Friday, September 27, 2013

Pushcon and Other Nonce-Words

I was watching an episode of 'Are You Being Served' the other day. `70's sexual innuendo and double entendre ages surprisingly well (but I do recommend keeping whisky to hand). Mention was made of a material called 'pushcon'. That's how it sounded and that's what the subtitles said.

Ahah! I said, no doubt a cheap artificial fabric that lived a short and unlamented life in the middle of that decade. But no one had heard of it, Even the Internet only had references to the series itself. So it is probably a nonce-word, created by the writers in order to avoid using the commercial name of a real cloth. I'm not sure why they would need to do that, but they certainly seemed to have done it.

This, naturally, led me to idly think about rare words (and split infinitives). There are several ways of defining rareness of words. There is the Googlewhack which, if I have understood it correctly, is an expression contrived in such as a way as to produce exactly one result on Google. They are usually combinations of otherwise unexceptional words, and so could be considered nonce-terms, rather than nonce-words. It's a kind of game, I suppose, for those who are bored with Mornington Crescent.

A nonce-word is a word that is created for the nonce, a word which did not previously exist but whose meaning is made transparent by the context. They can be very effective in the right hands, and they usually need a particular aesthetic to make them work. They must feel right, as well as working semantically. Such words are rarely picked up by anyone to be used again, and so remain as unique examples in the written (or spoken) language.

Then there is the hapax legomenon, which classically educated readers will recognise as meaning spoken once. This refers to a particular text or body of language, so it is possible to say that '...' is a hapax in the King James Bible, or that 'Honorificabilitudinitatibus' is a hapax in Shakespeare. There are also hapaxes in the whole of a corpus of language used for linguistic research, which these days are very large, or in English literature generally.

Here the OED comes in, since it covers just about everything ever written since English was identifiable as such. They use a superscript -1 to indicate a word which has only been found once in the surviving corpus of the language. It doesn't apply to unique variations on other words, of which there are many, but to words which appear to have no brethren of any kind. Sometimes a meaning can be inferred from the context in which they are found, sometimes not.

The OED also has a superscript -0, for a word of which no instance at all is found in the language. This rather esoteric category could, in theory, either be empty, or arbitrarily large, depending on how you interpret it, but in fact it refers to words which have only been found in dictionaries or other kinds of word list, and never actually used in text.

Spanish has a word, jitanjáfora, which means a fanciful neologism of euphonious phonology or prosody, with a meaning that may or may not be transparent. They may be nonce-words, hapaxlegomena or complete phrases, and like other such terms, they may be picked up and more widely popularized.

The Owl and the Pussycat contains a famous neologism, runcible, applied to a spoon, which is more nonsense word than nonce-word, as its meaning is not transparent and is almost certainly not intended to be. Oddly enough, the word became so popular that it was given a meaning a posteriori, because it seemed to need one, though it was surely not what Lear had in mind.

Guy Clark's song Bunkhouse Blues contains the line 'At the Broken Heart Ranch you can always get work as a cowfool'. The word appears to be his, a nonce-word used to suggest someone who looks after cattle as a way of hiding from the world. In the song it works.

Talking of good Southern music, Jenny Lewis, in Acid Tongue, refers to being ' the depths of the godsick blues'. This appears to mean 'sick to god', although I suppose it could mean 'sick of God', in some way. There is also a surname Godsick, which I was surprised to discover, but I don't suppose it's relevant here.

This has been a series of random thoughts on rare words, for no particular reason, which is often the best reason there is.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Last Leper of...

Where? It doesn’t matter. Of anywhere, perhaps. Are there any lepers left anywhere now? I am the last leper… No it doesn’t sound quite the same. I must belong to somewhere, somewhere you’ve never heard of, of course, but somewhere.

So I am the last leper of Uttar Nishaidhapur. It sounds like a place that would have a leper colony, and that wouldn’t care that there was only one remaining. That’s why I have to tell you my story. In Uttar Nishaidhapur they aren’t interested.

I am old. I was once something other than a leper. I remember my father was a merchant. He travelled with goods for months at a time. Sometimes he came back with a great deal of money and we feasted through the rains and we helped the neighbours to eat and to marry. Sometimes he came back walking, barefoot, having lost everything but his robe. Then the neighbours helped us.

