Effluvia? Effluviousness?

May 26, 2006

In a recent post you may recall I referred to “Les Miserables” as a “pinnacle of effluvium”. “Effluvium” is a word whose meaning is obscure even to me. Upon relating a humorous anecdote in which I read the plural form, “Effluvia” later on in M. Hugo’s work, my wife informed me of a detail which had evaded my notice: she pointed out that the expression would be better phrased, “pinnacle of effluvia”.

This provoked me to speculation. The word “effluvium” is esoteric enough that I could simply regard “pinnacle of effluvium” in its phonetic sense alone; for the unititiated, it accomplishes its dark purpose. However, the phrase “pinnacle of x” is rarely, if ever, used with a plain-vanilla singular noun; plural is more the order of the day. In addition, it is often used in conjunction with a nouned adjective, e.g. “superfluity”, “vivaciousness”; hence my lowered vigilance towards the singular. You (and I mean you) would never say, “That pinnacle of car”. You might however, express it thus: “That pinnacle of cars”, or better still, “That pinnacle of carhood”.

In truth, “effluvia” is nearly as unsuitable as “effluvium”, providing me with scant impetus to alter the post.


20 Responses to “Effluvia? Effluviousness?”

  1. Lee Says:

    Carhood is a singular noun referring to the “state of being a car”. It might also be a collective singular referring to cars collectively (a la priesthood).

    I think your original construction fails not because of the issue of number, but because of the sense of the noun you used, which, while esoteric, does not describe a state or category. One possible rewrite might be: “the pinnacle of noisomeness”.

    I just discovered your blog before we left for vacation, Ben – I’ll comment some more later…


  2. Ben Says:

    No, noisome is not the word I was going for — although it would be an apt descriptor for his section on the History of the Paris Sewers. I can’t remember the exact usage in M. Hugo’s work, but I think it could have been a semi-false cognate. Occasionally you run across these in older translations of great literature, especially French literature: a word that, while in English, is barely used and may not carry quite the same meaning as the word in the original language.

    In any case, the sense in which I was hoping to use the word is: hot air (the connotation), i.e. “Les Miserables, that pinnacle of hot air / ishness”.

  3. Ben Says:

    By the by, I am no longer using this blog … I now post to https://daretodecide.wordpress.com

  4. Lee Says:

    The point isn’t the exact word in the “pinnacle of X” construction – it’s the kind of word X is – one which describes a state or category rather than a generic noun, which is what effluvia/um is in this case. I just couldn’t figure out a way to elegantly modify effluvia to make it fit the bill πŸ™‚

    If you’re after hot air, how about “the pinnacle of bombast” (or grandiloquence)?

    BTW, being a cognate doesn’t have to do with the incidence of use or even parallel meaning – it has to do with common linguistic ancestry. And false cognates are words which appear to have a common ancestry, but actually do not. Cognates are simply related – they may actually mean different things in their current incarnations (or the incarnations one is considering when studying the etymologies of a pair of words).

    Also, I found this blog through FallingDown, so you’ll want to update the link there…

  5. Lee Says:

    Actually, if we’re sticking to Latin endings for effluvia, then I think it would be effluvitatem…

  6. Ben Says:

    Bombast and grandiloquence would be fine, but I don’t like them as much. They both convey a bit of “false grandeur” … it’s not that he is trying to make something seem more great and amazing than it is. It’s just, well, you’re thinking, what a waste of time. Get back to the story. There’s a bit of the “ephemeral”, and “excessive” in there, too. Only excessive sounds too harsh, and ephemeral, not harsh enough (and not quite correct … less ‘temporary’ and more ‘small, not of lasting importance’). As I’ve recently mentioned on Danny’s blog, I’m a poet first and a communicator second — I’d sooner use a word that’s wrong, but sounds right, than the other way around.

    Cognates, yeah, I looked it up, the real term is “False Friends” … words that share common ancestry but differ in meaning.

    I can’t update the link on Falling Down, Nathan has to do that … it’s technically his blog, but we all post to it.

  7. Lee Says:

    Hmmm… I’ll bet that there is a perfect word out there which conveys what you’re after and represents a state/category… My vocabulary just isn’t big enough to provide it, sadly.

    I saw your post concerning being a poet first and communicator second. I guess I don’t quite understand your motivation. It seems to be different from, say, Shakespeare who scattered neologisms galore in his sonnets and plays, yet one cannot say he was not communicating. It seems to me that those cases were usually new borrowings or formations from other languages which just hadn’t been seen in English before – or corruptions to fit the rhyme, etc. In that case, the reader/listener can deduce the meaning if they have the appropriate background/education. In your case, the reader may have difficulty since your word choices have the potential to mislead if taken at face value.

