Monthly Archives: October 2013

Why the clicks?

Imagine if someone, instead of saying your name, replaced the first consonant of it with “tsk!” – for instance, “Tsk! ames” for “James.” Now imagine that that was somehow more polite than just saying your name. Now imagine that English started adding clicks to its words just for that sort of reason. Well, it’s already happened in Zulu and Xhosa – it’s how they got their clicks. Find out more in my latest article for TheWeek.com:

A brief history of African click words

oasis

What is an oasis? An interruption, a place in the middle of a sameness where you will find nothing the same – zero (0) as-is. In a desert, a great expanse of sand and dust with no trees and no water, an oasis is a pause for refreshment, an interruption of a spring and vegetation.

So what would an oasis be in the middle of a sea? When there is water, water, everywhere, an oasis of the sea could be a bit of land, but that would be just an island. Interrupt all that you expect about the sea, and in the interruption put metal, a shopping concourse, trees, people, dry surface, and few views of the surrounding water, and you have an oasis of the sea – indeed, an Oasis of the Seas, which is the largest cruise ship in the world.

As I type this I am sitting on the Oasis of the Seas in a park surrounded by a half-dozen storeys of balcony suites. There are trees and other plants, real ones; there is an open view above of the night sky. There is no sound or smell or sight of the sea, and barely even any motion to make you think there may not be bedrock beneath you. If I go to my cabin and lean over the balcony railing, I can see a long high wall of balconies, an enormous hotel, and where it should meet the ground it instead meets the sea. A building is simply cruising around, and a very large building at that. And while we find ourselves in the middle of water now, whenever we stop we head to a sandy beach: all these people, all this water, and they all seek that bit of desert that sits between forest and ocean.

Well, why not. A vacation is a liminal experience; why not seek the limen? Or perhaps not so much a limen – a transition between one state and another – as an excursion, a digression, an interruption, an epicycle. A getaway, an explosion of something-elseness into the constancy of your quotidian existence. This ship certainly is that. If you want a getaway, get Oasis for your getaway system. For a week you can live like royalty. Royal Caribbean? Well, yes, but also Cleopatra. She was an burst of Greek into Egypt; oasis is (as far as we know) as burst of Egyptian into Greek. And now a burst of Greek into English, but really, English has quite a lot of Greek in it.

It’s getting a little busy here in Central Park on the Oasis of the Seas. After I write this and post it, perhaps I’ll go up top and survey the surrounding dark ocean. And how will I post it from in the middle of the Caribbean? Oh, there’s internet here. Lately, you’re only away from the internet if you want to be. And even then its electromagnetic waves flow through you, just as the common flow of humanity is always there like space-time, even though you may except yourself from its immediate presence.

No man is an island, as John Donne said. But perhaps one may be an oasis. Here on this ship, I am among six thousand people. I like having all those people around; I get lonely if there are no people. But I don’t like having to be in the immediate presence of all of them, and deal with their noise, and walk slowly behind them because they are walking in a wide group at a very leisurely pace and I can’t get past. If there were only 20 people on this ship, it would be problematic, because you would very quickly get to know each other and have to acknowledge each other. With five hundred dozen, I can have all the people to ignore I could possibly want. I have enough people to be anonymous, and I can still find a place to get away from them in the middle of them: I can sit in this quiet park with a half-dozen people in sight at a time, while three decks down or a hundred metres away there are great masses of noisy people all being together. I want them there; I simply want to be in an oasis in the midst of them.

It’s just like the kind of party I like: lots of people all gathered together, and a place or two to get away from them, by myself or with one other person, a quiet corner or outlook with the roar of the party offstage. You can’t do that at a small party, and it’s not the same if there’s no one else. I want to have people to get away from, to ignore, to be an exception to. I want to be an oasis.

hypnopomp

This word appears to be falling into – or out of – something, the h tumbling to y and into the pillow-person p with cushion n o and again the p and more cushion o m and again the p: is it falling asleep? Or is it falling from sleep? If you know your Greek prefixes you know hypo is below, but no, not below: hypno, sleep… and if you know your Sanskrit you know om, the divine syllable, the chant of meditation, a state not sleep but other than normal wakefulness… As you come from sleep you find your pillow is plump, but that means you are becoming aware. You are greeted by reality… with pomp? But are you aware of the circumstance?

