Tag Archives: The Spanner

mode, model, modest

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0011.

I was recently wandering the art gallery – as is lately my mode – scanning the exhibited pictures but also appreciating the two-legged artworks engaging in the same activity. Galleries are good places to see society à la mode: the chilly cream that adorns the pie of life. The clothing is often especially modish. On this particular day, my eyes were drawn to a model of near perfection.

When I say a model, I do not think that she was actually a fashion model, although she did look like a fashion plate (perhaps the plate on which was served the pie). I was told by another person that she was a dancer. But what she was in any event was style itself: as long and lean as a stylus, wearing a dress draped loosely over her sleek figure from neck to toes and a hat with a brim so wide that from most angles her face was invisible. She was not the mode, because the mode is what is most common and she was uncommon; but as fashion is mode, and she was most fashionable, she certainly was the modest. And since her skin was covered completely and neatly concealed from view, her dress was modest, even as it was outstanding.

Is it right to play with mode and modest in that way? Surely modest is not just the superlative of mode…?

No, it’s not, but it does come from it, in a roundabout way. We start with modus, Latin for ‘measure’ or ‘manner’. From it we get mode as in the most common measurement in a set, one kind of ‘average’ (in {1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 72}, the mode is 3 although the mean is 14). We also get mode as in fashion, and as in music (Phrygian? Dorian? Phryg-Dorian?), and mood as in grammar but not as in thought (so the song ‘If I were a rich man’ is in a Phrygian mode and a subjunctive mood, and is not modest in its aspirations). And we get moderate.

Moderate, the verb, means to make something more measured, restrained. Something that has been moderated is, in Latin, modestus. Thus modest. Not extravagant. But one can have extravagantly much fabric leaving extravagantly little skin to be seen and yet consider it modest rather than simultaneously prodigal and parsimonious.

In modern times, modesty may seem outmoded. But remember that modern is a model of mode too: in Latin, modo means ‘to the measure’ or ‘in a certain manner’ and came to mean ‘just now’; that ‘just now’ sense gave birth to modernus. So, if we want to be measured and just now, we can be ‘just now’ and ‘measured’ and that will somehow be the modern way.

So let us measure this model now. We will find at length that she is at a great length, and in a great length of fabric, but she is just a little bit of the mode. Indeed, she is not modus but its diminutive modellus, whence model. We may not think of models as being modest, but in name, at least, each model is a little modest.

This one is more than a little modest. By which I mean she is immodest in her visual salience, but she is quite modest in the fabric module she has enclosed herself in. And she is the chief picture at this exhibition. Oh, there is art, and plenty of it: pictures of buildings, pictures of fairy tales, pictures of rich and poor, all well orchestrated. But she brings electricity to it, which means she is a conductor, and she brings exquisite composition to it, which means she is a composer. And we know who composed Pictures at an Exhibition.

Yes, of course. Modest Mussorgsky. He was named after a Saint Modestus, a man named for exemplify a virtue. Modest Mussorgsky was Modest but his music was specular and spectacular, and he drank immodest amounts and did not live longer than the mode for his time.

Meanwhile, in modern times, our chief picture at this exhibition, our modest model, leans forward to peer at a painting from beneath her brim (thus allowing the draped dress to reveal her callipygian quarters). And, having elevated the mood, she moves on.

adventure, misadventure

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0010.

“I will take you by a dear dirty back way, Miss Honeychurch, and if you bring me luck, we shall have an adventure.” —Eleanor Lavish, in A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster.

Thus was the devotchka invited by the diva to an adventure, a diversion. To venture forth to the invention of novelty, voler au vent… But they were overcome and when they came to, they were not in Florence but in Villa Verba, city of words, and their dear dirty back ways had happened to take a different cast.

For what is an adventure? Not a vision of a nun and a novena, no; it is a tour or turn of sorts; but how does it happen to be as it is? Nature or nurture? Does it simply arrive or is it sought? Or do we seek its arrival?

Miss Lavish ventured to find its advent. But what she came to was to come: venire. She sought an uncertain future, quod futurus est, ‘which is about to be’ – is becoming. And she wished ‘to come to’ it: advenire. And what it will ‘have come to’: adventus.

Such is her Vedanta, her path to self-realization in ultimate reality. She has a vendetta against stasis. But now she is looking down this alley of words, and although she has bundled the Baedeker away in her bag, she may be wishing that she had Roget – or at least Bartlett, Miss Lucy Honeychurch’s chaperone. For when etymology turns anfractuous, one may be heading for an accident.

