Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

How James Bond can help you avoid information dumps

skyfallopening
Who is this man? What is he doing? I am intrigued. I must know more.

A disclaimer before we start today:  I know nothing, Jon Snow.  I am offering the following merely as the opinion of a layperson who has not, for the record, published a single book – not as a treatise of indisputable fact.  So it’s entirely possible that the words lying in wait below may be a complete and utter waste of the precious time I’ve requested of you.  But please try to give them some consideration before you sit down to your next draft.  Trust me, I have been there and done that and I want to try to steer you away from the rocky shores I know lie in wait.  Put simply, you need to stop opening your stories with massive information dumps.

Across the Interwebs lies a plethora of sites where authors both experienced and perenially aspiring have posted excerpts of their books – usually the first chapter – for ongoing perusal and feedback.  As a veteran lurker I’ve thumbed through a copious number of them, and as my own interest is in writing fantasy (at least for the time being; I’m not limiting the scope of future projects) those tend to be the ones I zero in on.  And it pains me to point out that a great many fall victim to the curse of the information dump.  The following is my own pastiche, but let me know if any of it rings familiar:

CHAPTER ONE

Prince Xakhar Tazeros, half-dragon Ninth Regent of the Grobulan Confederacy of United Independent Feudal Kingdoms, was seventeenth in line to the throne of Erador.  Erador was one of three countries fighting for dominance of the island of Makteros, the only source of the prized mineral hermulite, which was needed to forge the precious Lion Scimitars that were wielded by the ancient warrior race of Qobari.  The Qobari Order, descended from the first colonists of Zathan, were the finest combatants that had ever walked beneath the twin suns and possessed the secret martial art of sha’Kaj, which allowed them to possess the forms of trees and plants and turn them against their enemies.  One of their most formidable foes was Duchess Zalana, Prince Xakhar’s blood-sister and a sorceress of considerable power, who had long held a grudge against the Qobari and sought to wipe them out.  Zalana drew her magic from the Goddess Ia, matron of darkness and one of the Six Gods of Grobular, along with Gatharsa, Yelene, Mq’mal, Rappan and X’gi.  The Six Gods were worshipped on every continent except the sub-lands of Serkana, whose belief system operated on a belief in the divinity of blades of grass.  Xakhar and Zalana were descendants of the last King of Shocen, who had died in a battle against the Qobari twenty-nine semicycles ago…

Are you still awake?  Hope so, but if you’re not, I’m not surprised.  Granted, this was a bit over the top, but this is the feeling I sometimes get in reading some of these manuscripts-in-progress.  I am in awe – SHEER JAW-DROPPED AWE, I tell you, of the imaginations that can craft these complex worlds that are at once both familiar and alien.  I can’t do it.  I just come up with silly names like Grobular.  But what usually happens is that the writers get so caught up in spilling out these intricate details that they forget to tell a story.  Go back and read that paragraph again and note that nothing happens.  It’s just fact after fact laid out for you with excruciating precision and at no point does the story start moving.  Theoretically, everything I wrote there was important to the telling of the story that is to follow, but rather than introduce this stuff organically, I threw it at you like a bucketload of baseballs.  And there’s nothing there to keep you reading unless you really want to know how the last King of Shocen died (fell off his six-legged zorse into a pit of hungry hoopdehars).

Let’s try this again.

CHAPTER ONE (revised)

Xakhar removed his blood-soaked Lion Scimitar from the face of the dead Makterosian soldier, thinking that while his headache of this morning had not eased, it was certainly preferable to that which his opponent had just suffered.  Xakhar slid the blade back into his scabbard and cast his gaze upward to the angry, swirling clouds which blotted most of the light from the twin suns, the storm the result of the spell cast by his blood-sister.  When they were small they fought over toys or the last slice of dessert; it bemused Xakhar to note that while the scale of their battles had escalated considerably to include thousands of innocent casualties, the stakes had more or less remain unchanged.  Zalana still wanted his toys – the kingdom-shaped ones, naturally – and she was not above using her magic to wipe out anyone who stood between her and the prize she sought.  As he looked skyward, he could see her evil smile in the curve of the clouds, hear her mocking laughter in the thunder, and feel the might of her anger in each crash of lightning.  “Going to be one of those days,” Xakhar said to himself.  He glanced down at the soldier’s bisected face.  “You got off easy.”

