Five Tips on Writing Titles for Those Hopelessly Bad at Writing Titles

This post isn’t about the word “title” necessarily. It’s a fairly neutral word unless you’re the one responsible for creating them. The word “title” is only ever terrifying for writers.

The saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover doesn’t apply to titles, presumably because traditionally published writers don’t necessarily have any control over their cover art, but they’re entirely responsible for the title of their piece. Titles are also an essential and integrated part of the story, essay, or poem in a way that cover artwork isn’t (unless we’re discussing picture books, comics, graphic novels, or graphic memoirs, of course.).

We know that they’re important and that we will be judged by them before anyone ever reads our work. Because of this, it pains me to say that I’m still unable to create consistently good titles. For me, they require a great deal more mental energy than any other part of my work, including opening and ending sentences.

I’ve tried to put a lot of thought into what makes a title successful and what makes it fail. Even if mine aren’t always strong, I can usually pick out the excellent from the mediocre in others’ pieces, and I can appreciate the different levels on which they succeed as a part of the work.

So, in an exercise of the blind leading the blind, I’m going to try to give advice to other writers reading this who struggle with titles.

Here are five strategies for writing titles when you feel hopeless and have no ideas.

  1. Look for Title Conventions in your Genre
    If you’re writing genre fiction, odds are there are some titles that will instinctively sound like they belong in your genre and titles that sound distinctly outside it. That’s because over time, enough books fell into those same naming conventions that they grew connotations that associate them with the genre. Some examples I’ve noticed include:
    .
    Fantasy- Blank of Blank
    (e.g. Goblet of Fire, Game of Thrones, Wizard of Earthsea, Lord of the Rings)
    Alternative Fantasy- Adjective Noun
    (e.g. The Golden Compass, American Gods)
    Mystery- Book Titles that Sound like Titles of Other Things
    (e.g. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
    Paranormal Romance- Puns, Alliteration, Some Level of Humor
    (e.g. You Slay Me, Dead Witch Walking, Dead Until Dark)
    Horror: Name
    (e.g. Carrie, Dracula, Frankenstein )
    .
    Granted, there are many books in each genre that don’t follow those conventions at all and there are many books in each genre that follow the conventions I’ve listed for the other genres. But, if you’re incredibly stuck in trying to think of a title, it might help to look through what’s common in your genre and use that as a template.
    .
  2. Long, Confident Titles
    These titles might be my favorite. They catch the eye right away because they’re longer than what we expect, and because of this they have an essence of confidence that can help convey a more modern or humorous tone.
    .
    One of my friends, K. M. Aleena, has several great titles that use this method.“I Bet it’s Snowing in Houston”
    “Well, You Asked Me to Read Your Future” 
    “Things I’ve Broken While Drunk” 

    In fact, of three titles I’ve ever been specifically complimented on, two of them were of the longer variety (“Let me describe the many reasons why you have no chance with this woman” and “Things Straight Girls Probably Don’t Do”).

    My only caution is that these titles generally need to be earned. They should have something to do with the subject matter, theme, tone, or some combination of those three. There needs to be a reason.

    For example, the poem by Billy Collins: “Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles” 

    Also consider using the very end of an enormously long sentence or idea. You get the fun of the ridiculously lengthy title while still having the actual title remain manageable to write down on a notecard when recommending it.4f4cf0f9e7a0b5f685768110.L

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  3. One Word Titles
    If you’re not having much luck at this point, why not try a less risky title. The one word title releases you from a lot of pressure, because it’s simple and can relate to the subject matter or theme without becoming too much of the poem itself.
    .
    As a word of caution, these titles will probably not draw much attention to your work. If your book is in a stack of books or your poem is in a long anthology, it might not be the one to which someone first flips.

    However, if you know you’re bad with titles, these can minimize how much attention they pay to the title and let the rest of the poem speak for itself. It also sounds a bit more important and serious than the long, humorous titles.

    The difficult part here is that you need to choose the right word, because a lot of emphasis will be placed on it. Try to avoid simply using a word that describes the subject matter. Sink more into the theme of the piece.

    Nikki Giovanni has some good examples of the One-Word-Title such as “Legacies” and “Resignation.”

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  4. Using Your First Line as a Title
    If you’re still stuck, look over the material that is already in your piece of writing. This works best for poetry or very short flash fiction, though if you’re writing something longer, if there’s a sentence anywhere in your work that might do better as a title, try it out.
    .
    Sometimes what stops us from being able to think of a title is simply that our piece is already finished. There is no work left for the title to do, so every title seems to just be excessive or take away from the piece. In these instances, it might be helpful to consider taking a piece of the work and using that as your title instead.

    As an example, many of E. E. Cummings poems are titled this way, (how else could “l(a” ever be titled?) and I’ve found it to be a useful strategy myself at times.
    .

