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A Birthday Special: Shakespeare's Figures of Speech

Wednesday April 23, 2014

William Shakespeare's birthday is traditionally celebrated on Saint George's Day, April 23, which also happens to be the day of Shakespeare's death. We're marking the event(s) with a baker's dozen of Shakespearean figures of speech. Like the passages themselves, some of the figures are more familiar than others. (For definitions and additional examples, click on the highlighted rhetorical terms.)

  1. Chiasmus (Antimetabole)
    Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
    (The Witches in Act One of Macbeth)

  2. Epanorthosis (Metanoia or Repair)
    [A] good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon; or, rather, the sun, and not the moon; for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly.
    (King Henry in Act Five of Henry V)

  3. Epiphora (Epistrophe)
    Bassanio: Sweet Portia,
    If you did know to whom I gave the ring,
    And would conceive for what I gave the ring
    And how unwillingly I left the ring,
    When nought would be accepted but the ring,
    You would abate the strength of your displeasure.
    Portia: If you had known the virtue of the ring,
    Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,
    Or your own honour to contain the ring,
    You would not then have parted with the ring.
    (Act Five of The Merchant of Venice)

  4. Gradatio (Anadiplosis)
    My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
    And every tongue brings in a several tale,
    And every tale condemns me for a villain.
    (King Richard in Act Five of King Richard III)

  5. Hypallage (Transferred Epithet)
    Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch'd
    With rainy marching in the painful field. . . .
    (King Henry in Act Four of Henry V))

  6. Metaphor
    A man may break a word with you, sir: and words are but wind;
    Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.
    (Dromio of Ephesus in Act Three of The Comedy of Errors)

  7. Onomatopoeia
    Hark, hark!
    The watch-dogs bark:
    Hark, hark! I hear
    The strain of strutting chanticleer
    Cry, cock-a-diddle-dow!
    (Ariel in Act One of The Tempest)

  8. Oxymoron
    Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
    O anything, of nothing first create! O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
    Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
    Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
    Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
    This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
    (Romeo in Act One of Romeo and Juliet)

  9. Personification
    Do villainy, do, since you protest to do't,
    Like workmen. I'll example you with thievery.
    The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
    Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
    And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
    The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
    The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief,
    That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
    From general excrement: each thing's a thief.
    (Timon in Act Four of Timon of Athens)

  10. Ploce (Paronomasia)
    Maria: By my troth, Sir Toby, you must come in earlier o' nights. Your cousin, my lady, takes great exceptions to your ill hours.
    Sir Toby Belch: Why, let her except, before excepted.
    Maria: Ay, but you must confine yourself within the modest limits of order.
    Sir Toby Belch: Confine? I'll confine myself no finer than I am. These clothes are good enough to drink in, and so be these boots too. An they be not, let them hang themselves in their own straps.
    (Act One of Twelfth Night)

  11. Polyptoton
    . . . Love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove. . . .
    (Sonnet 116)

  12. Syllepsis (Zeugma)
    A husband and a son thou owest to me;
    And thou a kingdom; all of you allegiance. . . .
    (Queen Margaret in Act One of King Richard III)

  13. Synecdoche
    Macbeth: What soldiers, wheyface?
    Servant: The English force, so please you.
    Macbeth: Take thy face hence.
    (Act Five of Macbeth)

To learn much more about Shakespeare and his works, visit About.com Shakespeare, guided by Lee Jamieson.

More About Figures of Speech:

Image: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

10 Pros on Prose

Monday April 21, 2014

For advice on how to improve your writing skills and sharpen your prose, visit with these 10 authors from our series Writers on Writing: Advice From the Pros.

  • Practical Writing Advice From Roy Peter Clark
    Roy Peter Clark, author of The Glamour of Grammar and How to Write Short, acknowledges that many of the "rules" of writing are as mythical as centaurs and unicorns. Here he offers 10 key writing tips--or as he calls them, "keepsakes."

