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Essay Nine, Short Nouns
Nouns name things. They tell you who or what is doing the action of the verb. Clarity and accuracy in selection of nouns gives your communication a sturdiness and precision that makes people take note of what you are saying or writing. As with verbs, however, you don’t have to use “big words” to get your point across. This chapter will introduce several nouns of six letters or fewer that provide you with sharp concepts and vivid sounds. The words I will examine here are mien, éclat, élan, echt, crux, torpor, penury, outré, skein, wraith, knurl. Many other significant short nouns will be mentioned as I defined these.
I think there is some irony in the fact that the sound “mean” (MEEN) in the English language can “mean” several things. First, if the word behind that sound is, indeed, mean, its meaning can range all the way from the significance of something (What do you mean?) to the average of something (What is the mean rainfall for October?) to a personal characteristic (Why are you so mean?). Then, if the word is spelled mesne (also pronounced MEEN), it signifies a middle position between two things. Historically, a mesne lord was a feudal lord who held land of a superior but had granted a part of it to another. Thus, a mesne lord was both a tenant and a landlord.
The word we are concerned with here is spelled mien but also pronounced MEEN. It signifies “a person’s air, manner, or expression of countenance; look; bearing; appearance; carriage.” (1) It is a very fine word to use to describe the overall impression a person gives. For example, the romantic poet Byron could write that a person “was of majestic mien, with calm dark eyes.” Edgar Allen Poe, in “The Raven,” used the word in the seventh stanza (2) :
“Open here i flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door--
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door--
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.”
(1) Century Dictionary, s.v.
(2) The Text is here:
The raven was therefore a noble one, with the hauteur (oh TURE; lordliness or arrogance) and air of an aristocrat.
The term mien is very popular today, especially in writing. A recent article describes the 7-foot Russian heavyweight boxer Nicolay Valuev as a person of great strength but of “of modest mien.” (3) Another recent newspaper article from England describes the Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling as a man who “has the cringing mien of a man who, having received one fearsome bollocking, is anxious to avoid another.” (4) A review of the Broadway play “A Steady Rain,” which opened in October 2009, presenting in the impressive personages of Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman the complex relationship of two Chicago cops, uses the word.
“For the record, both are just fine in their parts, and in the case of Mr. Craig, almost unrecognizable with a milquetoast mustache and cowed mien, more than fine.” (5)
3) The Independent on Sunday (UK), October 11, 2009, p. 14.
(4) "Drunkenness Knows NO Social Boundaries," The Times (UK), October 10, 2009. By the way, a "bollocking" is a British slang term for a severe reprimand or scolding.
(5) Ben Brantley, "A Sentimental Journey Over Brutal Terrain," New York Times, September 30, 2009, C1.
Someone can be of impressive mien, fearful mien, craven mien, downcast mien, etc. D. H. Lawrence, for example, in his poem “Snap-Dragon” talked about following along “with a downcast mien and laughing voice.” (6) The choice to use it is yours, but it is to your advantage to use it. (7)
(6) Text is here:
(7) James Joyce used the term in one of his early poems (published in 1907, when he was 25), collected in Chamber Music. They are best appreciated, as critic Ezra Pound noted if set to music. The Elizabethan (i.e., throwback) wording and meter is evident: "Who passes in the sunlight?/ By ways that know the light footfall?/ Who passes in the sweet sunlight/ With mien so virginal?"
Pronounced “ay KLAH” in English, the word éclat has a brilliance of sound suggestive of its definition. It is derived from the Old French word esclat, which is further derived from a word meaning to “burst, burst out.” All the English definitions of the word reflect this background. It can include many things, such as the burst of applause following a performance, the brilliance or splendor of a success or the renown, glory or “luster” of reputation coming to someone or something. Though used as a negative term about 100 years ago to suggest “false glitter,” it is more usual today to use it to mark a person’s celebrity or renown.
For example, the Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2008. His 40 essays, novels and children’s books probe themes of exile, self-discovery and of cultural dislocation in our globalized society. When the prize was announced, the French prime minister was quoted as saying that the award “consecrates French literature” and “refutes with éclat the theory of a so-called decline of French culture.” (8) One might speak of the éclat of the Nobel Prize or the éclat arising from a television appearance.
(8) Sarah Lyall, "Restless Literary Explorer From France Wins Nobel," New York Times, October 10, 2008, A10.
James Joyce used the word Episode 12 (Cyclops) of his monumental Ulysses. After a long and winding conversation, where several distinct literary styles are explored, we hear:
“The ceremony which went off with great éclat was characterized by the most affecting cordiality" (9)
(9) Quoted here:
In Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, A. E. Hotchner details conversations that Ernest Hemingway had with Giuseppi Cipriani in 1954, the year after Cipriani had opened his bar in Venice. (10) Hemingway is talking about various kinds of alcohol.
