(to return to Words page, click here)
Essay Seven, Single Syllable Beauties
A few days ago I was speaking to a veteran doctor, who was describing the difficulty that divorcing parents posed in his medical practice of treating disabled children. He, also a philosopher of sorts, with an impeccable sense for words that match a situation, described way that physicians can get caught in the middle of the ruckus. He said something to this effect, “When parental anger sears, it burns incandescent [he could have said incandesces], and it scorches the earth and everything in its path." Rather than just speaking about how complications arise, or how people get “ticked off” at each other, he used one word from earlier in this book and two visual single-syllable words (sear, scorch). The combination was unforgettable and even moving.
To honor my senior colleague, Dr. Sid Baker, I will introduce and describe around a dozen useful single-syllable verbs here. Some have been used mostly in poetic contexts, but each has its own particular power for us today. They are: rive, parse, limn, ruck, cadge, dote, kvell, kvetch, mulct, purl and stint. Thus, the purpose of this chapter is to show that you don’t have to use long words to be precise, eloquent or visual in your speech. As an additional word of encouragement, realize that no one gets mad at you for using single-syllable words. Rather, they tend to ask you what you mean. On the other hand, when you go around using words like adscititious or discerpt, you deserve to have your ears boxed… Let’s turn to these words.
Rive (rhymes with “dive”) means to “tear apart or in pieces by pulling or tugging; to pull asunder; to rend or lacerate with the hands.” (1) Its first appearance in English was in a verbal hendiadys (hen DEE a dees; don’t panic..the idea is easy and very useful to know--read on). From 1300, “His kirtle [land] shall we rive and rend. A hendiadys is where one large or complex idea is expressed in two words joined by “and.” Examples are easy: “he came despite the wind and weather.” More eloquent is Shakespeare’s use of “sound and fury” in Macbeth Act V, a phrase so euphonious that William Faulkner picked it up as the partial title of one of his works. If we have rive and rend from 1300, we have another near-hendiadys with rive from Sir Walter Scott 500 years later: “ye cannot sew your boots; the heels risp, and the seams rive. The verb risp is a variant of rasp, and both mean to scrape, grate, rub roughly or abrade. A rasp (noun is a tool that files or wears away a surface. Thus, all of a sudden we have four verbs: risp, rasp, rend, rive and the return of hendiadys to our speech.
(1) OED, s.v., Def B1.
But we need not stop here. Rive was a special friend of Shakespeare. In Coriolanus he could speak of anger which rives an oak (V.3.152). From Julius Caesar, “The scolding winds have rived the knotty oaks,” (I.iii.5-6.). One could also speak about something that rives the skies or the earth. But the word can also be used figuratively, especially to describe the way that things can divide or split the person. From Rosetti (1861): “He prays you as his heart would rive,..To save his dear son’s soul alive.” Or, less poetically, though still in poetic verse, AE Houseman could write, “All thoughts to rive the heart are here.” (2) We often read: “the situation caused a rift between people.” Why not also say, at times, “It rived them.” At times an archaism like the following would raise an eyebrow and even bring some humor into an office encounter, “If thou doest that, it wouldst rive my heart.”
(2) Shropshire Lad, Sec. 48.
Parse has, paradoxically, taken on a new lease on life ever since the traditional way in which it was used faded out from our speech about a generation ago. We used to use the term in the study of grammar. If you parse a sentence, you describe the syntactic role that each word plays in it. Or, perhaps more clearly, if you parse a sentence, you resolve it into its component parts. Parse derives very clearly and easily from the Latin word pars, and the Century Dictionary contends that the use of pars originated in the question of the medieval schoolmaster, “Quid pars orationis?” or “What part of speech [is it]?”
But we have forgotten Latin grammar, and we largely threw out the formal study of English grammar about 30 years ago. Yet, we have retained the word in the figurative or extended meaning of “describing, analyzing or examining minutely.” In this usage, one can parse a number of things—lyrics, purpose, intention, meaning, a decision. A whole cottage industry has grown up in law among those who would try to parse closely the meaning of a Supreme Court Justice’s words. For example, when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor supplied the fifth (case-deciding) vote in many instances in the 1990s or 2000s, scholarly presentations were given that tryied to parse her meaning in her written opinions, in order to appeal to her in a future case. One of the more interesting uses of the term I have seen is in describing the late Harold Pinter’s plays. His works often explored the emotional distance between people, and the long pause was his literary weapon of choice. Thus, you might attract some attention if you tried to parse the pregnant pauses of Pinter. . . or at least talked about them. More prosaically, one can say that the instant replay in professional and college sport has allowed us to parse every aspect of the game. The word is useful in so many contexts; you don’t have to go far to discover one.
