Daily Archives: January 29, 2014

tiny, perfect

In one small corner of Word Country is a tiny, perfect garden. Yes, if good things come in small packages, it seems natural, doesn’t it, that tiny things may be perfect. This is a carefully pruned garden, each leaf just so, every frond so simply fond, everything so beautifully and precisely arrayed like a small jewel in the most exquisite setting on a little pendant hanging over the finest clavicle your eyes will ever merely glimpse. It is as neat as a pin, a pin with an infinity of angels dancing delicate quadrilles on its head simply to capture your interest.

And in this garden the flowers are passages, pieces from books and articles, and every one of them contains “tiny, perfect” or “tiny perfect” – comma or no comma; one is tinier and one is more perfect, but together they are homozygotic twins, between them tiny and perfect, the only difference a beauty spot.

Such an interesting pair of words, tiny and perfect. We know what perfect is and has been: it comes to us ultimately from Latin perfectus, ‘thoroughly made, entirely realized’; a thing is perfect if it has reached its pinnacle of… well, of perfection, of course. And grammatically the perfective aspect is an action that has been entirely completed: present perfect, “I have done it”; past perfect, “I had done it.” But tiny we are not so sure of. It may be related to a Scots word, tine; some people would trace it to plausible French or Latin etymons, but there is no trail of evidence. So perfect is fully formed and we know how it came to be, while tiny seems to have sprung into the world fully realized from the forehead of a faerie.

Let us lift some of these delicate leaves in our tiny, perfect garden and reveal the tiny, perfect blossoms that shelter beneath them. They come from many places and many times. There is a strong collection from Toronto, where there was a mayor in the 1970s, David Crombie, who was called the “tiny, perfect mayor”; the seeds of that plant have spread locally. But we see tiny, perfect in all sorts of places. I cannot begin to display all the little blossoms in this garden; the closer you look the more of them there are. But let us look at a tidy triad of recent appearances:

a quavering New York voice with little range singing songs of alienation and despair, with flashes of impossible hope and of those tiny, perfect days and nights we want to last for ever, important because they are so finite and so few
—Neil Gaiman on Lou Reed, The Guardian, October 28, 2013

We praise the tiny perfect Moles
That garden underground;
The Ant, the Worm, the Nematode,
Wherever they are found
—Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

Order quail and you receive exactly half the bird: one tiny, perfect breast, cooked swiftly in foie gras butter, and one tiny, perfect leg, simmered in stock and deep-fried.
—Ligaya Mishan, review of The Musket Room, New York Times, December 12, 2013

We have the sense, perhaps, that tiny is somehow not enough and tiny little is just too little and not perfect enough. Food reviewers seem to particularly like tiny, perfect, as in “tiny, perfect tea sandwiches,” “tiny, perfect canelé,” “tiny, perfect strawberries,” “tiny, perfect vegetarian hamburgers,” “tiny, perfect pizzas,” “tiny, perfect Melba toast rolls,” and on. I think food reviewers simply love to listen to themselves write; they want to write reviews as delicious as the food they fantasize of eating. But their reviews are often as self-conscious as a tiny, perfect dollop of the most exquisite finger-whipped cream scented with just a breath of lavender and perched delicately on top of your locally raised organic tempeh cheeseburger.

I do not wish to be too hard on food reviewers, although their reviews often leave me feeling as crusty as the slabs of perfectly golden toast on which they are forever munching. Art reviewers also like tiny, perfect, and anyone speaking of gardens and flowers runs a considerable chance of using the phrase. Certain other delicate things such as small birds can likewise be “tiny, perfect.” But really quite anyone wishing to call forth an air of the sensitive and exquisite and lexically sapid may be tempted by this saffron tendril of literary seasoning. Even when writing a eulogy of Lou Reed.

Let us wander into the oldest corner of the garden. I have been trying to find a mother plant, one whose seeds have blossomed into all these others, but I have not found a certain source, a tall poppy of tiny, perfect dispersing its tiny, perfect seeds over this tiny, perfect plot. All I can say with some certainty is that this collocation shows up first in my searches in the middle 1800s, and its usage has grown unevenly over the years but is now higher than ever before. Here is a gift set of three of the most time-tempered stock:

her tiny, perfect figure looks quite fairy-like when contrasted with his six feet of stature.
—Virginia De Forrest, “How Effie Hamilton Spent Christmas,” Godey’s Magazine, volume 55, 1857

As the bold Lomonds, bold to a Southern, and the little secluded den, and each tiny perfect leaf and flower and dim floating fleecy cloud were to Janet’s bodily vision, so was Shakespeare to her mental regard
—Henrietta Keddie, “Lady Strathmore’s Daughter,” Family Herald, volume 15, 1857

This last one I am fondest of. It recounts a plumber’s dream:

He is – so his fancy paints him to himself – crawling about upon a church roof, about to solder up a defect in it, when, by one of those unaccountable incidents which we take very quietly when they come to us in dreams, down goes the ladle of boiling metal into a pool in the street below. “Try again,” says old Honesty; and he descends to get his ladle and his lead. The former is there sure enough, but the latter is represented by a myriad of tiny, perfect spheres. With real material lead, and his eyes wide open, he goes through next morning the exact process he has noticed in his dream, and – inaugurates the manufacture of lead-shot!
—J. Coryton, “Accidental Inventions,” Macmillan’s Magazine, volume 4, 1861

Tiny, perfect spheres of lead, to load into your less-than-tiny gun. Perfect for massacring tiny, perfect birds and making confetti of tiny, perfect flowers. Even tiny, perfect things may be perfectly bad, and the angels dancing on the pinhead may after all be angels of death.