I would have been a merchant too. I would have done what my father did. No one would think of doing anything else. But on one of the occasions when he came back with nothing he shut himself up for three days, seeing no one, not even my mother. Then he went out again, and this time he did not come back at all.

As I had no father, then, I could not follow his profession, so I must go into trade. I became a craftsman of a kind. I was taught by an old man how to make some type of object. I no longer remember what it was I learnt to do. It did not last long, I think. Soon afterwards I became a leper, and that is what I have been ever since.

I have been told many things about being a leper by people who are not lepers. They told me what causes people to become lepers. They spoke of bacteria and sputum and vitamins and minerals and the cleansing of food and the washing of hands. They told me that the Great Prophet of the Christians had a great love of lepers, expressed in their Holy Book. It made me happy to know that, as we are not loved here, but I am not a Christian. They told me that I am called by other names in polite society. They told me that the doctors have found a way to make me not be a leper.

I stopped listening to such people when I heard that. They thought they were good people because they gave me food and did not throw stones or set dogs on me, but there are many people here who do not do that. I attended to them from politeness, but after that I began to fear them. I am a leper. I have always been a leper. I am too old to change now.

We do not work. We cannot work. But we must eat like other men. Thus our daily duties are determined, as are those of other men. I rise early, because I am old, and because I am hungry, and because the places I must sleep are hard and cold and uncomfortable. I can have no bed but the earth, no pillow but the stones. I nightly sleep in my mother’s bosom. I have learnt to make it sound poetic, or pitiful, of ascetic, depending on the ear that will hear it.

I cannot buy linen, and no one can afford to give me linen when it must be destroyed once I have touched it. So my bed is the earth. My home is the road.

When I am awake I walk, with a bowl before me. It is a small bowl, the only thing I have. But I know that a small bowl is good. People will put more in a small bowl than a big one. It is one of the many things I have learned over the years. I do not understand it; I do not understand many of these things, but I have learnt that it is so, and that is good enough.

But enough of what I tell the tourists- oh yes, there are tourists of leprosy as of all things- you want to know of my life.

I live as you do. I seek food and shelter and comfort and company and women. I seek status and power and solitude and health and youth. Exactly as you do. I often have food, but never enough to be satisfied. On rare occasions I have shelter. The other things I cannot desire. You need one in order to desire the next, and I can never go beyond shelter. On those occasions when I have shelter I desire comfort. I can desire nothing further, because I never achieve comfort. Never.

But I am still like you. Although I cannot seek company, or women, or prestige, or power, or health, or youth, I know that I would seek them if I could, and value them if I had them. I know this because although I cannot have them, I envy them in the people who do. I live as you do. I seek what I desire.

This life is not what it was. We were many once, and people gave alms as unthinkingly as they did all the most natural things in life. They gave little, it’s true. The smallest coin they had, to each such as I whose path they crossed. And they despised and feared and pitied you even as they gave. They did not look you in the face, they could not. They were afraid of becoming like you some day. But they gave. Now there is no fear, only contempt, disgust.

The young do not understand. Most have never seen a man like me. They think I am a crazy old man because I shout as I walk and do not come near them, and my clothes are old and torn and dirty from the many roads I travel daily. I was once like them. I can remember how it feels to be a boy, surprised, frightened, amused, fascinated, by everything that he sees and feels. I was a boy once, with a father to teach him. I wish I had a boy of my own now, to teach and to love, but when I was old enough to be a father I could not marry. It is one of the things lepers do not do.

My life is the road. I have no other because I can be nowhere. I belong nowhere. I am of Uttar Nishaidhapur, and this cannot change, but those who share my birthplace wish I were of some other place. And so I walk the roads from one village to another, and another and yet another, and so I keep on along innumerable, interminable roads, until those of the first village are ready to see me again. It is the life of the peddler, of the knife-grinder, of the reddleman. It is the life of the leper.

