Out of Sight

November 10, 2008

Okay class, there’s a surprise quiz today. Click here and no talking.

Time’s up. How did you do?

Now, I don’t know about you, but I ran out of common words rather quickly. Come, but, can, the, and, how, have…  I did okay for a while concentrating on the modal verbs, but my mind kept going to zebra and tilly—and ‘tilly’ isn’t much of word at all, is it? It can be a slang word for utility and it can refer to one Johann Tserclaes von Tilly, who was the general who commanded the Holy Roman Empire’s forces during the Thirty Years’ War. The Wikipedia has a nice article on the man, but I’m going to have a hard time working ‘tilly’ into my conversation. It ought to be a verb in any case.

Common words are so common as to be invisible. Perhaps that’s why they are sometimes given the uncommon name Dolch Words after E. W. Dolch, who in 1936 went through a pile of children’s books and compiled a list of 220 words he found the most often. ‘The’ tops the list of the Dolch words and number 220 is ‘laugh’. ‘Together’ is the longest and has the most syllables. The vast majority of them are, however, monosyllabic, with ‘a’ and ‘I’ necessarily being the shortest. Dolch Words are often called sight words because the reader should be able to understand them ‘on sight’ and not have to figure them out. For the neophyte reader, these words are pretty important. They’re the cement that binds the aggregate together into a nice hard concrete. Of course, you can string vast numbers of these words together, and manage not to say too much of anything, but lines such as this from Ted Hughes—

Now that you had all she ever had

You had much too much

—make his point quite well. And only ‘ever’ isn’t on Mr. Dolch’s list. Still, if you’re thinking the referent for that pronoun ‘she’ must be Silvia, think instead of Assia.

At the other end of the spectrum are neologisms and their close relatives the nonce words. Nonce words get their name because they were supposedly invented ‘for the nonce’, that is, for a one time use—but that doesn’t seem right somehow.  No one goes to the trouble of making up a word for the nonce; they want to enter something new into the language. Perhaps it is better to say they have been given a special and original use. Neologisms might be the more general category, but ‘nonce’ seems the better verb candidate; you should be able to nonce a word now and then.  

 Quark is perhaps the most famous neologism to make the leap into general parlance. So the story goes, ‘quark’ was invented by James Joyce and tossed into the Finnegans Wake stew—as Three quarks for Muster Mark—which Muster Murray Gell-Mann spooned out to use as a name for something very small that no one had heretofore known about, pulling it free from Joyce’s nonce into another nonce and finally into the mainstream of language. You can use ‘quark’ these days without knowing anything about James Joyce, and you can use ‘quark’ without knowing that James Joyce knew ‘quark’ to be the sound of a sea bird cawing / quarking in the wind. Sit sometime at the shore and listen to the sound of an ultimate constituent of matter skimming the waves. Three quarks for Mister Mark, indeed.

foot3Neologisms and nonce words pull us toward another kind of invisibility: ambiguity and meaninglessness; they oppose the sight word’s concrete by placing wet leaves on the pavement. When I say “’Twas  brillig, and the slithy toves’ makes its point by ‘gwuth bryer’”, you have to have enough context to know that I might mean by ‘gwuth bryer’ something like ‘piling nonsense on top of nonsense’. With this scant information, you might take ‘gwuth bryer’ to mean ‘writing in secret code’. Just as a Dolch word’s center of gravity is in the commonplace, nonce words spin off into new galaxies; the author is suggesting, like Dr. Gell-Mann, that he has found something new about the world, or he has a new idea, a new way of thinking, or seeing or being—at least he is saying something old in a new way. By definition, a dictionary won’t help us with a genuine nonce word. You have to work with these words in a well defined language field. Too much nonce and not enough Dolch will leave the reader in the wilderness…or the deep sea, for of course ‘gwuth bryer’ might mean, ‘suggesting that the world is not amenable to a well defined language field’.  Truth is, though, ‘gwuth bryer’ can mean nothing at all—or it can mean anything you want it to mean, a kind of literary Rorschach Test.

‘My wife is gwuth bryer, don’t you think?’

Careful how you answer that.

‘More tilly than gwuth bryer, I should think.’


Another form of invisibility is the cliché. Here’s a nice definition I found:

A cliché is an analogy characterized by its overuse. It may be true (‘Fat as a pig’), no longer true (‘work like a dog’) or inscrutable (‘right as rain’), but it has been overused to the point that its sole function is to mark its user as a lazy thinker.

And here is a list that’s been compiled to help us all become accomplished lazy thinkers.

Still, for me there is a difference between ‘The best thing since little apples,” and ‘The best thing since sliced bread’. And I wonder if you’ve never heard the expression, can it really be a cliché. One man’s bon mot is another man’s sliced bread.               

 What are little apples, anyway? Googling, I found this:

In our opinion little apples is an example of what can be done by people who really examine the system and plan meticulously to achieve their objectives using all the facilities available to them. 



But think about sliced bread for a minute: Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa invented the first loaf-at-a-time bread-slicing machine. A prototype he built in 1917 was destroyed in a fire, and it was not until 1928 that Rohwedder had a fully working machine ready. The first commercial use of the machine was by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, which produced their first slices on July 7, 1928. Their product, “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread”, proved a success. Battle Creek, Michigan has a competing claim as the first city to sell bread presliced by Rohwedder’s machine; historians have produced no documentation backing up Battle Creek’s claim. The bread was advertised as, “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.”

Sliced bread! The best thing since wrapped bread!

I’d feel better about the idea if I hadn’t grown up eating Wonder Bread—which was sliced and wrapped—and fortified to build strong bodies in eight great ways.

We might be tempted to conclude that language tends towards the invisible: Familiarity breeds contempt; you can’t teach an old dog new tricks; there is nothing new under the sun. Even the pithiest of metaphors, the newest of neologisms, walking in the corridors of overuse, tend to the common and the cliché. .. But man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he ’s most assured, his glassy essence, like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep…


Out of sight.











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