The Words of the Gods

Sometimes, those around us do godlike things.

Consider that trusted friend whose body temperature frequently rivals that of a cucumber’s. He’s Apollonian to the core. Your friend’s harmonious, rational, calm disposition conjures Apollo, the Greek god of sun, light, and music, and, if he’s feeling a tad more illogical that day, prophecy.

Haply you might prefer to trade all this cool sobriety in for a good Bacchanalian night out on the town. You can thank Bacchus, the Greek god of drama, wine, and ecstasy for that. Your frenzied, orgiastic evening that left you sick all over the passenger seat, however, would not have been fondly received by a centurion after 186 B.C, as the Bacchanalia—a festival of wild desire and unrivaled debauchery, was then outlawed. Or, should you desire to take your sins to the level of Original, you might consider stepping up to all things Dionysian. Dionysus invented the first intoxicant, wine, and was always followed by his Friday Night Crew of satyrs and maenads.

Perhaps all this filth has brought you to new lows. Or maybe it has made you jovial. Jovial comes from Jove, the Roman equivalent of Zeus. Your cheerful, sociable, fatherly nature has made you the belle of the ball, or the Santa Claus of the department store.

Capricious with fleet-feet? When something’s Mercurial it has rapid and unpredictable changes in mood. This comes from Mercury, the god of speed and athletics. The planet Mercury was named for him due it its orbital speed, and liquid silver mercury for its skittering out of one’s hand so quickly.

Something venereal has to do with sexual intercourse, or the diseases transmitted by it. This originates in Venus, the goddess of love, who governed all aspects of human sensuality and sexuality. Perhaps these began at the sight of something callipygian; but, if used injudiciously, it will bring about venereal diseases. 

Palladium is a silver-white metal related to platinum that is used in electrical contracts or as an alloy with gold to form white gold. This comes from Pallas Athena. This is the goddess Athena’s full name. During a friendly sparring match with a fellow female warrior, Athena accidentally killed her battle-sister. This warrior’s name was Pallas. Thus, in honor of her, Athena put Pallas’s name before her own.

This article is Hades. Hades is both the land of the dead the God who rules it. Misery loves company. Hades is primarily used today as a euphemism for hell.

Cereal is a grain-based breakfast food often mixed with milk. The word “cereal” comes from the Roman goddess Ceres. She was a serene goddess who did not take part in quarrels with the other gods. I find this a fitting etymology for cereal indeed, as might most people who find serenity in devouring cereal by the boxful. There’s a glazed-over look to people eating cereal. 

Junoesque means to have a matured, poised, dignified beauty. Juno was the wife of Jupiter. She was matronly, mature, and well filled-out. Moreover, she was, for the time, something of an ideal for the Greek Wife. This is no longer true.

Martial arts, martial law, Marshall Mathers: two of these are etymologically consistent with war and military life. Something martial comes from the god of war, Mars. He was in charge of the brutish and chaotic aspects of war. He also dabbled in marching music.

Something vulcanized is a crude synthetic rubber so elastic and strong that it resists decay. This comes from Vulcan, the god of fire.

Something with a glowing, rainbow-like play of color that seems to change as the light shifts is iridescent. Goddess of the rainbow, Iris took messages from Olympus to Earth, using the rainbow as her staircase.

If someone is your muse then she or he is your source of inspiration, or a guiding spirit. Nine goddesses who presided over such things as music and literature were called the Muses. Their temple was called a museum. Many artists have chosen living human beings as muses. Dante chose Beatrice. Chopin: Aurore Dudevant. James Joyce: Nora Barnacle (and her rear end).

One of the nine goddess muses, Calliope was the muse of heroic or epic poetry and responsible for inspiring poets to write beautiful, eloquent-sounding epics, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. A Calliope is an organ in which whistles are sounded by steam or compressed air and is the preferred musical instrument of circuses. It’s also a somewhat rare girls’ name. 

Zephyr a breeze from the west, or a gentle breeze. Not quite a proper god, the Greeks called the west wind “Zephyrus” and regarded him and his fellow winds as gods.

