17 February, 2009

On Neologism, Part Two

[Part One here.]

The Good Book.

Lily and I—and, indeed, the rest of you, from afar—are approaching the fifth anniversary of our first romantic entanglement. At times like these we enjoy reminiscing about that first date of ours, which culminated, qua date, with us sitting on the bed, me reading to her, in my sonorous English voice, from her favourite Edward Gorey tale, 'The Unstrung Harp'. This was my introduction to Gorey, and I was sufficiently intrigued to read through the rest of his collected stories. One which we enjoy recalling is 'The Beastly Baby'. It is difficult to forget this monstrosity, unable to sleep by virtue of its guilty conscience, and, as we see here, frequently abandoned by its unfortunate parents, in the vain hope of being rid of the thing:

One wonders if Gorey had in mind Stephen Leacock's story, 'The Inexplicable Infant', from Nonsense Novels (1911). He must have known it. Here we have the same idea, delivered in the same deadpan, dry and black:
She had taken the baby and laid it tenderly, gently on a seat in the park. Then she walked rapidly away. A few minutes after a man had chased after Caroline with the little bundle in his arms. "I beg your pardon," he said, panting, "I think you left your baby in the park." Caroline thanked him.

Next she took the baby to the Grand Central Waiting-room, kissed it tenderly, and laid it on a shelf behind the lunch-counter. A few minutes an official, beaming with satisfaction, had brought it back to her. "Yours, I think, madame," he said, as he handed it to her. Caroline thanked him.

Then she had left it at the desk of the Waldorf Astoria, and at the ticket-office of the subway.

It always came back.
This 'nonsense novel' is not best of the collection: for my money, that would be '"Q." A Psychic Pstory of the Psupernatural'. It does, however, contain one brilliant joke. The poor farmer in his rural homestead, all clichés present and correct, is comforted by his wife:
"Ah, John, you'd better be employed in reading the Good Book than in your wild courses. Here take it, father, and read it"--and she handed to him the well-worn black volume from the shelf. Enderby paused a moment and held the volume in his hand. He and his wife had known nothing of religious teaching in the public schools of their day, but the first-class non-sectarian education that the farmer had received had stood him in good stead. "Take the book," she said. "Read, John, in this hour of affliction; it brings comfort."

The farmer took from her hand the well-worn copy of Euclid's Elements, and laying aside his hat with reverence, he read aloud: "The angles at the base of an isoceles triangle are equal, and whosoever shall produce the sides, lo, the same also shall be equal each unto each."
Likewise, at the end of the story, Enderby has learned his lesson: 'Ah, my sons, henceforth let us stick to the narrow path. What is it that the Good Book says: 'A straight line is that which lies evenly between its extreme points.'' The comic potential of the confusing the Book with some other bible is a classic. One of my favourite instances is from an otherwise rather dull short story, by a literary overreacher, fool's gold: Alasdair Gray's 'Logopandocy', from his Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983). In this dialogue, 'Cromwell's Latin secretary' confronts a pro-Royalist Scottish aristocrat in his gaol-cell at the Tower in 1653, Midsummer's Eve. The secretary, Paradise Lost still but a gleam in his eye, says:
When time is ripe for it, my verse will do far more than illuminate the best essence of Thomas Malory's text, it will translate, clarify and augment the greatest and most truly Original Book in the Universe.
On which the aristocrat—the story's narrator—remarks to himself:
Such is my aim also, and I am thunderstruck to discover in the Puritan camp one who admires the work of Rabelais as greatly as I do.
The Scotsman is, of course, Sir Thomas Urquhart, whose translation of the first two books of Gargantua and Pantagruel was published that very year. Now Urquhart was the literary neologist par excellence of his century. And so, finally, we arrive again at neologism, having faffed and fumbled about for far too long with other matters of relative insignficance.


I doubt Leacock would have cherished Urquhart. In the last of the Nonsense Novels, 'The Man of Asbestos'—unlike the others a story without humour, a sermon on dystopia, more Puteicis—the eponymous Man, a grey creature of the technological future, shows the narrator, to the latter's disgust, one of the scars where his education has been surgically implanted:
Here is the mark where I had my spherical trigonometry let in. That was, I admit, rather painful, but other things, such as English poetry or history, can be inserted absolutely without the least suffering.
To appreciate Urquhart, and not merely to be quaintly amused by him, one has to be the sort of person who values spherical trigonometry over poetry and history. Urquhart's treatise on the subject, the Trissotetras of 1645, must rank as one of the least intelligible mathematical works known to man. In one of the three dedicatory epistles—'An Epaenetick and Doxologetick Expresse, in Commendation of this Book and the Author Thereof, to all Philomathets', written by one 'J. A.' but sounding suspiciously like Urquhart himself—it is claimed that 'the abstrusest difficulties of this science by him [are] so neatly unfolded' that we should rank the author with his hero, the great Scottish mathematician John Napier. We also get a preposterous panegyric to Urquhart's erudition by the well-known Scottish polymath, Alexander Ross: 'Hoc duce, jam Lybicos poteris superare calores, / Atque pati Scythici frigora saeva poli.'

