Thursday, June 25, 2009

Words Matter

Houses are hungry. They never get their fill of gobbling up time and money. This week I set to demolishing a sturdy set of honeycombed shelves a previous owner had stuffed into our master bedroom's closet, then plastering and painting over the ruined wall behind them. While wielding putty knife and paintbrush, I listened to Simon Avery's "Bury the Carnival," a fascinating surrealist take on Pinocchio. In it, a reporter for an underground newspaper tries to learn the truth about a mysterious carver of life-sized marionettes. But she faces danger from the powers that be, a mystical oligarchy that "controlled the country’s political and economical climates with an almost despotic rule," that employed "towering men in cruel masks and robes who would steal into people’s homes while they slept to spirit them away for incarceration or torture," and that had "priests [who] sermonized about moral virtue and the traditional order of things." Their name? The Puritans.

Wait -- the Puritans? Why associate a fractured and oft-oppressed 16th century theological movement with a tyrannical centralized government? Why lend the name of people who relished propositional philosophy to characters who practice magical arts? I think the answer is simple. Avery wants to emphasize that his bad guys are conformist, rigid, frosty, and the title of "Puritan" seems to bit the bill. Never mind that the real ones were considered radicals by the Church of England. Never mind that they included Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists as part of the club. Never mind that Puritan poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost contains some downright steamy scenes. The connotation still sticks.

At this point, let me provide a quick clarification: I’m not offering an apology for Puritanism, nor an accusation of Avery or his story (which is truly well done). The titling of his villains works in its context because the word’s meaning has shifted, has come unpinned from its historical reality.
Just check Webster. The point isn’t that a particular word changed, but that words in general change, and writers play a part in such tectonic shifts. Not only do words build our stories, but stories build our words -- or tear them down. Yes, readers are hungry. And, yes, readers never tire of gulping down new narratives. But let’s choose our diction with as much care as we choose our characters and plots, refusing to crack the foundation of our craft. After all, words matter.

(Picture: CC 2007 by
Darwin Bell)


Anonymous said...

I owe you an email. It will go something like "how the heck do you expect me to live up to your blogging excellence?"

Loren Eaton said...

Excellence, scheckullence. You're writing 5,000 words this week, aren't you? You have much grace.

B. Nagel said...

QA, you're certainly making a lot of comments on blogs to be so hard at work on your word count. Just saying.

But Loren, let the record show that her email is seconded and forwarded by me, B, in my own hand, this twenty fifth day of June anno domini 2009.

Oh goodness, how words change. 'Country' (as opposed to town) once had a scandalous meaning.

Loren Eaton said...

Too kind, B. And did country really have a negative connotation? Interesting.

Anonymous said...

BN -

I will have you know I have written exactly 0 words of those 5000.

Today's been a shitty day. Yesterday wasn't much better. (Church people suck. Seriously.)

I can do 5000 in a day, right? Whatever. Pass the tequila.

Loren Eaton said...

Perhaps in light of the Puritans, fractious church members and (ahem) fecally days, I ought to post on total depravity.

Also, stimulants work much depressants on word counts. Something like this.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Hamlet plays a scandalous pun with "country manners" (in the "shall I lie on your lap" dialogue with Ophelia), but I'm not sure anyone would've thought that an inherent part of the word. Just Shakespeare being clever.

It was, after all, the Renaissance, when Donne could compare God to a rapist or his love for his wife to a geometer's compass, which spreads out when he departs but "growes erect, as it comes home." (And what the Puritan Spenser does with prefreudian swords and clubs in the Faerie Queen is downright scary, and utterly brilliant.) So pretty much anything could be made into a double entendre, if one was witty enough.

Lewis, btw, comments on the pejuration (fancy linguist's term for word-becoming-worse) of the word "Puritan" in The Screwtape Letters. At some point it is referred to as one of the great little triumphs of Hell's linguistics department.

For that matter, Lewis had a lot of fun resurrecting the old meanings of words--see his treatment of "aweful" at the end of That Hideous Strength.

B. Nagel said...

his treatment of "aweful" at the end of That Hideous Strength.
I remember that!

I think the factor you have to consider in your choice of diction is your audience's lexicon. When the people you write for read "Puritan" do they see dour blackcloth hypocrites (a la Miller's Crucible) or ale swilling political and religious radicals. In That Hideous Strength, Lewis played to his audience of medievalists, theologians, folk-lore devotees, occultists and philologists. (And that was just the Inklings!)

If you aren't careful, you'll have to write an annotated edition with parenthetical definitions. (btw, thanks for the definition, CR.)

Loren Eaton said...


I think what I was trying to do with the post (and not at all sure I succeeded) was to urge writers to avoid contributing to such "great little triumphs of Hell's linguistics department." It's hard to be faithful to the language and yet necessary.

By the way, I absolutely love Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14." Such amazing use of metaphor.

Loren Eaton said...


Now if I had been smart, I would've mentioned The Crucible. How could I have forgotten it?

B. Nagel said...

Obviously, it's because of your communist tendencies. I've already put in a call to HUAC.

Loren Eaton said...

I am tempted to opine about the auto industry now, Comrade -- I mean, B -- but this is a writing blog and such subject are verboten here.