Feckless Similes and P.G. Wodehouse

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November 19, 2014 by libroshombre

The origin of the word “feck” arose following mention of P.G. Wodehouse’s skilled use of back-formations in last week’s column. A back-formation occurs when a shorter word is made out of a longer one, like when one of Wodehouse’s characters “may not be entirely disgruntled, but he was far from gruntled.” Having been culpable of occasional fecklessness over the years, I’ve often wondered how to acquire feck, and what it is. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it became popular around 1500 to combine the Scots’ “feck,” which was a back-formation of “effect,” with “less” to make “feckless” and mean “lacking purpose or vitality, careless and irresponsible.” The modern usage of feck is “an informal Irish euphemism” for a similar naughty word according to the Dublin Slang Dictionary.

I find novels with obligatory sexual encounters tiresome and divert readers from the storyline. Naughty words won’t be found in Wodehouse’s ninety-six books, nor in the sixteen plays and twenty-eight musicals he helped write because it was unnecessary. In an article titled “The Genius of Wodehouse,” Roger Kimball, The New Criterion’s editor and publisher, quoted writer Hilaire Belloc commenting on fellow-author Wodehouse’s ability in 1939: “The end of writing is the production of a certain image and a certain emotion. And the means to that tend are the use of words in any particular language; and the complete use of that medium is the choosing of the right words and the putting of them into the right order. It is THIS which Mr. Wodehouse does better, in the English language, than anyone else alive.”wodehouse2

“Belloc particularly admired Wodehouse’s similes,” Kimball noted, “citing as an example his description of Honoria Glossop as ‘one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.’” That’s a personal favorite, too, but Wodehouse was amazingly prolific, peppering nearly every page with inventively original similes and metaphors.

Other Wodehouseisms include “Some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant – better left unstirred,” and “Musical comedy is the Irish stew of drama. Anything may be put into it with the certainty that it will improve the general effect.” The first is a simile, “a figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by ‘like’ or ‘as’.” For another example, Wodehouse wrote about a woman who “looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when’.”

All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes. Similes are a type of metaphor, which is broadly defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage.’”

Similes from Wodehouse’s pen include, “A sort of gulpy, gurgly, plobby, squishy, wofflesome sound, like a thousand eager men drinking soup in a foreign restaurant,” and “He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg.” Examples of his metaphors are “Into the face of the young man … there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French,” and “the supply of the milk of human kindness was short by several gallons.” Wodehouse also employed “submerged similes” that don’t include the ‘like’ or ‘as’ comparatives, as in “She gave me the sort of look she would have given a leper she wasn’t fond of.”

laurie and fry            Books are usually better than movie versions or other adaptations, but Wodehouse is an exception. His stories translate well as audio books, especially those narrated by Jonathan Cecil, and Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry’s BBC adaptations on DVD are hilarious and well-produced, although as Fry has written, “no actors are as good as the actors we each of us carry in our heads.” Nonetheless, enormously entertaining Wodehouse CDs, DVDs, and ebooks are at your pubic library, ready to lighten spirits with his gentle, clever comedy, or, as Wodehouse phrased it, “the kindly contemplation of the incongruous.”

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