Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Word Games

When I did that post about TED a couple of weeks back, wordmeister Jeremy Edwards wrote to me recommending the talk above: Erin McKean on Lexicography. (Lexi-what? The art of compiling dictionaries.) She's one of the youngest dictionary-editors in the business and an extraordinarily vivacious and charming speaker. And her attitude is that the dictionary's job isn't to be a traffic cop but a fisherman. She wants us to use words in new and exciting ways - to create new ones where necessary, to make nouns out of verbs, to give them new contexts and connotations. To love words and make them real. "I find an undictionaried word in almost every book I read" she says - and thinks this is a good thing.

Challenging stuff. As a writer I'm proud of my ability to use words to convey meaning and atmosphere and story. I think my vocabulary is relatively broad. I am one of those people who sneer when they spot apostrophes out of place on shop hoardings, and I want to slap people who don't know the difference between "their" and "they're" - I mean, how difficult is that? Modern youth diction sends me into a middle-aged frenzy of despair at the future of the human race: "At the bottom end of the linguistic scale, kids are all, ‘like, innit, bruv, you know what I’m sayin...’ to the point where they are clearly not saying anything, and have reclaimed the condition of grunting primates that we took a million years to evolve from," as Giles Coren says (and if you want to read a truly hilarious writer's rant pop over and read his leaked letter to a copyeditor about the removal of the word "a" from one of his articles!). Okay, I am neither as rude nor as articulate as Giles Coren (nor would I EVER be confident enough to assert that my work doesn't need copy-editing), but I do want to use correct English if at all possible.

Yet sometimes you have to mess things up a bit. For example "susurration" is a perfectly good noun meaning "a sound of whispering or rustling" - so why isn't there a verb to go with it? Grass should be able to susurrate. Nipples should be able to pebble in reaction to cold air (yes, that's one I've used in the past).

The thing is, if you use English in novel ways you look like a poet. If you use it incorrectly you look like an idiot. Where the dividing line lies between those two ... now there's the rub. But Erin's talk has given me new heart to try and be more original and daring in future.

Anyone got any unorthodox English they want to admit to using?


Nikki Magennis said...

I have to admit my grammar is pretty appalling. Partly laziness, partly a crap education, I expect. So I misuse English all the time.

I speak and probaby write like a parrot or a chameleon. If I get grammar right, it's probably more by accident of being able to mimic the proper rhythms than from actual knowledge of how it works.

See, and garbled too!

Anyway, I wanted to recommend Steven Pinker's work, tho, especially 'The language instinct'. He has a very interesting argument that makes me suspect that the 'innit, bruv, know what I'm saying' is in itself a complex and carefully structured grammar. Not wrong, just different.

Janine Ashbless said...

I really wish there'd been more grammar taught when I was at my state school (And Latin. And poetry. God, I'm poetry-illiterate.): pretty much everything I know I've picked up like you, through exposure and osmosis.

Jeremy Edwards said...

For example "susurration" is a perfectly good noun meaning "a sound of whispering or rustling" - so why isn't there a verb to go with it? Grass should be able to susurrate. Nipples should be able to pebble in reaction to cold air

Hear, hear! Convincing writers can't be Humpty Dumpties—i.e., unilaterally choose that words mean whatever they want them to—but I think we can (and, if we're so inclined, should) make reasonable stretches and give words interesting little twists that feel "right" based on a word's conventional form/usage viewed across the specific context. That "right"-ness is subjective, of course, and what works for the writer may feel infelicitous or even "wrong" to a given reader. But, yes, "daring" is an excellent word to use here: sometimes artists choose to take risks. And when a maneuver like this works, the writer has really enriched the reader's experience, imo—and, in a small way, contributed to the growth of the language.

I also read Language Instinct and loved the analysis of nonstandard dialects spoken within subcultures.

And, Janine and Nikki, I think you both write like angels! (But you knew that. Raunchy good-time angels, of course.)

neve black said...

There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not mentally challenged in some way by all things, 'English language'. I have a freakin' college degree in Eng. Literature, and what does that really mean? That I know a hell of a lot about Shakespeare. Yeah, well, so what? haha.

My mother learned Latin in her former years, so we were corrected CONSTANTLY to speak correctly growing up; tandem was a lecture as to why it was correct too. I despised that then, but to your point, Janine, I wish all kids today had a little bit more of my mom around them.

I find the best way to write better is to read more. I haven't met a writer yet that doesn't concur with that sentiment.

With all that said, I fumble, stumble and f-up grammar like a complete dumb-ass. I barter out cooking and baking items in trade for my literary friends to read and edit short pieces of my work prior to sub. I'm getting better with my grammar, but hell, the piece still comes back with red check marks on it. Damn.

p.s. Nikki's comment had me LOL! I've read her work - she's amazing.

p.p.s. I think your word, "susurrate" is magnificant! I wonder if editors will agree?

Erobintica said...

just a couple of thoughts popped into my head right now - English is a "living" language and so always changing and - you need to know the rules to break the rules (I wish I knew more rules).

the blueberry muffins that are almost done are smelling up my house and I cannot think to write anything more coherent. ;-)

I think I'll watch that video while I munch

Erobintica said...

that was great - well worth watching!

