Unnatural ‘preternaturally’, naturally

Last Sunday night I was reading a story called Oke of Okehurst by Vernon Lee in an old Penguin edition of The Supernatural Omnibus, Volume 1: Hauntings and Horror, a terrific collection of occult stories edited and introduced by the enigmatic Montague Summers. (Many of its stories are available online here.)

Lee’s tale is terrifically told, extravagantly descriptive yet precisely controlled, and with a mounting sense of inescapable doom. There is a wonderful passage wherein the narrator, a painter, describes the unconventional beauty of the central character, Mrs Alice Oke:

I don’t believe, you know, that even the greatest painter can show what is the real beauty of a very beautiful woman in the ordinary sense: Titian’s and Tintoretto’s women must have been miles handsomer than they have made them. Something – and that the very essence – always escapes, perhaps because real beauty is as much a thing in time – a thing like music, a succession, a series – as in space. Mind you, I am speaking of a woman beautiful in the conventional sense. Imagine, then, how much more so in the case of a woman like Alice Oke; and if the pencil and brush, imitating each line and tint, can’t succeed, how is it possible to give even the vaguest notion with mere wretched words – words possessing only a wretched abstract meaning, an impotent conventional association? To make a long story short, Mrs. Oke of Okehurst was, in my opinion, to the highest degree exquisite and strange, – an exotic creature, whose charm you can no more describe than you could bring home the perfume of some newly discovered tropical flower by comparing it with the scent of a cabbage-rose or a lily.

This excerpt can be found on pp. 122–124 here.

Further along is a line that remained with me for a less romantic reason: I wasn’t sure whether it was a mistake or an unusual usage:

It was Mrs Oke, her eyes prenaturally bright, and her whole face lit up with a bold, perverse smile.

Here is a photo:

Stan Carey - prenaturally and preternaturally in Oke of Okehurst

It seemed to me that the word prenaturally ought to have been preternaturally. The word prenaturally was unknown to me, and seemed a strange formation, while preternaturally would make sense in the context. In other words it appeared to be a publishing error. (I have seen worse.) However, I was prepared to delay judgement until I could confirm the matter either way. For one thing, the story was written in the late 19th century, and many a word has changed its form since then; for another thing, I was tucked up in bed.

The next day I searched several dictionaries for prenatural(ly), all in vain, while various Google searches returned only a small number of obscure or anomalous usages. It didn’t take long to find several online copies of Oke of Okehurst, and sure enough they all contained the phrase “her eyes preternaturally bright”. Maybe I ought to have searched for that phrase in the first place, but I did want to give Penguin Books the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, in a book full of mysteries it was a pleasure to find a bonus one to solve by myself, even if it was less lurid and more mundane than the others.

13 Responses to Unnatural ‘preternaturally’, naturally

  1. Claudia says:

    Sometimes I wonder about writers forcing ordinary people like me to search the dictionary for a word hardly used in a regular conversation. In my view supernaturally would be very adequate in this paragraph. I cannot picture myself saying preternaturally bright to anyone. And only an erudite like you could discover the mistake. Not that I mind metagrobolizing words and sesquipedalian descriptions but I’m with Boileau: Qui ne sait se borner ne sut jamais écrire.

  2. Stan says:

    Claudia: Boileau’s caution is quite severe! Although supernatural and preternatural overlap partially in meaning (as do their prefixes), they have differences too. Supernatural carries strong overtones of the paranormal (“What I saw that night could only have a supernatural explanation”), while preternatural can also mean extraordinary or very unusual. Hence “preternaturally bright”.

    “metagrobolizing words and sesquipedalian descriptions”
    : ) I almost regretted resurrecting metagrobolize, but it is very difficult to unlearn a word!

  3. Claudia says:

    C’est vrai: Boileau est un peu rabat-joie dans son Art Poétique. But here’s the problem I had with preternatural. I couldn’t find it in my Harrap’s 170,000 translations. I had to go to the bigger (350,000) French-English Collins Robert. The only translation I got was surnaturel. Only in my bigger, heavier English Webster did I see all the different overtones the word carries. It’s a lot of work for an unknown haunting story published in a Supernatural Omnibus. As I said, only a purist would insist…Chapeau bas, Monsieur!

  4. Stan says:

    Merci bien, Madame! Quel dommage que les définitions dans deux tes dictionnaires ne soient pas meilleures. Quand tu es en ligne je te recommande OneLook, où on trouve des liaisons à une large gamme de dictionnaires, et il y a moins de levage lourd! Plusiers sont vieillies, mais Merriam-Webster, The American Heritage Dictionary, The Oxford English Dictionary (quand il (elle?) arrive) et même Wiktionary valent la peine. Wordnik aussi est très intéressant, bien qu’il ne soit pas une dictionnaire traditionnelle.

    “Rabat-joie” est une expression utile.

