Building Blocks

 

Balcony, baldachin, baptistry, belfry, buttress… All words that are illustrated in the 1979 Merriam Webster. Flipping through, you’d think architecture starts with the letter b.

 

 

Is there something more fundamental about buildings and their features, than about other areas of human activity? Or are stony frills easier to draw? What makes ball-flower a better subject of illustration than ballerina, ball bearing, or ball fern?

Continue reading

The Seventh Meaning of Bail

The bail of custody, the bail of deliverance. The bail, as an outer wall of a feudal castle. To bail a free spirit is to confine it. A bail as a container used to bail a boat, therefore freeing it from a build up of water on its interior.

That is roughly six meanings of the word bail given in the 1979 Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

The seventh meaning of bail or bale has the largest number of specific senses, which mostly centre on a curved iron part used in everything from wagons and small boats to the trunnions of a cannon to the tympan sheet in a platen printing press. Lastly, though, a bail is:

the usu. arched handle of a kettle pail, or similar vessel.

 

 

As curved handles go, my preference lies with the more mouth-rounding boul or bool, which you’d use to refer to the semicircular grip of a teapot or of a pair of scissors. This word, however, did not merit a picture, so I move on with my exploration of illustrated b-words.

Here are few more obsolescent, if not obsolete, visualised entries (the ones I like to call bygones). Continue reading

Beginning with B

 

Six months ago, in January, this year’s blogging season began for me with the letter A. I looked at the words that the editors had chosen to illustrate, and therefore highlight, in the 1979 Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. 

At six kilograms and a volume of 7650 cubic centimetres, the Dictionary is a slab of language, as hefty as any gravity-based weapon, and as monumental (to my mind) as the stone stele carrying the Code of Hammurabi. Compared literally, it’s sized like the brain of a killer whale.

There are 2666 pages. 

So I better move on to B if I intend to finish my survey within the next, shall we say, ten years. Continue reading

Leafing Through Shade and Shadow

https://unsplash.com/photos/qXgs8u1vqnc

I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may.

—Dracula in Bram Stoker’s eponymous novel.

Shade and shadow. Different or same? Similar? How?

Fowler’s admits they have an almost identical meaning which branches out into a considerable diversity of idiom. Well put, if hardly illuminating. But his mnemonic “clue” to their difference does enlighten.

shade, shadow, nn. The details of this diversity are too many to be catalogued here, but it is a sort of clue to remember that shadow is a piece of shade, related to it as, e.g., pool to water.

So shade fills a shadow to the brim and no farther, and while shadow belongs to a concrete object, shade belongs to the world.

The pool-water analogy is not as trifling as it seems. It’s almost poetic.

Continue reading

The Nectars of Paradise

https://unsplash.com/photos/NaaiDPPlXwk

How from that sapphire fount the crispèd brooks,
Rolling on orient pearl and sands of gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flowers worthy of Paradise …

—John Milton, Paradise Lost (iv. 237–241).

So muses Satan on the nectar flowing through Eden. But how much thought does he give to the adjectives derived therefrom: is that flow nectarean or nectareal, or is it paradisean, or perhaps paradisiacal?

In 1968, Fowler’s opines:

nectar has kept the word-makers busy in search of its adjective; nectareal, nectarean, nectared, nectareous, nectarian, nectariferous, nectarine, nectareous, and nectarous, have all been given a chance. Milton, with nectared, nectarine, and nectarous, keeps clear of the four-syllabled forms in which the accent is drawn away from the significant part; and we might do worse than let him decide for us.

So which one won out?

Continue reading

Euphemism and Euphuism

https://www.wikiart.org/en/konstantin-somov/lady-and-harlequin-1

Konstantin Somov, Lady and Harlequin (1921)

 

“My husband has gone bear hunting,” she says.

***

She knows some very pleasant secrets.
After the secrets, we drink aquavit and I recite a poem …

—Paul Willems, Flight of the Archbishop (translated by Edward Gauvin)

Even within such meagre context, the nature of Countess Kausala’s secrets is evident, despite the euphemism. Fiction is a purveyor supreme of such delicate phrasings precisely because they hide the explicit on the page, so that they may reveal a particular (peculiar?) explicitness at the pleasure of the reader’s imagination. In an erotic context, they’re the equivalent of a veil that gets lifted not by the hand but by the mind, and they’re often the difference between seedy and sublime.

