Thursday, July 21, 2016

Making up words

Barbara Wallraff calls it "recreational word coining," that practice of making up new words just for fun. It sounds like something that could use a new word.

I suspect that most of us play this game whether we realize it or not, sometimes just making up new words on the spot. Families often have their own unique words for things that you won't find in any dictionary. When I tell my wife I am going rest-roaming, she knows I am off in search of a restroom in an unfamiliar restaurant, mall or whatever. I have never heard anyone else use that word and never expect to.

Several books have been dedicated to recreational word coining, including Wallraff's own Word Fugitives. In a column she writes for The Atlantic Monthly, she asks readers to suggest new words for something that doesn't have a word but should. Her book collects some of the best suggestions.

Shouldn't there be a word for choosing the slowest-moving line in a grocery store or fast-food restaurant? Among the best suggestions are misqueue and misalinement. The trouble is we already have the words miscue and misalignment. The suggested words are clever puns, but they probably have no staying power as words.

How about a word to describe trying to avoid someone, like an ex-spouse, who happens to be in the same room? Among the suggestions are snear miss, snubterfuge and can't-standoffish. Again clever puns and not much else.

Similarly, fridgety was suggested as a word to describe when you repeatedly look into the refrigerator, more because of restlessness than hunger. Numblers seems like a good term for people who recite their phone numbers so quickly on answering machines that you can't hope to remember them. And virtuecrat nicely describes those people, in the words of Joseph Eptein who coined it, "whose sense of their own high virtue derives from their nauseatingly enlightened political opinions." Don't you know such people?

Such words are amusing, but will they ever find their way into a dictionary? Sometimes they do, as with scofflaw and couch potato, but usually they don't. To gain wide acceptance, new words must fill a need and must be repeated often enough that others will remember them and use them themselves. According to Allan Metcalf, author of Predicting New Words, new words should look old. They should give the impression they've been around for awhile, but we just haven't noticed them. Some words like snubterfuge and fridgety are just too clever. We couldn't have missed them.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A collective activity

"Literature," I went on, "has always been a collective activity. Writers adapting plots from other writers, sharing ideas and characters and images, all the way back to Homer. Shakespeare didn't invent a single one of his plots. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

The speaker in the Adam Roberts novel quoted above is one Soviet science fiction writer talking to another who has just admitted most of his books have just been rewrites, little more than Russian translations, of books by western writers. Yellow Blue Tibia is a humorous novel, and this passage is intended to be amusing. Yet it does contain a germ of truth. Writing, perhaps the most solitary of occupations, is, in at least three senses, "a collective activity."

Mark Winegardner
1. Writers do, as the Adam Roberts character suggests, do feed off other writers. Plots, character types, metaphors and styles are imitated or recycled again and again. As I mentioned once before here, I congratulated Mark Winegardner on his novel Crooked River Burning, which I said reminded me of John Dos Passos. My comment must have surprised him, as his reply surprised me. He said he had been reading Dos Passos before writing the novel. He had, whether deliberately or not, imitated another writer's style.

Later Winegardner wrote one or more of those Godfather novels, using characters and plot lines developed by the late Mario Puzo. And so, while plagiarism may be wrong, writers do borrow from other writers all the time.

2. Wes Anderson quotes Austrian writer Stefan Zweig in the screenplay for his film The Grand Budapest Hotel, "It is an extremely common mistake: people think the writer's imagination is always at work, that he is constantly inventing an endless supply of incidents and episodes, that he simply dreams up his stories out of thin air. In point of fact, the opposite is true. Once the public knows you are a writer, they bring the characters and events to you -- and as long as you maintain your ability to look and carefully listen, these stories will continue to seek you out."

Perhaps some ideas do originate entirely in the author's mind,  but usually ideas come from a variety of sources -- other writers (as mentioned above), experiences, newspapers, magazines, television, stories told by friends and acquaintances, etc. -- and are then mulled over in the writer's mind until they are ready to emerge in an entirely original form. Writers may need to be alone to write, but if they are too alone they will have nothing to write about.

