Why are there words for some extremely specific actions -- like defenestration -- but not for others?
We did a computer search on "defenestration," seeing if it had appeared in the popular press, namely newspapers, and were appalled to find it all over the place, frequently used without irony, casually popped into a sentence as though we all know what the heck it means. One pundit referred to a politician who "hopes to use a flagpole to defenestrate Sen. Paul Simon," a foreboding image indeed, while another used the earthy phrase, "Why don't you go defenestrate yourself."
Our handy Merriam-Webster dictionary defines defenestration as "a throwing of a person or a thing out of a window." It's a very precise definition. So precise you have to wonder why it's even necessary. Why this word but not others? Particularly when, despite our previous pleadings in this forum, there still is no word for someone who talks during movies?
"The answer is relatively simple," says Walt Wolfram, director of research at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. "Basically you have words for things that are important to you. It's culturally defined. The classic example, and this has almost become apocryphal, is that Eskimos have 40 words for snow." (He notes that, in actuality, Eskimos have considerably fewer than 40 words for snow, but the anecdote persists and is correct in principle.)
Now then: Why would anyone care about "a throwing of a person or a thing out of a window." This is an example of an entirely different principle: Latin roots are easily amended to make fanciful new derivations. The Latin word "fenestra," meaning window, merely need grow a prefix and suffix. The English usage began around 1620, probably incited by cutesiness rather than any real need to describe the act of pitching stuff into the backyard.
"Sometimes things become a word because they're coined facetiously, and that's their only use," says Victoria Neufeldt, editor of Webster's New World Dictionary. These invented words are "academic in-jokes," she says.
James Joyce tried to revive the Old English phrase "agenbite of inwit" to mean a remorseful conscience, but it didn't catch on. Some people refer to "bruxism," the habit of grinding teeth, but they're being obscurely specific.
Other good words: Pronate means to rotate the palm face down. Colporteur is a door-to-door Bible salesman. Kakistocracy is government by the worst citizens. (We are going to start a Kakistocrat Party.)
We might note the evolution of the word of "sesquipedalian." It means, literally, something that measures a foot and a half. Like, 18 inches. All sorts of possible usages come to mind but we won't get into that. Because sesquipedalian is so comically unwieldy, it is now defined more precisely as an adjective meaning "having many syllables" or "given to or characterized by the use of long words."
Why is "Citizen Kane" considered the greatest film of all time? "Kane" turns 50 this year and no doubt there will be much fuss about it.
Francois Truffaut said that of all the movies ever made, "Citizen Kane" is "probably the one that has started the largest number of filmmakers on their careers." This is not so much a comment on the quality of the film itself as on the magnificent, astonishing way that it was made: A young man arrives in Hollywood, having never worked at any length in the medium of film, and immediately co-writes, directs, produces and stars in a masterpiece. "That's me," say all those film students.
They are wrong: They don't make Orson Welleses anymore. Welles was a prodigy. At the age of 10 he was giving public lectures on the history of art. At 23 he was one of the most famous radio personalities and actors in the country, making the cover of Time magazine after the notorious "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1938. He drank a couple of bottles of whiskey a night and preferred feasting to dining. Even his furniture was excessive: It had to be lifted by a crane through the double windows of his apartment. (In his later years, Welles himself could have used such a crane.)
Welles went to Hollywood in 1939 on a much-publicized contract to write, direct, produce and star in movies for RKO Pictures. After some false starts -- he wanted to make a film of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" -- he produced "Citizen Kane" in 1941. Some reasons for its greatness:
1. Naivete was an asset. "It is one of the few films ever made inside a major studio in the United States in freedom -- not merely in freedom from interference but in freedom from the routine methods of experienced directors," writes Pauline Kael in "The Citizen Kane Book." Veteran film hands like cinematographer Gregg Toland were thrilled by the atmosphere of experimentation. Toland turned in a bravura technical performance, resulting in a film that is fascinating to watch, particularly in the deep-focus shots in which events are happening simultaneously in the foreground, middle ground and background.
2. It's wonderfully self-indulgent. There's nothing stuffy about it. Early on, we see the neon sign of the El Rancho cabaret, and then we slowly travel across the dilapidated roof and pass down through the skylight to the interior, where the boozing Susan Alexander Kane is talking to a reporter. Later in the film, the shot is repeated in the same order, but this time when we reach the skylight we see that it is broken -- by the camera, presumably. It's a gag!
"Before Welles, Hollywood seemed only interested in telling the story as neatly organized as possible. With the advent of Welles, the process of how the story was told became almost equally as important," Frank Brady writes in "Citizen Welles." Hal Hinson, a Washington Post film critic, had the most concise explanation for "Kane's" greatness: "Perhaps no other film in history so fully exploits the possibilities of the medium, is more audaciously, playfully inventive or more fun."
3. With only the thinnest of fictional veils, the movie is a devastating portrait of a powerful, living person, William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon of yellow journalism. It went so far as to show Kane's (Hearst's) lonely death at Xanadu (Hearst's castle at San Simeon). Hearst was extremely influential in Hollywood and almost managed to stop the film's release. At one point the movie mogul Louis Mayer, a friend of Hearst's, offered through an intermediary to buy the film from RKO, with a handsome profit margin included, so it could be destroyed. That effort failed, but it prevented the movie from having a wider release and making any money.
Welles never again was given carte blanche to make a film. His second movie, "The Magnificent Ambersons," was butchered in the editing room. He exiled himself to Europe and, despite a few triumphs such as "Touch of Evil" (for our money a film nearly as good as "Kane"), eventually became most famous with the public as a funny fat man and spokesman for Paul Masson wine.
Why didn't Welles ever repeat his triumph? Perhaps he got lucky: Kael makes the rather unconvincing case that "Kane" is largely the inspiration of Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the original draft of the script. We have to wonder if the very characteristics that drive a person to greatness make him or her all the more susceptible to the damages of time and experience; a life led exceptionally is rarely stable. Maybe the problem is Hollywood: It could not handle true artistry. Perhaps Welles's life would have gone differently had he chosen a less daunting subject for his first and most brilliant film. He shoulda done "Heart of Darkness."