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?
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