Neither was Prometheus quite a god, rather a titan. To be promethean is to be new or creative in a daring way. During the Titanomachy, Prometheus fought for the gods against his own kind. Thereafter, he brought the gods fire, taught them how to write, farm, build houses, read the stars and weather, cure themselves when sick, and tame animals—in short, all the arts and skills that make humans unique. 

At some point, Zeus decided to chain Prometheus to a titanic rocky cliff, where, for centuries, an eagle daily tore at his liver. Thus, Promethean also means to suffer on a grand scale. And I don’t think that the myth simultaneously conveys the “genuinely unique and creative” and “pure, prolonged suffering” by chance. I believe that not only does the former beget the latter, but also that they’re ineluctable coevals. If one is truly new and creative, then one’s life is inevitably tortured. 

Make it Personable

To instantaneously convert otherwise coma-inducing information into the human experience, look no further than Personification, a witty rhetorical technique William Gaddis’s The Recognitions frequently employs, who, between whistling whilst he works, smiles agreeably upon the reader, winking all the while.

Personification is a great device to use if one knows the subject upon which she is about to endeavor is boring. Let us consider Gaddis’s commentary on the Enlightenment era’s transmutation of medieval alchemy into modern chemistry. This could, for some, prove to be a dry topic. However, when the themes of transcendental alchemy, scientific inquiry, and shifting cultural-knowledge paradigms are anthropomorphized, given personalities, and ultimately coaxed to act upon the stage of life, we suddenly are more keen to learn about them. Moreover, it is fun to watch.

It might be most advantageous to begin with Gaddis’s depiction of “The alchemist,” who “was likely an unsophisticated man of a certain age assisting in smelly hallucination over an open fire, tampering with the provenience of absolutes…seeking the universal dissolvent in the fifteenth century with a mixture of mercury, salt, molten lead, and human excrement.” This is not the most flattering image. Furthermore, it is not yet personification, just a great description. However, this image that Gaddis creates is necessary to the birth and growth of a human image-tree, upon which a complexly personified narrative may brachiate. 

We get it: Alchemy was old, dumb, and stinky. Furthermore, we can now get that crust-covered warlock perambulating his putrid cheese-breath around by personifying him as “the blundering parent of modern chemistry.” Doddering and incontinent, this purple-caped progenitor was “with the age of enlightenment…left behind, to haggle in darkness over the beams which (he) had caught, and clung to with such suffocating desire.” Personification here plays such a key character in the depiction of Alchemy’s fall, as Gaddis not only characterizes him as the blundering parent of a more supreme being, but nuances that character with specific word-choices such as “haggle,” “darkness,” and “suffocating,” words conjuring images of a quibbling old fool from the dark ages, choking on the malodorous concoctions of freshly outmoded idiocy.

Modern chemistry, however, engendered less by the lofty promise of divine transcendence and more by “the enlightenment of total materialism” has now “established itself as true and legitimate son and heir.” It seems not unintentional, too, that Gaddis decides to further personify modern chemistry by giving him a name by which we may associate him: “Doctor Ehrlich.” And it seems to be a candid depiction indeed that, when, while Herr Honesty “grew up serious, dignified and eminently pleased with its own limitations,” Alchemy “was left behind…dead of injuries received in a drunken brawl…turned out like a drunken parent, to stagger away, babbling phantasies to fewer and fewer ears, to less and less impressive derelicts of loneliness.” It seems infinitely appropriate as well that modern chemistry is finally characterized as now being in possession of the knowledge that “the old fool and his cronies were after all the time.”

Although it may be properly deduced that Gaddis’s exhibitions in personification fortified modern chemistry in the superior position, it is not without irony that this position is solidified through the ancient rhetorical skill of personification. Instead of employing, as many Classic Modernist wise-guys made a career of doing, a mock-empirical meta-narrative to satirize the scientific position, Gaddis decides to create an exceedingly witty and meaningful juxtaposition of the Enlightenment age’s rational, almost naïvely literal, take on the world through the ancient art of sophistry. This suggests that perhaps it is neither chemistry nor alchemy that we must choose to accept as certainty, but rather to strive against becoming the Joycean idea of The Cyclops; we must, instead of attempting to find one understanding of the world, develop the awareness to collect all disseminated, equally valid understandings as fractured parts of an ultimately unified cosmic Truth.

