Wallflower Words: Liminal (adj.)

Wallflower Words is a series of Proof (v.) posts dedicated to beautiful but under-appreciated and seldom-encountered words. Those that are never invited to dance at the parlance party; those that deserve more exposure than is currently afforded by contemporary trends in popular English. This is their turn on the dancefloor.

The Word: Liminal (adj.)

Huh? Of or pertaining to a ‘limen’ or threshold.

As in? The ‘rich as plumcake’ Wood Between The Worlds, that magical in-between place in The Magician’s Nephew (in CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, of course).

“The Wood Between The Worlds shares some traits with other liminal spaces, way stations and thresholds, like the bardo of Tibetan Buddhism, or the door-lined hallway that Alice tries so hard to get out of in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But unlike other “between” places in myth and fiction, the Wood is both empty and full. It is a unitary movement, containing everything, the pause before a story is told, in which nothing has happened, and so anything might… On a less abstract level, the Wood is also a library. For someone like Lewis, who lived so much through his reading, each book was potentially a portal to another world.”

— Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (which I have finally finished reading, and feel thoroughly nourished by).

{ via The Crystalline Entity }

And?Subliminal‘  — being “below the threshold of conscious perception”— is a relatively common word. As is (though to a somewhat lesser extent) ‘superliminal‘ — being above said threshold, or faster than the speed of light.  But somehow the root ‘liminal’ has fallen out of common parlance. How terribly unreasonable.

[NB. This reminds me of that most existential of questions in 10 Things I Hate About You: “Q: I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be… whelmed?” “A: I think you can in Europe?”… Except that ‘liminal’ is an actual word, whereas ‘whelmed’ is, well, not really, unless you’re talking in the nautical sense.]

Through The Looking Glass: Where Coffee = Sleep

Comparing coffee preferences to sleeping habits is probably the most ironic analogy ever made. But outside the asylum, through the looking glass, only the nonsensical truly makes sense. And so, I propose the following theory:

If coffee = sleep, then…


A) A macchiato (a shot of espresso with a mere dash of foam) is the coffee equivalent of “a short but intense nap between 12:30am and 6:30am, as popularised by yogis, yoginis, truck drivers and insomniacs”.

Starbucks Venti Frappuccino

B) A Starbucks Venti Mocha Frappuccino (20 ounces of cream, caffeine & chocolate) is the “persistent vegetative state” of the coffee world.

Somewhere in between lies CATATONIA, which is what happens when you have an incurable weakness for both A) and B) (as regards both the coffee and the sleep).

“Patients with catatonia may experience an extreme loss of motor skills or even constant hyperactive motor activity. Catatonic patients will sometimes hold rigid poses for hours and will ignore any external stimuli. Patients with catatonic excitement can die of exhaustion if not treated. Patients may also show stereotyped, repetitive movements.

They may show specific types of movement such as waxy flexibility, in which they maintain positions after being placed in them by someone else, or gegenhalten (lit. “counterhold”), in which they resist movement in proportion to the force applied by the examiner. They may repeat meaningless phrases or speak only to repeat what the examiner says….

Catatonic excitement is a state of constant purposeless agitation and excitation. Individuals in this state are extremely hyperactive, although the activity seems to lack purpose.

…The only way to cure it is to keep the patient constantly active and the activities must have an end goal or they will not work. Stress must be reduced by not pressurising, keeping life predictable and by limiting choice as making choices is very stressful for catatonics.”

Wikipedia (of course)

And on that note, I REALLY have to get back to writing this thesis. 13 days and counting…

{images via smh.com.au and wikimedia commons }

Font Poetry: Starting a meme

Confession: I have fallen head over heels in love with the delicate, poignant, meaningless poetry of typeface samples.


