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Misusing Words for Fun and Profit

When I need a lively phrase I am rescued by the Diction Fairy, who klonks me on the nape with a backscratcher and suggests something odd but memorable.

—James Joyce

We’re joking, of course, in representing this as a quotation from James Joyce.  Actually it was from Goethe, and he said it in German.  But leaving its provenance aside, let us consider what the Diction Fairy has done for (or to) this sentence.  The first important point is that the substance of the sentence is completely negligible.  That was intentional.  It says something like, “Words come to me when I need them.”

Much of what we write is like this: mere underpinnings for our story, without intrinsic interest to the reader—material as free of substance as the quotation above.  Consider the beginning of Moby-Dick.  Melville starts out by having his narrator say something that could be summed up as follows:

“When I get depressed I go on a sea-voyage.”

But Melville takes a whole page to say this!  The Word-Parsimony Fairy would simply burst from chagrin if she read Melville.  To understand why he did this, you have to consider the alternative, which is for his narrator to say something incredibly commonplace.  More than one person has admitted to being depressed; lots have gone on sea-voyages.  All the words in our revised version of Melville are used properly, which might please an English teacher, but there are no surprises.

Good writers don’t want to use their words the way other people do.  In fact, writers would prefer that civilians not even be allowed to use words, since continual use makes them stale.  Old baby-shoes have to be bronzed to retain their interest for us, and words have to be given an extensive makeover.

So let’s go back to our quotation allegedly from Goethe:

The “Diction Fairy,” a play on “dictionary,” isn’t even a real fairy, so there’s little danger of the reader experiencing overexposure when she is introduced.  She klonks Goethe not on the shoulder but on the “nape,” a fairly rare word that almost always occurs in combination with the phrase “of the neck.”  And the Diction Fairy doesn’t use a wand, like other fairies, but a backscratcher, which Goethe chose because it isn’t the expected word and she is, after all, wielding it at his back.  Moreover, it provides further contrast by removing her activities from the realm of the magical to that of the mundane.  So the sentence, while trivial, at least has the advantage of serious differentness.  Goethe probably put the passive voice in there just to annoy the grammar police, and of course if he can annoy them, we can too.

And much of this sentence—seventeen words—is standard-issue diction. We were pretty sure “klonk” wasn’t really new but were still surprised when Google found “about” 2,410,000 examples of it, denoting—among many other things—a font, two music groups (Klonk and klOnk), and a location, southwest of Prague, “of the Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) which marks the boundary between the Devonian and Silurian periods on the geologic time scale.”  In the world of diction, “klonk” means whatever the writer wants it to mean.  Here its meaning is midway between “whack” and “tap.”

But can writers simply make up words?  Of course they can—they do it all the time.  All that is necessary is that the reader be able to figure out quickly what the new word means.  Because of the profound redundancy of language, this is usually very easy.  Almost no one would mistake the klonk in our passage for the one denoting the boundary between the Devonian and the Silurian.

The greatest experts on vivid language are the comic writers like Wodehouse and Perelman.  Humor depends on vividness, and humorous writers don’t necessarily have a database that is likely to interest us.  In fact, humor may be a distraction if the information in a database is of great importance.  There are documents where humor is effectively prohibited.  We’ll tolerate some humor in a computer manual, almost none in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  (Of course, there is the ironic gag about all men being created equal.)  The more stately the language is, the less likely it is to contain neologisms.

We channeled P. G. Wodehouse to ask what his most desperate measure was for brightening up his language:

Wodehouse: “Well, when I want to b. up my l. and can’t think of anything better, I often just abbreviate words that I’ve already used.

Us: So you just a. the w. you’ve already used, right?

Wodehouse: R.

This may not seem like much of an improvement on an ordinary word, but Wodehouse is doing this because any newness is better than none.  We recommend that you don’t use this very often.  Got that?  D. u. t. v. o.

And from here on out we will illustrate our point with examples from competent writers, showing how commonplace remarks can be dressed up righteously.  First we would like to offer an apology, because it’s hard to see how we can keep this from eventually becoming tedious.  We intend to make the same point again and again.  But the thrill-seekers can move on, and those willing to muck around in the guts of lively writings, to see what nourishes them, will profit from the repetition.  Think of it as learning geometry so you can go off and build skyscrapers.  (The next section of this essay, then, will expand over time.)

The most obvious way to give new life to words by misusing them is to cause characters to use malaprops.  The term itself comes from Sheridan’s The Rivals, where Mrs. Malaprop routinely mangles the language in lively ways:

 Then, sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts;—and as she grew up, I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries;—but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying. This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know;—and I don’t think there is a superstitious article in it.

For readers in a hurry: supercilious (superficial); geometry (geography); contagious (contiguous); orthodoxy (orthography); reprehend (apprehend); superstitious (superfluous).

Unfortunately, the malaprop, while effective, has limited use in prose.  In fact, unless you’re making fun of someone stupid and ignorant, it isn’t very useful at all.  But it does have the effect of putting words into new environments, so writers sometimes use it even when it isn’t terribly appropriate.  Let us look at P. G. Wodehouse struggling in Quick Service with how to find a new way of saying the following:

“Mrs. Barlow was saying to me only this evening that you were wealthy.”

The remark is essential in Wodehouse’s story because the answer reveals that the woman he’s talking to is not only not wealthy but is trying to conceal this.  His sentence, then, is really just a necessary bridge to something more interesting.  But our version of it has absolutely nothing to recommend it: no unfamiliar words, no images, no striking facts.  So Wodehouse begins by looking for a more lively way of saying “wealthy,” and he comes up with an image.  He will say that the character is a “Croesus,” the name of a king of Lydia, in Asia Minor, who was fabulously wealthy.  But Wodehouse is extraordinarily well read, and even without the Internet he realizes that “rich as Croesus” isn’t much less common than the word “rich” itself.

So he lets his hero lapse briefly into complete idiocy by means of a malaprop: “Mrs. Barlow was saying to me only this evening that you were a female creosote.”  The error isn’t likely or even terribly funny, and it violates the rule that malaprops are for minor characters, the ones you want your characters to laugh at.  So why does Wodehouse use it?

He does it because his version is at least more lively than the alternative.  If he had known that an ardent fan would one day criticize a single image of his—and he is a master of imagery—he might have backed away from his sentence and approached from a different direction entirely.  For example, he could have his hero note that the lady is the heiress of a business with a preposterous name, only to learn that she has been disinherited.  Such a name would put together elements that hadn’t even been introduced, let alone become familiar with each other.

Joyce, Goethe?  How about giving me some credit?  And who are you calling mundane?  Oh, I forgot: I’m not a “real” fairy.”

The Diction Fairy

Originally published in another dementia on October 12, 2011