Stickybeak’s Lexicon. Syncretism

Stickybeak’s Lexicon

An irregular rummage through the world of words. (Or, should I know what that means?)


At the risk of going all highbrow on you, the next word I am adding to the lexicon comes to you courtesy of the late Susan Sontag. I think she has been lurking in the peripherals of my conscience all week since having mentioned her essay “Illness as Metaphor”. I thought I had a copy lurking somewhere and went to dig it out earlier today. Alas, I do not. However, I do own a copy of a collection of essays and speeches which was published after her death, ‘At the Same Time’ (Farrar Straus Giroux, New York 2007). Towards the end of the collection is a speech she gave entitled ‘Literature is Freedom’. I urge you to find a copy; if you are interested in literature, words and a world where such things matter, you will appreciate her sentiments.

And so to the next candidate for Stickybeak to consider.

Syncretism (adj syncretic, vt syncretise) : reconciliation of, or attempt to reconcile, different systems of belief; fusion or blending of religions, as by identification of gods, taking over of observances, or selection of whatever seems best in each; illogical compromise in religion.

I felt I had to just give the whole definition from my Chambers as I couldn’t say it any more clearly.

It was immediately obvious to me that the word had something to do with the joining or merging of things: the ‘sync’ part told me as much. However, it is one of those words which contains far more subtle meaning; this is Susan Sontag we are talking about. She, I assume, always chose her words carefully for their nuances and ability to throw as much light on her meaning as possible.

Sontag’s essay deals with the cultural differences between Europe (old) and America (new) and the issues that this throws up. She wrote it during the administration (I nearly wrote ‘reign’ there) of George W Bush and the occupation of Iraq, using as an example the antagonism some Americans felt towards France and Germany in light of their less than enthusiastic backing of the invasion. This is simplifying her point to a dangerous degree, but as this is not a critique of her essay I shall move on swiftly to an illustration of how she uses the word. Quoting directly from the essay itself: ‘But America……cannot do everything alone. The future of our world… syncretistic, impure. …..More and more we leak into each other.’ I think it is this ‘leaking’ Sontag talks about which really helped me to get a grip on this word. The increasingly global world we live in might make syncretists of us all.

Incidentally, in the index of my Roget’s Thesaurus the words ‘mixture’ and ‘combination’ are listed under syncretism, which does help explain the word in easier terms, but doesn’t get to the more complex heart of the original definition.

So there it is: a new word for Stickybeak to absorb and hopefully find a use for. A word whose meaning I could have guessed at, but on closer inspection discover a more intriguing and, well, meaningful meaning.

© flyingscribbler 2011


Stickybeak’s Lexicon. Iatrogenic.

Stickybeak’s Lexicon

An irregular rummage through the world of words. (Or, should I know what that means?)



In the resolution-crazy spirit of an optimistic New Year’s Eve, I have decided to begin this week, (and as I write, although perhaps not as you read, it is a Monday morning), with a humdinger of a word. In so doing I hope to inspire myself to continue in the same, high-brow, intellectual vein until at least Wednesday.

Iatrogenic is, as it sounds, a scientific word; more specifically, a medical word. In common with many medical terms it comes to us from those most generous of lexical benefactors, the Greeks. The definition (from my trusty Chambers) reads: “(of a disease or symptoms) induced in a patient by the treatment or comments of a physician”. So far, so unclear.

Breaking the word down then to its constituent parts we have -iatros, a physician and -genes, born. The –iatros bit suddenly makes more sense in its adjectival role, -iatric, where it relates to care or treatment within a particular medical speciality; I give you paediatric and psychiatric as illustrations. When stitched together with –genes we therefore end up with ‘born of a physician’.  No. It didn’t make much sense to me either.

To solve this most challenging of vocabular conundrums I returned to the source of my discovery: a brilliant essay in this weekend’s Guardian Review by Will Self. In short, his essay describes how he is dealing intellectually with treatment for a blood disease. It discusses the use of metaphors surrounding illness and death, drawing on Susan Sontag’s own essay “Illness as Metaphor”. I won’t attempt to explain what Mr Self is suggesting; to be honest, I’m not sure I fully understand. (Will Self is, in my opinion, a master of language and there are enough new words in any of his essays or stories to keep this lexicon in business for as long as I can keep it going. But I do have to work to uncover his meaning.)

Suffice to say that he suggests science itself perpetuates the use of metaphors when dealing with death and illness. To quote directly from his essay, “As fast as we could eliminate the metaphors – our science helped them to proliferate. Metaphors were the iatrogenic disease of our era.”

