Saturday, 12 January 2008

The desert in words.

Cormac MacCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was a feast of new words. It’s a gripping read (see my review here) and MacCarthy’s pared down style means he uses words carefully. Sentences are mostly short. Characters mostly speak in short bursts of dialogue. It seems only right that MacCarthy displays his command of the language by using words that describe specific features of the desert setting. He’s showing me the reader how intimately he knows this land, how knowledgeable Moss is about his physical place in the world.

The first word that had me reaching for my dictionary, “datilla”, appeared on page 8. Neither of my dictionaries have a definition for it, so my googling turned up this . It seems likely that it’s describing a yucca, or other desert plant, when the word is taken in the context of the sentence: “The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him.”

I was quickly reaching for my dictionaries again when I came across “barrial” on page 10: “The barrial stood silent and empty in the sun.” Again, nothing in my dictionaries and I couldn’t find a definition via Google. It reminds me of barrio, so it would seem to be a Spanish word describing desert terrain.

I came across “caldera” on page 15 (He looked out down the track south across the caldera back the way the truck had come.”), and finally my OED could help me. It’s a noun, meaning a large volcanic crater, especially one formed by a major eruption leading to the collapse of the mouth of the volcano (late 17th centry, from Spanish, originally Latin calderia meaning “boiling pot”). Such primeval violence contained in one short word. Knowing what it means adds depth to MacCarthy’s description, as the book opens in the aftermath of a violent drug deal gone wrong.

“Bajada” appeared overleaf, the end of page 16: “At the foot of a rockslide on the edge of the bajada was a small piece of something blue.” Again, my OED relieved my ignorance. It’s a noun meaning a broad slope of alluvial material at the foot of an escarpment (mid 19th centry, from Spanish “descent, slope). The specificity of the word, along with the fact that the rockslide is at the edge of it, somehow reinforces the smallness of the blue thing Moss sees. It is a blue speck in the reddish desert landscape that he can only see through his binoculars.

It was another word describing the physical landscape that had me next reaching for my dictionary: “He took off his boots again to try to cross the gravel without leaving any tracks and he climbed a long and rocky Rincon toward the south rim of the river canyon carrying the boots and the wrappings and the pistol and keeping an eye on the terrain below.” (p 35). “Rincon” means an interior corner, a nook; hence, an angular recess or hollow bend in a mountain, river, cliff, or the like.

The final word this book taught me is "caliche", which is used on page 270 to describe a woman burying her husband herself in 1879. It means a mineral deposit of gravel, sand and nitrates, found in dry areas of America (mid 19th century, from Latin American Spanish).

I lived in New Mexico for two years as a teenager. I hiked in desert landscapes, listening to rattlesnakes as the sun rose overhead. I learned words to describe my environment, words like arroyo and butte and pinon. These words from MacCarthy’s book have added to that stock.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that explanation. I currently read No Country For Old Men and was curios about those words too.

Logophile said...

Glad to be of help! Hope you're enjoying the book.

John said...

Thanks for the glosses on the vocabulary from McCarthy's novel.

I think I can shed some light on "barrial". I can claim no arcane knowledge though; I tracked it down on (not to mention, I speak no Spanish). There it is defined as "heavy clay land" and the annotation suggests the usage is specific to Mexico. It seems to derive from "barro" = "clay" (in particular, potter's clay). I also ran across a superficially similar word used in Spain: "barrizal" = "muddy area". This could be a false cognate, but I doubt it since in Spain, "barro" can also mean "mud" apparently. I doubt also that McCarthy misused or mispelled the word. In every other instance, I have found him to be precise and in complete command of the language - as you have, I take it.

BTW, it is amusing to me that I found your blog by googling "datilla". Your list of (previously-unknown-to-me) desert descriptors in "No Country for Old Men" almost precisely matches my own, so since "datilla" was the first of these in the book and the first I went searching for, you have both saved me time and educated me as well. I did know "caldera" but I gather you were already familiar with "scabrock", which I had to go looking for, so we're even! Cormac McCarthy has done more for my vocabulary than any author since...I can't remember. For my money, the hype is justified - and I mean for the writing, not just for the vocab.


Logophile said...

John, thank you so much for your excellent comment and for the explanation of barrial! It's much appreciated. I agree about McCarthy, though I've only read this and All the Pretty Horses.

Anonymous said...

Datilla probably refers to datil yucca or bannana yucca which grows in west TX and in NM, where I live. Datilla is a diminutive in Spanish so maybe it's referring to small or stunted yucca.

Anonymous said...

Also, caliche is tough stuff to dig in ... like concrete. It's common beneath a thin soil layer in much of SE NM and into TX.

Rincon is commonly used for a box canyon in the SW.

Never heard barrial used in NM, but I think you're right that it means a muddy, clayey or poorly drained area. Or perhaps terrain that is dominated by clayey soils.

Bajada is commonly used for a downslope, in foothills or an escarpment. "La Bajada" is a prominent feature of basaltic rock where the higher elevation around Santa Fe drops toward the Rio Grande north of Albuquerque.

Logophile said...

Anon, thanks for your explanations. Very interesting and it adds to my enjoyment of MacCarthy's command of the language.

Jave said...

Thanks for the explanations and comments. Just what I needed :)

Mike Shaw said...

Yes, Thanks for the explanations and comments. I've just started reading "No Country for Old Men" having seen the film a few months ago. It's the second of Cormack McCarthy's books I've read and I plan to read the others. The first I read was "The Road". I felt at times that I wanted to stop reading but I couldn't...

dave scott said...

I've read No Country at least twice before and just started to read it again, and I also could not find "datilla" anywhere in a dictionary or a spanish/english translator, I must have learned 200 new words when I read, Suttree, and I'll likely be back on the net as I make a closer reading on No Country this time...oddly, McCarthy's language is so fluid that one can read such words once and have them become part of a mental picture without even having the ability to define them until one encounters them again, his prose is nothing short of poetry.