Designer: Nikola Djurek.
Print Foundry: OurType.
Found: via FFFFOUND!, via AisleOne

Mainly this calls for no effort from me, and is therefore a greedy, parasitic indulgence on my part. But sometimes the prettiest words need to undergo a bit of picking and choosing to turn them from Joyce into something bite-sized, like Bashō. Case in point: this sample grid for Gotham Narrow from Hoefler & Frere-Jones could be a ballad of epic proportions…


…but I like it better paraphrased into this charming little verse:

Push dress medium powder hyperion,
Fine Irish resin bloom;

Gotham Narrow (abridged)
Designer: Frere-Jones (from the original Gotham, circa 1930s)
Print Foundry: Hoefler & Frere-Jones
Found: via Seannamon

Now, as far as filler text and typeface samples go, typographic poetry runs rings around the quick brown fox, and has far more individual character than the oft-repeated, famously nonsensical lorem ipsum.

It did get me wondering, though: Who chooses the content of these beautiful little odes? Is it a matter of science and reason, or just a happy mish-mash of randomly chosen words? Can someone from the world of typography please put an end to my ignorance?


The Mad TEA Parties of 2009



{ The Mad Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland. By Sir John Tenniel, via Victorian Web }
{ The Boston Tea Party in, er, Boston. By Currier & Ives, via Rhapsody in Books }
{ Woman With Tea Bag Hat , via The New York Times

A Tea Party is…

a) A civil gathering of acquaintances, for the purposes of sipping Earl Grey and nibbling cucumber sandwiches (Mad Hatter optional).

b) A drunken gathering of revellers, for the purposes of a big night out at World Bar.

c) A historical gathering of American revolutionaries, for the purposes of throwing tea chests into Boston Harbour, in protest against The Tea Act of 1773, which (surprise, surprise) imposed a tax on said tea.

d) A controversial gathering of ‘radical’ anti-tax protesters, for the purposes of condemning taxes in general (and government spending, and Barack Obama, and Liberalism, and all that jazz).

e) A purple-haired afternoon stroll with Lady GaGa, apparently.

I’d never heard of Tax Day Tea Parties until, well, today. Apparently, it’s a big thing in the US, inspired by the original tax-related tea party [see (c) above]. From what I can gather — unless the media  is somehow presenting a subtly skewed perspective (NO! NEVER!) — The Tax Day Tea Party phenomenon is promoted by FOX ‘News’, tainted by allegations of astroturfing, and frequented by rabid conservatives, believers in The Communist Conspiracy Theorypeople who like to dress up like lunatics, and remarkably partisan dogs / small children.

On the other hand, the TEA in Tea Party is actually an acronym for Taxed Enough Already, and we know how much I love a clever acronym.

But on the OTHER other hand, my government just “stimulated” my bank balance to the tune of $900, so the chances of me being anti-tax and anti-spending are slimmer than slim.

So, to sum up, I love actual tea, but TEA sounds mad to me.

More on TEA (for noobs like me)

Carroll and Poe; Ravens and Crows

What is the difference between a raven and a crow?

Actually, ravens have one more pinion feather on each wing, so the difference between a crow and a raven is just a matter of a pinion!¹


And we cannot forget the Mad Hatter’s famous raven riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” This poser inevitably (and famously) goes unanswered: after all, it was a very odd tea party, and the conversation shifted rather swiftly to the issue of how best to butter one’s pocket watch. And so — as Martin Gardner notes in The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition² the Hatter’s riddle became the subject of endless “parlour speculation”, in Carroll’s own time and evermore. David B Jodrey’s answer — “both have inky quills” — is typical of the reader submissions in The Annotated Alice, while that genius Aldous Huxley suggested that “there’s a ‘b’ in both and an ‘n’ in neither, thereby proving that his humour wasn’t always political.

Carroll himself always asserted that the raven/writing desk riddle was wholly rhetorical: he never wrote it with an answer in mind. The point was that the two incongruous items were not at all alike. However when pressed, he would say of a raven that “it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front”. That is, a raven’s song is musically flat [like the surface of a writing desk]; and ‘raven’ is ‘nevar’ spelled backwards, with the wrong end in front (although in the original publications, an overzealous — and presumably humourless — editor changed Carroll’s intentional misspelling of ‘nevar’ back to ‘never’, thereby ruining the pun. And the moral of that is ‘Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves’).

