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Essay Eighteen, Adjectives to Spice Writing and Speaking II
Last chapter we met the word stentorian, named after the Homeric herald Stentor, whose voice equalled the sound of fifty men. While reflecting further on that word, I realized that it does what so many other words do—it opens up new worlds for us. Thus, before concluding with about a dozen more words that describe well how a person might write or speak, I tell you a little bit more about stentorian.
The word appeared in an obituary notice in 2009 for the conservative radio columnist Paul Harvey.
“Paul Harvey, who captivated millions of American listeners for nearly six decades with his down-home radio news reports and conservative commentaries, delivered nationally on weekdays in a stentorian staccato, died Saturday at the May Clinic Hospital near his winter home in Arizona. He was 90.” (1)
(1) New York Times, March 3, 2009, News Section.
All I had to do was read the word stentorian, and I heard his voice and crisp, clear commentary. Then, I discovered that Stentor was also a genus of “filter-feeding, heterotrophic ciliate protists.” (2) Why is this genus so called? Because of its “trumpet-type” shape. The first use of the term to describe the protozoa came in 1863 (more than 250 years after Stentor first was used in English): “The second figure represents the Stentor, so called because its general shape bears some resemblance to that of a speaking-trumpet.” (3) Words not only lend precision and beauty to your communication, but they open up worlds of which we knew next to nothing.
(3) OED, s.v., Def. 2.
The remaining words to explore here are piquant, fecund, sententious, pithy, laconic, trenchant, garrulous, loquacious, voluble, prolix, taciturn, mellifluous and glib.
Piquant and a Problem
The joy and problem of piquant (PEE kent) as it relates to speech or writing is that its basic meaning can be and has been taken in two opposite ways. The word originates in the French piquer, which means to “prick, pierce, sting.” Something piquant, therefore, is sharp or piercing. But is this, as it relates to words, good or bad? We haven’t been able to answer that question adequately. At first, piquant in connection with words meant “severe, bitter; stinging or wounding to the feelings,” (4) as in this 1745 quotation: “A mutual Discontent grows up on both Sides, which at length discovers itself in piquant Words and little Sarcasms.” One might have a “piquant and angry answer” or “a piquant verbal spur.” As recently as a decade ago, the Chicago Tribune used the word in this way when discussing Bobby Knight (who else?): “Knight and Northwestern coach Kevin O’Neill exchanged piquant words. . .and appeared almost ready to duke it out before peacemakers intervened.”
(4) OED, s.v., def. B1.
But perhaps because of piquant’s association with gastronomy, where it means “stimulating or agreeable to the mind or senses; fascinating; charming,” or “sharp, tangy, appetizing,” piquant has also come to mean challenging, fascinating or agreeably “spicy.” = For example, one well-respected web site has this line: “piquant flavors ‘sting’ the tongue and piquant words ‘prick’ the intellect, arousing interest.”(5) The classic romance writer, Edward Payson Roe could speak of a girl in this way: “her smiles, piquant words, and above all, the changing expression of her lovely eyes, affected him subtilely, and again imparted a rising exhilaration..” (6) She doesn’t affect him so because her words are sharp and piercing or wounding to the feelings. Rather, her words are words of pricking arousal, so to speak. But, in contrast, a letter to the editor encouraged Salon.com to write some piquant words about President GW Bush’s approach to terrorism. Certainly that person is not thinking that Salon, not known for its affection for GW, would just write “stimulating” words.
Thus the word piquant, in describing words, is wonderful to use, but you have the possibility of ambiguity whenever you use it. That shouldn’t dissuade you from using it; it will probably make you the life of the party.
Indeed, the problem with piquant here will be the problem we face with many other words: often a word can mean things that are so substantially different from each other that you can be left in confusion by swift-talking people. The great 20th century linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein compared language to a city:
“Our language can be seen as an old city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of modern sections with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” (7)
(7) Philosophical Investigations (1953), p. 8.
Complexity comes from history and from usage in various spheres. Yet, from the complexity of this language we are able not simply to make sense of life but to express beauty. It is possible to do so, but you first must know all you can about the words.
