Archives For Vocabulary

csl sayersCan you imagine receiving a compliment like this from C.S. Lewis? Your work “even enlarged my vocabulary.”

Shocking . . . but another writer did receive that rare praise.

In 1954, Lewis wrote a lengthy letter to his friend Dorothy Sayers, praising her recent publication of Introductory Papers on Dante. Lewis’ opening sentence reveals his delight. “Your Introductory Papers have given me a regular feast.”

Lewis specifically comments on a number of insights he found particularly worthwhile. And remember, Lewis was an expert on Dante in his own right.

One evidence that Lewis’ praise is sincere, and not mere flattery, comes in his comment that “every essay and nearly every page enriched me.” Not every page, mind you, but very nearly every one of them.

Offering Gentle Criticism

Consistent with the nature of friendly literary criticism (like one receives in a healthy writers group), Lewis does offer some specific advice on how to strengthen a specific point that he regards as overemphasized. In this case it relates to a classical Latin phrase.

At one point Lewis expresses awe about a portion of the book, and then immediately proceeds to make an enjoyable comment about the limitations of the English language.

P. 52 is a blaze of (just) splendour. (Drat our homophones: by just I don’t mean ‘nothing but,’ I mean ‘justified,’ ‘veracious.’)

Toward the close of his letter, Lewis raises a profound notion about our perception of humor. He cautions Sayers, in her interpretation of Dante’s Comedy, not to read it directly through the lens of our own day. “I’ve a feeling that in handling particular passages you are too certain that whatever is comic to us was, and was meant to be, comic at the time.” He continues:

Because, as any one can see even from the old Punches,* nothing changes so quickly as the sense of humour: so that in reading any old book there is nothing we are less sure of than which places wd. welcome a smile. And oughtn’t we to start by a recognition that our generation (yours & mine) was quite abnormally ‘tickle o’ the sere’** (already the young people are less so).

A Poetic Postscript

Lewis ends his letter to Sayers with some advice for her subsequent work with Dante. He courteously writes, “Don’t give me the next set, I’ll buy it.”

Then he makes a suggestion to protect her from the spurious criticisms of ignorant literary critics. (Note that he doesn’t use the choice descriptive in a vulgar sense common today, but in more classical sense of extreme foolishness.)

And do put in an essay on D. as ‘poet’ in the old, narrowest sense—his sheer poeticalness. Otherwise we shall have some ass saying that because you like so many other qualities, you are oblivious to that.

_____

* Punch Magazine was published in England until 1992. The 1881 image below is inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and applied to the violence in Ireland.

** Easily made to laugh. From Hamlet: “The clown shall makes those laugh whose lungs are tickle o’ the sere.” The seare, or sere, was part of the trigger of old matchlock guns, so arranged that the slightest movement would make the gun discharge. Lungs, then, “tickle o’ the sere,” are those easily moved to laughter.

punch dante

Thesaurus Club

April 24, 2014 — 12 Comments

thesaurus club“The first rule is: If this is your first night at Thesaurus Club, you have to synonymize!”

“The second rule of Thesaurus Club is: You don’t talk about, mention, comment on, allude to, speak of, discuss, converse about, whisper of, gossip about, or chat or chinwag about Thesaurus Club!”

Only a true logophile (word lover) could enjoy the scene described above . . . but if you’re as captivated as I am by wordplay, you may appreciate the creativity. Of course, understanding the reference to the film Fight Club reveals more clearly its wit.

Words are fun to play with.

Although we tend to think of cartoonists as artists, the fact is they are usually just as skillful in their artistry with words. (The successful ones, at least.)

Not long ago I saw a single panel cartoon showing a seated man in a suit addressing a secretary, steno pad in hand. Nothing funny about the picture, of course, but the caption said, “One more thing: Remember to introduce me as a lawyer, not a liar.” Nice.

Even funnier if you think about synonyms. (No offense intended to Mere Inkling’s readers who are attorneys.)

Words are powerful. But they are also finite. C.S. Lewis noted their limits in an essay entitled “Prudery and Philology.”

We are sometimes told that everything in the world can come into literature. This is perhaps true in some sense. But it is a dangerous truth unless we balance it with the statement that nothing can go into literature except words, or (if you prefer) that nothing can go in except by becoming words. And words, like every other medium, have their own proper powers and limitations.

Lewis was quite sensitive to the abuse of language. It doesn’t require a graduate degree to know what he would think of today’s word processing programs with their built in thesauri.