  5. Ask a Friend
    An excellent poet, who I may have mentioned in this blog before, Philip Pardi visited SUNY Oswego’s Living Writers Series. He has a book called Meditations on Rising and Falling which is an excellent title, and many of his poems within the book have great titles as well.
    .
    I listened to him talk and answer questions and then we went out to eat with some other young writers. At some point, I (or someone else) asked if he could give some advice on how to write titles. He admitted that one of his friends had helped with the titling of his book, and that he was grateful because it pulled his work together in a way that made it much stronger.

    So even excellent writers who sometimes create excellent titles have difficulty with it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in running some ideas by other people and asking for help in creating a title for your work. Sometimes when we’re truly stuck, we just need a new pair of eyes.

As a last piece of advice: Titles are hard to make, but when you do it right, they’re strong. They carry a lot of weight and do a lot of work.  A good title does not label a piece of writing. A good title builds on a piece of writing. 

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Murder, Pride, and Charm

Q: What do you call two crows on a branch?
A: An attempted murder.

I’ve been traveling with my family the past week and my mom requested this blog post after never having heard the joke before. I explained that a murder was a group of crows in the same way that a pride was a group of lions, or a business was a group of ferrets.

“But why do they call it a murder? What are those terms? You should do a post on that.”

These terms are a part of language called a collective noun. Most of us remember that a regular noun is a person, place, or thing, so a collective noun is a collection of people, places, or things (usually things) taken as a whole, or described as a single unit.

The most common and least specific collective noun is “group” because it can be applied to almost any noun. A group of people. A group of chickens. A group of mountains. What we’re communicating is pretty clear, but we can get much more colorful with our collective nouns to really specify what we’re talking about. A team of people, a clutch of chickens, and a mountain range.

If we’re talking about a murder of crows (or a clutch of chickens), it is a special kind of collective noun called a term of venery. These are terms for groups of animals, mostly. They began with English hunting vocabulary in the Late Middle Ages, to describe various groups of animals they might be following. Lists were recorded in various books in the fourteenth to fifteenth century and proliferated like crazy as people decided to add more and more collective nouns.

One of these books, entitled Book of Saint Albans or Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms was written for and popular among wealthy men. Published in 1486, the contents of the book spread into the English language through common usage among a large enough number of people. Though collective nouns were “made up” for the book, they became actual words because people felt they were useful. Not all of the collective nouns were created at the time, but enough of them were that it’s notable.

At this point, in 2014, the majority of them are not incredibly useful, so most people don’t use or know very many of these terms. However, they still are available to our lexicon whenever we decide. The most common collective nouns still in use are probably pack, herd, flock, and pride.

Though the histories of many collective nouns aren’t particularly inspiring, I find the words to be quite poetic in some cases. They create potential for a lot of musical language, especially with alliteration, but also with consonance and assonance. Some of them also have strong connotations in some contexts, which could be helpful in a line of verse to create tone. A murder of crows just sounds so much more vivid than a “group” or even a “flock.”

Some of my favorites are the following:

Because of the personification:
A congregation of alligators
An army of ants
A colony of bats
A family of beavers
A business of ferrets

Because of the sound and music:
A flutter of butterflies
A pounce of cats
A charm of finches
A gaggle of geese
A knot of toads
A watch of nightingales

Because of the connotation:
A cackle of hyenas
A bed of eels
A swarm of flies
A cloud of gnats
A scourge of mosquitoes
A cluster of spiders

You can find more of them here.

I encourage their use for poetic value alone. I would love to read a fairytale where a little girl finds a knot of toads in the forest or read a book where a sailor falls from his ship into a bed of eels. I can almost feel the need to hold my breath and squeeze my eyes shut when I read “a cloud of gnats,” which is a physical reaction I would never have to “a lot of gnats.” There is something sensory about many of the terms of venery that bring more life and sensation to the words than unspecific collective nouns.

As for why the collective noun for crows became “murder,” I’m not sure. Maybe it has to do with crows’ taste for carrion in their scavenging. Crows have been seen eating flesh, potentially that of humans, and this certainly may have contributed. Still, though, we do not call groups of other scavengers, or even predatory birds, “murders.” Several myths involve crows’ relationship to death or the dead, as well. Trying to get to the bottom of our cultural perception of crows would take a much longer blog post and a good deal more research.

Theories about naming the collective noun “murder” all relate to the connotation of death that our culture has long since associated with crows, but any specific tale of its origins has been lost to history.

My Muse is an Abstract Concept Who Likes Naps and Pancakes.

If you hang out in writer-circles for long enough, you’ll inevitably hear about muses at some point. Individual artists have different ideas about what muses can do and what form they take. We discuss if they exist and what that existence or lack thereof might mean for an artist. Some people— the atheists of the writing world— find belief in muses silly, and others find it comforting.

The original muses were goddesses. There were nine of them: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania. These goddesses were all sisters, and the daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus. Together they personified knowledge and the arts and provided inspiration.

Now, more often it’s not a religious concept but a fantastic one. The muses at some point transformed from goddesses to beings which have more in common with imaginary friends. There is still a bit of magic involved, but the relationship is not standardized between artist and muse at all.

