Blessay 8: Favourite words in The Tower Of Babel

In my last Blessay on William Faulkner I mentioned the word peremptory. This made me think about some other words that I especially like. They are still in my dictionary – Collins English Dictionary, second edition 2000, latest reprint 2007. But I wondered if they had fallen out of fashion. Or been substituted for less colourful words. Or didn’t quite fit into our technocratic world anymore.

PELLUCID – adjective – transparent or translucent, extremely clear in style and meaning, from perlucere – to shine through.

The first time I encountered pellucid was during a Sussex university seminar on Blake’s Songs of innocence and Experience. My tutor, Tony Nuttal, a delightful man and a great scholar, spoke of the shining clarity of Blake. That his songs had a pellucid depth. The word made my day. It’s beauty of sound had me singing it loudly in the bath that night.

Sadly no media authority voice shines. No politician exhibits translucent charm, preferring numbing evasion and controlling dullness. Maybe the rhetoric of President Obama can sometimes dazzle (his speech celebrating 50 years of the Civil Rights Bill.) But a grand assertion of its rightness doesn’t mean a clarity of intent, to keep building on a necessary law.

And where are the pellucid poets hanging out these days?

NEFARIOUS – adjective – evil, wicked, sinful.

I only seem to hear this word on Radio 4 when there’s news bulletin about a judge’s summing up. The label heinous is often reported in tandem with nefarious. Usually applied to a serial sex offender or terrorist. Never an errant banker or corrupt politician. Never an unjust law. If only a Shadow Home Secretary were to attack nefarious legislation. And do it in a ‘nefarious’ manner that shocked the ruling elite. But that only worked when there was a social coercion to believe in the divinity of law and religion.

As for nefarious poets, can we have another Baudelaire on stage savaging the literary establishment, please?

PROLIX – adjective – so long as to be boring, long-winded.

Certain politicians delivering Party Conference Speeches, East European embassy bureaucrats introducing a concert and the prose style of Salman Rushdie: all horribly slouch round a corner of my mind. I have dozed off in front of the television. Got needles and pins in my leg sitting on a hard embassy chair. Never got beyond the first six pages of Midnight’s Children. Their first rank prolixity turning them all into ‘prolixators’ – hungry to kill all that reeks of concision.

Too many poets give tedious introductions to their poems. So much longer and prolix than the poems and therefore killing a poet’s performance. Can we ban introductions that exceed one awful prolix minute?

COGENT – adjective – compelling belief or assent; forcefully convincing.

I’m sure that cogent was a buzz-word of the seventies and early eighties. Did it disappear once those ‘cogent’ social policies, based on free market liberalism, were put in place? Almost as if it was irrelevant. As the brave new laissez faire  world soon become a self evident truth. The market had a temporary crash. But nothing has yet replaced it.  Now the Euro zone project wobbles and we become nostalgic for 70’s style leaders, once much freer from the shackles of cogent banker beliefs.

The cogency of the poetic voice. Tennyson and Yeats were not affected by a loss of confidence in their poetic and public roles. Can we dispense with sentimentality, tenth-rate post modernism, pastoral cosiness, urban angst, hermetic cleverness and have a cogent poet or two back in the social arena?

Four words to savour. Not just for idle reflection. But to be retrieved for dissemination throughout our culture.

Dissemination. That’s another word beginning to fade away.

DISSEMINATE – verb – to distribute or scatter about; diffuse.

My favourite use of dissemination and my first encounter with it was through a record sleeve note by the composer Luciano Berio writing of his composition Visage. He described radio as being guilty of ‘the greatest dissemination of the most useless knowledge’  This was many years before some highly opinionated, and low informed, ranters invaded social media.

Berio’s Visage (1961), available to hear complete on You-Tube, is a work for the female voice (Cathy Berberian) and electronic sounds. Here is an extract from Berio’s notes.

“Visage can also be regarded as a transformation of real examples of vocal behaviour that go from unarticulated sound to syllable, from laughing to weeping and singing, aphasia to types of inflections derived from specific languages: English and Italian spoken on the radio, Hebrew, Neapolitan dialect, etc. Thus Visage does not offer a meaningful text or a meaningful language: it only develops the resemblance of them. A single word is pronounced twice “parole” (“words” in Italian).”

PELLUCID, NEFARIOUS, PROLIX and COGENT. My four “parole” for re-introduction amidst a babble of competing words in a maze of meanings. Four words I love for their sound and incisive sense.

Finally I mustn’t forget VISAGE – noun – face, countenance or appearance. First savoured on the Berio record sleeve.

Everyday I am reminded of the appearance of the very rich when I pass a huge luxury block of flats, in Swiss Cottage, named The Visage (one of the ugliest new buildings in NW 3) jutting out its ocean liner design, to proclaim the beaming face of wealth.

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