Terms and Definitions: N
This page is under perpetual
construction! It was last updated August 15, 2016.
This list is meant to assist,
not intimidate. Use it as a touchstone for important concepts
and vocabulary that we will cover during the term.
Vocabulary terms are listed
The plural form of a few modern English weak nouns derives
from the n-stem declension or n-plural of
Anglo-Saxon (Old English). Examples include the masculine Old
English oxa (which gives us the modern singular ox
and the plural oxen), and the feminine word tunge
(which gives us the modern word tongue). In the case
of tongue, however, the plural form tungen
has been superseded by the pattern of a-stem
English nouns. This stem was common in Old
English, though its declension pattern was still less common
than the a-stems. It is marked by an /n/
in many forms.
(1) An incantation, chant, poem, or speech thought to have
magical power in
Sumerian texts. The most famous example is the nam-shub of
Enki, in which Enki creates a nam-shub that causes
others to lose the ability to speak, and which may be a source
for the later Hebrew legend of the Tower of Babel. In the cyberpunk novel Snow
Crash, Neal Stephenson uses the nam-shub as
a dangerous meme (i.e., an
idea or pattern
of thought that "replicates" by being passed along
from one thinker to another). He re-interprets the Sumerian
myth of Enki by imagining that the Chomskyian deep
structure of the brain can
be reprogrammed with different capacities for language, i.e.,
that humans once shared a common and innate agglutinative language,
but lacked individual consciousness. A priest or scribe named
Enki creates a nam-shub that
re-writes the linguistic wiring of those who read
it in cuneiform (or hear it spoken aloud), causing them to
lose the ability to understand
language. This fictional nam-shub creates in the victim the
capacity for individual, conscious language, but also destroys
individual's access to universal language.
NARADNIKI (Russian, "populists"): Adherents of a radical political movement between the 1870's and late 1890's in Russia who felt Russia was an essentially agricultural country incapable of ever being highly industrialized, and who called for propaganda, literature, and education as necessary elements to help existing peasant villages--already somewhat communal--to be converted into socialist communes (Harkins 307). Matters came to a head early, and mass arrests and exiles took place in 1874 as Czarist forces cracked down on the naradniki, as described in Turgenev's 1877 novel, Virgin Soil (308). Several important Russian writers were naradniki, including Uspenski, Szsodimski, and Zlatovratsi (308).
NARADNOST (Russian, "national character"): In Russian literary criticism and propaganda, the quality literature has when it reflects indigenous national style and when it expresses typical national thought and character. Under the movement of socialist realism, editors and propagandists expected published literature to adhere to naradnost. Stalin dictated that proletarian art should be national in form and socialist in content, and under Stalin's regime, many Russian critics emphasized how folk literature and popular literature contributed to "higher" literature.
NARRATIVE: Narration is
the act of telling a sequence of events, often in chronological
order. Alternatively, the term refers to any story, whether
in prose or verse, involving events, characters, and what the
characters say and do. A narrative is likewise the story or
account itself. Some narrations are reportorial and historical,
such as biographies, autobiographies, news stories, and historical
accounts. In narrative fiction common to literature, the narrative
is usually creative and imaginative rather than strictly factual,
as evidenced in fairy tales, legends, novels, novelettes, short
stories, and so on. However, the fact that a fictional narrative
is an imaginary construct does not necessarily mean it isn't
concerned with imparting some sort of truth to the reader, as
evidenced in exempla,
and other sorts of narrative. The narrative can begin ab
ovo (from the start and work its way to the
conclusion), or it can begin in
medias res (in the middle of the action, then
recount earlier events by the character's dialogue, memories,
or flashbacks). See exemplum
The "voice" that speaks or tells a story. Some stories
are written in a first-person point of view, in which the narrator's
voice is that of the point-of-view character. For instance,
in The Adventures of Huck Finn, the narrator's voice
is the voice of the main character, Huck Finn. It is clear that
the historical author, Mark Twain, is creating a fictional voice
to be the narrator and tell the story--complete with incorrect
grammar, colloquialisms, and youthful perspective. In other
stories, such as those told in the third-person point of view,
scholars use the term narrator to describe the authorial
voice set forth, the voice "telling the story to us."
