An excerpt from “Threshing the Word: Sappho and a Particle Physics of Language,” by Meredith Stricker (in the Spring 2003 issue of Ploughshares):

Delving into the fibers and roots of the word fragment
[Sappho’s emblem, her surviving] first unbinds
the alliterative echo of “fragrant
                           [redolent of sunflower pollen,
basil on a white plate, a single dark
crimson rose]
floating free from a solid core of definition, from meaning
one thing alone as a river of other words is loosened
like sodium and chloride molecules
from the simple compound salt.

And we discover fragment arises from the Latin frangere
which comes from

bhreg: to break or breach — in French: brier or broyer:
to knead

[as in brioche —  yeasty and warm in the morning as violets
                              related to brak-:
undergrowth, bracken: “that which impedes motion”:

            [ferny thickets, refuge of mallows and plover eggs,
shelter for the undomesticated: outcasts and resistance fighters.]

While break continues to fragment like a splintered, living shard
and no longer green, vine tangled growth, brak– becomes

“a crushing instrument”    :    its own winnowing ring

threshing open a chorus of words fragmented from all hope
of referring singly and without complication

to the myriad tesserae of their sources…

(Via the invaluable wood s lot.)


  1. Beautiful. This verse is an elegant form of the little game that I like to play sometimes, following a thread spun by looking up and meditating on synonyms, associations, of words. In this one, there’s color (“no longer green,” “violets bloom,” sound(I hear the sounds of the booted feet in the bracken, the stalks and flowers of wheat being winnowed), aroma and taste (I smell the sunflower, basil, and rose, the salts, the ferns in the moist soil) touch (the moisture, the juice of the olive squeezed onto the stone)…But of course, this is the theshing of the language, Stricker does this so very well.
    “…and move inside words, the way particle physicists break into atoms with the force of their own energy and light” reminds me of how some perceptions opened up after I took organic chemistry, back in the days. Then I’d approach a pool, and when I looked at it I’d see the molecules dancing, vibrating, dissipating into the air… Thanks for passing this on!

  2. Sorry if I am too much off topic, but the first reference that came spontaneously to my mind when I read this post’s title was Glossaire : j’y serre mes gloses, by Michel Leiris, written, I think, when he was still a young member of the surrealist movement, which, at the particular moment he joined, was all about Lewis Caroll and the poetical value of mots-valises (a word created by Aragon, if I recall correctly).
    Alas, I don’t have the book here and all I can remember are the two examples below:
    – Académie : macadam mangé par les mites.
    – Psychanalyse : lapsus canalisés au moyen d’un canapé-lit.
    The book’s title is, of course, yet another example.
    I remember you are fond of Queneau and the Oulipo, so, hopefully, that’s not too irrelevant (nonetheless, I do think that the title would apply to Leiris’ book as well).

  3. I am indeed, and irrelevance is probably the least of my concerns. I’ll have to look for the Leiris book. But I think the most that can be said is that Aragon (I almost typed “Aragorn” — damn this zeitgeist!) transferred “portmanteau-word” into French with appropriate panache.

  4. I knew “mot-valise” was adaptated from English, but I couldn’t remember the original word (funnily based on a French loan-word gone faux-ami).
    I just looked at my previous comment and I am sorry to admit that I unadvertently made Leiris look a pretty flat stylist: his definition of “Académie” should read “macadam pour les mites“, which is the only way it makes sense (needless to say, it is particularly adequate to the current Académie française). To be confirmed with the actual text, though.
    After some quick googling, I am able to report more examples, via this page of the original 1939 edition(letter ‘f’), with a calligram by André Masson, on the site of the French National Library (BnF). But be warned that clicking on the page will work as a “Back” button. My personal favourites:
    fiancée – au fil des ans défi lancé…
    firmament – firme venteuse de l’infini qui ment.
    folie – la foi en de faux liens.
    A few more from this other page (French Ministry of Culture):
    Campagne : que le chant de Pan accompagne.
    Militant : entre mille luttant.
    The book is now included in the collection Mots sans mémoire (Gallimard, 1969).

  5. “Brak-: “that which impedes motion”
    No wonder John Jakes’ career wasn’t going anywhere when he was writing his Brak the Barbarian stories.:)
    (Think Conan pastiche as written in leaden prose.)

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