Literary expletive avoidance

January 23, 2015

Show, don’t tell goes the writer’s refrain. It can apply to cursing, too, but doesn’t tend to in contemporary prose. Swearwords pepper modern novels, not least in genres like detective fiction where they lend colour and authenticity to hard-boiled dialogue. But there are times when a writer can say more by not saying them.

deirdre madden - molly fox's birthday - faber & faber book coverTake Deirdre Madden’s novel Molly Fox’s Birthday. (Or better yet, read it.) Madden has a gift for imaginative description but knows when to apply the subtler force of discretion. Here the narrator, a playwright, is chatting by phone to her friend Molly Fox, a stage actor with what we have learned is a remarkable voice, ‘clear and sweet’ and at times ‘infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful’.

Molly has just received birthday wishes from a mutual friend:

‘How did he know that today was my birthday? Did you tell him?’

‘It was in the paper.’

‘What! How old did they say I was?’

‘Forty.’

She swore when I said this, a sudden, crude outburst. It was all the more shocking because Molly almost never swears. There was the incongruity of hearing such a thing uttered in that particular voice, and I realised that she was as capable of drawing forth all the ugly power an oath might contain as she could the beauty and tenderness of other words. ‘I never heard such nonsense in my life. I’m only thirty-eight.’

I would not have remembered this scene so clearly had Madden simply written whatever swearword Molly used. By denying us that ordinary certainty she invites us to fill the blank – or blankety-blank – ourselves, and we become more engaged with the text. The omission is a seed crystal. This is Fiction 101, I know, but still: how often in a book do you see a swearword lingered on yet withheld?

It’s also an appropriate strategy because of the characters involved. Through their friendship Molly has earned the storyteller’s tact; making her ‘crude outburst’ explicit would allow a moment of weakness to materialise, for the world at large, into something unbecoming and uncharacteristic. By conscientiously keeping it vague, reminding us instead of Molly’s extraordinary voice, the narrator does her friend a kindness and the scene is the better for it.

[Cross-posted on Strong Language and Lexicon Valley]

Gaustering about the meaning of ‘gosther’

June 7, 2014

In Seán Ó Faoláin’s novel Bird Alone (1936) the narrator, a young boy, is waiting alone in town for his grandfather:

After shivering under the thatch of a cabin-end for an hour I began to search for him – as by instinct among the pubs. Sure enough, I found him gosthering with some old toady in the Royal Hotel…

Gosthering gave me pause. It was obviously Hiberno-English and meant something like “chatting”, but it was not a word in my idiolect, and I didn’t remember coming across it before. I must have, though, because a quick search showed it was used in Seán O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman:

I’ve no time to be standin’ here gostherin’ with you.

And in Dubliners by James Joyce, albeit used as a noun and spelt slightly differently:

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Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

March 4, 2014

From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):

let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child

was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”

I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.

Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’twasn’t, aren’t, weren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?

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Not a notion about Irish notions

February 12, 2014

‘The Talking Trees’ by Seán Ó Faoláin is the opening story in the anthology Body and Soul: Irish Short Stories of Sexual Love, edited by David Marcus and published by Poolbeg Press in 1979. It’s a humorous coming-of-age tale of a group of teenage boys in Cork city, containing several explicit references to language.

The boys read comics from England,* “which was where they got all those swanky words like Wham, Ouch, Yaroosh, Ooof and Jolly Well.” Educated by priests and nuns, they are at a loss to understand some of the words they hear used in relation to adult and sexual behaviour.

One day the youngest, Tommy, nicknamed Gong Gong for his “wild bursts of talk like a fire alarm”,

sprayed them with the news that his sister Jenny had been thrown out of class that morning in Saint Monica’s for turning up with a red ribbon in her hair, a mother-of-pearl brooch at her neck and smelling of scent.

‘Ould Sister Eustasia,’ he fizzled, ‘made her go out in the yard and wash herself under the tap, she said they didn’t want any girls in their school who had notions.’

The three gazed at one another, and began at once to discuss all the possible sexy meanings of notions. Georgie had a pocket dictionary. ‘An ingenious contrivance’? ‘An imperfect conception (U.S.)’? ‘Small wares’? It did not make sense.