“The Grand MacNish was corked and besides was half gone. But the Gordon’s had real éclat. I did 16,000 words about the crashes for Look, but it wasn’t easy. Sometimes I wish I had a ghost writer. By Ernest Hemingway as told to Truman Capote.” (11)
(10) Here is the web site of the Locanda Cipriani:
(11) Papa Hemingway, pp 93-94.
The word élan (ay LAN) receives only scant notice in the OED and the Century, but has grown in importance so that now it is among the most popular of the words discussed in this chapter. It includes the idea of ardor, impetuousness, vivacity and dash, all of which are inspired by enthusiasm or passion. It is a strongly emotional word to capture sheer energy and enthusiasm. Its first appearance was in 1880: “the unquenchable élan of boyhood,” but now that élan can be associated with many other activities. For example, one could talk about a “performance of great élan and sophistication” or an author’s communication of passion for a city with “grace, humor and élan.” I like to think of a near English equivalent as containing three of the four letters of élan—e, a, l—zeal. Elan is zeal, dash, panache, energy, fervor, or enthusiasm. The world needs a lot of it.
A recent appearance of it is in Samuel Freedman’s review of Patrick Radden Keefe’s The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream. (12) It tells the tale of the Golden Venture, a freighter used by Chinese immigrants to ship illegally 300 men and women from China to New York. On June 6, 1993, the ship went aground off the coast of Queens, causing the deaths of 10 passengers, and landing the rest in prison. Keefe, according to Freedman, weaves his tale with skill, portraying the lead character memorably.
“With similar élan, Keefe develops such important secondary figures as. . .” (12)
(12) New York Times, August 16, 2009, p. 9.
The concept of élan first made it into our vocabulary in 1911 when French philosopher Henri Bergson’s 1907 work, L’Evolution creatrice, was translated into English. Bergson was an evolutionary philosopher, strongly influenced by Darwin, and his central concept was the élan vital or a vital impulse or principle that was at the foundation of all human life and of which we are intuitively aware. Though Bergson and his eager followers were quite energetic (of course!) in promoting the élan vital, they ran aground when humorous, but deadly, comments from Julian Huxley, like the following, were voiced:
“Bergson…ascribes it [i.e., biological progress] to his élan vital..But to say that biological progress is explained by the élan vital is to say that the movement of a train is ‘explained’ by an élan locomotif of the engine.” (13)
(13) OED, elan vital, 1926 quotation of Huxley.
So as not to give the impression that I am just a francophile, let’s introduce echt (pronounced EKT), a German-derived word meaning “authentic, genuine.” George Bernard Shaw first used the word as an English one in 1916: “Many Englishmen who know Germany, and whose social opinions are echt Junker opinions, hail this war as a means of forcing England to adopt the Prussian system.” (14) One can have an echt leader, an echt performance, an “echt Burkean with a snob’s disdain for the contemporary Republican party,” an echt San Franciscan or an echt picture of life at a certain time. It truly is a useful word.
I14) OED, s.v., 1916 quotation.
A remake of the 1947 classic Finian’s Rainbow opened on Broadway in October 2009. It is a feel-good story of an Irishman who moves to the Deep South from Ireland to bury a pot of gold near Fort Knox in the belief that upon burial, the pot would grow. A leprechaun goes after him to try to claim the treasure. After several mishaps all is resolved, with leading characters marrying each other and living happily ever after. You had to know all this to understand a literary reference to the Irish author Patrick Tolbin, who is the subject of a searching review. We have this line:
“After talking for a few hours, we took a walk. Much of Tolbin’s wardrobe is echt ‘Finian’s Rainbow’—heavy sweaters, long scarves, a thick woolen jacket practically molded with his body shape as it hangs..” (15)
(15) Alex Witches, "His Irish Diaspora," New York Times, May 3, 2009, p. 30.
The word crux has two meanings. On the one hand, reflecting the Latin root (translated “cross”), it is the cross as an instrument of torture or, by extension, anything that puzzles or vexes in an excruciating manner. In this definition, a crux is a conundrum, riddle, rebus or extreme difficulty. On the other hand, a crux is a chief problem or the central or decisive point to be discussed. In the latter case, we often hear the phrase, “the crux of the matter is. . .”, though there may be a “crux of the problem” or “crux of the case.” The word crux emphasizes a crossroads or where two things “cross,” even though the word “crossroads” is, I believe, among the most overused words in English. That is, let’s begin to use the word crux, rather than crossroads, to describe a central or difficult situation or decision to be made.
