word #16: “mytacism” (n.)

noun.

  1. using the letter M incorrectly or to an extreme.

This has nothing to do with alliterative tongue-twisters, like reciting “A missing mixture measure” over and over. The OED offers the necessary context for such an obscure word:

In Latin prose composition: the pronunciation of a final m before a word beginning with a vowel, regarded as a fault by grammarians. Also: the placing of a word with a final m before a word with an initial m.

Interesting fact about Latin grammarians: the profession is not some continuation of Ancient Rome; they only came to exist after the civilization’s collapse. Thus, there is no actual authority on how to pronounce the language, only reasonable arguments that are hashed-out ad infinitum . Think about it: from California to Bangalore people read and write grammatically near-exact English, yet the spectrum of pronunciation and orality is as diverse as Kew Gardens. No one can see the word “Ladder” and figure folks in Chicago say “Lehteh” or that the correct way to say “water” in Philadelphia is “wüdder.”

This is why some words die.

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.

Word #4: “esquisse” (n.)

noun.

  1. The first slight sketch of a picture, the first thought of a design drawn loosely with a crayon.

Scott Allan, in his recent essay on painter Théodore Rousseau, complicates OED’s entry:

Imperfectly translated as “sketch,” the word esquisse generally designated a preliminary compositional sketch in nineteenth-century parlance. The esquisse was typically smaller than the final tableau and could be treated in an informal, spontaneous manner that was understood to convey the energy of the artist’s initial inspiration. Unlike the analytical étude, in which the artist subordinated himself to the model, often with considerable attention to detail, the esquisse was conceived as a more creative, synthetic work that anticipated, in its emphasis on composition and coloring, the artful unity and overall pictorial effect of the tableau.

Such distinctions, however, were not easily maintained with regard to landscape. An esquisse could be a freely executed study after nature (that is, an étude) that concentrated on a landscape’s principal features or general atmospheric effect rather than its individual details. Likewise, if an étude was in some senses fragmentary, the source of raw material that was to be synthesized in the word of composition, it could equally be framed with an eye to the ensemble. And if the painter enlisted an étude as the basis for a definitive work, it became an esquisse by virtue of its new function. Esquisse and étude were overlapping categories: a landscape sketch might be an esquisse by virtue of its relationship to another artwork (real or potential) or an étude by virtue of its relationship to nature (Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau, 26-27).