Thursday, 28 March 2013

Little Essays on the Rules (3) Approximately

Philip Harvey
The musical and poetic sunburst sometimes known as Bob Dylan’s first ‘electric period’ (1965-circa 1967) is one of the seminal moments in the history of rock music. The lyrical extravagance and originality of recordings from that time extends to the titles of the songs, one of the most memorable being a ballad of emotional confrontation that goes by the name ‘Queen Jane Approximately’. This was typical of the outrageously playful titles that Dylan gave his songs through this short period of his career.

Maybe the singer is saying that this is one version of the story of Queen Jane, whoever Queen Jane may be. Maybe the adverb says that he can never describe fully the person who is Queen Jane. Maybe Queen Jane is but one aspect of something more complex. Dylanologists would greet these conjectures with interest but also justifiable amusement, because trying to say exactly what the title means is not the main idea. We are dealing in poetry, where the title will mean whatever the individual brings to it. I myself sometimes think the song is about Joan Baez, or marijuana, but its strongest meaning is the memories it conjures of my own late teens and certain friends of that time.

But still, what precisely is ‘approximately’? This question has been taking up my thinking this week after RDA officially announced the word will replace ‘circa’ in author name authorities. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary says ‘circa’ is a preposition from the Latin, “About, approximately in or at (with dates etc.),” first introduced into English in the mid-19th century. A reason for replacing ‘circa’ is that it’s a Latinism, which is odd when you consider that ‘circa’ has been a common English loanword since the time of Queen Victoria (no relation to Queen Jane, at least not in the genealogical sense, or that we are aware of). Odd too, because ‘approximately’ is a Latin root word via Middle English, very Latin indeed. ‘Approximately’ though seems to be less Latin than ‘circa’ in the mind of RDA, even if almost three times the length.

For me, an issue here is that despite the dictionary definition of ‘circa’, ‘approximately’ is not a very precise synonym. The Shorter Oxford defines ‘approximately’ as “nearly, with near approach to accuracy.”  While we may say that ‘circa’ qualifies a date with a near approach to accuracy, it does something more: it circumscribes the date itself. Whenever a date has ‘circa’ against it we know that date to be accurate within the terms of the available information about that person’s life. ‘Approximately’ does not always have this relationship to the date it qualifies, its meaning in English can be read to mean “anytime around this time”, or even “not exactly this date, at least that we are aware of.” In other words, in usage the two words can have slightly different meanings, which is why both words are in use in the first place.

If ‘approximately’ or even its abbreviated form ‘approx.’ could make ‘circa’ redundant, it would. But it won’t. When we google the search ‘dylan circa’ we get “About 3,250,000 results (0.28 seconds)”. Notice that Google doesn’t say “Approximately 3,250,000 results”, but uses the very Anglo-Saxon, very very English word ‘about’. Why didn’t RDA use ‘about’ if it wanted to replace Latinisms like ‘circa’? ‘About’ is much more common, and shorter, than ‘approximately’. A browse of page one of the Google ‘dylan circa’ display confirms that ‘circa’ is a common English word. Abandonment of ‘circa’ just in order to follow a policy decision at RDA is a victory for ideological correctness over common sense and common usage.

The example we have been given in the document ‘Changes to Headings in the LC Catalog to Accommodate RDA’ is this:

Under RDA
: Backus, Yvonne, approximately 1910-2001
Backus, Yvonne, ca. 1910-2001

Does this mean Yvonne Backus lived approximately from 1910 to 2001? Does it mean that 1910 is a date “with a near approach to accuracy’? Does it mean she was born sometime either side of 1910? These are questions we would not ask if ‘ca.1910-2001’ were employed as her name authority. This is why many bloggers, e-listers, and commentators have responded to the introduction of ‘approximately’ by saying it’s silly. Cataloguers will be typing out ‘approximately’ forever more, which is creating work, not saving time. Yvonne Backus is only one example of the confusions that are going to arise because of the change. Instead of having Yvonne’s birth date fixed with a fair measure of certainty, we have Yvonne Approximately.

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