World of Wordcraft

Today, dear readers, you are in for a treat, because I rarely write posts by request.

Of course, that’s mostly because I never receive requests for my posts. In fact, I’ve never received a request for a piece of my writing in any format, actually, apart from when I was a kid and mum was always asking me to write a letter to my grandma.

And there was that time the New Yorker phoned to say that some famous author had pulled out of a contractual arrangement at short notice, and they were desperate for a piece on the theme of rhinos and boiled eggs. Coincidentally, I happened to have such a piece lying around, just dripping with the diligent background research, months of interviews, and intelligent, well-informed interpretation of the content that their highbrow readership could appreciate. Personally, I thought it was quite a moving piece.

(Sadly, that piece was never published – for some reason, at the last minute New Yorker Magazine changed the theme for that week’s “Idiot’s Ramble” and didn’t go with my piece. I’ve followed them up, but the last time I phoned that editor, she’d had her number changed and quit the magazine, and no-one knew where she had gone.)

Anyway. Recently a reader, not even an imaginary one as far as I can tell, casually commented in a comment (where better to comment?) that I should write a post about words that have annoying spelling – silent letters, for example. This was because I mentioned that I can never spell rhythmn rhythm correctly first go. In an odd twist, that’s not because of its silent letter “h,” which could legitimately trip someone up, but because I suffer from a little-known, but quite debilitating, neurological condition, causing me to see a phantom letter “n” where no letter “n” really exists. Fortunately, the only circumstance in which I ever see that letter “n” is at the end of the word rhythm, so I’m able to live an almost normal life, and few people have ever guessed at the hardship I suffer in private.

Now, some people would not see that as a request, but based on the fact that FM radio stations can get away with pretending they’ve received “requests” for songs that no-one ever wants to hear, I think I can legitimately claim that comment was a “request” for me to write such a post, so here it is. An attempt to write a post about words, some of which may be annoyingly spelled.

If that endeavour fails, then at the very least, I’ll be using words to write the post, and some of them may be annoying.

Before we get on to words, though, I must point out that amongst the blogging community, not surprisingly, there are at least a few people with more than a passing interest in words. Even amongst those blogs I regularly read – I say “even” because I mostly read blogs that are personal, non-academic, and usually don’t follow a particular theme – there are plenty of bloggers who have a keen amateur interest in etymology, or linguistics, or maybe just know the rules of grammar and have a passion for seeing them implemented.

The reason I mention this is because, as usual, I am an expert in none of those things. Jack of all trades, master of none. Sure, I like words as well as the next guy, but not so much that I study up on their history. If I’ve written a post about a word – such as my post about cool – my focus has been about the concept the word embodies, rather than the word itself. I’m not so much into focussing on particular words. I like them best when they are in a group, as you can gather from the length of my posts.

Because words have meanings, I find them most interesting when juxtaposed against other words with seemingly no connection – for example, the random selection of words that ends up in the “Tag Cloud” on my blog simply because they are words I’ve written about and tagged more than any others.

A random selection of words I must like.

A selection of words I must like.

The enjoyment I get out of that random grouping is that my mind tries to make meanings from two unrelated words placed next to one another. In fact, I’m lying – it doesn’t even try, it just enjoys their meaningless juxtaposition. Maybe when I read those words, in a milli-second, faster than I can concsiously register, my mind tries to combine the words, and finds the outcome amusing. Being too slow to catch the speed of that transaction at a conscious level, all I register is that the juxtaposition makes me chuckle. Perhaps I will do a series based on the Tag Cloud, and see what I can manage to write about Christmas cockroaches, existentialism eyeballs, Radiohead rhinos, and Simon and Garfunkle spam stars.

Outside of chuckling at random pairings of otherwise unconnected words, I like words best when they are strung together to form a sentence that communicates an idea. Now there’s an idea for my epitaph:

She liked words, but only when they were strung together to form a sentence like this. 

(Whether I run with that one or not, it’s almost certain that my epitaph will be the shortest piece of writing I will ever be associated with. But if it happens that, by the time of my demise, advances in technology have developed an inexpensive way to engrave a 1500 word essay about some ridiculous topic onto a headstone, I will instruct the executors of my estate to take that option.)

But back to the topic at hand. Words. Yes, really, the further I dig myself into this post, the more I think that I’m the wrong person to write a post about interesting words, annoying words, or words of any sort, because I don’t really collect and analyse words as some people do – probably as any aspiring writer-type should do.

It’s a huge failing on my part, that probably highlights what a lazy would-be writer I am.

Why, just a few months ago, I read a post about favourite words, and, much as I would have liked to contribute my own favourite words in the comments, I discovered that I was unable to think of a single favourite word! I let the idea sit in the back of my mind for weeks, and still couldn’t come up with one. It was only some time later, when I came across this word again, that I recalled with almost a sense of relief, that I have previously identified a word I like, all on its own:

bioluminescence

That’s a great word. What does bioluminescence mean? Well, as I’ve previously covered here, it’s the production and emission of light by a living organism – think of fireflies, or some types of jellyfish and other deep-sea creatures. That’s pretty cool isn’t it? Like, on the list of superpowers that would be handy to attain, it should be right below invisibility.

But, seriously, I think the reason I like the word bioluminescence is not because it’s a cool concept, but because so many of the creatures who are bioluminescent are other-worldly. Generally they live in an environment that I will never see and can barely imagine – the darkest depths of the ocean, down at the ocean floor. It’s only a few miles to the bottom of the ocean, but down there it’s like another universe. Can you imagine that darkness, miles below the surface, where the light from the sun doesn’t reach? Can you imagine how it sounds down there under all that water? How it would feel, all that water weighing down on you and all around you.

