Sunday, May 12, 2013

Der Wortwitz und seine Beziehung zum Halbbewußten

Die Spielerei mit Namen und Silben, die ich hier treibe, enthält aber noch einen weiteren Sinn.
-- Sigmund Freud, Die Traumdeutung (1900)

Yesterday a handyman was at our home to do some work.   I always like these guys -- capable and straightforward, a refreshing contrast to the mall-and-media meshugaas.   (For more on union men as the pillar of our remaining civilization, cf. this:  Adult supervision.)  And one thing I’ve noticed is, they are always quite conscientious about cleaning up after their work, meticulously sweeping and setting things back in place.  So I was not surprised when, his task finished at last, he came in off the deck (where he had fashioned a wire screen to keep the birds from nesting in the dryer-vent) with a few tiny leftover metal scraps in his palm:   but somewhat surprised, and impressed, when, instead of dumping these into the nearby waste-basket, he held them out to me, as though apologetically, saying “recyclables”, for me to dispose of  as I saw fit.
And indeed they were, technically, recyclable:  shiny fresh metal, cleanly cut.  And if you happened to have a warehouse containing perhaps a million or so identical samples, you might have enough to make an automobile -- for a mouse.  (Vide Stuart Little.) I smiled and murmured to myself, “Yes, the recylabobbles.” -- and tossed them in the trash.

And then this morning, the early rays of Sunday  streaming through the bedroom window, new-brewed coffee  steaming on the nightstand,  I sipped and meditated upon that casual word:  recyclabobbles.  Such weekend early mornings, before consciousness has quite resumed her throne, and while stray streamers of dreams still waft through half-slumbering tissues, reliably prove fruitful  as a source of half-glimpsed welling insights.  And so it was to prove today.

Für psychologisch tiefgreifende Krimis,
in pikanter amerikanischer Mundart,
und christlich gesinnt,
klicken Sie bitte hier:


Like dream-images, informal word-coinings tend to have multiple origins -- they are “overdetermined”, in the jargon (überdeterminiert).   And in this case, what we might call the labio-ludic moment  lies ready to view (or to audition):  Recyclabobbles is simply fun to say.  (Try it.  Above all, try it on your little kids.  They’ll think you’re the wittiest guy alive.)   But then, nothing is simply “simply”.  And so, digging down  or rather just scratching the surface a bit, under the smiling approbatory aegis of Father Freud (a passage from whose Traumdeutung proved the last thing I read before retiring for the night), we notice that the bilabial consonant b (a fun sound all in itself -- ask any babbling baby) is here redoubled, forming a kind of labial “bubble” at the end of the word -- like that last bloom of blissful milk upon the lips of the satisfied suckling.
Secundo:   There  is a purely adult, socio-ironic moment here in play:  namely, that coinage represents a very gentle ribbing of the solemnity with which the Ethos of Recycling -- the Recycling Way of Life -- is treated in bobo/googoo/goodthink communities.  In some, like Longmeadow (MA), it was sheer tyranny, l’arbitraire de l’indigne.  There, some weeks, for inscrutable reasons, apparently detecting some scrap of contraband among the piled-up glass and plastic, the trashmen or rather Disposal Professionals (picky princesses) would disdain to pick up any of the recyclables you had painstakingly collected and set out on the curb on the appointed day.  -- In other towns, like Princeton, it becomes a truly irksome fetish, with this container for clear glass  and that container for tinted glass, and the other container for plain paper, and another for cardboard, and -- no, that we classify as “building material”, and you may neither recycle it nor discard it in the trash, but must take it yourself to a special facility in a distant part of town, open on alternate Saturdays from seven to nine…
The lack of any sour note in that gently chiding recyclabobbles  is due to the fact that we now live, here in  Elkhornia, under a considerably more latitudinarian regime.  Not only do the municipal authorites not insist (unlike some places where we have resided) that we pre-wash, pasteurize, and sterilize  each item  before placing into the approved container;  they explicitly invite us to dump all recyclables, regardless and irrespective of their cleanliness, chemical composition, race, creed, or national origin, into the same huge heavy wheeled blue unbreakable containers supplied by the town.  Such license, actually, sits ill with the by-now-ingrown sense of the necessity for recyclables to be sauber getrennt, absorbed during previous stretches in various outposts of Recyclestan;  so that I actually cannot bear to mix the bottle milchig with the newspaper fleischig, and regularly set them out in two separate containers.  This accomplishes exactly nothing, since all containers are indiscriminately dumped by our sturdy dustman (knights of labor, no princesses, they) into the wide maw of the garbage-truck.