3. Finally, writers need readers. I met Mark Winegardner at the Buckeye Book Fair held each November in Wooster, Ohio. Similar events are held throughout the country to introduce authors to readers in hopes some of those readers will buy their books. Authors and publishers depend on book events, including book signings, to sell copies. Not all writers can support themselves with their writing. Whether they can or not depends on readers. Their work, after all, is a collective activity.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Grace under pressure

In the same way that a badly adjusted set of binoculars gives you two overlapping images, the two McCains don't come together for me. It must be frustrating for his handlers to be be unable -- due to some internal blockage in the candidate -- to get the amiable self onstage instead of the less palatable one who shows up for debates and now hollered speeches.
Dick Cavett, Talk Show

My beloved granddaughter has played soccer almost from the time she could run. This fall she will begin playing for her Pennsylvania high school team. A few days ago my son, her father, told me how beautifully she played in a recent scrimmage. He lamented that she rarely played that well in actual games when she knew people were watching and any mistake on her part could be costly. As Dick Cavett similarly laments about presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, this young soccer player "gives you two overlapping images."

As a newspaper journalist, and especially as an editorial page editor for so many years, I got to know many politicians, and I observed that McCain was not alone in seeming one way when campaigning for votes, or newspaper endorsements, and another way in more casual circumstances. In fact, many of us, probably most of us, behave differently under pressure. Some students know the material but do badly on tests. People can speak effortlessly in small groups but freeze up if asked to give a speech to a crowd. I have observed that even beauty contestants often look so much better after the pageant is over. Their smiles are no longer forced, their gestures no longer posed. They become real women again.

Mike Royko
Newspaper deadlines force reporters to write under under pressure, sometimes great pressure. I did it for many years, but I never felt I did my best writing under such circumstances. I thought I did better with my weekly column when I had days to write and rewrite.

All this brings me around to Mike Royko, the great Chicago columnist, who turned out five pieces a week, mostly for the Chicago Daily News. I recently started reading One More Time, a collection of his best columns published in 1999 after his widow and several friends sorted through the nearly 8,000 columns he wrote. "Considering the gems Mike regularly wrote, selecting the best was not an easy job," said Judy Royko, his widow.

My newspaper often used Royko 's column on our op-ed page, so I got to read many of them. They were always good, and even though they were mostly about Chicago, they still informed and entertained readers in Ohio. And to think, Royko wrote five columns a week, or one column each working day. From experience I know the difficulty of writing just one column a week. The pressure of doing five a week seems unbearable. Yet Royko did it, and did it well, for many years. There are some of us who can do our best even when the heat is on.

Friday, July 15, 2016

When sci-fi comes true

Combine Joseph Heller dialogue with a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. plot and you might get something like Adam Roberts's brilliant 2009 novel Yellow Blue Tibia.

Funnier than any story about an alien invasion, nuclear disaster and KGB assassins has any right to be, the novel starts wacky and keeps getting wackier. It begins after the close of World War II when Stalin gathers together some of the best Soviet science fiction writers and orders them to come up with a plot about an invasion from outer space. They concoct a wild story about "radiation aliens" who attack the Ukraine. Stalin likes it, files it away and swears them all to secrecy.

Years later during the winter of 1985-86, one of those writers, Konstantin Skvorecky, now an old man who works as a translator, is approached by another survivor from that strange writing project and told that their plot is all coming true. The aliens have invaded exactly as they described in their story.

Soon, pursued by the KGB, Skvorecky is taking a wild taxi ride to the Chernobyl nuclear plant with a former nuclear scientist, now a cab driver with an extreme fear of being touched by another man, and a fat American woman, a Scientologist, with whom he falls in love. They are trying to prevent the disaster they fear is coming before the KGB can catch up with them.

