Unusual Words and Collocations

Diction does not have to be figurative to catch our eye. Even literal language is memorable when it is unusual, whether in the form of uncommon words or of everyday ones used in odd senses or in striking collocations.

A collocation is a group of words considered as a unit of meaning. For example, in the sentence "Ambitious people seek a place in the sun" the phrase "a place in the sun" is a collocation, a conventional and predictable one in that context. In "Wise people seek a place in the shadows" the phrase "in the shadows" is, for the context, less usual, more surprising. Like a good simile or metaphor, an unpredictable word or combination of a fresh idea or feeling or perception. It stretches our minds to accommodate something new.

Urging the value of uncommon words may seem to contradict the principle of simplicity. Actually it only qualifies that principle. Simplicity of diction does not mean simple-mindedness. It means that diction ought to be no more difficult than the writer's purpose requires. And sometimes only an uncommon word or collocation will serve the purpose of expressing a thought or of stimulating the reader.

Unusual Words

Often a striking word comes from a foreign language or is an antiquated English word:

The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth. c. K. Chesterton

For when the Commodore roused his starboard watch at 5:14— having given them an hour and a quarter as lagniappe—there was a good feeling of having turned a corner unaware

Christopher Morley

We stood there mumchance and swallowing, wondering what the devil this Construction was. Lawrence Durrell

Now each of these examples confirms an important principle: unusual words ought not to be used just because they are unusual, but because they are also precise and economic. Au-condition of being a native, one born in a particular from Greek roots meaning, loosely, "the land itself." Thus the word is not simply a fancy equivalent to native; it stresses Chesterton's point that patriotism is rooted in soil. Lagniappe, common in Louisiana though not elsewhere, is borrowed from American Spanish and means something extra thrown in for goodwill, like the thirteenth roll in a baker's dozen; it has here the advantage of concision, of saying in a single word what otherwise would require a phrase of three or four terms. Mumchance, an older English word seldom heard today, means "silently," and implies a shocked, stunned silence.

Sometimes an unusual word is not foreign or archaic, but technical, made striking by being applied outside its normal context, like the business terms in this sentence by Rudyard Kipling:

Very minute are the instructions of the Government for the disposal, wharfage, and demurrage of its dead.

Here again we see that the unusual words are exactly right. Kipling implies the callousness of the British government toward those who died in its service in India: their are merchandise, and the charges for loading and storage are carefully calculated.

Unusual Meanings

Uncommonness may reside not so much in the rarity of the word itself, as in the meaning it carries. A writer may evoke an older meaning, closer to the etymological sense. Robert Frost, writing about the United States, speaks of the "land realizing itself westward." We think of realize as meaning "to understand clearly," and we must pause a moment to grasp that Frost calls up the older sense of "to make real": the nation created its reality as it drove westward. And in the following sentence imagination does not have its common meaning of "creative faculty," but rather signifies the productions of that creativity:

Universities flourished; scholars wrote their profundities and novelists their imaginations. Morris Bishop

Everyday words may also be made striking by being shifted out of their usual grammatical roles. Here a writer describing the coming of spring employs indestructible as a noun:

Under the spruce boughs which overlay the borders, the first shoots of snowdrops appeared, the indestructible. E. B.White


Neologisms constitute a special class of rare words. Literally "new words," they are made up by the writer. Some are new in being original combinations of phonemes (that is, sounds). James Thurber invents several such neologisms to describe the family car being hit by a trolley:

Tires booped and whoosed, the fenders queeled and graked, the steering wheel rose up like a spectre and disappeared in the direction of Franklin Avenue with a melancholy whistling sound, bolts and gadgets flew like sparks from a Catherine wheel.

Thurber's coinages are onomatopoeic (imitating sound). In the next example the neologism is formed by adding a suffix which does not conventionally go with the word (and in the process making a pun):

But once there came to "the grey metropolis" a Finnish lady—a most perfect representative of non-Aryan beauty and anythingarian charm—to whom not only men, but what is more wonderful, most women, fell captive the moment they saw her. George Saintsbury

But probably most neologisms are novel compound words. Barbara Tuchman describes the most remarkable quality of a particular statesman as his and a trav eler in Sicily complains of the crude duckboards placed for tourists around an excavation of beautiful mosaics:

It was a groan-making thing to do and only an archeologist could have thought of it. Lawrence Durrell

Such constructions are called nonce compounds, which are distinct from the conventional compounds we all use, like teenager or schoolboy. Nonce compounds are usually hyphenated, unlike conventional compounds, some of which are hyphenated and some written as one unit. Occasionally a nonce compound consists of a number of words strung together in a phrase acting as a single grammatical part (usually a modifier) like the ten-word adjectival in this sentence (it modifies a three-word noun):