You may have deduced that I find this cute little collocation to be a bit twee at times. But I do like tiny, perfect things, mistake me not. Indeed, it is easier for things to be perfect if they are tiny; greatness leads to grossness, and in Brobdingnagian close-up one can see all sorts of defects. When we follow the florets of fractals down, we know that the small ones are simply the same as the larger, but in their tininess it is easier to see perfection, because the frayed ends are simply too small for our eyes to resolve. Kittens are more perfect than cats, even though they are less fully formed, just because they are tiny, and they fill our needs in just the right way – their downy hair and their wondering eyes, but also their innocuous but biting teeth and their little pin claws that hurt only just enough and not too much.

Go, vocatives! Go invocations!

A reader of Sesquiotica emailed me to ask about which is correct if you’re cheering someone on: “Go, Veronica!” or “Go Veronica!” (If the person isn’t Veronica, substitute the correct name, obviously.)

My answer is that it depends somewhat on context. If I’m addressing Veronica directly, I’d include the comma, as “Go” is a complete imperative (command) by itself and the “Veronica” is a vocative – her name used just to indicate I’m addressing her. If I addressed her and then said “go” it would also have a comma: “Veronica, go!”

If, on the other hand, I’m cheering for her at some event where she can’t necessarily hear me and I’m really not addressing her directly, just invoking her, I might more likely use “Go Veronica!” because in that case “Go” is not really a direct imperative, it’s an expression of support like “Up with Veronica” or “Long live Veronica,” and the “Veronica” is part of the same expression to indicate who I’m cheering for.

A lot of people don’t put a comma in for the first case either, but if you want to be formally correct, add it in.

There are also cases where a comma will help even if it’s an invocation – for instance, if your team are called The Nuts, “Go Nuts!” can mean something different from “Go, Nuts!” And fans of Minnesota’s hockey team may or may not be sensitive to the difference between “Go, Wild!” and “Go Wild!” (I’m inclined to think in this case that the effect would be the same, however.)


Could you chew gummy things if you were entirely gummy?

Elephants go through several sets of teeth in their lifetimes, and when the last ones are gone, they may starve to death, as they’re not able to chew the plants they eat on their gums. Would they be able to chew gum, I wonder?

Gums and gum may seem to have some things in common: they’re both soft, after all, and both are thought of as involved somehow in chewing. The word gummy is itself rather gummy: a voiced stop /g/ is softer than a voiceless one /k/ – somewhat as gums are to teeth – and the mm is surely soft and looks more than a little like teeth or gums. Granted, sticky has a certain sticky something that gummy doesn’t capture but that gum has, but gummy is gummier in every way than viscid, which is nonetheless a term one may apply to gum, though not to the gums.

But is the relation between gum and gums a gimme? Not at all. Although both are gummy, the etymology is gummed up. From Greek comes the word κόμμι kommi referring to the secretion of certain trees – sticky, chewy perhaps, and soluble, unlike resin. It moved into Latin as cummi and gummi, which became Italian gomma and French gomme. Meanwhile, from Germanic roots came the Old English góma to refer to soft tissues inside the mouth, and particularly the ones at the base of the teeth. So the two have gum together, I mean come together, in form in English since the Middle English period.

You may be interested to know that gummy referring to toothlessness has been in use in English for little over a century, as far as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, but gummy meaning chewy and sticky like gum from a tree has been in use in English since the 1300s at least. I must admit I wonder, though, whether both kinds of gummy aren’t intended in this quotation from 1520: “Her lewde lyppes twayne They slauer, men sayne, Lyke a ropye rayne, A gummy glayre.”

Speaking of lewd and lurid things, there is another sense of gummy, meaning ‘gummatous’. What does that mean? Of the nature of, or resembling, a gumma. What is a gumma? A syphilitic tumour so named due to the gummy nature of its contents. In other words, this gummy has gotten chewed up and blown into a bubble that, come full circle, pops.

So there is nothing elevated or lovely or lofty about gummy, then, is there? Hmmm. Poets and authors of literature have not always seemed to agree. Here is perhaps a bit more of gummy than you can bear:

Time the slant lightning, whose thwart flame, driven down,
Kindles the gummy bark of fir or pine
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

Sing on! sing on! and Bacchus will be here
Astride upon his gorgeous Indian throne,
And over whimpering tigers shake the spear
With yellow ivy crowned and gummy cone,
While at his side the wanton Bassarid
Will throw the lion by the mane and catch the mountain kid!
—Oscar Wilde, “The Burden of Itys”

Now while the earth was drinking it, and while
Bay leaves were crackling in the fragrant pile,
And gummy frankincense was sparkling bright
’Neath smothering parsley, and a hazy light
Spread greyly eastward, thus a chorus sang
—John Keats, Endymion

They were both in the prime of youth, or even in that season which precedes the prime of youth, the season before the smooth pink folds of the flower have burst their gummy case, when the wings of the butterfly, though fully grown, are motionless in the sun.
—Virginia Woolf, Monday or Tuesday

And whenever he emptied his tumbler of punch
He ’d not rest till he fill’d it full again.
The boozing, bruising Irishman,
The ’toxicated Irishman—
The whiskey, frisky, rummy, gummy, brandy, no dandy Irishman.
—William Maginn, “The Irishman and the Lady”

Hmm, well, yes, that last one is not so lofty, now, is it? Gummy may be vivid and viscid, thick and sticky and in a particular way poetic, but in the end it is, after all, gummy, with all that comes with that. It sticks to its origins.