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James Joyce And the portmanteau word



Here's one of the thunderclaps:



Boom! This clap consists of a string of characters that form a "wave" of source words. This wave forms a single portmanteau word one hundred letters long!

This kind of writing is not simply a trick to demonstrate the writer's facility with words. Look closely at the thunderclap and you will find a reference to Humpty Dumpty "hiding" there, symbolizing the "great fall" that led to Finnegan's death. While the subtle allusion to Humpty Dumpty advances the plot, it simultaneously pays homage to Carroll and acknowledges Joyce's indebtedness to Carroll for inventing the portmanteau word. By including "humptadump" in the clap, Joyce is asking the reader to remember Alice's discussion with Humpty Dumpty's in Through the Looking Glass and to share his respect for Carroll.

Like all the other claps and like all of Joyce's writing, this clap is replete with symbolism. It's telling us things about Finnegan that might take hundreds or even thousands of words to express in a conventional manner, if they could be expressed at all through other means. How?

So complex is Joyce's construction, it's next to impossible to tell precisely where source words like Humpty Dumpty begin and end along the wave:

  • Often, only a fragment of a source word appears, making a word difficult or impossible to identify.
  • Alternate, equally acceptable ways to combine adjacent letters into a sequence give the reader the freedom to form different source words from these letters, multiplying possibilities for perceiving allusions and references.

The reader trying to perceive these alternatives takes an active part in the exercise of reading; it's up to the reader to make of the writing what he will. Reading becomes a participation sport for the brain. It slows down the reader and makes him think.

A reader of a clap will perceive alternate ways to combine letters in the wave the first time the clap is read. He will probably perceive new ways to combine letters on subsequent readings, ways he missed the first time through. The reader is induced to interpret the clap differently each time it is read. This phenomenon generates ambiguity and renders the clap susceptible to multiple interpretations. Many alternative allusions are possible, some of which may be legitimatethat is, intended by the author or justified by the subject matter. Others may not be so.

As a consequence:

  • A given reader will perceive alternate possible interpretations in a single reading and will usually miss some possible interpretations.
  • Interpretations that are perceived and missed by a given reader on one reading will differ from those perceived and missed by the same reader on subsequent readings.
  • No two readers will quite agree with one another on what the clap means in toto.

Ambiguity and uncertainty engender anxiety and heighten tension, compelling the reader to pay attention, to think, to feel. theyheighten sensitivity and awareness. Thinking and feeling involve the reader in what's happening in the novel, making him care.

Multiplying the number of possible interpretations that can be generated by only a few words makes for a writing style that is compact and economical in the extreme. It not only packs more information onto a page, it generates more ideas and emotions from fewer words, intensifying the reader's emotional, ideational, psychological, and spiritual experience. Events may seem to move more forward swiftly, even while they are standing still.

A thunderclap, indeed! Nowhere else in the English language has writing like this been carried to this brilliant extreme.


Visit the Muse's Table of Portmanteau Words now

click here

Happy "Word Carrying!"

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