Shambolic sounds illicit—like symbology—but it’s a legitimate word meaning “chaotic or disorganized.” I discovered the word twice in one week: first in a George Will column lamenting the “shambolic syntax” of Donald Trump, then in a Wall Street Journalarticle lamenting the “shambolic styling” of the Bentley SUV.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning
—T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding (1942)
Eliot is not only a great poet, he is also a great writing instructor. By example, of course, but sometimes more directly. Here he embeds a masterful little essay on word choice and combinations between the parentheses. And surrounding that esssay he characterizes writing in teleological terms: “the end is where we start from” and “every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning.” Which suggests we can start writing from the end or the beginning or any point in between, since we make a beginning and an end with every effort.
Is any of this intentional? I can’t say. But great poetry contains many meanings, some intended by the author, some imputed by the reader. In this case, I vote to impute.
[There is no] lawyer’s Paradise where all words have a fixed, precisely ascertained meaning…
—James Bradley Thayer (1898)
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
—T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton (1936)
The Thayer quote reminds me of the Coolio song, Gangsta’s Paradise: “Been spendin’ most their lives / Livin’ in the gangsta’s paradise…” Thayer’s first words, which are usually paraphrased away, reinforce my mental connection: “The Chief Justice here retires into that lawyer’s Paradise where all words have a fixed, precisely ascertained meaning…” Thayer’s Chief Justice needs to spend more time reading poetry.
Psychologist James Pennebaker says that “function words” (articles, pronouns, prepositions, auxiliary verbs) are the most-used but least-appreciated parts of speech. Though we focus on content words, function words add important information about personality, emotion, and intent.
Say someone asks “What’s the weather outside?” You could answer “It’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself.
Of course, I am more interesting than the weather. (I think.) So that example is a little weak.
But Pennebaker’s next example—of deception by a strategic combination of abstraction and misdirection—is right on target:
A person who’s lying tends to use “we” more or use sentences without a first-person pronoun at all. Instead of saying “I didn’t take your book,” a liar might say “That’s not the kind of thing that anyone with integrity would do.”