An accident: something that has simply happened. So, too, is – was – an adventure. Simply a thing that happened; it came to pass. Chance, fortune, luck. If Miss Honeychurch brings luck, they shall have luck. But o, Fortuna, velut Luna (not Lucy): Miss Lavish seeks fortune, and it shall tell out as it will – lavishly or not. When you seek chance, if you find it, you shall indeed have adventure.

“Lost! lost! My dear Miss Lucy, during our political diatribes we have taken a wrong turning. How those horrid Conservatives would jeer at us! What are we to do? Two lone females in an unknown town. Now, this is what I call an adventure.”

In the back alleys of Villa Verba, the inversions will put in you a trance position. You seek adventure but you find it in broken parts: a turn, beyond which lurks a raven duet; if you evade it you will slip into the never; if you think your sense of direction is trued you will see it denature at a v in the road; in a fit of vertigo, you find yourself due in a tavern, and if you are naïve and invade further you will be mastered and can only hope that you will, through the stirring mist, find a rudiment to save you, but your number is up, a sum inverted… for you have drunk over your draft, and your fortune is misfortune: when the pieces come back together you have met your match through a misadventure.

Thus is the reality of our ventures revealed. We think adventure is something that we do: we go forth and happen to the world. But when the world happens to us, we are absolved of responsibility; there is no misconduct, no miscreant, no negligence. Simply death by misadventure.

Then something did happen.

Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. “Cinque lire,” they had cried, “cinque lire!” They sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.

Miss Honeychurch recalls later on how the spot came to her dress. It was no fault of her own. There was a young man, yes. So she says. But oh, where is the clever lady and her lavish words? Did she find her adventure? Miss Honeychurch remembers how she was misled by Miss Lavish, hoping for a happening but being happened to unhappily in the alleys and vialetti. Words were getting to her and yet had gotten away from her. So she made her choice: she stole a space so she could find her honey and a church, and when she came to, Miss Adventure had seen her end by misadventure as the word closed in on her.

The city of words is a casually acausally cruel place.


Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0009.

Let’s play synonym substitution.

Game one: Peter Gabriel – a song: “Jar the Monkey.” Hmm. “Traumatise the Monkey.” Um, “Jolt the Monkey.” Tsk. “Apply an Electric Current to the Monkey.” Oh dear. No.

Game two: Gilbert and Sullivan – from another song: “Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp jolt.” Well… “…a short, sharp blow.” Yes, but… “…a short, sharp disturbance to the senses.” Oh, no. Really?

Game three: Casablanca – Captain Renault: “I’m appalled – appalled! – to find that gambling is going on in here.” Well, yes, but it’s not quite… “I’m surprised – surprised!” Well, Rick is the one surprised now. “I’m scandalized – scandalized!” Oh deeaaarr. “I’m taken aback – taken aback!” Seriously?

By now this shock of examples may have produced a shock of recognition (I will not say shock and awe, though). It should not be shocking, though, to note that synonyms are never quite exact substitutions. They have different shades of meaning, different ambits. And, quite importantly in some cases, they have different sounds.

Few of the alternatives to shock have anything close to its onomatopoeic effect. Jolt, perhaps, and maybe jar. But shock is more of a jolt than jolt, more jarring than jar. It slides in on a voiceless alveopalatal fricative, the same sound you use to hush another person or imitate escaping steam, a sound that, made emphatically, involves pursing the lips and showing the teeth in an aggressive, perhaps simian fashion. Then, after a brutally short low back vowel, just a transition from the release of the tongue at the front to the connection at the back, everything stops: air is blocked through the mouth and the nose, and the voice abruptly ceases. In fact, the voice cuts out a moment before the air flow stops. Short and sharp indeed.

Shock is the sound of a silverware drawer being slammed shut, of a sliding door cutting you off, of a sabre being sheathed, of curling rock knocking another or two sledges colliding or a hockey cross-check. It is not a crash; that starts with crack and fades off, like the sound of the word cosh. It is not a chop, which sounds like chop or chock. It is not a knock, which sounds like cock, or a pop, which sounds (of course) like pop. The word shop has a similar profile, as has shot, but listen how much more resonant that [k] is in the back. You come close with sock, and it is surely a shock to be socked in the jaw, but the fricative sliding into sock does not have the aggressive pursing of the lips and biting together of the front teeth. Perhaps the closest in sound is shook, an abrupt word for a frequentative action, but with a higher and hollower vowel.

