Tag Archives: joy of words

Word of the Week, prosaic

Take my hand; come with me; let’s take an (abbreviated) tour of my bookcase.

To our left we see Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, The Millennium Trilogy, The Snow Child, Dracula, The Name of The Rose, even, ahem Twilight

And what do these titles have in common? They are all prose and therefore, by definition, prosaic.

Don’t get me wrong, I love poetry too: Browning, Marvell, Shakespeare. But most of my reading is prose and (most) is great. But the connotations of the adjectival form of the word, prosaic, are so strongly negative! It is almost synonymous with banal to suggest how dull, uninspired and mundane something is. How terribly unfair! I love prose; prose writing can be as just as enchanting and magical and wonderful and, yes, lyrical as poetry.

Anyway, rant over, let’s look at this word.

Prosaic. That little collection of vowels at the end which I love. The /eī/ followed by the sudden drawing back of lips to articulate the /ī/. It is such a precise, careful enunciation, possibly reflecting the use of prose to create precise and careful meanings; whereas lyricism conveys impressions and feelings….?

The etymology is interesting too. It derives – as so many of my Words of the Week do – from Latin: provotere is “to turn forwards” and its past participle is proversus, “turned forwards”. So is it truly “straight forward” or “forward facing”, perhaps even “looking to the future”?

What a strange word to have come to refer to a style of writing!

Or is it?

The novel is the form of writing most obviously written in prose – yes I know drama can be; I know there are analyses of Moby Dick that have identified pages written in perfect Shakespearean iambic pentameter; I know verse novels do exist – but as a rule it’s pretty accurate. And the word novel is derived from the word for newness, novelty. So prose – and therefore prosaic writing – is forward facing, looking to the future, creating novelty, innovative?

And instead of this very positive ideal of writing, the word – presumably as a result of nothing more than prejudice and ignorance and habit – it means little more than “banal”.

On a side question…. Is there a difference between the two words? I think so. Banal to me has a greater connection with the idea of being valueless and worthless; prosaic suggests perhaps a greater value but an uninspired expression.

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Word of the Week: Corpulent

Corpulent.

Another way of calling someone fat without them realising? Although be careful with royalty: they are well versed in the slightly more obscure insults. Leigh Hunt was arrested, imprisoned and suffered all the usual fates that prisoners do for calling the Prince Regent “corpulent” in 1812. What offence would it come under, I wonder? Offences Against the Person? Treason? Abusive words?

Because this is the thing with this word, “corpulent”. Is it an insult? Really? Is it a synonym for fat or obese? Or is it something else?

Lets investigate its sound. /ˈkɔpjʊlənt/. Well, that initial /ˈkɔ/ sound is undeniably harsh. It is the echo of the raven’s “caw”: dissonant, aggressive, carrion somehow. It sticks in the back of the throat. A sound which is coughed or vomited out rather than exhaled. And the word is punctuated with the plosive /p/, coupled with grimacing, sneering, snarling /jʊ/. It is not a pleasant sound; wholly appropriate to anti-Royalist phlegm and invective.

And as we look at the word we discern the corpse within the corpulent body: the poor victim of this erudite insult is a dead man walking a rotting carcass of a man swaddled in multitudinous layers of fat and grease! We hear “corpulent” and we understand “morbidly obese”. But again is this fair?

It is undeniable that corpse and corpulent share a root, the Latin corpus. But to my untutored and non-latinate mind, corpus means simply body, our physical, corporeal form. Frail or healthy, male or female, young or old, living or dead, Platonic prison or sensual garden. Just “body”. And -ulentus means nothing more than “full of” or “replete”. Our corpulent gentleman may therefore resemble a powerhouse of a man, a man of complete and powerful body. Could we describe an athlete, a wrestler, a dancer as being fully invested in their bodies and therefore “corpulent”?

Alas, only in my mind. It seems that we poor limited Britons have limited the word to just “fat”. Which still doesn’t exclude the wrestler from its application!

Word of the Week: banal

Okay, so posting two words of the week within two days does display both my utter disregard for the rules of mathematics and time keeping and also my awareness of my own limitations: I figured a word a day would be far too much for my limited brain; a word a week was a manageable minimum!

Anyway, let’s take a step away from such banal topics as myself and onto the word itself: banal.

Banal.

What a word!

How utterly and unashamedly judgemental does one have to be to use the word banal to describe anyone else’s opinion, work, writing, appearance or existence. And just to be clear, I have no objection to being judgemental!

From the initial plosive /b/ with which this word is spat out at the poor unsuspecting victim, months of disappointment and despair behind it; to the shift from the initial short /æ/ to the long, sneering, corner-of-lip-raised /a:/ it is a word that encapsulates all that is supercilious, contemptuous and haughty. It is pronounced to rhyme with snarl which is the most appropriate facial expression to be adopted whilst using it.

Banal words function as a feeble phenomena that fall into their own mental bogs of meaning.
Robert Smithson

In science, all facts, no matter how trivial or banal, enjoy democratic equality.
Mary McCarthy

The etymology of the word is equally unfortunate. It derives from Old French “ban” which was used to describe those things which were open and accessible to the general populace, more specifically ovens and mills according to the world wide web, as well as compulsory military service. I can imagine that there was a potential for its meaning to become widened into a word that suggested something like “democratic” or “universal” in the same way that Catholic does. Unfortunately, it came instead to mean “common” and “trite” and “valueless”, the lowest common denominator of moral or intellectual or cultural experience. It is a word that conjures up the questionable joys of a somewhat legendary television show that (I am informed) offers the opportunity for viewers to watch in realtime and at any time the inanities of the frequently undereducated and overinflated egos that populate a mythical and guarded House from which they are not permitted to leave until voted out. It is currently showing on BBC Parliament Channel.

Word of the Week: viscera

Viscera… One of those wonderful words that sounds so much better than the things it describes.

I love the brevity of the initial /Ī/ vowel and the final short vowels that almost seem to elide together around the /r/, ending the words in a gentle exhalation, a sigh, a breath. And then the length of the /s/ in the middle that seems to linger and lurk around the whole word, writhing like a snake… or like the coils of the intestine.

Which leads us to the meaning of this beautiful word: all the guts and spleen and liver and gall bladder and bladder-bladder and pancreas and bloody wriggling boiling organs that keeps these frail human bodies working. There is something very physical, honest and brutal about the images that this word conjures up.

I am epileptic and both photosensitive and audiogenic. When I hear loud, rhythmic, heavy beats in music it can generate such a strong urge to run that visceral is the only word to describe it: it is deep wrenching panicked urgent need to flee deep in my gut.

The word itself derives from Latin viscus which is pluralised to viscera meaning the internal organ(s) of a body. The adjectival form visceral is such a great word to describe those things that affect us physically in art, cinema and watching the latest Twilight film, Breaking Dawn, for example, after the initial 90 minutes of utter tedium, I found viscerally repulsive in the birthing scene; the lovely Mrs P had an identical reaction to Alien vs Predator; visceral is a wonderful word for my students to use in analysing Wilfrid Owen’s poetry redolent with a personal response to literature and words.