  • Annie Dillard on Getting Started
    Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard explains why an imperfect introduction--even one that's clumsy, wordy, boring, and vague--may be the best way to get your draft off the ground.

  • Blow Up the TV, and Other Writing Advice From Stephen King
    Whether you're out to compose best-selling novels or effective essays, memos, and reports, you should benefit from King's straightforward advice.

  • John Updike on the Pleasures of Writing
    Updike may have been the quintessential "lyrical writer of the ordinary," but extraordinary lessons can be found beneath the glittering surface of his prose.

  • C.S. Lewis on What Really Matters in Writing
    In a letter to a young Narnia fan in Florida, author C.S. Lewis offered some sensible advice on writing, including these points about "what really matters."

  • Toni Morrison on Writing
    From her early days as an editor at Random House through her many years as a teacher of English at Princeton, Toni Morrison has shown an abiding interest in the writer's craft. Here, in excerpts from several interviews, Morrison offers her thoughts on the practice and the process of writing.

  • "Keep Your Hook in the Water": Harry Crews on Writing
    The late novelist and essayist Harry Crews was also a passionate teacher. Not surprisingly, Crews had more than a few things to say about writing and the writer's life.

  • John Steinbeck's Rudimentary Writing Suggestions
    Novelist John Steinbeck encouraged beginning writers to write as "freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually . . . an excuse for not going on."

  • Somerset Maugham on Writing Without Frills
    British novelist W. Somerset Maugham understood that becoming a better writer involves confronting our limitations--identifying those qualities that stubbornly resist all our efforts to improve them. But even more important is the next step: building on our strengths.

  • "We Can Do Better": Dr. Seuss on Writing
    Here's some grownup advice on writing from Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to children and adults as Dr. Seuss.

Between the Dashes

Friday April 18, 2014

Interrupting dashes--like these, for example--are parenthetical devices favored by many professional writers but often ignored or misused by students. Because they're a handy way of slipping details into sentences--definitions, translations, illustrations, explanations, and qualifications, for instance--interrupting dashes are worth adding to our composition tool kits.

Consider these examples from recent magazine articles.

  • Very little grows here. Yet it is the home of quinoa real--"royal quinoa"--whose seeds are the world market's gold standard. . . .
    (Lisa M. Hamilton, "The Quinoa Quarrel." Harper's, May 2014)

  • Cardinal Walter Kasper--short, sturdy, 81--lives at No. 1 Piazza della Cittą Leonina, a brick apartment building near the old Vatican walls. . . .
    (Paul Elie, "The Pope in the Attic." The Atlantic, May 2014)

  • The tents huddled together on the high prairie. For seven months, they had borne deluge, frost and blizzard. In that time, the occupants--more than 1,000 striking coal miners and their families--had also endured the fear and fact of violence. . . .
    (Thai Jones, "Remembering the Ludlow Massacre." The Nation, April 21, 2014)

  • A new catalog of earthquake lights--mysterious glows sometimes reported before or during seismic shaking--finds that they happen most often in geological rift environments, where the ground is pulling apart. . . .
    (Alexandra Witze, "Mysterious Light Associated With Earthquakes Now Linked to Geologic Rift Zones." Scientific American, January 2014)

  • The Chelsea makes many more star appearances, but it's the denizens of the place, their celebrity and sheer numbers--from Mark Twain through several generations of artists, cranks and druggies, to Sid Vicious--that warrant its reputation. . . .
    (Jeremy Harding, "Short Cuts." London Review of Books, February 6, 2014)

  • The innovation of the coaching schools was not so much the curriculum--Coach U's was so similar to Erhard's that in the late 1990s Landmark sued for copyright infringement--but in the professed goal. . . .
    (Genevieve Smith, "50,000 Life Coaches Can't Be Wrong." Harper's, May 2014)

In almost every example, a pair of commas or parentheses could also do the job, but those marks lack the emphatic dash of the dash. Commas can lead to clutter, and parentheses seem to whisper (inviting us to skip over points that used to be relegated to footnotes).

