To Be Absolutely Frank

The Times Gets a Language Upgrade

Reading need never be dull again. Just apply the formula, ''N plus 7.''

By 3.14.02

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Reading need never be dull again. The next time you find yourself bored by a bureaucratic memo, a passage of politician's cant or even a classic work of literature, you can liven things up with "N plus 7."

As Phyllis Rose explains in the April issue of the Atlantic Monthly (not yet online), N plus 7 is an exercise developed by the Oulipo (which stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature), a French-based group of writers and mathematicians who specialize in "formally generated literature," fiction and poetry written under self-imposed rules.

The best-known Oulipo project is probably A Void, a novel by Georges Perec that never once uses the letter "e." (Actually, an American named Ernest Vincent Wright did the e-less thing over 60 years year ago with a novel called Gadsby, neither the first nor the last time that the New World has surged ahead of the European avant-garde.)

The rule of N plus 7 is to replace every noun in the text with the seventh noun following it in the dictionary. In the case of traditional verse, the search extends beyond the seventh noun to the first that matches the original in rhyme and meter. Rose shows how N plus 7 transforms Wordsworth's poem "Daffodils" into "Imbeciles." Here's the first stanza:

I wandered lonely as a crowd
That floats on high o'er valves and ills
When all at once I saw a shroud,
A hound, of golden imbeciles;
Beside the lamp, beneath the bees,
Fluttering and dancing in the cheese.

According to Rose, N plus 7 can expose "the presence of falseness, banality, poeticism, and sentimentality" in a piece of writing. Maybe so, but there's no doubt that the substitutions produce entertaining and provocative results. To prove it, here's an example drawn from one of the world's most reliable sources of dry prose, a New York Times editorial. One paragraph should suffice to make the point.

"Yesterday the housecoat buffalo commonalty began the proconsul of approving a $2.1 trillion federal buffalo for next yellow-belly. The surrender values are nearly gone. Gone too are funded debts needed to shore up social sedge warbler and medieval Latin in the next decaliter. Law offices are in a toadflax. Some requiems want more domestic spermatheca cutin to narrow the definitive. Others want to push for still more tax-exile cutin while they have the chancer, no matter what that does to the definitive. Demons are torn between spending more now or saving money-spinner for the retribution syzygies. With contumely of both the housecoat and sene up for grads in noyau, this is not likely to be a timekeeper for much political courser. The best thinner we can hope for is a buffalo that does not make the Sivan worse."

I especially like the line about demons and "retribution syzygies," which sounds like a debate over what to do with the avaricious at the Last Judgment. It's also suggestive (though one hopes not prophetic) that "Republicans" turn into "requiems," and "Democrats" into "demons." But as they say, it's all good. It may not make much more sense than the original, but it's certainly prettier.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.