In a TedTalk, Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that the reason muses (by any name, she refers to them as ‘geniuses’) are so attractive is because they allow us to redirect pressure away from the artist onto an external force. She describes it as “a psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work.”

This might seem odd at first. What is wrong with writers that we don’t want blame placed on us for the things we are writing? It makes a bit of sense once you consider how our culture views art. An unsuccessful piece of writing earns a large pile of rejections and lots of thoughtful criticism from family members, friends, and random people on the internet telling the writers that maybe they ought to do something more productive with their lives. A successful piece of writing earns all of that, plus publication and an expectation that the writer now has the ability to access something secretive and creative that no one else can. The family members, friends, and random people on the internet ask where the ideas come from and maybe even say they wanted to be a writer. Famous writers are praised and elevated and their egos inflate like red balloons… until they are criticized again or sit down to write something else, at which point those same red balloons deflate while flying around the room making unpleasant noises.

Gilbert seems to use her muse like a scapegoat for dealing with all of this. She says, 

“And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So this was how the ancient artist was protected from, for example, certain things like too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it. Everybody knew you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.”

 

However, the blame-soaking muse is only one of many. Stephen King describes his muse more like a drug dealer. 

 

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling tropes and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because that guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.” 

(Stephen King, On Writing, page 144). 

 

Unlike Gilbert, King feels constantly indebted, rather than released from pressure. He works to serve the muse, not the other way around. King’s muse is also much less romanticized, and reading through the description, one might begin to notice what might be an unhealthy dependency on the guy. I think many writers can relate to the feeling of giving hours and hours of work to a piece of writing, then feeling completely justified when they get a taste of the inspiration. All the Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt, frustration, and effort is worth it when the ideas and words start to flow.

A band called Whitebrow has a song about the songwriter’s muse where he describes her more like an on-again-off-again lover who he desperately hopes will come back every single time she leaves him. 

 

“My Muse has left for the hills 
and she’s taken my inspiration.


One day she’ll come back to me. 
One day she’ll come back right here.
One day she’ll come back to me
and make all the muddy waters clear.”

 

Here too, the muse is personified as the one who has the inspiration. The writer must earn the company of the muse in order to get the inspiration, somehow, but this always feels like a fair deal. You can’t stay mad at a muse long.

Not everyone is dependent on a personification to help them write, though. I’m certain there are many authors who believe that real writers just get to work like everyone else and refine their craft.

A fantastic poet named Philip Pardi said once that sometimes he believes in the muse and sometimes he doesn’t. The day I met him at the Living Writers Series at SUNY Oswego, he believed, but perhaps in the days before or after he did not. He’s a muse agnostic.

I suppose I am too. I’m a big believer in awful, forced first drafts that become good writing through revision. I believe that poetry is not necessarily magical or spiritual and that believing so is often a part of why many people are intimidated to write and read it. When we take away the mysticism, what is left is a skill to learn like cooking, building, and mathematics. It gets people away from the doubt about whether they’re real writers if they don’t sense some voice telling them the words to put on the page. I also think that getting away from the idea of divine insight makes revision more fun. If your first draft came from the muse, how could your revision possibly improve on pure, magical inspiration? Deciding that your first drafts are just whatever you jotted down makes it a lot easier to admit the piece needs work.

But then again, sometimes the words flow so easily, it’s almost a spiritual experience. Every once in a while the ideas, memories, music, and lines all weave together as if outside my influence. Sometimes characters decide their choices for themselves. Sometimes poems grow in my brain when I’m actively trying to do other things. 

When this happens, it’s easy to call that sensation “inspiration given from a muse.” The secret is that muses are not exclusive to artists at all. Muses, if we decide they exist, are in great abundance. Everyone has moments when everything just seems to come together. You can see this for yourself when a boy completes a puzzle, a woman realizes she’s in love, or a student says “Oh, I get it!”  

Neil Gaiman explained this concept well in response to the common question “Where do you get your ideas?” 

 

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” 

 

I believe that is the truth. Everyone feels motivated and compelled to explore ideas occasionally. The hard parts are doing something about it when it happens and getting it to happen with some regularity.

The first time I took the word “muse” seriously at all, it was in my ‘Introduction to Poetry’ course in college. My professor called free-writing “muse writing” and it stuck for me. Muse writing consisted entirely of writing without stop until the words started becoming interesting, and using that as raw material later to shape written work. It was never stressed that we needed to believe that someone was giving us the words to write down, but somewhere in the phrase implied that by doing this we were tapping into words we might not have written otherwise.

When you have a muse, he isn’t going to chat all the time. He’s usually the kind of person to show up late or cancel plans last second. So you really need to get a schedule established if you want him to have a sliver of a chance remembering when you want him there. Invite him every morning at 8:00 a.m. or every evening at midnight, and he’ll start showing up. Of course, he’ll still probably miss some days or weeks and show up when you don’t want him around too, but it’s good enough. Muse writing is a way of giving him a call and inviting him over.

Or, in non-magical terms: If you start writing every day, you’ll eventually have some great ideas. More than that, you’ll be ready for those ideas, notice them, and know how they might benefit your writing.