  5. Claudia says:

    Merci, cher ami. J’ai mis ces deux liens dans mes programmes préférés. Mais, par habitude, je vais probablement toujours ouvrir, au préalable, les dictionnaires qui m’entourent depuis si longtemps. Ils sont peut-être incomplets mais ce sont de vieux amis qui m’ont assez bien servie durant de longues années. J’aurais peine à m’en détacher définitivement. C’est Lamartine (je crois) qui a dit:

    Objets inanimés
    avez-vous donc une âme
    qui s’attache à notre âme
    et la force d’aimer?

    I’m quite sure he was talking of something a bit more substantial and priceless than old dictionaries… but I just wanted to offer you the quote! All the best, always.

  6. Stan says:

    De rien, mon amie. Moi aussi je préfère des dictionnaires physiques, mais de temps en temps les versions en ligne ont l’avantage. Merci pour la belle citation de Lamartine; il avait raison, et l’attachement n’est pas limité à nos âmes mais même s’étend à nos molécules – comme Flann O Brien a dit dans The Third Policeman!

  7. Sean Jeating says:

    Reading Claudia’s first comment I came to think of some relaxing winter days: Reading The I.R.A. by Tim Pat Coogan, and looking up at least half a dozen words on each of the first 150 pages, afterwards less.
    Afterwards I read Amongst Woman by John McGahern and … perhaps five times looked up a word.
    So, why should an author not sometimes choose a strange, an uncommon word, or strange, uncommon syntax? Emphasis on sometimes.
    As your are quoting Flann O#Brien, Stan, one example taken from the (con-)genial translation of Harry Rowohlt.
    The sentence does not read: That’s correct, but reads: This does not lack of correctness.
    Being a ‘Flannophile’, sometimes I’d use this phrase him on the phone.
    People’s reaction: What?! You dare say I am wrong?!!
    Ha ha ha.

    La pait de la nuit. :)

  8. Claudia says:

    Sean me souhaite la paix…et me déclare la guerre.:) I exaggerate, of course!

    I don’t really mind difficult words. I learned to read English with Dickens. It wasn’t easy. I needed my heavy dictionary constantly for the first three books. But, please, allow me a touch of elitism. The effort I did for Dickens, who created such memorable characters (à la façon de Victor Hugo), I would not have done for a supernatural writer, even Vernon Lee who has an enviable reputation. No criticism here about your choice of lecture, Stan! But sometimes I read to learn. Other times, I read for escapism. In that case, I wish for a simpler vocabulary and syntax. Searching in three dictionaries for one word certainly would cut down my relaxing pleasure. As I said, only a purist like you, Stan, would have noticed the mistake.

    I’m so happy that the Cartesian dualism of Flann O#Brian allows me to send the molecules of my beloved bicycle across the oceans, with the mission to disturb Sean’s sleep, while I’m comfortably ensconced in my feathers, snoring my night away.

    Forgive my logorrhoea. Pardonnez ma loquacité.

    À la votre,gentilshommes!

  9. Claudia says:

    Cher Omnium – I felt guilty. Alors I told my preternatural bicycle just to turn around Seanhenge a few times (with a bit of noise.) Hope it will not create a calamitous havoc in your enchanting garden. Meilleur voeux pour une journée souriante de soleil. À toi aussi, Stan!

    Après tout, chaque mot est bon à savoir.
    After all, each word deserves to be known.

  10. Stan says:

    What a lovely conversation to find here, and images of bicycles, molecules, oceans and gardens. Sean, your Flannophilic comment certainly does not lack of amusingness. Claudia, you make good points and you make them well. One ought not to have to search three dictionaries to find an adequate definition of a word. I must admit to being surprised at your dictionaries, though; preternatural in the sense extraordinary is not an unusual usage to me, but maybe it is less common than I have supposed, or maybe it depends on one’s reading material!

  11. Tim says:

    My brain saw the error but adjusted it to read preternaturally, as it fit the context. I subconsciously filed away the fact that there was a typing error — and I too would probably have done a google search to see if there were other references to such a word as “prenaturally”!

    Makes me wonder how many other words that are in an avid reader or writer’s arsenal that we would just take for granted, but that the average reader would stumble upon and wonder at each one’s meaning and use.

    After all, not everyone has read Jane Austin and Charles Dickens. Anything to avoid a challenge in today’s world, eh.

  12. Stan says:

    Tim: Thanks for reporting your brain’s experience of the error! Our minds have many cognitive biases and slips that seem in large part to result from perceptual simplifications. It is probable that these shortcuts were evolutionarily helpful, even necessary, but they have some strange side effects, most popularly evident in optical illusions.

    I don’t think that people avoid reading Dickens and Austen to avoid a challenge. That’s more likely to apply to Shakespeare or Chaucer, for example, or the experimental modernists. I suspect that finding the time and motivation to read is more a problem for people, especially those with considerable work or family commitments.

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