Like any device, interrupting dashes lose their power and effectiveness through overuse, and too many of them can quickly become distracting. So good writers ration them.

Nevertheless, the next time you want to emphasize a detail clearly and concisely, don't be afraid to try on a pair of dashes.

More About Interruptions:

A Springtime Stroll on the Lighter Side of Language

Wednesday April 16, 2014

Every few months, when the lucubrations of linguists grow tiresome and the cackles of language mavens turn painfully shrill, we slip across to the lighter side of language. Please join us. (For definitions, discussions, and additional examples, click on the highlighted terms.)

  • The Lighter Side of Prefixes
    "If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted; musicians denoted; cowboys deranged; models deposed; tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed?"
    (Virginia Ostman, quoted by Laurence J. Peter in Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Times. Quill, 1993)

  • The Lighter Side of Privative Affixes
    "The pilot declared it a 'catastrophic failure of equipment' and put the stairs out for us to 'deplane.' Why do we 'deplane'? We don't 'debus,' we don't 'decab.' It's such a phony word. It seems to me an emergency is the wrong time to try to impress people with fancy vocabulary. A simple 'The nose has unexpectedly fallen off this plane. Let's not use it. Get off' would have done the trick."
    (Paula Poundstone, There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say. Three Rivers Press, 2006)

  • The Lighter Side of Misplaced Modifiers
    "For many people eating spoonfuls of Marmite every day would be their worst nightmare, but for St. John Skelton it's his dream job. . . . Despite being loathed by millions across the world, St. John can't get enough of the stuff and eats it almost every day."
    ("Meet the Man Who Earns a Living Eating Marmite." The Sun [UK], April 14, 2012)

  • The Lighter Side of Proverbs:
    "Perhaps we should have a general reconditioning, or reupholstering, of proverbs. It could be done without too much trouble, and economically. New materials would not be needed. The old materials that Shakespeare and his great contemporary, Anon, used are still as good as new, and can't be bettered. You can't get stuff like that today. A simple rearrangement of a batch of the more prominent proverbs might do everybody a lot of good.

    "Something on this order: A man is known by the Russian he scratches. A bird in the bush is worth two on Nellie's hat. An apple a day is the evil thereof. He that keeps the doctor away will live to fight another day. A penny saved is a pound foolish. Beauty is only the spice of life. You see, they sound just as sensible as the originals, and if delivered by an adult in a solemn, minatory voice, will convince a youngster of his own unworthiness as thoroughly as if they made sense."
    (Frank Sullivan, "A Watched Proverb Butters No Parsnips." The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down. Little, Brown, 1953)

  • The Lighter Side of Anthypophora
    "Do I get annoyed when people ask themselves their own questions and answer them (rendering the interviewer irrelevant)? Yes I do. Should we allow this virus in the paper? No we shouldn't."
    (Kevin Mitchell, quoted by David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon in Guardian Style, 3rd ed. Guardian Books, 2010)

  • The Lighter Side of Assemblage Errors
    "Runny Babbit lent to wunch
    And heard the saitress way,
    'We have some lovely stabbit rew--
    Our Special for today. . . . "
    (Shel Silverstein, Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook. HarperCollins, 2005)

  • The Lighter Side of Brevity
    "[Calvin Coolidge's] most celebrated trait was his taciturnity. An oft-told story, which has never been verified, is that a woman sitting next to him at dinner gushed, 'Mr. President, my friend bet me that I wouldn't be able to get you to say three words tonight.'

    "'You lose,' the president supposedly responded."
    (Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927. Doubleday, 2013)

  • The Lighter Side of Reading Speed
    "I just got out of the hospital. I was in a speed-reading accident. I hit a bookmark."
    (Steven Wright)

  • The Lighter Side of Connotations
    "'Why is it a handbag instead of a purse?'