While parse places emphasis on the process of examination or analysis, limn is a verb that paints, depicts or portrays. Don’t pronounce the “n”; it is just LIM. The OED tells us that it is an altered form of lumine, and this insight gives us a good picture of it, since lumine suggests light or illumination. Thus, if we limn something we are, in the first instance, illumining it. But it took on a more specific usage of painting or portraying under that most vigilant user of our language: Shakespeare. In Venus and Adonis (1592), he said, “Look, when a Painter would surpass the life,/ In limming out a well-proportioned steed.”
But the word has evolved further and now can encompass the idea of a verbal description or, more eloquently, an attempt to describe the contours of something. One might limn a broad spectrum of emotions, limn the social, existential and political strivings of people, limn various degrees of intimacy, or even limn the problems facing Catholic education. One blog posting says that the word has become so overused in law that it coins a new word for those who overuse the term: limnphomaniacs. (3) Yet I don’t think at this point that we have to worry about overuse; good use of it saves you an extra syllable and relives you from having endlessly to say “describe.”
I didn’t know the word ruck until I read it in Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In describing the way that a giant water bug sucked the life out of a frog, she wrote:
“At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn’t jump. He didn’t jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island’s winter killed grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall.” (4)
(4) Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, pp. 7-8.
To ruck means to crouch, pucker, form ridges or wrinkle. Thus, we see a wrinkling of the frog’s skin right before our eyes. We might even start a modern hendiadys after looking at her words: “to ruck and rumple.”
Kvetch and Kvell
These words take us into the world of Yiddishisms. An important cultural point should be made before unpacking these two words. Fifty years ago, the use of Yiddish words or phrases would have been considered, if not bad taste, inappropriate in “mixed” company (i.e, Jews and Christians). Yet, while the Irish were saving civilization, (5) and while the term metrosexual regrettably was being introduced, (6) Yiddish was secretly becoming the language of modern urban American culture. Now everyone wants to speak not just of hutzpah and klutzes, but of a whole range of terms, including kvell and kvetch.
(5) Referring to Thomas Cahill's 1996 book How the Irish Saved Civilization.
(6) A brief discussion of the origin of this overused term, coined in 1994, is described here:
A fascinating vignette illustrating the way that Yiddishisms have entered the mainstream of American life in 20 years has been the use of schvartze by comedian Jackie Masson over that period. In 1991 he called then-New York City Mayor David Dinkins, “a fancy schvartze (Black Man) with a mustache.” After saying this, he found it necessary to apologize, because of the way that schvartze had played out in the Jewish world before 1991. But then, in March 2009, he called President Obama a schvartze in a NYC performance. Though there were still some people who were offended, the general sense was that the term had “arrived,” and that it had no longer just a derogatory connotation. (7)
(7) Granted, the reaction was mixed, but there were not vigorous calls for apology. The large point is true--Yiddishisms are entering into our talk. Here is a list of many of those words: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yiddish_words_used_in_English.
Well, kvell means to be delighted or proud, even to the point of tears. You kvell over something, especially the performance of your children. Though they often give you heartburn, they more frequently give you something to kvell about. Woody Allen uses the word in his recently published Mere Anarchy (2007). A person speaks of his six-year-old nephew. “He loves to take the (photographic) negative out of the can and scrape the emulsion off with a penknife. Why? Do I know? I just know he scrapes and he kvells.” (8) Usually when you kvell it is because of your naches or prideful pleasure. From Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish (1968): “Only from your children can anyone shep (derive) such naches (prideful pleasure) as makes you kvell.
(8) Quotation in Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times, June 14, 2007, E1.
Kvetching can be described in two other short verbs: carp or cavil. To kvetch means to complain or whine, and a kvetch is a person who complains a great deal, a fault-finder. That Yiddish wasn’t quite culturally familiar in 1965 is indicated by this quotation from the OED: “The Beatles…came along in the middle of a wave of kvetching—songs constantly stressing the negative.” But, by the 1970s, the term was more usual, and, in the last few years it has been used about once a month in the New York Times. Certainly, it is here to stay.