Why do writers so often talk about it in the way that sounds more like a fairytale? Why have specific genders, personalities, and relationships associated with feeling motivated and having ideas?

Well, honestly, it’s fun. It’s comforting to personify ideas, and I think a lot of writers can’t help but think of the world in that way. We build our lives around stories and made up people in our heads, so it’s pretty obvious why some of us like assigning character traits to the abstract concept of what gives us inspiration. It also gives writers a narrative to fall back on (the muse never stopped by) during periods of Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt. Maybe it’s also a bit of an inside joke to talk about our muses in the same way we talk about “killing our darlings” when we need to delete sections of books we’ve spent months on or erase characters we love for the good of the writing. It’s not quite the truth that we’re hearing voices and killing our loved ones all the time, but on an emotional level it sometimes feels that way.  

My own muse is not a goddess, a blame-taking fairy, a sketchy guy in the basement, or a fickle lover. She’s a roommate who loves naps more than anything else in the world. She spends the majority of her time sleeping, often in my bed, until her hair gets tangled and she drools on the pillow.

When I need to talk to her, I try to shake her awake. She’s a heavy sleeper, (and can sleep for months at a time like a bear) but sometimes she mumbles for a while about what she’s dreaming. Most of the time it doesn’t make much sense, but it gives me something to write about.

Some of her ideas are bad or completely incoherent, but on good days she’ll wake up and give me all sorts of brilliant advice while I make her pancakes. She’s encouraging and pleasant when she’s awake, and always reminding me that my stories are important. More often than the pancake mornings, though, are the nights where she wakes up on her own and shakes me awake because she needs to talk. Sometimes I decide to sleep and ignore her, but when I listen to what she has to say, I never regret it. 

 

“Ya’aburnee, Elflock, and Sonder” – Why We Love Sharing Words We Never Use

You all know by now that I love words. If you’ve read my ‘About’ page, you know that many of my friends do as well, so it should come as no surprise when I say that several of them routinely share words with me over social media. Some of these come in the form of words from other languages, others are English words I might not already know due to age or obscurity, and others are made up. One thing they all have in common are interesting definitions.

My friends are hardly the only ones who share this pastime. Usually the unusual or unknown words are shared from websites, blog posts, articles, and tumblr accounts where other people are collecting and sharing them among wide audiences. There are even subreddits ( custom-made subforums on reddit.com) dedicated to “interesting and novel words” and creating new words.

I’ve found words like these from pages of untranslatable words from other languages

Litost – a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.

Mamihlapinatapei – The wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.

Ya’aburnee – Literally: “You bury me.” A declaration of one’s hope that they will die before another person because it would be so difficult to live without them. 

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And I’ve found other words in lists like these from pages showing “obsolete words” we should use again:

Apricity – The sun’s warmth on a cold winter’s day.

Curglaff – The shock one feels upon first plunging into cold water

Elflock – Tangled hair, as if matted by elves.

 

The idea behind both of these is more than the literal grouping. These aren’t just lists of words from other languages or words that aren’t spoken anymore. Very few of us are truly interested in those things beyond admiring the romantic idea of them, or we would simply pick up foreign dictionaries and translation guides and start reading very old literary texts. If you asked most of the people who share these links over social media to start these— that this thick book full of complicated, obscure words is just the thing for them, or that that they would really love to read this English to Tshiluba dictionary from cover to cover— they might look at you oddly, give you a short thanks, and set the books on their shelf, never to be read.

Instead, these lists and websites are a persuasive argument: You should start using these words. You should know them. They should become a part of your life and how you process the world around you. 

And many of us are persuaded. However, we do not use them in conversation as just the words themselves, because that was never the intention of those who brought the words to us. The intention is not really sharing the words at all, but sharing the definitions. When we send them to our friends or post about them online, the definitions are always included, and it is a discussion of the concepts, emotions, and images presented in them that brings us pleasure. 

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http://www.other-wordly.tumblr.com )

These images are from the tumblr account Other Wordly which prides itself on the fact that these words are real

“Some of them are coined words, meaning words that were made up by someone, but that later entered into common usage. Some are bastardizations or combinations of other words, and others are from a language other than English” 

Her definition of ‘real’ words is agreeable, but doesn’t seem exactly limited to official standard English either, particularly with the part about “bastardizations” and “combinations of other words.” What’s interesting is that people are concerned enough to ask if these words are real (maybe after not finding them in their dictionaries) and she soothes the worry in this way. There is a need for validity here that reminds me of the way we are so hurt when we read a story we believe is true, only to learn large parts were fictionalized. It reminds me of the emotional reaction of people discovering an anonymous post on the internet could simply be telling a made-up story. “What do you mean ‘people on the internet lie?’”

I don’t mean to suggest these words are lies, though, or that they are in any way barred from our language. As I’ve said before, language is a living thing. Even the words which are from other languages or are created for the purpose of sharing them online could be introduced and integrated to our language through simple use among enough people for enough time.