Okay, while this is still not the most magnificent prose ever crafted, at least we have some sense of Xakhar as a character, the world he occupies, and the conflict that is likely to form the spine of the story.  We’ve hacked out most of the unnecessary exposition and placed a character in the middle of a tense situation.  And while the setting is still alien, the situation is more understandable on a human level.  Troubled dude with a jealous, possibly insane sister who won’t leave him alone.  This has potential.  It still needs to go through the rewrite oven a few times, but we can work with this.

If you’re writing a detective novel, you can usually get away with the most minimal of introductions to your world.  “It was raining in San Francisco that Thursday afternoon.”  Everyone grasps the setting almost immediately.  Unfortunately, a fantasy or SF author has no such privilege.  The world and the rules must be established early to provide a point of reference that the reader can latch onto.  How do you do that?  Well, less is more.  And this is where 007 can be of assistance.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen at least one James Bond movie.  So I’m guessing that most of you reading this are familiar with the basic Bond structure and the pre-titles teaser sequence, which is usually a huge action setpiece that may or may not relate to the main story.  You can even argue that it takes its inspiration from William Shakespeare, who almost always begins his plays with a scene involving minor characters before getting on with business.  This stylistic invention was, like many things, a creation born of practical necessity – audiences in Elizabethan England would take forever to settle down and pay attention to the stage, so Shakespeare put a bit of fluff at the start to give the rowdy masses a chance to cool it without really missing anything important.  The Bond teaser is meant to grab the audience by the metaphorical balls and reintroduce them to their favorite hero in smashing, not drawn-out, polysyllabic style, and much in the same way as the Bard, doesn’t start laying out the important plot until after the main titles.  So it’s okay if you’re still distracted a bit when things first start up.  After the explosions and the power ballad is when the real story will begin.

My modest suggestion, then, is to “steal from the best” and open with a scene that will introduce a strong character – preferably your protagonist – in a situation where they are forced to do something active instead of idling and recounting the tales of twenty-eight generations of their ancestry.  (Think about it – how realistic is this?  Do we go to work each morning thinking in exacting detail about the sheer scope of our family bloodline?)  The other thing too is that the more of this stuff you hold back in the beginning, the more mystery there will be around your character, the more tantalizing secrets to reveal.  When I was first drafting my novel, I fell into this trap.  I had the heroine tell you in the first chapter exactly who she was, where she came from and why she could do the things that she could.  When I realized as noted above that no one goes around thinking these things about themselves on an average day, I started hacking those parts out, and finding that my leading lady was consequently a lot more interesting – because now you wanted to read on to find the answers.

When you’re world-building, don’t throw it all at us at once, in a blizzard of arcane references and unpronounceable names.  Focus on movement, wants, and action, and sprinkle in details where they are relevant.  Or, to use a cooking metaphor, use them like spices and not the main ingredient.  Come into the story in medias res (in the middle of things, for the non-Latin speakers/non-English majors among us).  And if you can open with a Bond-esque, rip-roaring cracker of a scene, with peril and tension and stuff blowing up, more power to you.  The aim is to hook us, not give us a history lecture.

Verdict, ladies and gentlemen?  Am I on to something here or merely blowing smoke?

Of faith and learning

A friend directed me to a recent piece in The Toronto Star about how Ontario schools have seen a surge in parents requesting that their children be excused from classrooms when the subject being taught conflicts with their religious beliefs (eg. evolution).  This follows the incident several months ago involving a Catholic school board leader who was pilloried in the press for breaking Godwin’s law while trying to explain why her board refused to permit gay-straight alliance clubs on campus (she infamously and quite stupidly said “We don’t allow Nazi groups either”).  This is one of those areas where there seems to be no middle ground; you either believe these parents are standing up for their faith and their most cherished values against offensive secular indoctrination, or you think they’re utter ignoramuses trying to shield their poor kids from truth and consequently crippling their ability to function in the real world.

