Mange-tout, mange-tout

wordleThis isn’t my opening paragraph. The next one is, though, and when/if you bother to read that far, you’ll quickly realise why I’ve made the switch. If I had opened with the paragraph that follows, there would have been no need to write any more because no-one would even have bothered to get to the end of it and, to mix a glorious metaphor, the ensuing pearls of wisdom would have fallen on deaf ears. So, let’s now start the blog.

My consuetudinary idleness has sometimes earned me the reputation of being a cunctator. Some see me as thewless but my perpetual condition of aesthesia requires little in the way of displacement. Careful auscultation (of the metaphoric rather than aesculapian variety) is enough to gauge my existential condition and I am not emulous with regard to the achievements of others. Indeed, the concinnity of sensations and perceptions produces a satisfying sense of oneness. I am sometimes cautelous and often pervicacious to rhadamanthine extremes but while this may all be an accurate assessment of my ‘moi’, its only real value is to introduce the subject of logomachy.

If you’re still here, thanks. In case you didn’t know it, logomachy is a dispute about words or a battle fought with words and, as you may have guessed from that paragraph, that’s sort of what this is all about. In fact, it goes back to a question I’ve asked (others and myself) before: does education help or hinder a writer’s development? One of my basic replies when asked about advice to writers is ‘Trust your own voice’. Too many people try to emulate others or assume that ‘writing’ means posh words, flowery asides, towering metaphors and so, when they write, the unique person they are gets trampled on in the gush of words. (Hey, listen, if Shakespeare can get away with ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles’, I can trample people with gushes if I want.)

Education, despite what our present minister in charge of it seems to think, means opening doors, expanding horizons, leading people out of darkness and ignorance into light. It doesn’t mean reducing them to clones, making them all fit a predetermined pattern. It encourages critical thinking, individual investigations, a belief that curiosity can lead – legitimately – in just about any direction. Rather than making people conform to a set of rules, it liberates them.

In a way, that horrible ‘opening’ paragraph illustrates how destructive misguided education can be. Most of the obscure words that made it incomprehensible came from the excellent wordsmith site which, if you register, emails you a word a day. I’ve been collecting them, not necessarily with the idea of using them but because I just love words, especially ones which I doubt I’ll ever use. Of course it’s good to expand one’s vocabulary – the more words you have available to you, the more thinking you can do, and the more refined and nuanced that thinking can be. But education isn’t about whatever knowledge you can acquire, it’s about what you can do with that knowledge. I collected those words (‘cunctator’, ‘thewless’, etc.) so, theoretically, they equipped me to express myself more completely or with more subtlety. In practice, though, they obscured my meanings, made them inaccessible to most readers. (My apologies if you are one of those who frequently drop ‘concinnity’,  ‘aesculapian’, etc. into your dinner party anecdotes. You’ll be wondering what all the fuss is about.)

But if I don’t intend using them, what’s the point in collecting them? Well, as well as being inherently interesting, like all words, they have a power beyond their actual meaning. They all contribute to the ‘show don’t tell’ cliché. In the popular UK TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses, the central character Del Boy, keen to convey the level of his cosmopolitan sophistication, repeats the words ‘Mange-tout, mange-tout’. By juxtaposing his confidence in what he’s saying with the bafflement of those around him, the writers convey several layers of characterisation and social observation – all with the words ‘mange-tout’. Similarly, if I want to include a quick caricature of a pretentious git (or a failed wannabe writer) in a story, what better way than to simply hear him say ‘Look at that woman’s bursiform appendages. Such displays are either flagitious or, at best, Icarian. Cui bono? Cui bono?’

Mange-tout, mes amis.

P.S. the illustration is courtesy of the fascinating Wordle site..

0 comments

  1. What a great post, Bill. Good to see you back on sparkling form. I’ve been trying to take the advice you give to heart recently, looking at any ‘big’ words and wondering why they’re there. Is that word really the best one? Because if not, an unusual or little-known word will simply stop the reader in his or her tracks and probably irritate them. Some are irresistible though! I particularly loved ‘rhadamanthine’ – but couldn’t guess its meaning, so had to look it up. Now my challenge is to drop it in somewhere in such a way that its meaning is crystal clear…

    Education – yes, comes from the Latin educere, to lead through, out, or away, in other words, to guide people through the wonderful world of knowledge and understanding. The real job of a teacher. Not persuading people to stop using their smart phones in class!

    1. Thanks Jenny. I agree completely that, if any word – whether through its length, incomprehensibility, or a tiny awkwardness in its context – makes the reader pause and undermines the rhythm of the whole experience, it ought to be deleted. As for teaching – it’s a different profession nowadays, isn’t it?

  2. Blog magnifique. Coco and moi are totally horse-des-combattimento with mange. Say what you like about that paragraph, it still clunks along like a peculiar engine put together from antique parts that have been cooled a long time in a deep-delvéd shed. That’s English for you – I bet the Italians for example have no choice but their linguistic Ferrari. And the French their elisionary deux-cheveux, baldly suggests Coco.

    1. Eh bien, Coco, as Corneille used to say to Racine, ‘Il faut transporter le meaning dans whatever vehicule vous avez et si les gens ne comprennent pas, alors merde.’

  3. You bugger. I was going to scrub my kitchen floor but now you’ve got me looking up all those words. More fun though, and easier on the knees. I’m willing to bet that, obscure as words in that paragraph are, my reticular activating system will ensure that I hear or see more than one of them in the next few days. And that’s a pretentious way of getting my own back and giving you and your followers something to look up. What’s needed now is a blog entry, unpacking what RAS is and how it can help the writer. Any ideas who might do that?

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