Holiday Fragment: This Past Year

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Do you trust your fellow WordPress users to chose the best post on Quiver Quotes? According to the dubitable measuring stick of “number of people who clicked like” the most meritorious of this year’s posts with a total of 60 button-presses is:

The Art of Writing: Quirks and Perks: We all are rich and ignore the buried fact of accumulated wisdom, says Ray Bradbury. A fitting end-of-year sentiment: do not think of how you are becoming older, but of how you are becoming wiser. Then, if you are so inclined, mine your experience for jewels to be burnished with words. The generations to come may appreciate it.

The runners-up:

The Woman and the Painter: John Banville’s vivid description (ekphrasis) of a woman sitting for a sordid painter captured the eye of my readers. Homer, Shakespeare, Keats and Borges get a mention too. I admire Banville’s style and have written numerous posts about his work, so his appearance on this list is no surprise.

Style: Quirks and Perks: Style is an increment in writing, says E. B. White. Ah, I’m glad he made this list too, for a copy of Strunk & White lies at the foundation of my writing. Even when I forsake pith in favour of flourish, I abjure in order to (I write to) and the fact that (I delete it).

The Unnatural Act: A post on what I termed the metaphorical itch. Nice to have one’s invented “speech figure” make the cut as well. I suspect it’s actually the attractive illustration and the quirky subject of surrealism that helped insinuate the post into the dark favours of my readers. Or could it have been my attempt at grotesque surrealistic prose?

I love all my baby-posts equally but I tend to forget the earlier ones, so as personal favourites I’d probably class any of the ones I wrote in November. If I’m pressed to say which ones, then I enjoyed inventing meld words in Poetry of Hyphens: Elements and imagining flash-fiction in Poetry of Hyphens: Exotic. 

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Holiday Fragment: On the Complement of a Language

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Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice is a novel in the form of a multiple choice exam. (Highly recommended—it’s a reading experience unlike any other.)

Given this precedent, I format my thoughts below as questions from an as of yet unwritten exam-novel. I don’t know the answers, you might.


Question: 

Each language has a number of phonemes (distinct sounds).

Define a phonetic complement of a language to be all the sounds not used by that language.

  1. Are there languages living in the phonetic complements of each other?
  2. If not, is it possible to construct a meaningful language in the phonetic complement of any given existing language?
  3. If so, given a sufficiently well-defined framework of phonemes achievable by the human vocal apparatus, can we construct a set of pairwise disjoint languages that completely exhaust all possible phonemes?

Rider: Each language has a number of morphemes (smallest meaningful units of language). If the morpheme complement at a given time t (we have to freeze time as languages evolve) is defined to be the collection of unused morphemes of that language, how would you go about constructing a new language using the same phonemes but contained in the morpheme complement?

Explain.

 

 

 


This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are mostly excerpts and thoughts from my literary diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Life Without Parenthesis …

Holiday Fragment: To Pedestal an Author

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When reading a well-known author, first put them on a pedestal justified by their reputation, by laudatory secondary literature, by personal awe and impersonal envy.

Then study the statue you’ve erected. (Rub your neck occasionally.)

You may take the statue down from the pedestal only when you feel you understand its flaws, and when improving on those flaws haunts your dreams (even if you have little evidence that you are able to do better).

Pedestal a new author.

Repeat.

Repeat until the time that passes between putting up and taking down a statue becomes small enough to be negligible (the duration of reading a magnum opus and sundry). At that point you have become:

  • an objective critic,
  • a supreme author,
  • a blind man (a fool),
  • some or all of the above.

This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are mostly excerpts and thoughts from my literary diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: The Softness of Pillows: Quirks and Perks.

Holiday Fragment: Literary Orts

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When my post World Building ballooned, I had to omit a fun little essay I’d prepared: the words in italics are all the literary words from Forsyth’s Horologicon (picked out from around 300 general, old-fashioned words scattered throughout his book) and then fitted into a compressed, sensible-ish narrative. Of course, I do a much poorer job than him at generating coherency and humour, but do give me some credit for effort.

Although, in a week or so, there’ll be a post on effort, so perhaps don’t judge me yet.

For those who didn’t read the previous posts: Surfle is the cutest puppy. He’s imaginary.

 


— deep breath now, this is how Christmas will unravel for you —

On Christmas Eve:

Tacenda are things that ought to be left unsaid (like aspiring secrets), especially if they’re some nifandous atrocity. But if pressed to confess your crime (who ate the Christmas cake early?), you may attempt to obnubilate the details in a bluster of words, or if your confederate is present (Surfle), then the two of you can constult and play at being fools. If that also fails, you may try to discept by differing, disagreeing, debating (it wasn’t my imaginary pet, but yours). Lastly, you can accuse your colloquist of searching for your dirty laundry because they’re secretly a rhyparographer who writes about distasteful topics (how you keep all the wrapping paper from last year labelled with names so you can reuse for a different relative this year).

