Saturday, December 27, 2008

Agenbite of Inwit

Let's talk about using the wrong word.

You writers and public speakers out there are always striving for the right word, le mot juste.  But is the right word the most precise one which indicates the concept, or a more widely known one that comes close?  Is the right word perhaps the one which creates a visceral connection with the concept in the mind of the reader?

In his book "Ulysses", James Joyce occasionally uses the term "agenbite of inwit."  Let's look at why this is the wrong word and why Joyce was right to use it.

Agenbite of inwit is misspelling of ayenbite of inwyt, the title of a French treatise.  In 1340, a monk translated this treatise into English a bit too literally.  Agenbite, or 'again bite', is a sort-of English rendering of the Latin verb remordere (to bite again).  Inwit, inner wit, is the inner sense of morality, that little voice inside of you that knows right from wrong.  So agenbite of inwit is the nagging of one's conscience.

This is the "wrong" word because the title was poorly translated and Joyce's spelling is off.  But, it is the right word too.  Used in the context of Leopoold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses, and his day about Dublin, the phrase packs some very visceral punch.  Joyce's 'ayen' to 'agen' consonant change renders the word closer to modern English.  Once the reader understands this phrase, it is much more potent than writing "my conscience is nagging me" amidst Bloom's stream of thoughts.  Instead we get "agenbite of inwit."  And we know.   We're right there with him.

It was gutsy of Joyce to use this phrase throughout his novel, but I think it paid off.  He single-handedly revived this phrase and it is now used occasionally by modern authors.  It's not instantly recognizable to those who haven't previously encountered it, but it is oddly familiar and similar to common English words.  It's one of those phrases that gets into your head and doesn't want to come back out.  Perhaps when you're having an agenbite of inwit?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Sword As A Metaphor

It's been a while since we talked about myth.  Let's take a look at the idea of the sword as a metaphor.

Since swords play such a prominent role in ancient literature, poetry, and fantasy, it seems fitting that we take a moment to examine this symbol.  A sword could easily be construed as a phallic symbol.  It is long and straight and directly related to its wielder's sense of power.

Young Arthur couldn't fully ascend to his position as a leader until he had become master of the blade, Excalibur.  When he is mortally wounded and can no longer wield the sword, he orders it to be thrown into the lake.

In Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings", Aragorn is the rightful king, but his sword is broken.  Narsil was the sword of his fathers, but remains broken after being shattered in battle.  It is only when the elves reforge Narsil into Anduril that he accepts his role as leader.  His sword is whole again.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a small town boy yearning for adventure.  When his guide (Obi Wan Kenobi) gives Luke his father's sword (albeit a laser sword), he learns to wield it and becomes a man.  Later, he uses his sword against his father, who chops off his sword bearing hand.

The sword as a phallic metaphor seems seems fairly obvious.  The danger is that of interpreting ancient symbols through a modern lens.  Perhaps a sword could more rightly be seen as the martial version of king's sceptor, a symbol of power, held by a ruler.  In this case, it is a warrior-king who holds the staff of the ruler. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008


This one came as a surprise to me.  I was speaking with a colleague at work.  

I said something like "Irregardless of the cost..." and my colleague stopped me.
"There is no such word."  He said.
"Just use 'regardless'." He advised.

It made sense immediately.  The prefix ir- doesn't add any semantic weight to the word.  The tricky part is our natural instinct to add some negation, but regardless already contains the -less suffix.  This, of course, creates a double negative.

Merriam-Webster says that the word originated in American speech in the early twentieth century and has never been accepted as correct.  The common theory is that irregardless is a confusion of "irrespective" and "regardless".

I certainly learned something new today.  Regardless of what I thought, irregardless isn't a word I'll be using any longer.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How Much Does a Swear Word Weigh?

From time to time, I'll be engaged in a conversation about language with a non-native English speaker.  Actually, this occurs pretty frequently.  Sometimes another person will enter and say something like "I only know one word in your language" and proceed to say the equivalent of the "f word".

