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Word Tasting Note: "Chiaroscuro"

We'd like to welcome writer, editor, and designer James Harbeck as our newest regular contributor! His specialty is "Word Tasting Notes." "Words are delicious and intoxicating," Harbeck writes. "So why not taste them like a fine wine?" Here, he savors the word chiaroscuro.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Thus begins La Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri, the words dancing on the tip of the tongue, a play of contrasts between the rolling liquids /r/ and /l/ and the voiceless stops /k/ and /t/ (with the voiceless fricative /s/ to augment the edges), even to a contrast of long versus short: diritta short /r/ long /t/, smarrita the reverse.

"Una selva oscura"… a dark forest. Dark and savage? Perhaps — savage is related to selva (so is sylvan). But we know where Dante is headed: first, down into the inferno, down, down, to the darkest depths; then, by way of purgatory, to the greatest heights of paradise. Such a great contrast, night and day, light and dark, clear and obscure.

Chiaroscuro.

Italian chiaro means "light" or — its English cognate — "clear"; oscuro means "dark" or — its English cognate — "obscure." A study in contrasts. It is eye candy: it refers to a painterly technique that accentuates contrasts between light and dark; it has also been used to excellent effect in movies and photography and other visual arts. Shades of grey have a lovely texture, and there is a great thrill in the depth you can get of not just fifty but two hundred fifty-six shades of grey (or even many more if you're using a good film like Kodak T-Max or sixteen-bit encoding in your image files — subject to display medium limitations), but contrasts are less demanding of the fine discrimination of the senses and give a more heightened emotional and aesthetic response. Think of faces by candlelight; think of scenes at night. That's why I love photographing after dark.

We love contrasts in other things, too, of course. If you have an equalizer on your stereo, boost the bass and treble — the music becomes ear candy. Sweet and sour are a favourite flavour combination. And in the realm of public discourse and news, stories about good versus evil or little versus big or, or, or, go over very well. We all have our good and bad sides, our bright parts and our dark parts; we like to think that one side or the other is the "real" person — whichever side is kept hidden must be the reality, and whichever is shown publicly must be the act. Not true, of course, but brain candy is brain candy.

And mouth candy is mouth candy. Say chiaroscuro crisply, with a rolled /r/, four syllables: "kya-ro-sku-ro." The crisp back stop contrasting with the liquid rolling on the tip of the tongue. And the vowels — well, a more front one to start with, but then leaning to the back and round. Of course, for Anglophones, there is the added contrast between what you hear and what it looks like on paper: perfectly phonetic for Italians, a little less so through the Britannic lens.

By the time we reach the middle of the road of life, we of course ought to know very well that pure contrasts are not in the usual nature of things; they are not usual in the things of nature. But at the same time, we have seen enough dark to have our doubts, and we are tired enough that we may want to take the easy angle now and again, and we may be disillusioned about our compromises and one day look up and find ourselves in a dark wood, the straight path lost.

Have we been betrayed? Have we betrayed? Can some clear light be shed on this? How are we thus translated? How may we interpret the original word, the original sense, into our present existence? Oh, traduttore traditore: a translator is a traitor. We lose our way in the grey and grope for light or dark. And we find different paths when we try to make our own words. As witness the many different translations for the opening of Dante's book — you may read a few fistfuls of them at Litrefs Articles. See the contrasts! They clarify and obscure at the same time.

Click here for more photos in the chiaroscuro vein.


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James Harbeck is an editor by day, a designer by night, and a writer by Jove! His love of wine tasting crossed with his love of language to spawn word tasting notes, which appear daily at his blog, Sesquiotica. Buy his just-released book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar, on Lulu.com. Click here to read more articles by James Harbeck.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 22nd 2012, 5:45 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)Top 10 Speller
Brilliant! I too love to roll words round my mouth and taste them. And your photographs are perfectly evocative.
Wednesday August 29th 2012, 12:22 PM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
Why can't dictionaries use the "sounding out" method of pronunciation guidance instead of those dreadful symbols which you have to constantly refer back to a table located somewhere in front or back or who knows where? (Great article; loved it.) --Big Ern.

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