05 December, 2006


I was delighted last week to discover that French has a word for 'nth', as in 'to the nth degree'—énième. I don't know why this should have surprised me, but it did. I was also overjoyed to learn the word bugonia, not in the OED but attested in scholarly literature, and referring to the supposed generation of bees from an ox-carcase.

Then seek they from the herd a steer, whose horns
With two years' growth are curling, and stop fast,
Plunge madly as he may, the panting mouth
And nostrils twain, and done with blows to death,
Batter his flesh to pulp i' the hide yet whole,
And shut the doors, and leave him there to lie.
But 'neath his ribs they scatter broken boughs,
With thyme and fresh-pulled cassias: this is done
When first the west winds bid the waters flow,
Ere flush the meadows with new tints, and ere
The twittering swallow buildeth from the beams.
Meanwhile the juice within his softened bones
Heats and ferments, and things of wondrous birth,
Footless at first, anon with feet and wings,
Swarm there and buzz, a marvel to behold;

. . .

But sudden, strange to tell
A portent they espy: through the oxen's flesh,
Waxed soft in dissolution, hark! there hum
Bees from the belly; the rent ribs overboil
In endless clouds they spread them, till at last
On yon tree-top together fused they cling,
And drop their cluster from the bending boughs.

— Vergil's Georgics IV.
Meanwhile, I want to coin a new word. We already have the word risible, for something worthy of laughter (ridere, 'to laugh'). But how about those things less risible than the risible, worthy not quite of laughter, but only of smiling? I propose surrisible (sub-ridere, 'to smile', whence the nonce-words subride and subrident—but surrisible is more natural English, following surrogate (sub-rogare), surreptitious (sub-repticius), etc.). We can all think of examples of surrisible things. If I absentmindedly confused shaving-foam for deodorant in a blearyeyed morning, Mrs. Roth would think it risible, but to you, it would probably be only surrisible. Likewise, we find surrisible a freshman paper marked by my wife, casually claiming that the man behind the bar in Manet's Folies-Bergère (right) is in fact Jack the Ripper. We had no idea what would lead someone to such a conclusion: the date's almost right (painting—1882, Jack's spree–1888), but the country is off and in any event it's completely nonsensical. We now know, it turns out, what Jack looked like: he has a harder, squarer physiognomy than Manet's man, though he wears the same moustache. A google search turned up the obvious reason for the nincompoopery, a paragraph in a piece by Jonathan Jones tossed off a few years ago for the culture snobs at the Grauniad:

And who are you? The top-hatted stranger, of course, the Jack the Ripper whose ghostly reflection approaches her with such menace in the mirror. Manet captures the coolness, cruelty and glamour of modern life. This is one of the keystones of modern art.
Perhaps this, also, played a part:

Like Jack the Ripper zonked on laudanum and champagne sitting at a table with Toulouse Lautrec at the Folies Bergere, waiting for the girls to get off work.
Thus the perils of not properly reading what you find online. Idly browsing the Wikipedia article on Jack, however, it struck me that another identification was more plausible. Take another look at Manet's man—and then cast your glance at George Lusk (right), head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee that patrolled the streets at night in search of Jack, in vain. They are obviously the same man! I sincerely hope that this discovery will aid more than one future undergraduate paper on the subject. As for surrisible, I suggest you all go out and use it in a sentence (spoken or blogged) today—let's make this word a dictionary reality!


Anonymous said...

Funnily enough, yesterday, while writing a fax in this difficult language called English, I was wondering whether there was an equivalent to énième. “Could it be something like xst or yrd?”, I caught myself thinking. The dictionary showed me that it was nth instead. That's how it's written, all right, but how on earth do you pronounce this word? Not like ninth I hope.

Anonymous said...

Surrisible? Let's give it a try:

As a native speaker of another baffling language linked to some kind of Île de France, I find it surrisible to use surrisible as to mean “sub-laughable”, or “almost laughable”, or “mildly amusing”. Because this French-looking word, together with the prefix sur-, would rather mean “over-laughable”.
Is what I am saying sou(s)risible, i.e. related to a mongrel of mouse and sable?

Conrad H. Roth said...

The English is pronounced "enth".

As for the French, it would of course have to be sourisible, which, as you note, would suggest "mouseable". And yes, the French offers you sûrrisible, which we can't quite put into English. Unless the English surrisible meant both "smileworthy" and "very laughable", which would make rather a nice ambivalence, I think.

Raminagrobis said...

surrisible: I like it.

A quick google suggests that 'sourisible' does have at least some currency in colloquial French: in all those cases it seems it's being used in a jocular way to mean 'funny' or 'provoking an indulgent smile' (no doubt there's also always a 'mouse' somewhere in the background of it). It probably would not have the same sense as the English 'surrisible', 'provoking gentle mockery'.

(It seems to me that in the English 'risible' the sense of 'deserving to be mocked' dominates over the sense 'funny', whereas in the French 'risible' it's the other way around. Am I right about that?)

Conrad H. Roth said...

I think the English could modulate between both 'provoking an indulgent smile' and 'provoking gentle mockery'--the two senses are not so far apart after all. I see what you're saying about English and French risible, though; sadly my French is not quite nuanced enough to give a good answer. Perhaps Sutor, a native speaker, though a colonial one, can enlighten us?

Anonymous said...

Raminagrobis a dit...
surrisible: I like it.

Really? I thought that Raminagrobis-the-cat would have preferred sourisible. But sometimes people are not what they seem to be.
It seems to me that in the English 'risible' the sense of 'deserving to be mocked' dominates over the sense 'funny', whereas in the French 'risible' it's the other way around. Am I right about that?

The kolonial Sutor (seen as colonized or colonizer, or both at the same time?) thinks it would then have the same shade of acid yellow* in French and in English: risible is primarily ridiculous, deserving mockery; something that makes you blush and wriggle with embarrassment. Risible as funny would rather be rigolo for instance.
* as in “rire jaune”