Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon

—But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.
—Yes, says Bloom.
—What is it? says John Wyse.
—A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
—By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that's so I'm a nation for I'm living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had the laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:
—Or also living in different places.
—That covers my case, says Joe.
—What is your nation if I may ask? says the citizen.
—Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland.

(U 12.1419-31)

Rarely does Joyce’s writing afford discernible lessons. However, nestled within this drunken pub banter is perhaps the most valuable prescription Joyce offers to readers of Ulysses—we must be wary about the meaning of words, especially those we think we know confidently, those we presume to be obvious, whose definitions we take for granted without considering the possibility of underlying semantic tension. It is telling that John and the citizen do not "ask," but rather "say" their questions, suggesting that, though grammatically interrogative, these are less inquiries and more assertions of skepticism, creating a pedantic push for both Bloom and the reader. Whereas a question typically seeks to satisfy personal curiosity, here the Irishmen’s probing serves instead to spark the puzzlement of another. As Bloom reconsiders, we watch his "nation" change, and even as the definition is revised, it remains incomplete, unsatisfactory. During these fluctuations, we see that the layers of a definition may be antithetical, as in the competition between "living in the same place" and "living in different places," which seem irreconcilable and yet may both be true-ish senses of "nation" for specific characters and moments in Ulysses. Tracing the semantic interweb through the rest of the conversation, we also find "nation" figured as a cheeky hyperbole, in Ned’s too-literal claim to individual nationhood. As this notion of individual national identity ("your nation") is broached more seriously, we are also presented with the phenomenon of subjective definition. Bloom’s identification of Ireland as his own lived sense of "nation" is subjective on two levels; most simply, it is specific to his own personal circumstance, but also, he subjectively selects and announces a criterion—birthplace—to make this determination, whereas alternate criteria—like current physical location, naturalized (intentional) citizenship, or heritage—may be just as valid, and at least as popular, means of defining one’s own subjective "nation."

In demonstrating an anxiety over and unraveling of the word "nation," Bloom’s exchange with the bar crowd models the basic intention of this lexicon: to question the presumed simplicity of the concept of definition by investigating the complex operation of semantics in Ulysses. With this aim, students have conducted in-depth considerations of individual buzzwords as they develop across the novel, paying particular attention to homophony and homonymy (see Mary/merry/marry), auto-antonymy (see But(t)), allusion (see Shell), compounding (see Key/Turnkey/Keyboard/Quay), anagrams (see Ulysses and Useless), historical and obsolete definitions (see Curious), cultural or subjective connotations (see Pale), and irony (see Flower). Entries draw primarily on the Oxford English Dictionary online, but may also include links to academic web material or Wikipedia pages that can provide background details, as well as citations for materials (especially Gifford’s Annotated) from the Ashplant bibliography. Each entry includes a mini-essay discussing interesting functions and implications of the word, followed by a list of the primary definitions (literal, denotations) invoked by Ulysses, with illustrative quotations included below each primary definition. In some cases, secondary definitions, more along the lines of connotation, are included as bullet-points below these specific textual occurrences of the word. Any commentary from the lexicon authors, either regarding the sample quotation or the sub-definitions, appears italicized within these bullet points.