Monday, August 27, 2012

Write and Wrong

As it does every year at this time, the English Department of San Jose State University has awarded its Bulwer-Lytton prize for the most wretched opening sentence for a work of fiction.  This year the grand prize winner for bad writing is Cathy Bryant of Manchester, England, whose excruciatingly awful entry reads:

            As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his   
     eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash 
     mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat 
     the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to            
     25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether 
     the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his 
     soul needed regrouting.

There are various categories in which awards are made, one of them being the worst (or best) puns in an opening sentence.  Two dishonorable mentions are especially ghastly and worthy of our attention: the first by Peter Bjorkman of Rocklin, California, and the second by Terry L. Johnson of Tularosa, New Mexico:

            The two power-hungry, 20-something biographers met
     with me incognito and settled on penning my memoirs, one
     on a percentage of future sales and one on upfront 
     remuneration; so there is one yuppie I pay, one yuppie
     I owe, ghost writers in disguise.           


            He got down from his horse, which seemed strange to 
     him as he had always believed that you got down from a 
     duck or a goose.

Just in case you’ve forgotten, the contest is named in honor of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the nineteenth-century British author, whose novel Paul Clifford opened with this purplish over-the-top sentence:

            It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents 
     — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by 
     a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in
     London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, 
     and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that
     struggled against the darkness.
Bulwer-Lytton, incidentally, coined the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword.” His own pen was more on the order of a blunt instrument.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, besotted with cheap Chardonnay and besmirched with chile con queso, could not bestir himself to come up with a new verse for this year’s contest. No matter:  some of you probably have not yet memorized the lines the Bard grudgingly penned last year, so they are reprinted herewith in their entirety:

            I’ll bet my writing’s more egregious,
            Mawkish, crude, and sacrilegious
            Than anything that has been written
            Since the days of Bulwer-Lytton;
            Worse than any Harlequin romance
            By Barbara Cartland, Judith Krantz,
            Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel--
            Compared to them, I’ve no appeal.           
            I’m worse than Mary Higgins Clark
            Or any literary matriarch
            Like Stephenie Meyer and Anne Rice.
            With all their vicious vampire vice.
            Mickey Spillane and Louis L’Amour?
            I’m worse by far, and that’s for sure!
            Why, I am even lower down
            Than Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown.
            Nora Roberts? I’d almost forgotten her—
            Not to worry, I’m much, much rottener.
            So if all my prose and all my verse
            Are really bad and couldn’t be worse,
            And like those I’ve named, I’m booed and hissed—
            Why ain’t I on the best-seller list?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Let There Be (Gas) Light

An infuriated friend reported recently that she had been “gaslighted.”  Fearing the worst, I asked if she had suffered second- or third-degree burns.  But it turns out that gaslighting has nothing to do with actually catching fire. 

As I should have deduced, but did not, without having to look it up, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse, in which false information is conveyed in order to make a victim (or others) doubt his or her cognitive ability. 

The allusion is to the film Gaslight (based on a play called Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton) that was first produced in 1940 and remade in a more famous version in 1944, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman (and a teenaged Angela Lansbury). Boyer’s character methodically attempts to drive his wife (Bergman) insane, or at least to make others believe she is mad, partly by frequently causing the gas lamps in their Victorian-era house to dim and flicker for no apparent reason. 

Such a manipulation of someone’s environment to disorient them is what is known nowadays as gaslighting. It may take the form of denial by an abuser that previous incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser. It has become a colloquial expression that is now used in clinical and research literature.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who for much of his life has been lit (but not by gas, which is an entirely different problem for him), goes, when he is able, with the flow, as follows:

                       If someone stabbed me in the shower,
                        Then I guess that I’d be Psychoed.
                        And if a gecko made me cower,
                        You could say that I was Geicoed.           
                        If you should burn my favorite sled,
                        I guess that I’d be Citizen Kaned,
                        Serve a big dead rat to me in bed?
                        Well, then I would be Baby Janed.

                        But the most horrific notion,
                        The one that really makes me panicked,
                        Is of drowning in the ocean,
                        For then (glug, glug) I’d be Titanicked.

Monday, August 13, 2012

When I Bale Out—Waive!

Not once but thrice in a novel I read recently, paratroopers in World War II were said to be baling out of airplanes.  The only sense I could make of this was that these intrepid airmen were making large bundles of something—possibly hay or cotton—and tossing them out of the aircraft, an unlikely activity, especially during wartime. What the author meant, of course, was that these guys were bailing out, that is jumping from the plane while wearing a parachute (a practice that seems sensible to me only if the plane is crashing—although decidedly more sensible than jumping without a parachute).

