Friday, September 27, 2013

(Not-Quite-)Word of the Day: “paregmenon”

A friend forwarded one of his daily emails from Anu Garg’s “A.Word.A.Day” feature.

Now, normally, I dislike “word a day” features, unless (as on this site) they are full cultural/philological portraits, of value in themselves  even if you never use the word in question -- which, they being mostly quite obscure, you generally should not.  Prose that does not grow organically, but is mined autodidactically from dictionaries and thesauri, tends to be a wretched breccia of jackdaw-bits.   But today’s offering appeared, at first glance, an interesting exception. 

The entry as given by Mr. Garg:



noun: The juxtaposition of words that have the same roots. Examples: sense and sensibility, a manly man, the texture of textile.

From Greek paregmenon, from paragein (to bring side by side). Earliest documented use: 1577.

"The Songs poets also used paregmenon for more than two words in succession ("Climbed those high hills,/ Ridged hills and higher heights").
William McNaughton; The Book of Songs; Twayne Publishers; 1971.

That stylistic phenomenon is indeed prominent and needs a name.  
As a young man, not knowing a word for it, and requiring one for my own notes, I made one up based on something I had read, and called such a relation “rhematic”.    That use of the word (though it may have existed once) is by now purely idiolectal -- though the duality “theme and rheme” (roughly:  topic and comment) has latterly been revived for textual linguistics, in an unrelated (um, nonrhematic) sense.  So at this particular onomasiological cubby-hole, the lexical cupboard is bare.

And those who specially need to fill it, are Arabists, such as myself:  for Arabic does notoriously avail itself of this morphosemantic flourish;  in classical Arabic, it's called jinaas, or tajniis.  Indeed, since both those words are slightly ambiguous (the latter can also mean ‘naturalization’, for former not), their use together can provide a case of “disambiguation via semantic intersection”, as in old-fashioned law English.

Yet I've never previously seen a good English equivalent, even among Arabists.  Classical grammars of Arabic translate the term as "paronomasia", but that's no good, since that word usually means "punning", and tajniis is usually employed, not with the flavor of low puns, but with a touch of appropriate elegance:  as indeed, Austen’s title Sense and Sensibility.   The figure at its best  suggests depth and dignity, bringing out a sense  latent in the common etymon, though commonly forgotten in the day-to-day use of the derivata: thus Gide’s serviable mais non servile.   Even that comical manly man -- though it smacks of Saturday Night Live twitting Schwarzenegger, that does not inhere in the structure, but springs merely from the degraded nature of our age;  for those who hark to the days when men were men indeed, it rings with virtus virumque.

So, paregmenon has, in principle,  a role to play.  The only problem is, it is a word with  -- so far as my own experience goes -- no life outside of dictionaries of obscure and lifeless words.   It is not listed in the massive Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary (third edition).  Nor does it appear in the Oxford Companion to English Literature (3rd edn. 1946), which does, however, list paronomasia.  The word might even be a modern invention, masquerading as ancient -- much as the old Beduin, pried and paid by lexicographers of the pre-Islamic Arabic tongue, pulled words for the occasion  out of their …..  -- or rather, out of their foreheads, like Minerva.

Thus, Curtius, in his Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (1948), discusses much the variety of literary wordplay, under the Latin name of annominatio (a direct morphological equivalent of Greek paronomasia:  both mean ‘names next to another’);  for this, he gives three Greek equivalents -- none of them the supposed “paregmenon”.   The latter seems to be a word simply found among the bulrushes.

As example of annominatio, he gives  a line of Matthew of Vendôme,

Fama famem pretii parit  amentis nec amantis;
  est pretium viae  depretiare decus

and comments (here I quote from Trask’s translation),

In this distich, two pairs of homophonous words  and three inflections of the same stem  are introduced in true virtuoso fashion.

None of this is to say that paregmenon might not prove useful, just because it is no veteran of the field, but a word still in the womb.   As such, it has not accumulated the distressing plethora of senses which infects the whole vocabulary of rhetoric’s termini technici.   Cut it from whole cloth -- on a recognizable morphosemantic pattern -- and use it consistently, in a stipulated sense.  -- C.S. Peirce defended, and practices, this dodge, as regards the terminology of philosophy;  and in the sciences (especially mathematics) it is absolutely standard (homotopy, holonomy, functorial, equicontinuous, etc.).   In cases where a pre-existing word like regular or normal is pressed into mathematical use, it winds up with fifty different meanings.