I see much on the road, but I cannot tell it. I can talk to no one. What I see I turn into stories and I tell them to myself as I walk. Then I tell them again at night as I try to sleep. The stories are better by day. They are more real, as the world is more real. They are a life that I create for myself and it is true while I tell it. While I am seeing what I see and there is light and there are people and the world is before me the stories are true and I am part of the world I walk through. By day I am real, and not only real; by day, I am great. At night these stories are only dreams, and they sadden me with their unreality. At night I know they are false, and they taunt me with their falsehood. At night I am no one, not even the last leper.

I provide a service, like all artisans, craftsmen, tradesmen, professional men. A doctor heals the sick, some of the time, and is respected and rewarded for it. A lawyer achieves justice against neighbours and governments, and is respected and rewarded for it. A potter, a carpenter, a farmer, provides objects necessary to the householder, essential to life, or to comfort, and is little respected for it, but he is rewarded. I allow the poor to attain merit. I can only deal with the poor, since there are ascetics who serve the wealthy, peripatetic men of superior religious practice with whom I cannot compete, but nor do they compete with me. The poor are my clients, because they fear me, and they fear becoming like me. Thus, they obtain merit at the same time as they allay their fear, and the service is more valuable to them.

I survive, as all men must survive. A man with a trade will always survive. He may have nothing, as I have nothing, he may know hunger, and thirst, and cold, and solitude, and the absolute despair of those whom the world has abandoned, but he will live.

Yes, my trade is dying. I am the last leper of Uttar Nishaidhapur, and I am old. It will die with me.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Stupid Question I'd like to know the answer to

A question has occured to me, probably an egregious, that is to say, a stupid question, but it is a question to which I am not certain of the answer. Why do governments tax at all? Do they need to tax? In the modern world, where money is what governments define it to be, not just the money supply but the existence of money, where they pay in credit notes and not in gold or hard cash of any kind, in a system and a society where there is sufficient confidence to do this, is it actually necessary to impose taxes at all? Could they not simply define the money to exist in an account of their own, and then pass it to the accounts of the people they wish to pay? In theory I don't see why not. In practice it would cause inflation, I expect, but governments are good enough at that anyway. Would it actually destabilize the economy in such a way as to be impractible? Is it not, to some extent, what they do anyway? It would mean the destruction of a vast number of bureacratic systems and the resources they consume uselessly, it would  solve a lot of problems artificially imposed upon the normal working man and would make businesses much more productive, to the advantage of absolutely everyone.

I know I have the odd economically literate reader, so if there is an answer worth giving I'd like to hear it. Otherwise, feel free to cough politely, avoid eye contact, and talk amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

El Cerro de Los Almendros

High above the lakes there are a number of places which offer spectacular views of the water. I have been to most of them many times, and written about them, too. There is one I had heard about but never been to, because I hadn't found the path until now. A few weeks ago I finally discovered it and I have the photos to prove it.

The path goes up from beside a lake, one of a series of paths which diverge from a spot I have passed dozens of times. It looks as though it just gets lost among the trees on the hill and then drops down to another path bordering another arm of the same lake on the other side of the hill, whichg is why I had never bothered with it. In fact it does not do this at all.

It climbs steeply through the trees for a few hundred yards, a rocky, pebbly path very hard to ride on. There is an area beside it that was once used for baking rocks to make quicklime, which was then mixed with water and used for coating houses mainly. There is an old oven still visible, and some other structures that look like more recent attempts to imitate the procedure.

Nearby there is a cave, but it's set into a rock face that is hard to climb down to (especially in the presence of Mrs Hickory who has third-party vertigo), so I know where it is but I haven't seen it yet.

Then it rises out of the trees and follows the ridge several miles with views of haof a dozen lakes and also the valleys on the other side, some of which are rather wild. The best views are at the beginning and that's where the photos are from. It rejoins the waterside again much further up at one of the higher lakes, passing out through some farm buildings hidden among the trees.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Things I Can't Think About While I Cycle

There are a number of things that, for different reasons, I cannot think about while riding a bike. Many people say they are able to think more clearly, reason more deeply, find better solutions, have better ideas, when they’re walking, running or riding. I find it difficult, because I don’t use the bike as an aid to specific thought. One of the pleasures of walking or cycling is to allow the mind to react as it wishes to what it experiences, without forcing it into any particular path. For this and other reasons, I cannot think about the following:


In summer I spend most of the morning walking or cycling around the lakes, the hills, the villages, and it would be great if I could plan the writing I was working on during these walks, and then in the afternoon I could just write down what I had already created in my head. It would be a very efficient way of writing, but my mind will not do it. I could force it, perhaps, but then I would enjoy neither the riding nor the writing, and they are both, for me, pleasure, not duty.

