September 14th, 2005


Today's Forgotten English

Exact, precise, minutely accurate.
--John Jamieson's Etymological Scottish Dictionary, 1808

Death of James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), whose novel The Deerslayer Mark Twain ridiculed in 1895, primarily for Cooper's imprecise word choices. Twain specified more than thirty such poor decisions, from the substitution of verbal for oral to the use of mortified instead of disappointed. He elaborated, comparing writing with music making: "Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. ... [Cooper's] ear was satisfied with the approximate words." After this barrage, Twain summed up his disapproval: "The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Without wanting to point fingers, this is exactly what bugs me with a lot of fanfics and various other pieces of amateur literature I've read over the years. (When I was working at Borders, one of my duties was to host the Creative Writers' Group meetings, so I did a lot of wanna-be reading.) I particularly like the music metaphor, actually, because it's so apt. The English language is a lot like a piano: it's a precise and subtle instrument, even if it can also be used to just bang out a tune. If you're going to write, then learn to use your primary tools!

I found a copy of the Twain essay online (although it doesn't seem to contain the "lightning bug" comment), and it's definitely worth reading!

Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one.

I'm glad he's not around any more to review my writing!

-The Gneech
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"Uncle Bob!" I snapped, trying to get him to pause in his polemic on the evils of the American right wing. One too many cups of coffee and a large bottle of root beer had more or less made it an emergency that I get to Ye Olde Reste Roome with all due dispatch, and for some reason this idea was just not getting through his round forehead. "Will you please pull into the rest area up ahead!"

"Waste of time, waste of time, my boy," he said. "We're nearly there!"

"You said that three rest areas ago," I pointed out. "Seriously, I have got to make a pit stop."

"I think," Brigid's voice floated forward from the back seat, "he's afraid to stop the car because it might not start again."

Uncle Bob guffawed, as he did at just about everything Brigid said. "Don't you worry about the Black Beauty, babe," he said.

Brigid's voice was definitely menacing: "You didn't really just call me 'babe,' did you?" I turned to shoot her a warning glance, lest she pull out a hockey stick and club him over the head -- going 75 miles per hour is a bad situation to be in when the person behind the wheel suddenly has his brains bashed out.

"I like you, babe," Uncle Bob said. "You're my kinda mamma. Smart! And cold."

"Cold," Brigid repeated, as if he'd just told her she was a frog.

"Yeah, you've got that whole ice queen act down to a science -- and when a cold mamma heats up, boy how she sizzles!"

"Good God," Brigid said, turning to the window in an apparent search for an escape route. She didn't quite make a jump for it ... but I know she was tempted.

"That sounds like it came from some movie somewhere," I commented. "But getting back to the matter at hand, I need to stop at this rest area, Uncle Bob. Seriously! If you value your sanity and your upholstery, you'll get into the exit lane now while you still can!"

"Be a man, boy!" said Uncle Bob, waving a hand which I would have preferred he left on the wheel. "I told you we're almost there!"

"And it was a lie again this time!" I said.

"Such a wuss," he said. "If you weren't my precious sister's only child, I wouldn't have anything to do with you."

"If I weren't your precious sister's only child, you might have gotten the money in my trust fund yourself instead," I replied.

Thankfully, that shut him up; he grumbled and hunkered over the wheel in a sulk.

He also completely failed to stop at the rest area.

-The Gneech

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