In my previous post, I discussed elegant variation—the laboured avoidance of repetition according to Fowler’s—which itself is a useful euphemism employed playfully, but with the more usual, real-world negative connotation.

Euphemising has been around for longer than Photoshop, so it’s also had longer to earn its infamy.

Indeed, as Fowler’s shows us in this entry from 1968, History has clapped along to a rich linguistic variety show: biological states are known to parade powdered, masked, bedecked in feathers, while societal scourges dress up as sophisticated harlequins.

Continue reading

Elegant Variation

https://www.wikiart.org/en/fyodor-vasilyev/poplars-lit-by-the-sun

Fyodor Vasilyev, Poplars Lit by the Sun

By the house grows a poplar. Each spring its branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s rocket-shape.

Try writing a third sentence about the poplar.

Did your sentence use poplar or tree? Did you feel clumsy having to repeat a prominent word that was already used? Or perhaps you went for an unambiguous application of the pronoun (Its roots dig further down into the gravely earth …)? What would you do for a fourth or fifth sentence?

If you’re wondering why word-variation matters, consider the example without it:

By the house grows a tree. Each spring the tree’s branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s bullet-shape.

Aside from losing the specificity, we’ve lost a solid, well-formed image to the inane hammering of a word.

You usually notice that you’ve referred to something in the same way across multiple consecutive sentences during a rereading of a draft. Then comes the question of substitutes. My example above is fairly prototypical for common nouns: there is at least one other word which can serve you immediately (poplar) and one pronoun you can seize on (it). If those are not enough, then the problem lies with uniform (and therefore uninteresting) sentence structure, and it’s a matter of reworking from the elements up.

Continue reading

Does It Come off?

meg-amey https://unsplash.com/photos/BIsz8XPWOzY

Untidy personal appearance or professionally frayed jeans?

Stench or refined perfume made with whale faecal matter?

Kitsch or baroque extravaganza?

Obsolete or avant-garde?

One question underlies them all:

Does it come off?

If it does, critics manufacture reasons for praise. If it does not, the object under scrutiny is shaded with degrees of doom.

This applies to writing, too. In fact, it’s the reason why self-editing is so difficult: of course this essay-poem-post-book comes off beautifully—I conceived it! No one writing for public consumption believes they’re creating a priori substandard or flawed works.

This is also true on a micro level, when it comes to defining what a (good) sentence is. Must it have a subject and a predicate? Or must it just be a unit of coherent thought?

Fowler’s Dictionary offers ten definitions to illustrate the range of approaches. Number 1 takes the ‘popular approach’.

sentence. What is a sentence?

1. A word or set of words followed by a pause and revealing an intelligible purpose.

It almost sounds like the beginning of a modified Turing test. Note how context sneaks in: purposes are largely intelligible when set off against a particular background.

Number 8 takes the ‘grammarian approach’.

sentence. What is a sentence?

8. A number of words making a complete grammatical structure.

Here the onus is shifted to those willing to define such structures and then grapple with potential exceptions.

Continue reading

It Is True That Words Are Cheap

calum-lewis https://unsplash.com/photos/vA1L1jRTM70

Synonyms are like spices: used in moderation, they enhance the taste; used without moderation, they obscure every flavour. Linguistic gustation differentiates between them under the titles synonymia and tautology. Though, of course, pleasurable variety for one reader is overabundance for another.

Let’s have a saucy example.

“She’s an Encyclopaedia, that woman.”

“Of all the vices, ancient and modern, and very interesting to riffle through.” He started stoking up the fire. “There’s everything in that woman, of the ghoul, the lamia, the Greek courtesan, the Barbarian queen, the low prostitute, the great lady of Rome, with something very partial, very gripping, very corruption of the fin-de-siècle, very Baudlerian, if I might put it like that: a slightly funereal seasoning of lust and quasi-Christian resignation; she’s as subject, a case-study. …”

“For the Salpêtrière, eh—let’s say the word. Another neurotic.”

—Jean Lorrain in The Unknown Woman (translation by Brian Stableford)

How’s that on the digestion?