Well.  Not bad for a bit of morning musing.  Here we might comfortably lay aside our lyre, and turn to the comics section of the Sunday newspapers.  -- Yet the Austrian physician raises an admonitory finger  and murmurs:   There is more.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(Ich bin Sigmund Freud, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

This throwaway coinage recyclabobbles, which  in the normal course of things  I should have forgotten  so soon as said,  has  in fact  a precursor  in the boyhood years of my brother and me.  To wit (to be witty):  végetebobbles, a word with which we occasionally amused ourselves. 
At the simplest level (the labio-ludic), this was just playing with the word -- bandying it about the way one might a ball;  specifically, by humorously and alliteratively extending it, the way we extended the name of Piglet’s notorious nemesis, the heffalump, into a vague category of amusing monsters,  heffalumps and huggamagoos.  (Notable note:  As a child, I did not realize that “heffalump” was little Piglet’s attempt to pronounce the word elephant:  this, despite an E.H. Shepherd illustration that clearly depicted the latter beast, haunting Piglet’s dreams.  More anon.)  The marketing industry caters to this penchant for verbally “playing with your food”, by coining such product-names as Rice-a-Roni (echoing the colloquial suffixal extension -aroony, popular in our grandfather’s day).
At the next level (the socio-ironic), it (self-)satirizes childish mispronunciation of long words,  like basketti for spaghetti.   There is a depth-psychological aspect to the latter, which is quickly forgotten by children, but which once was conscious:  indeed we can see it in statu nascendi, in the following remarkable incident recorded in my language notebook of our child’s early years.
After two years of Canadian exile, our young family had returned stateside.  We were living in one half of an almost Colonial-era bungalow, on Longmeadow Street in the eponymous town of Massachusetts, which (despite its historic status) had been bisected into a duplex (an elderly widow occupied the other half).   The wooden floors were picturesquely wonky; and it was upon the kitchen section of these that our heir and scion was rug-ratting around (sans rug), being on the brink of attaining his second year.   His mother was preparing some raw fresh vegetables (you see, I can use the grown-up word when I so choose).  After having served our sentence amid the waste-plains of northern Alberta, it was a treat, this summer, to move to an area where you could obtain   some actual local produce;  and it was with this fact in mind that she had been referring to the blushing spheroids of our desire, not merely as “tomatoes”, but as fresh tomatoes. 
This fact did not go unnoticed by the insatiably linguisorbent hatchling  amusing himself beneath the kitchen table.   We heard him say (speaking to himself, as children do at that age): besh ma-NAY-to.
Besh manato.   How cute, we thought, lisping his syllables as he attempts to acquire the tongue (you use besh manatoes to make basketti, you see).  But he continued, sotto voce, with a phrase that has etched itself in memory:

   Mommy say:  Fresh tomato.  Steven say:  besh ma-NAY-to.

(Later we may draw some lessons from this.)