For instance, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist presents
a narrative in which the storyteller stands outside the action
described. He is not a character who interacts with other characters
in terms of plot. However, this fictionalized storyteller occasionally
intrudes upon the story to offer commentary to the reader, make
suggestions, or render a judgment about what takes place in
the tale. It is tempting to equate the words and sentiments
of such a narrator with the opinions of the historical author
himself. However, it is often more useful to separate this authorial
voice from the voice of the historical author. For further discussion,
narrator, and point
UNRELIABLE: An unreliable narrator is a storyteller who
"misses the point" of the events or things he describes
in a story, who plainly misinterprets the motives or actions
of characters, or who fails to see the connections between events
in the story. The author herself, of course, must plainly understand
the connections, because she presents the material to the readers
in such a way that readers can see what the narrator overlooks.
This device is sometimes used for purposes of irony or humor.
See discussion under authorial
TRANSCRIPTION: In linguistics, phonetic transcription
that shows minute details, i.e., highly accurate transcription.
The opposite term, broad
transcription, implies quickly made or comparative
transcriptions designed primarily to illustrate general pronunciation.
Most dictionaries use some form of broad transcription.
NASAL: In linguistics, any sound that involves movement
of air through the nose.
LANGUAGE: The first language or the preferred
language of any particular speaker.
GENDER: The assignment of nouns to grammatical
categories based on the gender or lack of gender in the signified
object or creature. This term contrasts with grammatical
gender, in which the designations are more or less
arbitrary and do not correspond closely with any gender in the
signified object or creature.
A literary movement seeking to depict life as accurately as
possible, without artificial distortions of emotion, idealism,
and literary convention. The school of thought is a product
of post-Darwinian biology in the nineteenth century. It asserts
that human beings exist entirely in the order of nature. Human
beings do not have souls or any mode of participating in a religious
or spiritual world beyond the biological realm of nature, and
any such attempts to engage in a religious or spiritual world
are acts of self-delusion and wish-fulfillment. Humanity is
thus a higher order animal whose character and behavior are,
as M. H. Abrams summarizes, entirely determined by two kinds
of forces, hereditary and environment. The individual's compulsive
instincts toward sexuality, hunger, and accumulation of goods
are inherited via genetic compulsion and the social and economic
forces surrounding his or her upbringing.
Zola, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser--try
to present their subjects with scientific objectivity. They
often choose characters based on strong animal drives who
"victims both of glandular secretions within and of sociological
pressures without" (Abrams 175). Typically, naturalist
writers avoid explicit emotional commentary in favor of medical
frankness about bodily functions and biological activities
that would be almost unmentionable during earlier literary
like transcendentalism, Romanticism, and mainstream Victorian
literature. The end of the naturalistic novel is usually
or unhappy, perhaps even "tragic," though not in
the cathartic sense Aristotle, Sophocles, or Elizabethan writers
would have understood by the term tragedy.
Naturalists emphasize the smallness of humanity in the universe;
they remind readers of the immensity, power, and cruelty of
the natural world, which does not care whether humanity lives
or dies. Examples of this include Stephen Crane's "The
Open Boat," which pits a crew of shipwrecked survivors
in a raft against starvation, dehydration, and sharks in
middle of the ocean, and Jack London's "To Build a Fire,"
which reveals the inability of a Californian transplant to
survive outside of his "natural" environment as
he freezes to death in the Alaskan wilderness.
Naturalism is a precursor
to realism that partially overlaps with it. Realism,
this subsequent literary movement, also emphasizes depicting
life as accurately as possible without distortion.
