Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Fire of Language, the Light of Words

Hom hum. Another scientific paper; another scientific paper written by someone who was too dedicated to Science! to pay attention to liberal arts classes. "...and this will show", "this shows....", "has shown..." Show, show show, show, show, show... like a demonstrative but plodding metronome.

Writing, even technical writing, doesn't have to be like this. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug," observed Mark Twain. It's possible to sit down and write like a workman reaching for familiar tools; but it's also possible to write like J. S. Bach expanding three notes into an etude that dances through a universe of possibilities.

Why not, every once in a while, stop showing us things? There are alternatives.

"from this it is obvious that..." Mathematicians and logicians love this one. You'll usually see it signaling the most inscrutable step of the argument or proof. There's an implicit challenge inherent in "it's obvious that..." It's obvious to the writer, obviously; why isn't it obvious to you, dear reader? Are you some sort of mouth-breathing cretin who can't follow the simplest of steps? If it's obvious, obviously the writer is correct. Sit down and learn something, schmuck.

Then there's a Latin duo. Latin's a lovely language; sometimes when you've got a nice concrete word, you can throw any number of prepositions on it as prefixes to create a wealth of new, abstract words. One example is 'planus' meaning a level plain. 'Ex' is 'from' or 'of' or 'out of'. 'Ex+planus' = explain. To explain a thing is to take it from a clear, level plain where everyone can see it. 'Planus' is also where English gains 'plan'. 'Explain' means to unfurl, to smooth out; as if unrolling blueprints or an agenda onto a table so as to take ideas from it.

'Plicare' means to fold or to braid. 'Ex+plicare' is to take something taken out of a fold, as if taking it from a pocket. Explicate is our English derivative. If a thing has many folds, many wrinkles, and is hard to understand, then we have many folds together. 'Cum' = 'with', 'cum' + 'plicare' is to be with folds; to make a thing complicated. If we fold something many times, we will have done 'multi' [many] + 'plicare' = 'multiplication'. But that's okay. Once those folds are taken out, and the thing is unfolded, we'll have 'a' [without] + 'plicare' = 'aplicare'... an application. The folded thing becomes of use.

Elucidate. This one's on the rise, as it ought to be. From 'lucid': clear, simple; ultimately from the Latin 'lux': light. You, dear reader, have been stumbling in a murky darkness, but I, the writer, will elucidate what you have not understood. The fogs will part, light will shine through, and you will see clearly. "I once was lost, but now am found / was blind but now I see." 'Lucid', related through 'lux' to an old friend of ours, the Light Bringer, Lucifer. He, who in myth, brought to humanity knowledge: the knowledge of good and evil. 'Lucifer', also an archaic English word for a match: a dull wooden thing that, with friction, spontaneously brings forth fire and light

Speaking of fire and light, we also find illuminate. From the Latin 'lumina', meaning 'glow'. In the dark days after the fall of Rome, the light of knowledge was lost to the Western world. Those preservers of the heritage of Augustine, the Clunaic and Benedictine monks tended the banked embers of Western thought. And to accompany the black and red words scribed so carefully upon yellowed pages, they added pictures. Pictures of startling color, elaboration, and clarity. They called these drawings illuminations.

Later, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin would write a new doctorine for mystical Freemasonry and neo-Gnosticism. To describe the surge of knowledge granted to the initiate, he chose 'illumination'. Following his lead, Adam Weishaupt would choose to name his organization - dedicated at first to clarity of thought and an eschewing of clouded superstition - the Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria. They would go on to influence Mozart, and would be some of the first patrons of Beethoven as he brought new light to Western music.

Speaking of pretty pictures, we come to illustrate. From the Romance 'illustare': to draw, but drawing from the Latin 'illus': this + 'lustare': to shine up, to polish, to brighten. To illustrate something is to allow light to reflect and define.

Well written scientific papers don't have to sink under their own gravity. Instead, they can float with levity, as a tissue of language dancing over the fire of words. Don't show me anything anymore, c'mon baby, light my fire.


Googlebombing for a cause:

1 comment:

Lord Carnifex said...

To the poor soul who might have tried to read this particular post in Google translated French, I apologize. It will have made no sense at all. Although many of the words cited came to English from Latin via Norman French, they don't translate well.