    "The General simultaneously rolled her eyes and released a tired sigh. 'A purse is a cheap, plastic discount store thing. A handbag is what contemporary, fashion-conscious women carry. And that's what we sell. Expensive designer handbags. An assortment of the latest trends and must-have famous names. They are handbags and you need to refer to them that way. You can say bag for short, but never, ever, ever say the word purse It's an insult to the exclusive designers we carry. Got it?'

    "'Got it.'

    "But I didn't really get it. The whole thing sounded kind of snooty and stupid."
    (Freeman Hall, Retail Hell: How I Sold My Soul to the Store. Adams Media, 2009)

More From the Lighter Side of Language:

What's the Hardest Part of Writing?

Monday April 14, 2014

For you, what's the hardest part of writing?

Ernest Hemingway said that it was "getting the words right." My six-year-old nephew says, "It makes my hand hurt." After considering these other responses, let us know which aspect of the writing process is most difficult for you. (Click on "comments" at the end of the post.)

  • Patricia Sprinkle on Sitting Down to Write
    The hardest part of writing is sitting down with an idea and staying in that chair long enough to birth it into something you recognize. After college I needed to know if I wanted to write badly enough to do it without a professor assigning a topic.
    (Patricia Sprinkle, Hold Up the Sky. New American Library, 2010)

  • Jane Hamilton on Confidence
    I think the hardest thing about writing is just having the confidence to put something down and think that anyone else will want to read it.
    (Jane Hamilton, quoted in the Tampa Review, 1998)

  • Judy Blume on First Drafts
    The hardest part of writing for me is getting that first draft. I find it pure torture.
    (Judy Blume, in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith in Judy Bloom by Cee Telford. Rosen, 2004)

  • Henry Giroux on Finding the Sequence
    Once I get an idea, the daunting task begins of reading everything I can on the subject, collecting information, data, and trying to think through how the project will be developed. . . . I enjoy the research, but I find that I can't actually think through a project or write anything until I can sequence my argument and see how it is going to be developed. Trying to figure out the sequence is very painful for me, and I usually get very depressed at some point . . .. Once I get the sequence, however, the writing seems to proceed smoothly.
    (Henry Giroux, quoted by Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham in Critical Intellectuals on Writing. SUNY Press, 2003)

  • Reynolds Price on Loneliness
    It's the loneliness that's the hardest part. I don't want to sound like the pope or the president--the loneliness here at the top, the Oval Office. I don't mean that. But you are alone: you just sit in your room . . . and you work.
    (Reynolds Price, in an interview with A.B. Crowder in Writing in the Southern Tradition. Rodopi, 1990)

  • James Baldwin on Not Writing
    The hardest thing about writing, in a sense, is not writing. I mean, the sentence is not intended to show you off, you know. It is not supposed to be "Look at me! Look, no hands!" It's supposed to be a pipeline between the reader and you. One condition of the sentence is to write so well that no one notices that you're writing.
    (James Baldwin, quoted by Donald M. Murray in Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work, 2000)

  • Beverly Cleary on Pushing Through to the End
    The hardest thing about writing is pushing through to the end . . .. The easiest thing is revising. I think all writers do some revising. That is when I cross out a lot and shorten a page to one paragraph.
    (Beverly Cleary, quoted by Dorothy S. Strickland in Collections: Hidden Surprises. Harcourt, 2000)

  • Rawlins and Metzger on the Lack of Revising Time
    The single most difficult thing about writing in school is the lack of revising time. There is no way to create extra hours in the day, so all you can do is learn to use the little time you have well.
    (Jack Rawlins and Stephen Metzger, The Writer's Way, 9th ed. Cengage, 2014)

More About the Writing Process:

Blackboard: an "American proverb" (according to the Oxford Treasury of Sayings and Quotations), variously attributed to Mary Heaton Vorse, Somerset Maugham, Robert Frost, and countless others.

Revising for an Audience

Friday April 11, 2014

In their venerable textbook The Reader Over Your Shoulder, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge encourage the writer to "imagine a crowd of his prospective readers . . . looking over his shoulder."

