A Conflation of Screevers

I love words. You probably do, too, or this site would bore you to death. I was going to say it’s a side effect of loving to read, but maybe not. Maybe loving words comes first, like a love of beets leads to a love of beet and fennel soufflĂ© served with pureed bitter greens and a sprinkling of asiago cheese and pomegranate seeds. (I just made that up. I don’t know why. Don’t ask.) Either way, one of the delights of reading is the new words you meet, usually absorbing their meaning effortlessly, if not always with great accuracy, from the context. I believe that what we read has a significant effect on what we see, understand, and learn, beyond the facts and ideas presented. I used the word vitriolic in a Sunday School class recently, and one of the ladies didn’t know what it meant. It made me wonder if knowing the meaning of the word makes me more aware of that type of speech. If I didn’t, would I wish for a word to describe it, or would I just call it mean spirited and go on? I guess I think that we tend to see more clearly what we can name. If you know a petiole from a sepal from a stigma, don’t you tend to study a flower more carefully and be more aware of each of these parts than if you only know petal and stem? (The opposite is also true, and deciding which is more prevalent would make a great research project or debate. As long as it didn’t get vitriolic, of course.)

However it works, I love discovering new words, even if I don’t remember them all. That’s one reason I enjoy the PBS radio show Says You so much. It revolves around fascinating bits of knowledge and obscure words. That’s where I learned the word moot doesn’t only mean previously decided and therefore not worth arguing, but also open to argument or debate, (supposedly what “it’s a moot point” means). Don’t you just love English? It’s always full of surprises. Says You also taught me the very useful word omphaloskepsis, which means navel-gazing. I hope to have reason to use it someday. That brings me to one of the natural benefits of being well read -- showing off. Not that I’d ever even want to do that. Not me. Still, it’s an ego booster when the six erudite members of the show’s panel get stumped by words that seem simple to me. Screever, for example. I can only guess that none of them were ever fans of Mary Poppins; my friend Linda Ketchum and I saw the movie every day it played in our little town. “Today I’m a screever, and as you can see, a screever’s an artist of highest degree,” Burt sang as he drew pictures in chalk on the sidewalk. I knew that, but none of them did. So don’t ever say movies are a waste of time.

I learn new words reading blogs, too. My latest discovery is conflation, found on a comment about Pride and Prejudice. (I do find fans of Jane Austin tend to have better than average vocabularies. Is that because they learn new words by reading the books, or they enjoy the books because the have the vocabulary to read them? Another chicken-or-the-egg debate, if you are so minded.) The word in question is conflation. The writer used it while discussing Mr. Darcy, admitting she was “conflating both of the movies.” I thought it was a typo at first. I couldn’t figure out what word they meant to use, so I wondered if the writer had made it up. (What’s the word for a made-up word?) I tried to deduce the meaning from the roots, but got nowhere so I decided to look it up. Sure enough, it was a real word, meaning to bring together, meld or confuse two or more individuals, concepts, or places, until there seems to be only one identity and the differences are lost. Awesome.

Fromage is a word you and I already know from cooking, as it’s French for cheese. When it was used as part of a French phrase in a movie review I did a double take. I don’t know the language, but a lot of times you can winkle out the meaning by finding word parts you do know. (Winkle: to pry, force or displace from a position, often used with out.) It didn’t occur to me to change cheese to cheesy, which is indeed another use of the word. The other word that stumped in context came up recently. I’ve been reading Mari Strachan’s debut novel The Earth Hums in B Flat. I picked it up because of the title and was drawn in immediately, then thrown back out upon reading that Jones the Butcher had his faggots cooking outside, intended for consumption by all the families in town. Were the people in town so poor they’d been reduced to consuming bundles of sticks? Or military men? Old women? It made no sense, so I ignored it until it came up two more times. What in the world were they eating? If I knew more about my roots, I would have understood immediately, as Faggots (Ffagodau) are a Welsh meatball made from minced pig liver, onions, breadcrumbs, and lots of pepper. Their name is based on the word meaning a mixture or combination. There are recipes available on the web if you need something for dinner tonight. Or you could try Welsh Rabbit, a conflation of fromage served over toast. Bon appetite.

