Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘language’

04 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Words David Foster Wallace’s Mom Invented

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Because language is a living organism and creativity the sum total of our life experience.

D. T. Max’s highly anticipated Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (public library) is out this week, and though it lacks the captivating prose of a great biography, it has a certain encyclopedic quality that is sure to galvanize DFW fanatics.

As a lover of unusual words, I was delighted to find among Max’s factoids one about words invented by Wallace’s mother, an English professor, which went on to permeate DFW’s own writing — no surprise, given how we construct the patterns of our creativity:

No one else listened to David as his mother did. She was smart and funny, easy to confide in, and included him in her love of words. Even in later years, and in the midst of his struggle with the legacy of his childhood, he would always speak with affection of the passion for words and grammar she had given him. If there was no word for a thing, Sally wallace would invent it: ‘greebles’ meant little bits of lint, especially those that feet brought into bed; ‘twanger’ was the word for something whose name you didn’t know or couldn’t remember. She loved the word ‘fantods,’ meaning a feeling of deep fear or repulsion, and talked of ‘the howling fantods,’ this fear intensified. These words, like much of his childhood, would wind up in Wallace’s work.

And, indeed, it did. From Infinite Jest:

Orin’s special conscious horror, besides heights and the early morning, is roaches. There’d been parts of metro Boston near the Bay he’d refused to go to, as a child. Roaches give him the howling fantods.

And again:

Unit #4, more or less equidistant from both the hospital parking lot and the steep ravine, is a repository for Alzheimer’s patients with VA pensions. #4’?s residents wear jammies 24/7, the diapers underneath giving them a lumpy and toddlerish aspect. The patients are frequently visible at #4?s windows, in jammies, splayed and open-mouthed, sometimes shrieking, sometimes just mutely open-mouthed, splayed against the windows. They give everybody at Ennet House the howling fantods.

And yet again:

He really does have to sit right up close to listen to ‘Sixty Minutes +/— …’ when he’s over at the HmH6565 with C.T. and sometimes Hal at his mother’s late suppers, because Avril has some auditory thing about broadcast sound and gets the howling fantods from any voice that does not exit a living corporeal head…

And then some:

Joelle scrubbed at the discolored square of fingerprints around the light-switch until the wet Kleenex disintegrated into greebles.

From the posthumous The Pale King:

He could not understand why he was so afraid of people possibly seeing him sweat or thinking it was weird or gross. Who cared what people thought? He said this over and over to himself; he knew it was true. He also repeated—often in a stall in one of the boys’ restrooms at school between periods after a medium or severe attack, sitting on the toilet with his pants up and trying to use the stall’s toilet paper to dry himself without the toilet paper disintegrating into little greebles and blobs all over his forehead, squeezing thick pads of toilet paper onto the front of his hair to help dry it …

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20 JULY, 2012

Susan Sontag on Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom

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“Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking.”

In devouring the newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), I came across two passages addressing something that concerns me daily — the reckless reduction of complex ideas into sticky soundbites and catchphrases, a practice that in the three decades since Sontag’s writings has become not merely an accepted cultural standard, but a profitable business model in the “ideas economy.” Under such commodification of thought, after a while, all these bite-sized ideas begin to sound, look and, eventually, act the same.

In an entry dated April 26, 1980, Sontag offers a short but brilliant meditation on aphorisms — the ultimate soundbitification of thinking:

Aphorisms are rogue ideas.

Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.

To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority. Which, in one great tradition, conceals (shapes) the aphorist’s secret pursuit of spiritual salvation. The paradoxes of salvation. We know at the end, when the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.

Then, ten days later, on May 6, she continues:

With the (1943) epigraph of Canetti. ‘The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other very well.’

One wonders why. Can it be that the literature of aphorisms teaches us the sameness of wisdom (as anthropology teaches us the diversity of culture)? The wisdom of pessimism. Or should we rather conclude that the form of the aphorism, of abbreviated or condensed or rogue thought, is a historically-colored voice which, when adopted, inevitably suggests certain attitudes; is the vehicle of a common thematics?

The traditional thematics of the aphorist: the hypocrisies of societies, the vanities of human wishes, the shallowness + deviousness of women; the sham of love; the pleasures (and necessity) of solitude; + the intricacies of one’s own thought processes.

[…]

Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking: by its very brevity or concentratedness, it presupposes a superior standard …

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is a remarkable read in its entirety. Sample it further with Sontag on writing, sex, boredom, and censorship, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated wisdom on art and on love.

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02 JULY, 2012

A Visual Alphabet-Dictionary of Unusual Words

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A visual A-Z of the hidden treasures of language.

As a lover of language and words, especially obscure and endangered words, I was instantly besotted with Project Twins’ visual interpretations of unusual words, originally exhibited at the MadArt Gallery Dublin during DesignWeek 2011.

Acersecomic

A person whose hair has never been cut.

Biblioclasm

The practice of destroying, often ceremoniously, books or other written material and media.

Cacodemonomania

The pathological belief that one is inhabited by an evil spirit.

Dactylion

An anatomical landmark located at the tip of the middle finger.

Enantiodromia

The changing of something into its opposite.

Fanfaronade

Swaggering; empty boasting; blustering manner or behavior; ostentatious display.

Gorgonize

To have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect on: Stupefy or petrify

Hamartia

The character flaw or error of a tragic hero that leads to his downfall.

Infandous

Unspeakable or too odious to be expressed or mentioned.

Jettatura

The casting of an evil eye.

Ktenology

The science of putting people to death.

Leptosome

A person with a slender, thin, or frail body.

Montivagant

Wandering over hills and mountains.

Noegenesis

Production of knowledge.

Ostentiferous

Bringing omens or unnatural or supernatural manifestations.

Pogonotrophy

The act of cultivating, or growing and grooming, a mustache, beard, sideburns or other facial hair.

Quockerwodger

A rare nineteenth-century word for a wooden toy which briefly became a political insult.

Recumbentibus

A knockout punch, either verbal or physical.

Scripturient

Possessing a violent desire to write.

Tarantism

A disorder characterized by an uncontrollable urge to dance.

Ultracrepidarian

A person who gives opinions and advice on matters outside of one's knowledge.

Vernalagnia

A romantic mood brought on by Spring.

Welter

A confused mass; a jumble; turmoil or confusion.

Xenization

The act of traveling as a stranger.

Yonderly

Mentally or emotionally distant; absent-minded.

Zugzwang

A position in which any decision or move will result in problems.

Some of the designs are available as prints in the Project Twins shop.

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