Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bizarrerie and Bizarrery: A Second Look

So: I had a little e-back and forth with Nicholson Baker about the essential y-ness of bizarrerie, and he said--well, okay, he wrote--that he originally spelled bizarrerie bizarrery--and the copyeditor "corrected" it.

So it was a y word. Hum hum hum. It was a y word, and the copyeditor changed it? Perhaps this editor is the next Eleanor Gould Packard (who changed Thurber's raunchy to paunchy and was almost fired for it but subsequently rose to Olympian heights as the magazine's house Grammarian). . . ? Time will tell.

I wrote to Mr Baker: "For me, seeing the word with a y at the end throws off a large, soft sackcloth kind of amplitude, while the ie ending conjures something that rolls and extends, such as a golf course at the edge of the sea, or the vista of Prospect Park.

"It also seems, depending on how the word is spelled, when it's spoken aloud the stress would fall differently. In a poem it would scan differently (and if translated into French, might take on an even greater degree of difference.) To me they are very different words, bizarrery and bizarrerie; so I must now ask: what meaning did you have in mind? And would the copy editor not accept your coining a word? Did the editor's change make you wonder why you had chosen to spell it with a y?. . . How did I know that your word ending in y was in fact a word ending in y? There must be something in both our minds that thought so."

Later on I also realized that there was additionally something in bizarrery that announced "large, elaborate wire bird cage, c. 1860."

You get the picture.

The meaning he had in mind, he wrote, was "bizarreness," and it turns out he wasn't coining a word at all. In 1825, though the OED does not note this, (the OED also does not have the adjective glaux-eyed, but that's another story), Rev. Fosbroke's Encyclopedia of Antiquities and Elements of Archaeology, Classic and Medieval, Volume 1, was published with the word like so:

But there also prevails a great bizarrery of subjects, from which the Romans borrowed the grotesque, so commonly found in the pictures of Herculaneum.
So there it is, the precedent, which in this case was Google Booked first by Mr Baker and then by me. I happened to pass this book in 3-D, however, several days ago at Columbia's Avery library, so it is still very much alive.

Mr Baker wrote that he could have stetted the y ending but "wanted to stet other things, in the usual give and take way, and I didn't want to be a primadonna and overstet." He said he figured they'd looked it up somewhere--probably Webster's Third--and he hadn't.

"I'm sure that if I'd resisted the change they would have let me write it with a y," he wrote to me. "I was just distracted. I do like the y better, I have to say."

As do I, because it makes for a completely different word.

There's a hummingbird question in my mind, which asks: Does The New Yorker have anything to say about this? Should Paul Muldoon weigh in? Might Jesse Sheidlower have something to add? Just wondering.

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