What an awful thought.

Most of us, I suspect, prefer to be left alone (imaginatively and otherwise) so that we can write unself-consciously and undisturbed. Composing a rough draft is usually a solitary activity: put out the cat, shut the door, turn off the phone, and get down to work, keeping our thoughts as far away as possible from the madding crowd of prospective readers.

But when the first draft is finally done, the isolated writer turns into an active reader, and that's when some company might be welcome. So let's reconsider Graves and Hodge's advice, replacing the word write with revise:

We suggest that whenever anyone sits down to revise he should imagine a crowd of his prospective readers (rather than a grammarian in cap and gown) looking over his shoulder. They will be asking such questions as: "What does this sentence mean?" "Why do you trouble to tell me that again?" "Why have you chosen such a ridiculous metaphor?" "Must I really read this long, limping sentence?" "Haven't you got your ideas muddled here?" By anticipating and listing as many of these questions as possible, the writer will discover certain tests of intelligibility to which he may regularly submit his work before he sends it off to the printer.
(Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose. Macmillan, 1943)
For more advice on revising (always open to editing, of course), see The Graces of Prose: Graves and Hodge's 16 Stylistic Principles.

Revision Checklists:

Make Way for Minor Sentences

Wednesday April 9, 2014

Company slogans. PowerPoint bullets. Top ten lists. "Like" buttons on Facebook. Twitter!

Like it or not, as many forms of writing move ever closer to speech (see colloquialization), so-called minor sentences have spread like kudzu.

Also called abbreviated clauses or (more familiarly) sentence fragments, minor sentences have been around since the first cave dweller cried "Ouch!" And they continue to play an essential role in ordinary conversation. Consider these random exchanges from a few popular TV shows:

  • Police officer: Going solo again?
    Raylan Givens: Another deputy in the car.
    Police officer: Learned your lesson?
    Raylan Givens: Until I forget it.

  • Sheldon: Quick poll: PS4 or Xbox One? Raj.
    Raj: Uh, Xbox One.
    Sheldon: Penny.
    Penny: Huh?
    Sheldon: Leonard.
    Leonard: PS4.
    Sheldon: Wolowitz.
    Howard: Both great.
    Sheldon: Bernadette.
    Bernadette: I like the Wii.
    Sheldon: Thanks, Grandma.
    (The Big Bang Theory)

  • Diane Lockhart: Good job.
    Will Gardner: Not me, you. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
    Diane Lockhart: As long as we're the ones snatching.
    (The Good Wife)
You get the point: only one complete sentence in the lot ("I like the Wii"). Every other line of dialogue is a minor sentence--a fragmented, elliptical, or incomplete word group that conveys meaning nonetheless.

Minor sentences can show up just about anywhere: in adages and aphorisms ("Better late than never"); exclamations ("Fire!"); interjections ("Damn!"); questions ("Hungry?") and replies ("Not really"); self-identification ("Captain here"); vocatives ("You over there with the orange hair"); and imperatives ("Stop!").

But that doesn't mean that complete sentences are going the way of the dodo (or the subjunctive mood).

In fact, most experienced writers of nonfiction are quite stingy and selective in their use of minor sentences. Writing in this month's Smithsonian magazine, essayist David Carkeet uses a series of them as attention-getters in his lead:

Josh. Rambler. Soleather. Sergeant Fathom. Thomas Jefferson Snod­grass. W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab. A Son of Adam.

I ran through the names in my head as I devoured dry-rub barbecue and piled up napkins at Memphis' bustling Rendezvous. . . .
(David Carkeet, "The Twain Shall Meet." Smithsonian, April 2014)
But in his 11-page article he relies on that device just once.

More commonly, as Arthur Plotnik points out, minor sentences "piggyback on the action of the sentences preceding them, adding some modifying detail or reinforcing imagery" (Spunk & Bite):

  • It's a neat piece of logic: the very fact that a young man finds himself in need of insurance coverage is often grounds for denying it to him.