An Interlude on Fecund
Fecund (FEE kund) has its origin in the products of the earth or animals. Fecund earth produces vegetable growth in abundance. Something fecund is prolific and fertile. As with many good words, fecund soon took on a figurative meaning to suggest a creative, productive or prolific person, period, or situation. From 1884: “. . .the most brilliant and fecund era in the history of music.” One might have, in addition to fecund words, a fecund imagination, fecund brain, fecund prose or a fecund wit. A person might be fecund with ideas; there might be a fecund harvest of living beauty.
A recent historical novel by Brian Hall about the poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), used the phrase “fecund words.” (8) But to appreciate that phrase, you need to know a little about Frost’s poetry. Another writer tells us that Frost, mostly known now as the craggy, wizened old New Englander who was blinded by a bright Washington DC sun and couldn’t see to read his poetry at JFK’s inauguration in 1961, lived and breathed poetry.
(8) Fall of Frost: A Novel (2008).
“It flowed from him, but never like an underground stream—he brought his full consciousness to bear on every line; and his technical abilities, honed in England, were extraordinary, as was his awareness of what used to be called ‘the human condition.’” (9)
(9) Kelly Cherry, "Poet Resurrected," America (April 28, 2008), p. 34.
Hall describes his interest in Frost’s words as follows:
“My interest has been to suggest how a great writer’s language flows out of his life and back into it, how certain mysteriously fecund words and their associated ideas are turned under in the writer’s mind..”
Hall’s quest with respect to Frost can be ours with respect to words wherever used. Find the fecund words or thoughts, those words most expressive of beauty, longing, desire, love, learning, power and use them. But never forget the fecund womb that gave them birth.
Words for Short Thoughts
You can express your thoughts briefly or longly (that doesn’t sound right but you know exactly what I mean). If you are brief or terse, your thoughts are sententious, pithy, laconic or trenchant. Sententious is a wonderfully useful word. Behind it lies the word sentence, and behind that is the Latin word sententia, which means a maxim or opinion. Lying far behind all this is the Latin verb sentire, which means to feel. Thus, something sententious is “of the nature of a ‘sentence’ or aphoristic saying.” (10) John Milton used the word in Paradise Regained: “Brief sententious precepts,” IV.264. From another author in 1752: “Sometimes he uttered grave reflections, and sententious maxims.”
(10) OED, s.v., Def. 2.
When researching sententious, I (re)made the acquaintance of an anthropologist, Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), who was all the rage when I was in graduate school. He had just come out with his 1973 classic on The Interpretation of Cultures, and everyone with whom I studied wanted to do “thick descriptions” of things, especially if it had the word “culture” in it. Well, one of his last articles, published posthumously by his alma mater college journal, explored what he called “common sense” as a cultural system. (11) His point is that, in the study of cultures, one makes most sense of the culture by looking not so much at the exotic or strange things but by those things that are simply assumed by those who live in that culture or world. In that connection, examination of each culture’s proverbs is instructive.
(11) In the Antioch Review, October 1, 2008, pp. 708ff.
When looking at a culture’s proverbs, you see that they often reflect contradictory or what Geertz calls “immethodical” realities. (12) Let’s hear his words:
“Silone says somewhere that southern Italian peasants pass their lives exchanging proverbs with one another like so many precious gifts. Elsewhere the forms may be polished witticisms la Wilde, didactic verses la Pope, or animal fables la La Fontaine; among the classical Chinese they seem to have been embalmed quotations. But whatever they are it is not their interconsistency that recommends them, but indeed virtually the opposite: ‘Look before you leap,’ but ‘he who hesitates is lost;’ ‘a stitch in time saves nine,’ but ‘seize the day.’ It is, indeed, in the sententious saying—in one sense, the paradigmatic form of vernacular wisdom—that the immethodicalness of common sense comes out most vividly.”
(12) He didn't need to coin the word. We have plenty of good English words to express what he wanted: such as paradox, conundrum, antinomy, apparent contradiction. Often the scholarly world immures itself in its own linguistic prisons perhaps because it really understands that most of its observations, if taken apart by a smart person not from the academy, really wouldn't be that amazing.