Note:  There is more that might be saidupon the matter of wordplay, not by way of mere further exemplification, but of digging towards the depths:  this would lead us in the direction of Freud’s Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten (1905 ff).   We touch but on the edges of that subject, here:


As it happens, our lexical diurnalist  supplies likewise a daily quotation.  The one for today was:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. -Mark Twain

That thought is not intended to illuminate the word, paregmenon, that it accompanies;  like everything in the trivial “….-a-day” genre, it is paratactic, unattached, just one d*mn thing after another.   Yet as it happens, both word and epigram share a characteristic:  aureate at first view, they prove pinchbeck upon inspection.

For, Twain’s contention is falsece n’est pas fatale, du tout.   It is true only for a minority of determined voyagers. 
The fact of that falsity  has by now grown familiar:  so much so, that it has spawned a new dichotomy, by répartition de sens, which we mention (and sublate) in our post “Tourism vs. Travel”.

However, our intention here is not to segue over to that topic, the travel through space to exotic locales; but rather through time, to past civilizations, as revealed through their literature.
C.S. Lewis, in his essay “De Audiendis Poetis”, addresses the problem -- often not even recognized 
as such by readers -- of coming to grips with expressions of thoughts of an earlier culture.

It is not only hapless students in High School English class, forced to read something by Shakespeare, who funk the challenge.  Here Oliver Elton, in The English Muse (1932), p. 269, twits the premier English poet of the seventeenth century, as regards his adaptations of the greatest poet of the fourteenth:

So great is his ‘veneration’ for the master, that he must needs turn him into Revolution English.  Strange that Dryden did not see that the remedy for the ‘obscurity’ of Chaucer’s language, is to learn it

The danger here is not the “obscurity” of Chaucer’s language, but its specious familiarity (perhaps not for our struggling freshman;  then substitute “Shakespeare” or “Pope”).  If a book is in Spanish and you don’t understand Spanish, you know you have to either learn Spanish, or read a rendering done by someone who did.  You don’t simply interpret bits here and there in terms of what you think it might mean -- “casa, that must mean ‘case’;  mesa -- heck I know that one, that’s one of those flat-topped mountain thingies; estar -- that’s how a Hispanic pronounces the word star”.   But when Shakespeare writes “caviary to the general”, our listless reader might suppose the reference is to a supreme military commander -- shrug, and skim on.
[Note:  The phrase means rather, ‘beyond the grasp of the groundlings’.]

Lewis helps us visualize the psycho-temporal dilemma, with a spatial metaphor:

There are two ways of enjoying the past, as there are two ways of enjoying a foreign country.  One man carries his Englishry abroad with him, and brings it home unchanged.  Wherever he goes, he consorts with other English tourists.  By a good hotel, he means one that is like an English hotel.  He complains of the bad tea  where he might have had excellent coffee.  He finds the ‘natives’ quaint, and enjoys their quaintness.

In the reading of literature, such self-centric ahistorical intellectual laziness was catered to by the New Critics (though, to their credit, they did require “close reading” of another sort), and was raised to a principle -- if that is the word -- by the unprincipled blackguards and sluggards of Postmodernism.   What a text means, is simply what it means for you (and indeed:  you in your least cultivated, most immanent, identity-politics sense).

Really to read and think your way into the minds of our great predecessors, is hard work even on the face of it, harder still if you appreciate the depth of the problem, since you don’t know what you don’t know.  When learning a definitely foreign language, you at least know when you come up with a bump.   If you don’t know what, say, izquierdo means, you know you can’t just pull an interpretation out of your ear or other orifice, you’ll have to do some research.
It is in part for that, that I have so assiduously cultivated a tiny number of other languages, while letting all the others lie.   The wordlist, or word-a-day level of experience and understanding, is worthless. A word like paregmenon, for anyone who meets it for the first time, not in genuine use, but in atomistic abstraction,  is like a trinket from a souvenir store, purporting to be some local cultural relic, but actually manufactured in plastic in Taiwan, based on sketches in some manga.
To get anything lasting out of it, you have to burrow into the language and its associated culture(s), and grow up in it.  Just as, to understand another country, it is not enough to have taken the whirlwind packaged tour, you have to have lived there (and, preferably, loved there).
 -- For more on the distinction, consult our essay here:


No comments:

Post a Comment