Friday, October 7, 2011

The Blatant Use of Mud-Luscious Words

It's started to happen. I'm beginning to prefer e-books, and the second biggest reason - second only to portability - is that little feature Sharon mentioned on Wednesday: the embedded dictionary. In fact, when I read an analog book I often find myself tapping a word on the page, hoping the definition will pop up. It never does.

I love it that so many people have book readers on their cell phones and tablets. I'm delighted beyond words to know that Kindles fly off the shelves like rockets, when  - at least until November - all they are good for is reading books. To me, that's pure sunshine.

But there is darker news, and I'm not sure how to reconcile it with the sunshine. My country (and maybe the world?) is forgetting how to read and write. I'd felt this to be true before I wrote this post, because I've met people whose job it is to teach college students to read. But conscience demands that I back my claim with data, so I looked it up: The SAT college-entrance exam scores for the 2011 high-school graduating class have revealed the lowest reading and writing levels they ever recorded. Ever recorded. Here's the picture:

I agree with Sharon when she says that we should write in language that is accessible to our readers.* That's an old rule. My teacher in high school journalism taught that we should write at an eighth grade level, since that is the level most find easy to follow without explanation.

But when I see this graph, I wonder if we will have to write at the fifth grade level next year, and the third grade level after that, until finally we are all writing "Pat the Bunny" and sending it off to editors.

When I see the graph, I want to sit astraddle the yellow line and rest a foot on the red one, before another human being slides off into inarticulate hell. I want to stack all those people single file on the up-slope, and I want - I want so much - to read to them:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Hardly a word in the poem Lewis Carroll didn't make up, so at least at the time he wrote it, the dictionary wouldn't have helped.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

There's so much more to language than definition. There is rhythm (just like music) and texture and plain, pure fun.

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought--
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

You can see them, can't you? The manxome foe, the Tumtum tree? Meaning needn't be serious. It comes out best when we play.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

"Uffish" and "Tulgey," such wonderful words. Like mud-luscious, a word coined by e.e. cummings.

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

You might be surprised how many words have been coined by writers. Did you know that Shakespeare invented "eyeballs?" Not the things themselves, but the word.  Edward Spenser coined "blatant" in his poem “The Faerie Queene.” The list goes on and on.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy

I'll bet you thought "chortled" was one word Lewis Carroll didn't make up. But it did indeed make its first appearance in this poem. To those stacking up on the red line, I'd like to urge them to use language like a sculptor uses clay. Squish your fingers into them, feel the mud-luscious drip down your arms. Write with beautiful words, and horrid words and repulsive words, and if your reader needs to look them up once in a while, let him tap the page.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Read any uffish words lately, any beamish turns of phrase? Please share them with us. We love to read what frabjous things you have to say.

* And I agree without reservation that we should spare the reader the language common only to Evangelical church-goers. Christianese is jargon, and it's rude to talk jargon in public.


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack. What a great line! Feels like I have a mouthful of marbles when I say it. His words are chewy and stay on your tongue for a long time. I will find myself repeating it (silently) off and on all day.

Anonymous said...

What a great post, Katy. Troubling data mixed with such lyrical language. I'm amazed time and again when I get a note or email from someone who can't spell or use punctuation correctly. It's more than laziness, it's a complete lack of knowledge. In my opinion, our education system has failed to teach the basics for at least one generation, maybe two. I so wish we would go back to what worked.

Sharon said...

Absolutely heroic my good friend. Love you Katie.

Kathleen Popa said...

Debbie, and Sharon, thanks so much. Love you too.

Megan Sayer said...

I love that word so much! It sounds exactly like it means, and I often wish I could describe more things as lugubrious...or lugubriously. So much more interesting than gloomy.
And scabrous. Isn't that a lovely one? The scabrous walls of the hut. Why say rough and bumpy when you can say scabrous?

Kathleen Popa said...

Wonderful, horrible words, Megan!

Nicole said...

