C’est Monyafeek

This is (yet another) celebration of the way Neal Stephenson uses language and the illustration is taken (yet again) from his Anathem.

You need to know a little bit about the story or you won’t be able to share the joke.  In Anathem, the action takes place on a very Earth-like planet called Arbre. [1]  Arbre is invaded by a space ship that is the home of four other planetary civilizations, one of which is called LaTerre and which is, in fact, Earth. [2]

The story is told by a young scholar named Fra (his title) Erasmus.  We need to know that because it tells us how he hears and understands languages from elsewhere.  “Elsewhere,” in this case, is a place on LaTerre that we know as France.

When we know that the Laterran who visits them is named Jules Verne Durand, we are prepared for the possibility that he is French.  But Erasmus doesn’t hear French and he is the one who is telling the story.  So this happens.

“The entire stage weighs considerably less than I do,” says Erasmus.  It doesn’t look like the kind of thing you would trust to get you safely into space.  Fra Jesry asks, “Where’s the rest of it?” 

“This is the whole thing,” proclaimed Jules Verne Durand, understanding it perfectly even though he was seeing it for the first time.  “The conception is monyafeek.” (page 775)

Durand sees the design, sees the function, and is immediately impressed by the thinking that has gone into it.  It is that, the whole concept, that is magnifique.

Monyafeek is so crude.  For one thing the word doesn’t look anything like magnifique.  And English speakers who have had a chance to adjust to how French words work (the -gn, for instance, and the -que) know how to hear such a word.  Erasmus does not and Stephenson gives us the word on the page just the way Erasmus hears it.  And it is never spelled according to French rules.  Always, we see the way the word looks, but we also know how it should look and we celebrate—I do, in any case—the friction between the two. [This is the way Michael Kingery, a concept artist, pictures the monyafeek.]

The second little friction is the function of the word.  You notice that Jules Verne Durand uses the word in the passage above as a predicate adjective.  The conception is monyafeek.  Erasmus’s friend, Lio, who is the local expert on these vehicles hears it as a noun and why wouldn’t he.  He says, “It’s not called a monyafeek.  It’s called…oh, never mind.”

And that “Oh…never mind” establishes that the team will continue to call them monyafeeks.  The representation of magnifique as monyafeek is just a gaffe when it first happens.  But these devices are part of a daring attack on a space ship and the attacking force, which includes Erasmus, Lio, and Durand, come to take these little devices very seriously.

That means that we get one more look at what happens to this word when Suur (her title) Tulia, part of the Arbre-based support team [3] tries to correct the usage.  That goes like this. (page 812)

Tulia: I’m going to talk you through the process of unstrapping yourself from the S2-35B.

Erasmus: Up here we call it a monyafeek.

Tulia: Whatever…

This is a whole different development, as you see.  Tulia is in a storage shed in some remote part of Arbre.  Erasmus is “on the front lines,” so to speak.  He is the one who is risking his life in deeds of derring-do and he gets to say what “we” call it.  This grotesque misspelling is now the official name of the device because that is what the people in the line of fire are calling it.  And Tulia, who knows better, says, “Whatever…”  Monyafeek is now not only a noun, and not only a term of art, but a name validated by the the pride of warriors.

Pretty cool.

I suspect that I will never hear magnifique again with having to dedicate a neuron or two to keep me from smiling along with Erasmus, Lio, and Jules Verne Durand.

[1] Stevenson says that if you have any trouble pronouncing the name of the planet, you should ask a friend who is currently studying French.  That takes care of what to do with the -re at the end.  Of course, you still have to be able to make that sound, but you get the idea.

[2]  People who live on LaTerre are called Laterrans.  Stephenson doesn’t giver any help with that, but I have chosen to accent the -terr.

[3]  Picture a very small “Houston,” as in “Houston, we have a problem.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Words and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.