And now the dictionary definition makes sense. It always comes down to context.

I doubt that I will be casually throwing this word into anything on a regular basis, but if I ever have a doctor in a story who forgets to explain things in terms his terrified patient can understand, or a surgeon who is rather too full of his own verbosity, it might come in useful.

Let me know if you’ve had occasion to make use of iatrogenic in your writing. I’ll be terribly impressed.

© flyingscribbler 2011

‘Whale Watching’. A new flash fiction.

This one comes to you from South Africa (yes, I know, terrible name dropping, but it is my job. I can’t help it). I was lucky enough to be in Hermanus which, by all accounts, is the best place in the world to do some shore-based whale watching. Having been there, I can’t argue with that claim. I saw several Southern Right Whales frolicking happily in the surf with their calves. Sensational. I also saw some unbelievably stupid people leaning way too close to the edge with their gigantic camera lenses. Don’t they know those things change your centre of gravity?

Confession: I usually like to write my #fridayflash story and leave it to brew for an hour or so before giving it a quick stir and only then pouring it out for your enjoyment. No such luxury this week as I haven’t the time. Does it show? I hope not.

Whale Watching

Looking back on those day’s events, and believe me, I’ve looked back on them often enough, I don’t think the whale meant to actually swallow my husband.

I’ve spent ages at the library and on the web researching this and I’m pretty sure that Southern Right Whales, (they’re the ones we were looking at that day), are what they call baleen whales; these are the sort which sift plankton out of the water using plates (made of baleen) with bristles attached. So they never chew their food. Or rip it apart. Like a Great White Shark.

 Jerry saw some of those the day before when he went cage diving; I stayed on terra firma enjoying the view of the Cape from the guest house’s veranda. We could see the whales even from there: little puffs of smoke drifting across the waves as they came up for air. Apparently those ‘puffs’ can be a couple of metres high. See, there’s not much I don’t know about these creatures now.  And when I look at the photos Jerry managed to take, I can’t deny it’s good to have some knowledge about them; makes it more interesting.

We’d walked to some cliffs where the whales like to come and play in the surf. They do it every year, mothers and calves, rolling around in the seaweed and flapping their huge tails in the foam. I was transfixed by it and quite content with my position on a bench, placed there, presumably, for exactly that purpose. Jerry of course just had to get as close as possible. ‘There’s always a better shot’, he used to say. Didn’t matter what it was: a rare bird; an unusual sunset; frost on a reed in the middle of a frozen lake. He was never satisfied until he’d filled the camera with hundreds of pictures. Pictures he’d then force me look through the minute we got back.

With that huge lens sticking out from his face he was totally oblivious to everything else; including anyone who was also trying to view those whales that day; anyone who might have been there first, for example.

But that was Jerry; he’s that idiot who pushes his way through a crowd at a book signing in case they run out of signed copies; or the inconsiderate bastard who edges in front of you in an art gallery to read the blurb on the wall, ruining your moment with the painting. He did that to me. A lot. So I know how it feels.

The wind was blowing off the sea so he won’t have heard the names they called him. I did. “Asshole” was one; “tosser” another. There was also “hijo de puta” and something in Afrikaans which I’m certain was as rude as it sounded. Whatever it was he deserved it.

He spent ages hanging over the edge of that cliff, clicking away; long enough for everyone else to give up and disappear; long enough for my toes to go numb in the cold breeze waiting for him to bloody finish; long enough for me to think this was the last time.

 He was still taking pictures when he went over.

They found his camera hanging off a rock halfway down the cliff. Some of the photos are really rather good. The last one especially so: the whale is watching Jerry with one, huge, mournful eye. If you look carefully you can see Jerry reflected in it. Zoom in a bit more and you’ll find me just behind him.

That’s how I know she swallowed him. He was sucked in with all that seaweed and water just before she dived. I often wonder how far she swam before realising there was something indigestible in her mouth. She’ll have spat him out eventually. And why not? I couldn’t stomach him any more either.


© flyingscribbler 2011



‘Sophia’s Wisdom’. A new flash fiction inspired by a trip to Greece.

Vonitsa is a beautiful harbour town on the Greek mainland, perched on the edge of the Amvrakia Gulf. Whilst sailing in the Gulf a couple of weeks ago, I stopped there for the night. There is an old Venetain fortress which dominates the skyline above the town; hidden right at the top is a chapel devoted to Saint Sophia. The morning of my visit coincided with Saint Sophia’s name day and I was lucky enough to to witness the tail end of the congregation of the town’s Sophias making their way back down from a service in the chapel. These are the factual details of my story this week. The heavily perspiring priest was there too. In the sole capacity though of his calling.The rest is fiction.

