Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

A Polyglot of Characters

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2006

I feel used. Back in November, my wife and I watched Lost every week–watched the story of the hitherto ignored survivors from the tail of the plane, saw the death of another principal character, basically tuned right in for the November sweeps just like the network wanted us to. And then, after we’d given them what they wanted? An unannounced string of preemptions and reruns for a whole month! I tell you, it’s a sad state of affairs when you can finish watching an episode of a show, notice that they haven’t shown you any previews for an “all-new episode” the following week, and from that draw an accurate quantity implicature that there ain’t gonna be one. At that point, you’ve accepted reruns and preemptions as the default, and know not to expect a new episode unless they tell you to expect one.

Anyway, they’re finally showing new episodes again, and as the VCR records tonight’s, I’m thinking about something written in Entertainment Weekly about the show in the Dec. 30/Jan. 6 issue. They said:

Lost has used that license to create not only a noodle-cooking mythology but a polyglot of unique characters–damaged souls fumbling for enlightenment and redemption in the damnedest of places–played by the best ensemble cast on television.
(Jeff Jensen, “Treasured Islanders: The Cast of Lost, p. 44)

I’m not sure quite what they meant by “noodle-cooking mythology”, but I was even more perplexed by “a polyglot of unique characters”. I mean, the only characters who are known to even come close to polyglot-hood are Sun (who speaks Korean and English), Sayeed (English and Iraqi Arabic), Shannon (English and French), and maybe Hurley (Hispanic background, but I can’t remember hearing him speak any Spanish), but I kind of thought you had to speak more than just two languages to qualify as a polyglot.

Of course, what they meant was something like “myriad”. To someone who didn’t bother to look it up, polyglot must probably sound like some sort of collective noun, with -glot sounding like a cross between a clot and a glut, the poly- obviously contributing the meaning of multiplicity, and the whole word meaning something like a big group of various things.

As it turns out, Ben Zimmer read the same article and was caught by the same passage, and posted a message to the American Dialect Society listserv, quoting the passage and adding:

Googling on “a polyglot of” finds all sorts of possible objects: races, ethnicities/ethnic peoples, religions/religious beliefs, nationalities, histories, intelligence agencies, regulations, buildings, etc., etc. Is this a new usage, or has it been flying under the lexicographic radar?

Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary replied:

The OED’s draft entry for this (no longer labelled “rare”, by the way) doesn’t split it out, but has the note “Also in extended use”….

So it looks like it’s been around long enough to have been noticed by the OED writers. But hey, what about my clot/glut/polyglot connection? Has anyone looked into that? (I’d do it myself, but… you know…) And hey, what if you had a big group of people of varying backgrounds and personalities, and they all spoke lots of languages? Could you have a polyglot of polyglots?

2 Responses to “A Polyglot of Characters”

  1. I’m familiar with this usage only because I looked up the word when I was first naming my blog, and listed the following as one of the definitions:

    Being widely diverse (as in ethnic or cultural origins)

    I presume I got that from the OED but am not sure. At any rate, this extension of use beyond to refer to languages spoken was part of what made me love the word even more.

    OK, I just re-looked it up, and it seems I got this definition from MW. BUT, it only applies to polyglot as an ADJ, not a N (“polyglot cuisine” is the example). Still, seems a reasonable extension.

  2. […] blogged about Lost a couple of times back in 2006. Now, during a second viewing, I’m catching not only foreshadowing and character […]

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