RHYME: Another term for inexact
rhyme or slant
An annual award given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy
America Association (SFFWA) for the best science fiction
or fantasy work published during the previous two years.
include novel, novella, novelette, short story, and script.
Notable winners include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan
Ellison, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Connie Willis, Theodore
Sturgeon, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Ursula LeGuin. As of
2007, the author to win the most Nebula Awards was Joe Haldeman
including one for his noteworthy allegory of Vietnam veterans'
The Forever War. Typically, the Nebula carries no
cash award, but editors and scholars consider it more prestigious
than the similar
An adjective referring to the Enlightenment.
See Enlightenment for further discussion, or click here for
a PDF handout
that places the Neoclassic period in chronological order with
other intellectual movements.
The movement toward classical architecture, literature, drama,
and design that took place during the Restoration
and Enlightenment. See Enlightenment
for further discussion about its influence in literature.
COUPLET: See discussion under heroic
Latin forms or words (especially scientific ones) invented
after the medieval period, as opposed to classical
or medieval Latin as a naturally occurring language.
A made-up word that is not a part of normal, everyday vocabulary.
Often Shakespeare invented new words in his place for artistic
reasons. For instance, "I hold her as a thing enskied." The
word enskied implies that
the girl should be placed in the heavens. Other Shakespearean
examples include climature
(a mix between climate and
temperature) and abyssm
(a blend between abyss and
chasm), and compounded
verbs like outface or un-king.
Contrast with kenning.
Occasionally, the neologism is so useful it becomes a part
common usage, such as the word new-fangled
that Chaucer invented in the 1300s. A neologism may be considered
either a rhetorical scheme or a
trope, depending upon whose scholarly
definition the reader trusts. See compounding,
derived from Hebrew napal, "to fall"):
In ancient Hebrew tradition, the Nephilim (singular
Naphil) were a race of giants referred
to in Genesis 6:4 ("Now
giants were upon the earth in those days") and
in Numbers 13:33 ("We
saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the
seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the
same to them.") In Genesis, they are called the
children of the sons of God and
to as "heroes of old" and "men of renown." The
text of Numbers describes them as a race of giants that once
so these Nephilim were thought to live at the time of Moses,
which contrasts with the Genesis text in which the deluge exterminates
the entire race of Nephilim. Biblical scholars think that
the clash between the two texts is the result of a dual oral
at least one Hebrew legend describes a Naphil surviving
the Biblical deluge by virtue of being so tall his head remained
above the water. The Nephilim seem to be related to the Rephaim (Numbers
13:33 and Deuteronomy 2:11). In later times, medieval tradition
often much more closely linked the "sons
of God" appearing
in Genesis and Job and the race of Anak mentioned in Numbers.
COMEDY: The Greek comedy the developed circa 300 BCE, stressing
romantic entanglements, wit, and unexpected twists of plot.
ENGLAND SHORT O: In linguistics, this
term refers to "the lax vowel used by some New Englanders
in road and home corresponding to tense [o]
in standard English" (Algeo 324).
NIGER-KORDEFANIAN: A group of languages spoken
in the southern part of Africa. This family of languages apparantly
has no relation to those in the Indo-European
NIHILISM, RUSSIAN (from Lat. nihil, "nothing"): A radical Russian movement led by Chernyshevski and Pisarev in the 1860s characterized by an embrace of materialistic positivism, utilitarian attitudes toward artistic expression, social norms, and cultural institutions, equal rights for both genders, crudity in dress and manners, and free love. The movement rejected social norms of marriage, dress, and behavior.
NILO-SAHARAN: A group of languages spoken in the central
sections of Africa. This family of languages apparantly has
no relation to those in the Indo-European
SAVAGE: Typically, the depiction of Amerindians,
indigenous African tribesmen, and Australian bushmen
results in two sharply
opposing stereotypes as follows: (1) When "civilized"
races dwell in close proximity to these "savages,"
they may feel threatened--sometimes with good reason--if the
tribe is cannibalistic, warlike, or competes for local resources.
