Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rail away, Twain

Today is the birthday of James Fenimore Cooper, the popular American frontier novelist of the early 19th century. His most famous book is The Last of the Mohicans.

About fifty years after Cooper wrote his tales, Mark Twain took them up -- and then put them down, with a vengeance. In his famous essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," Twain did the opposite of Tom Sawyer, who whitewashed that fence: he lay bare what he saw as the glaring sins of a literary fraud.

"Cooper’s art has some defects," Twain wrote. "In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

"There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction–some say twenty-two. In 'Deerslayer' Cooper violated eighteen of them."

Twain gave Cooper absolutely no "clemensy":

"Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment...Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly...

"Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue. Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many other enterprises of his life. He even failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on seventh...

"Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull."

The critic built up steam until he was a runaway Twain:

"I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that 'Deerslayer' is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that 'Deerslayer' is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

"A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language."

Today's coined word: atwaint, v.: to denounce the literary pretensions of someone or some thing.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Plausible lies

We played Fictionary as a class activity at the Room in the Inn yesterday. In Fictionary, one player finds an uncommon word in the dictionary, announces it to make sure that none of the players knows it, and then writes down the definition on his sheet of paper. The other players make up a definition intended to fool everyone else, and write their definitions on their sheets of paper. The “moderator” then collects all the sheets, shuffles them up along with his own sheet, and reads all the definitions. The players hear all the definitions, ponder them, and then the moderator reads each of them again and the players raise their hands if they think a definition is the correct one.

Anyone who guesses the correct definition gets a point, and a player gets one point for every vote for his or her phony definition. The dictionary is then passed on to the next player, who becomes the moderator for the next round.

I played moderator for all five rounds we played. One player said he couldn’t read or write, so he just guessed at definitions and did not invent any.

The first word I posed was “boho.” The definitions, including the real one (test yourself!) the players came up with were: “A type of hobo,” “a gardening tool,” “a stringed instrument,” “an unconventional person,” “a tool used for digging or scraping,” and “the ghetto in Soho in New York.” The tool used for digging or scraping got three votes, and the correct one, an unconventional person (short for bohemian), got none.

The next word was “gawsy.” The definitions: “A type of dress worn by flapper girls in the ‘twenties,” “trashy or sordid,” “somewhat crazy,” “an Australian word meaning sickly or puny,” “well-fed and healthy looking,” and “having a rough exterior.” I stumped them again (well-fed and healthy looking is the correct definition); the Australian word fake got four votes.

Next up was “nuncio.” The definitions: “a spice from Mexico,” “slang for a bothersome individual,” “an ambassador from the pope,” “a Spanish word meaning to enunciate,” “a type of religion,” and “a city in the Bahamas.” Again, no one voted for the right one (the papal  ambassador) while three voted for the Spanish word.

“Dalapon” was the next word. The definitions were: “An exotic plant,” “a small portion,” “an herbicide used on grass,” “a piece of scuba diving equipment,” “a form of transportation,” and “an African bonnet.” The small portion got the big portion of votes, four, and one person guessed the correct definition, the herbicide.

Last came “vindaloo.” Definitions: “A small canoe,” “a hat worn in church in Sweden,” “a stew made with meat and wine,” “an exotic flower,” “a dance common in the bayous of Louisiana,” and “a French bicycle.” The flower got three votes, and the stew (the correct one) only one.

Congratulations to Frankie and Joe, each with ten points. Bronson coulda been a contender but had to leave early.

Fictionary is a great game to play with five or six players, especially when all are drinking (which is frowned upon at Room in the Inn). You don’t have to be literary or a word whiz to play; in fact, as it often turns out, non-readers can prove to be the best players.   

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Quackle, snap, pop

Quackle is the name of a Scrabble software program that allows you to play against a computer. The other day is scored 320 points against Quackle with "FANZINES," an idiotic word recently added to the Scrabble dictionary. Today Quackle retaliated with "WHEEZING" against me for 356 points. Still, I won't duck Quackle, ever.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Just banning "Trees" would save a million trees

Kay Ryan was named poet laureate of the United States. "I might take it upon myself," she said, "to prevent all bad poetry from being published."

She's a poet,
And boy, does she know it.
Just because she's the Laureate,
She feels entitled to excoriate
The poetasters among us?
As if we were fungus,
To be scraped away.
But how can say
What is superior in verse
Without preserving what's worse

Saturday, May 26, 2012


On this day in 1897, the first copies of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula went on sale in London bookstalls.

Stoker coined the noun un-dead, which he in fact considered as a title for his story. The word had appeared before that in the Oxford English Dictionary, as an adjective.

The Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary considers undead to be a noun. It gives legitimacy to the extremely dumb word unbe, "to cease to have being." Most other dictionaries list unbe as archaic.

It also lists "unlive" as a verb, defining it as "to live so as to make amends for."

Other amusing "un-" verbs in the OSPD:

Unchoke ("to free from choking"); unchurch ("to expel from a church"); unguard ("to leave unprotected"); unmingle; unsell; unswear; and unthink.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Out with the old, in with the new

What this country needs is a Cliché Czar. That eminence would ride herd on the unthinking, lazy and demoralizing use of worn-out expressions. He (or the Tsaritsa, if it happened to be a woman) would decide exactly when popular expressions become trite and would retire or ban them outright. Any citizen heard uttering an interdicted term would be flogged in public with a whip of wet noodles, a humiliating but largely symbolic punishment.
Here are five expressions that would demand immediate action.
  • At the end of the day. A metaphor that was never any more colorful than the phrase it replaced, “When all is said and done,” the expression is a favorite of pompous types also given to asking themselves questions and then answering them:
Q: “Am I happy with the way the reports turned out?”   
A: “No, but at the end of the day you have to decide whether you did all you could do.”
By the way, what time is the end of the day? Midnight? Most people are asleep by then, and indisposed as far as summing things up. Five p.m.? If so, what about people who work at night? Doesn’t the expression discriminate against them?
  • Think outside the box. Speakers who imagine that this piece of advice is still useful or inspiring—or that it ever was—should be placed in a box, preferably bound and gagged, and lowered into a canal somewhere. Let them think of how to get out.
  • It’s not rocket science, or, alternately, it’s not brain surgery. How about giving some other professions a chance? For instance, let’s say you’re studying for the bar exams, and somebody asks you how it’s going; you could tell them, “Well, it’s not exactly pizza delivery.”
  • Throw someone under the bus. Here again, let’s consider some alternatives. How many people ever ride a bus, especially politicians, who use this expression as much as any group? Wouldn’t it be more apropos for them to say “They threw him under the taxi,” or “He threw her under the limo”? Anyway, whatever happened to the good old expression, “Let’s throw him to the dogs”?
  • Bucket list. The time has come to terminate this once-novel term. Let’s give an equal opportunity to some of the multitude of other metaphors for death. How about (Grim) Reaper list, (dirt) nap list, worm (food) list, (pushing up) daisies list, or (give up the) ghost list?
What should be on every language lover’s list-formerly-known-as-bucket-list? Running for Cliché Czar. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


In giant letters on a sign above a brand-new business: Glorious Nail's. Who is this Nail, and why is he/she so glorious? And what kind of business does the glorious Nail operate?