I doubt whether even the breathless, gosh-gee-whiz-can-all-this-be-happening-to-me TV-celebrity-author could cap this shlock classic with another. Pauline Kael

: Unusual Collocations i An unusual collocation is an unlikely combination of words, • each commonplace in itself but rarely used with the other(s). This description of a midwestern steel plant is an example:

Republic Steel stood abrupt out of the flat prairie. Howard Fast

We do not think of buildings as "standing abrupt," but for that very reason the diction is memorable, like the structures : it describes rearing dominantly out of the flat land. Here are several other instances:

i ... the crackling sea . . . Dylan Thomas I The clammy hauteur of President Hoover.. ..

i Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Under the trees, along the cemented paths go drifts of girls, sym-1 pathetic and charming. . .. William Colding

' Any grammatical nexus may be made unusual; a subject and verb, for instance:

i But her smile was the coup de grace and her sigh buried him (deep. W. Somerset Maugham j Or a verb and complement:

He smiles his disappointments and laughs his angers.

e. e. cummings i Unusual Verbs

Verbs are a fertile source of implied meanings when joined with unlikely subjects or objects:

1 But the weeks blurred by and he did not leave. Willard R. Espy

... no birdsong splintered the sunflecked silence. Joan Lindsey

Often an unusual verb implies a comment:

The more we prattle about morality, the more the world shows us how complicated things really are. Samuel c. Fbrman

The cops squealed with excitement. Howard Fast

. . . and then the hideous mannequins galumphed with squeaky On Stage. Nancy

Each of those verbs carries adverse connotations. "Prattle" suggests childishness; "squealed," a piglike quality; "galumph," comic awkwardness. And each enriches its passage, implying considerably more than it literally states.

Unusual Adjectives

Many other striking collocations involve a modifier (typically an adjective) and its headword, as in Dylan Thomas's "the crackling sea." One variety of such adjectives is known as a transferred word customarily applied to a partic ular noun or class of nouns which is used instead to modify something associated with that noun, as in "a boiling kettle." Here is a more original example:

He would sit upstairs in his angry overalls, too angry to come down to luncheon. Harold Nicholson

Oxymoron and Rhetorical Paradox

When the oddity of a collocation becomes seemingly contradictory, it is called an oxymoron. A famous instance is John Milton's description of hell as "darkness visible." In an oxymoron the modifier appears to contradict its headword: "How," we wonder, "can 'darkness' be 'visible'?" Several other examples:

... a practical mystic. . . . Lord Roseberry .. . delicious diligent indolence. . . . John Kfeats A yawn may be defined as a silent yell. c. K. Chesterton

A rhetorical paradox is an oxymoron writ large. (An oxymoron, in fact, has been defined as a "condensed paradox.") It too expresses an apparent contradiction, and differs only in being longer and in not condensing the contradiction into a headword and modifier:

His soul will never starve for exploits or excitement who is wise enough to be made a fool of. c. K. Chesterton

Oxymoron and rhetorical paradox must not be confused with the logical paradox, which asserts that something is simultaneously both true and not true, thus violating what logicians call the law of noncontradiction. A classic example is:

"All Cretans are liars," said a Cretan.

A rhetorical paradox, on the other hand, does not contain a true contradiction. It may seem to. Chesterton appears to be saying something that is logically wisdom consist of being made a fool of? But the appearance vanishes when we understand that Chesterton is using "wise" and "fool" in special, though not unique, senses. By "wise" he means simple and pure in spirit, unworldly and good. By "fool," he means a trusting innocent, rather than a self-deluded egotist, the word's usual sense.

Another kind of rhetorical paradox is less an apparent self-contradiction than an actual contradiction of a commonly accepted belief:

Baseball is an interminable game played by overgrown boys who have nothing better to do for the amusement of loafers who have nothing to do at all.

That unlikely sentence contains no inner contradiction, apparent or real, but it violently disagrees with conventional attitudes.

Paradoxes of this sort may take the form of standing a cliche or popular maxim on its head. Someone remarked, for instance, that the German General Staff "has a genius for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." Oscar Wilde mocked Victorian morality by reversing the smug judgment that "drink is the curse of the working class"; he put it that

Oxymoron and rhetorical paradox, can be espe cially effective, if they grow naturally out of the subject and reveal an important truth about it.