Within the fortress of the text itself, abstruse difficulties are merely manufactured. 'In amblygonosphericalls,' claims Urquhart, 'which admit both of an extrinsecall and intrinsecall demission of the perpendicular, nineteen severall parts are to be considered; viz. the perpendicular, the subtendentall, the subtendentine, two cosubtendents, the basall, the basidion, the chief segment of the base, two cobases, the double verticall, the verticall, the verticaline, two coverticalls, the next cathetopposite, the prime cathetopposite, and the two cocathetopposites.' Almost none of these words, of course, are listed in the OED. Urquhart comments on these 'Greek and Latin terms', which
for the more efficacy of expression I have made use of in this Treatise; in doing whereof, that I might both instruct the Reader and not weary him, I have endeavoured perspicuity with shortnesse; though, I speak it ingenuously, to have been more prolixe therein could have cost but very little labor to me. . .
One will readily believe that additional prolixity would have cost Urquhart very little, as suggested by the ellipsis truncating the above quotation. At any rate, the 'Lexidicion' which follows thereon attempts to explain each of the barbarous coinages found in the work, including, among those not above, obliquangulary, 'of all angles that are not right', poliechyrologie, 'the art of fortifying townes and cities', and my favourite, plusminused, 'said of moods which admit of mensurators, or whose illatitious termes are the never same, but either more or less then the maine quaesitas'. At this point one has the sensation of being suffocated with verbal ivy, a riot of syllabic curlicues, involving the throat.

In addition are the names of trigonometric figures; for these Urquhart deliberately follows his mediaeval forebears in logic (barbara, celarent) and music (gammuth, fa-so-la-ti-do), and coins words artificially stuck together from significant syllables. Thus, dacramfor is composed of da, 'the datas', cra, 'the concurse of a given and required side', m, 'a tangent complement', and for, 'outwardly'. Dacramfor is not in the OED; nor any of its myriad fellows.
The novelty of these words I know will seeme strange to some, and to the eares of illiterate hearers sound like termes of conjuration; yet seeing that since the very infancie of learning, such inventions have beene made use of, and new words coyned, that the knowledge of severall things representatively confined within a narrow compasse, might the more easily be retained in a memory susceptible of their impression. . . I know not why Logick and Musick should be rather fitted with such helps then Trigonometrie.
So many words, words, words! It is a classic seventeenth-century argument, nonetheless, and all the Royal Society fellows would be at it soon after. But why no admittance to the hallowed Dictionary? You will say, I know: these words are only used once! What use could they be? Let them perish at the rockface! And to you I reply, lickety-split:
prostisciutto, n. nonce-wd. [Blend of PROSTITUTE adj. and PROSCIUTTO n.] A female prostitute regarded metaphorically as an item on a menu. Perhaps with allusion to MEAT and related slang metaphors. 1930 S. BECKETT Whoroscope 1, "What's that? A little green fry or a mushroomy one? Two lashed ovaries with prostisciutto?"
A punning portmanteau from Beckett's Joyceolatrous juvenilia, used once in the history of the language, until the carrion scholars descended to feast on Beckett's early poetry, and had to quote him. Well, the OED likes to encourage young authors. How about older words?
scientintically, adv. A burlesque nonce-word, formed by a blending of scientifically and tint. 1761 STERNE Tr. Shandy III. v, "He must have redden'd, pictorically and scientintically speaking, six whole tints and a half. . . above his natural colour."
But come now! Everyone knows and loves Tristram Shandy! Who, by contrast, cares for old Urquhart?
cidentine, a. nonce-wd. (See quot.) 1653 URQUHART Rabelais II. xxxii, "As we have with us the countreys cisalpine and transalpine. . . so have they there the Countreys cidentine and tradentine, that is, behither and beyond the teeth."
A word for describing the location of countries within a giant's mouth, from a particular episode of Pantagruel: an integral part of the English language, no doubt. But stay, this is still somewhat Rabelais, 'tis in his book, even if it is not him as such ('. . . aussi ont-ilz deçà et delà les dentz'). What do you have in the way of pure Urquhart?
disobstetricate, v. Obs. nonce-wd. trans. To reverse the office of a midwife concerning; to retard or hinder from child-birth. 1652 URQUHART Jewel Wks. (1834) 210, "With parturiencie for greater births, if a malevolent time disobstetricate not their enixibility."
Too corny. Anything else?
epassyterotically, adv. [f. Gr. epassúteron, one upon another; cf. chaotically.] 1652 URQUHART Jewel Wks. (1834) 249, "He killed seven of them epassyterotically, that is, one after another."
Yes, that's better, yes. . .
hirquitalliency, n. Obs. nonce-wd. [f. L. hirquitallī-re (of infants) to acquire a strong voice (f. hircus he-goat) + -ENCY.] 1652 URQUHART Jewel 125, "To speak of her hirquitalliency."
Ah-ha! You see, again and again the OED tongues words out of The Jewel, or, to give its more authentic title, as the 2008 draft revision does (s.v. penitissim), Ekskubalauron. There are dozens of these vocables in the dictionary, each with only one citation, and that from The Jewel. None was used earlier, none has been used since. They are, strictly speaking—at least until this very post—Modern English hapax legomena. Or, as the Dictionary's first great editor, James Murray, put it, nonce words. The OED lists nonce word—'a word apparently used only ‘for the nonce’, i.e. on one specific occasion or in one specific text or writer's works'—and, in a delicious mise-en-abyme, quotes itself.