Read Well, Friend

BTW -- NEOLOGISM is the word for a newly invented word or phrase.


For All the Books I've Never Read...

I like to think of myself as a honest person. Honestly. But there are some deceptions from my past that cannot be ignored on this blog. Fortunately, I’ve reached an age when I don’t have to worry about my High School English teacher discovering my perfidy on line. I can see her yellow hair and hear her firm voice saying, “I’m very disappointed to hear that. I expected more from you, Teresa.” So, with my apologies to all my wonderful English teachers, here is my list of…

Books I Only Pretended to Read.

The first book I remember lying about was
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. It happened in my freshman year, when our class was presented with several books to read as groups. I’d read all of the others, and hated the idea of reading a ‘war story for boys’. So when my English teacher asked which group I wanted to be in, I told her I’d read them all. I remember the moment, I was sitting just right of center in the second row, Sharon Parrish was next to me, and I had just lied to Mrs. Gilliland -- right out loud. No one in the room questioned me, since I usually had read everything. I regret lying, but managed to graduate with straight As without reading Lord of the Flies, only skimming through The Scarlet Letter, and giving up on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene not long into it. Now that I think about it I realize I’ve ‘not read’ The Faerie Queene three times. Mrs. T’s Senior class was just the beginning.

It happened again my freshman year of college. Not realizing I didn’t have to take all the bonehead classes they suggested for new students, I signed up for Intro to World Lit. It turned out that I’d already studied everything we covered in that class except for, you go it,
The Faerie Queene. I resolved to finish it this time, but of course this excerpt was longer, and I failed again. After that I had no illusions. When it appeared on the syllabus of yet a third class, I admitted to some fellow students that I’d never finished the selections, and wasn’t looking forward to trying again. The one boy who had actually read it before told me not to bother, it wasn’t worth it. We generally agreed on literature so I happily took his advice. Joseph, wherever you are, the third time's on you. The same class brought me to my literary knees again. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Byron was introduced as not being as great as the book said. According to my Professor it had sections of great beauty ruined by many difficult, awkward, and boring passages. He was right. I started with great gusto but never finished. Both of these poems are written in Spenserian stanzas. Is it possible I’m simply allergic to that form? I’d like to think so.

In my search for ever more interesting lit classes, I signed up my sophomore year for Modern American Drama, number 400 and something. No problem, until I arrived and found that all the other students knew each other. They were very friendly when I came in, but seemed to be regarding me as an unusual specimen of fish. When the teacher showed up he looked surprised to see me, too. It turned out that this class was actually required for graduate drama students, but was listed in the 400s because the department didn’t have enough undergrad classes to meet their quota. I was offered a chance to switch, but declined. It became one of my favorite classes, I learned so much, and they treated me like an equal. Here I studied plays by Tennessee Williams, Ibsen, and others. And for the first time I admitted to my teacher that I had deliberately not finished something. The play was Strindberg’s
Miss Julie, and I hated it. Unfortunately, one of the required essays on the Final meant I had to compare it with two other plays we’d read. Falling on my sword I admitted that I’d found it very distasteful, and had stopped reading it. Therefore, I explained with what I hoped would read as dignified humility, I would be comparing and contrasting the other two plays only. I got an A on the paper and the class, perhaps more for my guts than anything.

You might be wondering by now if I’ve gone back and read the books I skipped in school. I will tell no more lies, I have not.
The Faerie Queene, the longest poem in the English language, has been described as allegorical and allusive. Just pondering that can give me a headache. As for Childe Harold and his Pilgrimage, quite a few of the experts agree with my professor. I still enjoy reading short pieces of it occasionally, though. I don’t think I need Lord of the Flies to show me what depravity man can sink to, and I read the Cliff Notes so I know how it ends. Strindberg doesn't tempt me, while not reading The Red Badge of Courage has become such a tradition, I’m almost afraid to pick it up. I actually think I might upset the great balance of the Cosmos. Or something.

Sometimes, just like a fisherman, I find myself thinking about the ones that got away. Then I pick my current book and read on. It is possible to lead a full and rich life without understanding
The Faerie Queene. Fortunately.

Read Well, Friend.