Quote #20: Ted Hughes (1967)

Words that live are those which we hear, like “click” or “chuckle”, or which we see, like “freckled” or “veined”, or which we taste, like “vinegar” or “sugar”, or touch, like “prickle” or “oily”, or smell, like “tar” or “onion”. Words which belong directly to one of the five senses.


Is a Term a Word?

Terminology sometimes refers to specialized language, but it also can refer simply to language that requires more than one word as its signifier. Are terms then in this second sense not also words?

There are two ways that words can contain more that one signifier and still – incontrovertibly – be called words: the compound word (i.e. sailboat, birdbrain, loveshack) and the hyphenated word (i.e. half-baked, gold-digger, mind-boggled). These both leave unaccounted the so-called term (i.e. fish tank, human history, credit cards). Terms refer to a single idea or thing, so in this sense they are cleanly nouns, and yet they are simultaneously not words but are instead a kind of word-set, something universally compounded in usage but never formally linked whether typographically or grammatically. They are paradoxically two-word words.

While this contradiction in the definition of “word” may or may not hold, the OED points to a crack in the foundation of “term” as well:

13 a: A word or phrase used in a definite or precise sense in some particular subject, as a science or art; a technical expression

13: b. In wider application: Any word or group of words expressing a notion or conception, or denoting an object of thought; an expression (for something). Generally with qualifying adj. or phrase.

In the first definition, terms are something specified, technical, scientific and exacting; yet in the second, the thing is general, vague, whimsical, and inexact.

The word “signifier” is a linguistic term that appeals to the ambiguities and tensions of our common conceptions and definitions for the word “word.” Presumably, a signifier refers to what is being used to signal the thing subjected to discussion (signified) whether it is through a hyphenated word, compound word, utterance, term, word-set, sentence, sneeze, or hiccup.

These gaps in clarification highlight just how much grammar (which is a kind of mutant field of philology) and Linguistics (which is both a pseudo-anthropology and a pseudo-neuroscience) are distinctly separate disciplines. Besides their socio-political differences (Grammar is insular, Linguistics is cross-cultural), they have fundamentally different conceptions of what builds our symbolic networks. Each is helpfully insufficient, and both curiously incompatible. Moreover, both the slipperiness of the terms and their porously abstract conceptualizations that attempt to (with varyingly degrees and success) buttress as well as conceal the mechanistic virtues (or even sense) of either further supports the counterintuitive claim that language is far more material and physically resonant than semioticians or grammarians have historically highlighted when configuring the Whats and the Hows of language.

Quote #11: Elena Ferrante (2015)

The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.”

Word #10: “glottochronology” (n.)

n. [Linguistics]

  1. The application of statistics to vocabulary to determine the degree of relationship between two or more languages and the chronology of their splitting off from a common ancestor.

Or, as its conceiver Morris Swadesh hypothesized, “[i]f we can show by means of comparative linguistics that various people spoke similar languages sometime in the past, we can infer the identities of those predecessor languages, and thus even more intimate connections between all human cultures … arriving eventually at an original tongue” (quoted in About a Mountain, 126)


Word #6: “Chicago” (n.)


  1. The name of the city in Illinois, U.S.A., used attrib. or in comb. in various special collocations.

The following passage is from Names on the Land, a history of how places in America got their names by the sci-fi-writing toponymist, George R. Stewart:

Almost at the southern tip of the Lake of the Illinois, also called Lake Michigan, a low and swampy plain stretched away between two small rivers. In early summer that plain was pink with the blossoms of the little wild onions growing there so the Algonquain-speaking Indians called it “onion-place.” To the French it became Chicagou, and they used it for the name of one of the rivers. In 1688, when there could hardly have been doubt about the meaning, a Frenchman wrote: “We arrived at etc place called Chicagou which, according to what can be learned about it, has taken this name from the amount of garlic grabbing wild in that vicinity.” Two other early French men also mentioned the onion or garlic in that region.

A great city took its name from this place and that river became fro a while very odorous,; so jokes were made about the origins of the name. It happens also that in the Algonquian language words related to that for onion and garlic apply also to the skunk, and certain kinds of bad-smelling filth. So some said that the city was really Skunk-town, or something worse.