Cadge, Dote, Mulct, Purl, Stint
If we understand that a cadger was, long ago, a “carrier,” a pedlar or itinerant dealer traveling with horse and cart, then we have all the background we need for the word. To cadge, then, was originally carrying around goods to sell. Only in the 19th century did it grow to mean to “go about as a cadger or pedlar, or on pretense of being one.” (9) This notion of pretending then formed the bridge to the concept of begging. From 1859: “I’ve got my living by casting fortunes, and begging, and cadging, and such like.” One can cadge a bit of food, lodging, a quarter, or a dinner invitation. Patients might cadge some medicinal samples from their doctors; fans cadge autographs and photographs from celebs. The contemporary American playwright David Mamet used the word in his 1976 play Reunion. Bernie is speaking: “I spend a lot of time walking. Just walking in the Common. After all this time. Not to cadge a drink. Or to get laid. . .” (10)
(9) OED, s.v., Def 6.
(10) Reunion, Scene 5.
I first heard the word dote as a child when my parents would go over the monthly Readers Digest column “It Pays To Increase Your Word Power” with me. I recall the word uxorious was defined as “fondly and foolishly doting on your wife.” That definition actually confused me, since I now knew neither uxorious nor doting. But I have since learned that to dote originally meant “to be silly, deranged, or out of one’s wits; to act or talk foolishly or stupidly,” but has since developed only slowly to mean “to be infatuatedly fond of; to be foolishly in love.” (11) Thus, to dote on someone doesn’t simply mean to be solicitous of their welfare or to be concerned about them; it carries with it much more of the sense of irrational, exuberant or infatuated devotion. You dote primarily on a person or an animal, though many usages have people doting on anything that strikes their fancy. I think it is a stronger word than to prefer, like, or strike one’s fancy. Like that expensive bottle of wine, try to save it for those special occasions. We have the word dotage to express the condition of one who “dotes” too often. Such a person has lost the mind or is imbedded in folly or simplicity. To be “in one’s dotage” means, then, to be in a “second childhood” or, more usually, in a state of senility. Or, to play on words, one might say that Elmer is in his anecdotage now.
(11) OED, s.v., Defs 1 and 3.
I love the gently flowing sound of the verb purl. It is mostly used as a poetic word, but there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to limit it to poetry. Though one definition of purl relates to the idea of sewing, the definition I seek is: “Of a body of water, esp. a small stream: to flow with a swirling motion and a murmuring sound; to gurgle.” (12) Here are a few of the flowery poetic usages. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in a 1626 translation:
“From the rock a spring, with streams of Lethe softly murmuring,
Purls on the pebbles, and invites repose.”
(12) OED, s.v., Def 1.
Or, from Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad:
“Swift o’er the rolling pebbles, down the hills louder and louder
purl the falling rills.”
By the way, a rill is a small stream or rivulet. “I love thy rocks and rills,/ Thy woods and templed hills.” These are words from My Country ‘Tis of Thee. But the word is perfectly good in prose. From 1953: “The water purled and rippled toward him over green covered rocks.” Or, from 2001: “I listened to the water in the nearby irrigation ditch purling gently through a culvert.” We need other words beside gurgling or murmuring; purling is there for us.
Let’s close this chapter with a brief mention of mulct and stint. I love the sound, rather than the reality, of mulct. It means to punish a person by a fine or to exact money from someone or something. One can mulct a corporation, clients, the public, the guilty party, the public fisc, or a number of other things. Someone can be mulcted of something, such as one’s rights or one’s money. My favorite sentence including the word comes from the 1990s: “Three-fingered magicians quick to mulct apoplectic curates—they traffic lotion to soothe the spirit while Lazarus lies howling outside the gate.”
To stint means to scant, shorten, limit, restrain or restrict. One can stint service or help. We usually use it in the phrase, “Don’t stint on” something, such as food or effort. Some might argue that certain kinds of health care plans give incentives to stint on health care and avoid enrolling people with previous medical conditions. One can stint on transportation, on helping the poor, on veterans benefits, on quality. We often use it in the negative: don’t stint on any of the things we consider positive, such as effort, love, commitment, patience.
These monosyllabic words are like precious stones or coins in your verbal collection. Polish them often, and they will glisten fiercely.