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Essay Seventeen, Adjectives to Spice Writing and Speaking I
We spend a good deal of time trying to figure out and give appropriate labels to the ways that we and others communicate. The purpose of this chapter is to discuss about twenty adjectives that lend precision to your description of writing and speaking. Written words may be turgid, lapidary, piquant, sententious, pithy, fluent, sparkling, scintillating, bejeweled, fecund, lyrical, trenchant. When you actually get around to speaking, you may be garrulous, taciturn, voluble, nattering, prolix. Your words may be mellifluous, orotund or be spoken in a stentorian voice. This is not a complete list, of course, but it should get you started well in your quest.
We don’t often think of our speech or writing as decorative. For most of us words are largely utilitarian objects. We use them like we use bricks in constructing a home or like cheap paving stones. They are almost interchangeable, and they have no particular allure. They enable us to get our ideas across, and that is enough.
My philosophy is precisely the opposite. Words, for me, open worlds and become the vehicle for exploring and deepening meaning. If you have the right words, you can redefine the world. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
A while ago I decided that, in addition to my work as writer, theological expert and legal advisor, I would also try to become a business consultant. My family of origin is a business or financial family; my three brothers have either been to business school or have given leadership to various enterprises for at least thirty years. I, as it were, absorbed business principles with my mother’s milk. However, I needed an angle or competence to help people. What would it be? I decided I would help people think more clearly about what they do. Because I believe that one of the major problems in life is our inability to be clear in what we want to communicate or accomplish, I felt that as long as I understood the basics of the business a person was in, I could help them do their job much better than they currently it.
I decided to try out my approach with a man who was redefining his “business model.” He, like the woman in the New Testament with a twelve-year flow of blood, had spent all his earnings on professional help but was not better but worse for all of their care. Management consultants, ghost writers, business planners and others all had frisked him of tens of thousands of dollars, and he still was as confused as could be. Within a hour of talking to him, I believed I had identified his problem. The basic problem? No one really had been listening to him or knew how to draw out his ideas. He was a rather taciturn fellow and, when he got around to talking, wasn’t very clear or focused on what he wanted to say. Yet, he had all kinds of brilliant ideas, ideas that just sat there like beautiful fall fruits on the trees. And they were in danger of rotting. So, I saw that I had to harvest his ideas as they came out, and that I needed to give him a framework and words in which to express these ideas.
Once he began to recognize that it was his ideas, rather than those of the consultants, that were important, he relaxed. They poured forth like water cascading down the mountains after the spring thaw. But I saw that I needed to stop him after almost every sentence in order to clarify what his words meant. None of the other “consultants” had pressed him so hard on meaning, and when I did so, he began to speak clearly. Again, to use a biblical metaphor, it was as if his tongue became loosed from his infirmity, and he was able to communicate with others for the first time. Then, after his ideas began to make some sense, I suggested a word to him: interpreter or hermeneutician. The latter word comes from literary criticism and emphasizes that the crucial step in life is one of interpretation. Yes, he thought, he could be an interpreter of things to the world—maybe an interpreter of financial data. That would be the central image that would (re)define his life and give him a way to proceed.
Thus, in the space of a few hours (I will have to charge more for my services, obviously!), he not only began to believe that his ideas were important but that he had a new word or label to put on what he was doing. Words suggested a way of deepening and focusing his self-understanding. Words sprung him from his prison.
I tell this story to illustrate the point that when you take the time to place the right words on something, your life becomes enriched, and you enter into a new dimension of productivity. It begins by being able carefully to describe another’s words. Let’s care, then, for some of the italicized words above.
The word comes from the area of self-care or adornment. If you are bejeweled, you are covered, spangled or bedecked with jewelry. The word first entered into English in 1557: “The gorgeous courtier, bedecked with gold, bebuttoned, bejeweled.” From the seventeenth century: “Those priests…Bejewel all their neck.” (1)
(1) OED, s.v.
But the word can also be used figuratively to describe anything that adorns a situation. The nineteenth century poet Robert Browning hints at the direction I am heading. In mid-1878 he made a trip to the Swiss chalet of La Saisiaz near Geneva and was going to climb to the top of a nearby mountain with some friends. However, one of them died the very day of their trip. After taking the hike, he wrote a poem about it, reflecting on mortality and learning. He looked around him and realized that four of his greatest literary idols, Gibbon, Rousseau, Voltaire and Byron, each had spent time near to where he was at the moment. So, he celebrated the memory of each in the poem. He said this about Voltaire, writing a bit obscurely:
“Laughter so bejewels learning—What but Ferney (the estate where Voltaire moved in 1759) nourished it?” (2)
(2) Quoted in Boyd Litzinger and Donald Smalley, Robert Browning: The Critical Heritage, pp. 452-453.
