Saturday, December 15, 2007

Lexical Choices

Being a great storer-up of new and unfamiliar vocabulary, this article by novelist James Meek in today's Guardian struck a chord:
There is in American writing a love of the concrete term for the fabric of the real, modern world. An American writer is likelier than a British one to use the rich technical vocabulary of the makers and doers, the builders, garment-makers, farmers and engineers, to achieve a level of description which is concise, exact and often lyrical, even as it sends readers to the dictionary or, more likely, the internet, to find out what it means.

Was interested in what he says about Cormac McCarthy's use of vocabulary, and says it took him some time to work out what he meant:

... when he described the American desert thus in No Country For Old Men: "The raw rock mountains shadowed in the late sun and to the east the shimmering abscissa of the desert plains under a sky where raincurtains hung dark as soot all along the quadrant." Abscissa is, I now know, a mathematical term for the distance to a point along the x-axis of a graph. The desert plain is the remorselessly straight horizontal reference for everything - mountains, men, clouds - that strives to rise above it.

This is McCarthy letting you know, though you knew already, that he, and the character bestriding this arena, Llewelyn Moss, see a different desert from the one an outsider would see, a desert as divisible into a multitude of nameable qualities as a busy city street is to an urbanite. There's a rockslide on the edge of the "bajada"; an antelope runs onto the "barrial"; the "datilla" casts its shadow; Moss climbs a long "rincon", and there's a long "talus" of lava scree.

McCarthy uses the same technique in The Road, except that in this novel, it is noticeably the father-character's power over the bits and pieces that make up everyday life which is expressed by the use of obscure, specialist words. "He pulled the bolt," McCarthy writes, when the father is carrying out a life-preserving bit of repair work on a shopping trolley, "and bored out the collet with a hand drill and resleeved it with a section of pipe he'd cut to length with a hacksaw". It takes a decent dictionary about 25 words to explain even simply what a collet is; the implication in The Road is that, if you can't put a name to a collet, you aren't going to survive the post-apocalypse.

I am quite smug though that Meek needed a dictionary to find out what terrazzo means when it is such an everyday word in Malaysia English (though perhaps less so these days as our tastes in flooring become more sophisticated) .

(We debated using the full rich vocabulary of English here a while ago ...)


Anonymous said...

You know, I've often noticed this about American fiction and poetry -- they know so many words for *things*! I also feel Americans in general ask a lot of questions about their physical environment -- when we have visitors they're always asking the names of plants and geographic formations. The American poets I know are so interested in science and geography and yes, concrete objects. It's always made me feel so narrow in my scope -- my words are all for actions and feelings. I'm glad you posted this so that I could learn it's not just me!

- Preeta

P.S. I still like terrazzo flooring better than most of the "more sophisticated" options, with the notable exception of real hardwood, which I love.

Dave King said...

An interesting post. Put me in mind of Henry Reed's Judging Distances.

David King

Madcap Machinist said...

Great! Now that we know of abscissae we must also know of ordinates, and it seems like an opportunity to slip in links of tangential nature!

All this lexicographical bushwhacking reminds me of David Foster Wallace's essay on a subject of orthogonal relation, "Authority and American Usage" in Consider The Lobster (previously published as "Tense Present", which I urge you to read in order to appreciate the delicious irony of the bashing it subsequently received on Language Hat), in particular, this paragraph:

When I say or write something, there are actually a whole lot of different things I am communicating. The propositional content (the actual information I'm trying to convey) is only one part of it. Another part is stuff about me, the communicator. Everyone knows this. It's a function of the fact that there are uncountably many well-formed ways to say the same basic thing, from e.g. "I was attacked by a bear!" to "Goddamn bear tried to kill me!" to "That ursine juggernaut bethought to sup upon my person!" and so on. And different levels of diction and formality are only the simplest kinds of distinction; things get way more complicated in the sorts of interpersonal communication where social relations and feelings and moods come into play. Here's a familiar sort of example. Suppose that you and I are acquaintances and we're in my apartment having a conversation and that at some point I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore. Very delicate social moment. Think of all the different ways I can try to handle it: "Wow, look at the time"; "Could we finish this up later?"; "Could you please leave now?"; "Go"; "Get out"; "Get the hell out of here"; "Didn't you say you had to be someplace?"; "Time for you to hit the dusty trail, my friend"; "Off you go then, love"; or that sly old telephone-conversation ender: "Well, I'm going to let you go now"; etc. And then think of all the different factors and implications of each option.

bibliobibuli said...

yes, preeta,it struck me too reading cormac mccarthy and also annie proulx.

terrazzo i think is actually coming back into fashion here i think as people get nostalgic ...

david - thanks so much for the link to the great poem! i am also very happy to have found your blog.

nice quote mm, and i will go read the links. in linguistics we talk about the illocutionary force of an act which may be something similar?

Madcap Machinist said...

"I will go read the links" -- indeed, an illocutionary act right there... and the perlocutionary result being my assumption that your Sunday is spent--as mine--gamboling in the hinterland of the English lexicon, then descending to the chthonian world of semiotics, trying words on and languidly shedding them to paper like an ecdysiast.

Fun, no? These flights of literary funambulism? I have in mind also Coleridge's "prose is words in the best order; poetry is the best words in the best order", and here is Billy Collins' "Idiomatic":

It is a big question to pose so early in the morning
or “in the light woven by birds,”
as the Estonians say,
but still I must ask what is my place in life?
my “seat on the invisible train”,
as they say in Hungary.
I mean I am just sitting here
in a lawn chair listening to a thrush,
“the little entertainer of the woods”,
as the Swiss call him,
while out there in the world
mobs of people are rushing over bridges
in and out of cities?
Vegetables grow heavy in their fields,
clouds fly across the “face of the earth”
as we call it in English,
and sometimes rockets lift off in the distance –
and I mean that quite literally,
“from the top of the table” as the Portuguese have it,
real rockets rising from the horizon,
or “the big line”, if you’re an Australian,
leaving behind rich gowns of exhaust smoke,
long, smooth trajectories,
and always the ocean below,
“the water machine” as the South Sea islanders put it –
everything takes place right on schedule,
“by the clock of the devil”,
as our grandparents were fond of saying.
And still here I sit with my shirt off,
the dog at my side, daydreaming –
“juggling balls of cotton”, as they like to say in France.

I'm just rambling, I know, having a quiet day at home, amusing myself with things etymological... and this ineffable quality of language...

bibliobibuli said...

you impressed me, made me laugh and delighted me all in one, mm. a sunday well spent.