Chris said...

Well, I tend to use the verb "attrite" to describe the process of attrition. I believe the correct word is attenuate, but why just have one word for it...? I also believe anyone using the word decimate to mean "reduce by 90%" should be spanked. And not in a nice way.

In my line of work we use a lot of jargon that doesn't necessarily *look* like jargon, no social worker is *ever* going to win a 'plain english' award. On the other hand, it can be really important to distinguish between a delusion and a (an?) hallucination, or between a hallucination and a pseudo-hallucination. Medical jargon of course serves two important functions. One is the entirely reasonable function of making sure doctors (and related professionals) can communicate effectively with each other. The other is to make damn sure that people not in the know don't have a clue what is being said. This can of course fall down when doctors of different specialisms write to each other when the jargon fails to accomplish fuction a) and includes the other doctor in the category of 'people not in the know'.

Janine Ashbless said...

"You need to know the rules to break the rules." Oh yes Erobintica - that's it exactly! What fabulous people are dropping by today. Oooh ...I smell blueberry muffins! - would that be a hallucination or a pseudo-hallucination Chris?

Jeremy, as ever, you encapsulate my vague and blundering thoughts in precise and beautiful phrases.

And Neve, yes, using English as our weapon-of-choice is a daily challenge and I too am constantly falling down on points of grammar and intelligibility (had to look the spelling of that one up!). But isn't it fascinating? And isn't it wonderful when it comes out right, and you look at something in shock and think "Ooh, that's good! Did I really write that?" Sometimes it feels like the words are streaming past me in mid-air and I'm leaping up and trying to snatch the ones I want ... while prettier words escape, fluttering out of my grasp.

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

The best part of Giles Coren's letter, to me, is all the mistakes I found in it...

Meanwhile, if we can perform our ablutions, why can we not simply ablute? :-)

Janine Ashbless said...

Quite right! Let us ablute!

Emerald said...

I have been known to wonder why "integrity" doesn't have an adjective form. "Integritous" or something.

Funnily, I did make up the word "diversional" to go along with my Walt Disney World posts. Of course, heh...I didn't really realize I was making it up until spellcheck didn't recognize it. ;)

And what an interesting video! Thanks for sharing (and referring, Jeremy).

(Also, not to wildly change the subject, but this:

"Artificial constraints lead to arbitrary distinctions and a skewed world view"

immediately reminded me of the proposition that sex is only acceptable within the formality of marriage.)

Craig Sorensen said...

First, I adore Erin! What great thoughts she has on language. Thanks for posting this.

Yes, I have been guilty of wordsmithing along the way. I've even had such a word edited out, and no I didn't get all Giles on the editor.

I only contend a point with a story if I think the meaning is diluted or distorted by the editor's change, but I digress.

I agree with Erin's assertion that the language is fluid. I don't think we should be rigid in language use. We should be willing to paint with words, and one of the wonders of painting is using colors in a different way than intended.

Regarding being "poetry illiterate" I'm surprised how many excellent writers I know feel that way. I find it disturbing, because poetry is the most artistic and free forms of writing, and yet so many feel they must be "educated" to enjoy it.

An artist need not study Rembrandt to pick up a brush and make a beautiful painting.

I suppose I'm digressing again.

Anyway, love the post and the discussion!

Janine Ashbless said...

Okay, now that "integrity" thing is bugging me. There should so be an adjective form!

I'm loving this discussion too Craig. I'd like to know what neologism you had edited out. Your wordsmithing always seems to me extraordinarily skilled.

Craig Sorensen said...

I was afraid you'd ask what that word was, Janine, and I'm kind of embarrassed that I don't remember right now! It will come back to me, though.

And thank you!

Craig Sorensen said...

See, all I had to do was admit what a doof I am, and it comes back to me.

The word was "pense" as a verb, which seemed to me a deeper state than "to ponder" or "to think" but not as brooding as "to dwell."

Janine Ashbless said...

"Pense" is French of course - if you'd put it in italics the editor might have been intimidated into letting it go!

Craig Sorensen said...


But I conjugated it in English: "Pensed." :-)

Erobintica said...

Craig is so right about poetry - they kill it in schools though for so many.

I like pensed.

Cora Zane said...

Oh, wow. That was a great rant. I admit I kept waiting for him to shout "No wire hanger's ever!"

*ducks tomatoes* ^_^

My grammar is...well...probably 8th grade in complexity. Shameful, really, but there it is. I agree there's a cadence that can make or break a paragraph. I've never heard it explained as well as Giles did. I'm definitely taking notes.

BTW, the lexicographer lady is inspiring. I can't help but appreciate someone who loves what they do in that way. Seeing that clip has made my day. :*)

Janine Ashbless said...

Glad to make your day Cora - and Jeremy is the one to be thanked.

Maybe we should start a guerilla campaign to introduce Pensed into English...

Jeremy Edwards said...

Aw, shucks, ma'am, it weren't nothing.* : ) Besides, you did all the real work, getting that video up the stairs.

*Speaking of dialects—how do I look in my cowboy outfit?

Janine Ashbless said...

Real swell, Jeremy!