No doubt these fingertip resources have contributed immensely to the modern proclivity of many writers to write artificial prose. I’m confident Lewis would have mourned their creation.

That’s precisely why joining the Thesaurus Club would be so daunting. There you stand, stripped of your ever-present literary crutches, proving just what you’re made of. Will you find victory (triumph, success) or will you taste defeat (downfall, failure)?

_____

I wish I could take credit for the concept at the top of this page, but I stumbled upon the notion elsewhere and modified it for Mere Inkling. (I did make the graphic, though.)

Unintentional Acrostics

March 10, 2014 — 14 Comments

letterSome writers sweat to find precisely the right word, the one that expresses the unique meaning and tone we seek to convey. We often fail, as the reference to perspiration in my first sentence readily reveals. A recent observation from the executive editor of First Things  provides me with another crippling concern.

“This for those interested in how magazines work. My son Christopher pointed out that the initial capital letters on a two-page spread . . . spelled “a wit.” Which was kind of nice. Accidental, but nice. And then I thought: Suppose some day we accidentally spelled out a rude four-letter word? Now, after the magazine is laid out, one of the junior fellows reads through the magazine to make sure we haven’t accidentally made a word that will embarrass us. It’s a small thing, and probably paranoid, but here paranoia equals prudence.”

Unless each writer maintains constant vigilance, since most of us don’t have “junior fellows” to assign the duty, it’s quite possible for unintentional acrostics to slip into our work. Like the seamen in the crow’s nest of the Titanic—I just watched a new documentary on the subject last night—we can easily miss the veiled iceberg which threatens to sink our best effort.

Prone as we are to playing with the depths of individual words, we are normally sensitive to the fact more than 90% of a word’s value in a particular context may lie beneath the surface. That does not mean, however, that we always see the larger picture.

It is not uncommon for a writer to become almost paralyzed while composing something, when the ideal word continues to elude us. It is almost “literally” painful to have to settle for a substitute, when we suspect the perfect word is floating somewhere just beyond our reach.

Dodging mundane words is not easy. They are common, in part at least, because they are so simple and easy to plug into sentences. And so, we “go” to the store, when we might just as easily “drive,” “walk,” “ride,” or even “hitchhike.” A movie is described as “good,” when readers would value a vivid word, such as, “suspenseful,” “hilarious,” “complex,” “moving,” or even “groundbreaking.”

Reflections on the Psalms, one of C.S. Lewis’ gems, explores the beauty of the Bible’s hymnal. “The Psalms,” he notes, “are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.” Because of this, they have nourished the worship lives of Jew and Christian alike, for thousands of years.

Even without a theological education, Lewis offers great insight into the Psalms. “I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.” He candidly discusses passages he initially found difficult to embrace, as well as those which soar to spiritual and poetic heights. The following comes from his discussion of Psalm 119, which is skillfully composed around an alphabetic acrostic.

“As everyone knows, the Psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection. And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point of view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all. The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statutes, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections—which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet. . . . this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.”

Done like embroidery, stitch by stitch.” Many writers, I suspect, will appreciate that description. While we are sometimes forced to throw something together in a rush, the patchwork results offend our sensitivities.

Even when writing rather pedestrian things like much of our email correspondence, most writers seek to employ lively verbiage. It’s a valuable exercise, after all, to consider the pace of all of our work, and not simply those words we hope to see “published.” And, having written something worth reading, there is one more consideration.

Reviewing what we have written is well worth the time required. And, as Editor David Mills suggested in First Things, our examination should include any unintentional acrostics we may have created. After all, no respectable writer would ever wish to, even accidentally, offend their readers.

Vampire Poetry

February 19, 2014 — 13 Comments

vpoetryI was afraid to read it. I had just listened to the poem during an online newscast, and it included it so many jarring and disturbing images that I thought I must have misheard it.

Then again, it was written by a successful Hollywood star, so it certainly must be worthy of publication.

So, motivated by two impulses, I sought out the text. My first reason was that I did not wish to misjudge the writer, based on my shallow initial impression. The second was that I really did want to discover if it was as odd as I perceived it to be.

It is from the heart and pen of Kristen Stewart, who played the leading role in the Twilight series. It is described as a “love poem,” which is helpful to know in advance . . . since that might not be how one might inadvisably approach it.

I reared digital moonlight

You read its clock, scrawled neon across that black

Kismetly . . . ubiquitously crest fallen

Thrown down to strafe your foothills

. . . I’ll suck the bones pretty.

Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps

Spray painted everything known to man,

Stream rushed through and all out into

Something Whilst the crackling stare down sun snuck

Through our windows boarded up

He hit your flint face and it sparked.

