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Word Pictures

Artist Mary Kuper is bringing words to life in a new monthly series of artworks that explore different etymologies. Mary will reveal the meaning behind a new word each month and these artistic explorations will be on display in the foyer of the National Poetry Library. 

Mary Kuper on Word Pictures

"I started studying linguistics but found it was not the science that appealed to me, but the imagery evoked by the words. I worked for a while as a printer and the pleasure of physically constructing meaning with pieces of lead or wood and the beauty of type on the page lead me into illustration. 

Wooden type is the armature on which these Word Pictures hang; the shape of the word is my starting point. Behind this are words I have collected that conjure up images in the space between their present and past meanings, their origins and their familiar current usage.

The realisation that I could use pictures to talk about words by going inside a single word was a great discovery for me. An illustrator always struggles not to repeat the text in the images. Here the narrative of the word is hidden inside it and the pictures tell that story. There is a past, a present and some unknown future, encapsulated in the combination of letters.

These pictures are made using drawing and various print methods. I used a typewriter for the etymologies because I wanted to avoid the computer, which makes the ‘processing’ of words so easy to shape shift. There is no logic to the words I have chosen  except that they all have stories I want to draw. Some of the origins are speculative, so-called ‘folk’ etymologies but still unravel a narrative in much the same way as does the language of dreams."

The first Word Picture in the series was on display until Tue 31 Mar 2020

Mary Kuper

Chintzy by Mary Kuper
Reading the phrase "Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness", in 'Death in Leamington', by John Betjeman, I was curious to know where the word came from. It was a gift to have a cheetah and a cheap and cheerful fabric linked by their etymology. Usually very structured in my working method, my plan with these prints is to work intuitively with whatever materials seem appropriate to each word, relying on the letterpress and typewritten definitions to hold the series together. Here I used stencils and a cut up floral plastic cloth to print from.
The second Word Picture in the series was on display until Thur 9 Sep 2021

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Idiot by Mary Kuper
I chose to illustrate this word because with climate change, the pandemic and the general state of the world meteorologically and politically it is clear that individual responsibility is ours. It is no use blaming those in charge if we are behaving like idiots ourselves and not engaging.
The third Word Picture in the series was on display until 23 October 2021

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Serendipity by Mary Kuper
I wanted to illustrate the word ‘serendipity’ because it encloses a complete fairy tale. In 1302 Amir Kushrow, Sufi mystic, poet and musician wrote a poem about the Three Princes of Seredip, the old Persian name for Sri Lanka. Their father the king, satisfied with their fine education, offered the kingdom to each prince in turn. They refused it, claiming to be less fit to rule than their king who then sent them off to make their way in the world. In 1754 the English writer and statesman, Horace Walpole, was inspired by their story to coin the word ‘serendipity’ to describe the way the princes were ‘always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.’ (H. Walpole) In one story the princes help to search for a lost camel. They tell the owner that the camel is lame, blind in one eye and ridden buy a pregnant woman. It carries honey on one side, butter on the other. The description was so accurate that they were accused of theft until they explained how they knew so much. The grass was cropped short on the less fertile side of the road so the camel must be blind on the other side. Only the tracks of three feet were crisp, so the animal must be lame and missing a tooth because grass clumps, the size of a camel’s tooth, were lying on the road. They guessed the load was honey and butter by the flies and ants on opposite sides of the road, as honey attracts flies while ants like butter. The rider had to be a woman because they reacted with lust to her traces in the sand where the camel had knelt down. They knew she was pregnant by handprints showing she struggled to get up again. Their evidence so impressed the emperor that he made the princes his advisors. It also inspired the word ‘serendipity’ for discoveries ‘made by chance, found without looking for them but possible only through a sharp vision and sagacity and never indulgent with the apparently inexplainable.’ (H. Walpole)
The fourth Word Picture in the series was on display until 15th December 2021

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Danger by Mary Kuper
The link between danger and power is an obvious one, as is the etymological connection between ‘dominus’, ‘danger’ and ‘dungeon’. I wanted to use the Houses of Parliament as a symbol of power but didn’t want to deal with the complex architecture so I used paper lithography with gum Arabic to transfer and doctor a photocopy of an old engraving. The text reads: ‘Danger‘ comes from the Latin word ‘dominus’ meaning ‘lord’, ‘master’. In late Latin this gave us ‘dominarium’ meaning ‘jurisdiction’, ‘sovereignty’. This was the origin of French ‘dangier’, first attested in English in the 13 th Century. Being in danger meant being at the mercy of a lord or master who had the power to do harm. ‘Dungeon’ has the same origin.
The fifth Word Picture in the series was on display until 19th January 2022
Juggernaut by May Kuper
I like this etymology because it is surprising but deeply appropriate - juggernauts, or lack of them, being so significant in our cosmos. And the metaphor, as in Ted Hughes’ The Machine, from Birthday Letters carries even more than the real thing. The text reads: Juggernaut is derived from the combination of Sanskrit words jagat ‘world’ and nātha ‘lord’. It is one of the titles given to Krishna, the eighth avatar of the god Vishṇu. The god is celebrated in the Ratha Yatra, ‘Festival of Chariots’, held annually at Pūrī in Orissa, India. During the festival thousands of worshippers pull effigies of the god on enormous carts, under which devotees are said to have willingly thrown themselves. Taken from accounts of the festival by early travellers, by the 19th century juggernaut was figuratively used in English to mean ‘an overwhelming concept or institution that demands unswerving devotion’. Today in British English a juggernaut can also be a very large truck.
The sixth Word Picture in the series was on display until 13th March 2022