But not a single entry from the Trissotetras. Why is the one work slighted for the other? The one was surely known, as The Jewel is commonly cited from Urquhart's 1834 Works, which includes both treatises. Is it that the OED accepts such words only from 'literary' works, like Whoroscope, Tristram Shandy, Pantagruel, and, let us suppose, The Jewel? This cannot be the case: not only is The Jewel hardly literature in the same category as the others, being, among other things, a treatise on universal languages, and a panegyric to Scotland—but, as we saw in the last instalment, the OED is quite happy citing blas from technical books of the seventeenth century. So why?


Perhaps admittance into Murray's temple, or that of his descendants, is an aesthetic act. Or even an ethical one. Prosticiutto, scientintically, hirquitalliency: fine, bold, strong pieces, vivid, if a little rococo. What etymological fantasias they conjure! How they expand the language, as brooches pinned on the plainer stuff of a good prose or verse. And blas, too: a noble attempt, if ultimately in vain, to affix the vocabulary of a nascent and uncertain science. Into our society, along our finely-ordonnanced colonnades, we allow a hint of wonder, of the clamour of past voices, to prove we are not prudes, not puritans. We encourage diversity. As the people need their carnival or Saturnalia, the release of bottled energy, so the dictionary needs its nonce-words, to throw the makes and thises and perspicuouses into clearer relief, as good, upstanding members of lexical populace.

But— but this, this horror: this Trissotetras. All puffed up with arrogant frankensteins, choked and garbled, a masturbatory mess of syllables. Like that other book— what was it, yes? Finnegan's something? No expansion of the society, of the literature, of the language, just halls of heavy mirrors closed off to the world. We cannot encourage that sort of thing. Pantagruel we allow; The Jewel we allow. But not this Trissotetras. It may not be admitted to the Law. Let us abandon this beastly baby on a doorstep.

Will it be officious of me to observe that the Trissotetras is in danger of being left behind?

I say again, perhaps this doorkeeping is an aesthetic or ethical activity. The descriptivists, God bless them, want a grammar and a dictionary that do not prescribe, but only record. Who can blame them? As one of them recently said, 'how a language is used in the present is much more interesting than how it should be “properly” used'. Dealing with the fringes of the language—the neologisms, the portmanteaux and the nonce-words—we seem to see the necessity of choice. The lexical galaxy gets thinner, dimmer, as we recede from the centre; but it extends, in half-attested substance, to infinity. To admit all stray elements would be to admit typos, half-finished words, proper names, dords, and in all languages. Some words attested only once are accepted; others not. Thus we are forced to observe the rôle of personal judgement, unanswerable to absolute reasoning. The arbiters of the language, when their voice wavers, tell us why they arbitrate; what they would see in the Good Book.


John Cowan said...

Technical terms are par excellence the language of a community, viz. a technical community. But there is no such thing as a technical community of one; or, rather, there is, but the one is a crank. The concoctions of cranks may be fit for a concordance, but hardly for a dictionary.

(I looked in the Dictionary of the Scottish Language. Not there either, and rightly so.)

nnyhav said...

Going meta with something I found usefully applied to computer reprogramming back in the day, from Bentham: Phthisozoics ... the art of destroying such of the inferior animals, as, in the character of natural enemies, threaten destruction, or damage, to himself, or to animals [useful to him] ... OED describes etymology as erroneous; a bug crept in to what should have been phthirozoics ... so is this then entomology?

