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:
- find examples you like,
- expand them into what you think they mean,
- write your own sentences of that form,
- 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.
- 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.
- Yeats: bell-mounted churches -> churches that have bells mounted on them -> roofs that have gargoyles infesting them -> gargoyle-infested roofs.
- Cummings: fleaproof earwarmers -> ear warmers that fleas can’t get into -> candy jars that children can’t get into -> childproof candyjars.
- Hulme: freshbroken -> something you’ve just (freshly) broken -> something you’ve mended (a long time ago) -> longmended.
- Yeats: heart-smitten -> someone (who’s heart) is smitten -> someone (who’s mind) is frazzled -> mind-frazzled.
- Cummings: when the world is puddle-wonderful -> when you are a child full of wonder splashing about in puddles -> when you are a carefree child in the middle of summer -> when the world is summer-carefree.
- Hulme: chancemet friend -> a friend that you met by chance -> a friend that was torn (from you) by fate -> fatetorn friend.
Ha, I just discovered how much fun that is!
If you try it yourself on any of the words below, I’d be curious to hear what you came up with.
What follows is a selection of the most striking and beautiful examples I could extract from three sources: W.B. Yeats’s Selected Poems (he was partial to a good compound word), E. E. Cummings’s 100 Selected Poems (he specialised in melds, compounds and word with everyotherkindofpunctation or lack thereof), and Keri Hulme’s The Bone People (she prefers her melds, but strays to the occasional compound). In Poetry of Hyphens: Colours, I focused on colour-words; here I focus on descriptions of people, intangibles, and objects, with slightly different emphasis depending on the apparent proclivities of the authors for certain word-groups.
- dream-awakened eyes
- her eyes are laughter-lit
- passion-dimmed eyes
- dew-blanched horns
- dew-cumbered skies
- dew-dropping hours of the night
- sea-covered stone
- dancing silver-sandalled on the sea
- rock-bread, sea-borne bird
- storm-beaten cottages
- storm-scattered intricacy
- soft star-flame
- star-laden sky
- moth-like stars
bandy-leggèd, best-endowed, frenzy-struck, haughtier-headed, leaf-crowned dancer, much-toil wet, rage-driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop, self-delighting, self-appeasing, self-affrighting, well-belovèd’s hair, wine-stained wanderers
- deep-sworn vow
- as weary-hearted as that hollow moon
- out-worn heart, in a time out-worn
- dream-heavy hour
- bell-mounted churches
- a branch soft-shining with bells
- ever-singing leaves
- long fled the foam-flakes around me
- lute-thronged angelic door
- new-mown hay
- new-washed fleece
- night-walkers’ song
- rain-beaten stones
- red-rose-bordered hem
- web-heaped floor
- world-forgotten isle
of people: balloonman, rainman, girlboys, boygirls, eddieandbill
of nature: when the world is puddle-wonderful
of beauty: eyes [like] big love-crumbs, mindheart
of negation: unanimal mankind, undeath, undoom, unhearts, unlives, unminds, unselves
of objects: fleaproof earwarmers, hatracks, peechtrees, trouserfly, wideflung friend (of a hand)
of people and their parts: beerbellied, wellbellied, thickhipped, slowfooted, spreadfingered, half-wonderment, half-weariness of his face, upbent
of nature: cloudbank, moonshadow, moonshimmer hair, skywatching (an actual word!), sunfire, stormbattered, fernfronds, dew-wet grass, prayer-flowers, cricklecricklecrickle (onomatopoeia)
of intangibles: brandnew, chancemet friend (chance-met is mentioned in the OED as a compound, but not as a meld), freshbroken, lovestrong, self-blankness
of objects: roofbeams, ghostlights, green-armoured
I’d have to go with Cummings’s eyes that are big love-crumbs. (Although I see the word’s top modern meaning is rather different to my naïve romantic notions—do not google if you wish not to be disillusioned.)
A close second is his when the world is puddle-wonderful and Yeats’s dancing silver-sandalled on the sea.