Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A New Word

New York in Windows 257, 2011

I learned a new word the other day. It always impresses me when I find that there’s a word for something that I hadn’t realized needed a name.
The word is “irmus.” I read about it in this past Sunday’s New York Times in Anne Beattie’s piece about her upcoming book about Pat Nixon. [For you younger readers, Pat Nixon was Richard Nixon’s wife.]
In the course of doing her research about Mrs. Nixon at a library, Beattie stumbled across a book called “The Book of Literary Terms,” which she says she read with “great interest.”
According to Beattie and “The Book of Literary Terms,” irmus describes the phenomenon in which “not until the end of a passage does the reader fully understand what is being spoken of.”
I don’t think I’ve ever tried to write a passage or even a sentence that would quality as irmus (or would it be an irmus?). Seems like the kind of thing that would call for more than the usual amount of cleverness. But I think it could be a really neat way of describing a photograph that can be interpreted in different ways the more time you spend looking at it. Sort of like palimpsest in reverse.
When I took the picture above I thought I was taking a picture of what was in front of me. (Yeah, I know I posted this recently. But this is a new take on it.) But the more I looked at it the more I realized that the real story of this picture was what was in the reflection of the window. Irmus! Or an irmus.
To get a little better handle on this new word—if only to find out whether irmus is a noun or verb or something else—I started looking for a more complete definition with derivations and usage examples. (I took a class in Latin & Greek in Current Use when I was in college, the context of that “currency” being, I’ll admit, now almost thirty years ago. But I did at least learn how to break apart words and study derivations.)
The results of this search are beginning to make me believe that maybe the talented Ms. Beattie isn’t as talented as everyone has made her out to be. For one thing, Google kept wanting me to correct my spelling and search for “firmus.” Lots of references there, it seems. But irmus was harder to find.
Actually, not all that hard, but not terribly more helpful, either. A web site called Rhetorosaurus, which I presume is for those who know a thing or two about rhetoric puts it this way:
IRMUS: last part of sentence completes sense.
        “Examples forthcoming.”
Well, you have to give them credit for brevity. Perhaps they were written in the days of the telegraph, when each letter added to the cost.
From another site I got this definition:
“The periodic sentence, characterized by the suspension of the completion of sense until its end.”
Huh?  That sounds like an awful lot of work. I think I’ll just go take some more pictures and leave the etymology to others.


  1. Haa! I never heard it used before either, probably because it never DID make sense to me in the end. I took three years of Latin way back when, but never Greek. I always wished I had taken Greek. Maybe that's why or irmus isn't sinking in for me now.

  2. Irmus might as well be Chinese or Martian to me. I have enough trouble with English! Taking more pictures sounds like a fine idea. I'll be right over there with a camera stuck to my face.

  3. Hannah Pittard in the acknowledgments for book "Reunion" also notes that the first time she encountered the word irmus was in the Times article you referenced.