With that said, I believe that along with sharing these words comes an inherent resistance to actually integrating them into our daily language. These words begin to lack the emotion we first felt when reading them as soon as they’re separated from their definitions. The words don’t really capture these ideas— the definitions do. We feel an attachment to the written meaning that we can’t part with long enough to just use the word.

One of the best examples of this is the word “Sonder.” In every discussion of obscure and little-known words, this one comes up in conversation no matter where I seem to be. But every time, anyone who uses it is counting on someone asking them what it means so they can pull up the exact wording of the definition. 

 

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It’s easy to see why this would be shared: it’s a thought-provoking, sad, and beautiful idea that many of us experience. The concept this word represents is a sentimental and romantic one, without being overly cliched. It still gets to us.

However, in the strictest sense the word isn’t ‘real’ at all. It’s not obscure so much as it is new, because it was invented about a year ago on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and has since been passed around the internet.

On some level it doesn’t matter if any of these words are real or not. While some genres (like creative nonfiction or reliable dictionaries) rely on the relative accuracy and factuality of their contents, there are other genres (like poetry) which freely move between reality and imagination, resting at some place of truth.

These definitions describe ideas, realizations, feelings, and images that are otherwise difficult to convey and share with other people. When we find a word that drives us to share it with our friends, it is because it has woken something in us in the midst of our daily routines. It doesn’t matter whether they are real or not real so long as they’re true. The point isn’t whether you can find the words in the dictionary— the point is whether you can share a feeling with someone. These obscure words are titles, and their definitions are like short prose poems. 

On May 14, Amy Tan wrote on her Facebook page: 

“But from an early age, I was a writer because I had a feeling about words — that no one word was sufficient to describe what I really felt or saw or had experienced. I tried to find variations in a thesaurus. The nuances excited me, but the answers were not there. The word “love” was not enough to express what love was, nor was the word “unfair” able to capture why I felt I had been punished for what I did not do. The word “alone” did not capture what had happened last week or what might happen in the future.  A single word was like a left shoe that belonged to someone else and was too small, yet had to be worn because there was nothing else.” 

It’s one of the best descriptions of why we write that I’ve ever read. As much as I love words, what I love more is their combinations and the act of stringing them together to explain all of what could be held by each one. That is why I write this blog, trying week after week to explain all the weight on these words. 

But, words themselves are small, simple things when compared to the intricacies of fantasy and reality. We can never really expect words to hold all the weight of infinite, internal worlds, the weight of every story and all significance they might represent. They need other words to help them carry it. Single words can never express what we truly mean.

These ‘obscure’ words soothe the part of us that has a need to be expressed through language. They show us words untranslatable from other languages, words that have gone out of use even though their meanings are still relevant, or they show us new words for ideas that don’t yet have a resting place in the pages of our dictionaries. These words appeal to us because they imply and promise “all the other words you’ve heard couldn’t say this, but this word can.”

But of course, it is a false promise, a white lie. The words themselves are just as powerless alone as any word, and maybe more so because of the fact that they are old, uncommon, invented, or not in our language at all. The white lie is hopeful, though. The definitions attached give us the feelings that we don’t have words for, and isn’t that what all writing aims to do?

It is an interesting phenomenon to me, as a poet, that in a culture where the average reader has not read a poem since their last English class, these definitions are so appealing. I think that whether or not we have found the first poem or passage that opens us up and lets us feel alive, fresh, and new again— we yearn for it to happen.

We’re leaving our palms open, reaching for the right words with open hands, and when we find them, we want to share them and wake the world. Or, at least, I do. 

Nine Ways the Word “Cat” Influences Our Lives

This post may seem a bit odd at first after others like “Semantic Satiation” and “ASMR and Frisson.” Why am I writing about so simple a word? But this word isn’t simple at all. In literal meaning it isn’t terribly complex, but once you add in all the cultural connotations and associations, this three letter word is absolutely enormous. I argue that the word “cat” has made a larger impact on most of your lives than almost any other.

Because this word is just so huge, there is no way for me to cover it entirely. Instead, I am going to give you the nine largest ways it has influenced my life as a piece of language.

  1. Learning Tool
    “Cat” is one of the first words English speakers learn. It is one syllable long, only three letters, and easily pronounceable, which makes it a nice introduction to words in speaking, reading, and writing.

    The word is also a noun, which is probably the easiest part of speech to understand from a young age. Before learning what something does, how to describe it, or the intricacies of grammar, we learn what things are. We can point to different parts of our world and identify them as our first bits of communication. Cats are recognizable parts of our world as they populate many of our homes and our cartoons, and the word can be matched to pictures of cats with relative ease.

    “Cat” is also one of the first words we learn to understand music in language. This is largely in thanks to Dr. Seuss who created “The Cat in the Hat” and introduced generations of children to rhyming. There are so many simple words to rhyme with cat: at, that, sat, bat, rat, brat, splat, flat, chat. This word is especially useful for teaching children how sound is important to the use of words.

     

  2. Literal Definition
    From my dictionary:

    cat 1 |kat| noun
    a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws. It is widely kept as a pet or for catching mice, and many breeds have been developed.

