Consider “omnishambles”, OUP’s word of the year

This year the Oxford University Press has named “omnishambles” as the “word that best reflects the mood of the year”. The OUP’s lexicographer Susie Dent said the word was chosen for its popularity as well as its “linguistic productivity”.

Like The Guardian‘s Alison Flood, I rather like the idea of a word of the year.

I like it because people too often forget the key lesson they learnt in English at school, that words are not only conduits of information, but also objects in their own right. This forgetfulness is the reason that we tend to read blog posts not poetry, news articles not essays.

We have become habituated to words as clear vessels for our inner thoughts, imagining that we can use a word effectively without considering its definitions, etymology, and various functions.

Already one can see people relishing attention on our means of communication. Don’t the phrases “linguistic productivity” and “aesthetic enthusiasm” have a pleasure of their own? And perhaps the more we nurture imaginative new forms of expression, the greater their relative growth will be.

This is lazy. And it’s also unenjoyable. It means we don’t attend in our daily life to what George Orwell calls “aesthetic enthusiasm”, or “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another”.

So while everyone has a little giggle at the crowning of a word of the year, and others join in with linguistic abnormalities (a comment on The Guardian’s article reads “As for omnishambles, it rolls off the tongue nicely but we already have a wonderful word that covers it: clusterfuck”) I think something more serious is happening: people are talking about words again.

Consider the function of writing competitions

Writing competitions are motivating. There is something about an impending deadline which will empower us to work more efficiently and imaginatively than if we were given our whole lives to write something.

This perhaps agrees with the oft-touted advice that budding writes will puzzle over: Just write! Just write a lot, often, and don’t stop!

The results can be rewarding. I was recently shortlisted for the Foyles Bookshop/Negative Press London Still flash fiction competition, which is the best news I’ve had all month. And I am also writing an essay on young people for the Financial Times/Bodley Head long form essay competition. (Deadline 18th November, if you are interested.)

Anyway, there are loads of competitions about, some of which are free to entry. Another literary blogger Rich Lakin (also shortlisted for the Still competition) mentioned these two competitions to me, and I think I’ll give them a go. Why don’t you?

The Telegraph’s weekly travel writing competition, Just Back – £200 for each winning entry

The Guardian’s yearly travel writing competition – win a holiday

COMPARE & CONTRAST Bob Dylan and the scientist

In How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer strives to articulate how creative decisions are taken: how does a scientist alight upon an innovative solution, and how does Bob Dylan conceive, gestate, and birth a song? Lehrer says:

“This is the clichéd moment of insight that people know so well from stories of Archimedes in the bathtub and Isaac Newton under the apple tree. The moment of insight can seem like an impenetrable enigma. The question, of course, is how these insights happen.”

This question of creation badgers artists in the same way that a baby does its parent. “How did you get here?” is a question leading inside the artist (back to before they consciously conceived a project) as well as outside (to the stimuli which triggered the cognitions leading to the novel, painting or poem produced.)

Martin Amis is eloquent about it, in an interview with The Spectator:

“At which point do you realise that you have a novel springing to life? It’s a fascinating question. It’s all decided in a moment, I think. You get a funny feeling, you see something or read something and almost at once you get a kind of throb, which goes through you — a shiver. And you think: this is a novel I can write. You don’t know much about it, but you know how you’re going to begin, perhaps. It’s a situation, it’s a setting, but it’s deeply mysterious. The whole process is deeply mysterious.”

Amis’ description of the moment of creation captures neatly its physiological (“throb”, “shiver”), triggered (“see or read something”), and enigmatic (“perhaps”, “mysterious”) conditions.

It brings me back to the first comparison: between Bob Dylan and the scientist. There is a problem here, and it lies in the differences between a creative solution to a problem, and creativity.

Whereas Lehrer rightly uses the scientist to show how creative innovation can solve a problem beyond the scope of logic and algorithms, I don’t think the same can be said for Bob Dylan. The key difference is that the scientist works towards an end (answering part of an unfinished theory, finding the right chemical formula to perform a task), whereas the artist does not.

Take Lehrer’s example of Archimedes who leapt out of the bathtub when he had discovered the displacement of water. That Lehrer recounts this clichéd tale in a clichéd fashion suggests he has thought little about the real connection between this moment of inspiration and one that a musician like Dylan would have. He says:

“Hopelessness eventually gives way to a revelation. This is another essential feature of moments of insight: the feeling of certainty that accompanies the new idea.”

This is true for a scientist, who can ratify his hypothesis through testing and the testimony of his peers. But it would be inadvisable for Bob Dylan to claim that his latest song is “right”.

Why? Because art strives towards subjective perception; science, objective measurement. Hence my issue of definitions earlier: art has creativity as an end in itself, and science has creative solutions to extant problems.

This is the fundamental difference between two universal fields of human activity, but Lehrer has failed to understand it. It is only through Practical Criticism (which encourages us to interrogate the premise of everything we are told) that this shortcoming can be revealed.

Indeed, in performing this analysis we have created shortcomings of our own — words like “art” and “science” can’t be flung upon us so flippantly — but this is only a blog, after all.