Still reading Mason & Dixon, and I’ve hit the following passage:

Below them the lamps were coming on in the Taverns, the wind was shaking the Plantations of bare Trees, the River ceasing to reflect, as it began to absorb, the last light of the Day. They were out in Greenwich Park, walking near Lord Chesterfield’s House,— the Autumn was well advanced, the trees gone to Pen-Strokes and Shadows in crippl’d Plexity, bath’d in the declining light. A keen Wind flow’d about them. Down the Hill-side, light in colors of the Hearth was transmitted by window-panes more and less optickally true. Hounds bark’d in the Forest.

The word “plexity” stopped me cold. It’s not in the OED or the big Webster’s, it’s not from a Latin *plexitas (-plex is only a suffix in Latin) and thus is not a plausible 18th-century formation, and the only modern use of it I can turn up is a sociological one that seems extremely unlikely to be relevant here: “Plexity refers to the type of transactions that we are involved in with other people. If, for example, Tom only ever plays squash with Barbara, the relationship would be considered a uniplex one. If however, Tom and Barbara lived, worked and socialised together it would be a multiplex one.” (From “Language, Society and Power” by Rachael-Anne Knight: .doc file, HTML.) So what’s going on here? Is it simply a nonce abbreviation for complexity, or something more… significant?
Addendum. The word occurs again on p. 505: “Yet aloft, in Map-space, origins, destinations, any Termini, hardly seem to matter,—one can apprehend all at once the entire plexity of possible journeys, set as one is above Distance, above Time itself.”


  1. The OED does have “plex, n. Obs. rare. A plait or braid (of hair).”, with one 15th‐c. attestation. Pynchon may have come across that or, more likely, been thinking of the general word family of Latin plectere, suggesting how the branches of the trees were intertwined.

  2. There’s no reason it couldn’t be a word in its own right, even if it’s not attested in Latin. Some suffixes had their vowels changed by Old Latin stress, but -plex comes from a stem plex-, supine of plect-, so **plexitas should be a perfectly good word for ‘plaitedness’.

  3. When I first read this my innards said perplexity, possibly complexity.
    If you try the A9 search on and ignore the many compounds then it seems to exist as a word in its own right in at least three contexts.
    History and etymology I’ll leave to you!

  4. Florian Weimer says

    Perhaps “plexity” is just a typo? “Pexity” might even make some sense in the context.
    “Plexity” looks a bit like “arity”. indeed it is used in communications to describe the underlying concept of simplex/half-duplex/full-duplex connections.

  5. Stefan: I’m tentatively adopting that as my reading, since it makes sense of the formation and the context.
    Malte: I’m aware of the uses you refer to, but discarded them as possible influences on Pynchon — too specialized and remote in meaning.

  6. knowing Pynchon, he intended the obscure sociological meaning for his metaphor.
    anachronistic only for the erudite–& this, too, is an effect.

  7. There seems to be some other modern usages, for example:

    When we study nominal expressions, a basic distinction must be made between nouns, which are linguistic entities, and their referents, which are mental entities (Karttunen 1976). The mental entities involved in this discussion will be described with the help of two of Talmy’s (1988) four categories for noun referents: ‘dimension’, ‘plexity’, ‘boundedness’ and ‘dividedness’. These terms thus deal with semantic-conceptual entities, not syntactic categories. The semantic-conceptual characteristics, however, do interact with their syntactic encoding, as we will see in the second part, where I propose that the bare plural is motivated by the formal properties of mass nouns. The two categories used in
    this paper are plexity and boundedness. Plexity has to do with “a quantity’s state of articulation into equivalent elements” (ibid.: 176). When a quantity consists of only one of its ‘atoms’, it is ‘uniplex’ (‘a cat’), and when it consists of several instances of one atom, it is ‘multiplex’ (‘cats’). This distinction corresponds to the linguistic category of number, with singular and plural nouns.

    from a google search, which yields quite a few answers:
    I also remember that the word “plexity” is used in a quite specific sense (though difficult to explain) in Samuel R Delany’s sf-novella “Empire star”.