If you have to pin my belief system down to a single philosophy for the sake of reference, I’m probably closest to what’s called a secular humanist.  I like to know how things work and I’m unsatisfied with the explanation that life functions as it does because of the will of an insubstantial being who decided my fate long before I was born.  Yet I acknowledge that there are numerous things I don’t understand and never will – and I’m okay with that.  Rather like how not knowing the ending encourages you to keep reading the book, I’m happy for the continuing mysteries of the universe, because they keep me asking questions, keep me exercising my intellect in pursuit of truth.  I recognize that I will never know everything, but I can always learn more.  A man does endless reps on the rowing machine not because there is an acme of idealized muscular strength he needs to reach, but because he wants to make himself ever stronger.  That’s the most wonderful thing about learning; there will always be something new to learn, and, if one is to extend the metaphor of the gym, simply working your chest and avoiding the leg press will only make you look like Donkey Kong.  Shutting out the acquisition of knowledge because said knowledge fails to dovetail with ideology results in a state of imbalance – an inability to complete the equation or to advance the cause of truth.

Faith is not an easy journey.  Whether it is faith in God, faith in one’s fellows or faith in oneself, it requires strength.  Where extreme believers such as those who demand little Johnny not hear a peep about Charles Darwin fail their children in teaching them that lesson is in sending them the message that their faith is so brittle it cannot stand challenge.  Unchallenged faith is no faith at all – it’s blind obedience, and I also suspect that the vast majority who consider themselves spiritual do not like to think of themselves as mindless followers.  I have also never understood why some can’t accept the precepts of science while continuing to keep faith, that every word of the Bible has to be literally true for any part of it to have any weight.  After all, scientific thought built the iPad on which you’re tweeting your screed against the evil atheist school system.  It would seem to me that anything as universal as “God” cannot and should not be codified in human language, that the very concept defies the limits imposed upon it by the twenty-six letters of our alphabet.  It remains an unanswerable question, but one that demands pursuit.  Faith, then, is the sense that there is an answer worth going after – and if one is to approach understanding, then you can’t arbitrarily discount the information that might help you get that infinitesimal step closer.  Deciding that my mind’s made up and I’m going to stick my fingers in my ears when someone says something that contradicts it, is sacrificing that most precious gift of free will, the most important quality that guides our brief journey across life.

I’m not saying that what I believe is what you should believe.  Everyone deserves the chance to figure it out for themselves, because that’s the only way it’s going to work.  It’s our mandate as human beings to not abdicate our responsibility to learn all we can while we’re here, otherwise life is truly Shakespeare’s poor player strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, the tale told by the idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.  Let the kids learn about science in school.  Let them learn about God in church.  And most importantly, let them learn enough to be able to make up their own minds.

To be or not to be… hopeful

“If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.” – Margaret Thatcher (great line regardless of whether you supported her or not)

We have a conscious choice to make when we start writing anything, whether to be positive or negative.  Given the near infinite flexibility of words to create a specific tonality, even one phrase out of place, one ill-timed sarcastic barb, can radically alter the message we are trying to send.  If one tends toward the cynical, toward an overwhelming frustration with the way of the world and humanity’s seeming unwillingness to get its collective act together, keeping an upbeat theme is that much harder.  Throwing up one’s hands and then crapping phonetically over everything that rubs you the wrong way is the escape valve for the bitter, the apathetic and the cowardly.  One can liken optimism somewhat to the idea of faith, in the steadfast committal to believe in something in spite of physical evidence to the contrary.  Human beings are tremendously flawed creatures capable of doing terrible, unspeakable things to each other, but do I want to live my entire life resigned to accepting the limits of our collective potential being defined by the worst of us?  Must we always be forced to play in the dirt by those who choose to wallow there?

