Write the editors of Imagining Language, from which the passage [they’ve just read] from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is taken:
At the center of the episode is a hen scratching open a letter in a compost heap…. Any proto-narrative aspect of the Wake is subordinated to its manifestly epic ambition, which is the production of a polyglot interlingua, a massive reservoir from which all languages derive and into which they ultimately return.
In other words, well, in other words. Language itself as the mother of all compost heaps. As in all compost heaps, there are lines of affiliation, lines of ascent and descent. This exercise gets you working with that. It’s some hard work first, and then some free play.
First you create a research document. Start by going to the Online Etymology Dictionary at www.etymonline.com. Type in the search window a word you like. I’ll use “compost” (what else). I get several entries, but the one with the most interesting material is
compost (n.) late 14c., compote, from Old French composte “mixture of leaves, manure, etc., for fertilizing land” (13c.), also “condiment,” from Vulgar Latin *composita, noun use of fem. of Latin compositus, past participle of componere “to put together” (see composite). The fertilizer sense is attested in English from 1580s, and the French word in this sense is a 19th century borrowing from English.
I boil this down to the material I think I can use—
Compost. From OF composte, “mix of leaves and manure for fertilizing land.” Also “condiment,” from VL componere, “to put together” (see composite).
That goes in my research document. You do likewise. And do the same with five more words, choosing each new word from the entry you just made. For instance, from my entry on “compost,” I might choose “condiment,” for which etymonline.com gives me this:
condiment (n.) early 15c., from Old French condiment (13c.), from Latin condimentum “spice, seasoning, sauce,” from condire “to preserve, pickle, season,” variant of condere “to put away, store,” from com- “together” (see com-) + -dere comb. form meaning “to put, place,” from dare “to give” (see date (n.1)).
Boiled down, that becomes
Condiment. From L, “spice, seasoning, sauce,” from “to preserve, pickle, season,” variant of “to put away, store,” from com– “together” + dare “to give” (see date).
I move from “condiment” to “season,” from “season” to “timber,” from “timber” to “domestic,” and from “domestic” to “despot.” Boiled down I have:
Season (v.). “Improve the flavor of by adding spices,” from OF assaisoner, “to ripen, season,” “on the notion of fruit becoming more palatable as it ripens.” Applied to timber by 1540s. In 16c., also meant “to copulate with.”
Timber. From OE timber “building, structure,” later “building material, trees suitable for building,” and “trees or woods in general.” From PIE *deme- “to build,” possibly from root *dem- “house, household” (source of Greek domos, Latin domus; see domestic (adj.)).
Domestic (adj.) From MF and L “belonging to the household,” from domus “house,” from PIE *dom-o- “house,” from root *dem- “house, household.” Cognates include Sanskrit “house”; Greek domos “house,” despotes “master, lord”; Latin dominus ”master of a household”; Lithuanian dimstis “enclosed court, property.”
Despot. From OF despot, from ML, from Greek “master of a household, lord, absolute ruler,” from PIE *dems-pota, “house-master,” pota cognate with L for “potent.” “Faintly pejorative in Greek, progressively more so as used in various languages for Roman emperors, Christian rulers of Ottoman provinces, and Louis XVI during the French Revolution.”
2. Mess around
Do whatever pleases you with this research base. Take the most surprising synonym (e.g., that “to season” once meant “to copulate with”) and write a paragraph in which you use the one to mean the other. Write a poem that gets you from the first word in your research document to the last word (how to get from “compost” to “despot”? is there something despotic about compost? something composty about a despot?). Make a paragraph out of nonsense sentences generated by homophonic translation (e.g., for “domestic,” “Be long in thee, how sold, from dumb us, house, from pie …”). Or make a 5×5 panel of words gleaned from your entries, such as
court timber pickle season manure
potent emperor …
Or turn your research into a family tree in which words are arranged as parents and children and cousins and stray animals. Or write a couple of sentences in imitation of Joyce — wringing every possible pun out of every syllable. Or something not thought of here or ever before.