But the word sententious has also gone through an evolution not unlike piquant, only in the opposite direction. Piquant, as you recall, went from something biting and disagreeable to something sharp and agreeable. Sententious not only has the meaning of pithy or aphoristic, as is used here in Geertz and others, but, as the OED informs us, “In recent use sometimes in bad sense, affectedly or pompously formal.” (13) From 2009: “Homby and Scherfig, thankfully, eschew sententious sermonizing. . .” Or, also in 2009, the G-20 was derided as “that sententious talking shop.” Scholars sometimes write “sententious and self-congratulatory” sentences. We have “poor production values and oodles of sententious pretense. . .” But, as indicated, we also have sententious used today in the traditional sense—such as in a helpful September 2009 article on international proverbs: “Classical proverbs on the other hand are purely sententious observations of the conduct of life.” (14) Thus, be aware of its history, use it wisely and know why you are using it. People will want you to explain. . .
(13) OED, s.v., Def 3.
(14) "The Proverbs," New Nation, September 3, 2009, no page given in online citation.
Once we have sententious under our belts, the other three fall quickly into place. Since the pith of a fruit or plant is the central cylinder in the stem or root, something pithy was, at first, something full of vigor or life. With respect to language, pithy became associated, as early as the sixteenth century, with something “full of concentrated meaning; convening meaning forcibly through brevity of expression; concise; succinct; pointed, terse, aphoristic.” (15)
(15) OED, s.v., Def. 2a.
When we encounter trenchant, we are in the world of French-derived words. Behind it lies trancher, which means “to cut” or “to slice.” For a long time, however, it has been used in the figurative sense with respect to language: “incisive, vigorous and clear; effective, energetic.” Thus, trenchant language isn’t necessarily brief or pithy, but it is penetrating, acute, producing a clear and impressive mental effect.
One can have trenchant observations or criteria or analyses or thoughts. Paul Krugman, the Pulitzer-winning economics writer for the New York Times, is often said to deliver trenchant analyses of our current economic malaise. Or, from early 2009: “Ross and Makovsky have used their decades of experience and insider knowledge to write a trenchant and often pugnacious demolition of numerous misconceptions about strategic thinking on the Middle East.” (16) If you are thinking of a way to express the idea of “cutting through the crap,” think trenchant.
(16) Adam LeBor, "Neocons v. Realists," New York Times, July 19, 2009, p. 16.
If you are laconic in speech, you are like the Spartans or the Lacedemonians who were renowned for brief sentences. As the great historian Jacob Burkhardt said:
“Instead of literature, the Spartans cultivated pithy, sententious brevity, brachyology, described by the general term ‘laconic.’ They purposely cultivated this style from early days on. Since they felt they could not measure up to the other Greeks in fluency, the Spartans deliberately stressed brevity. . ." (17)
(17) History of Greek Culture, p. 31.
The word laconic in this sense appeared first in the sixteenth century in English: “To excuis me for this my laconike writing I ame in suche haist.” Maybe the effort to move towards uniform spelling in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries wasn’t such a bad idea after all! From 1888: “’Trust me’ was his laconic rejoinder.” Whereas sententious, pithy, and trenchant all have to do with meaningful or even epigrammatic words, laconic simply emphasizes their brevity. I remember well the appearance of the word in the 1979 movie Being There. Peter Sellers, playing “Chance, the gardener” had become a national figure through his pithy statements to the President. The New York Times wanted to interview him. Chance was evasive on the phone. The editor told his subordinates that Chance was a very “cagey” guy, “laconic” and clever. In fact, if you do a Google search under “laconic” and "Being There", you will have many results. Chance was a “laconic, dimwitted gardener. . .”
And, before we leave the subject, one of the most heartfelt pieces of advice given to anyone about writing was given by Thomas Hardy, just before the dams of criticism were to burst on him for penning Jude the Obscure in 1895. His advice? “Never retract. Never explain. Get it done and let them howl.” (18) Trenchant. Pithy. Almost sententious.
(18) Quoted in the Penguin edition of Jude the Obscure, p. xvi.
