High grade ha

High grade ha

In Brief

Among the many daring forms of verbal inventiveness in Ulysses, one major feature from Calypso onward is the truncation of words. Thoughts, dialogue, and narrative are studded with fragments, abbreviations, acronyms, and single letters plucked from the beginnings and ends of words. Joyce's aim may be, in part, simply to mimic the ways in which human beings use language, but he also deploys these devices to comic effect and explores their linguistic, epistemological, and hermeneutic implications. The pattern of shortening words is established when Bloom picks up his "Plasto's high grade ha."

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These four words appear in a "sweated legend in the crown" of the hat, suggesting that the final letter may have been worn away by repeated use,  or obscured by "hairoil," or sewn out of sight in a seam. Things like that happen to printed letters all the time, and a lesser novel would supply the missing one on the premise that that's what such a fragment is really saying. Joyce had a finer and quirkier sense of reality. He presents the mutilated morphology as is and goes out of his way to suggest that it has been perpetuated in Bloom's consciousness, becoming a new word that he recalls whenever he looks in his hat. When the object is featured again at the beginning of Lotus Eaters, the narrative's free indirect style shows how he thinks of it: "Under their dropped lids his eyes found the tiny bow of the leather headband inside his high grade ha."

Many interpretive responses to this shortened word are possible. One writer of a weblog (www.spectacle.org) infers that the entire novel is a high grade (allusive, intellectual, pretentious) ha (a big joke, sending up the overly serious reader). Alternatively, one might note that, in the moment before Bloom's eyes spot the hat's "legend" in Lotus Eaters, he has been reading other "legends" on packets of tea in a shop window: "In Westland row he halted before the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company and read the legends of leadpapered packets: choice blend, finest quality, family tea. Rather warm. Tea. Must get some from Tom Kernan." Has one company's legend poached a letter from another's, conscripting it to serve in making a new kind of meaning? In Lestrygonians, Bloom is still repeating the T in memory and dwelling on its sound: "Tea. Tea. Tea. I forgot to tap Tom Kernan."

Whatever one may make of this verbal odd duck, it certainly is not flying solo. Lestrygonians features many such single letters. Some are familiar and unremarkable: Jack Power's father, Bloom thinks, was "a G man"—a plainclothes officer in Dublin Castle employed by the G division of the D. M. P. , which surveilled Fenian activity. But the novel has itself produced Y and S men a few pages earlier, when a sandwichboard display passes by Bloom on Westmoreland Street: "A procession of whitesmocked men marched slowly towards him along the gutter, scarlet sashes across their boards. . . . He read the scarlet letters on their five tall white hats: H. E. L. Y. S. Wisdom Hely's. Y lagging behind drew a chunk of bread from under his foreboard, crammed it into his mouth and munched as he walked." Bloom crosses the street when "apostrophe S had plodded by." Just as T becomes estranged from signifying Plasto's hats and advertises a different product, so Hely's personified letters stray away from their word, become separate entities, and threaten to signify something on their own.

Perhaps Y and S mean nothing at all, but the whole string of men with letters on their chests makes Bloom think of acronyms, in which each individual letter initiates a word: "Like that priest they are this morning: we have sinned: we have suffered." The priest in Lotus Eaters had IHS emblazoned on his surplice, prompting Bloom to grasp at the significance: "I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is." He returns now to this mistaken interpretation, just as earlier in Lestrygonians he returned to a second acronym he thought of in the church, INRI: "Iron nails ran in." Such abbreviations usually have clear meaning to an in-crowd: every Latin-trained priest knows that INRI signifies Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. But even churchmen differ on the significance of IHS: do the letters mean In Hoc Signo or Iesus Hominum Salvator? In fact the foreign-language estrangement goes one level deeper: both constructions falsify an original Greek signification.

Isolated letters, whether traveling alone or strung together in acronyms and similar abbreviations, invite readers to complete the communicative circuit by supplying other letters necessary to make some word or words. They invite inference, but at the same time they conceal the thing signified from those who do not already know the words. Anyone not in the know may wallow in ignorance for years, which is what has happened to readers of Ulysses from two more letters in Lestrygonians. Someone has scrawled "U.P.: Up" on a postcard and sent it to Dennis Breen, who goes half mad with paranoid inference. Breen feels certain that he knows what the letters mean, and perhaps the jokester who mailed the card does too. Intrepid annotators can join them by identifying some highly plausible referents, but it is always possible that Jim is having a high grade ha at their expense, and that the prankster is doing the same with Breen.

