Synonyms to Spare

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Musing on how to describe the Sun

 

When you’re feeling ill, are you indisposed or infirm? What about lousy, queasy, or woozy? Or are you just a hypochondriac who prefers the word valetudinarian (because it sounds a lot like valedictorian and valerian)?

It matters.

A thesaurus may serve up a whole heap of “synonyms”, words that may be interchangeable in some contexts, but even in off-the-cuff speech you can rarely apply one at random—and if you do, you’re risking rosy cheeks, unintended humour, and hasty corrections.

Luckily, our minds do not work with machine-like precision: only a few more-or-less apt words will present themselves in any given situation. To recall the rest, we have to make a conscious effort, as the writers amongst us do.

But there’s more to synonyms than word-for-word considerations; what about phrase-for-phrase, description-for-description?

The Sun is the golden disk in the sky, the centre of a heliocentric worldview, the star closest to Earth, the giver of light and life, it is the Greek Helios, the Egyptian Ra, it is Romeo’s Juliet,  …  A fun exercise, you might say, but in the end you always need to chose le mot juste.1

Actually, no. Sometimes you can just pile on the synonyms. Here’s Thomas Mann writing about his protagonist Aschenbach in Death in Venice (translation by Michael Henry Heim). How many synonymous descriptions can you count?

Quote:  There he sat, the master, the eminently dignified artist, the author of “A Wretched Figure,” who had rejected bohemian excess and the murky depths in a form of exemplary purity, who had renounced all sympathy for the abyss and reprehended the reprehensible, climbed the heights, and, having transcended his erudition and outgrown all irony, accepted the obligations that come with mass approbation, a man whose fame was official, whose name had been made noble, and whose style schoolboys were exhorted to emulate—there he sat, his eyes closed, with only an occasional, rapidly disappearing sidelong glance, scornful and sheepish, slipping out from under them and a few isolated words issuing from his slack, cosmetically embellished lips, the result of the curious dream logic of his half-slumbering brain.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Gravity of description.

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Life Without Parenthesis …

… would be impossible.

ricardo-gomez-angel https://unsplash.com/search/blue-sky?photo=jNm43zrIN0Q

Dome of flawless blue

 

Day-to-day dialogue would be unhelpful and dull without parenthetical asides, mid-sentence descriptions, reminders, questions, interjections. Written language would lose commas, dashes, and round brackets. Indeed, the news, already written to be as straightforward and stylistically unadorned as possible, would convey only half of the information, and only to the already informed reader. For example, as I am composing this post, the front page sports article of the BBC is about Venus Williams competing at Wimbledon, and the first time a comma appears in the article it signals a parenthetical insertion (italics are mine).

The American, 37, will overtake sister Serena’s record – set when she was 35 at the Australian Open in January – by winning her sixth SW19 title.

Imagine that those two italicised fragments were missing. The first, telling us Venus’s age, is crucial to the article’s lead sentence: Venus Williams could become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era; the second, answers a natural question that arises while reading about Serena’s record, namely, what is the record? (Added Saturday afternoon: Sorry, Venus!)

The language of literature, though, would suffer even further without parentheses. Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence (introduced in my previous post, The Woman and the Painter). The Irish protagonist reflects on life in America; the we refers to him and two of his Irish girlfriends.

Quote: Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia, of homesickness, even? Living there, amid those gentle, paintbox colours, under that dome of flawless blue, was like living in another world, a place out of a story-book. (I used to dream of rain — real, daylong, Irish rain — as if it were something I had been told about but had never seen.) Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It’s true, at times it crossed our minds, or it crossed my mind, at least, that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves.

That is 99 words, of which 54 are parenthetical.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Rich prose: lyrical, colloquial, intimate.

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The Woman and the Painter

Who is she?

Quote: The squalor is what strikes her first of all. Dirt and daubs of paint everywhere, gnawed chicken bones on a smeared plate, a chamber-pot on the floor in the corner. The painter matches the place, with that filthy smock, and those fingernails. He has a drinker’s squashed and pitted nose. She thinks the general smell is bad until she catches a whiff of his breath. She discovers that she is relieved: she had expected someone young, dissolute, threatening, not this pot-bellied old soak. But then he fixes his little wet eyes on her, briefly, with a kind of impersonal intensity, and she flinches, as if caught in a burst of strong light. No one has ever looked at her like this before. So this is what it is to be known! It is almost indecent.

Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, c. 1633–1634

Not the painting in question, but it is the style you should have in mind. This is Rembrandt’s Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, c. 1633–1634.

 

Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidencea fictional book-length confession of a man awaiting trail for bludgeoning a girl to death while attempting to steal a valuable painting. The narrative structure is complex and nonstandard: the protagonist, Freddie, interweaves his recollections of the events leading up to the crime (first person past tense) with his confessional voice addressing you, my lord, the judge (first person present, with second person thrown in occasionally). Or perhaps this is the simplest, most natural narrative structure: that of one person telling another about an event and interjecting commentary with hindsight.

Back to the Quote and the question: who is the woman in Banville’s story?

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Saying it the Long Way

Nobel Prize.png

By: Jonathunder. Medal: Erik Lindberg (1873-1966)

 

Genome editing is creeping out of science-fiction into real life, and the question is who owns the rights to a breakthrough. The CRISPR technology is particularly promising and lucrative, and has led to a legal fight for the patent between MIT and Harvard’s joint venture, Broad Institute, and the University of California, Berkeley. The Quote comes from a recent article in Nature Magazine.

Quote: Although that battle is over, the war rages on. Berkeley has already appealed against the decision; meanwhile, the European Patent Office has ruled in favour of Doudna and Berkeley. Doubtless there are many more patents to milk out of this versatile system. And then there’s the fistful of 66-millimetre gold medals they give out in Stockholm each year.