    So: alcohol and the fraternity man. Despite everything you may think you know about life on frat row, there are actually only two FIPG-approved means of serving drinks at a frat party. . . .
    (Caitlin Flanagan, "The Dark Power of Fraternities." The Atlantic, March 2014)

  • Rawalt's home and office were in North Platte, Nebraska. So, logically, fly to Denver and drive to North Platte. Right? Not so fast. Rawalt was instructed to meet me at 9 a.m. on January 25th in a room in the Federal Building in Omaha--two hundred and eighty miles from his home. . . .
    (John McPhee, "Elicitation." The New Yorker, April 7, 2014)
In short, good writers use minor sentences strategically, not habitually.

A century ago, telegraphic writing co-existed with conventional prose without contaminating it. Similarly, it's unlikely that tweet-speak will prove a serious challenge to the supremacy of the declarative sentence.

As specialized tools, minor sentences are undoubtedly handy. But even "with the drama provided by full-stop pauses," says Plotnik, "fragments soon run out of energy. The narrative needs a recharge: namely, the power of verbs driving subjects."

More About Incomplete Sentences:

Blackboard: four aphorisms that take the form of minor sentences.

Developing the Write Attitude

Monday April 7, 2014

One of America's most distinguished contemporary writers, Joyce Carol Oates has published more than 100 books over the past half century. And yet she describes herself as "lazy," even "staggeringly indolent."

"I am not conscious of working especially hard," Oates told an interviewer. "Writing and teaching have always been, for me, so richly rewarding that I don't think of them as work in the usual sense of the word."

In considering our own attitudes toward writing, we might borrow a lesson or two from Joyce Carol Oates. A writing project, no matter how mundane, doesn't have to be approached as a chore. Once we sit down and start putting one word after another, that assignment may turn out to be surprisingly enjoyable. And instead of draining our energy, writing just might help to restore it.

More About Your Attitudes Toward Writing:

H.L. Mencken on the Joys of Criticism

Friday April 4, 2014

Poking fun at the clunky prose style of a popular author is one of the small delights of book reviewing. And in the history of American criticism, no one--not even Mark Twain--could dispense abuse more exuberantly than H. L. Mencken. Here, for example, is an excerpt from his critique of the writings of economist Thorstein Veblen:

What is genuinely remarkable about [Veblen's ideas] is not their novelty, or their complexity, nor even the fact that a professor should harbor them; it is the astoundingly grandiose and rococo manner of their statement, the almost unbelievable tediousness and flatulence of the gifted headmaster's prose, his unprecedented talent for saying nothing in an august and heroic manner. . . . Tunnel under his great moraines and stalagmites of words, dig down into his vast kitchen-midden of discordant and raucous polysyllables, blow up the hard, thick shell of his almost theological manner, and what you will find in his discourse is chiefly a mass of platitudes--the self-evident made horrifying, the obvious in terms of the staggering. . . . .

In The Higher Learning in America the thing perhaps reaches its damnedest and worst. It is as if the practice of that incredibly obscure and malodorous style were a relentless disease, a sort of progressive intellectual diabetes, a leprosy of the horse sense. Words are flung upon words until all recollection that there must be a meaning in them, a ground and excuse for them, is lost. One wanders in a labyrinth of nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and participles, most of them swollen and nearly all of them unable to walk. It is difficult to imagine worse English, within the limits of intelligible grammar. It is clumsy, affected, opaque, bombastic, windy, empty. It is without grace or distinction and it is often without the most elementary order. The learned professor gets himself enmeshed in his gnarled sentences like a bull trapped by barbed wire, and his efforts to extricate himself are quite as furious and quite as spectacular. He heaves, he leaps, he writhes; at times he seems to be at the point of yelling for the police. It is a picture to bemuse the vulgar and to give the judicious grief.