So, laughter bejewels learning; laughter makes learning beautiful. What better way to present yourself to the world than with bejeweled words, with words that, as it were, are like spangles or jewels?
I haven’t spent a lot of time on Sanskrit quotations, but one is apt here:
"Spewing dirty, harsh speech, the wicked torture much, like an arresting iron chain. The good, on the other hand, captivate the mind at each step, by their sweet speech like bejeweled anklets."
What an honor it would be some day to have someone declare that your speech was “bejeweled.” Thus, take time to bejewel your speech. That is what good, sturdy and memorable communication is about.
The first time I recall running into this word, which normally describes something that is swollen, like a gland or a stream, was in theological seminary. My professor, the late David Scholer (1938-2008), commented that I (in 1974) had a turgid writing style. I went to see him only because I wanted to know what the word meant. In short, he meant “ponderous” or “heavy” or “slow.” I vowed that I would do everything I could to remove the turgidity. But it doesn't just relate to style. One might say, "A turgid or swollen river usually flows slowly."
But there is another meaning that applies to the word. As we have been discovering in this book, most words have more than one “shade” to them; their linguistic reach takes you to different places, and often it isn’t clear how an author is using the word. A turgid style is also “grandiloquent, pompous, inflated, bombastic.” (4) Gibbon, in 1781, could speak of “The advocates, who filled the Forum with the sound of their turgid and loquacious rhetoric.” Benjamin Rush, the influential colonial physician, could write: “The turgid style of Johnson, the purple glare of Gibbon, and even the studied and thickset metaphors of Junius are all equally unnatural, and should not be admitted into our company.” Spoken like a true, practical, son of America circa 1810.
(4) OED., s.v., Def. 2.
The usage of turgid as “bombastic” probably lies behind the following recent appearance of the word: “Believe that reading the Berenstain Bears and other turgid ‘pro-social’ stories will make your kindergartner more genial?” Here the word turgid seems to suggest more of a moralistic pomposity than a “slow” or “ponderous” style. Yet, also in 2009 a journalist could write: “On the other hand, people rarely speak in haste, instead stretching out ev-ery sin-gle syl-la-ble with portentous gravity—making the show’s running time a turgid four hours.” (5) This seems to reflect the more “slow” or “ponderous” meaning of the word. So, we have two meanings of the word, and both are useful to describe someone’s writing.
(5) Ben Brantley, "A General in His High-Tech Labyrinth," New York Times, September 28, 2009, C1.
When I think of turgid, I also connect it with tumid and turbid. Something tumid is also swollen or bloated, while turbid describes something that is muddy. I can see how people confuse turbid and turgid, since a swollen stream is usually muddy. Keep ‘em straight.
Lapidary, Fluent, Sparkling, Scintillating
A lapidary is a person who works on stones or rocks. As an adjective, lapidary describes an inscription engraved on a stone. If you have “numismatic and lapidary erudition,” you are schooled in reading inscriptions on coins and rocks. But the figurative use of the word as it relates to style is interesting. If you write on rock, you don’t have time for a lot of flowery language. It costs too much and takes too much effort. You need to choose your words carefully. Thus, a lapidary style is one that is as if written on stone. It is concise, laconic, elegant, terse, even epigrammatic. You might hope that your writing might attain a “lapidary dignity.” A recent review of Jeffrey Fleishman’s Promised Virgins: A Novel of Jihad, says: “Fleishman’s spare, lyrical, lapidary prose—an admixture of Joan Didion and Ernest Hemingway—is often swoon-worthy.” (6) Then, a review of John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, spoke of it as “written in Updike’s characteristic lapidary style: chiseled, polished, impeccable.” I like the word “chiseled.” May your writing aspire to that! The only irony in the adjective lapidary is that it points to something it isn't. . .lapidary style is one usually shorn of or without many adjectives, while an adjective (lapidary) is needed to describe that style.