Don’t forget to interjaculate at every opportunity. Defined as to interject an ejaculation. (Best done at the dinner table with your mouth full.)

On Christmas Day:

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Holiday Fragment: On Communication

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An efficient expression courts silence.

Tacit encodes social axioms. Foreigners bane: Culture is tacit.

Everyone should know how far their tongue bends.

 

 

 


This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are mostly excerpts and thoughts from my literary diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Tolkien’s Fox.

Holiday Fragment: To Journey Through a Text

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Today’s is the first in a series of posts under the heading Holiday Fragments. With a few exceptions, I will offer a number of short-short excerpts from my literary diary. Some may be thought-seeds, some dumb-duds: you decide.

I usually guard my unfinished fragments as if they were golden apples likely to cause the next Trojan war. But time erodes their personal value, and as the end of the year approaches, I’m clearing house to make way for a shiny new crop.

 


To Journey Through a Text

The length of a text does not determine whether it is a novel, a novella, a short story, or a vignette. It is the subjective length (and quality) of the reader’s journey that measures the weightiness of a work and therefore determines its classification.

World-building: The Dog’s Name is Surfle

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Daydreaming of other worlds

To write, you need words.

To write well, you need a vocabulary—preferably, a large one. And this isn’t so you can show off and write about sitting in a puddle of your own mucilage while bound in a brodequin and tortured in a tenebrous tower.

Readers have it easy: they’re given context for each word and it’s usually sufficient to intuit a meaning. Writers have to pluck a precise word and understand most of its denotations and connotations and create a fitting context (all of which happens simultaneously); therefore, writers need access to a wide roaming ground, plentiful in detail and depth, and an effective search method.

The roaming ground metaphor offers little when it comes to nonfiction writing (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write about fish, go explore the lake), or when it comes to fiction writing set in the real world (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write murder mysteries set in a Bedouin camp, go explore the desert).

But when it comes to writing anything set in a world of your making, where you are God, where you give names—what happens to your roaming ground?

You can keep expanding it by learning concepts, but eventually you’re going to have to invent names for that new plant, that new race, that new arcology. You’ll even have to invent verbs and adjectives (somehow new adverbs seem to be the rarest). Two questions present themselves:

  • How does one invent?
  • How does one invent, coherently? (Because it’s likely you’ll need more than one word.)

The words you invent are the writer’s quirk words (as opposed to the reader’s quirk words)—they enrich the boundaries of language in general, not just the boundaries of a reader’s vocabulary.

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How to Surive a Tough Book: Philosophy

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Different books offer different pleasures and not all of them end in heart-thumping affect.

Some books are initially overwhelming—like, for me, Knut Hamsun’s Hungerand require a modified, laterigrade approach where I half-squint, half-sidle down the page, and whenever it gets too much, I write a comment to release a part of the emotional pressure.

Some books are initially underwhelming—like, for me, Spinoza’s Ethics—and require a modified, porpoising approach where I jump in and out of the page, searching for connections and meaning.

In both cases a creative persistence is needed, and ultimately rewarded (if anything, rewarded more than when reading a middling potboiler that ticks all the boxes).

When books are deemed “tough”, it’s because they require a new coping mechanism from the reader: a different approach from chapter to chapter, a modification of reading goals mid-chapter, and (gasp!) actual thinking while reading.

Escapism—of the kind where you plop yourself on the massage table in an all inclusive resort, become dough, and forget the hands that knead you—it is not. When a book gets tough the bar serves glasses full of pebbles, the air smells of an end-of-year exam hall, and the band plays an industrial hard-metal version of Stravinski’s The Rite of Spring.

Most people riot, then get up and leave.

However, a tough book is also a challenge, and one which can still bring the pleasure of “flow”—a psychological state where man is so well-matched to mission that the world’s problems fall away.

So don’t leave.

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Judging a Book by its Quirk Words

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As much as speed-reading is in vogue, speed-learning unfamiliar words is still a rather less flaunted ability. Perhaps because it is harder to define.

Does learning a word mean acquainting yourself with its first meaning, with all its meanings, with its pronunciation, its origins, its examples and seeing its effect as you apply it in an appropriate setting? Learning has some degree of knowing as its goal. Can it be said that you know a word if, after having supposedly learned it, you have never again thought of it? (If your answer is yes, you haven’t ever attempted to learn a foreign language, and failed.)

Some words we get for free as we grow up; some we get for cheap by osmosis.