Criticism is a word with almost universally negative connotations, because in the age of the Internet, where “coolguy69” can dump polemics of visceral hatred (usually not phrased or even spelled as eloquently) on websites and message boards around the world and skulk back to his mother’s basement free of the responsibility of standing behind his words, we’ve forgotten that the point of criticism is, fundamentally, to offer suggestions for improvement.  Snark gets noticed – when dealing with attention spans so overwhelmed by sheer volume of input they’ve been reduced to microseconds, the quick jab with the blade garners the headline and the retweet, instead of the drawn-out approach of reason and thoughtful consideration and counterpoint.  We then pat ourselves on the back for what clever smartasses we are, forgetting in our momentary endorphin glow as the clicks and likes add up, that we are contributing nothing, advancing nothing, signifying nothing.  It is as Shakespeare so cannily observed 400 years ago, a tale told by an idiot – and deserving of no further consideration.

I don’t want to be that guy.  I don’t want to be the hipster loudmouth at the party who sips his appletini while he pontificates upon the downfall of Western civilization, throwing in handy Cliffs Notes references to Albert Camus and the collected works of Francois Truffaut while he constructs a dizzying, grand unifying thesis of how the human obsession with reality television and Facebook is merely foreshadowing the zombie apocalypse.  Instead, I want to be the optimist.  And that’s easier than you might think, because the evidence is everywhere.  For every Joseph Kony in the world there are a hundred million good, decent, honest people, working hard, raising families, treating friends, neighbors and strangers alike with the respect and tolerance we should all merit by the mere fact of our existence.  Not easy to remember when the Konys suck up all the news coverage, which is why sniping at the big bad universe is always the quicker, more seductive path – the dark side of the op-ed.  When discourse has become so polarized, left and right so implacably divorced and compromise an archaic concession of the ideologically weak, is it not morally better to try and calm the waters – to try and point towards better days ahead – instead of stirring them further?  Sighing and sneering won’t get us to the future that I continue to hope for in moments when I behold the wonders of nature, the possibilities of human achievement, and the smile of a child.

I don’t have a problem putting my name and photograph alongside my words, because I’m of the belief that if you wouldn’t carve it in concrete on your front porch, you shouldn’t publish it online.  I can do that comfortably because I am proud that I have chosen, as the old song says, to accentuate the positive, and if I’m to be criticized for what I’ve written, I can take it, secure in the knowledge that I’ve given my best.  It’s difficult at times; I get frustrated, even downright pissed off at a lot of what goes on out there, and many first drafts full of ugly vitriol have gone into the digital bin when I have stopped, taken a breath and asked myself what good it would do.  That’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.  Are we doing any good with our words?  If not, then why are we bothering to write them?

Sorry, but blogging is actually pretty cool (and literary too)

William Blake.

There’s an old saying that the cream rises to the top, but so does the scum.  (Just look at Congress.)  The same applies to writing.  For every successful masterpiece, there is an equally profitable pile of crap.  I read with bemusement this screed from one of my fellow Huffington Post contributors this morning in which, with a nod to Sideshow Bob, he engages in the ironic device of blogging to decry blogs.  Now, he is in high school and has a lot of living to do, so one can understand and forgive the sweeping judgement pronounced therein.  I don’t know him at all; we ranks of HuffPosters are vast and we don’t regularly (or ever) get together to knock back single malts.  He may be a rather smashing bloke in spite of the mildly condescending tone with which his post is composed.  But I can’t agree with his thesis that “uncontrolled publishing,” i.e. blogging, is destroying literature.  I’d say it’s forcing those of us who take writing seriously – which I’d suggest given my experience is a majority of bloggers, not the reverse – to up our game .  If one hopes to be noticed amidst the cacophony of background noise and Bieber fandom, one must aspire to be magnificent.  We might not achieve greatness every time, but the fact that we’re trying means something in itself.  And the blog gives us that opportunity to try.

My unmet cyber-colleague uses an allegory of William Blake physically carving poetry into the roof of a favourite drinking haunt to criticize the supposed ease with which words can be assembled and flung out into the world in the 21st Century; the argument being, seemingly, that without limitations to overcome with sheer force, writing can’t possibly be any good.  Blake, he says, had to craft his verse methodically and with care, paying attention to the shape of each syllable, every minute detail of meter and imagery.  I fail to understand how that level of dedication cannot still be achieved with the use of a keyboard instead of a chisel.  If anything, I’d argue that the delete key and the ability to revise easily has lowered our collective tolerance for sloppy mistakes, for ill-advised turns of phrase and general unprofessionalism (leading to the birth of that most pesky of trolls, the Grammar Nazi.)  If fixing a mistake is simple, then there’s less excuse for letting them slip through.  And ultimately, the most wonderful aspect of Internet browsing is that beautiful little red X in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.  If you don’t like what you’re reading, close the window and move on to something else.  Uncontrolled publishing may allow a flood of mediocre writing into the ether, but it has no effect on freedom of choice.  To read, or not to read, remains our question.

