Recent posts seem to have wandered a bit off the writing-topic path, haven’t they? Let me steer things back to the proper route (although diversions are always fun, and have their place), and get on with talking about things writerly.
Most recently, I’ve been reading a book called “Verbatim”, which is a collection of articles from the long-running magazine Verbatim: The Language Quarterly. Published in 2001, it is in a few spots already showing its age, but it is tremendously interesting and amusing all the same. Laurance Urdang, long-time editor of the magazine, says: “It was always my hope that Verbatim would emerge as a breath of fresh air for that interested cadre of word lovers who had been forced to endure Sunday-supplement curiosity collections and word puzzles levelled at six-year-olds.” I’d say, offhand, he succeded, if this collection of articles is anything to go by.
There is a refreshing lack of stuffiness in any book that starts out with an article on why “bad English” isn’t the end of civilization after all. “Nothing,” notes columnist (and Verbatim editor) Erin McKean, “is as irksome as to be forced (wearing a polite smile, rapidly souring to a grimace) to listen to someone’s tirade, rant, or polemic against ‘today’s English’.” He goes on to talk about the fluidity and evolution of language and how the “good English” being upheld by the purists today would more than likely clash terribly with the “good English” of even two hundred years ago.
I like these folks. Each article is absolutely fascinating, occasionally hilarious (as the one examining the odd reluctance of dictionaries to properly define “sexual intercourse” and the entry on American place names). The article I just finished reading, “English as she is spoke”, talks about a guidebook to the English language written by a Portugese gentleman named Jose de Fonseca (who, unfortunately, spoke no actual English himself). I’d never heard of him before, but apparently he produced a phrase book that endures as a masterpiece of mistakes. It’s not just that the individual examples taken from this book are appallingly funny–they make me wince with recognition. I’ve long wondered just how the hell anyone learning English can learn such a horribly fractured form as to think that “In case FIRE, avert the boots”, to choose just one example from this article, is at all comprehensible. Understanding that “avert” is taken from avertir–French for warn and that boots is taken from an old nickname for hotel servants, makes the mistakes rather more understandable.
This article alone gives me a lot more tolerance for the fractured speech of some ESL folks, because I now truly understand that they are very probably teaching themselves, or being taught from, a book rather like Forseca’s (which was first published in 1855 and remains in print to this day, clearly labeled as a historical curiosity and amusement to avoid anyone actually trying to use it as a phrase book). Or they’re working from understandable misinterpretations such as the one noted above.
As a writer, articles like this are pure gold. Want to fracture up some speech in your books? This article practially maps out the process, as far as I’m concerned. Insert a Forseca-style guidebook into your fictional world and watch the fun start!
I could go through and rave about every article in here, but I’ll content myself with a blanket statement that for a writer, I suggest that this book–and checking out the Verbatim magazine itself–is an absolute necessity.
That latter option is a bit tricky, unfortunately; the founding father, Laurence Urdang, passed away in 2008; the last post on the website appears to be from December of that same year. The independant publisher, Stein & Day, who once distributed the print magazine, went out of business in the late 1980s. I see no further trace of the magazine; there are two Verbatims listed on Facebook, but one is a law review journal and the other an odd lit-mag type of thing. A quick Google search yields no announcements that the magazine has folded; it appears to have merely stopped midstream, as it were. So if someone out there knows whether the magazine is still viable, I’d love to get my hands on a subscription, belated as that desire may be; and if someone happens to have a trove of back issues, I would be deeply grateful to get my hands on those!
In the meanwhile, I suggest picking up a copy of this book. It’s fantastic–and I don’t say that often or lightly, as those readers familiar with my reviews at Green Man Review and the Sleeping Hedgehog already know well.
Now–on to the next, and to all a good read! ;-p