A Sense of Congruity

“Eat your fruitals and vegetals”
Said my mother
Never

As a Curious Word devotee, every so often I like to consult H.W. Fowler for a good hand-slapping, (as it were). Since ‘vegetal’ is considered, as a word, ‘obsolete’, an ‘archaism’, and no one can slice and dice those as effectively as Fowler does in his handbook of Modern English Usage, let’s see what he has to say on the subject.

Archaism’

…'[An archaism] is dangerous except in the hands of an experienced writer who can trust his sense of congruity; archaic words thrust into a commonplace context to redeem its ordinariness are an abomination.’

Dangerous like this vegetal projectile, being hurled at Benjamin Bunny? image027-thumbnail

There you have it, folks. Vegetals are dangerous. An abomination. As a word, that is. What Fowler would have thought of today’s veg, veggie, and emojis to represent the concept of vegetable, we can only guess, but we could likely head over to his category of Incongruous Vocabulary for a good idea.

It is interesting to note the good H.W. includes words as ‘belike’…. ‘albeit’…. and ‘breakfast’, in his listing of abominative, puerilistic, and innovatively deplorable archaisms.

I love this book, and always pick up a copy when I see one. They make great gifts for word-minded friends. And need I add, my overly officious spell check has been affectionately dubbed ‘Fowler‘.

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more fruitals than vegetals here, but I liked the colors

 

Hyperbole, Deconstructed

A writer’s toolbox needs to be diverse, and hyperbole can have a valuable place there. But it is one of those tools—like that fetchingly useful ‘ratcheting socket wrench, with indexable sockets’ that can feel a bit clumsy in the hand. We take it out for special needs, have difficulty pronouncing it, and use it rarely. (Never would we hit anyone over the head with it.)

Use of hyperbole creates an exaggerated effect. It comes from a Greek word that means, in essence, an over-scattering of seed. (Overkill might be modern usage.)

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It is meant to be a teaching or memorization aid, and should serve to fix the desired object—scene, character, bit of wisdom— in the reader’s mind.

My current reading interest is the genre known as the ‘English country house novel’. Recently, while reading the article by Lev Grossman on the topic, I came across his brilliant use of hyperbole:

‘It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that the English country house novel is currently being revived; there certainly are a lot of them right now, but as far as I can tell it never expired in the first place. You could walk from here back to the 18th century stepping only on English country house novels and never get your feet wet …’

An effective and engaging use of hyperbole; one that fixed his point firmly in my mind.

The antithesis to hyperbole can be found in one simple sentence. Another example of how the right use of words, in this case the sparing use, can fix a scene, character, or idea in one’s mind. Margery Sharp is a master at scene setting and character sketching with just a few strokes of crisp, spare prose.

“Miriam Oleson entered. That was what she had been trained to do at her finishing school on the Boulevard St. Germain, and she never forgot.”  —Rhododendron Pie, by Margery Sharp

We learn so much about Miriam Oleson from this simple strand of words. Like hyperbole, deconstructed.

Hyperbole…use it in a sentence…or perhaps a haiku?

Hyperbole begs:
“Let’s fly to the moon and seize
some string theory cheese…”

Okay, I’ll put my ratcheting sock wrench with indexable sockets back in the toolbox now.

Hyperbole


More about the novels of Margery Sharp here.

Wise November

Wise you are
November
your leafy drifts
cluster at the base

of endless trees
they mark where time
has passed
and will pass again 

This silken canopy
you, November

will change into
a dark elixir
falling once again
to another dimension

where roots can draw strength
from your richness
Ah November sky
you have opened
new portals onto mystery

it is at your strong bidding that I see
( your steely skies insistent)

these branching traceries
of stark silhouette
promise green days and renewal 

like breezes, a sweet return 
to where now I stand
yearning, 
gazing up
at November
and wisdom


 

In Search of Wild Chrysanthemums

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Ever since reading Wang Chien’s hauntingly lovely poem to the wild chrysanthemum, I determined I must see this elusive treasure  for myself.

The wild chrysanthemum
Late, its enchanting color springs out from the wild hedge,
Its cool fragrance clings to the autumn water.  

Wang Chien, T’ang Dynasty

November is a time of unusual color changes, increasingly cool nights, and the complete disappearance of something so elusive as a wild chrysanthemum.

