Language is a writer’s basic toolkit. Writers — novelists, playwrights, poets, lyricists, and all the rest — use words to trigger emotional responses or to paint pictures in the minds of their readers and listeners.
How can we fail to see layers of meaning in creations like these?
- the wine-dark sea (Homer, Ancient Greece)
- sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care (Shakespeare: Macbeth, 1606)
- nursing her wrath to keep it warm (Robert Burns: Tam O’Shanter, 1790)
- moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black (Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood, 1954)
English, a pickpocket stealing words?
The Conjurer, by Hieronymus Bosch, showing the pickpocket accomplice, far left
Individual words can excite the reader’s imagination, even without any context. English is a rich language that picks the pockets of other cultures for colourful words when they seem useful — like bungalow and jodhpurs from the days of the British Empire in India.
A Marwari horse in Rajasthan. The rider is wearing trousers tight around the calf — jodhpurs?
English isn’t always thieving or borrowing, though. It happily coins new words, too.
Selfie? (This one was taken by a macaque that picked up a camera)
Compare the halves of an English-French dictionary like Harraps and you’ll be struck by the fact that the English-French part (1500+ pages) is half as long again as the French-English part (just under 1000 pages). There are simply lots more words and meanings in English.
If I may call on Shakespeare again (A Winter’s Tale this time), I’d say the English language uses the Autolycus principle: it snaps up unconsidered trifles wherever it goes. The result is a cornucopia of luscious delights for writers to savour. And to make use of.
Sometimes writers create striking metaphors, as Shakespeare did in that Macbeth quotation. But individual words can work like metaphors too, if readers understand shades of meaning in them without needing to have it spelled out. The animal kingdom provides rich pickings there.
For example, animals give us fabulous verbs.
Animals can be IN…
- Our villain may hound his enemies, wolf his food, and hare off into the distance.
- The investigator ferrets out the awful truth, but the culprit weasels his way into her affections and escapes justice.
- The slick-tongued charmer may fox me with his clever talk, or perhaps he rabbits on until I plead for mercy, or else he badgers me until I do exactly what he wants.
I’m not sure it would be easy to turn any of those three sentences into French without putting in lots of extra descriptive words. Fluent speakers of French might like to try?
…or animals can be OUT
English has some interesting omissions on the animal front.
Any of us may occasionally pig out, or hog the limelight, but we don’t boar.
He may dog my footsteps, but I’m pretty sure he does not cat.
The Wind in the Willows dimension
Humans do not mouse — or, at least, we didn’t until the computer mouse came along — but we may rat, if we’re nasty enough.
(Apologies to Ratty for the slur on his integrity.)
Much as we love Wind in the Willows, we do not mole, though we do badger. Nor do we toad, but at a push we could always toady up to the richer members of society and even toad-eat them. 😉
Most of these verb creations are borrowings from mammals that have been part of our culture for centuries. They include some rather exotic ones — for example, we may ape our betters or monkey around when we should be doing more sensible things — but more latter-day mammal discoveries like the chimpanzee and the gorilla don’t get a look in.
Fish and birds (apart from parrot and lark?) don’t have quite the same resonance as mammals. We don’t make verbs out of owl, or robin, or pigeon. Nor do we have verbs to salmon, or to haddock, or to stickleback.
Maybe we should?
We English-speakers do, however, draw on many parts of the animal kingdom, including birds and fish, for our descriptive nouns.
She — but never he, sadly — could even be an old trout.