A Complementary Article

Most sentences are perfectly happy with their subject/predicate relationships. But, sometimes, sentences, for a heavier meaning to push in, call for a little more cushion. 

Complement is a word or phrase added to a verb to complete the predicate of a sentence, thereby adding additional meaning. I shall begin with the least familiar.

An Adverbial Complement provides information as regards how a subject verbed something:

“She smiled at him in a Mona Lisa way.”

“They remained out of reach.”

“She spoke clearly.”

If you are thinking that an adverbial complement looks a dashed lot like an adverb or an adverbial phrase, then I think that you and I should generally get along. 

Adjectival Complements freshen things up a trifle. We now perceive the interesting subject/adjective comparison. 

“The job seemed nice and easy.”

“When the going gets tough…”

Here, we are saying something like nice and easy job or tough going, but the linking verbs (seemed and gets [the Old Norse intransitive for becomes] ) provide us with a kind of perception on the part of the subject.

An Object Compliment adds additional connotation to the object of the sentence.

“He called his brother a troglodyte.”

Here, the object complement, a troglodyte, succeeds in providing more information as regards this man’s less than well-thought-of brother. Object compliments require transitive verbs and can be nouns, pronouns, or adjectives. Comma distinctions are important, too, as a comma between “brother” and “a” would constitute this troglodyte as not a complement, rather an appositive.

If one’s inclined to ruin the fun, one may also consider direct objects and indirect objects as complements. This is hotly debated by salaried grammarians with stinkier breath than I, and, as such, I’ll leave it for them to chew over. 

But I shall save the dear reader some trouble. Indirect objects never come after “to” or “for.” For an indirect object to occur, “to” or “for” must be implied, not stated. If either of those words is stated, then you have a prepositional phrase, not an indirect object.

Now, for what is likely the most familiar: Subject Complement

There are two kinds of subject complements. 

The Predicate Adjective, which expounds upon the subject by way of adjective:

“The members of the slackline club are all unfortunate.”

“Woe is I.”

This inverted construction suggests the feeling of woe to be anthropomorphized by the subject, I. Most would write “woe is me,” which, as we shall know at the end of this article, is, by way of syntactic change, an example of an approved grammatical error.

Now for the most widely recognized Predicate Nominative:

“He died a lonely man.”

“That man over there is an animal.”

Perhaps he just shattered the gym’s bench-press record, perhaps he recently finished three rounds of sparring practice on his wife, or perhaps he’s in a room full of Darwinists. In any case, the man’s an animal. 

Now, for the interesting conundrum of subject complement concord.

Here is the arithmetic:

Singular Subject + Plural Complement OR Plural complement + Singular Subject= Verb agrees with subject.

“Hamlet is many people.” 

“These Shakespeare plays are typically a dust magnet nowadays.”

With collective nouns, verbs can be singular or plural, depending on whether the collective noun is acting as a group or as individuals.

“The platoon scrambles to new defensive positions.” 

“The platoon scramble to new defensive positions.”

And the relative pronoun what takes a singular verb.

“What I like about the countryside is…”

Pronominal Complements are a part of subject complements, but they deserve special attention due to their infamous nature.

English grammar requires that a subjective case subject match with a subjective case pronoun. However, false constructions such as “Yup, that’s me” or “Oh, it’s just him” are common fare and reign supreme over the correct oddities “Yup, that is I” or “Oh, it is just he.” 

Interestingly enough, however, the purist rules remain intact with phone greetings such as “Yes, this is he” and the case of before a relative pronoun “It was he who…” over “It was him who,” the latter of which would fall on listening ears as a barbarism.

A Song for Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick—first a British slave to Ireland, then a patron saint of it—had a rough go at first but ultimately came out on top. For his appealing to the shamrock as a way to teach The Trinity to previously unenlightened rock-munchers, the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran faiths all give him the thumbs up. March 17th is the supposed day of his death. So, it logically follows, then, that we are to honor this fifth-century Romano-British Christian missionary today by poisoning ourselves. And, here in Philadelphia, that means business as usual.

Whether tipsy or toastedsloshed or slaughteredmellow or mangled, there are more than a few ways to be drunk. 

