Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Catafalque and Quincunx

For me and my friends, and presumably others of that approximate generation, an essential part of the mid-70s/mid-teenage quasi-counterculture canon was the illustrated writing of Edward Gorey. Though we may have sensed his linguistically extravagant, at times absurdist, mock-horror was perhaps not precisely a lost continent from the map of early 19th century Gothic literature, I’m not sure we quite realized he was living and writing in New York City at the same time Television and the Patti Smith Group were playing at C.B.G.B. – at the very least he seemed to be some obscure and chronologically displaced pre-War New Englander like H.P. Lovecraft.

In any event, Gorey’s love of arcane words continued to intrigue me for many years as I gradually found out what they all meant, but I somehow missed the derivation of "Amphigorey", with which he titled a pair of collections of his work. Lazily conflating the prefix "amphi-" (meaning "both" or "double") with "anthology" and thinking it a portmanteau word with no other reference, I was surprised recently to find the French word “amphigouri” in the pages of Le Rouge et Le Noir and accepted my Larousse de Poche’s gloss of it as “gibberish”. A week or so later, I immediately stumbled upon it again, in an English translation of Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass. Thinking the translator might have allowed herself a bit of liberty, I turned to the O.E.D., to find that “amphigouri” and “amphigory” are both accepted in English usage. The derivation is uncertain but perhaps related to “category” and “allegory”.

As for Queneau, his French title is Chiendent (dogtooth). Though "Witch Grass" may be the North American plant name for the exact species which that French name refers to (Dichanthelium boreale), it seems like the pun or multiple meanings of the title could have been echoed in translation with a little less botanical fidelity. How about "Hound's tongue", of the genus Cynoglossum, part of a family which includes wild comfrey, a Native American medicinal plant of uncertain relationship to the old World comfrey (Symphytum officinale), or "horehound" (brothels are a persistent theme in the book), a folk term for a flowering plant of the Lamiaceae family, which includes mint?

1 comment:

Jer.Eps said...


F if for Fanny sucked dry by a leech.

I got a copy of the Gashlycrumb Tinies for Christmas one year, from a Secret Santa/coworker, who I had no idea understood me perfectly.