Reactions to this vary. 

 I always tell people not to swear in a foreign language until they are fluent in that language.  The problem is that it seems like a fun game to you.  You're saying a cute, little naughty word that doesn't carry any baggage.  For you.  To the other person, you probably just said something offensive or, at least, wildly inappropriate.

Imagine that the situation were reversed.  You're walking down a street in Italy, someone recognizes that you are an English speaker, walks up to you and says the following:

Mi dispiace, non parlo l'inglese ma F!@# you.

What part of that is going to resonate viscerally?  Now you know what it sounds like to them.

Further, each culture assigns a different weight to swear words.  In some cultures, one would never swear in a public setting.  In others, swearing might be considered a very mild issue.

Each word (or phrase) also carries an individual weight.  So just make sure that you know the potential impact of what you are saying before you say it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bona Zamenhof Day

Happy Zamenhof Day!  Bonan Zamenhofan Tagon!

Yes, today (December 15th) is Zamenhof day, the birthday of Ludwig Zamenhof. He is the man who created Esperanto.

This "holiday" stretches back to 1878, when Zamenhof first told birthday well-wishers about his new language.  Today, most esperantists celebrate by purchasing a book in Esperanto.

While Esperanto is hardly the universally spoken second language that it was intended to be, it is far and away the most successful constructed language with several million speakers.  And, more importantly, in an increasingly international world, where people from various cultures mix on a daily basis, the idea of a neutral auxiliary language has never seemed more apt.

Zamenhof grew up in a city divided by multiple languages, where the people mistrusted one another due to incomprehension.  His idea was to create this neutral second language for them so that they could begin to communicate.  He thought that most conflict arose from misunderstanding and from the fear produced by not communicating.

The discussion of English as a global language must wait for another post.  Today we simply acknowledge Zamenhof and his ideals.

Estu bone kaj havu bonan Zamenhofan tagon. 

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ending Sentences With Prepositions

First off, apologies for the long silence.  During the gap between this post and the prior post I changed jobs and bought a house.  Life has a crazy way distracting one from such pleasurable pursuits as blogging.  A big thank you to everyone who has been checking back for new posts and to all of those who have found the blog useful.

Today, let's talk about ending sentences with prepositions.  Your English teacher told you not do it.  Your textbooks told you not do it.  But, is this really a rule that you should follow?

It turns out that  a sentence ending preposition is a rather divisive issue.  Increasingly, people are questioning this basic rule of grammar.  The argument usually centers around the fact that avoiding a preposition at the end of a sentence really has nothing to do with the English language.  This practice comes from Latin.  Encouraging people to write this way produces a style that is closer to the style of Latin.  This is undoubtedly true.  

As many of you know, English has several roots, but the lexicon is primarily derived from Anglo-Saxon and French words.  French is a direct descendant of Latin.  Throughout the history of Modern English (and still persisting today) is a stigma against the blue collar Anglo-Saxon words.  Latin derived words are perceived as more intellectual and indicative of the upper class.  J.R.R. Tolkien was frustrated by the use of the word "autumn" (French) when there was a perfectly good word for the same concept, "fall" (Anglo-Saxon).  This is fodder for a separate discussion.  For now we just need to remember that this stigma exists and that several of our grammar "rules" exist to perpetuate this stigma.

Still, I'm not sure that this is reason enough to throw out this particular rule.  Is structuring a sentence like Latin such a bad thing?  In my opinion, a better argument against this rule is the fact that it applies only to written English.  I rarely end a sentence with a preposition when I'm writing, but, mindful as I am of the rule, I often break the rule when speaking.  There's something mildly unsettling about that kind of division.

In the end, what should you do?  That is, of course, up to you.  My advice is to try following the rule.  Like any rule of grammar, if you break it, break it consciously.  Being more mindful of how you are structuring your sentence can't be a bad thing.