In these times of pandemic lock down we’re all searching for something that will absorb us, entertain, teach–challenge us. I’ve dabbled in baking (very mixed results), sewing (mended everything mendable), crafty things (be glad you’re not on my Christmas list), knitting (have you seen the price of good wool?). They all passed the time between books, but none inspired a passion and I didn’t feel particularly challenged.
My grandmother and my mother were both avid cruciverbalists. Not only does that sound exotic, it felt like I’d be carrying on a tradition. Those esteemed women fearlessly challenged their brains daily. I bought a puzzle book with 99 crosswords claiming to “be enjoyable at all solving levels”. Perfect! I could limber up and go on to the hard stuff.
I felt I had gotten the knack with the first 30 puzzles. Sharp flavor, four letters–TANG. This is a breeze. The next 56 began to take some effort: Central parts, six letters, fifth being ‘e’. Hmmm. I consider all things central and am not arriving at those 6 letters, the fifth of which is ‘e’. Then I crossed words with Tile problem and MILDEW gives me ‘L’ for the fourth letter. I hit on nuclei. I got it! Central parts: NUCLEI pl. I am strutting like a peacock, never mind that it isn’t a commonly used word. “The nuclei of the garden are the tulips and the erotic statue.” Naw. Clearly this is a new language.
I like to think I am an honest sort, so I keep count of how many times I peek at the answers page. Eight times over 86 puzzles; a mere misdemeanor. Many of the clues involve rather esoteric and antiquated knowledge. I feel I can be forgiven for not knowing every letter of the Greek alphabet or the lessor characters of 19th century French drama. I now include recent pop music titles among esoteric knowledge. I do not know a single Abba song title. (This leaves me feeling hopelessly uncool, but never mind.)
Still, I’m getting better–that is, until number 87. I feel like I’m taking an exam in advanced astrophysics–and it’s in Brail. Philanthropy source, 11 letters. I get there finally with the help of crossed words: BILLIONAIRE. It’s so obvious, so clear and so disheartening that I’d agonized over this. Then a light bulb goes on and I realize crosswords do not involve a new language. It’s still English (except for those pesky Greek letters). What is needed here is an entirely different thought process, a less rigid way of considering words.
I need to be flexible, more elastic than Silly String, more malleable than Play Dough. How else can you arrive at ROLE as the answer to Office? It’s all those English words with multiple meanings, all the nuances of our language that makes for rich, lyrical writing. It’s the forgiving nature of our language that allows us to get by with radical interpretation, lets us stretch the truth, so to speak. I’d been ignoring what I already know and what I love so much about writing.
Puzzle 88 is next and it looks daunting. It’s a giant grid with one and a half pages of clues. I’m going to be like water and with each clue let my mind flow over and under, through and past pedestrian definition until I arrive at the clever stretch, the humorous bent, the deceptively simple answer. It’s poetic.
I’m determined to join the ranks of my foremothers and become a cruciverbalist. I may pull out all my hair, but I intend to get there. I am definitely Faced off, 10 letters.
We’re so lucky. The English language is like play dough.
Oh yes, we have strict rules of grammar, tense, POV, all the way to the minutia of intransitive verbs. We can choose from a number of eminent grammar and style guides to ensure conformity. We have stalwart English teachers to drill those rules into our heads so that we are all on the same page. (And bless them all – there is nothing better than order over chaos). But despite those rules a writer has so much freedom to shape our mother tongue into forms wry, brittle, silly, heartbreaking, snarky or just plain mad.
I don’t have much command of any other language; a smatter of German, a soupçon of French, about a third cup of Latin and a healthy plateful of Spanish. But I do know that the rules of those languages are not as forgiving as English — not as much room to roam before you run afoul of the language police. English allows us to mangle all the rules of spelling, meaning, and sentence structure to reflect dialect, or character traits, add color, shift perceptions or mood and anyone with a good command of English can understand — and only pedants ever complain. Of course, you have to use the rules of punctuation. Gotta have those traffic signs.
Anthony Burgess used bits and pieces of Russian mixed with Shakespearian English and other tongues to give us Nadsat, the terrifyingly unique argot of his dark characters in A Clockwork Orange. The reader may have had to work at it a bit, but it was intelligible and colored the story with an unforgettable feel. Fantasy and Sci Fi from J.K. Rowling to Ursula K. Le Guin play with all sorts of mixed up language that become magical words and when you’re reading in those worlds you understand.
Dialect and special vocabulary enrich a tale on many levels and I’m in awe of those writers who do them well, but my favorite form of play dough English is the portmanteau. Anybody can create one of these inventive combinations, and everybody does — usually with something faintly deprecating or ironically funny in mind. And with just one word a portmanteau can ooze with meaning. Frenemy speaks volumes — we’ve all had one and it’s exhilarating to give ‘em a proper name. Craptacular very neatly wraps up the verdict on so much of our over-hyped media. And then there’s pompidity, my own invention from University days when I struggled to describe the quality of politicians.
All writers love words. Words are paint, chisel, fabric, and clay for our creativity. If you can’t find that one word that perfectly reflects your intent, try cobbling a new one together — no one will take points away. Blog is a portmanteau (web log) so if you’re lucky enough to have your portmanteau go viral, you might wind up in the OED.
With a BA in Anthropology and English Jenny pursued a career in advertising and writing and segued into developmental editing. She has worked on nearly 400 books during her career. Her clients include both traditionally published and indie authors. She has worked in every genre from romance to horror and thrillers as well as edited Air Force manuals, commercial communications and memoirs. She offers every service from copyediting to developmental coaching.