And I bellowed and you parked

We reached Marfa.

One honest day up on this freedom pole

Devils not done digging

He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle

And this pining erosion is getting dust in

My eyes

And I’m drunk on your morsels

And so I look down the line

Your every twitch hand drum salute

Salutes mine . . .

Overwhelming. I was actually tempted to use the word “pretentious,” until I read the following note about the magazine interview during which she shared the verse.

Before reading the poem, Kristen told the mag, “I don’t want to sound so f—ing utterly pretentious…but after I write something, I go, ‘Holy f—, that’s crazy.’ It’s the same thing with acting: If I do a good scene, I’m always like, ‘Whoa, that’s really dope.’”

After seeing that comment, with its sadly limited vocabulary, I can picture her composing her poetry dictionary and thesaurus in hand.

The poem’s significance takes a moment to sink into one’s mind . . . even if our brains are not clouded by being drunk on someone’s morsels. The poem is, in fact, so rich in meaning that it required two distinct titles: “Freedom Pole” and “My Heart is a Wiffle Ball.”

I dabble in poetry, but don’t consider myself a poet. So, I’m probably not the one to judge.

I would be curious to know what the newest addition to the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey would think of Stewart’s work. C.S. Lewis wrote poetry himself, of course, although he is much better known for his other literary contributions.

In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis describes the poetry of Samuel Daniel. “Though Daniel’s poetry is often uninspired, sometimes obscure, and not seldom simply bad, he has two strong claims on our respect.” I wonder if Lewis’ gracious nature might lead him to discern two strengths in Stewart’s poetic corpus.

In contrast to the previous evaluation, Lewis considered the poetry of Dante Alighieri to be masterful. In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis writes:

I think Dante’s poetry, on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read: yet when it is at its highest pitch of excellence, I hardly feel that Dante has very much to do. . . . I draw the conclusion that the highest reach of the whole poetic art turns out to be a kind of abdication, and is attained when the whole image of the world the poet sees has entered so deeply into his mind that henceforth he has only to get himself out of the way, to let the seas roll and the mountains shake their leaves or the light shine and the spheres revolve, and all this will be poetry, not things you write poetry about.

Dare I confess that after Dante even Shakespeare seems to me a little factitious? It almost sounds as if he were “just making it up.” But one cannot feel that about Dante even when one has stopped reading him.

That’s the sort of verse that poets should always strive for—“the highest reach of the whole poetic art [which] turns out to be a kind of abdication.” Word dabblers such as myself are unlikely to ever attain such a lofty goal.

It may be that Stewart has kismetly attained these heights. But then again, perhaps she still has a little farther to travel before she reaches Marfa.

Obstreperous Language

September 15, 2013 — 12 Comments

obstreperous

© Stella Belikiewicz and used by permission.

Despite my many shortcomings, I do “pride” myself on possessing a rather considerable vocabulary. My 97th percentile score of the GRE* reinforced my impression that I knew a lot about words.

One technique which has increased my vocabulary is to never let an unknown word pass by without making an effort to learn its meaning. This is simple when I’m working at the computer. If I’m unsure of a definition, I immediately look it up in an online dictionary such as this.

Very rarely do I “guess” at a meaning, based upon its context. This mainly occurs if I’m listening to the radio while I’m driving, and I don’t have recourse to a dictionary. Even then I try to impress the new word on my memory so that I can research it when I return home.

The word in this column’s title motivated me to discuss the importance of accurately understanding word definitions. When I encountered “obstreperous,” it rang vague bells of recollection. And, I was able to discern the word’s general meaning from the context of the article. While some readers of Mere Inkling are already familiar with its meaning—and perhaps use it in daily conversations—allow me to share the context in which I encountered it.

I was reading an article in a military journal about the “battle over ballistic missiles” which was fought inside the Air Force as the manned-bombers-only mindset had to be breached so the United States could advance into the ICBM age. The champions of the two positions were two successive Air Force Chiefs of Staff, Thomas White and Curtis LeMay.

White struggled with how to control the obstreperous LeMay. He knew he didn’t have the political power to force LeMay out, nor could he outwait his [Strategic Air Command] chief. LeMay received his fourth star in 1951 at age 44, which made him the youngest four-star U.S. general since Ulysses S. Grant.**

I’m rarely content with possessing an amorphous definition of a word, so I looked it up. My general impressions of its meaning were confirmed, and I added another word to my personal vocabulary. (The fact that I may never use it beyond its appearance in this post is irrelevant.) Here’s the dictionary entry:

ob·strep·er·ous [uhb-strep-er-uhs]

adjective

1. resisting control or restraint in a difficult manner; unruly.