Speaking of ‘never’, let us not forget that Carroll’s riddling raven wasn’t the only one to feature in 19th Century pop-culture. All hail the gothic masterpiece of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven!³ For in response to the raven/writing-desk issue, American puzzle fiend Sam Loyd made a simple and logical observation: “Poe wrote on both”.

And the moral to THAT is, if you love trivial minutiae and Alice in Wonderland, read The Annotated Alice.  Also, that one thing always leads to another: I started out with RSSed online graphic art, and ended up thumbing through classics.

¹ I’ve always loved this pun, and yet can’t remember where I heard it first (hints, anyone?).

² I had to make sure I wasn’t just imagining this, which meant finding my copy of The Annotated Alice. Which these days means several minutes fossicking through my newly colour-coded bookshelf. But once located, I immediately, instinctively opened the book to the relevant page. We can put this down to 1 part coincidence, and 4,000 parts Loving The Book And Knowing It Like The Back Of My Kid-Gloved Hand. It’s Chapter 7: The Mad Tea-Party/ Note 5, by the way.

³ In high school, when I presumably had nothing better with which to occupy my limited powers of recall, I memorised my two favourite poems: The Jabberwocky (from Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There), and The Raven. And on poetry day, when I finally had a use for this oddity, they wouldn’t let me recite the latter: it’s 18 verses long.

Related posts: That reminds me…

The Recency Illusion: Etiolated

You know when you see something for the very first time, and then all of a sudden it seems to pop up everywhere? And I don’t mean the sudden, urgent spawning of Christmas trees around the middle of November (Look! Up goes another one!), that by early December is like a rampant, spiky, green plague on all our cities.

I’m talking about words (of course!). Words, and The Recency Illusion*. Also known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, but The Recency Illusion sounds less… paranoid? Infectious? Better.

Example: The Interrobang. Until one recent Tuesday, I’d never heard of it. Or I had, but never thought much of it. Now, of course, I can’t understand how I can have made it thus far without such an expressive little punctuation mark. Now, I encounter the interrobang with startling frequency. I see occasion to use it on a day-to-day basis. Eg: “Are you sure?! (Interrobang)”. Not that there are more interrobangs around these days, it’s just that my eyes are now open to them.

Anyway, my latest encounter with The Recency Illusion (everything sounds Grander in Capitals) was caused by the word ‘etiolated‘. Intentionally deprived of sunlight. Blanched, feeble and weakened. Here I would add my own descriptors: limpid, pallid, ghostly, wraithlike. I first came across ‘etiolated’ a couple of months ago in HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) where it was used to vividly describe our distant descendants, the Eloi: inept, apathetic, four-foot-high and, most notably, etiolated. And then this week it popped up again in the latest National Geographic (December 2008, ‘Visions of Mars’) where John Updike described the Martians of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) as ‘etiolated’ (though at the same time ‘brown-skinned’, a contradiction that confuses me).

‘Etiolated’ perfectly describes white asparagus,

{ image via Vegbox }

the Red Queen’s white roses in Alice in Wonderland,

{ From the 1951 Disney film.
Image via CathiefromCanada }
[John Tenniel’s illustrations are of course infinitely better,
but, alas, not in colour]

… and students emerging from that final law exam just before the summer holidays…

Again, I can’t understand how I can have got so far in life without ‘etiolated’ in my lexicographical carpet bag. The thing is, ‘etiolated’ has no doubt crossed my path hundreds of times before — but it took a midnight, moonlit reading of HG Wells to initiate… The Recency Illusion.

* I read about The Recency Illusion under this particular moniker in New Scientist magazine, but no can link: subscription only. Wiki-P will have to do.