October 11, 2007

Lexical retrieval woes

Sophie Harrison, reviewing Peter Nadas's Fire and Knowledge, NYT Book Review, 9/7/07, p. 19:

No one writes a palindromic phrase like Nadas.  On writing: "The ideal literary sentence may be born of imagination or experience, but it must gauge its imagination within its experience and its experience within its imagination." Melancholy is "the sensation of a void of knowledge or an awareness of a void of sensation."

Harrison then adds one of her own:

The discovery that there is an essay titled "Hamlet is Free" brings a feeling of sinking or a sinking of feeling, depending on how one looks at it.

But these are instances of chiastic phrases, not palindromic ones. 

Chiasmus and palindromes both involve reversals, but in very different ways.  In chiasmus, X ... Y is paired with Y ... X, while a palindrome reads the same forwards or backwards (either character-by-character or word-by-word).  So chiasmus vaguely resembles word palindromes, like these examples supplied to the American Dialect Society mailing list by Ben Zimmer in response to my posting there about Harrison's "palindromic phrase"):

So patient a doctor to doctor a patient so.

Girl, bathing on Bikini, eyeing boy, finds boy eyeing bikini on bathing girl.

You can cage a swallow, can't you, but you can't swallow a cage, can you?

Bores are people that say that people are bores.

Women understand men; few men understand women.

More examples here

Note that word palindromes (for sentences with at least four words) will necessarily have chiastic parts.  But the examples from Nadas and Harrison are not word palindromes.  And what most speakers of English think of when they hear "palindrome" is the character palindrome, as in the palindromic words "level" and "civic" and the character-palindromic sentences "Able was I ere I saw Elba" and "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama" -- but these are even more distant from chiasmus than word palindromes are.

It looks like Harrison reached into her stock of technical terms and pulled out a wrong (but semantically related) one.  This is a surprising error from someone who makes a living as a free-lance writer, including reviewing books (mostly fiction and criticism, apparently) for a variety of reputable publications: The New York Times, The Guardian, Granta, The London Review of Books, The New Statesman, and so on.  But then we've complained here many times about people whose professional lives concern language in a significant way but who misuse the technical terminology of grammar, rhetoric, poetics, historical linguistics, etc.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 11, 2007 02:28 PM