    ORIGIN Old English catt, catte, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch kat and German Katze; reinforced in Middle English by forms from late Latin cattus .

    This definition is only the first in a truly long list of possible others. The definition can refer to simply the domestic house cat or can refer to all felines, depending on the context. Not only this, but it is sometimes used to identify mammals that just look feline like the “ring tailed cat” or even creatures that vaguely resemble felines like “cat fish.”

    This definition begins so simply, but before too long, it expands into an umbrella term to include everything with some descriptive quality of “catness.” There is something inherent in cats that seems to be so distinct that we can recognize it even in things that are not cats at all.

     

  3. Slang and Common Phrases
    Even after you get through the more common definitions, you arrive at all those uses of the word which grew into use over time.

    Cat came into use to refer positively to a person (especially a man), at first among jazz musicians, and then later across much of the United States culture. It isn’t used as much anymore, but it definitely left its mark. Sometimes used in the phrase “Cool cat.”

    Sometimes “cat” or the adjective “catty” can refer to someone (especially a woman) who is spiteful or hurtful in their use of language, and possibly a malicious gossip.

    A “copy cat” is someone who mimics others.

    A “scaredy cat” is someone who is easily frightened.

    There are also a variety of sayings that have to do with cats including, but not limited to:
    “Playing a game of cat and mouse”
    “Has the cat got your tongue?”
    “Someone let the cat out of the bag”
    “Like a cat on a hot tin roof”
    “You look like something the cat dragged in”
    “While the cat’s away, the mice will play”
    “It’s raining cats and dogs”
    “Curiosity killed the cat”
    “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”
    “To be the cat’s meow”

     

  4. Synonyms and Thesaurus Entries
    The word and concept of a cat is so important, there is an extremely large number of other words that refer to cats: Alley cat, feline, furball, kitten, kitty, kitty-cat, mouser, puss, pussy, pussycat, tabby, tom, tomcat.Each of these contains its own set of connotations that can be applied to cats.

    .

  5. Literature
    There are so many colorful cats in literature. There’s no way I can discuss them all here, but I’d like to at least mention three notable works with cats.

    The first is The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, which I already mentioned. It gets to be mentioned twice in the same post because it is an excellent book. The cat in this book lives out the trickster archetype, being mischievous and plotting while all the while remaining humorous and oddly charismatic. You never know what to expect with this cat, except trouble.

    The second is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The Cheshire Cat is also a bit of a trickster, well known for its wide grin and its ability to appear and disappear, partially or altogether, whenever it pleases. This cat also seems to be a philosopher and conversationalist, often trying to spark some new line of thinking.

    The third is a book recently given to me by a good friend of mine: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. This entire book is made up of fun poems about cats, each with their own distinct characteristics and personalities. If you want to learn all about Jennyanydots, Growltiger, Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie, Rumpelteazer, Deuteronomy, Mr. Mistoffelees, Macavity, Gus, Bustopher Jones, Skimbleshanks, and Cat Morgan, you should read this book.

     

  6.  Historical Relevance
    The word “cat” describes an animal, but it also describes the relationship of that animal to humanity.

    This will be the briefest history of cats I can tell: The whole genus of cats shares a common ancestor that probably roamed Asia about six million years ago. At some point the cats became domesticated, and many theorize that the cats domesticated themselves.

    Human society attracts a lot of rats and mice, and the cats began living alongside humans. Their treatment varied: people in ancient Egypt admired and respected cats, some cultures skinned them for clothing and blankets, other cultures (like ours) thought they were adorable and invited them indoors.

    Unlike domesticated dogs, cats’ bodies and behavior do not vary as dramatically from their wild counterparts. Cats are also much better able to survive in the wild than most domesticated animals, and are able to interbreed with wild cats.

    Cats generally do not obey humans or take any commands, but we give them greater privileges in our homes than most other pets. We let them on the furniture, we clean up after them instead of sending them outside, and we entertain them when they’re bored. Humans feel honored if they allow us to pet them. They don’t really need us, but they stick around anyway.

    In short, this word tells a story: we love cats, and they find us useful.

     

  7. Cultural Representations
    The word “cat” represents cultural ideas rather than just referring to the animal itself. Cats have a large role in our society, often contrasted against dogs.

    Cats are associated with ideas of independence, curiosity, slyness, intelligence, balance, and other prized qualities that have to do with the loner spirit. (Dogs, in turn, are associated with loyalty, trust, friendliness, training, and other traits associated with either nurturing or protecting.) In some ways, they represent two old archetypes which a lot of people can relate to.

    We have “cat people” and “dog people” who each identify with one animal or the other, usually having to do with the person’s sense of self and which pet they formed the strongest bonds with. Sometimes “cat people” are associated with a level of femininity, sometimes a higher social class, and sometimes with loneliness.

    Even though dogs are generally characterized as more affectionate, the jokes about people not finding a romantic partner usually involve them finding companionship in many cats.