F.W.H. Meyers named the two liminal bookends of sleep. That state leading into sleep is hypnagogic (also spelled hypnogogic): your rational mind relaxes, lets the dream world ease it, intrude; it opens, dilates, reality becomes elastic as your brain becomes chalastic. You are agog as you are led into the dreamworld – it is ἀγωγός agogos, Greek ‘leading’. But the state leading out of sleep is hypnopompic, the pomp from Greek πομπή pompé ‘sending away’, and is characterized by the reverse process: the oneiric visions persist into reality for a moment or a time before disappearing, the emotional associations fading like bright colours in the harsh sun of the rational world, or evaporating like spirits on a drying surface, or simply evanescing like a flame taken from its fuel.

And, as a psychopomp is a spirit guide, is a hypnopomp a guide out of the world of dreams? No – hypnopomp is simply the name for the hypnopompic state. The state says goodbye to itself, it is its own valedictorian; the setting is the character. Why not? Such is the fluidity of the state from which your are emerging.

But sometimes, surely, we wonder what is hypnopompic and what is hypnagogic. I am sitting now in one or the other: I have left the quotidian repetition, the fever dream of daily work, the samsara of commute-compute-commute-compute, for a week in a freer state, the obligations being only to eat, relax, enjoy myself, show up to a few things on time, write. Every time I do this I feel as though I am awakening to freedom. And every time I come back from it I feel as though I am awakening from a restful dream. But what is the more real: the free self, intoxicated but open and joyous, or the constrained self, seeking only further sips of intoxication and freedom? Why, when we have a last resonating savour, not altogether faded, of some beautiful vision, do we think we are in a hypnopomp, leaving behind a dream? Perhaps we are in a hypnagog, losing our grip on the truth we had found, and we may yet awake again to find it once more.

Thanks to Anthony Shore for suggesting today’s theme.

Perm

Language goes through many permutations and permanent mutations. It can be rather like hair: styles come in, styles go out, but sometimes the style changes the form quite a bit, permanently.

When you see the name Perm, you will likely think first of a perm, a thing one can do for styling hair. Chemicals break down the inner structure of the hairs, making them more susceptible to reshaping; heat and physical devices reshape them. This perm is short for permanent wave, and has been in the language as such from the 1920s. Permanent comes from Latin per ‘through’ and manere ‘stay’; we can see that in perm most of the manere has not remained. Fashion led to the curtailing of the word form, and that curtailing seems to be enduring, although the memory of the original is not altogether lost.

But there is another Perm, a capitalized one (well capitalized with industry – except, oops, industry built up during communist times), a city of a million people in Russia, in the Ural area, straddling the Kama river, suturing it with bridges. It was founded in the 1500s and renamed in 1780 as Perm. My Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place Names declares that this came from Finnish perya ‘rear’ and maa ‘land’, because to the Vep people who had moved to the area from closer to Finland it was really the back of beyond.

So this Perm is also styled, cut down from peryamaa. But it has grown out to a new form: Permian, which is the name of a geologic period, the last period of the Paleozoic Era, ending some 252 million years ago with a rather massive extinction episode. At the time, all the land masses of Earth were one big Pangaea, which subsequently broke up and left formerly contiguous bits widely separated. And, anent that, in parallel with the Vep displacement and the dislocation of the back half of perm, deposits from the Permian Period have come to be found in widely separated places. Near Perm is one such place, of course (hence the name), but another is in northwest Texas, an area commonly called the Permian Basin, a source of much oil production (i.e., reusing old stuff for new ends) and home of towns such as Marfan and Odessa (another far-removed place name duplication). From cold and communist to hot and capitalist – such a split.

There’s also a split in pronunciation. You know how perm is pronounced: three phonemes, thanks to a syllabic /r/ in the middle – like “purr” with “mm” added at the end. Soft, lazy, comfortable. You might suspect that Perm would be said a little differently, and you would be right. In perm the tongue may curl comfy like a cat in the mouth, but in Perm, the end is palatalized due to the source, and the beginning is palatalized due to Russian phonemics. This word begins and ends in bilabials that physically cannot palatalize, but the tongue twists for them anyway because they are nonetheless phonemically “palatalized.” And so is the /r/, which actually can be, but maybe don’t hurt yourself trying. The tongue doesn’t loll its body lazily near the palate; it presses its blade parlously close to the alveolar ridge, as if curled unnaturally – though the sounds are natural enough to Russian speakers.

Imagine actually seeing the tongue doing that. Imagine, say, taking an ultrasound wand and putting it under your chin and looking at the screen-borne phantom of the tongue twerking away in the interests of phonological fashion. As it happens, I had the chance to see just that sort of thing this afternoon, in a linguistics talk called “Tracking and Imaging the Tongue: New insights into language-particular phonetic variability,” presented by Alexei Kochetov – now of the University of Toronto, but originally from Perm.

chalastic

Now, here’s a scholastic word for an elastic vocabulary. First thing to know about it is that we pronounce the ch as /k/. The rest of the pronunciation should be obvious (stress on the middle syllable, please). The sense is perhaps less so. Is there a savour of challah, or something cataskeuastic about it, or perhaps choleric, pyroclastic, or even cataclysmic? Hmm, rather not. Does it seems like a word that could be chic? Alas! That does not suit it to a t.