At times my mind will produce stories as I ride, spontaneously creating characters and finding worlds for them to live in and events for them to experience and satisfying coherent climaxes for those events to reach. And I nod to myself as I recognise the merit of what my mind has produced and then after lunch I try to write the story down and it’s like the stories you sometimes write in dreams, where you can’t wait to get up and jot down the outline of the epic that has been formed within your sleeping brain. And there is nothing there. You realize it was just colourful, dramatic, incoherent nonsense, party streamers floating on the wind, entangling everything they touch, including you, but meaning nothing. Dalí might possibly have painted it, but not even Coleridge could have written it.

So I do not compose stories as I ride.


The seat of a bicycle is an oddly sexless place. I am still young enough and male enough that the first thing I notice about an attractive woman is the fact that she is attractive. But when riding a bike I am more likely to notice whether her handbag matches her shoes. Perhaps all the testosterone is being used to keep the wheels turning.

People who are wrong-

In this context I simply mean people who don’t agree with me about something, or who don’t understand things I think they should understand, and is a purely subjective category into which most people of whose existence I have ever become aware could be placed at one time or another. It includes most politicians, journalists, quite a few of my friends and family, random people on the internet, in bars, government offices and shops. You get the idea. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. You read or hear something you know or believe to be wrong and most of the time you shrug your shoulders. Possibly you indulge in a moment of exasperation, or you mentally form the bones of a rebuttal, but then you dismiss it from your mind. (Either that or you write a blog post about it). After all, every time I open my mouth, someone is sure to mentally place me in their own version of that category. The freedom to be wrong is one of the great privileges.

But once I get on the bike, if a memory of someone who is wrong gets into my head I have to squash it immediately. I can’t just dismiss it, I have to actively replace with something about kittens or winning the Ashes or the colours of the landscape. Otherwise it can cause my shoulders to tighten uncomfortably and my grip to the handlebars to lock so hard that I can no longer control the bike properly. Perhaps that testosterone again.

So I cannot mentally correct the perceived errors of my fellow man from the saddle. Which is no great loss to either of us, I am happy to say.

The space elevator-

This is a thing so mind-boggling that it quite literally makes me giddy to think about it. There are many more complex creations of the human mind- in fact the space elevator is a remarkably simple idea- but I think it is true that nothing that approaches its breathtaking scale has ever been seriously imagined. Imagine a cord so strong that it can resist the tension over tens of thousands of miles. Imagine a vast block of concrete flouting in the ocean somewhere with this cord attached to it. Just imagine what it would look like for a moment. Imagine climbing up that cord, hand over hand for tens of miles, out of the Earth's atmosphere, then for thousands more miles into orbit, and then some part of the way to the Moon. At the end of that cord is a giant counterweight, circling the Earth exactly once a day, a man-made moon fixed in the sky, 60,000 miles above the equator. Imagine feeling your weight pulling away from the Earth and towards that great block of metal. I defy anyone not to feel vertigo at contemplating this. My head spins, and I have to hold onto something. When what you are holding onto is a bicycle, this is a problem, so I only think about it when I'm sitting safely in a comfortable armchair.


I never use the bike to actually go anywhere. I don’t take it to work, I don’t pay visits on it, I don’t run errands on it. It is very strictly for pleasure. And it is so much associated in my mind with enjoyment and relaxation that it is impossible to care about anything other than the beauty of the countryside and not getting hit by a lorry. I cannot think about work, or worry about any problem that might have arisen, because real life ceases to exist once I start pedalling. Which is one of the reasons I enjoy it and do so much of it.

Oddly enough, one of the things I can think about while cycling is the things I can’t think about while cycling, so the other morning as I laboured along the paths through the hills I mentally composed this post.