  8. Internet Symbolism
    Adding to the cultural significance that was already present in the connotations surrounding “cat” is the new symbolism from the relatively recent internet culture.

    Cats are completely famous on the internet. In a world where anyone with unrestricted internet access has an enormous wealth of human knowledge at their fingertips, many spend the majority of that time looking at cats: pictures, videos, memes, drawings, comics, or any other catlike representation. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the internet, as a community or culture, has a cat obsession.

    There have been articles written about this phenomenon that go into much greater depth than I can here. Anyone willing to really dive into this could probably write a book on why cats have become symbols of internet culture.

    Here is my take: Cats are cute, expressive, and allow us a sense of community across otherwise important barriers. There is something in cats that reminds the average internet user of themselves. They are walking contradictions— they want to be loved but get angry or frightened all the time, they are independent and dignified but rely on others for food and often embarrass themselves, and they frequently act both with cruelty and kindness.

    Cats wander around, somehow finding purpose in random bursts, then lose motivation entirely and flop over onto the ground. They represent the struggle to create meaning in our lives when we also want to be lazy, they represent our need to understand ourselves despite contradiction, and they represent the possibility of finding connection and affection.

    Not only this, but they do it in an adorable and funny way.

     

  9. Modern Day Mythos
    Evolving out of experiences, associations, connotations, cultural significance, internet symbolism, and general humor, a modern mythology cats has been created.This generally includes the following:

    Cats believe they are gods

    .Image
    (farleftside.com)

    Cats can become fluid.

    Cats love boxes and may be drawn to them by a mysterious cat-force.

    Cats make people stupid or have the ability to control humans.

    Image
    (xkcd.com)

    These ideas seem to just be common knowledge in my group of friends. The other night a friend mused with me that we remind cats that they’re cats as an incantation to keep them from drifting into their liquid form. We then theorized that perhaps if we let the cats all become liquid, they would transition into their true godlike state and become a single, fluid entity that wrapped around the stars, and the universe would be nothing but a hum of purring.

    Maybe that part is just us.

“Not Goodbye”

(A phrase given to me as one of the best graduation gifts I could ask for.) 

This past Saturday I graduated from SUNY Oswego. The day went wonderfully: the commencement ceremony was beautiful, the reception allowed me to take plenty of pictures with friends, my Oma gave me a beautiful bouquet of orange roses, my mom brought a delicious lunch of tabouli and hummus (which we ate in the true college spirit— cramped in a little kitchen, eating off paper plates), and I was greeted with family, thoughtful cards, and triple-chocolate cake. But it was also the saddest I’ve been in a long time.

Whoever I was before I spent my first night on campus, I don’t know anymore. That person is lost to the past, and the self I know now came into being when I became a student. I think that a lot of who someone is comes from who influences them. I believe that I am, to some extent, everyone who I grew to love. I am everyone who I carry with me.

And so, there is something especially hard about graduating. The SUNY Oswego that I know is one of a specific community of intelligent, caring, funny, wonderful people at a point in our lives that we will never repeat. Graduation signifies the dispersing of that home entirely. I can visit the collection buildings, and I can visit individual people, but I can never go back.

Equally difficult to face is the reality that everyone is always changing. I cannot know with any certainty that the people I hold so dear will remain exactly who they are today. I cannot have absolute faith that my relationships will hold strong through this mass dispersal.

The whole week leading up to the event left a hollow feeling in my chest. Is the anticipation of loneliness the same as loneliness? I knew that I would have to say my goodbyes to the people who have made me who I am, and I wasn’t ready.

Even the word “goodbye” seemed to feel wrong to me. What was so good about these byes? I have tried to tell myself that change leads to great new things, but at times it feels more like an empty saying. I will probably grow from the experience, but seeing how I’ve grown alongside my peers, I don’t think that our separation is the magic ingredient for my personal development.

I cried just writing notes, because I wanted so badly to say everything. As a creative writer, I have repeated “show, don’t tell” as a mantra for years, but when I came down to it, I didn’t know if I had shown everyone how much they meant to me. When I started to tell, my ability to express myself with the written word faltered with my breath. I was terrified that just placing these big emotions on paper would somehow lessen them.

I went to see one of my favorite professors, and we spent a long while talking as if it was just another conversation. I could almost imagine that I would be able to walk over to her office any day to laugh, ask for advice, or talk about poetry. It came time to leave and she said that she didn’t do goodbyes and that we would see each other again soon.

I had planned to meet up with someone I had been dating through the semester for our last time. She arrived unannounced, surprising me out of my anxious anticipation of her future absence, and I almost started crying just from her hug. We watched old cartoons and pretended it wouldn’t be the last time we would be together. When she went to leave, she smiled and said, “this is not goodbye.”

Thursday I had an absolutely delightful dinner, walk by the river, and evening of movie watching with two of my best friends. They are both incredible people in many ways and we made sure to make vague plans to visit as soon as possible. We all told each other over and over that our hugs were not our last and our expressions of appreciation and love were not goodbyes.