The setting often aids us: if I tell you of a milky-white small roundish object called X, and say it’s on a necklace, you might think it’s a type of pearl; if I say it’s on a plate, you might think it’s type of rice. But it could have been ivory in the first instance, and salt in the second. You can’t be sure, unless you’re sure of the word’s meaning.

Life is too short and language too multitudinous for us to know every word in every book we pick up. In fact, I am disappointed if I have failed to find a single interesting word in a text: unknown, referential, inventively used, made-up, altered—I am open to being surprised. Banal word-strings leave me with a sense of wasted time.

(In the strictest sense this can hardly occur, so I’ve set some minimum requirements for interesting words.)

In most cases, after having marked up my reading, I am left with numerous circled words which might merit investigation—and only a fraction of which will. That fraction is what I call the quirk words of a book.

Taken as a list, the quirk words can say a lot about a book: they cluster around the subject matter, they gravitate towards borrowings from the language in which the book was written (if not English), they’re dated to match the described era or the era in which the book was written.

This is not particularly surprising. A quirk list of a book varies from person to person, exhibiting the vocabulary deficiency of the reader with respect to that particular book. However, assuming we’re referring to fairly well-rounded readers, most of the words on each quirk list will be relatively rare in English overall (Frequency Bands 1–4 in the OED). These are the subject-related, the regional, the colloquial or the technical words—and each implies a specific application and context, narrowing down the kind of text it may be sensibly found in.

How about an example?

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Poetry of Hyphens: Exotic

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a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat

—E. E. Cummings

When I call my husband’s phrase a nonce-use, he thinks I said nonsense.

/nɒns juːs/ vs /ˈnɒns(ə)ns/

Try saying it quickly to someone who doesn’t expect it and you too are likely to get a blank look. Even the third time in three days.

Every word starts life as a neologism (a newly-coined expression). When a neologism is first uttered it is uttered for the nonce, meaning for a particular purpose or occasion. If it never gets uttered again that word becomes a nonce-word and its singular application a nonce-use.

Internet users—human and not—indulge in volumes of neologising, thereby making it less and less likely that any reasonable two-word combination is truly unique. But that doesn’t mean we’re liable to run out of options any time soon. And even if you’re not being entirely original, context nuances meaning.

In the other posts this week I’ve talked about binding two words together, either as a meld (without a gap) or as a compound (with a hyphen), to create a complex colour expression or a compressed, fresh description. The examples I quoted were meant to be interesting, but fairly reasonable and replicable in kind, if not in beauty and purpose. Now I quote the exotic.

By “exotic” I mean sufficiently interesting that taken as a title, I could write a whole short story based on it. Following each word, I offer the key phrases or sentences describing the ten-second flash-fiction that unspools in my mind.

Any commentary or association is not directly related to the original context but might be distantly affected by it, as I have read the three sources in their entirety.


 

Keri Hulme, The Bone People:
  • fartravelled saltsea ships: Horizon, armada, modern Simbad, oceanliners to the Moon. It turns out this is a newly unearthed painting by Rob Gonsalves. (Similar to the painting on the cover of the Masters of Deception.)

 

  • lovebent fingers: Lovers, mothers, age, fronds of plants, tree branches, lifetime cycle and reuniting with Nature.
  • mothmirth: A swarm of drunken drones, dancing, before being sent into battle. One returns from battle, but mothmirth requires at least two.
  • spiderchild: Silk-weaver born into poor family, spins fortune, climbs nearby cliffs, scene with poor moonlit mooncalf. Moral: a quick climb often leads to a long drop.
  • singing-tired and weeping-drunk people: Wedding of a child-bride to an alien as an alliance between worlds. We’ll find out in two hundred years whether it worked.

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Poetry of Hyphens: Elements

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I reserve a special internal exclamation of joy for words that I have never seen before, but I immediately understand and appreciate. These mostly fall under the heading of compound words or meld words tailored to a particular context.

(Other examples are words that I know in one language and then see for the first time ported into another language—they’re altered, but recognisable; and also word-puns that hit a sweet spot of meaning.)

In my previous post,  I discussed “new” colour descriptions coined by W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, and Keri Hulme, such as cloud-pale, blackred, seashaded, some of which are more, some of which are less far fetched. In the case of the senses (not only vision), it is fairly straightforward to write a recipe for creating sensible adjectives that a reader can enjoy without effort. It is even relatively easy to hone the craft: pick a colour and an animal nuancing that colour (e.g. elephant-grey), pick two colours (e.g. yellow-orange) and so on until you’re happy with your creation.

However, when it comes to more advanced meld-compounds—to coin a word which means either meld or compound word, or a combination, like Cummings’s watersmooth-silver—there are both more options to play with and fewer options that will work.