*This blog is an oldie but goodie, originally published in March, 2018
I’ve been thinking a lot about redundancy in the last week because I am editing a book that has been a long time in coming. I want the fans that have been waiting for this book to be pleased, as much as I want new readers to be impressed. I was able to recapture the series character voices, the plot was solid, but something was amiss with the writing.
While I was redlining the phrase ‘she turned her head’ for the twenty-fifth time, I realized that much of my description was redundant. I’ve suffered through this before, but this time instead of instead of soldering on I set aside my work and went for the dictionary. The definition of the word redundant was richer and more nuanced than I realized and each definition could be applied to my work.
Redundancy, as I understand it, is characterized as a similarity or repetitiveness. This made sense in terms of the edit I made to delete a recurring phrase. The dictionary further defined the word as describing something exceeding the normal, superfluous, and containing excess. Finally, redundant may be used to describe the profuse or lavish. These definitions were inspiring when applied to the craft of writing. In fact, I realized my WIP suffered greatly from redundancy.
Always chasing a higher word count, I was excessive in my use of conjunctions, verbs and adverbs. My style was buried under unnecessary words and phrases. Each passage became overly formal, lacking grace and fluidity. I had a tendency to say the same things in different ways as if my reader wouldn’t get the point the first time. My love of alliterations, similies, idioms and hyperbole were profuse and lavish to the point of distraction.
The bottom line is this: by attempting to create a memorable work I had, instead, created a book that would be unnecessarily difficult to read. The red pen had already been put to good use, but now I am making the next pass with all the definitions of redundancy top of mind. Already my writing is more precise, the characters are freed from the weight of unnecessary dialogue, and the descriptions of time and place are clearer.
It’s true that you learn something new everyday, and that’s one redundancy I can live with.
A Slice of Orange is delighted to welcome poet, Neetu to our rotation of authors.
Neetu’s poetry is an expression of life’s rhythms and the beat of the human spirit. She draws upon diverse multicultural experiences and observations across three continents in which she has lived. She has contributed to The Australia Times Poetry Magazine, October Hill Magazine, Prachya Review, among others. Her poems have appeared in The Poetic Bond Anthology V and VI published by Willowdown Books, UK, NY Literary Magazine’s Tears Anthology and Poetic Imagination Anthology (Canada).
Neetu lives in Pennsylvania, USA and will be publishing a poem on the 26th of each month here on A Slice of Orange. Her column will be titled Poet’s Day.
In the shapeless hours
of an endless night
the old clock
I hear it chime once
a labored groan, only half-shrill
I do not need to look
at its brass pendulum
to know it is still
all I know this time
unlike all other times is
its motion cannot
© Neetu Malik
Words are a writer’s ingredients. We love words – obscure words, descriptive or emotional words, those sets that make up the language of a specialty. Creating a passage of the perfect words hits the poetic, emotional and dramatic sweet spot — it’s more satisfying than a perfectly risen soufflé. Those words are not always based on literal meaning; otherwise Oscar Wilde would never have written: “The curves of your lips rewrite history.”
I have always been taken with the vocabulary of cooking. This is probably because I can’t cook. Maybe I think if I learn that vocabulary I can wield it like an incantation and my split pea soup will magically look less frightening, smell inviting and even taste good. It hasn’t worked but culinary terms, as a set of words, continue to surprise me — they’re just so aggressive.
Macerate, whip, beat, truss, pulverize, grind, batter, beat, scald. Whoa! All this to get something beautiful, delicious and nutritious? It works for most cooks. No matter how I slice or dice, shred, mince or mash, it seldom works for me. Must be in how you understand the terms and in nuance of use. Culinary terms work just as well to describe a cage fight as they do with a recipe for Angel Food cake.
Jared didn’t blanch facing the mountain that was Killdeer Kilze. He’d whip this fight up – he had to – the kids hadn’t eaten in two days. Time to mince this guy and reduce his essence. Zest infused Jared’s system, juicing his blood as he minced the mountain’s nose with one lethal chop, shred his kneecap with another. Scalded by the roar of the drunken crowd he beat at the massive chest, macerating the ribs. Sliced, diced and filleted to perfection, Killdeer Kilze lay trussed like the appetizer he was. The kids would dine well tonight.
Cooking is a gentle, homey pursuit – though some of those chef shows can be down right bloody so maybe it’s the competitive aspect that accounts for the aggressive feel. These words aren’t really homonyms. They sound alike and are spelled alike but they don’t have different meanings. The difference is in the sense of the meaning.
Linguists and other learned folk call this fine distinction, Polysemy. It’s the distinction that good writers always make. It’s part of why poetry can rock your world. Seeking just the right words with just the right nuance can make a love scene monumental rather than simply sweet, or enfold the reader in the sight, smell and sound of a setting. It’s the choice and use of the right words that makes a story linger in the reader’s heart — something every writer wants.
I do wonder how our language developed to make this particular set of words work for such opposing concepts. Is there a conflicted warrior inside every woman? I don’t know but if I dig far enough I’m sure theories abound. And while I ponder this conundrum I do it…again. I fritter my time away on obscure concepts and my carefully mixed cornbread hits the cooling rack and bounces. It sounds like a hollow rock. Clearly, it takes more than knowing the right language to make a great cook. But it is knowing the right nuanced words that makes a great book.
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