The novel contains some less interesting abbreviations drawn from common speech which nevertheless twist readers' minds in similar knots as they try to supply the missing letters. In Calypso Bloom thinks of "M'Auley's down there: n. g. as position," almost certainly shorthand for "no good." (The "first principle of real estate" is location, location, location!) In Lestrygonians he imagines that ads for gonorrhea treatments have been posted in greenhouses "on the q. t.," which Slote, citing Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, says means "quiet." (By subtracting the three letters between the initial letter and the last one, perhaps?) In Eumaeus Bloom thinks that hiring a cab to ride home with Stephen might be a good idea "in their then condition, both of them being e.d.ed." Gifford and Slote both gloss the abbreviation as slang for "exhausted," but the provenance is unclear, and the chapter's narrator makes matters worse by tacking a second "ed" onto the first one to form a spectacularly inept past participle.

Other not-quite-acronymic abbreviations sprout up in institutions like the aristocracy and the clergy that heap multiple titles on their distinguished members, finding it helpful to coin shorthand versions that can be hung on a name like medals on a chest. Joyce clearly enjoyed the absurdity of this. At the beginning of Wandering Rocks "Father Conmee S.J." (Society of Jesus) chats with the wife of "Mr David Sheehy M.P." (Member of Parliament), walks on, sees a sign announcing that "The reverend T. R. Greene B.A." (Bachelor of Arts) "will (D.V.)" (Deo volente, God willing) "speak," steps onto a tram from which "Nicholas Dudley C. C." (Curate in Charge) has just stepped off, and ponders the mission of "saint Peter Claver S.J." to the many Africans "to whom the faith had not (D.V.) been brought." Cyclops supplies a long list of clergymen adorned with 17 such tags. They name real titles and orders, but the prevalence of a handful of favored capitals (especially C, O, P, S, and D) gives the impression that the letters are somehow copulating and multiplying.

Cyclops also heaps a smothering truckload of 19 honorific abbreviations on "H. R. H." (His Royal Highness) George, Prince of Wales: "K. G., K. P., K. T., P. C., K. C. B., M. P, J. P., M. B., D. S. O., S. O. D., M. F. H., M. R. I. A., B. L., Mus. Doc., P. L. G., F. T. C. D., F. R. U. I., F. R. C. P. I. and F. R. C. S. I."  Some of the titles are genuine, some are real but weirdly inapplicable, and some are simply mocking. The game of discerning just what kind of honor might be signified by such abbreviations spins off, in other parts of Ulysses, into sheer inventive play, as when Aeolus headlines turn the crude taunts "kiss my arse" and "kiss my royal Irish arse" into the respectable-sounding "K. M. A." and "K. M. R. I. A." In Scylla and Charybdis a meaningless mnemonic turns out to carry a message when Stephen ponders his debt to George Russell: "A. E. I. O. U."

Distinct from these many initial-letter abbreviations are the times when a single letter is subtracted from a word, as in the case of Bloom's ha. Other such words occur to him quite naturally as reflections of idiomatic speech. In Lotus Eaters he thinks of a poor street urchin "Waiting outside pubs to bring da home. Come home to ma, da." In Aeolus he uses a staple of hurried newsroom discourse when he asks Nannetti to insert a short paragraph about Alexander Keyes' business into the paper: "Well, you can do that and just a little par calling attention. You know the usual. Highclass licensed premises. Longfelt want. So on." Later in the chapter another newspaperman uses the same shorthand: "— Of course, if he wants a par, Red Murray said earnestly, a pen behind his ear, we can do him one."