Bail, the verb that appears in the correct phrase bailing out, ultimately has its root in the Latin bajulare, “to carry a burden,” and since 1613 or so has meant to “clear water from by dipping and throwing.”  Parachutists jumping from a plane must have reminded someone of water being tossed from a boat, and the term thus acquired its new meaning around 1930.

Bale, on the other hand, is from Old High German balla (“ball”) and means to make up something into a bale, or bundle.

The confusion of bale and bail is similar to using bait when bate is meant, especially in the phrase with bated breath.   Bate, from Middle English abaten is to “reduce the intensity of, or hold back,” which is what you do with your breath when it’s bated.

If your breath were baited it could either be laced with something tempting as an attraction (from Old Norse beita or “food”), or possibly persecuted, teased, or attacked (from Old English bitan or “bite”), as in the phrase bear-baiting.   

Just after I thought I had finished this blog, what should appear before my unbelieving eyes but another similar solecism, this one in the Houston Chronicle, presumably written by a writer and edited by an editor: 'It's knock 'em dead entertainment,' said the director, choreographer, co-writer and narrator of the flag-waiving musical, whose full title is 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'…”
If you waived a flag, you’d be giving it up, from the Middle English weiven, which means “reject or decline.”  I’ll bet what those George M. Cohan idolators are really doing to that grand old flag is waving it—making it flutter in the air, from the Old English wafian, meaning “motion with the hands as a signal.”
Mercy me, if you’re in the writing or editing business, learn to spell one-syllable words, for Pete’s sake!  (I’ll cut you some slack on the longer ones.)
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has nothing to say about these word confusions, except for his muddled views in this tautologous and utterly unhelpful rhyme:

         Do not write bale if you mean bail,
         The same for male if you mean mail.
         And likewise bate, instead of bait,
         And also gate instead of gait.
         And waive should not be used for wave—
         Naïve? Its umlaut fends off nave!

         Such words are far from interchangeable,
         Their letters are not rearrangeable—
         And yet Mitt Romney can’t explain
         Why Bain is not the same as bane.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Élan Vidal

A recent correction in The New York Times apologized abjectly as follows:

       “An obituary about the author Gore Vidal in
       some copies on Wednesday included several         
       errors….[A]ccording to Mr. Vidal’s memoir         
       ‘Palimpsest’, he and his long-time live-in companion, 
       Howard Austen, had sex the night they met, but did not 
       sleep together after they began living together.  It is not 
       the case that they never had sex.”   

In trying to be specific about the sexual habits of this man of letters, the Old Gray Lady has only succeeded in confusing matters further. When The Times asserts they “did not sleep together,” is that a euphemism for having sex, or does it mean literally only that they slumbered in separate beds?  And when it says, “It is not the case that they never had sex,” does that mean that the night on which they met was the one time they indulged, or that they may have frequently had sex after they began living together, but not in the beds in which they slept?  More investigation is clearly called for!

If only The Times had been around when Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare walked the earth, think of the insights we might have gained into their lives!  Surely a careful reading of La Vita Nuova, by Times reporters, would have disclosed whether Dante and Beatrice, although they never slept together, did, in fact, converge from time to time in a little nook on a Florence side street.  And The Times could surely have delved deeply enough into the copious papers left by Chaucer to let us know whether he and Lionel, the Earl of Ulster, were up to something besides a military campaign, while not sleeping together on that long junket to France.  And had The Times been able to burrow into Shakespeare’s private life, it surely would have discovered the identity of the “fair youth” to whom the Bard lovingly dedicated his first 126 sonnets—but with whom he never slept.

Speaking of the Bard, that other one, who searches for half-empty wine bottles on the sunny beaches of Buffalo Bayou, he insisted on adding his simpering opinion of Vidal’s sexual habits, and try as I might, I could not stop him:

                        Said Gore to Howard:
                        “Though I deflowered
                        You the night we met,
                        More hanky-panky
                        Would make me cranky
                        In bed with you, I bet.
                        I can’t be flirty
                        Past eleven-thirty,
                        While I am counting sheep,
                        I’m quite oblivious
                        To things lascivious
                        And soon fall fast asleep.
                        When I feel droopy,
                        I can’t make whoopee,
                        The thought of it is brutal.           
                        In my pajama
                        To read the Kama
                        Sutra would be futile.
                        But hear me, Howard,
                        Once shaved and showered,
                        I like my sex diurnal,
                        From break of dawn
                        Till my first yawn—
                        But not, please note, nocturnal.”