But if on the other hand it makes you cataplectic or acts as a laxative, well, congratulations: you have divined it. The word comes from Greek χαλᾶν khalan ‘relax’, from which issued χαλαστικός khalastikos ‘laxative’. So, yup, that Dulcolax you have in the cabinet is a chalastic – never mind the hard stops at front and back of the word /k/ /k/ that would seem to contain the liquid /l/ in the middle. But the other sense of it relates not to intestinal relaxation but to full-body loss of tone: cataplexy or sleep paralysis – in fact, sleep paralysis is sometimes called a post-dormitial chalastic fit. Which, honestly, is a bit of terminology that may induce its object.

enchiridion

This is a big word for a small thing, a fancy word for a thing that may well be plain. It has an air of encyclopedic enquiry, but if you are enriched by an enchiridion it is because it is condensed, information-rich. The word may look a little out of hand, but it is all about keeping things well in hand – literally: its Greek source is a word made of ἐν en ‘in’ plus χείρ cheir ‘hand’ (you see this also in words such as chiropractic) plus a diminutive suffix ιδιον idion. It names a handbook, a little manual, a concise treatise on something. Rather than hacking through the dense bush of an encyclopedic disquisition for the birds of enlightenment, an enchiridion gives you a bird in the hand.

The word pushes off with a kick from the back and then dances on the tip of the tongue; the chi rhymes with “sky” and the the stress is on the rid. The printed form looks a bit like a stretched-out accordion, but in the meaning, as with accordions, it is the compression that produces the effect.

There are several books of note that call themselves enchiridions. Perhaps the most noted of these is the Enchiridion of Epictetus, written by a Roman philosopher who had been a slave but was freed when his master was executed. It expounds stoic philosophy – a philosophy perhaps best expressed in the modern time by the prayer, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The Enchiridion is actually condensed notes by a student of Epictetus, and it cuts to the chase, starting off by telling us that we can change the things that are within our power, and can’t change the things that aren’t within our power, and if something is not in our power, we have no reason to attach our happiness or unhappiness to it, and if it is in our power, we should simply do what will achieve our goals. Do not desire; simply act, or be detached. It seems at first like good, practical philosophy, and is in line with insights offered by Buddhism, among other lines of inquiry, but it does run into the problem of discernment of what is and is not within our control – and there is also the fact that sometimes we enjoy our attachments to things beyond our control, even if we risk negative feelings should we lose them. Most people will find stoicism is very useful much of the time – but sometimes you just want to let things get a little out of hand, just as you sometimes want to use a fancier word than you need to.

bibelot

Ah, those loveable liquids and bilabials, blubbering their inimitable obligato over and under the laborious lumbering blather, belonging to and yet abnegating the rebarbative obnubilating rhubarb. They are like little bibelots, perhaps those imbibible bibelots brought by a bibulous libertine: presentable bottles in inimitable shapes, bulbs of ablutions and oblique solutions, little flasks of liquor convertible into baubles. How the /b/ and /l/ sounds bubble the language, lapping and bursting, burbling like a jabberwock, or jubilating like the balls and bits on a tannenbaum! Bibelots? Indubitably.

Of course, one could make a case for any lapidary phoneme to be a bit of a bibelot. Language is a toybox, a knick-knack shelf full of geegaws and tchotchkes, but exceedingly useful ones. Even if you imbibe a lot of vocabulary, you will still find the individual sounds to be as rubies and berylliums. Or at least as loveable as, say, a collection of souvenir bells or stoppered bottles. And of course they assemble into words that have even more collectible amiability.

Take bibelot. Yes, here, take it. Keep it; there’s lots to go around. It’s borrowed from French, which is why we are meant to say it as “bib-lo” or, in the French manner, like English “be below.” It comes from Old French bel ‘pretty’ (also seen in archaic English bellibone, a pretty and nice girl, from belle et bonne), reduplicated playfully to belbel, and thence to beubelet, and finally into the modern form, borrowed into English less than a sesquicentury ago. It is a collectible, a curio, a trinket, a small souvenir, a little talisman or fetish, perhaps. And, as it happens, that is also what it means. So it is a lovely little bauble to bestow on an amiable bibliophile bellibone lingually and bilabially (with your tongue and lips).