Tag Archives: poison

“The soil will become intoxicated by all the chemicals that they use to build the buildings.”

This sentence comes from an essay discussing a plan by the city of New Haven to convert a strip of land used by a co-op farm into a combination of mall stores and “clean manufacturing.” My student was considering a compromise proposal whereby the farm would occupy a smaller part of the strip and the development would be built around it. Not a good idea, my student argued, and you can see why: intoxicated soil.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, or can imagine, a building built by chemicals, but that’s not the fun of the sentence. Construction, especially in these modern times, does involve fuel, solvents, adhesives, finishes, and materials that contain or release chemicals of various sorts, although that’s not exactly what the language says. The first part of the sentence is so much more interesting that we can let the latter go by (although I didn’t in my comments on the paper: I drew an “equal” sign in the margin and slashed it, underlined “chemicals,” “use,” and “build,” and hoped the student would ask for clarification).

No, what’s interesting is the intoxicated soil. Once you start explaining why it’s wrong, you see why it’s so close to being right.

Webster’s New Collegiate provides definitions of three parts of speech.

intoxicate vt -cated, -cating: 1) to poison; 2a) to excite or stupefy by alcohol or a drug esp. to the point where physical and mental control is markedly diminished; 2b) to excite to the point of enthusiasm or frenzy.

Intoxicated adj: affected by or as if by alcohol.

intoxication n: 1) an abnormal state that is essentially a poisoning, as in “intestinal intoxication”; 2a) the condition of being drunk; 2b) a strong excitement or elation.

All these forms have as their root the word “toxic,” meaning “poisonous,” or “toxin,” meaning “a colloidal proteinaceous poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation.”

I don’t think alcohol actually qualifies as a toxin by this definition (chemists and biologists, please correct me!); but there is such a thing as “alcohol poisoning,” and it’s real, so we can at least use the term “toxic” with it. So “intoxicate” by its first definition can apply to alcohol, just as “intoxication” by its first definition can apply to drinking way too much.

But “intoxicated” is dedicated entirely to the effects of alcohol, either literal or figurative.

Well, I’m in love with my student. He eschews the shorter and simpler (and much more acceptable) “the soil will become toxic” and instead goes straight for the far more colorful “the soil will become intoxicated.” Has he decided on his own that this is the correct adjective to mean “poisoned”? Oh, I do hope so. I would far rather that he figured it out for himself than that some thesaurus offered it to him.

He has written a phrase that technically is not wrong, but nevertheless conjures up a delightfully bizarre picture in the reader’s mind (at least if the reader has ever been intoxicated by something other than arsenic or motor oil). Can’t you just see clods of earth reeling around the property, attempting to dance, bumping into each other, singing “Melancholy Baby,” clinging to lampposts, kissing, weeping, ultimately lying down and passing out? Are those sounds we hear coming from the site late at night hiccups?

That’s not a construction site: it’s a party.

Yes, definitely a party. Notice the intoxicated soil? Image © Parkinsonsniper | Dreamstime.com - Construction Site Photo. By permission.

Yes, definitely a party. Notice the intoxicated soil?
Image © Parkinsonsniper | Dreamstime.com – Construction Site Photo. By permission.

“Her father, Creon, decides he will lie by her side…”

As promised, the other Medea horror.

In this version, my student makes King Creon out to be just about as selfless as Milton’s Adam, who accepts the apple from Eve and takes a bite so that whatever her fate may be, he will share it.

Creon really isn’t that kind of guy. He bosses Medea around and is quick to exile her, has no problem marrying his daughter to someone who’s already married, and is, like Creon of Thebes, full of himself. Euripedes certainly didn’t make him self-sacrificing or suffused with paternal love for Glauce.

But my student does:

“Her father, Creon, decides he will lie by her side and soak in the poison as well.”

My student conjures up a puddle of poison for Glauce to lie in (has it dripped down from gown and crown?), and then brings in Creon and stretches him out to share the bath—or to help her sop it up. Will he SOAK in the poison, or soak IN the poison? I’m not sure it matters much, except maybe to Creon. Can’t you just see him there, deciding to lie by her side? What alternatives does he consider before making his choice? “What shall I do, what shall I do?” he dithers; then, finally, “Ah! I will lie down and soak in the poison.” And is it sympathy that drives him, or jealousy? (“Why should she get all the attention?”)

In actuality, Creon does run to his screaming daughter and embrace her. But his intention is NOT to have his own flesh burned off upon contact with her poison-coated skin. Maybe he thinks he can save her; maybe he just wants to rock her and murmur “There, there.” But he doesn’t know that that one loving impulse is going to doom him to a horrible death. Ah well. Fate, the gods, and all that.

I’ve never liked either Creon much, and that may be why I don’t see the scene with the sympathy my student brings to it (or at least seems to bring to it).

I just wonder if Medea knew her poison would destroy so many of her enemies. She may be something of a monster, but to me she’s the aggrieved party, and a lot more sympathetic than any of those spoiled, self-centered Corinthians. I’m with her: “Let the whole house crash.”

Ah, excuse this bitter tone! It’s the middle of Finals!