Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Pinocchio's Paradox

What really bothers me is the way meaning gets bent and twisted by the sound of adjacent senses. Take an example: sway-backed horse. Aside from the evident pain felt by the animal as a consequence of its body undergoing a severe trauma, there’s the ambiguity of  how “sway” gets misused. To sway means to oscillate in a side to side motion. It also signifies influence, as in given sway over. What does actual swaying or a superior influence have to do with a horse’s bent spine?

Language exists in time. You can try to compress it, or stretch it, but like a kind of flexible substance, it will generally snap back into its median position, a resistance. But the changing colors or tints of meaning are more subtle. If we put words of the same sound together—like quaint, saint, taint, feint—we end up with gratuitous flutter, which may be organized into deliberately enforced sense by poets attempting to wrest order from chaos. But there’s nothing “natural” about words at any point. A word or phrase might be five hundred years old, but it has no more integrity than that which we assign it. So much of the context of meaning is derived from consent.

As in the consent of the governed. Dictionaries may be like prisons in which words are held in indefinite detention. Meanwhile, outside the walls, the criminals have their own language, replete with curses, private code-words, and the alchemy of subversion; while the graffiti of disrespect keeps getting plastered all over the public wall of culture--our unofficial billboards. The danger is that we’ll mistake those defacements for real art, and domesticate them by bringing them in out of the cold. 


Graham Foust said...

According to the OED, the word "sway" has been used with regard to the backs of horses since 1611, probably because "sway" can also mean to divert from a path--

1556 J. Heywood Spider & Flie xxv. 94 We sweie From the streight lyne of iustice.


Curtis Faville said...


It's the changing, counter-intuitive shifts in the meanings of words, and their various different adaptations which makes for confusion--or, put another way, their creative confusion.

How a compressed spine is suggested by the root meaning of sway is still a mystery to me. The way that definitions get appropriated to words is often irrational. Maybe we could call camels "anti-hill horses."

What do Gerber and Berber have in common? Processed meats and nomads. Gonads and hodags. Spearmint and spear-flint.