 

oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/biolum.html

                                     oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/biolum.html

In some ways those bioluminescent creatures are the closest things we have to aliens life-forms, right here on earth, scuttling around in watery darkness, emitting their own light, where their ancestors scuttled around a million years earlier.

The sound of a favourite word also plays a big part in why you like it. At first, up above, I wrote bioluminescent. Then I thought about it and realised that bioluminescence is a better word. I think that is because of the sound it makes: the softness of ending on the “s” of e-scence instead of on the “t” of e-scent. There is almost an element of onomatopoeia, at least in my imagination: as if the soft hiss of scence at the end of the word somehow matches the image of something gently emitting a soft glow.

So for me, the word bioluminescence, is like shorthand for other-worldly creatures, life forms that have existed with little change since before humans were on earth. Mysteries. Chills up my spine.

Words. They can be annoying. But they capture concepts so well when they get together and form handy phrases! This has been so successful that I may write more posts about words. Or possibly I’ll just utilise more words and write another post. Only time will tell. Just don’t ask me to spell rhythm.*

*

(*I typed the n and then deleted it)

 

 

 

 

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9 Comments

  1. I reckon more words should have a silent “n” on the endn.

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  2. Brilliant, can you now write a post on the word “onomatopoeia”. I know I could look that up in the dictionary but you do such a beautiful job of explaining words. (please add how it should be pronounced?)

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  3. *applauds* Great stuff. Thank you for responding to my request (I really did call Blathering FM – cool jingle on the call-waiting) though I was getting well into this when it came to an abrupt end. You tease. Bioluminescence is indeed a fine specimen of a word, and one I rarely, if ever, hear. I shall be compelled to drop it into conversation later to see if it catches fire. I like to do the same with photosynthesis, which is no easy feat. I look forward in anticipation to hearing more of your thoughts on Simon and Garfunkle spam stars. Meanwhile, here are a few favourite words of my own: oblong (fun to say), zupy (as in Polish for soup – impossible to stay grumpy with that on repeat on your tongue-table).

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    • Thanks for waiting on hold for so long, I’m glad you enjoyed listening to Phil Collins singing “You Cant Hurry Love”on repeat. Unfortunately all the rest of our easy-listening hold music was erased by an irate caller who moonlights as a computer hacker, and prefers to listen to Motörhead.

      I’m afraid a lot of my posts end abruptly because I have a self-imposed limit in my head, of about 1500 words. I figure most people stop after 20 words, and those few who valiantly continue on past the 20th word can’t be expected to struggle on indefinitely with no end in sight. Probably I should have split that up into 2 posts.

      I hope your dropping of bioluminescence and photosynthesis into general conversation goes well. I’d like to say it’s a handy little word to know, but to honest, I don’t use it as often as you might think.

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  4. But which ‘bioluminescence’ is it that you like – is it the word as it sounds in your mouth or the word that you caress with your eyes when printed on paper? Because they are not the same thing. Bioluminescence is a ‘thing’ out there in what some over-confident and under-sensitive people call ‘the real world’ and the word-in-the-mouth ‘bioluminescence’ is only a symbol or token that we use to refer to it. Worse, the word-on-the-page ‘bioluminscence’ refers only to the word-in-the-mouth ‘bioluminescence’ and is therefore only a token for a token and not a ‘thing’ at all.

    Being this loosely attached to reality, words-on-the-page have taken on a life of their own quite independently of the real ‘things’ that they supposedly (indirectly) refer to. In America, for example, some words have mutated into strange new forms. (This phenomenon is observable also in Australia though to a lesser degree. For example, the mutated form ‘labor’ has been spotted disporting itself in the verbal jungle.)

    In past ages, spelling was much more free and easy. Even dear old William wrote his surname differently on different occasions. Where the notion of ‘correct spelling’ came from I don’t know. It’s a bit of a mystery because I don’t think there is really any such thing. We write ‘labour’ (or ‘labor’) because we have always written it that way, not because that’s the way it sounds or because we inherited it from the Romans or the Normans.

    Of course, if your spelling is too whimsical, then people might not understand what you mean and this could be embarrassing, not to mention a bit of a nuisance. So we instinctively strive to keep our spellings fairly close to other people’s spellings. But by what rules? There aren’t any. It’s a continual negotiation between us all and words do change their spelling all the time. In general, though, written words tend to become shorter rather than longer, so I don’t think ‘rhythmn’ has a realistic chance of hitting the big time.

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    • When I was at art school, way back in the good old 90s, I was introduced to theories of deconstructionist/post-structuralist philosophers like Derrida and Lacan, of analysing, rather than merely accepting, the relationship between signifiers (images, or words, for example) and their meanings. I probably had only the barest grasp on these theories, but was very interested in the basic premise, that I could question the relationship between a “signifier” (image or word) and the accepted meaning that we give to it. Artists have been interested in exploring this for decades, think of Rene Magritte’s “Treachery Of Images” from 1929 – a picture of a pipe, above writing which says “this is not a pipe.”

      So I understand that bioluminescence, the word on the page, is a different thing to the spoken word, and that both those things only have a tenuous connection to the actual thing, bioluminescence. That connection exists because as English speaking people we’ve put particular letters together to create a symbol for the physical thing that exists in the world.

      However, to pick a favourite from the 3 manifestations of bioluminescence, (the written word, the aural word – ie, the sound of the word, or the thing itself) is a task I find too difficult. This difficulty doesn’t necessarily apply to other words. Looking around my room, for example, I see a bed and a towel – in both cases, I can easily state that I like the concept, or the physical thing, a lot more than the written word or the sound of the word, bed, or towel. I like my cat a lot more than I like the word cat. But in the case of bioluminescence, I am unable to decide. Maybe I’ll get back to you after I’ve encountered some fire flies, or a jellyfish deep under the sea.

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