I think this usage--where crux presents a problem to be recognized and addressed, is powerful today. This usage is also the older of the two, going back to an interesting exchange 300 years ago between Jonathan Swift and Thomas Sheridan. Sheridan wrote:
“Dear dean, since in cruxes and puns you and I deal, Pray, Why is a woman a sieve and a riddle?”
The next year, Swift wrote back:
“As for your new rebus or riddle or crux, I will either explain or repay it in trucks.” (16)
(16) This exchange is quoted in the OED, s.v., Def 3a.
So, Dr. Seuss wasn’t the first one in English to play so effectively with words. The most frequent use of the first meaning of crux today is in the phrase "interpretive crux," which points to a dilemma or vexing problem in understanding a text. Stanley Fish, a prominent literary critic, discussed the first two volumes of the Milton Variorum Commentary in his book Is There a Text In This Class? (17) The classic method of presenting a Variorum is to line up scholars “on either side of an interpretive crux” (18) and then decide which approach makes more sense. Whenever two people interpret a text differently, and there appear to be good reasons to render it both ways, it is an interpretive crux. Thus, we have two great ways of using the word.
(17) Fist published in 1982. A "Variorum" in the field Milton or Shakespeare studies is a running commentary on the text, with comments culled from leading interpreters over the centuries.
(18) Is There A Text in this Class?, p. 148.
Torpor, Outré, and Penury
The Latin word torpor means numbness or insensibility. Keeping that in mind will give us most of what we need to know about the word. It means “intellectual or spiritual lethargy; apathy; listlessness; dullness; indifference.” (19) It is quite the opposite of élan. The adjective form is torpid, and we also have such rare words as torpescent/torpescence in our language.
(19) OED, s.v., Def b.
I like the first appearance of the word in Francis Bacon’s work in 1626. Picking up on the meaning of torpor as absence of motion, Bacon wrote: “Motion doth discuss the Torpor of Solid Bodies Which..have in them a Natural Appetite, not to move at all.” I also selected Bacon’s statement because of his use of the verb “discuss.” The first meaning of discuss, now lost to us, is “drive away, dispel, disperse.”
A quick Google search of the appearance of torpor with adjectives shows that the phrases “mental torpor,” intellectual torpor,” and “spiritual torpor” are most frequent, followed by “emotional torpor” and “general torpor.” Enough listlessness to go around, certainly…
When entering the world of outré (oo TRAY), find ourselves in another reality. The word reminds us of “outer” in English, and that meaning isn’t too far off. Something outré is “beyond the bounds of the usual and correct.” To be outré is to be “out there” or “peculiar, eccentric, unorthodox, extreme.” (20) We run into outré in a delightful biography of Ernest Hemingway: Hemingway and His Conspirators, by Leonard J. Leff. In describing the young Hemingway’s receiving help from the established author Sherwood Anderson in the early 1920s, Leff wrote:
“Sherwood Anderson’s letters had gradually opened doors. Ezra Pound was ‘cantankerous in temperament,’ Hadley (Ernest’s wife) thought, and as outré in dress and manner as any poseur at the Café Rotonde." (21)
(20) OED, s.v., Def 1.
(21) Page 9.
A poseur, by the way, is “one who poses,” or, in our speech, a person with affected or pretentious style or mien. Again, in a nearly 1000-page history of New York City, Jackson and Dunbar describe Greenwich Village this way:
“In the Village of the psyche, the outré is always in, and it is safely conventional to be bizarre.” (22)
(22) The Empire City: New York Through the Centuries, p. 956. A listing of the authors who have resided in the Village over the years is amazing: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe O. Henry, Horace Greeley, Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, Bret Harte, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, and Willa Cather. From the 1930s-1960s, the list would also include Thomas Wolfe, ee cummings, Richard Wright, Djuna Barnes, Edmund Wilson, Elinor Wylie, Hart Crane, James Agee, Marianne Moore, and W. H. Auden. Quite a collection!
Penury is “want, poverty, dearth, barrenness.” The dictionaries emphasize the extreme character of the poverty. Google searches under the word yield the following frequent combinations: "abject penury, utter penury, extreme penury." You would think that the word would appear all over Charles Dickens, and one reference I found was in Household Words, a magazine he edited through the decade of the 1850s. In a serialized story entitled “Ethel’s Burdens,” he recounts how a family Ethel felt herself forced to marry a certain Charles Mortimer. Why? “To save my invalid mother from penury, I have resolved to marry him.” The next paragraph recounted how this was an unsuccessful venture; they were left “utterly impecunious.” (23) Both those words are good and useful words to describe states of extreme want or poverty.
(23) Household Words, vol. 2, p. 423.
