Last week’s piece about the word “disconsolate” made me think, briefly, of other words that sound like the opposite of something but are not. You can be disconsolate but not consolate, uncouth or unruly but not couth or ruly. It also reminded me of the word “Dystopian”, which is the opposite of “Utopian”. It’s a word that I taught my daughter last year, before I had started this Blog. She might have forgotten its meaning now. She is only ten after all.
The word came up in a daily puzzle, the “Mini Codeword” in the Standard (London’s free evening newspaper) which I wrote about earlier this year. For a while, in early 2015, when she was still eight, my daughter and I would look at the puzzle together most days. She is less keen on it now. Perhaps it was words like dystopian and hypocaust that put her off. We went through a phase of spelling out the day’s word on the fridge, using fridge magnet letters that came with boxes of Innocent smoothies many years ago. It’s a long time since the children drank smoothies or fruit juice regularly, around the time my son’s baby teeth started to be replaced by adult teeth.
When the word “dystopian” appeared she asked what it meant. I tried to explain it as a “nightmare vision of the future”, or describing a place where things have gone wrong. I told her about “Utopia”, the Thomas More book, depicting a fictional place where everything is perfect.
A day or two later the word appeared on our TV screen, in an episode of “Pointless”. The question was about a novel and its dystopian vision of the future. The answer was either “Brave New World” or “1984”, as you’d expect. Within a week I was able to show her headlines in the Guardian and New Scientist that used the word (or the word “Dystopia”) too.
I read both “Brave New World” and “1984” when I was 14. (It’s what 14-year-old boys did back then.) I re-read the latter in my 20s but have not returned to Huxley’s Dystopia since I was a teenager, so a re-read is well overdue. Maybe when my daughter reads it I’ll be prompted to read along with her, as with “The Silver Sword” (which is what led to last week’s piece about the word “disconsolate”). We probably won’t be reading pages out loud to each other by then and she might not have to ask me what any of the words mean. That’s an acceptable vision of the future, nothing dystopian about it.