May 24th, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

Another way to generate text #3: “dictionary expansions”

This technique was inspired by the Oulipo‘s n+7 technique. I call it “dictionary expansion,” and it’s a quick and simple way to generate massive amounts of text.

First, you need an ordinary sentence:

The cat wants to jump up on the table.

Next, you replace whichever words in that sentence that you like with their dictionary definitions. For now, let’s just do the nouns—although note that you can do this with any word and part of speech:

The small domesticated carnivore, bred in a number of varieties, wants to jump up on the article of furniture consisting of a flat, slablike top supported on one or more legs or other supports.

And that’s it! (I told you it was simple—so simple that I doubt I’m the only one to have devised it.)

The technique is of course recombinant, and can get out of control rather quickly:

The small domesticated animal that eats flesh, bred in a number of kinds or sorts, wants to jump up on an individual object of movable articles such as tables, chairs, desks or cabinets, required for use or ornament in a house, office, or the like, and consisting of a flat, slablike uppermost or upper part or surface and supported on one or more somethings resembling or suggesting in use, position, or appearance a leg or other something that serves as a foundation, prop, brace, or stay.

And again:

The small domesticated member of the kingdom Animalia, that has a well-defined shape and usually limited growth, and that can move voluntarily, actively acquire food and digest it internally, and that has a sensory and nervous system that allows it to respond rapidly to stimuli, and that out of preference or nutritional necessity eats the soft substance of humans or other animal bodies (said substance consisting of muscle and fat), and that is bred in a number of classes or groups of individual objects, people, animals, etc. of the same nature or character and that are thus classified together because they have traits in common—that member wants to jump up on an individual thing that is visible or tangible and that is relatively stable in form, and what’s more is movable—such as a seat, especially for one person, usually having four legs for support and a rest for the back and often having rests for the arms—or an article of furniture having a broad, usually level, writing surface, as well as drawers or compartments for papers, writing materials, etc.—or a a piece of furniture with shelves, drawers, etc., for holding or displaying items—or even a table—and that is required for use or ornament in a building in which people live, or a room, set of rooms, or building where the business of a commercial or industrial organization or of a professional person is conducted, or the like, consisting of a flat, slablike uppermost or upper portion or division of a whole that is separate or distinct, or rather an outermost or uppermost layer or area, and that is in its totality supported on one or more somethings resembling or suggesting in use, position, or appearance either of the two lower limbs of a biped, as a human being, or any of the paired limbs of an animal, arthropod, etc. that support and move the body, or some other something that serves as the basis or groundwork of anything, such as a stick, or a rod, or a pole, or a beam, or any other rigid support that imparts rigidity or steadiness by holding parts together or in place, such as a clasp, or a clamp, or a bracket, or a lock, or a nipper.

Indeed, you could write a whole book using nothing but this technique! I thought once of doing so, but lost interest. Instead, I simply used the technique here and there to mess with some sentences, although not in anything I ever published.

This is, of course, pure defamiliarization, not unlike Tolstoy’s story narrated from the point of view of a horse.

See also:

& enjoy!

Update 1: A variation, inspired by the comments: with each iteration, change dictionaries, moving between maximally different ones (e.g., a children’s dictionary vs. a college dictionary).

Update 2: Related posts:

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