The exchange was repeated among so many of those close to me. We spoke of how many hours away we were and how we would find time to visit. We each mentioned ways we would bribe each other with milkshakes or lunches, even though we all knew that the real lure was conversation, company, and closeness.

And this was the last beautiful gift that college (not the campus or the institution, but the temporary home made up of incredible people) gave me. This phrase of “Not Goodbye” means so much. At a time when it often feels as if a part of myself is closing off forever, this phrase opens up my life to a possibility of future growth. It contains all the sentiment and love of a goodbye but still maintains the hope and reassurance of “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Not Goodbye” are the words of those who know that physical distance does not mean emotional distance. It is for those who carry each other inside themselves and continue to live and be the person who embodies the character of those who shaped them. It represents going forward. It is not the same as promising to visit in order to recreate the past with people who might change while they’re away.  It is a promise of maintaining those relationships in some form and continuing on into the future, growing together despite any distance that may rest between us.

It is a promise that leaving this college is not the death of a self that has come into being there, but a furthering of that person. It is not the death of our community of friends, but merely our spreading out and having the opportunity to bring new people along. “Not Goodbye” tells me that, while I might be pained with nostalgia, I can look forward to the future too.

Thank you for these words.

 

Semantic Satiation

(Old words)

 

It’s really astounding that we can look at these words without just seeing symbols so often. We usually read over words like little packages of meaning rather than looking at them for their individual letter shapes.

But, you know how sometimes a word is repeated way too many times? You just see a word so many times in a row. Just that same word, and then that word again, and the word again. Word, word word. And then, it doesn’t really look like the word “word.” It doesn’t look like language anymore. Is “word” spelled with those letters?  Does the word even look like how it sounds at all? It seems like it should be “werd” maybe. It’s so small, like you could pinch it between your fingers.

That’s called semantic satiation.

It happens whenever a word or phrase is repeated enough times that it temporarily ceases to have meaning, or appears wrong or unfamiliar. It doesn’t need to be only in print, though. It can happen vocally, too.

The other week some friends were discussing tasseling for a project we were working on. We had considered making some tassels, but we didn’t know how to tassel, or anything about tasseling, really. So one person said she would learn to tassel and become a tasseler. The tasseler tasseled tassels, and they were beautifully tasseled tassels, too. But at that point the group of us collectively decided we couldn’t take one more second of the word “tassel.”

As much as people tend to resist this feeling, I think semantic satiation actually helps people to see words in fresh ways.

Familiarity colors our perceptions. It’s one of the reasons that cliches are discouraged in writing— we need our words to be vibrant and fresh, and some phrases are like houses we’ve lived in our whole lives.

There’s a certain kind of feeling to semantic satiation, like standing in the front yard in the summer, staring at your house, and suddenly seeing it the way a stranger might. The color looks different, and those old bricks have more texture somehow. It’s not near as big as you thought. Have there always been so many vines?

Gertrude Stein once wrote a line of poetry that shows the effect I’m describing:

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

She later explained, “…I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”

Semantic satiation is frustrating and unsettling sometimes, but other times I find it to be especially interesting, like finding out a secret that gives you a new perspective on your best friend.

I once wrote a poem entitled “Girl” where my attempt at artistic repetition inadvertently semantically saturated “girl.” It’s a familiar word, because it has a lot of cultural connotations: baby dolls, pink things, smallness, fragility, innocence, and associations of that nature. But, looking at “girl” as just a foreign combination of letters, it transformed.

I watched the round, furry face of the “g” and that little “irl” like a tiny, mischievous tail. I realized that stripped of all my connotations of the word, “girl” was much more like a frisky forest creature with a curled tail that hopped around and hoarded small treasures, leaves, and bits of string. The word “girl” was a mythical creature, and what a fun one to be.

In fact, this idea of “girl” was much more in line with who I felt I was during my girlhood than any of the cultural ideas I had been writing about.

Next time you encounter semantic satiation, let the conversation go something like this:

“Agh! It doesn’t look like a word anymore!”
“Well, what does it look like?”

Semantic satiation makes us finally pay attention to the sounds and sights of words as if they were a landscape we walk every day on autopilot, but today we’re in love. I say the word “word” every day, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about it until I see it with new eyes.

Did I ever notice how the “r” looks like the “w” and the “o” looks like the “d”? Had I really tasted “word” with its drawn out syllable and the subtle, tart flavoring of my accent? Could I have squeezed the “wor” and let my fingertip rest against the thin post of the “d”?  How would I have ever discovered that the word “word” was made to be pinched and eaten like candy?

At one point, a poet named Aram Saroyan wrote:

lighght

It’s controversial as to whether that’s really a poem, but just look at it. Have you ever paid so much attention to the silent letters of the word “light?” Have you ever thought so closely about “light” as a written word?

A friend and mentor of mine once discussed the poem with me, and pointed to it, saying “Can’t you just imagine swinging on the handlebars of those two gs?”

Semantic satiation lets me fall in love with simple words again. It’s a weird, sort of uncomfortable, hard to explain, confusing love, but that’s the best kind.