If you are fluent, your prose flows. Or, more elegantly, fluent means “flowing easily and readily from the tongue or pen.” (7) Francis Bacon first used the word in this sense in 1625: “Such as is a fluent and Luxuriant Speech.” (8) George Eliot could say: “A soft voice with a clear fluent utterance.” Fluency is often a prerequisite for persuasive speech. But “fluent” in our day is also assuming an additional meaning. An Internet search of the terms “fluent speech” brings you, to sites giving advice on how to deal with stammering or stuttering.
(7) OED, s.v., Def. 5.
(8) We can see with the various quotations given how one word leads to another. Lapidary leads to chiseled or laconic; fluent leads to luxuriant, which itself means "exuberantly productive; abundant, profuse."
When you write, you want your prose to be sparkling or scintillating. The figurative meaning of sparkle, as the OED tells us, is to “be extremely bright or lively in conversation or writing; to abound or excel in lively sallies of wit.” “Boccaccio sparkles over a grim treatise of Calvin.” More recently, a review of Bill Bryson’s 2003 book A Short History of Nearly Everything, said:
“In a genre (i.e., science writing) thick with clunky sentences and plodding paragraphs, Bryson’s fluid prose sparkles like snowmelt on a sunny day.” (9)
(9) "The Story of Science, Told in Sparkling Prose, SIAM News 37 (March 2004).
Humor, luminescent words, a fast-paced narrative—all these things make for sparkling prose. Indeed, the phrase luminescent prose is a relative newcomer on literary scene. What was once polished prose is now morphing, it seems, into sparkling and luminescent prose. Or, perhaps even to scintillating prose. A review of a recent biography on the nineteenth century political firebrand John Brown says:
“This illuminating biography brings him to life in scintillating prose and moving detail, making his life and legacy fascinatingly relevant to today’s issues. . .” (10)
So now you can describe this kind of bright prose in at least three ways: scintillating, luminescent, sparkling. Go for it!
Orotund, Stentorian, Lyric
The study of words is rewarding for many reasons, two of which are that it lets us see language evolving right before our eyes and because it invites us, through seeing the words at work, into other worlds of thought and creativity. Words, therefore, break us out of the intellectual prisons into which we have, for the most part willingly, incarcerated ourselves. A few examples to illustrate these points follow.
The word orotund is derived from the Latin phrase ore rotundo, which means “with a round mouth.” It entered into our language in the last year of the eighteenth century to describe speech which was “imposing, clear, resonant.” (11) Another dictionary piles up similar words; orotund means “characterized by strength, fullness, richness, and clearness.” (12) After all, if you are speaking “with a round mouth,” you are fully pronouncing every sound. “In the winter evenings my brother Harry’s wife. . .would read aloud therein in a manner both emphatic and orotund.”
(11) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
(12) Century Dictionary, s.v.
But this definition began to change about thirty years ago. Rather than emphasizing clarity or resonance of language, orotund increasingly became associated with complexity, high-brow, or even bombastic speech. A 1989 New York Times review of a book written by David Cannadine, which itself was composed of columns he wrote from 1981-1987, quotes Cannadine describing various authors “whose prose is orotund to the point of flatulence.” (13) I can’t imagine how orotund can be meant positively here. Or, from Vanity Fair magazine in 1992: “He is an orotund Mr. Bombast.”
(13) Edward Hoover, "He Gives Enthusiasm a Good Name," New York Times, November 19, 1989, Section 7.
But a quick survey of uses of the term in contemporary writing shows that orotund can mean either resonant and clear or pompous, bombastic, magniloquent. In describing the recent revival of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Ben Brantley describes the character Jordan Tesman, played by Michael Cerveris: “there’s nothing dry about this guy, with his orotund voice, expansive gestures and arch smile.” (14)
But its “bombastic” meaning is also present. From 2005: “And Mr. Orth has a delightful time oozing hauteur as the killers’ orotund dandy of a foil..”
(14) "Hedda's Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Very Bad Day," New York Times, January 26, 2009, Sec C.
So, which is it going to be for us? Perhaps we to further define the way we are using it, though it would be a shame to lose it.
Two examples of the way that words can open all kinds of doors of learning are evident in studying stentorian and lyric. Stentorian is a word derived from a name. The guy’s name was Stentor, and he is first referred to in Iliad V.783 as a person with a voice so loud and commanding that it was the voice “of fifty men.” Stentorian, therefore, means of loud and far-reaching voice. “’Hold,’ exclaimed the general, in stentorian tones.” But then, we begin to do a search for how the word has been used in our day. From an October 19, 2009 review of recent CDs, we have the description of someone’s voice: “it comes across as a contemporary answer to one of Shirley Bassey’s stentorian movie theme songs. . .” I was thrown immediately back to her rendition of “Goldfinger,” and before I knew it, I was delving into the history of the James Bond movies. Then, an article talking about Haydn’s Creation described how the “excellent bass Peter Rose brought a voice and complete authority to his singing of Raphael.”
