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Modernist Review #43: Introduction

4 November 2022

Dr Beci Carver, University of Exeter

Take an innocent seeming word like ‘wicked.’ When in 1922, T. S. Eliot used this adjective in The Waste Land to introduce Madam Sosostris’s ‘wicked pack of cards’, he meant, according to Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, ‘Excellent, splendid, remarkable.’[1] This American and distinctively modern meaning, dated to 1920 by the Oxford English Dictionary,[2] is in-keeping with our familiar idea of Eliot as an out-of-place American abroad. But if you flip the word on its back, acknowledging the positive primary sense while recognising too that nothing in The Waste Land is quite what it seems, you will see it wriggle with other possibilities. For the word stems from ‘wretch’, meaning, originally, ‘outcast’,[3] an etymological association that now underlies the dominant meaning of ‘evil’ or ‘mischievous’ like a causal explanation. The word also stands out in the history of the English language in having been confined throughout its early formation to Middle English and Scottish, making no contact with Latin, Greek, Old Norse, Old French, Old German, or any of the usual suspects for linguistic influence. ‘Wicked’ was incubated in the UK for the whole of its life until, in the early 1920s, it was let out to America and promptly positivised. If we read Eliot’s ‘wicked pack of cards’ in English as well as an American way at once, we find ourselves in the company of a highly unpredictable creature. Continue reading “Modernist Review #43: Introduction”

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