Your standard tool-wielding dipsomaniac, before he gets blasted that evening by the local doorman, might consider himself wrecked or hammered. Another of slightly more crapulous means will bescumber those around him with crap like shitfaced or pissed. The lightheartedly well-oiled might report their limbs so lubricated to the point of being legless. If he’s a sailor, he might feel groggy. If he’s a red-headed sailor, then he might be banjaxed to the point of being three sheets to the windBefuddled antiquarians with weak stomachs might report higher than usual levels of wamblecroft. Maudlin Romantics recalling the better days of love and limerence will become besotted with ruminations of sweethearts past. And liquored up, lubricous lechers will lick their loaded chops at the chance of lewd legerdemain. A Lanspresado will ask you for a couple of bucks for a drink, and a Snecklifter will crack the door to see who might do the same for him. All said, the drunk are capricious and hardly to be trusted. But there’s one group worse.

Teetotaler is formally defined as “a humorless turncoat with no sense of camaraderie.” But others call it “someone who never drinks alcohol.” These folks may also be defined as AbstainersWowsersNephalists, or Hydropots— or, if you are in agreement with Strunk and White in preferring the Anglo-Saxon to the Latin, just call him a Drink-Water. If she’s not partial to a Pabst Blue Ribbon, then you can call her a White Ribboner. The White Ribbon Association, previously known as the British Women’s Temperance Association, is an organization that seeks to confuse the public about alcohol. 

It is Saint Patrick’s Day, however, which means that we should probably just slap those robots a matey slap on the back and sing a traditional Scots/Irish drinking song.

Two great choices would include “The Parting Glass” and “Auld Lang Syne.”

“The Parting Glass” is often sung at the end of a gathering with friends. The parting glass, or stirrup cup (for those on horseback) or le coup de l’étrier (for French people) was the final hospitality offered to a departing guest.

Both songs honor the remembrance the fond times that you’ve had with those around you. In fact, “Auld lang syne” might be roughly translated as “for the sake of old times.”

Slàinte mhath. Prost. Na Zdorovie. Cheers.

Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you'll buy your pint cup
and surely I'll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We two have run about the hills, 
and picked the daisies fine;
But we've wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

We two have paddled the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

And there's a hand, my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o' thine!
And we'll take a right-good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

The Parting Glass

Of all the money that e'er I had
I spent it in good company 
And all the harm I've ever done
Alas it was to none but me
And all I've done for want of wit
To mem'ry now I can't recall
So fill me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all

So fill tome the parting glass
And drink a health whate'er befall,
And gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

Of all the comrades that e'er I had
They're sorry for my going away 
And all the sweethearts that e'er I had 
They'd wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot 
That I should rise and you should not 
I gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

If I had money enough to spend
And leisure time to sit awhile
There is a fair maid in this town 
That sorely has my heart beguiled.
Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips
I own she has my heart in thrall
Then fill to me the parting glass

Good night and joy be with you all. 

Speak Shibboleth

A while back, on a sandy day at the Jordan fords, one Semitic tribe, the Gileadites, put a whooping on another Semitic tribe, the Ephraimites. Thereafter, the Gileadites decided to forgo parliamentary process in favor of genocide, sending a few of The Boys to cordon off the Jordan River to put the kibosh on any Ephraimite reentry into Gileadite territory. 

But the sentries couldn’t tell a Ephraimite from Adam, so they politely asked the gentleperson in question to say the word Shibboleth, which the unfortunate Ephraimites pronounced Sibboleth. This is called Due Process. 

The Gileadites then gave this schlimazel the business under the passage of Jordan. It is recorded that this worked upwards of 42,000 times. It worked so well, in fact, that we still follow the same rules of entry today.

Shibboleth is Ancient Hebrew for either the part of a plant containing grain or a flood/torrent. But shibboleth is no longer exclusive to God’s chosen people, rather available also to us heathens as a common English noun that means “A word or pronunciation that distinguishes people of one group or class from those of another”; hence, a password. Also, “a word or phrase identified with a particular group or cause”; hence, a catchphrase, watchword, or slogan. 

Modern Shibboleths may be found in various forms.

My father’s pronunciation of having watermelon this upcoming humid Tuesday as “And I says that we can have WOODermelon tuhmarra because it’s gunna be YOOmid this TuesDEE” suggests lowborn Philadelphia lineage and puts off anyone with a triple-digit IQ. This an example a regional shibboleth.