Readers may infer that every such fragment is mere slang, as insignificant as ma or da. If they do, they will miss the rich suggestiveness of "ba" in Nausicaa. A sleepy Bloom notices a bat flitting about in the evening sky: "Ba. What is that flying about? Swallow? Bat probably." Is Bloom somehow tiredly laboring to articulate the word "bat"? Not likely, because he first wonders if the flying animal is a bird, and then decides it is a bat, with no difficulty of recall. Is he merely expelling air from his lips to express his frustration at not knowing what the animal is, in a low-energy form of "Bah!"? Possibly, but why then does he repeat the tiny sentence ("Ba.") three more times over the course of the next paragraph and a half? 

A glimpse of what Joyce may be doing here comes into somewhat clearer focus if one realizes that is an English transliteration of the Egyptian hieroglyphic for a part of the human soul that survives death and flies away like a bird. In many of the sentences after Bloom's four uses of the word, he thinks about "Metempsychosis" and metamorphosis and fancies that the bat is "Like a little man in a cloak." But it seems unlikely that Bloom would know much about ancient Egyptian metaphysics, so perhaps Joyce is layering his own learned symbolism on his protagonist's relatively unsophisticated thoughts—as happens often in the novel. Still, the reader is challenged to construe Bloom's thought process each time he articulates the syllable. One thing is clear: the fragment does not signify "bat" in any simple, one-to-one way, but it does link the flying mammal with the flying soul-principle.

At other times, the novel shows Bloom hearing or seeing part of a word and struggling to identify the complete unit. Hades registers his hearing "Oot: a dullgarbed old man from the curbstone tendered his wares, his mouth opening: oot" just before revealing what the old man is selling: "Four bootlaces for a penny." In Lestrygonians, he spots four letters on a YMCA pamphlet and for a second wildly supposes that his own name may be on it: "Bloo... Me? No." The word is "blood." This brief adventure of sense-making, enlivened by a witty elaboration of M into "Me," illustrates the pervasive human habit of seizing on some bit of information plucked from the welter of sensory experience and guessing at the larger pattern it may represent. Daniel Kahneman's 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow argues that the human brain is constantly leaping to conclusions by such heuristic shortcuts.

Having seen himself on a piece of paper by adding a letter that is not there, Bloom later finds himself removed from a piece of paper by the subtraction of a letter that should be there. In Eumaeus he is "Nettled not a little" to see that the Evening Telegraph has listed an "L. Boom" among the mourners at Dignam's funeral. At the graveside, the reporter Joe Hynes, who knows Bloom well enough to borrow money from him but not well enough to remember his "christian name," has gotten him to say that it is "L . . . Leopold." This initial letter finds its way into the paper but then disappears from the surname—almost as if a typesetter robbed the L from an adjoining word to complete the line. (The same article contains a line of badly "bitched type," which Bloom attributes to a typesetter's distraction.)

As with the migratory T, the sliding L raises interpretive questions for readers: should it be regarded merely as an instance of the proofreading problems to which daily newspapers are susceptible, or does it evoke something distinctive about Bloom? Critics have noted more than once its affinity for the "contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality" in Proteus, where Jesus the Jew makes a big boom. For Bloom himself, the change becomes just another amusing quirk to incorporate into his self-image: "L. Boom pointed it out to his companion B. A." (Stephen Dedalus, Bachelor of Arts).

In addition to any other kinds of sense that one may make of Joyce's verbal truncations, it seems fair to say that his novel captures the bewilderment and epistemological pluck of human beings plunged into the maelstrom of linguistic mutability. Botched type, obscured print, fragmentary sight, imperfect hearing, advertising gimmicks, highbrow titles, insider patois, idiomatic slang, foreign words, beguiling coincidences: all these things throw chaff at the mind's radar, muddying the waters of communication and making language something more than a logically arranged sequence of clearly articulated concepts.

JH 2020
Source: previews.123rf.com.
Fragments from a word-completion exercise, source unknown.
A few of the thousands of English words that have settled into shortened nickname versions of their polysyllabic originals, as observed by Panchalee Thakur on a weblog. Source: www.linkedin.com.
Words with their vowels sieved away to meet the Twitter 140 character limit. Source: www.linkedin.com.
Initialized condensation of "For attention of Amy, work from home today. Per your request please find attached work in progress file. In my humble opinion, I'll reply by end of day. Talk to you later, Ria." Source: www.linkedin.com.
Business names formed from the compounding of word fragments. Source: www.businessnamingbasics.com.