Almost vs. nearly — the order of approximations

August 5, 2015

Among the pleasures of Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s writing manual The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose (1943) is their attempt to put some order on phrases of approximate quantity. It appears among the book’s Principles of Clear Statement, the principle in question being: ‘There should never be any doubt left as to how much, or how long.’

After grumbling briefly about the ‘proper’ (read: borderline etymologically fallacious) use of terms like infinitesimal and microscopic, the authors state that there is ‘a popular scale of emotional approximation’ – not found in any dictionary or reference table – for ‘estimating the comparative degrees of success in, say, catching a train’. It goes like this:

Not nearly, nearly, almost, not quite, all but, just not, within an ace, within a hair’s breadth – oh! by the skin of my teeth, just, only just, with a bit of a rush, comfortably, easily, with plenty to spare.

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Book spine poem: A Pagan Place

December 7, 2013

A new bookmash. It has been weeks since I made one.

[click to enlarge]

stan carey - bookmash book spine poetry - a pagan place

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A Pagan Place

The idea of prehistory, a pagan place –
Land of milk and honey, the white goddess;
Cows, pigs, wars and witches,
Women, fire, and dangerous things.

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Again this one is top-heavy with non-fiction – I tend to notice the ratio only after putting them together. See my previous one on language evolution for stats on fiction vs. nonfiction.

Thanks to the authors: Glyn Daniel, Edna O’Brien, Bríd Mahon, Robert Graves, Marvin Harris, and George Lakoff; and to Nina Katchadourian for the idea.

For more like this, see my archive of book spine poems (25 at last count), which includes links to other people’s. If you want to join in the fun, do – send me a photo or put a link in the comments. Remarks about, say, my inconsistent use of the serial comma are also welcome.


The White Goddess in Twin Peaks

March 31, 2011

Sometimes, in reading a poem, the hairs will bristle at an apparently unpeopled and eventless scene described in it, if the elements bespeak her unseen presence clearly enough: for example, when owls hoot, the moon rides like a ship through scudding cloud, trees sway slowly together above a rushing waterfall…

This is Robert Graves describing the unseen presence of the White Goddess, in his fanciful and fascinating book of the same name, first published in 1948 and instructively subtitled “A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth”.

What struck me upon reading the quoted passage is that it’s like a checklist of motifs for Twin Peaks. Every element – the hooting owls, clouded moon, trees swaying slowly, rushing waterfall – is recognisably a feature of the show’s iconography. I wonder if David Lynch or Mark Frost read Graves’s book, or is it just an occult coincidence?