Lorrain specialises in psychological studies of moral decadence—and there is a separate post on his prose—but for now it suffices to note that to some people the quote may appear overdone. And that’s despite me having spared you the accompanying references to Pasiphae and the bull, Messalina’s promiscuity, and Cleopatra in general.

(Writing tip: Observe that Lorrain prepares the reader for the word-train by having his characters be aware of the upcoming speech figure: they call the woman an encyclopaedia. Clever. It helps believability.)

Continue reading

Every Chance of Going Wrong

leonard-cotte https://unsplash.com/photos/c1Jp-fo53U8

False scent: When the author claims this is lavender, and some readers claim it’s only a picture of lavender.

 

For Christmas I received from my grandfather-in-law a special present: his lovingly kept second edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers). Even though I’d heard of Fowler’s, seen it referenced, and perused extracts from its modern entries, I’d never actually held it my hands—until now!

Despite this copy’s notable sixty years of age, its pages are in impeccable condition. Fowler’s advice, his examples, and inherent relevance show some wear, but nothing that the author’s sense of humour doesn’t amply recompense. I speak of this 1968 edition. The few more flavourful entries that I was able to search for in a 1996 edition were either non-existent or effectively bowdlerised. What’s left nowadays is the bland and spartan, but most pragmatic, dictionary-speak.

I understand why—political correctness and modernisation march rightly on—though I think the earlier editions can still be enjoyed, if not as go-to guides, then as historical documents. Quirky and witty ones at that. Although, I warn you: quirk and wit have this charismatic presence that often wins out over straight-laced teachings.

Continue reading

Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance

kristina-m-m https://unsplash.com/photos/YzJblODa5mA

If you want to write about the flower, don’t write about the shadow just to be different.

Taut, hard, solid, versus slack, soft, amorphous—language.

On the one side is Strunk & White’s Omit needless words which omits needless words in itself (and therefore is a an autological phrase). On the other side would be a paraphrase of the same idea: When you can, cut words that do not contribute to your meaning.

Each density of style—to coin a name for this taut-slack property—may be obviously assessed on the page, but like a lot of stylistic properties it is hard to define objectively.

For me, density is the rate of surprise, word for word and idea for idea. The more easily I can predict what comes next, the looser the text. The more surprised I am by what comes next, the denser the text.

Examples help.

A dense style needn’t be terse or cryptic. E. B. White of the Omit needless words follows his own dictum assiduously, but does not shy away from sentences fifty words long. This is the beginning of Death of a Pig (found in Essays). Note that polysyndeton, the proliferation of and in the quote, may appear deceptively “loose”, but actually introduces a new idea four out of five times (those are in bold).

I spent several days and night in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.

On the other hand, a dense style can be terse, cryptic, and punctuation heavy. Here’s Roland Barthes speaking about The Pleasure of the Text. (Translated from the French by Richard Miller.)

The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing.  Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).

Density isn’t just a property of non-fiction.

Continue reading

Beginning with A

The start of a new year is like the start of spring: you’re full of hope and projects and dreams of summer, albeit due to calendric conventions rather than mating calls and increased sunlight. The newness implies a clean beginning, all metaphorical buds and blossoms, unencumbered by preceding dead leaves. Like the first page of an unread book, or the first sentence of that first page.

But that’s still thinking in generalities.

I wanted to open up this year’s literary adventure with something truly fundamental, yet protean. And what is a more fresh and clean embodiment of potentiality than the first letter of the alphabet?

So I celebrated the 1st of January by flipping through the word-entries under the letter A in a copy of the 1976 Webster’s dictionary.

I would not recommend it as light gym reading: it weights as much as a three-month-old baby (six kilos), it’s markably more oblong and unwieldy than a baby, and is a tad more knowledgable at two-thousand-plus pages. Instead, I would recommend laying the dictionary on a desk, opening it wide, then remaining standing up and looking down at it, from a position of power. Otherwise it may threaten to make you feel diminished.

It’s also an excellent flat paperweight for pressing warped watercolour artworks, crumpled diplomas, or curling old photos—but that’s beside the point!

Here’s a glimpse into the fun I had with the letter A.

We all know the first word of the A section. Can you guess the last, or at least, how close can you get to guessing the last word?

(I tried azalea. Then Azerbaijan. Lastly, azote—which is on the final page of the section, but I couldn’t do any better.)

Continue reading