Words do not have to sound like what they represent, of course; that fact should come as a shock to none. But when they do, it adds effect. And some words add effect by sounding like something related. Our verb and related noun shock come from an Old Germanic word that seems to be imitative, but shock of corn and shock of hair draw on one or two different Old Germanic words. There is nothing about them that presents a necessarily shocking image, and yet the word manages to convey a bunch as something a bit more like a bunch of exclamation points, just because it has that strong flavour of the more common shock, enhanced by the vividness of the sound.

Come, let’s play one more round of the game. Hamlet: “and by a sleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural impacts That flesh is heir to…” No, that’s not it at all… “the thousand natural collisions…” Not really… “the thousand natural indignities…” But there’s more and other to it… “the thousand natural jars…” Oh, heh heh. No, let it be shocks, naturally.

Clichés and picturesque language

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0008.

At first glance, English may seem to be going through a paradigm shift, with a  dizzying array of ways to put lipstick on the pig. This naturally provokes some push-back, even withering criticism, as we struggle to wrap our heads around it. But the upshot remains to be seen. Should we just run with it? Or should we step up to the plate and think outside the box? If you talk about the elephant in the room, will that mean you’re not a team player? Will you get thrown under a bus? And, on the other hand, at the end of the day, are we even truly at a crossroads?

More to the point, did that paragraph provoke you to hyperemesis?

We Anglophones have an apparently inexhaustible facility for creating clichés. A sharp turn of phrase or a particularly engaging image sparks interest and spreads like wildfire, and soon enough it’s tired and stale. This is not a new thing. Some hackneyed clichés of yesteryear have become so cemented that we continue to use them even though we no longer quite remember the literal reference. The result is sometimes what are called eggcorns: misconstrual of idiomatic words or phrases into things that make more sense to the modern eye and ear. This is how just deserts becomes just desserts, tide me over becomes tie me over, strait-laced and strait and narrow get straightened, sleight of hand gets slighted… Forget about trying to nip these in the bud in the nick of time; many of them are as old as the hills. You may look for the silver lining and try to make lemonade, but…

What? Oh, fine, I’ll stop. What I’ve really been doing is illustrating a central point of all of these: they’re all picturesque. They all involve metaphors. But in many cases the imagery is etiolated. The words are still there, and we could play with the images if we want, but for general use they are like posters or pin-ups that have been on the wall too long and are now faded to pale shades of cyan.

But that is how language works. Most language you use is made of metaphors and images that have lost their vividness and, in many cases, are no longer recognizable as imagery at all. Let us look at some “plain” words that could replace the clichés. Going through a paradigm shift – well, we could say changing, but that comes (much changed!) from a Latin word for bartering and exchanging, and may deriver further from an older word for bending or turning back. We could replace push-back with rejection, but reject is from Latin for “throw back.” If we prefer to understand rather than wrap our heads around, it ought not to take us too long to see the under and stand in understand. And if we go with comprehend? There’s the Latin again, meaning “grasp, seize” (remember that anything that can grab things is prehensile, from the same root). If you prefer betray to throw under a bus, you may want to know that the tray in betray conceals a Latin origin in trans plus dare, meaning “hand over.” And so it goes. Look back over this paragraph and try to find one verb I have used that isn’t a figurative use of a word with a physical reference: work, make, look, go… even prefer comes from Latin for “put in front, carry forward.”

In this way (as in a few others) English is like Chinese. I’m not talking about the Chinese use of imagery and metaphor, which is considerable; I mean the written form, the Chinese characters. People who aren’t familiar with Chinese characters may think of them as pictograms, resembling closely what they refer to. People who try to learn Chinese find very quickly that the characters generally give the reader nothing obvious to grab onto. This is because the characters are like our words and phrases that have had the imagery worn off them.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Look at the character for “look”: 看. Does that look like looking? How about after I tell you that it’s made of two parts, and the 手 was originally a hand (see the fingers? it has changed somewhat) and the 目 was originally an eye (it rotated 90˚ a long time ago; make the outside box curved and see the inside lines as making the edges of the iris)?

Now look at the character for “good”: 好. How does that look good, or like anything good? Well, the 女 part is the character for “woman,” and originally looked like a line drawing of a standing woman with her hands held in front of her. The 子 part is the character for “child,” and if you curve the top part and bend the crossbar down, you might begin to see an infant in swaddling clothes. It seems that, to the scribes who determined this character, the epitome of goodness was a mother and child.

Such is the way it goes, too, with our picturesque language. Time and tide, change and overuse, leave the imagery behind. But if you know how to look, it’s still good – and not altogether lacking in character.