Pedantry: words and things in italic

Blog post
Published: 02.11.2010


(of ships and sealing wax, grunts and phonemes, some-things and no-things, and whether pigs have wings) 

What does it mean to put something in italics?
Notice I say some-thing not some word, for that is what words are —  things — artefacts — made things which are not naturally occurring — phonic, sonic, aural artifacts.  They are also visual things.

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It started with grunts and gestures. Over time, grunts were modified, refined into more specialized, expressive sounds, but still just sounds, operating only within earshot. Then, much later, and cross pollinated with early drawings, the sounds were hybridized into marks and were thus potentially portable — things. The first marks that have a relationship to what we now call the written word were not phonetic representatives of sounds, they were pictograms and logograms that symbolised things, actions, concepts, then words and phrases that developed in relation to them.  When sounds became words, the symbolic image of the thing, act, or idea lost its potency in the picking apart and transposition into signs or individual letters — of individual sound into individual letter as a representative of that sound. Thus, when things became sounds through our naming of them, and subsequently sounds became words, the connection between us and things attenuated.   Then, when things that had become sounds became marks, the thing possessed a surrogate.  Split from their thingness into sound-bytes and logograms, pictograms, glyphs, characters, words comprised of letters, in a seemingly endless, reflexive, cyclic and cumulative treadmill, words became things; and now, as I work on this computer screen, barely things — accretions of meaning, which shed one sense — that of seeing and feeling— to that of hearing, then to seeing again, and now to binary blips of electrons or photons. Something entirely other than the thing they used to be.  

Take the word ring.  (Again, the word is a thing to be taken.)
Rings.  Most of us have handled them, worn them; as jewellers we have made them.  We know ring, the thing, the feel of it, the weight of it, its edginess or worn-smoothness; the sound of ring we also know — its onomatopoeic ting-ding-a-ling (in English, German, Dutch) but what about the shape of the written word?  Spanish anillo and Italian anello end with an o — in emulation of the shape, and the sound has a sympathetic embracing tenor. The French bague is another matter, so close to baguette with its consummate crust.  The word is not the thing the thing was, before the word. 
(In the beginning was the word?)    

The word brooch has no inherent shape which indicates, other than in our mind, the thing brooch.  Not even its onomatopoeic resonance suggests, to me at any rate, the thing, (and it probably doesn’t matter whether it appears in italic or non-italic type).  On the other hand, the word clasp seems to have about it the embrace of clasping.  But how does that jell with gasp which has a different ring.  See (hear) ring . . . ring is sound . . . not only the sound of a rather high pitched ring of a bell (large bells toll, rather than ring) but the sound of a finger-ring falling . . . ring . . . ring . . . ding-a-ling  (bling) which mistyped as blong resonates with something quite other.  

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Where is this going?   
As an habitually pedantic writer, I asked to be able to use italic text in my posts. Italicized words have a different presence.  In a block of verticals, horizontals, and the inevitable curves which are a throwback to almost extinct handwriting (the dreaded cursive script to which school children were (are still?) bound with never-ending pages of curves and pothooks) the oblique lines announce their independence and punctuate the normality of the aerial or helvetica fonts to which we are increasingly accustomed, thus alerting the reader to a shift in status or emphasis of the italicized words.  

(Of course, inserted into a block of italic text with its repetition of oblique, thus more dynamic lines, the non italic has a somewhat similar, though not identical effect. Notice how the non italic provides an
abrupt change of pace, a bringing up short in the midst of the momentum of italic.)
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Pedantry: I think of it, kindly, as a quest for precision, exactitude.  My dictionary describes a pedant as a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules, or with displaying academic learning.  Displaying academic learning? No.  Rules?  Only in so far as they reflect the laws of the physical world and hence are fundamental to certain operations.  Concern with minor details?  What is a minor detail?  The movement of a comma from one place to another can completely change the import of words, and how much more succinctly and elegantly italicizing changes the role of words than ‘single inverted’ or “double inverted” commas, talking marks, speech marks  s/he said, they said.   

As we are aware from glitches in communication, when we work with words, slippage is inevitable.  But objects are dependable; and this is a site for jewellers.  

How does an excessive concern with minor detail play itself out in jewellery-making? Is a scratch on an otherwise pristine surface to be removed because it might indicate a lack of control, or celebrated as an indication that a unique human hand has been at work on the piece?  Did it happen or was it made?  Accidental?  Deliberate? Is every saw-mark, file-mark, hammer-mark an aberration to be eradicated (as when I was a student) or valued.  An uneven surface, a tiny crumpled edge, evidence of a solder join, oxide scum (or patina) on a surface, drawn, painted, engraved or scratched marks whether elegant or gauche, congruous or disruptive, all subvert the anonymity of mechanical, or, as it often is today, digital perfection. But the gratuitous, the indecisive, an uncritical lack of particularity: these are another matter.  In a novel the writer might get away with sentences (even paragraphs?) that are deficient.  Poetry, with its succinct nature, is less forgiving: each placement, each sound, each shape of every word, each space, each comma, and each word made particular in italic type holds import.  Jewellery is undeniably the most succinct form of visual art and the scale in which we work invites the most intimate scrutiny.  Every mark tells . . . I could say . . . tells a story — tells more than a story — it is a complete biography.  Let it speak, and speak in italic, if need be.