Publishing is now, if it has ever been the reverse, less about quality and more about what will sell.  This is not a criticism; publishing is a business, staffed by people like you and I, working to feed their families.  If a barely coherent rant about shopping and shoes by a D-list reality television star moves X number of copies more than a brilliantly crafted treatise on deconstructionism of modernist attitudes in 1920’s France by an unknown doctoral candidate, well, Snooki gets the rack space.  It sucks, but forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.  That’s a problem originating with the audience, not the existence of blogs.  Until the world at large turns away from its fascination with the banal, publishers are obliged, in order to keep their business going, to cater to demand.  Basic economics unfortunately, and literature gets a solar plexus to the gut in the process.

Where blogs can turn the tide, though, is in their openness and accessibility.  You do not need to be famous or have an “in” with an agent or a major publishing house to invent a domain name and start writing and publishing.  I am reminded so often of The King’s Speech and the fundamental reason why that movie struck such a chord with people – not because of the performances or the direction or any one particular element of its filmic construction, but because of its theme, the universal desire to have a voice.  To be able to speak, even if no one, for the time being, is listening.  There are over 150 million blogs in the world, covering probably far more than 150 million different subjects.  Some are brilliant, and some are execrable wastes of time.  But they all began for the same reason – because someone wanted to use their voice.  If many of these voices produce sounds that are unpleasant to our ears, whether in what they are saying or how they are saying it, we have two choices:  we can either call them on it, or we can tune them out.  We don’t have to stew in our angst and complain that their mere existence is diminishing the written word.

That Snooki is a (shudder) published author doesn’t depreciate Shakespeare or William Blake or even Aaron Sorkin for that matter.  These and other Muses remain figures to whom we can look up, and whose quality we can aspire to achieve, even if we will usually fall short.  Blogs give us the wonderful privilege of chance, instead of restricting even the opportunity to a select few.  Many will just suck and most bloggers will toil forever in utter obscurity, but there will be the gems.  You might come across someone’s memoir of a departed friend that moves you to tears in a way that Blake himself never has or never will.  You might read a mommy blogger’s tale of her daughter’s adventures in daycare and unlock the secret of the world.  The late Christopher Hitchens said famously, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”  Note he didn’t say “all cases.”  Even for the notoriously prickly Hitchens, the possibility of greatness remained.  Literature, or writing in general, must belong to the masses, for what is a masterpiece if it remains unread, or simply unwritten?  I don’t know much about William Blake, but I have a feeling that if he were alive today, he’d be a blogger.  I’m certainly proud to be one, and I’m not going to stop anytime soon.

Grand Allusions or, Where Many Men Have Gone Before

"I have been... and ever shall be... a metaphor."

I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for probably the fiftieth time last Friday.  The significance of experiencing a movie about sacrifice and the promise of hope and resurrection on Good Friday did not escape me, either.  In a previous post I discussed the writing lessons learned from Gene Roddenberry, about the need for a story to always be about something; to that I’d add The Wrath of Khan as a further lesson, for not another science fiction film comes to mind with more of a pedigree so indebted to classical literature.  Where Star Wars is the most famous embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, The Wrath of Khan is steeped like the finest blended tea in the traditions of Shakespearean drama, and its famous finale borrows greatly from the story of Jesus Christ.  As writers we need to be aware of the traditions of storytelling, the recurrence of specific themes and motifs throughout history and the capacity of allusion to elicit powerful emotional reactions from our audience, for these notes will tend to seep into our own work whether we are conscious of it or not.