Worse, there is nothing at the bottom of all this strident wind-music--the ideas it was designed to set forth are, in the overwhelming main, poor ideas, and often they are ideas that are almost idiotic.
("Professor Veblen," Prejudices: First Series. Alfred A. Knopf, 1919)
Don't try this at home, kids. Like all writing, the critical essay is a rhetorical performance, and Mencken's Rabelaisian rhetoric is extraordinarily potent and seductive. Convinced that "a good phrase is better than a great truth," Mencken revels in hyperbole--an "extravagant accentuation in degree," as he once defined the trope.

When reviewing the works of authors he admires, Mencken likes to focus on methods that he himself is fond of employing. Writing on George Bernard Shaw, for instance, Mencken applauds his "large and extremely uncommon capacity for provocative utterance." Likewise, he praises T.H. Huxley for "his devastating agnosticism, his insatiable questionings of old axioms, above all, his brilliant style." And in his tribute to Ambrose Bierce, Mencken could well be describing his own persona:

Man to him, was the most stupid and ignoble of animals. But at the same the most amusing. Out of the spectacle of life about him he got an unflagging and Gargantuan joy. The obscene farce of politics delighted him. He was an almost amorous connoisseur of theology and theologians. He howled with mirth whenever he thought of a professor, a doctor or a husband.
("Ambrose Bierce." Prejudices: Sixth Series. Alfred A. Knopf, 1927)
On the other hand, as we've seen in Mencken's criticism of Veblen, those who lack his style, iconoclasm, and wit are mercilessly derided. The oratory of President Harding, for example, reminds him "of a string of wet sponges; . . . of tattered washing on the line; . . . of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. . . . It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

Writing in his familiar persona, Mencken is almost always at play, startling readers with his flashy style while cautioning them not to take the pose too seriously.* "He calls you a swine and an imbecile," Walter Lippmann observed, "and he increases your will to live." In the end, Mencken probably can't teach any of us how to be a critic. But he can show us how to enjoy criticism that tweaks noses, yanks whiskers, and stirs up the animals.

* Mencken took such pleasure in public battles with his opponents that in 1927 he published a collection of ad hominem attacks that had originally appeared in the popular press. In Menckeniana: A Schimpflexikon, he is variously denounced as "a diabolist," "a treacherous alien," "a putrid public pest," "a typical Hun," and "a disappointed, dishonest, distrustful, disgraceful, degraded, degenerate evolute of a species 57 varieties lower than a turkey buzzard."

More by and about H.L. Mencken:

Image: H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)

Websites for Logophiles: "Did you know . . .?"

Wednesday April 2, 2014

If you're a word lover, your friends are probably accustomed (or resigned) to your periodic outbursts of "Did you know . . . ?" For example, did you know that . . .

  • the expression "mad as a hatter" wasn't invented by Lewis Carroll? It originally referred to the unfortunate effects of mercury poisoning on hat-makers working in poorly ventilated shops.

  • two of the longest English words containing no letter more than once (i.e., isograms) are uncopyrightable and dermatoglyphics--each one made up of 15 different letters?

  • in Philadelphia the sound of the letter "l" is disappearing from the middle of words such as cellar and dollar?

  • a postpositive is a word, generally an adjective, that's placed after the word it relates to, such as "proof positive" and "heir apparent"?

  • in to should replace into in the sentence, "When the car carrying Mr. Glisan arrived at Bastrop, it turned into the prison"?

  • the word umpteen ("an unspecified large number") is a blend of the words umpty (originally slang for "dash" in Morse code--according to some accounts) and teen?

  • Samuel Johnson excluded the words bang, budge, fuss, gambler, shabby, and touchy from his Dictionary of the English Language (1755)? He dismissed the words as slang and didn't want to encourage their use by publishing them.

We've drawn these observations at random from some of our favorite language sites, those listed in Top 10 Blogs for Writers, Editors, and Teachers of Writing. Any one or two of these superb sites should keep true logophiles distracted for the rest of the day.

More Online Resources for Writers:

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