In such situations, literature almost always depicts the race
as inferior to the civilized race and dangerously superstitious,
violent, lazy, or irrational. An example would be the depiction
of Indians in Hawthorne's stories--satanic skulkers on the
of good Puritan homes. (2) If the writer is only passing through
an area rather than competing for resources, or if the writer
lives some safe distance away, the second and opposing tendency
is for him or her to romanticize the alien culture, accenting
its positives and projecting his or her cultural desires on
the other. This second stereotype, a literary motif,
depicts exotic, primitive, or uncivilized races and characters
as being innately good, dignified, and noble, living harmoniously
with nature. They are thought to be uncorrupted by the morally
weakening and physically debilitating effects of decadent society.
The motif goes back as far as the Christian tales of Adam
Eve--the idea that innocent living in lush wilderness is equivalent
to existing in a state of Edenic goodness. Montaigne develops
the idea in his essay Of Cannibals, as does Aphra
Behn in Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave (c. 1688).
However, it is in the time of the Enlightenment that the Noble
truly becomes a center of attention. Rousseau writes in Emile
(1762), "Everything is well when it comes fresh from the
hands of God," but he adds, "everything degenerates
in the hands of Man." The idea was also popular in Chateaubriand's
work, in Dryden's Conquest of Granada, and especially
in the writings of the Romantic poets. We see early hints
of it in Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man (Epistle
I, lines 99-112), but Pope remains contemptuous of the native's
mind," even as he admires tha native's state of contentment
DE GUERRE (French, "name of war"): Another
term for a nom de plume or a pen name. See nom
de plume or pen
DE PLUME (French, "name
of the pen"): Another term for a pen
name. The word indicates a fictitious name
that a writer employs to conceal his or her identity.
For example, Samuel
Clemens used the nom de plume "Mark Twain."
William Sydney Porter wrote his short stories under the nom
de plume of "O. Henry." Mary Ann Cross
used the name "George Eliot" to hide that she was
a female writer, just as science-fiction writer Alice Bradley
used the nom de plume "James Tiptree, Junior."
Francois-Marie Arouet used "Voltaire." Tolstoy used "Kozma Prutkov." Ben Franklin used a
variety of literary aliases, and so on. One caveat: although
the phrase "nom
is French, the French do not use this particular phrase to
describe a literary pseudonym. What we call a nom de plume,
the French would call a nom de guerre.
NON-DISTINCTIVE: In linguistics, any two sounds (often
quite similar) that are not capable of signaling a difference
in meaning. For instance, in Chinese, the letter t
can be aspirated or unaspirated. This slight difference in sound
can create two entirely different words. The Greeks also had
the same sound distinction, and represented this by using both
the letter theta and tau. However, in Roman Latin and modern
English, the difference in aspiration is ignored, and both sounds
are represented by a single letter. Since the two sounds are
non-distinctive, creating two different letters for each one
is unnecessary in Latin and English.
FORM: In grammar, this category of verbs
includes the infinitive and participle forms. Basically, a non-finite
form is any form of a verb that doesn't indicate person, number,
NON-RHOTIC: In linguistics, any dialect lacking an
/r/. Some dialects of English are
non-rhotic. Others only pronounced the
/r/ before a vowel sound.
NONSENSE WORD: In songs or poetry, sections or lines that include repeated nonreferential syllables as pseudo-words in a refrain or "filler" between other verses. For instance, many 1950s songs in America woud include phrases like shooby-do-ah or doo-wop doo-wop. Renaissance songs and poetry might include phrases like hey nonny-nonny. Christmas carols might include fa la la la, and musical notes might be linked to do re mi so fa la ti, and so forth. The words don't mean anything in particular, but in some cases, the artist may have originally included them for the aesthetics of the sound, to cover up spontaneously any slips of memory in which he or she forgot particular lyrics, or they may have served as a form of self-censorship to cover indelicate allusions that would be unsuitable for some public performances.
