Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving leftovers

It's Thanksgiving evening and all's quiet here at the grammar ranch. Leftovers, and lots of them, have been stuffed into the fridge, and even the hum of the dishwasher has been stilled. So it's time to clean out some odds and ends from the Word Crank cornucopia. These are a few of my large collection of observations that never grew into a coherent article idea.

There are lots of words that tickle my fancy. Take "rebarbative." It means unattractive or aesthetically offensive. It comes from Old French for a confrontation "beard to beard." I don't know how that turned into art criticism, but I can just hear a curmudgeonly critic declaring "Surely you don't call that rebarbative hunk of metal sculpture." Devastating.

A better-known word that isn't used nearly enough is "odious." Reading a column that referred to "China's odious one-child policy," I was reminded of Susannah York in "A Christmas Carol" (my favorite version, with George C. Scott) calling Scrooge "an odious man," along other adjectives. She stretches out the initial "o" for several expressive beats— oooooodious.

Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit
A word that rolls around the mouth and over the tongue in a most delightful way is "imbroglio." You have to pronounce it right—imˈbrōlyō—and it helps to imitate Ms. York and spend some time on the second syllable. The word means a complicated situation, and implies something embarrassing or sticky enough perhaps to lead to a term of imprisonment. The original Italian means "a confused heap." An apt description of my kitchen at mid-afternoon.

I have a few hat tips to offer this Thanksgiving. A forgotten blogger wrote: "But when I read him back then, in the innocence of youth, the political references sailed lightly over my head. Now that I am taller, they slap me in the face." Now that's an effective image.

Jonah Goldberg wrote: "I feel a bit like a dog who suddenly realizes the car is heading to the vet, not the park." Oh, yeah. I know how he feels.

In a New York Times piece about perceived back-sliding from the sexual revolution, Erica Jong wrote: “We were unable to extinguish the lust for propriety.” Beautiful. 

For wonderful words and wordsmiths who create amazing pictures with them, I am truly grateful.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What I Saw at the E-Pub Revolution

You say you want a revolution? Well, you know…writers are in the midst of one. It's the e-pub revolution and it's changing the publishing landscape like a glacier traveling at Mach 1. Get with it or get out of the way.

Because I'm a writer, and not a publisher or a literary agent, I think this brave new world looks promising, if not actually the Promised Land. We have stormed the gates and the gatekeepers are retreating. A rout may be coming.

Here's why. A recent writers' conference featured a literary agent named Anita. A blogger reported this: "Anita said her agency receives 100 queries a day (minus holidays), 35,000 queries a year. Only 952 sample page sets went to the next round. 85 full manuscripts were requested and six new clients were signed – these are 2010 numbers."

Let's recap: That's thirty-five thousand hopeful book authors winnowed to six. Six. Those are some daunting odds. I have one chance in 10,000 of being struck by lightning sometime in my life, according to the National Weather Service. What are my odds of getting an agent?

And that's just to get an agent. That agent still has to convince a publishing house to buy the manuscript, and it is entirely possible that some of those six lucky authors will not actually sell their book.

That once was the end of the story. A manuscript begun with hope and finished with innumerable hours of hard work ends up in a drawer. Come the revolution, and those other 34,994 authors head over to or or any of a number of other sites, format their manuscript for the varying e-book readers and, voilà, they're published. Calloo, callay!

That's the good news, and it is really wonderful, luminous, joyous news. The thorn in this particular rosebush is DIY marketing. I don't know how many writers could be labeled "introverted," but I'm pretty sure it's not a small percentage. I remember the terror of selling Girl Scout cookies. I don't look forward to peddling my humble novel.

Then there's the real snake in the e-pub Garden of Eden. Remember those gatekeepers we defeated to usher in the dawn of publishing freedom? Well, their main function may have been to trample the hopes and dreams of writers, but on the side they did some good. Some of those manuscripts they rejected should have gone straight from the printer to the shredder, for the good of the reading public and the author, too.

I recently bought an e-book for not much money (I'm cheap) and found that I had bought a book that needed an editor in the worst way. It was written by a retired homicide detective, which was enough for me to click "Buy." The inside scoop on murder investigations—that's a must-read for me.

Here's the first sentence: "The apartment building stood quietly on a small knoll where a clove of trees sauntered with the cool spring breeze stirring the night’s air."

Oh, my. Whatever a clove of trees is, I really doubt it saunters. And that was this guy's all-important, this-is-my-very-best-writing first sentence. Someday I may get beyond the sauntering clove of trees and find out if there is a story in there somewhere. But not yet.

I'm busy reviewing my manuscript for sauntering tree cloves. When I take the e-pub plunge, I don't want to end up in someone else's cranky language blog.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What's the motto with that?

Did you know that every state has a motto? Kind of quaint, don't you think? A motto is supposed to sum up the ideals or aspirations of a group. Like Wisconsinites and Arizonans are really together on ideals in our fragmented age. Here in Alabama, we can't agree on much, except that our football team is the best. The only problem with that unanimity is that we are referring to different teams. The rivalry can get ugly this time of year.

But, still, state mottos are quirky and unexpected. I prefer my mottos to be in Latin, but I wonder if some are written in a dead language to hide from the voters what they really say. Alabama's motto—Audemus jura nostra defendere "We dare defend our rights"—is quite admirable, but, regrettably, reminds the older among us of the "states' rights" battle cry of segregationists.

Virginia's motto is in the same boat. Sic semper tyrannis "Thus always to tyrants"— encapsulates the patriotic fervor of the former colony. It would seem a bit odd in the 21st century anyway, but when you recall that Latin phrase was shouted by the assassin John Wilkes Booth after he leaped to the stage following his greatest role, it becomes downright strange. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how do you like Virginia's motto?

South Carolina's Dum spiro spero (While I breathe, I hope) is a lovely sentiment, but as a state motto it seems a bit depressive. Are things so tough in the Palmetto State that its citizens have to mutter Dum spiro spero under their breath to keep going?

North Carolina's motto raises questions, as well: Esse quam videri (To be, rather than to seem). Again, I can't argue with the Carolinians' aspiration to be genuine, but what prompted its adoption as a motto? Roving bands of poseurs?

Maryland inexplicably chose to express its ideals in Italian, rather than Latin: Fatti maschil, parole femine (Manly deeds, womanly words). I can't believe Barbara Mikulski knows about this.

New Mexico's motto is just mystifying—Crescit eundo (It grows as it goes), and I'm sure there's a good reason that Puerto Rico chose Joannes Est Nomen Ejus (John is his name), I just haven't a clue what it is.

What would states choose if mottos were on the ballot in this election? Would New York jettison "Excelsior" for "Fuggeddaboutit"? Would California's motto include the word "dude"? Come to think of it, let's just stick with the Latin.