There are shibboleths of literacy, such as the use of “whom” and deep-minded-sounding Latin words, as well as shibboleths of illiteracy in words such as “irregardless”, and bad grammar akin to “Me and my friends” or “running fast.” Whenever these words and usages are noticed in conversation, they act as trusty linguistic markers that differentiate who’ll likely gravitate towards whom.  

The absence of clichés in speech is a shibboleth. Are we not inclined to feel some inclination towards the old-style Jordon-esque beatdown when encountering people who suggest that you should “face the music,” “bet your bottom dollar,” or put “another feather in your cap?”

The modern workplace is teeming with shibboleths. Whenever in the presence of dead-eyed administrators who want “going forward” you to “think outside of the box” or to “push the envelope” or to “take things to the next level” you now know exactly whom to avoid. These workplace clichés are often ironic, as the one employing such lexical pudding-headedness has proved himself incapable of any of the abovementioned suggestions.

Shibboleths are a great way to join today’s global political gestapo, too. Words such as “problematic”, “progress”, “code-switcher”, and other broadly defined “-isms” are passwords for special tree-house-club-police membership.

Shibboleths also work for spotting Try-Hards. Cringe-worthy fashionable phrases such as “for a minute,” as in “I haven’t met someone so into shibboleths in a minute” or “nah,” as in “nah,” are great linguistic markers to spot soulless jokers. 

Shibboleths may also be found in non-verbal form, too. Everyone wears a uniform. Whether your thuggish pants hang at your hock, you have a fruity bandana of a certain color in your back, left pocket, or you sport a pair of offended Toms, you’re speaking the shibboleth to those around you, actively appealing to your tribe.

“Literally” is a great shibboleth. Watch for those who use it. If the offender does not drive you out of your mind, she might literally run you off your feet. 

The Tale of Two Stories

To some, Lolita is a story about a heaving, vulgar pedophile lusting for the fruits of an innocent and helpless child. Please forgive them: the public-school system is soon due for reform. Nonetheless, any way one ogles at it, the novel is certainly amorous in tone. But, nearly completely naked of any description of true fornication, the book subtly presents to the reader a beautiful moral dilemma: we understand Humbert; we are sympathetic towards him; we are also hot and bothered. But that’s wrong, right? 

One way of many Nabokov gets us petting heavy at otherwise commonplace scenes regarding quotidian endeavors is through Connotation. In today’s highly poetic world, with such understated masterpieces as the horizontal boogie, or checking the plumbing, in order to clean the pipes, innuendo and double-entendre have obviously reached levels of an almost perfect art. Yet, despite the odds of ever becoming any more subtle than the aforementioned, Nabokov erects connotation to a new climax. Engorged senses become “full to the brim,” and sudden commotions “prevent() them from overflowing,” after which there are “aching veins.” “Gay dogs…unload…career girls” onto the dashing Humbert. Humbert is “moved” by Lolita’s slangy speech. And when Humbert plays with the idea of becoming Lolita’s father, he is certain that “if all of (his) troubles would be expelled, (he) would be a healthy man.” It is almost as if Nabokov planned those words to be where they are, as if he were trying to say two things at once.

Whether we like it or not, our names have a lot to do with our identity. Joshes are good at breaking down walls. Davids are good with slings. Smiths make our tools. Bakers make us fat. Geoffrey Chaucer is widely credited with the first use of meaningful names in English literature insofar as the names he devised for his characters referred, whether satirically or not, to some occupation, dominant personality trait, or connection he or she might have with the budding Western Literary Canon. Nabokov continues this tradition. Consider Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann, a name Nabokov uses to satirize the standard psychologist; here, Nabokov reminds us that modern psychology retains a myopically black (German: Schwarz) and white (French: blanche) assertion towards the meaning to consciousness and all the contents pertaining thereto. And what about Nabokov’s creation in Ms. Phalen (failing), the “old spinster.” Choosing the right name for a character is as important as the words chosen to describe them thereafter.

