Word of the Monday – March 18, 2013

A new column on The Mercurial, 'Word of the Monday,' debuts with "oneiroparonomastician."
Anthony Burgess created the word "oneiroparonomastician" to describe James Joyce.




An Englishman writing about an Irishman, who was without doubt one of the great literary influences of the twentieth century, and all centuries for that matter, coined one of the more interesting words I’ve come across.


“Oneiroparonomastician,” or “dream-pun-namer,” is a word invented by Anthony Burgess to describe James Joyce. Joyce was well known for his creative restructuring of language. As was Burgess, who wrote A Clockwork Orange. Both authors are in part known for their neologisms, which is Greek for “new speech” or “new utterance.”


The word itself is a mashup of Greek and English. “Oneiro” and “paronomasia” are Greek for “dreams” and “puns” respectively. And “-ician” is an English suffix that can at times indicate a profession. So, it’s a rather ridiculous sounding word that simply means a person who manufactures dream-puns. Given that I could not find a first hand account from Burgess, I’ll assume that I could be wrong on that definition. So, the word might also mean “person who makes people dream of puns” or “person who makes puns in dreams.”


Whatever the case, there is a big ass book of words I’ve kept out in the open wherever I’ve lived since I had to buy it for a course on grammar in college. Despite the price of the book (and its instant loss of value the moment the small bits of iron in my bank card’s magnetic strip slid through a card reader and told some computer somewhere that I had enough money to buy what I thought then was a rather solid rectangle I could use to prop up a desk or table missing a leg) I decided to keep The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language (Second Edition) because I came to appreciate how quickly David Crystal explained subjects through a clever sleight of hand that hid the boring aspects of grammar with stories of the individuals and cultures who came up with it.


I say all this because English grammar is important to me as a writer, thinker, and pretend-professional, but it is also important because I speak it along with hundreds of millions of others. That said, grammar is boring, and annoys the mind the way that a rotten stench wafting up from an open refrigerator tells a person to clean it out. And like leaving food to rot in the fridge, either out of laziness or curiosity, it’s important to let grammar go and simply see what happens. To amend that slightly, allowing grammar to slip is not the same as allowing food to rot, because experimenting with grammar does not necessarily make a word foul, or unpalatable.


The trick is, you have to know what you’re letting go to understand what is happening, much the same way the best lyricists, singers, painters, musicians, all knew that there were rules to what they were doing, and that to make something great, you have to break some of those rules in smart and clever ways. And that’s why grammar is important, and that’s why authors such as Joyce and Burgess and Shakespeare are vital to all of us who wish to have fun when we talk or want to play around with ideas.


But as far as writing goes, puns do not get much praise. Some people call puns the lowest form of humor. But, I feel that most people like puns, understand puns, and cringe at puns. Well, Joyce loved puns. He used them all the time in his works. And if you’ve got the proper mind for it, it can be surprisingly satisfying to utter a pun and watch a face screw up into a look that jokingly says “Shut the hell up!”


Punny indeed.

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