Wednesday, February 03, 2016

A fridge magnet, a poem, a dinner party, and the baffle of ten dollar words...

A simple fridge magnet (which I didn't even realise was a fridge magnet) can lead a person on to some rather odd excursions. While out and about last weekend I bought what I thought was just a little motto/quotation, inscribed upon handmade paper by some arty local person, and encased in a hard plastic cover. The quotation, from a W.H. Auden poem, appealed to me. At home I discovered the black square on the reverse side of the plastic cover is a magnet. So, it sits now on our fridge door. It says:
"...the funniest mortals and the kindest are those who are most aware of the baffle of being..."
I needed to investigate the context of this quotation. Having done so, several scrambles down dictionary rabbit-holes online followed. W.H. Auden enjoyed using what Ernest Hemingway called "ten dollar words" - though at the time he was addressing William Faulkner's style: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” Wikipedia

The quotation on my newly acquired fridge magnet comes from W.H. Auden's poem "Tonight at Seven-thirty (for M.F.K. Fischer)". Fischer's essay "From A to Z: The Perfect Dinner" in House Beautiful, April 1949 must have been the poem's inspiration. In Auden's introduction to Fischer’s "The Art of Eating" he states: "I do not know anyone in the United States today who writes better prose." He cites several examples, including this:

“I now feel that gastronomical perfection can be reached in these combinations: one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good restaurant; six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home. . . A good combination would be one married couple, for warm composure; one less firmly established, to add a note of investigation to the talk; and two strangers of either sex, upon whom the better-acquainted could sharpen their questioning wits . . .” (The Art of Eating, pg. 738)
(See here)

Here is the poem. (Hat-tip to Gastrocentric for the text). I looked up the meaning of any (highlighted) ten dollar words and listed them after the poem. My fridge magnet quotation is also highlighted. There are, by the way, several archived posts featuring W.H. Auden or his poems, this is a link to the earliest, from 2007.

Tonight at Seven-Thirty (For M.F.K. Fischer)

By W.H. Auden, 1963

The life of plants
is one continuous solitary meal,
and ruminants
hardly interrupt theirs to sleep or to mate, but most
predators feel
ravenous most of the time and competitive
always, bolting such morsels as they can contrive
to snatch from the more terrified: pack-hunters do
dine en famille, it is true,
with protocol and placement, but none of them play host
to a stranger whom they help first. Only man
supererogatory beast,
Dame Kind's thoroughbred lunatic, can
do the honors of a feast,

and was doing so
before the last Glaciation when he offered
and, perhaps, Long Pig, will continue till Doomsday
when at God's board
the saints chew pickled Leviathan. In this age farms
are no longer crenellated, only cops port arms,
but the Law of the Hearth is unchanged: a brawler may not
be put to death upon the spot,
but he is asked to quit the sacral dining area
instanter, and a foul-mouth gets the cold
shoulder. The right of a guest
to standing and foster is as old
as the ban on incest.

For authentic
comity the gathering should be small
and unpublic:
at mass banquets where flosculent speeches are made
in some hired hall
we think of ourselves or nothing. Christ's cenacle
seated a baker's dozen, King Arthur's rundle
the same, but today, when one's host may well be his own
chef, servitor and scullion,
when the cost of space can double in a decade,
even that holy Zodiac number is
too large a frequency for us:
in fact, six lenient semble sieges,
none of them perilous,

is now a Perfect
Social Number. But a dinner party,
however select,
is a worldly rite that nicknames or endearments
or family
diminutives would profane: two doters who wish
to tiddle and curmurr between the soup and fish
belong in restaurants, all children should be fed
earlier and be safely in bed.
Well-liking, though, is a must: married maltalents
engaged in some covert contrast can spoil
an evening like the glance
of a single failure in the toil
of his bosom grievance.

Not that a god,
immune to grief, would be an ideal guest:
he would be too odd
to talk to and, despite his imposing presence, a bore,
for the funniest
mortals and the kindest are those who are most aware
of the baffle of being
, don't kid themselves our care
is concolable,[inconsolable?] but believe a laugh is less
heartless than tears, that a hostess
prefers it. Brains evolved after bowels, therefore,
great assets as fine raiment and good looks
can be on festive occasions,
they are not essential like artful cooks
and stalwart digestions.

I see a table
at which the youngest and the oldest present
keep the eyes grateful
for what Nature's bounty and grace of Spirit can create:
for the ear's content
one raconteur, one gnostic with amazing shop,
both in a talkative mood but knowing when to stop,
and one wide-traveled worldling to interject now and then
a sardonic comment, men
and women who enjoy the cloop of corks, appreciate
dapatical fare, yet can see in swallowing
a sign act of reverence,
in speech a work of re-presenting
the true olamic silence.


supererogatory = going beyond the requirements of duty, or greater than that required or needed; superfluous.

