Word Association

Let's play a word association game. Feather?
    Bird
Another word?
    Light

The odds are that early associations will be reacting more to the represented object than the word. Later responses might allude to phrases ("ton" might be given as an answer - as in "a ton of feathers"). In some contexts we might get "leather" (association by rhyme). But we're unlikely to get "feat" (by truncation) or "father" (a letter deleted) even if the original word is presented visually.

Let's consider another word - "Moth". Answers might be

But "mother" is unlikely, even though it's the only other word I know that begins "moth". And "mouth" or "month", though only a letter away, are unlikely answers. In this trajectory of associations there's a descent from the Real World to Concept (Mind) through to language - first Oral associations (Ear) then the Written word (Eye).

The ordering of associations will depend on the context - if you're solving cryptic crosswords the outcomes might be different. Some poetry assumes this hierarchy of associations - casual readers will easy follow the train of thought. However I think some poets expect the words in their poems to set off associations in a hierarchy different to the one I'm suggesting as conventional, the "Real World" allusions demoted in preference to sound or intertextuality. This can happen outside of the poetry context - for example in the UK the word "bangers" is most likely to elicit the answer "mash" not because sausages ("bangers") are usually eaten with mashed potato but because the word "bangers" is most often met in the phrase "bangers and mash". Phrases like "bangers and mash" are part of the world just as moths and night are, but phrases like "Tomorrow and tomorrow" belong more to the page. It's links like this that some poem revel in.

Rankings of associations can change over time. My suspicion is that in a poetry context the rhyming linkage is less important than it used to be, replaced by receptivity to sound constellations, changes of tone, and contemporary references. Perhaps sound in general is a less significant ingredient of poetry nowadays.


Updated November 2009
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Tim Love