When You Are Long-winded
Word which well-describe long-winded people are loquacious, prolix, garrulous, and voluble. When you begin to investigate these words, however, sometimes you make unexpected discoveries. A case in point was when I was studying loquacious. It isn’t a difficult word; it is derived from the Latin loquor, which means “I speak.” Its first English appearance, where the meaning was “given to much talk; talkative,” (19) was in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Eve speaks (X.161-163):
“To whom sad Eve…Confessing soon, yet not before her Judge
Bold or loquacious, thus abasht repli’d"
(19) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
Loquacious has kept its meaning pretty tenaciously over the years. From the nineteenth century: “He was not loquacious: but, when he was forced to speak in public, his natural eloquence moved the envy of practical rhetoricians.” Pick up a newspaper in 2010; loquacious is used in the same way.
But it was the poet and writer Alice Walker’s use of it in connection with another word that took me on a wonderful word journey. In her December 1976 introduction to Robert Hemenway’s wonderful biography of the (at that time) long-neglected African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, Walker says that Hurston was one who was:
“loving drama, appreciating wit, and, most of all, relishing the pleasure of each other’s loquacious and bodacious company.” (20)
(20) Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, p. xii.
I paused on bodacious. I knew that it meant “excellent” or “fabulous” or “great,” but I wanted to look up the word. Thankfully, the OED, which is known a bit for its cultural snobbery, had it. (21) The OED only had its first modern attestation (the word has an older meaning) in 1976, and it wasn’t Alice Walker. Actually it is a really wimpy quotation, “you’ll be doing a bodacious job again.” Why couldn’t the OED have used the Walker quotation given above? It also is from 1976 (the earliest date) and is a much better quotation. What we have just done, then, is to “improve” the OED. But we did this only because we were willing to follow the thread of a word once we had finished looking at loquacious.
(21) For example, the OED didn't recognize the word blankie, which first appeared in print in 1921, until about 2007. I suppose it is when the grandchildren of the editors of the OED started crying for their blankies, the editors had to "discover" the word. . .
Prolix derives ultimately from two Latin words meaning to “flow forth,” and, with respect to speech, means “tediously lengthy; using or containing too many words; long-winded, verbose.” (22) Someone whose speech is prolix is tedious or tiresome in length. Walter Scott used the word in one of his tales: “He instantly interrupted his own prolix narration of the skirmish which had taken place.” But we don’t have to confine ourselves to literature. In Grote’s 1865 introduction to Plato’s philosophy we have: “They are intolerant of all that is prolix, circuitous, not essential to the proof of the thesis in hand.” One’s style might be “prolix, involved and vicious.” A legal case I once dealt with had the unusual circumstance of a prolix rather than a laconic suicide note—four long pages.
(22) OED, s.v., Def. 2a.
Prolix is not a term used that often today (it has appeared only about six times a year in the past thirty years in the New York Times, for example) but it retains its utility. An author might be a “tad prolix.” The Internet was supposed to be a “prolix paradise.” Sometimes people have a prolix style or can be “flamboyantly prolix.” Think of a person to whom it applies. . .and use it!
If you understand that voluble has nothing to do with volatile, and that it is ultimately derived from a word meaning to “roll,” you are on the right track. (23) Following its evolution is helpful. Originally it meant two things: “capable of ready rotation on an axis” or “liable to change; inconstant.” Something voluble, therefore, changed and rolled. Then, the definition focused on the movement or changeability of the tongue and specifically meant “characterized by fluency or glibness of utterance; rapid and ready of speech.” (24) And, who better to make that literary change, than Shakespeare? So, in Love’s Labor’s Lost, he said: “A most acute Juvenal, voluble and free of grace,” III.1.69. As if to emphasize that he, the Bard, was coining a new usage, he used it again in this way about fifteen years later in Othello: “A knave very voluble. . .A slipper, a knave, a finder of occasion,” II.1.242.
(23) "Revolve," for example, means to "roll again."
(24) OED, s.v., Def II.5.