Sacral = of, for, or relating to sacred rites or symbols.

flosculent = from floscular = composed of floscules. floscule = a floret; a single blossom of a composite flower. So "flowery speeches"?

cenacle = the room traditionally thought to be location of The Last Supper.

rundle = a wheel or similar rotating object.

semble = a Norman French word meaning "it seems or appears to be" or "it seems".

tiddle and curmurr - tiddle =(obsolete, UK, dialect) to treat with tenderness; to fondle; curmurr = to rumble. Scottish curmurring = rumbling especially in the bowels.

married maltalents - maltalent = Old French term, in Anglo-Norman French "mautalent", translating as "bad temper"... so bad tempered married couples.

cloop = the sound made when a cork is forcibly drawn from a bottle.

dapatical = sumptuous in cheer.

olamic = of or belonging to an age or cycle of the universe; especially in Jewish and Christian theology; everlasting.


mike said...

Ten dollar words...Ha! Most Americans don't even use one dollar words...LOL.


"The Globe reviewed the language used by 19 presidential candidates, Democrats and Republicans, in speeches announcing their campaigns for the 2016 presidential election. The review, using a common algorithm called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test that crunches word choice and sentence structure and spits out grade-level rankings, produced some striking results.

The Republican candidates — like Trump — who are speaking at a level easily understood by people at the lower end of the education spectrum are outperforming their highfalutin opponents in the polls. Simpler language resonates with a broader swath of voters in an era of 140-character Twitter tweets and 10-second television sound bites, say specialists on political speech.

'There’s no time to explain in modern politics,’ said Elvin T. Lim, a professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

Mike Huckabee and Jim Gilmore, who are struggling in the polls, are both spinning sentences above a 10th-grade level, according to the algorithm. Ben Carson, who has surged and maintained a second-place standing in the polls, communicates with voters at a sixth-grade level — despite a medical degree and career as a brain surgeon.

Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s speeches are just right for eighth-graders; Bernie Sanders’s strong critiques of Wall Street and American capitalism are aimed higher, at the 10th grade."

Language skills is down the tubes along with thinking:
"... Consider a 2012 study published in Science, one of the most prestigious journals in the world. This study found that when people are prompted to use their critical faculties, they become less likely to affirm religious statements. In other words, there’s a causal link between 'analytical thinking' and religious disbelief. Perhaps this is why the Republican Party of Texas literally wrote into its 2012 platform that, 'We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs [that] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs.' God forbid children start questioning their 'fixed beliefs' about religion — or politics."

mike (again) said...

From the Boston Globe link (above):
"But with his own choice of words and his short, simple sentences, Trump’s speech could have been comprehended by a fourth-grader. Yes, a fourth-grader."

... The utterances of today’s candidates reflect a continued decline in the complexity of political speech. President George Washington’s “Farewell Address” in 1796 was written at graduate-degree levels: Grade 17.9 , while President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” in 1863 was at an 11th-grade level."

Twilight said...

mike + (again) ~ I'm unable to translate American school grade levels into anything meaningful to me, having been educated in the UK, where "grades" don't exist in the same fashion. I get the general sense of the news articles though. I find it all heavily tinged with snobbery, to be honest.

Poetry and prose are one thing, when written as a kind of art - political speeches are something else entirely.

I've always understood, and have been advised, that to try to talk/write above the heads of one's audience is extremely bad manners. When speaking to a crowd, then, it'll be necessary to take in those without benefit of higher education.

Dang! I don't know what "grade" my own education would fall into in US-speak, I didn't go to college, I left high school at 16. I suppose I'd be counted among the lowest of the low! I know a few long words because I listen, read, and investigate anything I don't understand.

Longer education, college or university do not an intelligent person make! In fact, when we had to take in university students in our offices in Leeds, to give them work experience, it was a standing joke how terribly dense many of them were regarding everyday matters.

So...Trump's 4th grade style is fine with me - it's the thrust of what he says that bothers me, not his choice of simple words and sentence structures. I find that Bernie Sanders speaks in short sentences, clear meanings, too no $10 words.

Complexity of speech isn't, in my opinion, something to be applauded or for which to aim. Simplicity, they say, is the ultimate sophistication. Too much complexity provides hiding places for deceit and manipulation.

Again... poetry or arty prose is something else, and provides opportunity for writers to show off to their peers, and for readers to extend their vocabulary, should they so wish.

mike (again) said...

Well, I hope you differentiated between Sanders' 10th grade presentations versus Trump's 4th grade level. One doesn't have to be an over-the-head speaker, but a higher level allows for not only addressing issues, but a greater understanding-comprehension of the issues. Your post is about using $10-words and you use a poem as an example. I'd have to say that for a majority of Americans, particularly those supportive of Trump, Sanders uses $10-words and thoughts. Trump doesn't address the issues:

Excerpt from the Boston Globe link:
His vocabulary is filled with words like “huge,” “terrible,” “beautiful.” He speaks in punchy bursts that lack nuance. It’s all easily grasped, whether it’s his campaign theme (“Make America Great Again”), words about his wealth (“I’m really rich”), or his disparagement of the Washington culture (“Politicians are all talk, no action”).

He dismisses his opponents with snippy sound bites that, if polls are to be believed, have been devastatingly effective — such as when he labeled Jeb Bush “low-energy.”