*     *     *
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*     *     *

To return to our leafy friends, the humble vegetables.
Rather later in life than that rolicking, frolicking time of vegetabobbles and hugamagoos, I coined (and recall coining) another alternative to the bare unsavory lexeme  bequeathed us by our elders: vegétables (pron. veh-JET-a-bles). 
The origin of this one is interesting.  The word as normally pronounced by Americans  both child and grown-up, is trisyllablic:  VEJ-ta-bles.  Yet the spelling perplexingly inserts an “e” between the clustered consonants.  Nor is this a mere orthographic indication of the “softness” of the g, for a vowel appears unambiguously in such (post-little-kid) words as ve-ji-TA-tion, not to mention (older) French végétables.  And indeed, our trans-Atlantic cousins (our former colonial masters, and long our orthoëpic exemplars) to this day pronounce vegetables as tetrasyllabic.   This ironically overcompensating veh-JET-a-bles was my response to these unwelcome strictures, by one who only recently had left off analphabetic prattling  and had learned to spell.  
So much for the intellectual (socio-ironic) aspect.  But there underlies yet another, depth-psychological:  for here the adolescing child is poised upon the cusp between pre-literate bliss and orthographic regimentation:  the schoolbench contribution to that shaping, shaving, repressive process that gives rise to Civilization, with all its Discontents.
And once coined, this further glossoplastic confection, veh-JET-ables, could give rise to yet another dysphemism for those unappealing greens:  regrettables, a word with which it rhymes, and which I was pleased to use  even so late as a teenager.   Once again, the socio-ironic aspect is obvious and prominent.  
But once again, there is a psychotropic undercurrent.   First, in the recognition (or premonition) that, for the immature stomachs of little children,  vegetables are literally poison:  unlike fruit, which is ‘intended’ to be eaten (to spread the seeds), vegetable matter is structural material and contains toxins so that the plant might survive.  Second, the … regrets (in the French sense: “Je regrette ces jours-là”: ‘I miss those times’), for the hazy pre-broccoli days of (mother’s) milk and (Poohbear’s) honey.


Another linguistically revealing anecdote from the nursery.  At some point it came into my head to refer to my brother Alan as “Aunin” (pron. OW-nin).
The labio-ludic element is obvious: as in the case of vegetebobbles, we note here an element of sensuous labial orality.  Instead of the short and acid vowel of Alan, we replace it with a rounding diphthong -- lips lingering then closing, as though over a grape.   There was also an element of the socio-ironic:  it was a way of making (rather fond) fun of my little brother.   Contributing phonetically to its confection was the influence of the rather odd name of one of my girl-cousins, Cousin Annan.   And somehow tied up with the word was the image, seen repeatedly, from the standard inside-covers of the Golden Books series, of a circus seal, balancing a ball.


But our labors are not over, with these linguistic observations.  There remains the psychodynamics of the thing.
Freud was well aware of the sort of forces that might be in play  in a case of this kind:

Die Sprachkünste der Kinder, die zu gewissen Zeiten die Worte tatsächlich wie Objecte behandeln, auch neue Sprachen und artefizielle Wortfügungen erfinden, sind für den Traum  wie für die Psychoneurosen  hier die gemeinsame Quelle.
-- Die Traumdeutung, p. 362

Now:  The crucial point about the “Aunin” example is that, whatever the element of phonetic wordplay (and this is not even a necessary feature to the real purpose of the thing), it was fundamentally an act of naming, of bestowing a name upon an object (here, a human being).  As such it recalls the Great Ur-christening, when Adam gave names to all the creatures that were paraded before him.   By naming my little brother, I framed him, boxed him in.  He was felt as a threat, since, prior to his arrival, I had had the mommy-mountain  all to myself.  Then he had to go and horn in … -- Oddly enough, he didn’t mind the name, and still occasionally uses it in his correspondence with me, whom he similarly sometimes addresses as “Wavey-Davey”  (a monicker from the same nursery years, bestowed -- this one, by an adult -- on the basis of some anecdote, probably in refence to my propensity of swinging my Mickey Mouse stuffed-toy  round and round by his tail).