    Unless you are not writing your poetry to be read by others?

  8. Lee Says:

    And yes, false friend is probably what you wanted, though I’d be interested to see the exact word Hugo (or the translator, rather) used.

    There are some amusing false friends listed here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_friend

    Oh – how about “Rococo”? Hard to put Rococo into the proper form, though!

  9. Ben Says:

    I think that’s a somewhat unfair characterization, it’s more like …

    a) if I was forced to choose between a word or phrase that carried a clear image, and one that sounded better or fit the tone of the poem better, I would choose the latter.

    b) if I have a choice between a word whose meaning is immediately clear, and a word whose meaning is ambiguous or unusual in that context, I would choose the latter.

    Just because my poetry is not primarily didactic in nature does not mean that I am writing nonsense. I don’t think I’m the only writer in history to use ambiguity, either. There might be a sense in which no one but myself will know 100% of the authorial intent of my poems, but like a good painting, the authorial intent is not always the point … I try to convey feelings and ideas as much (or more than) I try to tell a story.

    I will admit, though, that for most of my work, I would have to explain it to you for you to get the most out of it, because nearly all of it has “intended meaning” that might not be immediately clear.

  10. Ben Says:

    The word the translator used was effluvium. I just can’t remember the context.

  11. Lee Says:

    Well, I was just going off of your statement here: “I’m a poet first and a communicator second — I’d sooner use a word that’s wrong, but sounds right, than the other way around” and from Danny’s blog: “I am always willing to sacrifice clarity for the sake of tone, etc.” and “…my primary point with the poem would not be to communicate meaning.”

    If someone doesn’t perceive your occult (in the original sense) meaning because you’ve used the wrong (but, to you, right-sounding) word — and since you don’t intend to communicate meaning in the first place — aren’t they misled by the word choice? Incidentally, your a) and b) seem much softer to me than your original statements – they really don’t include the concept of either “wrongness” or “not communicating meaning”, but rather challenging the reader with unusual word choices (like an unexpected dissonance or chord progression in a jazz composition), which – to me – is a different proposition entirely.

    I didn’t say you’re writing nonsense. (I’d never accuse you of that!) Nor does writing for the purpose of teaching enter into the picture. I’m talking about simply understanding what is written. It’s hard enough to perceive an author’s intent (Lewis had some real interesting things to say on this topic in general, and how wrong people were about his writing, specifically) when they do intend to communicate πŸ˜‰

    But perhaps I’m just misunderstanding your use of the word “wrong” — wouldn’t that be ironic!

  12. Ben Says:

    Ironic, indeed. Of course, I may have miscommunicated, but being a communicator second does not mean I am not a communicator. I would rarely choose an incorrect word, although I can see how you might have thought that’s what I was saying.

    I probably wouldn’t intentionally use “effluvia” in an incorrect sense; just trying to explain how I might have ended up using it wrong — sometimes in my zeal to use the right-sounding word, I do not check carefully enough to see whether its meaning is precisely what I’m going for, or if it’s even really related. Or (honestly), even really a word. I’ve done that a few times.

    I might fudge it a little bit — but I don’t really mean to use words without respect to their meaning. I honestly thought that “effluvia” was close to what I intended; and, true enough, I’ve been unable to find a word that does match that meaning and precise “voicing”, if you will. If it had been a poem instead of a blog post, I would have been more careful, I think.

    Actually, “voicing” is a great term for it. You know what I mean? How you can have different chord voicings (open/closed, inversions) that, though using roughly the same notes, can dramatically shape the character of the sound. In the same way, though one word may have –almost– the correct meaning, its visual/phonetic/emotional dimension also shapes the feeling you get from it.

  13. Bertie Says:

    Absolutely – “voicing” is the perfect word here. That and “color”, which I think also works here, as it does in music composition (as well as performance).

  14. Bertie Says:

    Hmm… Sorry about posting as “Bertie” earlier – hopefully I can get back to my true identity!

  15. Bertie Says:

    Nope, not that time…


  16. Ben Says:

    Haha … perhaps you should have posed as “Alpine Joe” …

  17. Bertie Says:

    Or Psmith πŸ™‚

  18. Bertie Says:

    (One level of indirection is enough for me!)

  19. Ben Says:

    I want to be Psmith for Halloween, but I’m pretty sure a) no one would get it and b) I couldn’t pull off saying that dialogue with the right characterization.

  20. Lee Says:

    I don’t suppose I could persuade you to try a pickled Gussie Fink-Nottle? Nottle, Nottle, Nottle.

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