An inhabitant of Normandy, a region along the northern coast
of France. The word Norman comes from a cognate
for "northmen," for the Norman aristocracy of the
region originally descended from Danish (i.e. Viking)
settlers who took over the French region in the ninth and tenth
Charles the Simple, the somewhat incompetent king of France,
was unable to eject these invaders from the region, so in
CE he signed a treaty with Rollo, the leader of the Danes in
Normandy. This treaty made Rollo a vassal Duke. After a few
centuries, these Viking Normans lost their Norse language and
"went native" by adapting the French tongue, French
dress, French custom, and French law. However, on the continent,
Norman French gradually became considered "bad French" in contrast
with the "sophisticated" Parisian French. This factor might
been one catalyst in how the Anglo-Normans gradually abandoned French
after they conquered the British isles. In terms of English's
linguistic development, Norman
our language after the Norman
Invasion of 1066.
NORMAN CONQUEST: Loosely, another term for the Norman Invasion, though technically some historians prefer to differentiate between the "Norman Invasion" and the "Norman Conquest" by limiting the scope of the invasion to the initial year 1066 when the Normans landed in England and using the term "Norman Conquest" to refer to the twenty-one year period over that in which Duke William expanded and solidified his control over all England. In this class, we will use the two terms synonymously. See Norman Invasion, below.
INVASION: Not to be confused with D-Day during
World War II, medieval historians use this title for a much
earlier invasion in 1066. Duke William of Normandy's conquest
of England from 1066-1087 had profound impact on English by
importing Norman-French vocabulary into Anglo-Saxon, bringing
about the formation of Middle English. See also Battle
of Hastings and Norman.
NORMANDY: The region along the northern coast of France. See Norman for more information.
DIALECT: A dialect of American English stretching
through the northernmost sections of the United States.
GERMANIC: The sub-branch of the Germanic languages
that contains Swedish and Old Norse.
NORTH MIDLAND DIALECT: A dialect of American English
spoke in a strip of land just south of the Northern Dialect.
This should not be confused with the Midlands dialect of English
spoken in Britain.
NORTHUMBRIAN: The Old English dialect spoken in the
kingdom of Northumbria (i.e., north of the Umber river).
The theme or motif of the homecoming--a return to one's family,
origins after a long time away. Traditionally, this Greek
designation refers specifically to Odysseus's return to Ithaca
after two decades of wandering, but the motif appears in
myths, folktales, and literary works. Steven Marion's novel
Hollow Ground, for instance, deals with a return to Appalachia
A hypothetical superfamily of languages that might embrace
other large family language groups--including
Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, possibly Afroasiatic, and other
family groups. Its existence is highly contested, however,
its origins would go back beyond the 5,000 BCE marker--long
before written records existed to help corroborate that nostratic
ever really existed.
In its broadest sense, a novel is any extended fictional
narrative focusing on a few primary characters but often involving
scores of secondary characters. The fact that
it is in prose helps distinguish it from other
We might arbitrarily set the length at 50,000 words or
as a dividing point with the novella
and the short story. The English novel is
primarily thought of as a product of the eighteenth-century,
though many earlier narratives
in classical Greek such as Heliodorus's Aethiopica
and Daphnis and Chloë (attributed to Longus)
easily fulfill the normal requirements of the genre,
as the scholar Edmund Gosse has pointed out. Likewise, the
Japanese Tale of the Genji and collected writings
of Murasaki Shikibu from 1004 CE would clearly qualify as well
by our definition--though most Western scholars treat these
works as separate from the novel genre because historically
they do not play a direct part or direct influence in the evolution
the popular English novel genre today.
An extended fictional prose narrative that is longer than a
short story, but not quite as long as a novel.