Almost single-handedly, as it turns out, Shakespeare changed our use of the term voluble. Now the only use of it has to do with one’s fluent or ready speech. It doesn’t have the negative connotation of glib (see below) or the neutral to slightly negative connotation of loquacious. Use it if you want to emphasize someone’s talkativeness without commenting on whether or not you can stand their speech.
Garrulous is the adjectival form of garrulity and means “given to much talking; fond of indulging in talk or chatter.” (25) It is taken from the Latin garrire, which means “to chatter, prattle.” Thus, there is the notion of babbling or chattering or prating that is always lurking slightly below its surface. Charles Barkley has been called “a garrulous broadcaster.” So that Sir Charles will see himself in more pleasant company, James Boswell has also been accused of writing a “garrulous life of Johnson.” (26) One might have a garrulous politician or teacher or preacher or parent.
(25) OED, s.v., Def 1.
(26) Christopher Benfey, "Biographical Fever," New York Times, July 12, 2009, p. 9.
As an example of the pot calling the kettle black, the garrulous former sportscaster Howard Cosell once asked Muhammad Ali about his garrulous manner. Muhammad Ali was reputed to have said, “What do garrulous mean?” But, then, he learned it, and also learned to be one of the best boxer-poets in history. (27)
(27) I remember Ali's comment from my reading more than forty years ago, but I wasn't able to find the quotation online. Someone should be able to dredge it up. . .
Finishing With Taciturn, Glib, and Mellifluous
We are just about done, even though we are just beginning our journey with helpful words. If you are taciturn, you are silent or reserved in speech; saying little; uncommunicative or quiet. The popular television show Monk, for example, features an unusual detective who is “taciturn and gnomic in utterance by nature.” (28) Gnomic would also be a good word to learn—the OED defines a gnome as “a short pithy statement of a general truth; a proverb, maxim, aphorism, or apophthegm.” Seems like we have been here already. . .
(28) Arthur Kleinzahler, "Monk's Moods," New York Times, October 19, 2009, p. 10. It might be good to look up gnomic and compare it with epigrammatic.
Then, if you are glib, you are “well-oiled” in tongue. Originally if you were glib it meant that you simply were “fluent” in speech. But it has since taken on a negative meaning to suggest speech reflecting a lack of thought or sincerity. The word is synonymous with the delightful-sounding but never-used glibbery, which originally meant “slippery.” (29) About 400 years ago, then, one could speak about ground that is “moist and glib”; an expression of the eighteenth century was “glib as glass.” But Shakespeare got hold of the word, in King Lear, and changed everything for us. “I want that glib and oily Art/ To speak and purpose not,” I.1.227.Once Shakespeare gave permission, poets and others picked up the word in its present sense. One might have “prompt deception glib with flatt’ring lies,” for example. Coleridge could write in 1820, though it applies to 2010: “A contemptible democratical oligarchy of glib economists.” The word is all around us and is gaining in prominence. Just as you have an insight into a person if you know what neighborhood a person grew up, so when you know the history of a word, like glib, you can understand and use it more skillfully.
(29) The OED tells us, however, that it early took on a figurative meaning of "shifty, untrustworthy."
The goal of good speech and writing is to be mellifluous—that your words would “flow like honey.” Its first use, from 1475, talked about the mellifluous redolence of drippings of trees. But the same work that introduced mellifluous in this sense also used it figuratively to describe words that were “sweet; honeyed; pleasant-sounding, flowing, musical.” (30) Shakespeare, that most ambitious wordsmith in our language, used it in Twelfth Night: “A mellifluous voice, as I am a true knight,” II.3.52. Milton picked up the word in Paradise Regained: “Wisest of men; from whose mouth issu’d forth Mellifluous streams,” IV.274. Once the Bard and the Blind Poet have used the word, it becomes etched in our linguistic consciousness. Now it appears about 25-30 times annually in the New York Times. One recent article talks about the experience of riding a bus in New York City, where the rider, of Italian descent, hears the driver start speaking Italian to other passengers. The mellifluous conversation took the rider back to the streets of Firenze (Florence). Seek to make your words mellifluous and your life will likewise flow more smoothly.
(30) OED, s.v., Def. 2a.
Enough of my words. Now to your better use of them.