  8. Oh. I didn’t think ANYTHING would be too specialized and remote in meaning when it comes to Pynchon…

  9. True in theory, but what sense would the sociological reading make here?

  10. Yes, you’re right, of course. Incidentally, I look’d up the Passage in the Swedish Translation, lodged next to the English Original in my crowded Book-Shelf, and it seems that this curious Plexity left the (very good) Translator quite perplex’d.

  11. So how does the Swedish translator deal with the pastiche of 18th-century style? Were random capitalizations part of Swedish as well?

  12. Yes, they were. As was the hyphen-use. However, the Swedish 18th century was also very influenced by French languange and literature, and the translator accordingly adopts lots of French loanwords and variants of spelling. Syntactically he makes a compromise between Pynchons long Sternian (?) sentences and the more compact style typical of Swedish prose of the same period.

  13. speedwell says

    I know this is offbeat, but… When I came in to work this morning, the department secretary had put on my desk a package of beautiful wool felting yarn that I ordered from Uruguay. I had it in my hands, thinking about the knitting project I was going to make with it, when I was reading the post above. My mind immediately made a connection “plex = ply,” and the braided, interlaced tree shadows merged in my mind’s eye with some failed attempts at pen-and-ink Celtic knotwork I’d previously attempted. “Plexity” seemed like perfectly clear and understandable English. “Complexity” would certainly not have been the correct choice, and “perplexity” would have been even, uh, wronger. 🙂

  14. Yes, I think you’re right — it’s basically the same idea Stefan had (first comment), and I’m a bit abashed I didn’t think of it myself. My Latinity is a tad rusty.

  15. Graham Asher says

    Mason & Dixon sounds like nonsense – a very weak and ill-informed pastiche at best. Where in Greenwich Park are you anywhere near a ‘forest’? Why would hounds bark there, and not dogs? The omission of ‘e’ in preterites (flow’d, etc.), although very Georgian, looks somehow wrong here as well, though I can’t be bothered to find out why. Plexity is the least of your worries.

  16. What are the chances that within a week of your posting this, I’d come across the word in unrelated reading? Pretty low, I’d say. Yet there it is in Leonard Talmy’s Toward a Cognitive Semantics. The sense is similar to the sociological one, in that it’s the difference between uniplex and multiplex. It’s a schematic category within the schematic system of configurational structure, if I’m getting Talmy’s terminology right.

    The category here to be termed plexity is a quantity’s state of articulation into equivalent elements. Where the quantity consists of only one such element, it is uniplex, and where it consists of more than one, it is multiplex. When the quantity involved is matter, plexity is, of course, equivalent to the traditional linguistic category of “number” with its component notions ‘singular’ and ‘plural’. But the present notions are intended to capture the generalization from matter over to action, which the traditional terms do not do. It is true that there are the traditional terms “semelfactive” and “iterative” referring, respectively, to one and more than one instantiation of an event. But there is no real temporal equivalent to “number.” “Aspect” includes too much else about the temporal structure of action. And in any case, none of the traditional terms refers generically to both the spatial and temporal domains.

    Of course, this has nothing to do with Pynchon’s use of the word, but I thought the coincidence might amuse you.

  17. As indeed it does!

  18. A belated comment: Plexity sounds like one of those invented names for corporations that sound like they should be words, but aren’t, like Agilent, Accenture, Viant and Scient (all real). “Plexity — we help you make chaos out of order.” By the way, is for sale for $2,200.

  19. Jefeweiss says

    I found a definition for plex, “Refers to the number of sides imaged.” So plexity is a noun form of the same?

  20. “A belated comment: Plexity sounds like one of those invented names for corporations that sound like they should be words, but aren’t, like Agilent, Accenture, Viant and Scient (all real). “Plexity — we help you make chaos out of order.” By the way, is for sale for $2,200.”


    That is why I, semi-ironically, called my one-person consulting hobby: pleXity.

    And yes, I was drawing on the ‘braided’ definition not the uni/multiplex one, which sounds awfully like he stole it from Samuel Delany (in Empire Star)

  21. Delany’s distinction: simplex are characters or cultures with only one context and therefore only one way of responding to it or any other context; complex c. or c. respond differently to different contexts; multiplex ones respond differently or in the same way to single contexts and in the same way or differently to different contexts. At least that’s my formulation. For Delany’s, you need to read the whole novella: no Three Laws of Robotics there.

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