Brunellus said...

The appropriate image is surely not one of doorkeeping, as if books were like sixth-form teachers clamouring to have their protégés admitted, but one of foraging. This won't placate you entirely, of course – they can choose where to forage – but I thought it might lessen your sense of injury.

(PS. I owe you a reply, I know.)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Nnyhav: Yes, or an entymology; thanks for this.

Brunellus: It doesn't placate me! Like you say, they choose where to forage, and with choice comes decision-making, which is tantamount to door-keeping. And yes, you do owe me a reply, especially since I've been playing in your garden recently.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed to find another appreciator of Urquhart, who was a kind of Inverse Spinoza in my mind.

As to your thought:

"But not a single entry from the Trissotetras. Why is the one work slighted for the other?"

I haven't looked in a while, but I believe that under the very usable word "zetetic" there is a first usage reference to the Trissotetras, which employs my favorite Urquhart word, "loxogonospherical":

"Zetetick, is said of loxogonospherical moods that agree in the same quaesitas, from Zetiw, quaro, inquiro"

found in the Lexicidon of the Trissotetras, page 145 of The Works.

It seems that the Trissotetras was not left completely out of history.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Many thanks, you are quite right; 'zetetic' seems to have been a nonce-word that stuck. I look forward to exploring your own website in more detail.

Anonymous said...

Cheers Conrad,

What I find most hilarious about the OED reference is that the Urquhart example sentence, other than its etymology, gives almost no clue to the meaning of the word itself,

"Zetetick, is said of loxogonospherical moods that agree in the same quaesitas, from Zetiw, quaro, inquiro"

Most wonderfully, nested in the middle of it is the consternating composite "loxogonospherical" (a word I am still fathoming). I often wondered how many words had the privilege of appearing in the OED without themselves having a defintion. Perhaps you know how rare this, I do not.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I do have a feeling I've come across this phenomenon before, but I can't think of which word. (Perhaps another Urquhart item.) It is certainly very rare!

Anonymous said...


You seem to be much better versed in the mathematics of Urquhart's work, and perhaps can help me understand just what he means by "loxogonospherical". As he writes,

"Logogonospherical" is said of oblique sphericals," and,

"Zetetick, is said of loxogonospherical moods that agree in the same quaesitas"

From the diagrams and what little I understand of the geometry he is describing I have a sense of it, but I am unclear about the last of these. What does it mean for loxogonospherical moods to agree in the same quaesitas?

If you have the time and inclination I would appreciate some light here as I am a bit convinced that Urquhart is saying or implying something more than simple mathematics.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, I can't say I really understand the thing, but given that William Wallace couldn't make head or tail of it, I'm not too ashamed.

But a loxogonospherical triangle is one which has no right angle, as opposed to an orthogonospherical triangle, which does have one or more. Thus if two persons were standing on the equator, the triangle formed by their positions and the North Pole would be orthogonospherical, since it would contain two right angles (and three if the two persons are 1/4 around the equator from each other).

The quaesitas is more obscure, and seems to be the result (literally that which is sought) of a given logarithmic operation. I wonder if a pair of moods agreeing 'in the same quaesitas' are akin to a topological homotopy, but I am not sure, and welcome the guesses, or better yet, knowledgeable claims, of more trigonometrically-inclined readers.

Anonymous said...


Thanks much. It makes things a bit clearer.

To give some more thoughts, I went some distance on this term, loxogonospherical, realizing that Apollo's epiphet was The Loxian, likely due to the obliqueness of his prophecies (or even the diseases he lords). I had the feeling that for Urquhart that trigonometry provides the keys to an interlocking, and spherical conception of the world in which even the most oblique values can be quantified, as they are born of the sphere (where there are only apparent distortions). That he calls these angles "moods" reflects a kind of amazing conflation of grammatical designation (verbal moods), affections of the mind and body(human emotions) and here mathematical degrees of openness. The rationality opens up these three into one comprehensiive begetting sphere-form.

There is a parallel of this kind of interlocking coherence (albeit with a great deal more sobriety and precision) in Urquhart's contemporary, Spinoza, who sought to treat human emotions as if they were lines and planes in Euclidean fashion.

It strikes me that in the pursuit of a universal language, Urquhart falls into something of the universal language ambitions of mathematical, rational ambitions of the Age underdistress.

John Cowan said...

I have now closed the circle and read the Unstrung Harp in a little hardback, on the (impersonal, but nonetheless good) recommendation of Lois McMaster Bujold.