The God of all double storytelling: Allusion. The allusion is an immensely powerful tool for the lexically inclined and is indeed the king of subtle wit, as it requires a deep understanding of not only the text at hand, but of various other texts and their many relations to that same text at hand; this is the beautiful bower to which all writers and readers should strive. Nabokov, much like one of his favorite writers, James Joyce, writes much of his books almost entirely in allusion. There can be, by using this method, two, three, four, perhaps infinite stories happening at once. Lolita’s phony foreword by the phony professor John Ray refers to Humbert Humbert: “he is not a gentleman,” an allusion to James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the character Buck Mulligan’s wrongful instigation of Stephen Daedalus. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet takes the stage with the staging of Humbert’s childhood romance with Annabel in “a kind of cave” by the beach, after which failed encounter she dies, and so does childhood and the feeling of love for Humbert; he is forever in love with that child(hood); Humbert’s a Romantic. What about the frequent comparisons of Lolita to that Mother of Humanity, Eve? Nabokov compares Lolita to Annabel and his childhood beach romance as that “immortal” day. Lolita eats “Eden-red apple(s)” and “immemorial fruit.” When canoodling with Lolita on the couch he states that the interaction “would suffice to set all paradise loose,” which is also a nice usage of innuendo, whereupon Humbert goes upstairs to shower in a “deluge of steaming water,” nicely intimating the diluvial flood, and thus the baptism, and furthermore the Rebirth; Humbert has been reborn into Eden.

Indeed, Lolita isfor those interested in lexical beauty,an attractive work to behold, perhaps, in the world of aesthetics, a perfect ten. Words are at their most beautiful when they have many stories to tell. Nabokov is a master linguist who leaves his prose prodding, pinging, and prickling around in the minds of all appreciative readers. Humbert, condemned to a psychiatric ward, asks us, pleads us to “look at this tangle of thorns.”

Vera Nabokov

Meddling Modifiers

Spineless Descriptivists in Birkenstocks suggest that to experience high dudgeon at the sight of a split infinitive is to commit low superstition. Bootlicking Turbo-Purists with dyspepsia have diagnosed that the absence of undergoing a real medical event at the sight of a postposition is indicative of an even greater mental illness. A healthy Centrist consensus seems to reign, however, that to misplace a modifier is to burden the reader’s senses with a solecism equal to that of a grammatical flatulence. 

Modifier is an attributive word that, through description or elaboration, either augments or restricts the meaning of a head noun. Modifiers also manifest in the phrasal form, and they must be as close as possible to whatever they describe or elaborate. If this rule be not observed, sentences will often be awkward, confusing, or downright illogical. 

Firstly, there are misplaced modifying words:

Looking out of the window, Saoirse saw the grey neighbor’s cat.

Unless Saoirse or her neighbor desperately needs to see a doctor, it is likely that what Saoirse saw was actually the neighbor’s grey cat.

Contorting one’s limbs quickly damages one’s joints. 

This one’s called a Squinting Modifier, as the reader will undoubtedly squint when attempting to deduce which thing the modifier is attempting to modify. 

It is imagined by yours truly that contorting one’s limbs at any speed is likely a detriment to one’s joint health. And, as this sentence is very likely implying that same notion, a better construction might appear thusly:

Contorting one’s limbs damages one’s joints quickly.

Known recidivists are the adverbs just and only

Did Saoirse “just misidentify the cat’s color?” or did Saoirse “misidentify just the cat’s color?”

But that’s not the only problem.

Is “only contorting one’s limbs damaging to one’s joints?” or is “contorting one’s limbs damaging only one’s joints?”

Not to mention this naughty conundrum:

Does not Saoirse seem to have pussy issues? Does Saoirse not seem to have pussy issues? Or does Saoirse seem not to have pussy issues? God forbid that Saoirse seem to not have pussy issues. 

Often, modifiers take the form of participials, a verbal form that is used as an adjective that most often ends in -ing (present participial) or -ed (past participial).

If not for watching Jerry Seinfeld’s soporific Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, we would be under the assumption that the comedians were experiencing something of a wild ride. But the comedians, not the cars, are the ones getting coffee. 

Misplaced Modifier errors also frequently arise in the phrasal form (prepositional phrases, adverbial phrases, et cetera).