Skein and Wraith
There are few words in English more suggestive of literary and oral possibilities than skein (SKANE). A skein is a quantity of thread or yarn, wound to a certain length upon a reel, and usually put in a kind of loose knot. Pictures of skeins abound online. (24) The word and concept is so suggestive because the picture shows something tangled, and wherever you have tangle, you have people who want to undo the tangle. In addition, the skein can represent the nature of life: confused, raveled, tangled. Thus, the descriptive possibilities are endless.
William Cowper wrote more than 200 years ago: “They disentangle from the puzzled skein/ The threads of politic and shrewd design.” I love W.B. Yeats’ use of the term in Words for Music:
“For love is but a skein unwound
Between the dark and dawn.”
Note the picture. In the quiet reaches of the night, when lovers are close and breath is shared, love is also shared. But, when morning dawns and chases away the darkness, we return to our bustling lives, and the love we so eagerly celebrated just hours before is, as it were, put aside for now. The tangled skein of love, which became unraveled in the night, now ravels again. (25) At least, that is one interpretation of his words!
(25) I note, in the OED, that the word ravel is problematic. One of the first meanings of ravel is to "unravel." Oops. Sounds like the word flammable/inflammable.
Let’s conclude with a quotation from the seventeenth century poet and preacher John Donne. In reflecting on the experience of Job, Donne mentioned the twofold or apparently contradictory ways of God. God appears to destroy, while at the same time He heals.
“Even God’s demolitions are super-edifications, his Anatomies, his dissections are so many re-compactings, so many resurrections; God windes us off the Skein, that he may weave us up into the whole piece, and he cuts us out of the whole piece into pieces, that he may make us up into a whole garment.” (26)
(26) The sermon was preached to the King on April 20, 1630 (?); the text was Job 16:17-19. Brigham Young University has the online collection of his sermons.
God’s work is to destroy and to heal. We are unwound from the skein of life, so that we can be further woven into a full garment. As we leave skein, however, it is useful to recognize that the great poets and preachers quoted use the image in different ways. Is the original skein, bound up sometimes loosely as it is, a picture of something bad (the tangle or confusion of life) or something good (say the “tightness” of a connection)? Is the unraveling a good thing or a destruction? And, what about the “re-raveling”? For Donne, the unraveling or unwinding is a work of destruction, but it is preparatory to making the “whole garment.” Thus, the first, raveled, condition, was not bad but it was not as good as the whole garment. For Yeats, however, the unwinding of a skein is a symbol of the confusion or restriction of life, which is unraveled during the night hours when love and communication happens. Thus, the word suggests such richness to us and invites us to use it for our own benefit.
We move quickly to wraith and realize that it is a sophisticated and euphonious way of saying “an apparition or spectre; a phantom or ghost.” Something that is wraithlike lacks substance or form; it is shadowy, unreal, insubstantial: “a wraithlike column of smoke.” One can speak of “waiting-room wraiths, perfecting their thousand-yard stares.” (27) The most attractive description of a wraith, without actually using the word except in the title, is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem Wraith. She sits in her home, and gently observes this ghostlike presence:
“’Thin Rain, whom are you haunting,
That you haunt my door?’
--Surely it is not I she’s wanting;
Someone living here before—
‘Nobody’s here in the house but me:
You may come in if you like and see.’”
Then comes the description of the ghost:
“Thin as thread, with exquisite fingers,--
Have you seen her, any of you?—
Grey shawl, and leaning on the wind,
And the garden showing through?” (28)
(27) Dana Jennings, "Person, Patient, Statistic," New York Times, December 16, 2008, D1.
(28) The poem is here:
The description goes on, but you get the point. Whenever anyone skillfully describes the gossamer, wisp-like character of a ghost, the word wraith is appropriate.
Closing With Knurl
Finally, let’s give a word about knurl. It sounds so much like gnarl that you would think the are second cousins. And, indeed, they are. A gnarl is a “contorted knotty protuberance, esp. on a tree.” It was only used as a noun first in 1824: “The knots and gnarls of the exterior coat [of a tree].” While gnarl emphasizes more the twisted nature of something, a knurl stresses the protuberance itself. The OED defines knurl wonderfully fully as: “a small projection, protuberance, or excrescence; a knot, knob, boss, nodule; a small bead or ridge.” (29) While a gnarl relates mostly to trees, a knurl can refer either to a swelling or boss on a tree or to a fine series of ridges or dots on a metallic surface. Knurling is now a manufacturing process, “whereby a visually-attractive diamond-shaped (criss-cross) pattern is cut or rolled into metal.” The pattern has a practical purpose—allowing a better grip, but also is aesthetically pleasing. (30) The word knurl is a great word to use whenever we see some kind of bump that invites notice.
(29) OED, s.v., Def 1.
Such is a minute sample of the wonderful world of short nouns. Use them and your life, speech and writing will be thereby enriched.