This color change, these yellowing-to-brown tones, is a condition as much as a color, and one that used to be referred to as  ‘sear‘, or archaic, ‘sere‘. I write more about this November color palette—one that I particularly love, but it is a bittersweet love—in The Seasonal Mr. Rochester. (note: it is also a color that makes a lovely wool scarf; also note that there could be a fascinating etymological link between sincere and sere but I have not had enough coffee, yet…)

This picture of one of our local wetlands is from a recent walk, in which I set out with a sincere desire of finding, and photographing, wild chrysanthemums.

Sadly, however earnest my efforts, there are no wild chrysanthemums to be found on my various treks. I did find a few straggling fall asters. Related in species, not in poetic aspect.

Autumn asters, H.E. Bates

Still, the haunting images of enchanting color, the earnest pursuit of a glimpse of wild hedge, with a cool fragrance wafting up from autumn water, was sweet in itself.

For that, I can thank the elusive wild chrysanthemum.

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Poetry reference taken from Flower Cookery–The Art of Cooking With Flowers, by Mary MacNichol; worth finding if you can…copies of this book are about as elusive as wild chrysanthemums.

Sincere

Novel, But Not Original

 

We all know what ‘original recipe’ means. It means a recipe that has been passed down from someone’s momma to someone’s momma until it passed to someone’s son who figured out how to patent it and start a chain of fast food restaurants.bookshop

A recipe involves a formula, a pattern, which would appear to contradict the idea we have formed of ‘original’.

But is there an original pattern for a novel? Is there even an original novel, widely recognized as such, from which sprang the seminal pattern?

These are the sorts of things I wonder about before my life gets more orderly with a plate of scrambled eggs.

To unlock, in a scholarly way, the mysteries of a term such as ‘original novel’, that would appear to be both contradictory and redundant at the same time, is a question I would defer to James Harbeck of sesquiotica, a brilliant blog on word origins. A professional editor, the creator of ‘word tasting notes’ he even manages to make the subject entertaining.

And to unlock the the mystery of what actually qualifies as ‘the original novel’, as in the first novel ever written, you would soon find yourself in a morass of conflicting opinions and ideas that would take you everywhere from The Sumerian Shakespeare to eighteenth century political satire.

In the meantime, my eggs are getting cold, so…Curious Word devotees, here you go:

Original: Comes from the word we know as orient, oriental, meaning East. To the ancients, the east was the source—the origin—of both light and life.

FullMoon

In an interesting connection to our word novel—novel in the modern sense of a structured story with written words—we have the ancient Hebrew word qdm, which also meant east, or ancient.

Who was Cadmus, according to the Greeks? The originator of their alphabet and writing. The original writer, as such.

From wiki:

 

‘Cadmus’ name is of uncertain etymology. It has been connected to Semitic qdm “the east” and Greek kekasmai (<*kekadmai) “to shine”.

Did our original writer write novels?

Novel: comes originally from ‘nova’ meaning new star. This provides an interesting link to the Greek word above, kekasmai, ‘to shine’.

Our current use of it, however, comes via Latin, from the word nouus, and nouellus, and finally to novella, a short or middle length story…which the English took and shortened novella into novel and increased the length of the story. Funny how they did that.

All of this still keeping the meaning of ‘something new’, something born.

Linked to the ancient origin of novel is ‘novelty’, and this is, as some argue, why the novel has never been given proper credence as an art form. The Greeks dismissed it as such, giving a Muse to Poetry, Music, Art, and the like. To the novel there has been given no star-like brilliance.

Novelists still are aching to shine.

Margaret Kennedy, in her fascinating little diatribe on the subject of novels, called The Outlaws on Parnassus, writes:img_6383

‘There is…very little demand for genuine criticism of the novel. Expert advice in this field is not felt to be necessary. It is a very easy kind of book to read. The other arts strike the average man as being much more mysterious, and as making more strenuous demands upon him. When delighted by poetry, music, or painting he is inclined to ask why he should be thus affected. He is aware of some complicated process of statement and response. Endeavouring to understand this experience he turns to critical comment for elucidation. He is less likely to feel all this when he enjoys a novel; that pleasure strikes him as simple, natural, and familiar. He cannot remember a time when he did not enjoy stories; his pleasure has blossomed from very early roots and from the days when his mother used to tell him about The Three Bears at bed-time. He has been so long and so well acquainted with this kind of satisfaction that, when he encounters it as an adult in an expanded form, he takes his response for granted, as he did as a child.’

Therefore the origin of story-telling, and eventual novel writing…is as old as the first baby being rocked at a cradle. Something new, something born…

In other words, the original novel came from someone’s momma. (Thanks, mom.)