So is there an alien invasion or not? And is this novel science fiction or not? One must read to the end to find the answers.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Adventure at sea

Sometimes the third time really is the charm. So it is with Alistair Maclean and me. I missed McLean entirely during his heyday when he was one of the world's most popular writers of thrillers, yet I had heard so many good things about his books that I finally decided to give them a try. The first two novels I read, Partisans and Puppet on a Chain, proved disappointing. My third attempt, however, produced different results.

San Andreas, published in 1984, is a World War II adventure that takes place entirely aboard a hospital ship in the North Atlantic in winter. Hospital ships, marked with big red crosses, are supposedly neutral, yet the Germans seem determined to stop, if not sink, the San Andreas. One or more saboteurs aboard keep destroying navigational equipment, while planes and submarines attack with relatively light arms, suggesting they want to do damage, but not too much damage. So what's going on?

When the ship's captain is badly wounded in one attack, the responsibility for getting the San Andeas to safety falls on Archie McKinnon, the bosun. The hospital ship has no weapons aboard, so McKinnon must defend the ship using the bad weather, the long winter nights and the ship itself. Then there are the problems of finding the saboteurs(s) and getting the ship to a friendly port.

McKinnon turns out to be my kind of hero, one who uses brains more than brawn, and the result proves thoroughly entertaining. San Andreas may be the name of a California fault line, but McLean's novel with that title turned out to be nothing like a disaster.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


Some common English words came from the practice of bestowing knighthood. The most obvious of these is dub. The monarch dubs a man a knight by tapping his shoulder with a sword. A member of the clergy can be knighted but is not dubbed, however, because the use of a sword is considered inappropriate in these situations. More commonly we use the word for other purposes, such as when referring to someone being given a nickname. The word dub can also have different meanings, such as when a movie soundtrack is translated into a different language or in golf or percussion. Some of these terms may have different sources, however.

Another word is accolade, originally from a French word meaning to embrace. The English used the word to refer to the bestowal of knighthood. Now almost any type of award or expression of approval can be called an accolade..

To take knighthood away from someone is termed degradation, a word now used in the fields of chemistry and geology, as well as when anyone or anything declines in condition or quality.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Some like it again and again and again

For an easy laugh, just put a man in a dress. Three of the funniest movies ever made depended on this cross-dressing theme: Some Like It Hot, Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire. Yet Some Like It Hot in particular, and a few years ago it was rated the funniest movie ever made, has so much more going for it than Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag. It has Marilyn Monroe in her finest performance. It has aging comic actor Joe E. Brown in his best role. It has a perfect script -- well, nobody's perfect -- by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. It has an assembly of wonderful character actors. Plus, though released in 1958, it remains as entertaining as ever. I know. I watched it yet again the other night after finishing Laurence Maslon's Some Like It Hot: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion.

Yes, the anniversary was a few years ago, but the book, like the movie, doesn't show its age. This is a coffee-table book, one that house guests are almost guaranteed to want to pick up and leaf through. It's filled with photos, both movie stills and publicity shots, plus a number of behind-the-scenes photographs you are unlikely to find anywhere else. Maslon also tosses in some choice excerpts from the script, photo copies of documents showing Monroe's frequent tardiness and absences from the set and other assorted goodies. He devotes an entire chapter to the various efforts to put Some Like It Hot on television and the stage over the years. An attempted sitcom never survived beyond the pilot.

For my money, the book's best feature is a two-page essay called, for some reason, "Spills, Thrills, a Laughs, and Games." Once you get past that silly title, the essay provides some fascinating insights into why this movie turned out to be as good as it is, other than those reasons already mentioned above. For example, it defies categorization. Is it a screwball comedy, a buddy picture, a gangster movie, a sex farce or a romantic comedy. Well, yes to all those. Just when you think it's one thing, it becomes something else.

Maslon's points out how the Wilder-Diamond script frequently recycles bits of dialogue for comic effect, such as when Joe and Jerry (Curtis and Lemmon) claim to have attended the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music, and later Sugar (Monroe), also trying to make a good impression, says she attended the same fictional school. Maslon's essay helped me enjoy the movie all the more when I watched it the other night.