“Trump is talking about things that are emotional, simple, and angry,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant. “He’s not talking about the complexity of international affairs. It’s, ‘Let’s take their oil!’ It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out exegesis of American foreign policy. It’s Trump. It’s simple.”

The USA is in an educational decline, which is the reason Bernie is supportive of education. Educational level of the population and economic strength go hand-in-hand. Minimum wage jobs and the service industry beckon our current population. Say what you want, Twilight, but a sound education, whether through high school and-or college, the more able an individual is to evaluate topics of concern and formulate their own thoughts. I agree that a speaker should address their audience in a suitable fashion, but I am becoming more alarmed with the dumbing-down of Americans, and that now a 4th grade level of speech is requisite, lest one is accused of conceit.

From NPR

"'In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago,' reports Education Week. 'In science, 22 education systems scored above the U.S. average, up from 18 in 2009.' In reading, 19 other locales scored higher than U.S. students — a jump from nine in 2009, when the last assessment was performed."

This started with the quotation, "...the funniest mortals and the kindest are those who are most aware of the baffle of being...", started your journey to the poem and this post. I bet a majority of younger Americans would not be able to correctly assess this line's meaning.

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ My post's main point actually wasn't meant to be the use of $10 words - that was just a side issue. I intended the post to be about the poem, the dinner party, the subject of the poem. The $10 words were part of it and I decided it'd be interesting to discover their meaning. I was quite surprised that you veered all political. LOL! Well, it's in the air at present so I ought not to have been surprised.

In any case, if we were going to be talking about $10 dollar words, we'd be talking about words, not issues. I'm not giving any gold stars to Trump for his stances (you know that!) but I don't decry him for his word use or "snippy" style. He's a business man, a salesman - he instinctively knows stuff about getting people's attention. He does it quite naturally without script writers - which cannot be said of many other candidates, I feel sure. He isn't trustworthy, but he knows how to get people to listen to his words, whatever their worth in dollars.

mike (again) said...

Sorry that you construed my comments to be political. I actually intended them to be about the decline of education and English language in particular, which related to the $10-words requiring a dictionary in Auden's poem. I think our current political discourse is a prime example, with the choice of basic words containing minimal substance appealing to so many voters, as never before.

I enjoy learning new words, though I don't retain them like I used to. You must appreciate new words, too, because you've written about the topic prior. I was taught at an early age to ALWAYS have a dictionary at my side while reading.

I reviewed Auden's poem and the words you highlighted, thinking about what word(s) could have been substituted in each highlight. In most cases, something is lost, mainly cadence, perhaps clarity...there is cleverness in his verse. I read several of his poems available at and the vast majority of Auden's poetry is colloquial verse, so I'm baffled by his more complex poem, "Tonight at Seven-thirty".

You have a number of Auden posts:

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ Yes, I have a number of posts mentioning Auden's poems or Auden himself - I did mention the earlier posts on Auden, and left a link to the earliest of them, in the current post.

I doubt any reader of this particular Auden poem (except maybe another poet or wordsmith) would have read it all, and fully understood it without recourse to a dictionary. He was probably showing off his vocabulary to, whats-her-name -
MFK Fischer, on this occasion, I'd not be surprised to find that he needed to find some of those obscure words in a dictionary himself.

mike (again) said...

Here's a new word (to me, at least), semaphore:

"Witness the fact that mayoral candidates Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan both sport similarly silver quiffs and it’s clear that grey hair no longer SEMAPHORES drabness within the political realm. Today’s grey-haired politician is modern, confident and dependable. Reaching for the Just For Men to achieve a fake Donald Trump-style colour, or a suspiciously uniform Lego-headed brown, seems comparatively fake and untrustworthy."

an apparatus for conveying information by means of visual signals, as a light whose position may be changed.
any of various devices for signaling by changing the position of a light, flag, etc.
a system of signaling, especially a system by which a special flag is held in each hand and various positions of the arms indicate specific letters, numbers, etc."

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ Amazingly, that's one I do know - probably learned it in the Girl Guides or in school. I don't often see it used as a verb though, this could be the first time! The writer could have written "signals" instead, and been more clearly understood.

Sidelight: the popular peace symbol is a combination of two semaphore flag signal positions: N & D (nuclear disarmament)

Scroll down this Wiki page

mike (again) said...

Thanks for the tidbit, Twilight! I had no idea. More info on Gerald Holtom's page:

"Holtom brought the design, unsolicited, to the chairperson of his local anti-nuclear group in Twickenham, and alternative versions were shown at the inaugural meeting of the London CND. 'The first mark on paper, according to Mr Holtom, was a white circle within a black square, followed by various versions of the Christian cross within the circle. But the cross, for these people, had too many wrong associations - with the Crusaders, with military medals, with the public blessing by an American chaplain of the plane that flew to Hiroshima - and eventually the arms of the cross were allowed to drop, forming the composite basic semaphore signal for the letters N and D, and at the same time a gesture of human despair against the background of a round globe. Eric Austen, who adapted the symbol for Holtom's waterproof 'lollipops' on sticks to ceramic lapel badges, is said to have 'discovered that the 'gesture of despair' motif had long been associated with 'the death of man', and the circle with 'the unborn child'."