Here’s to the baby bears from Onion-town!

Jargon Alert #1: “impact”

On some unspecified date in the very recent past, the professional class of America decided the word “effect” was simply too difficult to keep storage within a language also housing the word “affect” – and so, a remedial cure was drudged from the vernacular of auto insurance forms: everyone began using the word “impact” in hitherto unknown and morphologically abusive ways that have now stretched the term into a viscous jargon jam currently observing peak, craft-bottled mania.

The term “prevents thought” through what G.K. Chesterton calls a “paradox of death.” The word enjoys popularity because it has a visceral, athletic, even disaster movie-like flash to it. However, as a noun, it is merely an inert placeholder for additional details and, eventually one hopes, meaning. In reality, the word only works as connective tissue in a much larger context, it was never designed to be the story itself. Impacts in what way? Impacts how? Impacts impactfully is nonsensical (ignoring the debate of whether its comprehensible English). More specifically, following Chesterton, it is a particularly “destructive” kind of nonsense:

Nearly all modern paradoxes merely announce death. I see everywhere among the young men who have imitated Mr. Shaw a strange tendency to utter epigrams which deny the possibility of further life and thought. A paradox may be a thing unusual, menacing, even ugly—like a rhinoceros. But, as a live rhinoceros ought to produce more rhinoceri, so a live paradox ought to produce more paradoxes. Nonsense ought to be suggestive; but nowadays it is abortive. The new epigrams are not even fantastic finger-posts on the wild road: they are tablets, each set into a brick wall at the end of a blind alley. So far as they concern thought at all, they cry to men, “Think no more,” as the voice said “Sleep no more” to Macbeth. These rhetoricians never speak except to move the closure. Even when they are really witty (as in the case of Mr. Shaw), they commonly commit the one crime that cannot be forgiven among free men. They say the last word. (“Two Kinds of Paradox,” 1911)

And so, our first “Jargon Alert” has officially been issued. Watch for rhinoceri.

Word #5: “verbalism” (n.)


  1. Predominance of what is merely verbal over reality or real significance.

Paulo Freire reads a more political dimension to this dampened significance of words:

An unauthentic word, one which is unable to transform reality, results when dichotomy is imposed upon its constitutive elements. When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating “blah.” It becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 75-76).

Humboldt contra Saussure

On the advice of Andrea Wulf, whose The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World makes for stellar reading, I’ve been pouring over the German polymath’s seminal texts, namely Cosmos, Views of Nature, and Essay on the Geography of Plants. Wulf wonderfully weaves not just a kind of “Greatest Hits” of the once-infamous, since-obscured writer/thinker but delves deeply into his dense works (it helps that they are evocative and poetic to begin with) – including mentioning his theories on language. Besides Simon Winchester, who turned the history of the OED first into a British caper film a la The League of Gentlemen or X-men and then a Gothic murder mystery, I don’t know other bestsellers who openly discuss semiotics for pages and pages. More to the point: I’ve read a great many of those 20th century theories of language in vogue after the second World War, and I can’t recall a single mention of von Humboldt (even from the French, who happily hosted him even while Bonaparte was lobbing cannons at his Austro-Hungarian Empire!).

Something Wulf fails to mention explicitly (though perhaps it is the reason why she couldn’t just fail to drop the subject altogether) is that von Humboldt’s theories of language appear throughout his works; they are sporadic, but consistently sporadic.

Here are some of the heaviest sections from the introduction of Volume II of Cosmos (representing his later work from 1844, but which I randomly read first; cool fact from Wulf: he debated naming the book Gaia, especially ironic considering Wulf and other Humboldt scholars have indicated that the “pre-Darwinian Darwinist” suggested the Gaia theory of a living Earth a full +125 years before it caused a rage amongst environmentalists in the 1970s, where it is still customary to direct attribution):

Exploded errors may survive partially among the uneducated, aided in some instances by an obscure and mystic phraseology: they have also left behind them many expressions by which our nomenclature is more or less disfigured; while a few of happier, though figurative origin, have gradually received more accurate definition, and have been found worthy of preservation in our scientific language.