Consider the curious case of Dr. James Berry:

“Historians have been kept guessing over claims that Dr. James Berry, Inspector General of Military Hospitals, was, in fact, a woman for more than 140 years.”

Either these are some rather unobserving historians, or that’s quite an age to begin the old-fashioned gender crisis.  

It is exceedingly likely, however, that indeed it was not Dr. James Berry, but rather the aforementioned historians who had spent the last 140 years guessing. 

The largest error of the phrasal kind is what is known as a Dangling Modifier or Unattached Participial. These are participial phrases that, before the subject appears, intend to describe or modify something about the subject of that sentence. One can achieve this by dropping the subject from one of the two sentences and compressing those two sentences into one. Written properly, modifying phrases quickly establish causal relation, whilst simultaneously providing concision and style. Written improperly, modifying phrases, as Kingsley Amis wrote in his book The King’s English, make readers “pause without profit,” spending extra time evaluating the sentence to understand the logic of what’s being said, likely adding further inaccuracy. This is when we encounter the stench of what Kingsley Amis called “a real solecism.” Get a whiff of this:

“Being a vegan bisexual who’s into Nicaraguan coffee picking and boiler suits, you could safely assume that I vote Labour.”

That’s news to me. Here, the solecism is that the modifying phrase beginning with “being” describes “you” instead of “I,” rendering this sentence as particularly presumptive. Modifying phrases need always be directly before the subject that they describe.

“While serving in the RAF in North Africa (sic) the cockroaches and other creatures…”

Those are rather harsh sobriquets for one’s fighting men and women. 

“Driving near home recently, a thick pall of smoke…”

A thick pall of smoke behind the helm of a motor vehicle? 

All credible sources seem to support, however, that some participials that act as marginal prepositions, subordinating conjunctions, or adverbs (considering, assuming, barring), by way of the classic idiomatic thumbs up, create acceptable dangling modifiers:

Considering the situation, Old Slim reckoned that he made out good. 

Assuming this were a typical city, the proportion of happiness to crime seemed unjustly high.

Barring accidents, the bus full of drunk nuns should be home well before Saturday Mass.

For further information or enquires as regards modifiers, please contact my spiritual twin, Tristan Farnon:

A Curiosity of Collective Nouns

The rumination’s been too much lately, the weltschmerz is knocking at the door, and the church steeple’s looking better every day. What does one do?

As I am sure is the practice of many whenever their semi-monthly Dark Night of the Soul’s also coming on, I sooth my ruffled plumage with something venereal. 

Terms of Venery—known more commonly as Nouns of Multitude, Nouns of Assemblage, Group Nouns, Company Terms, or Collective Nouns—are a lovely little curiosity of the English language. Far from a relationship with sexual intercourse, Terms of Venery borrows from the Latin venari (to hunt) and was invented in 13th Century as the art form of contriving playful and poetic collective nouns to describe groups of animals. 

And the best part is that the practice seems to have been invented purely for the fun of it.

One of the earliest and weightiest tomes in history on Terms of Venery is called The Boke of St. Albans, written in 1486 by a sporting nun, Dame Juliana Berners. 

The Book of St. Albans contains material similar to today’s best-selling non-fiction:

  • “The kyndeli termis that belong to hawkis” 
  • “How ye shall naame the memberes of yowre hawkis in conuenient termes”
  • “The namys of diuerse maner houndis”
  • “The compaynys of beestys and fowlys”
  • “Here folow the dew termys to speke of breeh­yng or dressyng of dyuerse beestis and fowlis &c. And thessame is shewed of certayn fysshes.”

Lip-curlers such as a rafter of turkeys, a shrewdness of apes, and a murmuration of starlings convene in abundance therein. But Berners also delves into bipedal congregations with such burners as a pontificality of priests and a superfluity of nuns

But what really helps me sleep at night is that the practice of creatively coining has continued just for the lark of it.

James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks is something of a modern scripture for furthering Nouns of Assemblage. He goes back to the classics, coining such capers as a clowder of cats and an ostentation of Peacocks, whilst also proving himself an adept social-observer with a rash of psychologistsan indifference of waiters, and a wheeze of joggers

Myself, I’ve always been partial to a rookery of albatrosses, a parliament of beggars, and a spread of nymphomaniacs.