Something About the Human Mind....
When I entered law school in 1996 I took a course, like most law school students, entitled "Legal Research and Writing." The purpose of the course was not simply to train me in techniques of legal research but also to teach me how to persuade a court or jury. In making a legal argument, I was told, try to divide the subject matter into three points. I realized immediately this advice was identical to what I received twenty years previously in theological seminary in my homiletics class--when giving a sermon, generally make three points, with appropriate introductory and concluding material. Though I think that this method will gradually erode under the pressure of more limited attention spans/desires for shorter materials in our post-modern culture, I believe that "thinking in threes" and "presenting in threes" still has a lot to be said for it.
Thus, as I have been studying words, I have been particularly attentive to the way that they might be grouped in "threes" in order to convey shades of meaning to us. For some reason as I do this, Dr. Seuss's story "I can Read with My Eyes Shut," comes to mind. In that cute book he says,
"You can read about trees, and bees and knees. And knees on trees! And bees on threes!
With Dr. Seuss ringing in our ears, let's turn to "threes" in this and the next two essays.
There is no better way to launch a new literary topic than to begin with the Bard. He encourages us to focus on threes in a brief exchange in Twelfth Night. The "boy" Caesario has appeared at Viola's home bringing a message from her self-absorbed and self-appointed lover Count Orsino. Viola wants to rebuff the advances of Orsino but is intrigued by the "boy" who comes to visit. She asks her steward Malvolio to describe his features and age. Malvolio says:
"Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy; as a squash is before 'tis a peascod, or a codling when 'tis almost an apple. 'Tis with him in standing water between boy and man." TN 1.5.165-170.
Malvolio has both piqued and sated our desires for precision about who this "boy" Caesario is [really a girl dressed up as a boy]. We are given a "three," with Caesario in the middle, and we have as precise a description of the time between boy- and manhood as any technical scientific description--and, a much more visual and entertaining one, too!
Our First Three--The Sense of Touch
Those who have developed their sense of touch learn to make precise distinctions between and among sensations. Three words to distinguish the outer surface of something are coriaceous and membranous, with pergameneous in the middle. Let's start with pergameneous. It may be defined as "of the nature or texture of parchment; parchmenty." The word pergameneous derives from the City that gave birth to parchment--Pergamum, a city (and kingdom) of significance in the Hellenistic world of the 4th-2nd century B.C.E. We need to turn to "parchment" for a more precise definition. The OED defines parchment as "The skin of the sheep or goat, and sometimes that of other animals, dressed and prepared for writing, painting, engraving, etc." Thus, it is an animal skin specially prepared for writing. It was a sort of rough or thick paper. The word pergameneous was invented in English in 1826 to describe this parchment-like consistency.
But something that is rougher to the touch than parchment, a thing tougher than pergameneous, is coriaceous. Coriaceous derives from the Latin word "corium/corius" which means "the thick skin covering of an animal." It can also refer to the outer covering of a fruit (the skin, peel or rind) as well as the "shell" of an earthenware pipe. Coriaceous is defined by the OED as "resembling leather in texture; leathery." Its use is chiefly in natural history (description of nature). Thus, though leather can be as smooth as parchment, it seems tougher and more durable.
Then, on the other side of pergameneous is membranous. In botany something that is membranous is "thin and more or less translucent." A membrane is a "thin pliable sheet-like tissue (usually fibrous), serving to connect other structures or to line a part or organ."
These terms, in general, find their origin and primary use in botany and natural history. But it is not too big a stretch to loose them from this confinement and possibly to connect them with the nature of the human life or heart. We might describe a person as coriaceous or membranous and not simply obdurate or pliant. The terms would also help us go beyond the "thin-skinned/thick-skinned" characterization that we have for people. Why not have all kinds of skin in between, that remind us of leather, parchment or a membrane?
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long