Down the Rabbit Hole

“Poetry is much more important than the truth, and, if you don’t believe that, try using the two methods to get laid.”
― Mark Forsyth, The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

“A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher. A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitely. That is the one and only difference between the poet and everybody else.”
― Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase

The Window at Molly’s, the street (Decatur) unusually quiet, with notebook, vintage Esterbrook pen, and Molly’s frozen Irish Coffee

“Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius. No angels handed him his lines, no fairies proofread for him. Instead, he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well.”
― Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase

I picked up a book at the library – I picked it up by mistake because I was looking for books by John Forsyth (and there weren’t any). I picked up The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsyth. I’m not sure why I stacked it on the checkout kiosk – but it turned out to be crackerjack – I really enjoyed it. The book is simple – forty chapters – each one dedicated to one rhetorical figure, discussing its use in literature, classic and profane, with an emphasis on Shakespeare. The chapter titles are intimidating, mostly Greek terms: Alliteration, Polyptoton, Antithesis, Merism, Blazon, Synaesthesia, Aposiopesis, Hyperbaton, Anadiplosis, Hypotaxis and Parataxis, – are the first few. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Well, it is. Forsyth is a witty (sometimes too witty) writer that makes these ancient Greek mouthfuls entertaining and elucidating. As a writer – it’s like being given a bag of weapons that you can use to slay an unsuspecting reader. Most of these are things that are known to anyone that has spent too much time on the wrong end of a pen or with their nose between the book covers… but listing them, explaining them, exampling them, giving them names, gives them power and makes them easier to pull out of the wordsmith’s quiver and load into his quill.

If you are interested in words, get the book.

Now, once I have discovered something like this, and read it carefully (taking tens of pages of notes) – I can’t stop there. I have to go down the rabbit hole.

Forsyth has a handful of other books for me to read. I suspect I have more books to read than I have time left on this earth, but what the hell. He has a TED talk, and a handful of articles across the web.

And he has a blog.

It’s called Inky Fool – and has a lot of cool stuff in it.

Continuing down the Rabbit Hole, the latest entry (as of this writing) A Measure of Rudeness has a link to an amazing PDF online. It is the work product of a big Marketing Firm hired by, I guess, the British Government to produce a slick study called Attitudes to potentially offensive language and gestures on TV and radio – Quick Reference Guide.

It is an official list of dirty words. It is much more extensive than the only list of broadcast dirty words I had seen before:

So they made a list. The actual list is ten pages long. And this is the Quick Refnerece Guide. It says in the introduction that a lot of older people don’t understand a lot of the new obscenities. It’s also a British list – and some of these haven’t made much inroads in Texas – I don’t think… of course, I’m old and don’t understand a lot of the new obscenities.

There’s Minger and Munter… there’s Nonce and Slapper – good thing I read the list, never knew these were offensive. The short section on Offensive Gestures wasn’t anything new to me. There’s a section on words offensive to old people… Coffin Dodger, FOP, and Old bag. Not bad… I kinda like Coffin Dodger. Could be a good online alias – say CoffinDodger31415.

Not surprising that the Discriminatory language section takes up the biggest part of the list. I’m sure it’s growing exponentially – both in number of words and in categories. Pretty soon this is going to swallow the language whole.

Now I have to tear myself away, dig out of the rabbit hole, and get some work around the house done. Later, I’m sure.

“John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote his first story aged seven. It was about a “green great dragon.” He showed it to his mother who told him that you absolutely couldn’t have a green great dragon, and that it had to be a great green one instead. Tolkien was so disheartened that he never wrote another story for years.

The reason for Tolkien’s mistake, since you ask, is that adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.”
― Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase

Writing in my Moleskine Journal outside the Mojo Lounge, Decatur Street, French Quarter, New Orleans

“Above all, I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy, and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility. … Clothes and language can be things of beauty, I would no more write without art because I didn’t need to than I would wander outdoors naked just because it was warm enough.”
― Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase

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4 responses to “Down the Rabbit Hole

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