John "The Gneech" Robey (the_gneech) wrote,
John "The Gneech" Robey

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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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