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Tawdry by Mary Kuper
A widow sworn to chastity escapes from her new husband with the help of divine intervention. This is the tawdry tale of Saint Audrey, born Etheldreda, and it is all in the word ‘tawdry’. I used lace and gold ink in this print, as befits a lady who saw her downfall in her love of finery and gave her name to a lace necklace. The text reads: Etheldreda, later known as Saint Audrey, was a seventh Century East Anglian princess, founder of Ely Abbey. She had vowed to die a virgin and her husband accepted this. On his death she remarried but her new husband opposed her vow. Helped by the bishop of York, Wilfred, she escaped to the coast. Then the tide rose and stayed high for seven days, miraculously separating her from her husband. She became a nun and Abbess of Ely. Her body was said to be intact when reinterred in Ely Cathedral in 1106. She died of a tumour on her neck, It is claimed that she considered this to be divine retribution for the necklaces she had enjoyed wearing in her earlier life. During the Middle Ages a fair was held in Ely on her name day. Amongst the goods for sale here was ‘tawdry lace’, short for ‘Saint Audrey’s lace’. This thin ribbon of lace worn around the neck was so garish and badly made that by the early 17th Century the word ‘tawdry’ came into common English usage, applied to anything shoddy and without real value.
The seventh Word Picture in the series was on display until 26th March 2022
Orchid by Mary Kuper
As spring begins and the annual orchid festival opens at Kew Gardens, ‘orchid’ seems a good word for March. Named for the resemblance of the roots to testicles, ‘orchis’ in Greek, the word was introduced into English in 1845. ‘Ballockwort’ was the old English equivalent from ballocks, or testicles, which itself evolved from beallucas, the Old English word for balls, plus ‘wort’, meaning ‘plant’.
The eighth Word Picture in the series was on display until 3rd June 2022


Farce by Mary Kuper
I like this etymology because it shows the way in which ‘farce’ as a dramatic form was used knowingly to distract from the real business at hand, and that hasn’t changed. The ridiculous subplots keep us passively sitting down, cheerfully swallowing what is being fed us. Farce is the stuffing and we are the stuffed. I made a trivial and pointless engraving for this illustration, and really enjoyed doing it. The text reads: Originating from the Latin ‘farcire’, to stuff, the word was used in 13th Century Old French to describe stuffed dishes in cooking. In English it had a similar meaning, as in the English ‘forcemeat’. In Ecclesiastical Latin of the same period, it described phrases used to pad out the liturgy. Initially these were expressions inserted between the words of a formulaic expression, notably ‘kyrie eleison’, Lord have mercy, expanding on ‘Lord’ with additional words of praise in a practice called ‘farcing’. Other more extended insertions followed, with the tradition of adding impromptu comic interludes to religious plays. By the 15th Century farce emerged as its own theatre form in France, followed in 1690 by England. These are plays that are characterised by inconsequential action and artificial gags, existing purely to entertain. Outside the theatre farce is used to describe a situation that is ridiculous, hollow and futile.
The ninth Word Picture in the series was on display until 3rd July 2022


Risk by Mary Kuper
Up until now I have avoided speculative etymologies because they are so much harder to unravel, but I was intrigued by the idea that risk may be connected to a plant root, causing a hazard at sea. There is much written about this, tracing the word back to the Odyssey. And risk is also another very timely word. The text reads as follows: English borrowed risk in the 17th century from French risqué, ’danger’, ‘inconvenience’. This can be traced to 12th century post-classical Latin resicum, resicum ‘hazard’ often used in the context of ‘possible harm to goods transported by sea’. Earlier origins of risk remain uncertain. One theory is that resicum comes from resecare, ‘to cut’ hence ‘that which cuts’,‘rock’,‘reef’. Speculation also suggests that resicum is from rhizo ‘root’ in classical Greek, in medieval Greek, rhizikon ‘hazard at sea’. Maybe it is from Arabic risq, ‘that which man is allotted by God for his livelihood’, hence ‘luck, chance’, or maybe from Arabic rizk, ‘tax imposed on a people to maintain an occupying army’. All of these possible origins hold a threat and put one at risk.
The tenth Word Picture in the series was on display until 30th September 2022


Paradise by Mary Kuper
The etymology of Paradise is more about the wall that keeps some things out and others in. Originally it was fruit trees, vegetables and animals that were the elect, but in its exclusivity not much has changed. The text reads: Paradise, from the Old Iranian pari 'around' + 'diaz' 'to build', 'heap up' (wall), originally meant an enclosure, a walled garden.
The eleventh and final Word Picture in the series is currently on display


Peculiar by Mary Kuper
‘Peculiar’ seems a fitting word to close this series of eleven words, each chosen for the oddity of its etymology, each unusual in its own particular way. It seems apt for the times we live in and gave me an excuse to print money, also an apt comment on today. The text reads: The Latin word ‘peculiaris’ ‘privately owned’ comes from ‘peculium’, ‘property’ and the word for cattle, ‘pecu’. Peculiar in English reflects the idea of private property, but describes a special quality possessed by an individual or group. It developed the sense ‘odd’, ‘unusual’ only around 1600. Related words are ‘pecuniary’, to do with money and impecunious, without money.