O frabjous day!

by Stella

Thank you, Lewis Carroll, for that lovely title. If you haven’t read The Jabberwocky, then please take a moment – it’s worth it. I’ll wait, I promise.

*drums fingers on the desk*

You’re back? Great. So, you may have noticed that the poem is written in about 50% English, 50% nonsense. “Frabjous” is my favorite made-up word in the lot, with “frumious” a close second, and “brillig” not too far behind. Alas, they’ve never made it into the dictionary, which means I couldn’t use them in anything serious like an academic paper. It would thrill me to write, just once, for instance, “While the play’s structure is brillig and the characterization frumious, one cannot deny that Shakespeare resolves everything in a frabjous manner.” That would be priceless.

Interestingly enough, the word “chortle” did makes its way into the dictionary, defined as a fusion of the words “chuckle” and “snort.” Hence theoretically I could write, “The complex puns may not cause modern audiences to chortle as much as the original audience.” But even without making up words, you could construct a singular and meaningless sentence such as, “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.” (Thank you, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.)

English is an excellent language to twist and bend – you can go from a minimal syllable to a polysyllabic mouthful – and create wonders. I’ve been used to taking my comprehension for granted. Not that I don’t ever have to open the dictionary, but there are basic grammar and vocabulary rules that I, that I think all native speakers, are accustomed to using without giving them a thought. This dawned on me rather recently since I’ve been studying Spanish and have been trying, among other things, to master the proper use of prepositions. “A”, “the”, “for”, “to” – no problem, right? Yeah. Sort of.

This has made me sincerely appreciate the effort non-native English speakers put in to mastering the language, especially for the sake of writing fiction, with all the nuances of wordplay and figurative language, not to mention getting the tenses right. Past perfect, present progressive, past simple – my head is already spinning – but it just shows you how complex language is in the first place, how it evolves, and how much there is to think about when you compose sentences.

When I first started writing several years ago, I noticed that one of my central technical flaws was that all my characters spoke and thought alike. This was an especially painful observation when I reread a fragment of dialogue I had written very late the night before, and I couldn’t tell which character was saying what, since I hadn’t bothered outright stating who said what. It’s true that different people can have similar speech patterns, but this was a kind of clone epidemic. If I couldn’t tell them apart, then who could?

After some frustrated sighing at the computer screen and agitated pacing around the room, I started paying closer attention, not just to the choice of words, but to their order and number. Like knowing to say “at home” rather than “in home,” these were things I had taken for granted. I started to look up words I was accustomed to using in order to make sure they meant exactly what I intended or were at least as close as possible. I’m not always as diligent as all that, though I’d like to be. “Procrastinate far less” is my #1 New Year’s resolution, by the way, and I’m doing pretty well. Next year I think I’ll be able to change it to “Don’t procrastinate at all.”

While we’re talking about lists and languages and words (and cabbages and kings), I’ve mentally added “get word of your own invention into the dictionary” to my list of long-term writing goals. I’d like it to be a word or phrase that people use every day, because, as I mentioned before, “chortle” may be officially recognized but it’s not exactly in use. It’s also great when your work is so well-known that your name becomes an adjective, like Shakespearean. Although I willingly admit that “Carterean” sounds weird and I hope no one is ever tempted to use it. Unless they were kidding. Then that would be frabjous.


Susan Wingate said...

This wonderful article made me not only chortle but guffaw.

Paul Burman said...

George Orwell did pretty well for himself, in terms of creating words that entered the lexicon, but, for me, none were as delightful as Lewis Carroll's words. Cheers, Stella.

Stella said...

Susan - mission accomplished! :)

Paul - I always hear the sound of clinking glass when I read the word "cheers". And *clink clink* to you :)

Mike French said...

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe

Intro film...

Enter into tulgey wood.

Stella said...

Ha. I didn't know Terry Gilliam made The Jabberwocky. I can't say I'm surprised though.

kathleenmaher said...

Thanks for sending me back to read "Jabberwocky." And thanks, too, for letting me hop on your straight-shooting train of thought, Stella.

PS. I got back from Seattle today. People there speak the same English as New Yorkers. But just paying attention to The View from Here, I've noticed words and phrases (to say nothing of spellings)often differ if the writer's writing from the US, the UK, or Australia.

Mike French said...

Welcome back Kathleen - missed you here at TVFH

Mike French said...

Stella: Jabberwocky was Gilliam's first film - it's rough and flawed but good fun!

Stella said...

Kathleen - good to have you back! I've also noticed differences in syntax and I try to remember that when I write dialogue for characters of different nationalities.

Mike - I'll have to work up the nerve to see it. His movies usually manage to freak me out. The insect stuff alone in The Brothers Grimm gave me nightmares. I couldn't even sleep after 12 Monkeys.