Aldous Huxley: dystopian mumbo-jumbery and the OED
Aldous Huxley, born on the 26th of July, 1894, is best remembered for the science fiction work Brave New World. Although Brave New World is considered one of the great works of dystopian fiction, its 1932 publication sets it long before the popularity of the term ‘dystopia’ (John Stuart Mill did use the noun ‘dys-topians’ in 1868, but the better-known adjective form certainly didn’t catch on till the mid-twentieth century). All the same, Huxley considered it a work of “negative utopia”. The work’s impact on the popular imagination has been huge, and it can be charted through the quotations selected as examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The society in Brave New World is controlled through a number of means, a key one being its educational programme. Individuals are taught to value society and to be passive consumers through ‘hypnopaedia’ – subconscious sleep-learning through radios and tapes. The word and its derivations list several examples by Huxley in the OED (including ‘hypnopaedic’ and ‘hynopaedically’), and the concept is now strongly associated with his book. The other means of social control in the novel is through pleasure: people are kept happy and compliant by way of regular and mandatory sex, as well as the compulsory ingestion of a drug called ‘soma’: “The soma had begun to work. Eyes shone, cheeks were flushed, the inner light of universal benevolence broke out on every face in happy, friendly smiles”. Huxley took the word from a much older intoxicant made from plants called ‘soma’, but the word is now used to signify substances used to induce euphoria or relaxation, especially as a distraction from the wider world. It can be compared to the concept of ‘escapism’, ‘the tendency to seek distraction from what normally has to be endured’, which was a key concept for Huxley. Huxley took a deep interest in the effects of drugs on the human mind, writing two books about his own experience of psychedelics, and including drugs in his novel Island (a sort of optimistic follow-up to Brave New World). Island gives us the word ‘mycomysticism’, meaning a mystical or spiritual experience brought about through the digestion of mushrooms.
Though Huxley was attempting to imagine a society over 500 years ahead of his own (and his early use of the word ‘futurology’ indicates his interest in predicting things to come), he also comments on early twentieth-century phenomena. In his letters, Huxley haughtily speaks of the ‘cinematising’ of novels (“the plot of the novel was absolutely destroyed in the process of cinematising it”), and the relatively new medium of film is discussed in Brave New World. Specifically, he introduces the idea of ‘feelies’ – films that you can feel, through the arms of your chair: “Take hold of those metal knobs on the arms of your chair… Otherwise you won’t get any of the feely effects”. A character at one point in the novel even describes a “love scene on a bearskin rug”: “they say it’s marvellous. Every hair of the bear reproduced. The most amazing tactual effects…”. Huxley was obviously delighting in making technology seem weird, and indeed a little perverse, and it’s worth noting that The Jazz Singer, the first ‘talkie’ – a movie with a soundtrack – was released only five years before his novel. (‘Movie’, of course, is itself a nickname for ‘moving’ or ‘motion’ picture.) And Huxley actually used the word ‘feelies’ earlier than Brave New World, in a satirical commentary on the progress of cinema: “The theatres in which the egalitarians will enjoy the talkies, tasties, smellies, and feelies”. We should probably be glad that, as prescient as Huxley was, we have not yet developed ‘tasties’.
Huxley also gets several mentions in the OED thanks to his recurring invention of words relating to music. Hilariously, one of these is ‘sexophone’ a literally-named musical instrument in Brave New World that causes pleasant sensations in the body of its listeners. It hasn’t exactly taken off as a word (nor, to my knowledge, has anyone tried to invent one yet), but it’s notable that Vladimir Nabokov includes a sexophone – presumably alluding to Huxley – in his novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Huxley is also mentioned alongside ‘musicalization’, the process of rendering something in a manner suggestive of music – this is doubly fitting, as it both describes his great novel Point Counter Point and recalls the term ‘cinematising’. And Huxley gives the first – if not only – example of the unusual and odd use of ‘oboe’ as a verb, in this comic image of a dull public speaker: “Mr. Pelvey was oboeing out of existence”.
Huxley’s writing are many and varied, and he has other great and surprising inclusions in the OED. Island gives us, for example, the adjective ‘Peter Panic’, relating to J. M. Barrie’s character Peter Pan – the ‘boy who wouldn’t grow up’. In Island, this refers to someone who “grows up physiologically more slowly than he grows up in terms of birthdays”, and the surprising example given of a Peter Panic boy is Hitler:
Hopeless at school. Incapable either of competing or co- operating. Envying all the normally successful boys – and, because he envied, hating them and, to make himself feel better, despising them as inferior beings.
Huxley is also cited for another name taken from literature in ‘Bovarism’, from Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Bovary might have appealed to Huxley as he was already interested in escapism; like the character, who learns through books to desire luxury and romance, Huxley writes that “by a process of ‘Bovarism’, we impose upon ourselves a more or less fictitious personality”. The idea of a life lived as if it were a fiction stuck with Huxley, and he is also cited in the related entries ‘bovaric’, ‘bovaristic’, and ‘bovaryze’.
Huxley’s words draw freely on literature and philosophy, botany – for his drug terms – and psychology – for his accounts of hynopaedia – and his work is used to illustrate many other words, from ‘nymphomaniacal’ to ‘mumbo-jumbery’. But for one of the best of these words, Huxley delved deep into his lexicon of Ancient Greek, and drew on an eighteenth-century word used to describe a statue of Venus. He writes of “young ladies stretching, writhing, callipygously stooping to tie their sandals”. ‘Callipygous’, which Huxley used for the first time in modern English, literally means “having beautiful buttocks”, and he meant it to be a bit silly. It might not be the most useful word in the language, but it’s good to know that even writers of dystopian fiction can hold on to their senses of humour.
Header image: Trevor Leyenhorst