Accumulation, or Piling Up

Accumulation, as we use it here, means stringing together a number of words, all the same part of speech and grammatically parallel, that is, connected to the same thing. Most commonly the words are a series of verbs serving the same subject or of adjectives attached to the same headword:

They glittered and shone and sparkled, they strutted, and puffed, and posed. Beverley Nichols

He criticized and threatened and promised. He played the audience like an organ, stroked them and lashed them and flattered and scared and comforted them, and finally he rose on his toes and lifted his fists and denounced that "great betrayer and liar," Franklin Roosevelt. Wallace Slegner

Lolling or larricking that unsoiled, boiling beauty of a common day, great gods with their braces over their vests sang, spat pips, puffed smoke at wasps, gulped and ogled, forgot the rent, embraced, posed for the dickey-bird, were coarse, had rainbow-coloured armpits, winked, belched, blamed the radishes, looked at played hymns on paper and comb, peeled bananas, scratched, found sea weed in their panamas, blew up paper bags and banged them, wished for nothing. Dylan Thomas

Manipulative, industrious, strangely modest, inexorable, decent, stodgy, staunch, the Habsburgs had come out of Switzerland in 1273. Frederic Morton

How, people are asking, could four mopheaded, neo-Edwardian attired Liverpudlian-accented, guitar-playing, drumbeating "little boys" from across the ocean come here and attract the immense amount of attention they did by stomping and hollering out songs in a musical idiom that is distinctly American?

John A. Osmundsen

The unusualness of such diction lies not in unconventional or paradoxical combinations but in sheer quantity, and of course, in quality.

Mixed Levels of Usage

Level of usage means the degree of formality or of informality associated with a word. Some words have a limited range of appropriateness. They are suitable, say, for formal but not informal occasions (pedagogue). Contrarily, another word is at home in a colloquial atmosphere but not in a formal one (prof). But of course most words are always acceptable (teacher), and are not limited by usage restrictions.

It is possible to achieve unusual diction by mixing words from different usage levels so that learned literary terms rub elbows with colloquialisms and slang:

[Long] was probably the most indefatigable campaigner and best catch-as-catch-can stumper the demagogically fertile South has yet produced. Hodding Carter

American perceptions of empire have decline and fall built in. Decline and fall are both the outcome of and the alternative to empire. Which puts Americans in a fine pickle today.

James Oliver Robertson

The line between formal and informal styles is not now held so inflexibly as it used to be. Many writers mix literary and colloquial diction with a freedom that would have been frowned upon a generation or two back. This freedom is welcome. But it poses its own problems. The mix must work. It cannot be an artificial forcing of an occasional bit of slang to relieve relatively formal prose, or shouldering in a big word here and there to decorate a colloquial style. Words should always be chosen primarily because they say exactly what you want to say.

When the mix does work, a writer achieves not only precision but a variegated "speech" interesting in itself. Listen, for example, to this discussion of contemporary detective fiction:

The moral fabric of any age, of any society, is a tapestry in which there are strikingly different and even antithetical motifs. Our popular art forms show that the prevailing fashion in heroes runs to the extroverted he-man, the tough guy who saves the world with a terrific sock on the jaw of the transgressors, and the bang, bang of his pistol. But even this generation, so much exposed to philosophies of power, has its hankering for the light that comes from within; and in its folklore there appears, intermittently, a new kind of psychoanalyst.

Rolo's language is generally literary (that is, belonging to formal, written prose): "moral fabric," "antithetical motifs," "transgressors," "philosophies of power," "intermittently," "priest-hero," "psychoanalyst." At the same time he works in colloquialisms: "he-man," "tough guy," "terrific sock on the jaw," "hankering." The diction is unpredictable. It surprises and thereby pleases us.

But the mix achieves surprise and novelty without sacrificing exactness or economy. Indeed both the literary and the colloquial terms are justifiable for their precision. "Priest-hero," for example, sets the detective story into the wider framework of literature and folktale. "He-man" nicely suits the flavor of the tough private-eye fiction Rolo is discussing.

It is possible to play off formal and colloquial language even more strikingly. In the following passage the journalist A. J. Liebling is describing fight fans, specifically those rooting for the other guy:

Such people may take it upon themselves to disparage the principal you are advising. This disparagement is less generally addressed to the man himself (as "Gavilan, you're a bum!") than to his opponent, whom they have wrongheadedly picked to win.

Liebling comically contrasts the deliberately inflated diction describing the fans' behavior ("disparage the principal you are advising") and the language they actually use ("Gavilan, you're a

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  • tombur
    What is unusual collocation?
    6 years ago

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