Saturday, 9 April 2016

Of Copula and Complexifying

This blog post started with a question and a challenge. I play an on-line crossword game with a friend on the other side of the country. At one point, she asked, “Do you actually use any of these weird words you’re putting down on the board –  mem, cavy, mage, fe? I dare you to use them in a blog sometime.”

The answer to the question is, no, I don’t use those words frequently, except in crossword puzzles. As to the challenge, well, now that I’ve written them down, I’ve already used them in a blog! Sorry, Riekie, that was way too cheap and easy.

FYI, mem is a letter in the Hebrew alphabet; cavy describes an animal family that includes the guinea pig:

Patagonian Cavy

Weight lifter cavy
A mage is a magician, and fe is the chemical formula for iron. I’ve used other weird words lately – thaler (German money), corf (a basket or container used in mining), and biryani (an Indian rice dish), for instance. It’s fun to form your letters into weird words, enter them into the Lexulous dictionary, and find out they actually exist.

I understand why some people read the dictionary for fun. I've been known to do that. This love affair with words has been going on for a long, long time. My dad used to tell the story of how, as a two-year-old, I knew words for pigs in three different languages, and knew the appropriate times to use them. When I was with our Canadian farmer boss, I called a pig a pig; when I was with mom and dad, who spoke Frisian to each other, I named the sow a “barg”. But when I was with Dutch-speakers, I called it a “varken”. In a letter my mom wrote to Holland, at about the same time, she said she was at her wits end because I kept pulling all the good books out of the bookcase, then “reading” make-believe words and stories to my baby sister.

Words: what’s not to love about them? And speaking of love, that word is a beauty, isn’t it?

So is Grace. Mercy. Gratitude. They’re just letters strung together, but they glow with hidden meanings. At least they do to me.

I’m not the only one who loves words. Enter the term “favourite word lists” into the google browser, and you will get 4,370,000 results. Merriam-Webster’s list of 10 favourite words includes kerfuffle, defenestration, sesquipedalian (a long word for a love of long words), and callipygian (drum roll, please) “having shapely buttocks.” Just try to drop that word casually into your next conversation.

It’s fun encountering new words you’ve never heard before – gives you a little jolt of effervescence. This week, I met two new words that put a spring in my step: “copula” (not to be confused with “cupola”, an architectural feature) and “complexifying.”

“What’s a copula?” you ask. I did not know – it sounded vaguely risque, and for sure, when I entered it into a google search, one of the suggested links was about, ahem, sexual reproduction. But its meaning is much more pedestrian: it’s a connecting link between subject and predicate, mostly in the form of the verb “to be.” Check it out in the illustration below, and you’ll see what I mean.

For a writer, overuse of copulas is a big no-no, resulting in “flaccid and uninteresting writing.” Now I should go through this blog with a fine-toothed comb to make sure I did not use too many copulas.

Upon first reading the word “complexifying”, I thought to myself, “Oh, no, not another “utilize” in the making!” I have a hate-on for utilize. It’s a gold-plated fancy-dress word that means exactly the same as the much simpler word “use.” (That’s my opinion, and you can have it for free.) Surely a simpler word that means the same as “complexify” exists? The author used “complexifying” when he explained the way the universe was unfolding – from simple particles joining together to form bonded structures like atoms, from atoms bonding together into compounds, from compounds joining together to form structures, and on and on, right up to the complex workings of the galaxies that make up our universe. Mind boggling!

This process he calls “complexifying,” and after pondering on that for a while, I decided maybe no other word expresses it as well. If you beg to differ, let me know. (BTW, the book where I first found this word is The Story of the Universe by Brian Swimme and Mary Tucker ... Highly recommended – but it has complexified my concept of the universe.)

I could write many more words about the beauty of words, but I do believe that can wait for another blog post. After all, the eminent teacher of wisdom, King Solomon, “searched to find just the right words” (Ecclesiastes 12:10), then concluded, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” Maybe short but sweet is better.

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