Why is that last sentence so long? Why didn’t the author just say: And then there’s the Nobel Prize?

What makes the Quote quiver?

A mini puzzle to make the readers feel in-the-know once they’ve worked it out.

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Opium Meets Classical Readers

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How much do you know about opium?

Poppies. Sherlock Holmes. Afghanistan.

What about its “classical” forms?

Morphine. Heroin.

Those came later. Opium meets “classical readers” in the form of laudanum, a 10% tincture of opium, discovered in the sixteenth century and recommended as a panacea during the first two hundred years of its existence.

(Not to be confused with ladanum or labdanum, which is made from rockrose, another flower, and which crops up in perfumes.)

The topic’s locus classicus is Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-EaterIt was meant as a cautionary tale of opium abuse, although the first part of the book is dedicated to justifying De Quincey’s contact with the drug and the second part to lauding its restorative qualities (before reaching the third, cautionary part). Good intentions aside, today’s post focuses on a piece of writing taken from the autobiographical section.

Quote: This person was a young woman, and one of that unhappy class who subsist upon wages of prostitution. I feel no shame, nor have any reason to feel it, in avowing that I was then on familiar and friendly terms with many women in that unfortunate condition. The reader needs neither smile at this avowal nor frown; for, not to remind my classical readers of the old Latin proverb, “Sine cerere,” &c., it may well be supposed that in the existing state of my purse my connection with such women could not have been an impure one.

De Quincey wants us to believe him. He asserts his honesty in the matter, then he invokes a proverb to testify in his favour: his pecuniary difficulties must imply his chaste behaviour.

The problem with the Quote is that classical readers are rare in modern times.

What would have made the Quote quiver for the classical reader?

Familiarity with a trusted source.

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Apple’s Metalepsis

 

It is entirely plausible that some people have not heard of Apple, so let me just say that Apple Inc. is a forty-one-year-old technology company from California that designs computers, tablets, phones, and that names them MacBooks, iPads, iPhones. Theirs is the logo that looks like Snow White had a go at it.

Today’s Quote is Apple’s tagline for their upcoming operating system, iOS 11.

Quote: 

iOS 11
A giant step for iPhone.
A monumental leap for iPad.

A bit familiar, a bit grand, a bit silly. Let’s see why.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Resonance.
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Intake Valves of the Soul: Quirks and Perks

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I do not often imagine the soul as a machine, but a good metaphor expands the imagination.

Quote: This was when Geryon liked to plan / his autobiography, in that blurred state / between awake and asleep when too many intake valves are open in the soul. / Like the terrestrial crust of the earth / which is proportionally ten times thinner than an eggshell, the skin of the soul / is a miracle of mutual pressures.

— Anne Carson,  Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse

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In the Eye of the Guinea Pig

 

It’s an old expression.

Before-Christ old.

Lots of people have said it.

Shakespeare has said it: Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye (Love’s Labour’s Lost).

You probably know it as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

I know it as T-shirt slogan and the vision of the credits from the James Bond film, GoldenEye, with Tina Turner singing the soundtrack in the background (speaking of farfetched memory and meaning overlay).

In More Mileage for Your Metaphorical MoneyI gave a few clichés a new polish. Today, I look at Anne Carson‘s version of what is to be found in the eye of the beholder; her Quote isn’t as snazzy, but in some grotesque way it is memorable. Towards the end of Autobiography of Red the protagonist, Geyron, attends a meal where guinea pigs are served … as food. He does not eat the poor cooked beast on his plate (it’s a she, we’re told). Geyron and his friends get up to leave.

Quote: In the cooling left eye of the guinea pig / they all stand reflected / pulling out their chairs and shaking hands. The eye empties.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Unadorned, cinematic detail.

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More Mileage for Your Metaphorical Money

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Where the metaphorical seas lap the literal sands of language, idioms are born. Some of them are then picked up, like pebbles, to be tossed around, transmitting meaning and merriment. Some get dropped, others get so smoothed out by time, tongues, and tortuous trajectories, that they’re labeled clichés.

Does that mean that a cliché is linguistically dead in the water and beyond the pale? That everyone is sick and tired of it? That you run the risk of boring someone stiff if you use it? Not necessarily. There are ways and means. Let’s see a demonstration (emphasis is mine).

Quote: Stories without [an implicit framework] go unread; stories with it are capable of knocking the socks off someone who’s barefoot.

This is from Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Her implicit framework is what Jorge Luis Borges called algebra in his observation that art is fire plus algebra. (How she interprets this algebra-framework is the essence of her book.)

What makes the Quote quiver?

Cute turn of a turn of phrase.

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Big Silver Pin

markus-kauppinen https://unsplash.com/search/pin?photo=2W0feTQOor0

If there’s no silver, settle for gold

Quote: 

It happened by accident. Geryon’s grandmother came to visit and fell off the bus. / The doctors put her together again with a big silver pin. / Then she and her pin had to lie still in Geryon’s room / for many months.

Today’s Quote from Anne Carson‘s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse could also have been an excerpt from a prose piece. (I talked about the structure of her novel in verse in Dark Smell of Velvet)

A few observations without knowing any context:

  • Four sentences, four (or more) facts.
  • The tone is emotionless, straightforward.
  • There is an awkward, creepy feeling between the lines.

A bit of context explains some of the above: Geryon is a small boy, who is also a red-winged monster; the close third person narrator is saying why Geryon had to move out of his room and into his brother’s. The Quote is heavily filtered through this unusual boy’s mind, with the purpose of not only providing the back story, but more importantly, providing insight into his worldview.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Figurative language delivered as fact.

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