The power of words #2: strange and beautiful words

The first of this pair of blogs looked at words of power; this one, Gerard Manley Hopkins-style, discusses words ‘counter, spare, original, strange’.

One of my favourite words is egg. What’s good about it? It’s short. And odd. I like the way it hatches thoughts of a huge number of creatures, mundane and fabulous, from a chicken to a dragon, from an ant to a tyrannosaurus rex. Although tiny, egg is big-hearted enough to throw in a luxurious third of its body weight as an extra and non-functional consonant. The lowercase g is usually one of the strangest shapes in the typographic arsenal, a pince-nez of a letter and a real nonconformist like Émile Zola or Leon Trotsky – and this word has a sumptuous two. Sadly it parted company with its splendidly irregular plural eiren some time between Chaucer and Shakespeare. It has the richly bizarre orthography of yolk contrasting subtly with the deliberately dull sign/signifier pairing white in a fully expressive and complementary re-enactment of their relative differences in fascination. Indeed this word, like some of the very best, is eatable – my favourite is slow fried in a new non-stick pan so the white is perfectly flat but bevelled like the biomorphic blobs beloved of noughties web designers, with a few grains of ground sea salt on top to give contrasting tang and crunch.  Yet, at its yolk, egg gives us – richly and simply but without reduction – the opposite of T. S. Eliot’s miserabilist ‘dung and death, defecation and decay’: hope, life, the joy of eggs.

William Blake's not-so mundane egg: 'On Plate 36 of Milton, Blake presents a diagram of Milton's descent into the world from Eternity. So we are able to see the globes of the four universes as they are positioned and overlap, the location of the earth and of Los' mundane egg. We see Adam at the center of the earth and Satan within the sphere of Urizen. We see the fiery chaos within the egg and flames outside of the Four Universes. Milton's track leads him past Satan to Adam.' Thanks to for commentary and excellent Blake resource.

I first came across autochthonous when I was working on Martin Bernal’s book Black Athena in 1987. I am a big fan of the improbable cluster of consonants in the middle, contrasting with the elegance and lyricism of the sense. Bernal’s thesis was that successive generations of Classicists had (latterly unwittingly) promulgated a racist denial of the Afro-Asiatic origins of ancient Greek civilization. Bernal sought to replace the pervasive whiteness of our received idea of Greekness with a more historically accurate, explanatory and generalizable conception of mongrel cultural polychromaticism – the marble statues of the Parthenon (for example) being originally painted in lurid colours. For the Classics establishment, the preferred explanation – named for them by Bernal – was that the flowering of the arts, science and philosophy had simply sprung from the soil (chthonos – land, ground, soil) by itself (auto – self). It was characteristic of Bernal’s immense linguistic erudition and beautifully written conspiracy theory that he should attribute to them this rather gracious appellation while still energetically tearing their paradigm to pieces. Autochthonous is, after all, a more powerful and active word than indigenous or (in this context) the gruesomely coy cultural. It is also useful for describing autonomous and self-directed groupings of people who have come together for any interesting reason. Curiously, the publishing history of the book was that all the major university presses had rejected it on the basis of peer reviews. While this system is usually claimed as a guarantor of quality, it also clearly enforces conformism, where vested interests (postholders with reputations to maintain) have the power to suppress texts outside the dominant paradigm. Accusations of embarrassing error are obvious candidates for this kind of censorship by another name. Publishers – as they were with this book – should be leaders of opinion, not slaves.

Ferdinand de Sausssure (1857–1913), photograph by Frank-Henri Jullien, from Wikimedia Commons

Odd has the great merit of being another eggy kind of word that is what it means. I like calling them mimetic or enactive. This is different from onomatopeia, where the sound is a representation of the meaning. Humpty Dumpty, literature’s premier egg, was very dismissive of the expressive value of ‘Alice’: ‘my name means the shape I am – and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.’ Ferdinand de Saussure compellingly claimed that the structuring principle of linguistic signification was differentiation rather than representation: tree doesn’t sound or look like a tree, it’s just a different word from bush, flower, shrub, spoon, elephant … But in a movement towards a more expressive and richer language, creative  writers often want words to resonate in our minds like music that has become pure and strange sound … At these times a word – with the weight and pleasure of all its history of meaning, its letter shapes, personal and literary associations, and its music – will perhaps come together with its peers in a brave attempt to reflect the fullness both of who we are and of the world  in us.

Humpty Dumpty with the Fascistic view of the meaning of words: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” From Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (London: Macmillan, 1872), illustration by John Tenniel.

Others of the odd ilk include weird (i before e, except after c, anyone?) and ugly. Ugly looks like an adverb for the adjective ug, which would be a splendid addition to the English language. I see that Old Norse ugg meant ‘fear’ – a dark twin for egg.

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at
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