In a far more interesting way that I am accustomed to reading – and, importantly I think, without using the terms – he is talking about dialects, regionalisms, and slang. He continues:

That which sense grasps but imperfectly offers a free field to creative fancy; the outward impressions change with the changing phases of the mind; and this without destroying the illusion, by which we imagine ourselves to receive from external nature? that with which we have ourselves unconsciously invested her.

This is, to my recollection, a much more dynamic dialectical observation than Ferdinand de Saussure. The Swiss structuralist simply argued (and much later) that there’s no internal logic to a word referring to a thing; signifiers are relational to other signifiers in a linguistic system and not to the external world of contingencies (remember: from de Saussure we get the surrealistic, anarchical interplay of signifier and signifier à la Duchamp). Humboldt, too, is no essentialist, however he sees language not akin to a priori reason or something mechanical that ultimately has no meaningful interplay with the natural world (after all, he writes further on in the introduction, “[t]he impression produced by the grandest scenes of nature does not depend exclusively on height;” here, like Saussure he severs the external world from its cultural overdeterminacy). Rather, the functionality of language ignores (or has amnesia about) just how intimately connected it is to the signified (but not in positivist or predetermined ways). What he is articulating is very delicate and even circuitous and sounds kind of mystical (he even uses the term), but I think he’s trying to say, building on Kant and The Critique of Pure Reason, that human language has a role in natural world: this is a radical idea even today, let alone in 1844.

His clearest articulation of his “organic structure” of language is the conclusion to the introduction:

Words, therefore, are more than signs and forms; and their mysterious and beneficent influence is there most powerfully manifested, where the language has sprung spontaneously from the minds of the people, and on its own native soil.

Karloff and Causality

Halloween is on a Monday this year, so we’ve begun a very long weekend indeed. For instance, on the beach this morning, my youngest son – he’s one – walked with arms outstretched toward his mother and I had the thought however vaguely of Frankenstein. But of course Boris Karloff was acting like a one-year-old in his infamous portrayal of Mary Shelley’s monster in James Whale’s classic, so this brief observation of mine begs some kind of reflective inquiry. How is it that a cultural artifact influenced by a natural phenomenon begins to replace the recognition – and naming – of that primal phenomenon? My original observation (That baby does a pretty good Karloff) is historically inaccurate and culturally nonsensical: babies are always pulling off Frankensteins because that was the whole artistic idea in the first place. Yet this fact had to be thoroughly mulled over before it became readily apprehended. This is something akin to trying to remember the word for red because your brain had involuntarily replaced it with ketchup. It must be some kind of cognitive cross-wiring, but is it cultural or linguistic? Perhaps these two associations are so deeply embedded in my brain that their causal relation to one another has reversed, or been rendered irrelevant.

In the excellent book The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge, 1972), John Barrell looks at a similar causal confusion in the idea of the origin of landscape, even thinking about the difference between “a landscape” (a painting) and “the landscape” (the terrain or topology). Barrel writes:

The words ‘landscape’, ‘scene’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘prospect’ (which, as our definition from Johnson shows, could be used in a general, non-local sense) demanded, in short, that the land be thought of as itself composed into the formal patterns which previously a landscape-painter would have been thought of as himself imposing upon it (2-3).

In other words, landscape painting was so fashionable that both culturally and linguistically, rural society became a landscape and understood in terms of the values of landscape paintings, thus flipping the historical context for landscape-painting in the first place. The scholar sets the stage to examine how John Clare will be a poet of “disorder” against early Victorian ideologies of order, containment, rigid legalisms and mass industrialization which are so potent they even show up in the pastoral arts. From Barrel’s point of view (and Clare’s) to see a Karloff impersonation and not a baby is the same as not looking at all.

Come to think of it, isn’t this causal confusion/reversal evident also in the way we now call the monster of Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, the title of the book naming the horrific “other” of the story and not, as originally written, the family name of the doctor whose whole aristocratic lifestyle becomes a flaming nightmare due to his late-night scientific experimentation?

The stage is set for the weekend.