China Miéville’s new conjunction

One of my holiday-reading highlights was China Miéville’s dazzling dark-fantasy collection Three Moments of an Explosion (Macmillan, 2015). The story ‘The Bastard Prompt’, about imaginary illnesses materialising in reality, begins in media res and quickly flies off on a lexical tangent:

We’re here to talk to a doctor, Jonas and I. We’re both on the same mission. And, or but, or and and but, we’re on different missions too.

We need a new conjunction, a word that means ‘and’ and ‘but’ at the same time. I’m not saying anything I haven’t said before: this is one of my things, particularly with Tor, which is short for Tori, which she never uses.

This ‘and-but’ word thing of mine isn’t even a joke between us any more. It used to be when I’d say, ‘I mean both of them at once!’, she’d say, ‘Band? Aut?’ In the end we settled on bund, which is how we spell it although she says it with a little ‘t’ at the end, like bundt. Now when either of us says that we don’t even notice, we don’t even grin. It almost just means what it means now.

So Jonas and I are here in Sacramento, on missions that are the same bund different. Although honestly I don’t know that either of us thinks we’re going to figure much out now.

Macmillan UK book cover of China Miéville's short story collection "Three Moments of an Explosion" I like the economical description of how the use and acceptability of bund(t) developed in the couple’s private language. The word recurs later in the story, first signposted with and and but preceding it, then used more directly, albeit in italics:

Tor was performing a series of interrelated pieces, or one piece with very many scenes. She was collaborating with young performers who’d never asked to be actors and, but, bund, didn’t have any choice, who were just shoved onstage without even knowing the script, and her job was both to say her own lines and to elicit theirs – which they didn’t know. That’s a pretty intense collaboration.

*

I figure her after-dinner speech is going to be one of those inside jokes. Like some of the stuff that wins the IgNobel Prize – a joke, bund a real insight too.

*

The last few times we’d met friends for a drink or supper, Tor had been at least partly still in character. She wasn’t not herself, she was herself-in-patient, she was herself bund her role.

*

Jonas and I are checking our watches, making sure we don’t miss what we’re here for. Bund I’m sitting here reading this schedule and thinking, Hey, I should have gone to some of these sessions.

*

If you knew you were going to face new epidemics from other places, wouldn’t you set in motion programmes to train doctors against them? That’s what would be terrible bund sensible.

Bund is an interesting word semantically. There’s often leeway over whether and or but is more appropriate in a given context. The sense and degree of contrast can be subjective, open to interpretation and variation.

I find that novice writers (and some pros), when in doubt, may overcompensate with a heavyweight synonym. A book I read this week repeatedly used however where it wasn’t necessary at all; the effect was wearying, like rhetorical pinball.

Bund is already in use in various senses: it can mean an embankment (from a Persian word for a band of cloth or a fastening, hence cummerbund), and it can mean an association (from German, hence Bundestag; related to band and bind). Both etymologies offer substance to the word’s hypothetical use as a novel conjunction.

I don’t propose we adopt bund for general use, but you may find an occasional place for it. Miéville, I’m sure, had no ambitions along these lines when he wrote the story. The word has no obvious bearing on the plot and seems more like one of those throwaway ideas with which he packs his writing.

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Related reading: Three Moments of an Explosion is reviewed by Ursula K. Le Guin in the Guardian. Miéville’s sci-fi novel Embassytown, an ambitious thought experiment on alien linguistics, featured on Sentence First last year.

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8 Responses to China Miéville’s new conjunction

  1. John Cowan says:

    I can’t see it. But already has the semantics of and in it; it can be glossed ‘and, however’ or ‘and, on the other hand’ or the like. So bund seems to me to be just but.

    • Stan Carey says:

      True enough, but but wouldn’t work in a context like *she was herself but her role, whereas bund does, without the circumlocution of something like she was herself and also, on the other hand, her role. To devil’s-advocate for it, if not straight-advocate.

  2. I would use that word. I tend to use a semi- colon for and/but but that’s not really right, is it?

  3. languagehat says:

    It’s a silly word, end of story. But Russian has exactly the word needed: а [a] (I pedantically provide a transliteration even though the Cyrillic letter looks exactly like the Latin one). It’s very useful, but in English we just have to use “and” or “but.”

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