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Q From Elizabeth Sears: Do you know what asynartesia means, or if it is actually a word? I ran across it in The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux, in which he described Gorey’s “shadowy ... world of attrition and asynartesia”.

A It took merely a moment’s search to determine that asynartesia is a very rare word, though it is clear that it’s of Greek origin. One critic responded badly to Theroux’s use of it:

If I sound cruel, it’s because ultimately I can’t forgive any writer who can use the word asynartesia with a straight face, as Theroux did in those doomful first ten pages of his book. That’s not taking joy in obscure words, as Gorey often did. That’s telling the reader that you’ve got a bigger dictionary than he has.

The Spook, Feb. 2002.

Having a big dictionary doesn’t help, alas. None that I consulted included it, not even the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. But a very few do have asynartete and its adjective asynartetic, of which asynartesia looks like a derivative. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary defines asynartete as “containing disparate or unconnected rhythmic units” in two senses: “with unhomogeneous rhythms in the two members distinguished by the caesura” and “with diaeresis, hiatus, or syllaba anceps at the caesura so that a quasi independence of the two members is effected.” That deeply technical definition isn’t helpful unless you already know a bit about Latin and Greek classical verse. The Collins Dictionary is usefully more succinct: “having or containing two different types of metre”. To try to explain this simply, I think asynartetic refers to a line of verse in which a break occurs (the caesura), with the rhythm of the verse on either side being different.

As one of the only two other appearances of asynartesia I have found is in a work of AE Housman in which he is discussing the verse of Bacchylides, a Greek poet of the fifth century BC, this seems to be in the right area.

The third appearance is open to similar criticism of taking pleasure from obscurity. It’s in Thou Whited Wall, a story by R A Lafferty in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1976:

No good name had ever been found to describe the excellence and many-leveled meaning of this testimony on the walls. It had been called kakographia and syngramma and scribble-schnibble. It had been called zographia and ektyposis and ochsenscheiber. It had been called chromatisma and schediasma and oscenite. It had been called scherzi and motti and asynartesia. The Italians have called it graffita, and the name may have stuck.

I’m way outside my comfort zone with this fragment of sub-Joycean exposition. It’s obvious from the story that we are concerned with the writing of gnomic and riddling messages on walls, confirmed by the reference to graffiti.

With the help of readers, I've unravelled most of the references. Kakographia is an old Greek precursor of English cacographia, bad writing or spelling; zographia is drawing or painting from life; ektyposis in classical Greek means an impression but in modern Greek is printing; for Roman writers such as Cicero, a schediasma was a literary caprice (in modern Greek it means a sketch); chromatisma is colouring in Greek; in the same language syngramma is writing or prose; scherzi is the plural of scherzo, the musical term meaning a light or playful composition, from the Italian for a jest; motti in Italian is the plural of motto; oscenite ought to refer to a bird that prophesies by its call (oscen in Latin) but is probably from the root obscen-, as in Italian oscenità, obscene; ochsenscheiber looks German, done like an ox, so crudely executed (spelled Ochsenschreiber, it might be writing done by an ox, perhaps with alternate lines reversed, the equivalent of Greek boustrophedon).

Bessy Yannisi emailed from Greece to point out that asynartesia actually exists in modern Greek and is used in everyday speech. It derives from the privative prefix a- and the word synartisi, a relation, connection or cohesion, as well as a mathematical function. So asynartesia is incoherence. As he has with other words, Lafferty must have taken pleasure from knowing both the classical poetical and modern everyday senses.

The effort of deducing Mr Lafferty’s meaning will attract those who have superb vocabularies and the instincts of crossword-puzzle solvers. The rest of us, I suspect, will be tempted to pass over writing of this playful but self-consciously erudite complexity.

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Page created 30 Mar 2013; Last updated 27 Apr 2013