, imma check it out.

  2. this is irrelevant BUT  

    omg omg omg bwog:

    report on this!!!!

  3. Karen  

    "Christian Topalov is a man of many words – three hundred of them, to be exact."

    300 is a lot of words? Columbia's standards are lower than I thought.

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