Sunday, December 8, 2013

Word of the Day: “paregmenon” (expanded)

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 proved 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’, the 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.


Related in here somewhere  is the notion of the paronym.   The word is familiar to Arabists, but seems not to be used much in English.  At least, Wiki has an entry for it  in a couple of dozen languages, but not English.  So you’ll have to make do with this:

For a more generous collection of morphosemantic remarks, check out this:

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 practiced, 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 said upon 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:


Bonus update:  A homonym joke!

“I’m going to settle down in the country somewhere.”
“What will you do there?  Raise chickens?”
“Oh?  Well, I supposed you know your own business best,” said Jane dubiously.  “I don’t think I’d like to run a poultry farm myself.”
Bill saw that the intricacies of the English language had misled her.
-- P.G. Wodehouse, The Purloined Paperweight (a.k.a. Company for Henry) (1967)

Then, right (right) on the next page, he socks you with another one.  Bill, it turns out, has written a thriller, and Jane is thrilled:

“I love thrillers.  What was it called?”
Deadly Ernest.”
“Ernest without an a,” said Bill, wondering, as so many authors have done, why the title of a book, spoken aloud, should always sound so fatuous and wrong.  “Ernest was the villain.”

Better yet, on the very next page, we get a paronym joke.  Bill, whose real name is Thomas Hardy, dare not use that to sign his books, lest he be taken for his sosie or homonym, the other English author by that name; and so he chooses a nom de plume, “Adela Bristow” -- specifically in hopes that some hard-of-hearing bookstore clerk will slip one to a customer who had mumblingly requested an “Agatha Christie”, thus considerably goosing his sales.   (We ourselves would never stoop to such a thing, in mere quest of unsuspecting readers.  We shall not, for instance, use the phrase “homonym porn” in this post, nor drag in some irrelevant reference to “Taylor Swift nude pixxx”.)

This image is for linguistic purposes only

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(My name is Agatha Christie, and I approved this message.)
~         ~
[Update 10 December 2013]
In a reader’s comment on an article in today’s Le Figaro (which we examined in another post, from a moment ago: A little bit of spin makes the sugar-pill go down ), concerning the new French adventure into Central Africa, we find the following excellent homonymic pun:

Contrairement à ce qu'affirmait Mr Hollande, la France à Fric, n'est pas terminée.

Such wordplay is easy to do in French -- indeed, difficult to avoid -- given its phonology.  In the present case, it is a blend of France-Afrique, and fric meaning ‘moolah, lolly, simoleons’.   Works nicely on the printed page:  but, like Deadly Ernest, orally  not at all.

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