So, I decided to do a little YouTube checking to listen to the voice of Peter Rose. Of course if you do an Internet search on Peter Rose you are liable to come up with the baseball player who got thrown out of the game because of his betting exploits in the late 1980s. And, when I did a YouTube search for Peter Rose and Creation I came up short. But that didn’t keep me from discovering all kinds of interesting Haydn pieces on YouTube. One of them was Wynton Marsalis playing Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat major. I had to listen to it three of four times to catch the full scope of the orotund or sonorous or mellifluous beauty of Marsalis’ playing. In knowledge creation and mastery, way leads to way.
Well, I decided to do the same kind of study for another interesting word: lyric. The adjective is either lyric or lyrical and means, literally, “of or pertaining to the lyre,” but then, in more extended use, it is “pertaining to or characteristic of song.” If a person writes with “lyric prose,” his/her words “sing.” The phrase lyric drama occasionally is a synonym for opera. But its use to describe the Native American author Sherman Alexie opened up not only the work of Alexie to me but a rollicking interview, which took place at the 17th Annual International Festival of Authors in Toronto on October 28, 1996, which I couldn’t put down. (15)
In that interview, Alexie mentions how he was brought up on the Spokane Indian Reservation outside of that Eastern Washington city. We are immediately brought into his humor in the first interview question. Question: “I’m curious—your name, where does it come from?” Alexie responds:
“Sherman? I’m a junior. I’m Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr. Junior’s a very common name on the reservations. Go onto any reservation and say, ‘Hey Junior!’ and 17 men and three women turn around.”
Well, it just keeps getting better. He studied in college at a Jesuit university nearby (it has to be Gonzaga, though it remained unnamed in the interview). The Jesuits, he said, were trying to hold on to their original mission to educate Indians, and he was the only Indian at the school (as far as he knew), and they “really tried to educate me.” They would call him when sick, track him down if he missed class, show all kinds of solicitude for him. Finally, when he decided to transfer out of the school, they came after him:
“They were running after me—the Jesuits—trying to save me; they lifted up their cassocks and they were wearing Nikes. I didn’t realize God had a shoe deal.”
Finally, he gets to the word which I want to introduce to you: lyric. After his first book of poems, The Business of Fancydancing, was published by Brooklyn’s Hanging Loose Press, he got a great review in the New York Times Book Review. The review called him “one of the major lyric voices of our time.” Alexie got a lot of mileage out of that phrase, both in the interview and in the preface to his more famous books The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven. Thus, we can talk about lyric voices or lyric speech or lyrical writing. Try to make lyric writing and speaking—communication that “sings”--your goal.
Conclusion--A Word About Nattering
I planned to get much more “accomplished” in this chapter, but what you have will have to suffice. I know I am coming to the end of a book when too many ideas swarm and only permit a good treatment of a few things. The next (and last) chapter will consider several other words about your speaking or writing. But I will close here with a word about nattering.
The word has its origin in Scotland, and means “chattering, grumbling, complaining.” (16) But the verb to natter has evolved, and now largely means to “chat aimlessly, idly or at length.” A recent article on Cybill Shepherd uses the word in this “modern” sense. She was talking about her first interviews as an 18 year-old ingénue in 1968.
(16) OED, s.v.
“On all these talk shows I just seemed like I was a nattering airhead, just nattering on and blond..” (17)
(17) Margy Rochlin, "She's Still here, and Up For Anything," New York Times, July 26, 2009, p. 18.
Sometimes, however, you don’t know how the word nattering is being used. If some says that they heard the “nattering rustle of jests and jokes,” does that mean that they heard peevish, querulous and impatient jokes or that the jokes were just aimlessly said and were muddled, idle chatter?
The word would probably never have entered into our cultural vocabulary had not William Safire, the quondam speech writer for former (and disgraced) Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew, penned the line for his boss, a line which far exceeded Agnew’s vocabulary, criticizing many Vietnam War protestors as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” William Safire died in 2009, but his words still live. . .