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Where George Bernard Shaw got his style

January 30, 2014

An anecdote from G.B. Shaw’s Everybody’s Political What’s What (1944), quoted by James Sutherland in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, reveals the Irish author’s early stylistic inspiration:

That I can write as I do without having to think about my style is due to my having been as a child steeped in the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Cassell’s Illustrated Shakespeare. I was taught to hold the Bible in such reverence that when one day, as I was buying a pennyworth of sweets in a little shop in Dublin, the shopkeeper tore a leaf out of a dismembered Bible to wrap them in, I was horrified, and half expected to see him struck by lightning. All the same I took the sweets and ate them; for to my Protestant mind the shopkeeper, as a Roman Catholic, would go to hell as such, Bible or no Bible, and was no gentleman anyhow. Besides, I liked eating sweets.

That the Bible was already dismembered suggests it was a routine source of raw material for the shopkeeper. Had he a secular alternative to hand – old newspapers, for instance – he might have made a tóimhsín for the sweets and allayed his damnation.


This blog post is cat melodeon

December 3, 2013

A distinctive feature of the English spoken in Ireland is the colloquial use of cat as an adjective to mean: awful, unpleasant, rough, terrible, bad, calamitous, or very disappointing. I heard it a lot as a child, and I still do occasionally in the city – someone wants to criticise a situation, such as a bad sporting performance or a job done ineptly, and they say “It’s cat” and that sums it up.

Adjectival cat shows up in writing as well; I came across it recently in Angela Bourke’s short story ‘Charm’, in her collection By Salt Water. The narrator, an eleven-year-old girl, is staying at her aunt’s and hanging out with Brian Molloy, a neighbour around her own age, and Bernie, his older cousin:

Bernie was at Molloys as well. She was their cousin and she had a job in the hospital for the summer. She was from another place up in the mountains, called Derrylynch, that Brian said was the arse-end of nowhere. He was always teasing her, saying things like that. Any time Bernie didn’t like something she said it was cat, and Brian used to go around after her asking her if the dog was cat. He said cat himself though, and if he was talking about something really bad, like his school, he said it was cat melodeon.

Bernie is later reported as saying, “it’s cat when they’re dying all over the place” (i.e., rats); and “it was cat, the things some of them expected” (i.e., men). Often it appears as cat altogether or cat melodeon (or melodium), these longer phrases emphasising the cat-ness of the situation. (Cf. the expression melodeonised  “left in an awful state”, suggesting the image of being crumpled like an accordion.)

Browsing the popular Irish web forum Boards.ie for examples, I found the following things described as “cat”: a head cold; processed food; Rocky V; poems; dark ales; bad weather; golfing ability; heavy traffic; rugby jersey design; video gameplay; an athletics result; a music performance; band members not coming to a gig; and the state of Main Street in Lanesboro. You get the idea.

The origin of this peculiar usage is uncertain: is it an abbreviation of catastrophe/catastrophic, or a derivation from Irish cat mara or cat marbh – literally “sea cat” and “dead cat”, respectively, but meaning “mischief” or “calamity”?

Bernard Share’s Slanguage quotes Victoria White in the Irish Times calling cat melodeon “the greatest expression in Hiberno-English”; her review of a book on Irish traditional music by Ciaran Carson reports his hypothesis that it comes from the aforementioned Irish phrases, and relates:

the tendency of the piano-accordion players (who often refer to their instruments as melodeons) to play two notes at once.

Two discordant notes, presumably, maybe evoking the yowling of a tom-cat on a hormonal night. But I don’t know if there’s anything to this origin story beyond speculation.


The man who spoke with perfect sentences

November 5, 2013

Anyone who has ever transcribed an interview, conversation, or unrehearsed speech of any sort will be very aware of how disfluent this form of language is. We start and stop and stall, repeat ourselves, insert filler phrases and sounds, search for forgotten words, abandon trains of thought, deal with interruptions and distractions, follow tangents, and double back.

It’s a far cry from writing, which gives us the luxury of time to prepare and arrange the translation of our thoughts. Grammar is therefore normally much tighter in writing than in speech. And because we learn about language through writing, significantly later than we develop speech, we cannot help but find speech wanting when we (unfairly) compare the two.

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