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?

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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

Words That Come into Leaf

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Is old hat old hat?

A valid question. Old hat is an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is used to indicate that something is old-fashioned, outdated, hackneyed. But has the entry itself become outdated and hackneyed?

You could ask similar questions of other words: has calling something boring become boring, or is talking about clichés now a clichéd activity for a writing blog?

Let me dwell on that last one because, like any writing blog embarking on the topic, I am enticed by the thought that I’ll be able to offer my readers an offbeat experience.

Clichés are the bane of the creative writing (cottage) industry. All aspiring authors realise fairly soon that the phrases first to mind are the phrases first to everyone’s mind. They’re uninteresting in their banality. And to be read, a writer needs to either say something different (in a world where most things have already been said), or say the same things differently (which requires extirpating clichés).

Reaching for unusual words—like extirpate—and combining them with usual words—like cliché—is a common method of seeking out original expression. The problem resurfaces, however, when it becomes apparent that thesauruses are not shortcuts to a rich vocabulary, and that a rich vocabulary in itself is not a shortcut to an ear for elegant phrases (and the discipline to apply said ear consistently). My example works as an eye-stabber, or a comedic hyperbola designed to make a point, but usually an author of fiction isn’t keen to draw attention to word combinations.

(The exceptions are modern meta-fiction or genres dependent on wordplay. For example, Joe Orton’s Loot is a black comedy, so it relies on witty cliché-breaking elements, like the one I marked in bold:

TRUSCOTT. Have you never hear of Truscott? The man who tracked down the limbless girl killer? Or was that sensation before your time?

HAL. Who would kill a limbless girl?

TRUSCOTT. She was the killer.

The darker the humour, the harder it’s weirdness strikes.) Continue reading

Dangerous Word Associations

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Green for spring-growth, blue for water, white for air. Yellow for the sun, black for mourning, white for wedding. You may disagree, depending on culture or idiosyncrasy. But the fact stands: some colours are associated to some objects, gestures, rituals—and the connection is exploited as well as propagated by literature.

And that’s only the colours and their meanings. 

Language itself carries encoded other associative dimensions. For example, in English, words containing a metaphorical up usually stand for positive emotions. For example: buoyancy, bouncing, floating, flying. Conversely, sinking, submerging, descending, falling, are words that contain a metaphorical down and therefore convey negative emotions. (Lakoff and Johnson go into detail in Metaphors We Live by). 

Of course, connotations of words can be bent away from their most common denotations. Take floating, for example, and shade it with gloom:

  • She floated about, giddy with shock.
  • The drugs made her float like a ghost in her own body.
  • Standing over the coffin of his late uncle, the man felt eviscerated, emptied of sense and purpose, and carried along by grief, like a husk barely floating on the surface of a steady, but merciless stream. 

Note that in each case the act of floatation had to be qualified before it could achieve its opposite sense: shock, drugs-ghost, elaborate grief padding. And even then, the first two sentences don’t unequivocally carry negative meaning without further context (perhaps the shock was due to a promotion; perhaps the drugs alleviated debilitating pain). Continue reading

Six Hundred and Twenty-Three

Avond (Evening): The Red Tree, by Piet Mondrian (1908-1910)—I preferred this painting to one of his lozenges.

 

I compiled a list. Take a moment to guess what these words have in common:

leaven, reticulum, neroli oil, raglan, syzygy, lozenge.

Don’t try too hard, it’s not obvious, other than I liked them, they’re nouns, and they sit in a file together with a few dozen others. That’s it. No deeper insight.

Doesn’t that leave you feeling unsatisfied?

Certainly that’s how I feel, when I’m given a selection off someone’s list, but there isn’t a clear designation of why these words even when they’re supposedly a purposeful sample.

It’s like being given a few answers from a survey, but not being told whether those answers are the best, the worst, the most frequent, the most obscure. In which case you might respond: fine just give me all the data from the survey, I’ll read it myself.

Satan in Paradise by Gustave Dore, illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost.

 

One chapter of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon presents a selection of words that John Milton (1608–1674) introduced into the English language. The chapter is written in Forsyth’s signature style—bantering, yet erudite—but at one point he simply lets a list speak for itself:

Milton adored inventing words. When he couldn’t find the right term he just made one up: impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental, and cooking. All Milton’s. When it came to inventive wording, Milton actually invented the word wording.

Fun! But what to make of the list? Is it ordered alphabetically? No. Are its elements the same parts of speech? No. Are the words related to an obvious subject? No. So what then?

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