Katie, so good to know you haven't lost your muchness. ;)

I agree with Sharon. Kids can't read, spell, punctuate, or speak correctly anymore as well as many adults. And it does go back a couple of generations.

Love snicker-snack!

Marcia said...

Thanks, Katy, for letting me read one of my favorite poems again this morning!

May I share another, by Ogden Nash? If you have children or grandchildren, you'll want to share this whimsical tale with them. If you have no little ones around, read it aloud and let it roll off your tongue. :-)


Belinda lived in a little white house,
With a little black kitten and a little gray mouse,
And a little yellow dog and little red wagon,
And a realio, trulio, little pet dragon.

Now the name of the little black kitten was Ink,
And the little gray mouse, she called her Blink,
And the little yellow dog was sharp as Mustard,
But the dragon was a coward, and she called him Custard.

Custard the dragon had big sharp teeth,
And spikes on top of him and scales underneath,
Mouth like a fireplace, chimney for a nose,
And realio, trulio daggers on his toes.

Belinda was as brave as a barrel full of bears,
And Ink and Blink chased lions down the stairs,
Mustard was as brave as a tiger in a rage,
But Custard cried for a nice safe cage.

Belinda tickled him, she tickled him unmerciful,
Ink, Blink and Mustard, they rudely called him Percival,
They all sat laughing in the little red wagon
At the realio, trulio, cowardly dragon.

Belinda giggled till she shook the house,
And Blink said Weeck! which is giggling for a mouse,
Ink and Mustard rudely asked his age,
When Custard cried for a nice safe cage.

Suddenly, suddenly they heard a nasty sound,
And Mustard growled, and they all looked around.
Meowch! cried Ink, and Ooh! cried Belinda,
For there was a pirate, climbing in the winda.

Pistol in his left hand, pistol in his right,
And he held in his teeth a cutlass bright,
His beard was black, one leg was wood;
It was clear that the pirate meant no good.

Belinda paled, and she cried, Help! Help!
But Mustard fled with a terrified yelp,
Ink trickled down to the bottom of the household,
And little mouse Blink strategically mouseholed.

But up jumped Custard, snorting like an engine,
Clashed his tail like irons in a dungeon,
With a clatter and a clank and a jangling squirm
He went at the pirate like a robin at a worm.

The pirate gaped at Belinda's dragon,
And gulped some grog from his pocket flagon,
He fired two bullets, but they didn't hit,
And Custard gobbled him, every bit.

Belinda embraced him, Mustard licked him,
No one mourned for his pirate victim.
Ink and Blink in glee did gyrate
Around the dragon that ate the pyrate.

Belinda still lives in her little white house,
With her little black kitten and her little gray mouse,
And her little yellow dog and her little red wagon,
And her realio, trulio, little pet dragon.

Belinda is as brave as a barrel full of bears,
And Ink and Blink chase lions down the stairs.
Mustard is as brave as a tiger in a rage,
But Custard keeps crying for a nice safe cage.

Dina Sleiman said...

Oh, you've got some of my famous poems going on here, Kathleen. I recognized mud-luscious immediately, and have also read The Jabberwock (not to be confused with the Jabberwockys, a hip hop dance group we also love, lol) many times.

I actually, I remember reading somewhere that many of the words in Jabberwock actually are real words, just old or obscure.

Christa Allan said...

Have a delightful time with this poem every year with my high-school students.

As an 11th grade English teacher for the past 23+ years, I am troubled by the decline in reading and writing and the collateral damage...which leads to sentences like: "Frugal me, frugal me. I'm drowning."

Kathleen Popa said...

Marcia: That poem is just delightful! Thanks so much for sharing it here.

Realy Dina? Just old or obscure? Somehow I like that even better than if he'd made them up.

Christa, I'm glad you're sharing this with your students. I've always thought it should be required reading. My youngest son recited it from stage when he graduated high school. I was proud.

"Frugal me, frugal me. I'm drowning" sounds to me like the beginning of a great poem...