Webster’s Collegiate has long been the dictionary of record for the endearments. But today I’ve decided to admit the OED, at least in some cases.
It was my honey that tipped me over into those honeyed waters: I wanted hy to be a word, because that would allow omen : omen hy y. Webster’s had no entry for it, but the dear old OED offers up the obsolete hie | hy. This seems to me legitimate. The OED has already suggested an obsolete endearment, cinnamon, which yielded a poem. (For contrast, see the Scrabble dictionary, which includes words only for the sake of having more of them, and which, as I’ve mentioned before, I will never use, much as I never order from Amazon. It’s a matter of principle.)
† hie | hy, n.
Haste, speed. Chiefly in phr. in hie, in haste, with haste, quickly, soon: often added merely for rhyme’s sake.
O, what I would do for rhyme’s sake, which is far from mere.
I also wanted ny to be a word, which would allow home. The best the OED offers is the proper N.Y., and I am far from abandoning all constraints, and the proper-noun one still feels useful. So, alas, no home for my honey.
Although there is talk in my household of investing in the full twenty-volume OED (plus the three-volume additions series), for now I use the online version. It’s one of the principle benefits of university affiliation, access to all those words.
Webster’s, lest you worry, I will always begin with you.
Anagramming precious, a word rich in vowels and thus rich, I have begun noticing almost-possible words: if only I had one more c, I could have succor; if an h, ichor. If only an n, so many words—prune, coin. Despite the addition of repeated or new letters, these words keep the virtue, which a set of bona fide anagrammed words has, of consistent color or flavor. They are tangential to the project; I offer them here in case anyone is in need, for instance, of matchy-matchy repetends for a sestina.
osprey (I knew there was a bird in there—)
In the first nanopoem mentioned earlier, I wanted the singular: dart-eyed mare. But astute readers will notice that this creates a missing letter: the s makes 13 letters and completes the anagram. I don’t think such a choice would be true to this variety of nanopoem, as I have defined it here. These little byproducts of the endearments are found things. One that had had words excised from it to make it sound better wouldn’t feel sound. In addition, I had already used mare in another anagram: stare eddy mare.
Although they crop up less often in sentences and thus make for fewer satisfactory nanopoems, I’ve become more lenient about using letters as words with recent endearments. (This may partly explain why it took hours to finish anagramming my dearest dear.)
But what is a word, for my purposes? All letters get the definition “a speech counterpart of orthographic [insert letter here],” and, oddly, all letters but j get “a graphic representation of this letter,” but both of these definitions seem too meta to count. Letter as letter: no thank you. I am already subjecting the alphabet to enough strain.
A well-known pleasure of the anagram is that sometimes it makes sense: from the mixing up emerges a phrase, a bit of syntax, that is pleasing in its own right. Like finding an amethyst in a streambed. (Which I did, as a kid—and then I found out that the rock-finding guy who was visiting us had planted it in the stream in front of me. He thought I should be rewarded for my effort. But it felt like a false reward to me.)
No one plants the especially crystalline anagram. You find them fair and square. My dearest dear, which I’m working on, has offered up a few good ones. Some are pretty:
Some of them express facets of the human condition:
Am tardy. See red.
—which is no fun for anybody, but which happens. One more, kind of Shakespearean, and possibly an answer to the previous one:
Stay mere dread.
Should I call these things micropoems? They are smaller than what others are calling micropoetry right now (they’re many fewer than 140 characters, to use one measure). I wanted to say nano, but are they small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier? Besides, everything is nano of late.
But my present sample, I am realizing, is perhaps skewed—my dearest dear has 13 letters, which is long(ish) for an endearment. This changes things. Most endearments are too short for the descriptor micro.
So nano it is.
A question I once answered decisively and preemptively has arisen again: the question of apostrophes. Should I allow them in words that make up anagrams of the endearments?
My first answer was a firm no. The apostrophe introduces wiggle room, uncertainty, hidden things. This is why it’s disallowed in Scrabble.
Despite my disdain for the Scrabble dictionary, which I find excessively permissive and full of unuseful and questionable words, I do like the broader Scrabble rules. The prohibition against proper names, for instance, I’ve taken into this project without question—although perhaps it should be questioned too. If an endearment is a name for someone, both obscuring and defining them, maybe if it is rearranged or peered into one might sometimes see an actual name within it. But I like the Scrabble rules because they are a discrete, finished set, convenient and very clear.