We might arbitrarily assign an approximate length of 20,000-50,000
words. Early prototypes include the Decameron of Boccaccio,
the Cento Novelle Antiche, and the Heptameron
of Marguerite of Valois. English examples include Henry James's
Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, Joseph
Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Robert Louis Stevenson's
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Note that some scholars in
previous generations distinguished between what they called
the novella (short stories in Italian,
French, and German that served as later influences on English
prose) and the novelette (English
extended prose narratives longer than a short story but not
quite as long as a novel.) Today, most American critics use
the two terms interchangeably.
OF MANNERS: A novel
that describes in detail the customs, behaviors, habits, and
expectations of a certain social group at a specific time and
place. Usually these conventions shape the behavior of the main
characters, and sometimes even stifle or repress them. Often
the novel of manners is satiric, and it always realistic in
depiction. Examples include Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice,
William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and various
works by Edith Wharton.
OF SENSIBILITY: See sentimental
See discussion under novella.
CODEX: The common scholarly nickname for the medieval manuscript
that contains Beowulf. The official designation for this
manuscript is Cotton Vitellius A.xv. You can click here to see
the first page of Beowulf
as it appears in the Nowell Codex. Cf. manuscript.
NUMERIC ADVERB: One of several possible numbering methods in a language's grammar. For a discussion of numeric adverbs, see multiplicatives.
Number symbolism, especially the idea that certain numbers
have sacred meanings. Classical Hebrew writers, following
the lead of other Mesopotamian cultures, often embody certain
with sacred meanings--such as three, seven, twelve, forty,
etc., an idea that develops more fully under the medieval
kabalah. Many medieval authors such as Dante use poetic structure
to convey theological ideas, such as Dante's use of terza
rima in collected groups of thirty-three stanzas per canto
in The Divine Comedy, or the Pearl Poet's elaborate
numerological symbolism in Pearl. The standard reference
book is Vincent Hopper's Medieval Number Symbolism.
Click here for more information.
I consulted the following works
while preparing this list. I have tried to give credit to specific sources when
feasible, but in many cases multiple reference works use the same examples or
provide the same dates for common information. Students should examine these
resources for more information than these humble webpages provide:
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Brace College Pub., 1993. [Now superseded by later editions.]
---. "Poetic Forms
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7th edition. Volume 1. New York: Norton, 2000. 2944-61. 2 Vols.
Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles.
The Origin and Development of the English Language. 5th edition.
Baugh, A. C. and
Thomas Cable. A History of
the English Language. 6th edition. Boston: Pearson Publishing, 2013.
Brown, Michelle P. Understanding
Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. London: The British
Library and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994.
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion.
[Originally published 1977 as Griechische Religion der archaischen
und klassischen Epoche.] Trans. John Raffan. Cambridge: Harvard UP,
Carrick, Jake. E-mail interview. 28 April 2016.
Catholic University of America
Editorial Staff. The New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical
Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
Crow, Martin and
Virginia E. Leland. "A Chronology
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in Larry Benson's The Canterbury Tales, Complete. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 2000. xxiii-xxv.
Cuddon, J. A. The
Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin
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Row, 1974. Reprint as Barnes and Noble Edition, 1981.
Drout, Michael D. C. J.R.R. Tolkien
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Duffy, Seán. Medieval
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Eagleton, Terry. Literary
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Feeney, Denis. "Introduction." Ovid: Metamorphóses Trans. David Raeburn. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
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Eagle, eds. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 4th ed.
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Holman, C. Hugh. A
Handbook to Literature. 3rd edition. New York: The Odyssey Press,
Hopper, Vincent Foster.
Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and Influence on Thought
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Horobin, Simon. Chaucer's Language. New
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Kane, George. The Autobiographical Fallacy in Chaucer and Langland Studies. London: H. K. Lewis, 1965.
Lacy, Norris J. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia.
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Lanham, Richard A. A
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McDonald. Questions of English. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
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Palmer, Donald. Looking
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