For the most part, I didn’t have fun at school. But I always enjoyed the days when we were given lists of new spelling words and told to look up their definitions and write a sentence using each. Sure, eventually we’d have a spelling test that I would fail — I scored between zero and thirty percent on spelling tests so often that my mother was called in for a conference, which terrified me, expecting to be yelled at, but instead she burst out cackling because she’s perhaps the only person whose spelling mistakes are as idiosyncratic as my own — but that first day, with the sentence writing, was always a blast.
I loved writing sentences that you could imagine being part of a story without going through the effort of writing all the rest. And still do, honestly. If I were attempting to pretend my affection was motivated by something other than an aversion to sustained effort, I would allude to Anne Carson here: her art is often fabulously fragmentary, possibly due to her background in ancient Greek literature, from which we often have only scraps and pieces of the original works. It’s easy to imagine this quotation from her fantastic Autobiography of Red as being the sole surviving remnants of a larger work, but she included everything a reader needs:
XV. TOTAL THINGS KNOWN ABOUT GERYON
He loved lightning He lived on an island His mother was a
Nymph of a river that ran to the sea His father was a gold
Cutting tool Old scholia say that Steichoros says that
Geryon had six hands and six feet and wings He was red and
His strange red cattle excited envy Herakles came and
Killed him for his cattle
The dog too
XVI. GERYON’S END
The red world And corresponding red breezes
Went on Geryon did not
If you haven’t read that book yet, I highly recommend it — Autobiography of Red, alongside Queer and Love in the Time of Cholera, is one of my top three for the literature of unrequited love. Carson’s work is strange, beautiful, powerful, and funny. Most of the humorous passages in Autobiography of Red build slowly, so I don’t have a good short one to slap up here and convince you, but consider this essay from her collection Plainswater:
Some fathers hate to read but love to take the family on trips. Some children hate trips but love to read. Funny how often these find themselves passengers in the same automobile. I glimpsed the stupendous clear-cut shoulders of the Rockies from between paragraphs of Madame Bovary. Cloud shadows roved languidly across her huge rock throat, traced her fir flanks. Since those days, I do not look at hair on female flesh without thinking, Deciduous?
Anyway, I’d obviously stress my fondness for Carson’s work if I were attempting to claim that my love of single sentences had any other root than laziness. But it doesn’t. I read slowly. I write slowly. A single sentence … wham! It’s over and done with so fast!
Sometimes I can find beautiful sentences in the OED, but this is more rare than you might expect — the editors have a clear preference for early usages, whereas I don’t much care when something was written. But they’ve definitely included some brilliant ones. For instance, here’s one they found Henry Swinburne’s Travels in the Two Sicilies:
Mephitic vapours and stagnated waters have converted this favourite seat of health into the den of pestilence, at least during the estival heats.
I like picturing the facial expression of a fourth-grade teacher stumbling across that sentence while grading a student’s vocabulary homework. Although, if I’d been that teacher, I would’ve assigned the word “aestive” instead of “estival;” that’s my preferred archaic adjective for “summer.”
Which, right, I wish I’d spent more time looking at the OED back when I was in fourth grade and failing all those spelling tests. I could’ve made so many more bratty pronouncements! I could have explained that “correct” spelling in English is rather meaningless because the conventions have shifted so often, and the conventions are often incorrect as well — English spelling typically tracks etymology, not phonetic pronunciation, but the standardized spellings sometimes have the etymology wrong. For instance the S in “island” was included because some monks thought the word was etymologically related to “isle,” but they were wrong.
Not that my fourth-grade teacher should have been impressed by such pronouncements. I would’ve been trying to explain away my having included the wrong number of Rs and Ls in “squirrel.” But I can dream.
Here are two more doozies that I learned about from the OED. The first is from Samuel Hageman’s Once (while attempting to learn his first name, I learned that Hageman was a Brooklyn theologian who published, amongst other works, a volume titled Bird-songs translated into words):
They stopped at the door of the pawnshop… There sat the hateful abactor, skilled at agony, and dextrous in the arts of distress.
And this, from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of Bartholomaeus’s On the Property of Things (which is written like a science text, although it lists the griffin as a type of bird — modern scientists now know griffins to be mammals — and oysters as the natural enemy of the crab, whereas we all know that the sworn enemy of a crab is generally another crab):
The capon is a cocke made as it were female by keruynge away of his gendringe stones.
I suppose this sentence, with its, um, eccentric spelling, looks more like something that I would have submitted to a teacher.
And I still do peruse the dictionary regularly, writing my own definitions and using some of the more intriguing words I find in original sentences. A recent favorite was for capnomancy, divination by smoke. I jotted down a line of dialogue that I hope to include if I ever write an orcs-dragons-and-axe-weilding-princesses style fantasy novel: “Capnomancy my ass! Any fool can predict doom when the whole goddamn town looks to be on fire!”
I showed this sentence to K’s & my then-housemate after returning from the library (though not immediately after — I considered it necessary to remind her of the definition for the word “obganiate” seventeen times first), at which point she asked me about the other good divination words in English. Indeed, there are enough good ones that she promptly began a series of paintings depicting them: her favorite is alectryomancy, divination by the mealtime meandering of a rooster.
Sadly, I don’t have a scan of that piece of artwork — I only have computer files for the types of divination we included in our board game. Luckily I do have her painting for capnomancy, as well as a beautiful joke painting she made for chresmomancy. Perhaps “joke” isn’t the correct word, actually: jokes are usually funny. Whereas my preferred type of humor is something that I think is funny, but clearly isn’t. The only “joke” is that chresmomancy doesn’t actually refer to divination through the use of psychedelics, it’s divination by the ravings of a lunatic. But I did a lot of sitting for people during college and, believe me, one could reasonably get the two confused.