2. noisy, clamorous, or boisterous: obstreperous children.

Parents give their children a precious gift by encouraging the growth of their own vocabularies. In the pre-computer days, we had a dictionary not far away when we had dinner, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to find its way to the table during our conversations.

Consciously adding new words to our vocabulary is a skill especially vital to writers.

C.S. Lewis wrote about how common usage of familiar words requires no contextual definition. However, he warns of the danger of accepting subjective “definitions” offered outside the context of credible dictionaries.

When we leave the dictionaries we must view all definitions with grave distrust. It is the greatest simplicity in the world to suppose that when, say, Dryden defines wit or Arnold defines poetry, we can use their definition as evidence of what the word really meant when they wrote.

The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism. Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so. . . .

The word wit will illustrate this. We . . . find old critics giving definitions of it which are contradicted not only by other evidence but out of the critics’ own mouths. Off their guard they can be caught using it in the very sense their definition was contrived to exclude.

A student who should read the critical debate of the seventeenth century on wit under the impression that what the critics say they mean by wit is always, or often, what they really mean by wit would end in total bewilderment.

He must understand that such definitions are purely tactical. They are attempts to appropriate for one side, and to deny to the other, a potent word. You can see the same “war of positions” going on today.

A certain type of writer begins “The essence of poetry is” or “All vulgarity may be defined as,” and then produces a definition which no one ever thought of since the world began, which conforms to no one’s actual usage, and which he himself will probably have forgotten by the end of the month. (Studies in Words)

I find it rather fitting to include this passage from Lewis, with its martial imagery, in a column inspired by a description of a surly advocate of massive nuclear bombing as the best deterrence of World War III.

Writers, particularly those attempting to be persuasive, are wise to ponder Lewis’ wise counsel. We cannot surrender the battlefield to those who would revise the clear and historic meanings of words in an effort “to appropriate for one side, and to deny to the other, a potent word.”

_____

* The Graduate Record Exam is a standardized test used as part of the admission process for many university graduate programs in the United States. We won’t be discussing my mathematics score here . . .

** If the source article interests you, you can read it at Air Force Magazine.

The artwork above is copyrighted by its creator, Stella Belikiewicz, and used with her permission.

Our Common Tongue

May 9, 2013 — 5 Comments

Bruegel BabelThe ancestors of Europeans and Asians spoke a common language 15,000 years ago, as the ice age was ending.

That “discovery” sounds remarkably familiar to those acquainted with an ancient story about a colossal edifice erected in the ancient past. The Hebrews preserved a record of the achievement in the eleventh chapter of the book of Genesis. At the time of the tower’s construction, all of humanity consisted of “one people [sharing] one language.”

The argument for just such a common language is made in a detailed study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After finishing this column, you may wish to read the original journal article, which is available here.

The mechanics of the study will be of great interest to all logophiles (word lovers).

Using sophisticated statistical analysis, the researchers identified 23 different words that have remained recognizable for fifteen millennia. These “ultraconserved” words include some of the fundamental building blocks of basic communication. They include: not, mother, man (i.e. male), we, this, hand, old, fire, ashes and (rather oddly) worm.

The study identifies “proto-words” that underlie common terms in extremely diverse languages. It is no accident that these universal words are the ones that are the most concrete, frequent and essential for human communication.

The Languages of the World Etymological Database, part of the Tower of Babel project . . . records reconstructed proto-words for language families from around the world. Proto-words are hypotheses as to the form of the word used by the common ancestor or proto-language of a given language family to denote a given meaning.

These words are reconstructed by first identifying cognate words among the languages of a given family and then, because cognate words derive from a common ancestral word, working back in time to reconstruct the probable features of that shared ancestral form.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a brilliant linguist, and his abiding love of languages provided the impulse for the creation (and intricate history) of all of Middle Earth.

C.S. Lewis was one of the twentieth centuries greatest writers. He was also a scholar—one with an outstanding grasp of literature. Lewis acknowledged that words describing immediate, touchable concerns can be distinct and firm, just like the realities they connote. However, when language moves farther from such elements, it invariably grows more abstract.

All language, except about objects of sense, is metaphorical through and through. To call God a “Force” (that is, something like a wind or a dynamo) is as metaphorical as to call Him a Father or a King. On such matters we can make our language more polysyllabic and duller: we cannot make it more literal. The difficulty is not peculiar to theologians. Scientists, poets, psychoanalysts, and metaphysicians are all in the same boat. (God in the Dock, “Horrid Red Things”).

