Second Thoughts on Things and Actions

After I posted “Things and Actions” I had a couple of afterthoughts. First, I mentioned that one way to turn a noun into a verb or a verb into a noun is just to do it. Then I came across the following passage from another of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, “Too Many Clients” (p. 68). The context is a little complicated, but this is a conversation between Archie (the first speaker) and Nero Wolfe (the second speaker); Archie is defending the honour of a young woman who might have been having an affair with the murdered man. Archie says, “She may be part witch but she has not been debauched. If and when she orgies with a satyr he’ll be leaning gracefully against a tree with a flute in his hand. I don’t believe it.” Wolfe then objects: “Orgy is not a verb.” And Archie replies, “It is now….”

Second—and I should have thought of this before—there’s a specific rhetorical figure, polyptoton, that’s relevant to this discussion of nouns and verbs. Here’s Richard Lanham’s definition (from A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms): “Repetition of words from the same root but with different endings”. In the classical languages, Greek and Latin, the different endings are often different case endings of the same word—so, for example, a word will appear in the nominative case, as the subject of a sentence, and then shortly after in the accusative case, as the object of another sentence. English doesn’t have much of a case system, so that kind of polyptoton is rare, but we do have different forms from the same root. Here’s one of Lanham’s examples, from a speech by Winston Churchill attacking the government of Chamberlain: “So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent”. Here I would count just “decided/undecided” and “resolute/irresolute”; the other pairs are antithetical, but not polyptoton.

Polyptoton is not one of the most common figures, but it certainly occurs, and I have a small collection of examples. I will list a few that change the part of speech, noun to verb or verb to noun, and also some that use other parts of speech. My first example comes from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, “Speak, Memory. Nabokov is comparing the void after death to the void before birth:

“Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much.

“I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature. Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life.”

Here the polyptoton turns the verb “rebel” into the noun “rebellion”. Now that the concept has been turned into a noun, it seems to take on some of the characteristics of the prototypical noun, some of the characteristics of a thing, so that it can be picked up and taken outside. I think there’s a general principle here, which is that the peripheral items in a prototypically organized category tend to take on the characteristics of the prototypical item.

And here are some examples from Ford Maddox Ford’s “The Good Soldier”: “You cannot, you see, have acted as nurse to a person for twelve years without wishing to go on nursing them, even though you hate them with the hatred of the adder….” (60). This passage has two instances of polyptoton: “nurse” as a noun and “nursing” as the gerund of a verb, and then “hate” as a verb and “hatred” as a noun. A little later: “And they warned her that she would be committing a sin if she continued to think that she had sinned” (121). The noun “sin” is turned into the verb “had sinned”. And a little later: “But he discovered that, whilst he was still writing long weekly letters to Mrs. Basil, he was beginning to be furiously impatient if he missed seeing Maisie Maidan during the course of the day. He discovered himself watching the doorways with impatience; he discovered that he disliked her boy husband very much for hours at a time. He discovered that he was getting up at unearthly hours in order to have time, later in the morning, to go for a walk with Maisie Maidan. He discovered himself using little slang words that she used and attaching a sentimental value to those words. These, you understand, were discoveries that came so late that he could do nothing but drift” (138–39). The verb “discovered” is used four times in quick succession, in the figure palilogia (“repetition for vehemence or fullness”), and then turned into the noun “discoveries”.

And to finish, here are examples from the recent novel, “The Sympathizer”, by Viet Thanh Nguyen: “But performers perform at least partially to forget their sadness, a trait I am well acquainted with. In these situations it is better to flirt and play, allowing everyone the opportunity to pretend to be happy for so long that they might actually feel such happiness” (38-39). Here the noun “performers” immediately beomes the verb “perform”; then the adjective “happy” becomes the noun “happiness”. In another passage there are two different noun forms of the same root: “In a puzzling situation like this, all riddles lead to one riddler, the dictator” (149). And another change from adjective to noun: “You know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence” (190).

If you start looking for polyptoton, it pops up more than you might have expected. These passages, and many others, suggest that the parts of speech, particularly nouns and verbs and adjectives, are a secondary formation of expressing an idea. Perhaps in the depths of your thinking, concepts float around without yet being formed into sentences, without having to be expressed as particular parts of speech. In the process of formulating an expression of what you’re thinking, you have to choose appropriate part of speech for the concepts; they have to become nouns or verbs or adjectives, depending, for instance, on what’s the topic and what’s the comment, what you want to think of as a thing and what you want to think of as an action. As you continue to express your thoughts, a concept may move from one part of speech to another. Sometimes the change facilitates the syntax of the sentences, as a concept which was a topic becomes a comment, or vice versa, but sometimes it shows the same situation from different perspectives.

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