Friday, August 21, 2009

Mysterious Words

From the last paragraph of Cormac McCarthy's The Road:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional.
This is beautiful, but I did wonder about "wimple" after reading it. Only wimple I know is a woman's headdress (fig.1).

Fig.1: Weary woman wearing wimple

My computer's dictionary is no help, since this is the only definition it gives. But no feat of metaphorical imagination or lateral thinking is going to let me transform Mother Superior's outfit up there into something a trout can do.

OED to the rescue! A wimple is also a "fold" or "wrinkle," hence a "turn" or "winding." As a verb (chiefly Scottish), it signifies the twist, turn and ripple of a brook. (OED isn't sure this sense of the word is actually connected to the preceding one; maybe there are two "wimples," homophones.)

Anyway, what McCarthy has done is transfer the water's movement to the fish within it, in a sensuous passage that's gorgeous to read out loud.

The next passage, not quite so sensuous, is from my friend H.P. Lovecraft (The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath). A man is clinging to a mountain at sunset and staring at a giant face that had been carved there by a god:
He clung overawed in that lofty and perilous eyrie, even though it was this which he had expected and come to find; for there is in a god's face more of marvel than prediction can tell, and when that face is vaster than a great temple and seen looking downward at sunset in the scyptic silences of that upper world from whose dark lava it was divinely hewn of old, the marvel is so strong that none may escape it.
Phew. What's "scyptic"? Not in the OED; not a misspelling of "sceptic." It looks Greek, but there's no actual Greek word it could have come from. You sometimes find "scyptic" online in medical contexts, but there it's a mistake for "styptic," referring to substances that staunch bloodflow. This can't be what HPL meant.

Otherwise, googling "scyptic" just takes you to this very passage (and one or two random people who seem to be using it in the sense of "cryptic"--I don't trust them).

Is it misspelled? Should it be a fancy synonym for "lofty," or is it a bizarre misprint for "cryptic" after all? What could HPL have thought it meant? I'm stumped. Only solution I can think of is to look it up in the edition with notes of this story by S.T. Joshi. Joshi cares about Lovecraft's vocabulary and would not leave this unexplained. I'll write a sequel to this post when I get my hands on the book. [The sequel is here.]

Until then let's relish an entirely mysterious word.

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