Take eyes. You can describe them with colours (greengrey), but suppose you want to go beyond that. Then you can also consider physical features (goggly, globular), emotions (gleeful, glamorous, goading), things and people (ghosts, gammoners, gemstones) etc. The options are endless. The price you pay is that the further afield you stretch, the harder it will be to find a reasonable pairing that will be worth the reader’s effort. Metaphors are nice, but they are taxing—this is why meld-compounds become more common and more complex the further you move along the spectrum from genre fiction to literary fiction to poetic prose to verse-novels to poetry.

This is why I picked my examples from poetic sources. (Elsewhere they are scarce and stale.)

As always, reading, reading, reading (of poetry), and tuning one’s inner ear, is probably the quickest way to accumulate ideas and experience that will allow you to hatch your own meld-compounds.

But … If I were to invent an exercise to help the process, this is what it would be:

  1. find examples you like,
  2. expand them into what you think they mean,
  3. write your own sentences of that form,
  4. compress your own sentences into meld-compounds resembling, but distinct from, your original example.

Let’s give it a go.

Four steps. I denote the transfer from one step to the next with an arrow. The first word in italics is taken from the author I’ve indicated; the last is my new meld-compound.

Simple:

  • Yeats: sea-covered stone -> a stone covered by sea -> a shell buried by sand -> sand-buried shell.
  • Cummings: balloonman -> a clown who has/sells balloons -> a clown who wears pantaloons -> pantaloonclown.
  • Hulme: moonshadow -> a shadow cast by the moon -> shade cast by the stars -> starshade.

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Poetry of Hyphens: Colours

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Approximately 90 posts and 90 books ago, in mid-April this year, I wrote about Keri Hulme’s The Bone People—the beautiful, unusual love story that won the Booker Prize for 1985. I titled the article Seabluegreen Eyes to mark my appreciation of her meld words, and, as it turns out, to mark a change in how I viewed English words.

Since then, I have become a hunter of creative and effective meld words (consisting of two or more words that have been merged, like seabluegreen) and compound words (consisting of two or more words joined by hyphens to create new nouns, adjectives, verbs, like Yeats’s red-rose-bordered hem). I seek out those neologisms that bring something genuinely new—beyond syntactic surprise—into a sentence or stanza.

Unsurprisingly, they’re seldom found.

Firstly, there is a modern tendency to avoid hyphenated hybrids: in 2007, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed hyphens from 16,000 words, either by splitting the words (ice-cream became ice cream) or by melding them (bumble bee became bumblebee). But those were old words. The University of Oxford Style Guide from 2014, for example, offers the following advice in general: To make a new compound noun – if it is a recognisable concept, make it one word; if it isn’t, use two words (e.g. it’s webpages not web-pages). I suppose the Guide would prefer to see Hulme’s seabluegreen just like that, rather than as sea-blue-green, but perhaps today it’d tell Yeats to write redrose-bordered hem?

Secondly, at around 200,000 words, some obsolete, some regional, some derivatives, English is fairly rich and nuanced by most standards. One may think, then, that the coining of an inventive compound or meld word—outside of novel applications in science, technology, and trends—is either a sign of a greedy mind unaware of a well-established equivalent, or of a greedy mind aware that none of the well-established equivalents will do. The former type of greed is almost guaranteed by the scarcity of the latter.

Except it isn’t.

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Chain of Reasoning

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This week has been about intention: first, where it starts and are we in control; then, once established, how it can employ paltering to achieve its goals. Today, I bring up the fundamental intention most of us have when we communicate: we want to make sense.

In particular, there is one figure of speech, anadiplosis, that can lend our arguments the forcefulness and validity of truth even when applied to unconnected elements.

Start from the beginning.

Making sense amounts to cogently conveying our arguments to another person. What it means to do so cogently and what is defined as an argument will depend on the situation: explaining why we’re late, discussing whether to purchase a car, or simply telling a story. Whichever the circumstances, our aim is rarely to garble and perplex.

On sentence level, our reasoning is often a long chain of phrases bound together by conjunctions, which, like the accordions of articulated buses, bend and groan under the strain of each turning—but hold. On paragraph level, we rely on unity of subject matter (traditionally a new subject requires a new paragraph), conventions of reasoning (specific to general statements, general statement and examples, logical argument etc), or all of the above formatted in an idiosyncratic, but fairly apparent “flow of thought”, such as bullet points in agendas, dialogue blocks in a book, action sequences, stanzas. Anything.

Occasionally, what we’re saying doesn’t contain any immediate or established sense, but we would like it to appear otherwise (for whatever reason, poetic or pernicious). This is when we can apply anadiplosis, a figure of speech where we begin a sentence with the final word, or any other significant word, from the preceding sentence.

Let’s see it do the job.

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