There, that’s got you interested.

Those of an illiberal bent might prefer to pass on this one.

Saint Sophia's Chapel. Vonitsa.

Sophia’s Wisdom

Sophia’s skin prickled beneath her clothes as she picked her way along the stony path leading up to the old Venetian fortress. Not for the first time, she cursed the tradition which dictated that she wore widow’s black.

 Any other morning she’d be positioned on her shady doorstep, waiting. He normally passed by on his way to the church, unless he had an errand elsewhere in the town; in which case she would continue her vigil late into the day, hopeful of even a cursory wave as he rushed to welcome a friend off the ferry or to catch the last post.

There wasn’t much Sophia didn’t know about Father Nikolos; he took his coffee at the bar, standing (in case God called him away on an errand at short notice), and returned to his home at one-fifteen, where his housekeeper Effie would have lunch prepared (not that she had ever made a meal worth taking the trouble to eat). He returned to the church later in the day (to attend to those who were unable to cope with the slightest problem life presented), before finally allowing himself the pleasure (and he certainly deserved it) of a cigarette and ouzo, taken with water, at Stephano’s taverna on the quayside.

Sophia didn’t approve of Stephano; unmarried men were not to be trusted, unless they were men of the cloth, in which case they were married to God.

Bravely taking her eyes off the path, Sophia glanced up at Father Nikolos who was walking a few paces ahead of her. Sweat formed a dark patch on his back, midway between his broad shoulders, spreading slowly across his grey cassock. It was good to see a man perspire, thought Sophia; her husband hadn’t sweated at all, which struck her as unnatural.

Sophia turned her attention to Stephano, who was walking with Father Nikolos; he had no business being here. He’d muttered some rubbish about representing his long-dead mother on her name day. Well, this was news to Sophia, who couldn’t remember him ever having a mother. In any case, the annual trek up to Saint Sophia’s chapel was best left to the living Sophias of the town; her saint surely had enough work to do with them as it was, without having to tend to the needs of the deceased too.

Sophia stumbled on a stone and fell onto the dusty path.


She looked up hopefully, expecting Father Nikolos to appear, arms outstretched to ease her to her feet. Instead she watched him disappear around a corner, the patch of sweat now about the size of The Virgin Mother’s halo on the frieze in the chapel at the top of the hill.

‘This walk will be the death of us one day,’ said another widowed devotee who had ambled over to help, ‘we’re getting too old for it.’

Sophia glared at the woman.

 ‘It was just a stone,’ she said.

The relative coolness of the chapel quickly dissolved with the combined heat of the congregation and the many candles which had been lit around Saint Sophia’s alter. Trickles of sweat now poured from Father Nikolos’s temples as he began to speak. Sophia fought the urge to reach out with her handkerchief to wipe the perspiration away. She wondered if he wouldn’t be more comfortable without the heavy tunic weighing him down. He’s a practical man, thought Sophia, and probably just wearing a simple vest underneath; even so, with all that sweat, he’d struggle to peel it off later.

Sophia realised with a jolt that the service was over and hurriedly joined the line of women filing past father Nikolos at the chapel’s entrance. Grabbing the piece of bread he offered, she blushed violently and scurried away to find a shady piece of wall to sit on.

Composed for the descent back through the fortress, Sophia eased herself from her improvised seat. Father Nikolos was nowhere to be seen; he was probably back at the gates, fingering the pack of cigarettes Sophia knew he carried somewhere in the folds of his priest’s attire.

Not wishing to be left too far behind, Sophia gathered up her skirt and made her way to the path. About half way down, a black cat joined her, weaving its silky fur between her ankles.

‘Hello there. Where did you come from?’

At the sound of her voice, the animal leapt away through an opening in the wall. Sophia stepped over the scrub gingerly to see where it had gone. Peering round the old doorway she stifled her scream by stuffing into her mouth the piece of bread which she was still clutching. Father Nikolos, (and she was certain that it was Father Nikolos because his grey vestment lay, sweat drenched, over a nearby bush), was on his knees, rocking backwards and forwards in front of Stephano. She couldn’t see Father Nikolos’s face; Stephano’s wore an expression of agonised pleasure.

It was only later, when she lay in bed, that Sophia recalled Father Nikolos did indeed wear a simple vest underneath his priest’s robes. That much, at least, she had known.

© flyingscribbler 2011