Monday, March 27, 2006

Everything's Coming Down Roses

How's this for a painting?? If you heard this week's episode of "A Way with Words," then you'll recall our discussion of the word Heliogabaline, used by David Foster Wallace in his marvelous essay on English usage. It's an allusion to the wild-and-crazy Roman emperor Heliogabalus, who supposedly invited a bunch of guests to dinner and hid a massive amounts of rose petals behind a false ceiling, then let them fall -- smothering some of his guests. Heliogabalus became a darling of the Decadent Movement in the late 19th century. Here's the 1888 painting I mentioned, which depicts that scene. It's by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (Click on the painting for a closer look; it's spectacular.)

Oh, and Wallace's use of Heliogabaline? It's perfect: "The truth is that most US academic prose is appalling -- pompous, abstruse, claustral, inflated, euphuistic, pleonastic, solecistic, sesquipidelian, Heliogabaline, occluded, obscure, jargon-ridden, empty: resplendently dead." Anybody disagree?

By the way, that David Foster Wallace essay is something that every language lover should gleefully dig into and savor once a year -- that and George Orwell's prescient piece, "Politics and the English Language."


Blogger el matchgame-o said...

Martha, Websters let me down on this one. I used to know the synonym for logorrhea that means when 2 or more people engage in it. I think it started with a P. Can you help?

8:05 PM  
Blogger Martha said...

Wow, "persiflage" comes to mind, but I'm not sure that's it. Any other thoughts about what it looked or sounded like?

8:23 PM  
Blogger el matchgame-o said...

I went through my old Harper's and found the word. It doesn't quite match the definition I gave earlier. The word is Palaver.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Martha said...

Ah! Yes, that word has an interesting history, IIRC. Supposedly its ancestor was brought to Africa by Portuguese traders who used "palavra" for "word," and a version of it got picked up from Africans by English sailors.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Language Lover said...

Wow, thanks for the link to the Orwell piece. Hard to believe it was written back in the 40's. The problem's only become worse in the last half-century.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Liz said...

Thanks for that DFW essay. Pretty chewy stuff. But that painting gave me goosebumps.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous daz said...

The only reference I'd ever heard to Heliogabalus before this last AWWW was in the Major General's Song from Pirates of Penzanace: the line

"I quote in elegiac all the crimes of Heliogabalus"

(For the full lyrics see .)

3:35 AM  
Blogger Martha said...

I hear ya, LL! I'll never forget that prefab chicken-coop image. And as I said, I think that essay should be required reading once a year or so!

1:42 PM  
Blogger Martha said...

Liz, I'm right with ya there on the horripilation!

In fact, I'll have you know that that Heliogabaline painting has replaced Butterstick as my Windows wallpaper, so you KNOW it really moves me!

1:43 PM  
Blogger Martha said...

Daz, I was not aware of the Pirates connection. Kewl!

1:43 PM  
Blogger Mister Hian said...

Neil Gaiman created a brief comic about Heliogabolus.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Martha said...

very cool, Mister Hian - I wasn't aware of that. tx for the link!

6:43 AM  
Blogger Russ said...


That link to Orwell's essay is no longer responding. I've posted one that works for me right now.

Since it's hosted at an educational institution and in the US, I hope that it'll be a tad more reliable.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Martha said...

Ooo, thanks VERY much, Russ! i just changed my link in the post to the one you suggested. Much appreciated -- everyone should read this!

9:40 AM  
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