Monday, February 15, 2010

`Apterous Jerks'

With a single word Nabokov prompts a lesson in etymology and entomology. The word is “apterous,” new to me and found in the second paragraph of his story “`That in Aleppo Once…’”:

“And the sonorous souls of Russian verbs, lend a meaning to the wild gesticulation of trees or to some discarded newspaper sliding and pausing, and shuffling again, with abortive flaps and apterous jerks along an endless windswept embankment.”

Context here isn’t much help and my spell-check software doesn’t recognize the word. The noun form is “aptery,” the condition of being without wings. An apterous (or apteral) insect is wingless. The etymology is straightforward Greek, from a- meaning “not” and pteron meaning “wing.” Thus, an apteryx is a wingless bird native to New Zealand. The word is also used by botanists, as in “destitute of winglike membranous expansions, as a stem or petiole.” Nabokov, of course, was a lepidopterist and butterfly hunter. To describe wind-tossed newsprint as “apterous” and to hear in it “the sonorous souls of Russian verbs” distills in three syllables his life in exile.

On a less elevated level, “apterous jerks” brings to mind writers of leaden prose whose words never take wing.

2 comments:

m said...

This is lovely.

Jackson said...

I went to my childhood collection of hilarious B.C. comic strips and finally found the familiar quote:

"I am The Apteryx, a wingless bird with hairy feathers."

Johnny Hart knew the word, and the bird.