It is interesting to observe, as we delve into the Christian parallels at work in this particular tale, that The Wrath of Khan in many ways represents the “New Testament” of Star Trek, as it was the first Trek to be produced without Gene Roddenberry as its guiding hand.  He was removed from day-to-day supervision of the film by Paramount studio executives who blamed the massive cost overruns of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Roddenberry’s working style.  The Wrath of Khan was instead produced by Harve Bennett, who came out of the penny-pinching tradition of 70’s television, and written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, a beginning filmmaker whose biggest success to that point had been a series of Sherlock Holmes continuation novels.  Meyer is a studied intellect with a well-stocked library, and he packed the screenplay with references to A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, the Horatio Hornblower novels, King Lear and Paradise Lost, eschewing complicated special effects unavailable to this movie’s reduced budget in favour of character development and deep thematic exploration.  As a result, even though the movie cost a third of what it took to mount the first one, it feels substantially more epic.  Meyer dared to tackle what tends to be taboo among movie stars forever worried about their image – growing older.  He elicited from the infamously hammy William Shatner tremendous depth, nuance and vulnerability, arguably the best performance Shatner has ever given.  Actors love Shakespeare, and Meyer gave his cast the next best thing – a brilliant pastiche, set, despite its futuristic trappings, firmly in the Bard’s thematic wheelhouse.  (On the DVD director’s commentary, Meyer relates how he tried to convince Ricardo Montalban that he would have been a magnificent Lear, and regrets that such a performance never came to be; I know I would have loved to see it.)  Although they never worked well together (or by any reports even liked each other that much), Meyer knew the same basic truth as Roddenberry, and by extension Shakespeare – that the weirdest, strangest, most alien people can be relatable on the basis of their emotions.  A laugh and a tear are literally universal.  This is where the use of allegory comes so strongly into play.

The best allegories operate invisibly.  We don’t exactly know why something we are reading or watching is resonating with us so much, other than it seems to appeal to something deeper in the unconscious mind, or in the heart.  The power of the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s sins and his eventual resurrection touches the instinctual fear of death held by all living things, and to the human need to find nobility and purpose in what can seem like the meaningless end of life.  The three-act structure of drama parallels this instinct as well:  in the first act, you introduce your character(s), in the second, you drag them down to the lowest possible point of total collapse, and in the third, you show their climb from that abyss and ultimate triumph.  In this too we find the Greek concept of catharsis – the emotional release found in an audience’s experience of a character’s pain and suffering.  Interestingly, in the original cut of The Wrath of Khan, there was no hint that Spock’s death might somehow be overcome.  It was observed by the powers that be following an ambivalent test screening that the movie featured Good Friday, but not Easter morning.  The end of the film was then reshot (against the wishes of Meyer, it should be noted) to provide more uplift and hope, including a concluding shot of Spock’s coffin at rest in a Garden of Eden-like setting on the Biblically named Genesis Planet.  Whether or not one is Christian, the cycle of sacrifice and rebirth (whether that rebirth is literal, or metaphorical in terms of the reborn spirit of those left behind) has a primal appeal, and when one of the pieces is missing, as in Wrath of Khan’s original ending, things feel out of sorts – the emotional experience is incomplete.

The issue I have struggled with in my own writing is when does allusion and allegory venture over the line into imitation and duplication?  When so much of our creative world at present feels like karaoke, the value of true originality escalates into priceless.  Yet audiences both literary and cinematic have this need for the reassurance of the familiar, the sense of being able to connect with the story on a visceral level, that commonality of hope and fear shared by all of humanity.  Campbell observes that we have always been telling each other the same story over and over again; his titular hero of the thousand faces.  Writers need to accept this basic truth or they will never even get started:  they will be crippled, as South Park so wittily showed, with “Simpsons Already Did It” syndrome.  And not just accept it, but come to embrace the idea that by infusing these ageless themes into their own work, they are taking part in a tradition that dates back to cave paintings and the fireside tale, and deepening the emotional experience of their story for the reader who will bring to it those same instinctive feelings about life and death.  They will recognize the thread linking your words, their life, and the lives of all those who have come before and will come afterwards.  And your work will truly live long and prosper.

