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.
W.B. Yeats, Selected Poems:
- plummet-measured face: A Kandinsky Composition comes to life.
- sea-starved, hungry sea: The sea goes mad and seeks out therapy. At the first session it’s asked to talk about the primordial ocean.
- vapour-turbaned sleep: Sleep sits for Giuseppe Arcimboldo: instead of fruit or vegetables or books the portrait is made up of differently-sized pillows, duvets, and other bedding. We learn that Sleep wears a turban of vapour and this is where he stores all of our dreams. Sleep is unhappy with the portrait, destroys it. We never learn what Sleep actually looks like, other than he is a she.
- days are dragon-ridden: Once the era of dragons had passed, they were turned into clouds. That is why cloudy days weigh heavily on the more sensitive souls. That is why children see shapes in the clouds.
- mirror-resembling dream: A dream in which a man falls in love with a beautiful person. Upon waking the man sees himself in the mirror and realises that person was he. The lake near his house has a mirror-resembling surface and its banks are covered with unique specimens of narcissi.
E. E. Cummings’s, 100 Selected Poems:
- onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat: Autistic mathematician taught by pigeons how to fly. Learns.
- hun-dred-mil-lion-oth-ers: Prisoner studies ants. Thinks: caterpillar, train, chain of planets, chain of universes, unending. Goes insane.
- gr(oo)ving: Double exhaust, loud music, party for monster trucks. Humans are consumed.
- squirm-of-frightened shy: Blind orphan meets his new family, loves them, nothing bad happens. Sensation: a happy ending. Unimaginable letdown. Every reader thinks they missed a subtle point.
- leapandswooping: Ice-skater in fluid motion on live TV gradually transforms into a graceful predator bird, picks up her partner and takes him home to feed her chicks. Kafkaesque.
- penguinsoul: Music, pianist, formal dress, stumbles, frigid fingers, flashbacks of his penguin life. His next concert is in the Antarctic.
- everyanything: The only sensible word Buridan’s ass manages to write in his autobiography, Between Two Haystacks, before he dies of hunger.
- trembling-firm-smooth ness: Jelly in an earthquake, survives, gets ravaged by rain while waiting to be rescued amongst the ruins.
- spaceful time: Linguist discovers how to sneak into a moment between will be and was, and lives there in the present tense, then becomes the present tense.
- forevering snow: Hell freezes over, snow is granted eternal life. Snow is ecstatic until it discovers that demons don’t trim their toenails.
- internalexpanding: A Christmas meal gone wrong, everyone at the table pops. Everyone decides to eat less next year.
- externalcontracting: Exposition of how contracting the boundary of a planar disk yields a sphere, followed by three-dimensional analogue happening in real life: contraction of Earth’s crust kills everyone but a few miners and underground dwellers who form a new society.
- dollarbringing virgins: A group of boys become priests and earn lots of money. Just kidding, they join politics and find out that dollarbringing virgins is not only an oxymoron but also an impossibility: you can only be one or the other.
- fifteenthrate ideas: most of the above.
There. Twenty-three story ideas—a whole anthology’s worth. I even have a title for it: Fifteenthrate Ideas.