Jena Osman on the Drifting and Swerving of Words

H. L. Hix: In Lyric Philosophy, Jan Zwicky proposes that “Few words are capsized on the surface of language, subject to every redefining breeze.  Most, though they have drifted, are nonetheless anchored, their meanings holding out for centuries against the sweep of rationalist desire.”  Her focus there seems to be the contrast with history, the way words hold their own in spite of history.  But as I read your etymological inquiries in The Network, your focus there is on a parallel relationship between etymology and history: words as historical archives, reference not only as designation of a present object but also of a historical continuum.  How far off base am I in that reading?


Jena Osman: Really interesting question. I don’t think I’m trying to argue that words are completely flexible, bending entirely to the historical moment. As Zwicky says, meanings drift but are still anchored. But I don’t believe those meanings exist out of context—there isn’t some kind of platonic ideal of words lurking out there outside of their use. Words are the product of their usage, and I’m interested in trying to map out those uses. As I say in the book, if I could follow the history of the words I’m looking at, maybe I could understand the history of the times.  But I’m not a linguist, so this is more of a fantasy than a reality. The word maps I trace in The Network are thoroughly amateur, the product of my trying to “translate” the entries I found in a book by Eric Partridge called Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English.


My interest in connected etymology and history was sparked by the work of two poets who have been really important to me: Cecilia Vicuña and Tina Darragh. I quote from Vicuña in the first poem of The Network: “To enter words in order to see.” This is from her book Palabrarmás (translated by Eliot Weinberger and Suzanne Jill Levine in the criminally out of print Unraveling Words & the Weaving of Water), which begins “The original book Palabrarmás was born from a vision in which individual words opened to reveal their inner associations, allowing ancient and newborn metaphors to come to light.” She goes on to make the power of etymology explicit (“A history of words would be a history of being….”) through her own verse lines and an extended mix of quotations from Ernest Fenollosa, Heraclitus, Heidegger, and others. In that book, there were moments like this:


Truth, in English, is derived from the Indo-European root deru, to be firm, solid, steadfast. Suffixed form variant drew-o, in Germanic trewan, in Old English treow, tree.


And these moments were clearly in the back of my mind as I sat down for the first time with Eric Partridge’s dictionary.


In 1993, Leave Books published a chapbook by Tina Darragh called adv. fans—the 1968 series. This book is very rare, almost impossible to find, but thankfully Craig Dworkin has posted it on his incredibly useful small press poetry archive, Eclipse.  In this piece etymology is read as the record of a specific historical moment. Visual collages made from folded-over dictionary pages are sandwiched above and below by definitions of words that came into existence in 1968. Of this work Darragh has said that she was trying “to investigate what went wrong with language in 1968. I remembered the dissolution of alternative living arrangements and businesses as beginning with words—the failure of political projects as being partly a language problem.” And so this book, too, was in my mind as I worked the etymological charts in The Network.


Words might not capsize, but they drift and sometimes swerve (to use Joan Retallack’s word). They’re subject to play, to reinvention—and poetry is the form that can most call attention to that flexibility.


P.S. I recently came across a project called “Mysteries of Vernacular” which is a collection of animated videos that tell the stories of particular words—ultimately there will be one for each letter of the alphabet. Although it borders on the precious, I think the animations do a good job of capturing the narrative drift of a word’s journey from origin to present use.



Jena Osman.  The Network.  Fence Books, 2010.

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