Fun with words: Embiggened English

Last year, when that cunning polyglot Sarah Palin was castigated for her invented word “refudiate,” she invoked Shakespeare and the perpetual evolution of the English language.  While the Bard might execute the expected cemetery gymnastics in being compared to a person who never met a present-tense verb she couldn’t wrest of its “g,” the Barracuda was, to her credit, quite savvy in her assessment of our mother tongue.  Admittedly my opinion is biased given that apart from some passable conversational French, it’s the only language with which I’m intimately familiar, but I find the almost infinite permutations of “the Queen’s” fascinating.  Dialects, accents, patois, cant, slang, rhyming slang, textspeak (editor’s note:  vomit), jargon, technobabble, profanity, and the notion that a person from back-street Glasgow and one from Texas would never be able to understand one another despite using all the same words.  Particularly the profanity.  The great Stephen Fry recently tweeted what has become my new favourite:  “Bollocks arse wank and tittypoo.”  Try it sometime when you’ve just bashed your thumb with a hammer.  To quote The King’s Speech, it flows trippingly from the tongue.

It doesn’t have to be countries developing their own variations on English.  New lexicons spring up amongst even individuals.  As a relationship develops, partners formulate their own code and refine terms that are of use only to them.  Married friends of mine say “Icarus” to alert each other when their child is verging on a tantrum – justified props for the classical reference to the guy who flew too close to the sun on wax wings.  My own better half and I have conjured a host of phrases that are nonsensical to outsiders but capture with craftsman-like precision the very substance of the entity being described, in a relaxed, familiar manner that lets us know just what the other is thinking and feeling at that moment.  I present for your entertainment then, a sampling of our forays into etymology, and trust that you will not come away thinking us insane.  Pronunciation guide added where appropriate.

  • Bluhcky: BLUH-kee (adjective):  Descriptive for inclement weather, particularly that which is a combination of cold, damp/raining, fog or gray.  “It’s a really bluhcky day out today.”
  • Boogloo (noun):  Our cat’s covered bed, which resembles a small igloo, and thus a portmanteau of that and boo-boo-kitty“The cat is asleep in her boogloo.”  An additional note here is that boo- can be used as a prefix for any number of objects that relate to the cat:  Boo-bits (her food), boo-box (where her food goes when she’s done with it), boo-barf (the occasional unfortunate hairball).
  • Burnippy:  BRR-nippy (adjective):  Descriptive of a state of extreme cold.  “It’s supposed to be really burnippy tomorrow.”
  • Dirters (noun):  Portmanteau of dirty and unders, i.e. underwear, used to refer to any form of laundry that needs attention.  “Don’t leave your dirters on the bedroom floor.”
  • Frabjabbits (noun):  Exclamation to be used in situations deemed unfortunate, similar to “goshdarnit.”  “That local sports team lost again.  Oh, frabjabbits.”
  • Poobulasquaooh: POO-buh-lah-squah-ooh (???):  Placeholder for any song lyric that defies comprehension.  This is my father’s interpretation of a hastily delivered, slightly obscure line from Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” which actually goes “The woman is wild, ooh.”
  • Shmorgee-borgee (noun):  A meal consisting of a random assemblage of whatever food happens to be available, usually leftovers.  “We have lots of chicken and veggies and stuff so let’s just have a shmorgee-borgee tonight.”  An obvious if Swedish Chef-ized variation on “smorgasbord.”
  • Showeriffic (adjective):  Descriptive for how one feels after a warm, cleansing and satisfying shower, especially if one was particularly dirty and/or sweaty going in.  “That shower with the sixteen jets is just showeriffic.”
  • Snorfly (adjective)/The Snorfles (noun):  The state of feeling congested due to a cold or persistent allergies.  “Cleaning up that cat hair gave me the snorfles” or “I feel all snorfly after being out in the rain.”

What can I say, they require less spitting and hacking than Klingon.  Seriously though, just try slipping a few of these into your next conversation and let me know about the blank stares you get back.  But don’t tell me you don’t have your own mini-dictionary of words and phrases just for you and yours.  It’s how we personalize a flexible, slightly weathered old horse we’ve all been sharing since Beowulf – how to make a little piece of English, a very common good, our very own.  Sounds pretty cromulent to me.