At any rate, my darling has caused me to rethink the apostrophes. There are two delicious words in it that could be very useful and expressive: “I’m” and “m’lady”. When I first saw “m’lady” I was delighted, in fact.* Then the rule: no apostrophes. Then I thought, well, what if? And that is about when “I’m” showed up. I would not have seen it otherwise.
It helps in cases like this to consider analogous situations. I certainly use sentence-level punctuation in the endearments. But word-level and sentence-level, as any good hyphenator knows, are very different things. Thinking of the hyphen, though, if I encountered a hyphenated word in an anagram, would I use it? Yes. So word-level punctuation is not in itself the problem.
The sticky wicket is that apostrophes indicate elision. They don’t just join up two words; they join them, obscure parts of them, and make a new word. What about those elided letters? was the insistent question in my brain. They count.
But what if the elided letters are part of the word that is the original endearment? In both of the words in our test case, the elided letter is in fact one of those that make up my darling: “milady”, “I am.” This strengthens the case for allowing such elision. But is it cheating to let a repeated letter—which I explicitly and definitely disallow—hide in the word?
If I look at it from the other side, it wouldn’t feel right to obscure such a letter within the eliding word and not use it in the rest of the anagram. The anagram must include all the letters. It’s more fitting that a word containing an apostrophe, and the implication of repeated letters, be included.
So perhaps it is okay for some letters to hide in the folds of the other letters, or on the other side of the little loophole the black dot of the apostrophe makes. In skirts. In lace. Such things are not uncharacteristic for an endearment.
*One reason: El and em rarely get to be so close to one another, outside of the alphabet. Elm, alm, helm, hemline. Much less making their discrete sounds, rather than becoming part of a consonant cluster.
M. asked recently whether the endearments are beaux présents. This is a good question.
A beau présent is an Oulipian constraint created by Georges Perec. It is composed in honor (or in insult) of someone, and it’s made using only the letters of that person’s name.
The beau présent employs as many repetitions of the letters in the original name as the writer desires. In one example I’ve seen, the fs and double ls scrolling down the page in line after line look so luxurious.
The endearments, by contrast, are made with only the letters in the original word, and each new word used in the poem must have its source in a discrete anagram of the original word.
Each of these requires a certain kind of thinking and results in a different kind of poem. But the poems are similar in the way that their sounds persist and suggest, but do not directly say, the original word. And similar in that they both liberate the sounds from the original word and allow them to play as they will.
I’d say the endearment is cousin to the beau présent. The younger cousin who lives in the tiny town by the river and hardly ever makes it across the sea to the big city where the other cousin lives, the one with the money and the documented history. But who has a good time there and doesn’t miss the city much, never having had occasion to love it more than the little town.
Any one of these endearments that has the letter u in it, I said to A recently, is gonna be kind of dirty. And this is true. The letter u ends up in lots of words that can cause a sweet little poem to take a piratical turn. Or sinister, maybe, or just gloomy. In the case of sugar plum, for instance, pus, glum, slump.
And then there’s surl, the only semi-made-up word I have allowed myself to use thus far. It came up in the anagram surl gap um, if I am remembering correctly, or maybe it was surl map ug (is ug a word? I can’t remember. But it sure is in the pirate camp).
In my mind, it was a short hop from surly to surl, which seemed like a more accurate way to say surliness. More like stuff, like a substance, than a quality. And this seemed useful. My Webster’s Collegiate does not have an entry for it. I had never had occasion to look up surly before, though, and this was surprising: its root is sir, as in sirly. Oh, that old i/u connection, so weird, so counterintuitive—except when we think of certain words. Which brings us back to dirty—it’s that u quality that makes it work so well as a word, and I think it’s why dirty came to my mind to describe the aspect a u can lend to an endearment. Lucky sugar plum also has an a in it to brighten it up, to open it.
Also: my mother used to call me “sugar plum.”
I use a lot of names that are not names: sweetheart, sugar, peaches, darling. I can’t lay claim to the entire phenomenon, of course, but I like it. In order to explore what these not-names contain, I have been making little poems of them.
Here I will think about the words, the poems, about love and the lack of it, and whatever else the endearments suggest. Preliminary findings indicate that these things may include vowels, flowers, disgust, awkward situations, various foods, cats, and the ocean. The poems will not be visible here—think of them as the shadows behind your computer screen as you read this; or, think of this page as a shadow of the poems.
If you’d like to tell me what you call what you love, I would love to know. I have a little collection going.