This is potent stuff.  And (I now  somewhat blush  to recall)  I persisted in this whim of improvised christening, well into late adolescence.  As, meeting the German host-family with whom I dwelt in the summer of 1966, it struck me that the younger brother, Ludwig, had a doofus name;  I promptly re-dubbed him with a cool name,  “Kurt”.   The name stuck, at least for the duration of my stay.   -- And, later, in college, a rather artistic and sensitive friend, Michael by name, I took to addressing -- playfully/imperiously --  as “Stephen” (after Stephen Daedelus);  this lasted until, one day, he confessed that, though that was o-kay-y, it was kind of weird for him, since his elder brother, with whom he had complicated relations, was named Stephen ..

Parents, ex officio, bestow the birth-certificate name: already an awesome responsibility.  But some of them, gilding the lily, go on to think up nicknames for their kids -- whimsical things, usually, like “Peanut”, “Popcorn”, “Ouchie”.   One pair of parents of my acquaintance, having bestowed upon their (non-Slavic) daughter  the dubious distinction of the name Sasha (originally a mostly masculine nickname for Alexander), took to calling her, ridiculously, Salsa.   That is the sort of parody best left to mean kids in the playground, not your own parents.


With this much under our belt, we can return to the example of besh manáto.  Like Aunan, it is no mere childish mispronunciation, since the speaker  in either case  was quite capable of saying the thing correctly.  It is rather (combining the levels of the labio-ludic and the socio-satiric) a (self-)satire on articulatory immaturity, in a spirit of amused tolerance at our own babbling past, now being progressively put behind us.  Yet more grandly (here, the psychodynamics, though basically conscious) it is an exercise after the pattern of Adam, naming things quite as it suits you.

-- Another nursery footnote, anent Freud’s remark quoted above, to the effect that children sometimes (man)handle words  quite as though they were objects.   Our son, again,  aet. su. barely two, speaking contemplatively to himself as he slowly descended the steep stairs, hand prudently on the bannister:

I have something in my diaper.  It’s a nim-dum-dum. -- No, that’s not a word.

Here we see poignantly, more starkly expressed than is usual (since the speaker in question was linguistically almost a prodigy, while developing otherwise at a normal pace) a consciousness reluctantly taking leave of the pleasures of playing with one’s poop, along with the wordplay that metaphorically reflects it.

-- The appropriative moment of wordplay-naming (laid bare in the Aunan example) appears in the very title of this post, which takes a venerable book of Freud, and makes it mine, by tweaking it to my liking.


These homo ludens wordsmithery phenomena  lie in the twilight between conscious joke-making, and sleeping dreams (which may well be wordless),  to each of which  Freud  devoted a stout volume.   His Traumdeutung, however,  is verbally focused to a remarkable extent, so that he extensively explores this linguistic middle-territory, performing etymological and motivational dissection of what he calls Wortklumpen -- the multimorphemic wordclump mimicking the “Knäuel von Gedanken” (ideational complexus).
For example, a phrase appearing in a dream:  “Das wird in einen allgemeinen Maistollmütz ausgehen” -- a wordstew to which half a dozen cooks  each contributes an etymon.  Or again, in a really impressive feat of onomastic sleuthing:  “Nun zerlegt sich Autodidasker  leicht in Autor, Autodidakt, und Lasker, an den sich der Name Lasalle schließt.”
That latter surname seems a bit of a ringer, not phonetically in close company:  but the link is semantic:  Lasker starb an progressiver Paralyse, also an den Folgen der beim Weib erworbenen Infektion (Lues);  Lasalle, wie bekannt, im Duel wegen einer Dame.”   And this connection proves fruitful, both to unearthing the unconscious content of the dream, and to tossing up yet further lexical connections:  “Das » Cherchez la femme «, in dem sich diese Gedanken zusammenfassen lassen, bringt mich  auf meinen noch unverheirateten Bruder, der Alexander heißt.  Nun merke ich, daß Alex … fast wie eine Umstellung von Lasker klingt ….”  (Wheels within wheels …)

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