Saturday, August 02, 2008


Close, But No Cigar

William Hazlitt, in his essay On People with One Idea, writes, "There are people who have but one idea: at least, if they have more, they keep it a secret, for they never talk but of one subject." Further on in the same essay, he asks, "What is the use of a man's always revolving round his own little circle? He must, one should think, be tired of it himself, as well as tire other people."

My circle of topics is little, and I probably do tire other people by harping on them. A topic to which I often return, without tiring of it myself, is the rhetorical device known as asyndetic, privative adjectives. Michael Hendry, proprietor of Curculio, found a possible bilingual example in Pliny's Letters (2.3.8, tr. P. G. Walsh):
To fail to regard as worthwhile an acquaintance which is as pleasant, charming, and civilized as can be, is an attitude which is malappris, uneducated, sluggish, and virtually degrading.

Aphilókalon inlitteratum iners ac paene etiam turpe est, non putare tanti cognitionem qua nulla est iucundior, nulla pulchrior, nulla denique humanior.
Michael Hendry asks, "Too bad Pliny tacks on a fourth, non-privative adjective with an ac. Does that make the whole list non-asyndetic?"

Unfortunately it does, at least in my book. This excludes many otherwise attractive possibilities, such as this near-miss from P.G. Wodehouse:
You wish to woo, court, and become betrothed, engaged, affianced to this girl, but you find yourself unable, incapable, incompetent, impotent, and powerless. Every time you attempt it, your vocal cords, fail, fall short, are insufficient, wanting, deficient, and go blooey.
I've recently found a couple of short but genuine examples in Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus (tr. W.A. Oldfather, slightly revised).

1.4.18: as to make it finally harmonious with nature, elevated, free, unhindered, untrammelled, faithful, honorable.

ὥστε σύμφωνον ἀποτελέσαι τῇ φύσει, ὑψηλὴν ἐλευθέραν ἀκώλυτον ἀνεμπόδιστον πιστὴν αἰδήμονα.
He has given them to us free from all restraint, compulsion, hindrance.

ἀκώλυτον τοῦτο ἔδωκεν, ἀνανάγκαστον, ἀπαραπόδιστον.
Here are two more examples in English, from the first lines of poems by W.H. Auden:

Iceland Revisited:
Unwashed, unshat,
He was whisked from the plane
To a lunch in his honor.
At the Party:
Unrhymed, unrhythmical, the chatter goes:
Yet no one hears his own remarks as prose.
Lists of adjectives can occur with asyndeton (no conjunctions separating them) and polysyndeton (a conjunction separating each adjective). Is there any special term to describe a series in which only the last item is separated from the others by a conjunction?

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