Daily Archives: April 20, 2017

crux

Here’s an excruciating question: Can you talk about the crux of a book? A book’s crux? Or a movie’s? Can you say that the crux of The Crying Game is Dill’s disrobing?

What, in fact, do we even mean when we talk of the crux of something? Does it seem sometimes that we are at cross-purposes with it?

If you know Latin you know what crux is: ‘cross’. Not cross as in intersection, or as in deletion; cross as in crucifying, as in excruciating. An instrument of physical torture (and execution) used metaphorically for mental torture. An analogous case is travail and travel, which trace back to trepalium, a three-staked torture device. (If you’ve flown to, or in, the US lately, the link between travel and torture may make sense.)

Crux in this non-literal use showed up in English in the early 1700s to mean ‘something that is torturous to figure out or explain’; it may have been taken from Latin crux interpretum and/or crux philosophorum. By the late 1800s this had evolved to be the ‘central problem or point of interest’ – the crux of the matter or crux of the case. Meanwhile, by the late 1800s, it had also come to be used by mountaineers and rock climbers to refer to the toughest part of a route: the crux pitch or crux move or crux of the ascent. Again, a most difficult problem to solve. Not murderous in creation and resolution like a horcrux, but still something you would not want to double-cross.

So. Can we have a central problem of a book or movie? A central point of interest, sure. But let’s look at the words that crux of the usually goes with: according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the top ones are matter, problem, issue, case, argument, debate… and story. So in general, things that require resolution have cruxes; the crux is, in a way, the central knot. Stories aren’t problems in the same way as arguments are, but they have a structure, and that structure normally entails a problem and resolution.

And a novel is a story, right? Except it’s mentally schematized differently. How do we know? We know because we don’t use the same words and phrases to talk about it. And a book, and a film. A book is a container; it may contain a narrative conflict, but that is in the book. A novel is an elaborated presentation of a story or stories. It’s not that no one speaks of the crux of a novel, book, or movie; it’s just that almost no one does, and anyway somewhat fewer than speak of the crux of a story – let alone of an argument or problem.

But why? Schematization: the mental entailments we have for a concept. All the threads and connectors it has. Also collocations – the other words a word tends to travel with – which come from and reinforce the schematization. Words are known by the company they keep. And we learn them by hearing and habit – much less so by looking them up or applying logic to them (both of which can produce some of the most egregiously deadhanded dyslocutions). Just consider how many people speak of the problem’s crux or the matter’s crux (hint: no one, really). If you can talk of the problem’s resolution rather than the resolution of the problem, why can’t we talk of the problem’s crux?

For that matter, why not the exercise’s point rather than the point of the exercise, or the day’s soup rather than soup of the day? They should mean the same and be interchangeable, but they’re not. The longer version has two the’s because it has two noun phrases, each of which can have a determiner, whereas the shorter one is one noun phrase with a possessive noun modifier and as such can only have one explicit determiner (the determiner attaches to the possessive noun, but the possessive noun itself functions as a determiner for the other noun). But that’s not a problem for such things as the problem’s resolution. In the cases in question, the prosody seems to be important – when the modifying noun is dangling off in a prepositional phrase (of the problem), it is less central, more clearly a peripheral modifier that can be dropped off.

We might also consider some influence of the sources – soupe du jour and crux interpretum. Of course we don’t have that in mind when we say the crux of the matter. But we do have the gravity of tradition and habit. And that is the crux of this word tasting note.

If I may say that.

 

Thanks to colleagues on the email list of Editors Canada for discussing crux and inspiring this word tasting.

Advertisements