The linguistic study described here notes that frequency of usage exerts a stabilizing influence on words. Whereas less common (and more abstract) vocabulary “evolves” more rapidly.

A rule-of-thumb emerges that words used more than around once per 1,000 in everyday speech evolve slowly enough to have a high chance of being judged cognate among more than two of the language families; this might equate to around 16 uses per day per speaker of these high-frequency words.

Throughout history various languages have vied with one another for precedence. In the Mediterranean world Greek, for a season, and then Latin for another, were the “universal” tongues. The phrase lingua franca (literally, the “Frankish language”) has now come to refer to any language that is extensively used as a common bridge between speakers of different tongues.

Such languages, of course, enhance communication. That is not to suggest, however, that the development of these “dominant” languages is without critics. It seems, for example, that France was delighted in their language serving for many years as a standard for international diplomacy. Today however, France continues to staunchly resist the advances of English. (In 1994 the initial version of the Toubon Law overreached in requiring the extensive use of French in nearly all contexts. You can read about some implications for international businesses here.)

Even C.S. Lewis regretted some of the negative influences of American English on the mother tongue. In his book Studies in Words, he mourns:

I have an idea of what is good and bad language. . . . Language is an instrument for communication. The language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best. It is better to have like and love than to have aimer for both.

It was better to have the older English distinction between “I haven’t got indigestion” (I am not suffering from it at the moment) and “I don’t have indigestion” (I am not a dyspeptic) than to level both, as America has now taught most Englishmen to do, under “I don’t have.”

It remains to be seen whether any single language will come to truly dominate the world scene. Being able to communicate freely across all political borders sounds like a noble goal. It is ironic that should that day ever arrive it will mark a return to how things once began.

_____

The painting reproduced above was painted circa 1563 by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Vivacious Vocabularies

October 24, 2012 — 19 Comments

One reason I love reading C.S. Lewis arises from his adroit use of the English language. His vocabulary is immense. It is pleasant to run into words one seldom encounters on the drab byways of modern journalism and tangled thoroughfares of contemporary “social media.”

Consider the following example. I was exploring The Allegory of Love when I read this: “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.”

What a delightful verb! It evokes for me recollections of my youth when my parents would refer to our coffee pot as the percolator. Simultaneously, it reminds me of more recent—less happy—usages: “I’m sorry, but inadequate soil percolation means you’ll have to install a far more expensive septic system than normally required.”

It’s discouraging when you consider the sad state of modern vocabularies. I read somewhere that people typically only use about 10% of the words they know. So a common vocabulary of 5,000 spoken words would mean they know (i.e. can recognize written or audible forms of) about 50,000 words. Shakespeare used 29,000 words in his plays and sonnets, suggesting an expansive vocabulary. Likewise, brilliant authors like C.S. Lewis would boast a praiseworthy mental dictionary.

I am sometimes curious about my own vocabulary. I consciously attempt—in conversation as well as writing—to utilize at least 15% of the words I know. After all, the English language is so rich, it’s criminal to limit ourselves to pedestrian words. It’s like having all the ingredients for a delicious feast available to us and settling for slapping together a peanut butter sandwich.

I also love the precision that comes from using the exact word that suits the occasion. For example, in a thriller it matters greatly how the hero’s nemesis inflicts injury. A skilled writer would never say “Professor Moriarty cut Holmes.” Instead, we would learn that he slashed . . . stabbed . . . sliced . . . scarred . . . carved . . . or perhaps he merely nicked the detective. Likewise, we would probably know the type of weapon he was using. It would not be a mere “knife.” It might be a saber . . . a dagger . . . a pocketknife . . . scalpel . . . carving knife . . . or perhaps even a bayonet.

Lewis addressed this richness in vocabulary in an essay on “Transposition” which appears in The Weight of Glory.

If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning. The transposition of the richer into the poorer must, so to speak, be algebraical, not arithmetical. If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense. If you are to write a language with twenty-two vowel sounds in an alphabet with only five vowel characters than you must be allowed to give each of those five characters more than one value. If you are making a piano version of a piece originally scored for an orchestra, then the same piano notes which represent flutes in one passage must also represent violins in another.

It is wonderful to be fortunate enough to speak a language with a diverse vocabulary. English is such a tongue. Now, if we could just simplify its complexities and purge its irregularities, we would enjoy the best of all linguistic worlds.