Writers, Editors, and Mean Parrots

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October 31, 2016 by libroshombre


Stephen Ambrose, author of “Band of Brothers” and “Undaunted Courage,” once noticed that, “There are many more want-to-be writers out there than good editors.” The recent explosion in self-publishing, and the resulting profusion of unedited prose, backs him up. An increasing number of popular authors are turning to self-publishing, but most are writer-wannabees. Writers’ blog WiseInkBlog.com says that 81% of all Americans want to write a book and according Bowker, the publishing world’s statistical clearing house, 458,000 books were published independently in 2013 which was a 437% increase from five years earlier.

Unfortunately, the authors of most of those books don’t have a strong grasp of our language, and a shortage of editors only exacerbates things. Last summer DailyWritingTips.com ran an article outlining the reasons. “Over the last quarter century, socioeconomic forces have eviscerated the editorial infrastructure in the publishing world.” Fifty years ago editorial standards were high, but those “standards have now eroded, thanks in large part to budget cuts in editorial departments and a deterioration in the informal newsroom mentor-protégé tradition, in addition to a growing indifference in our society to excellent writing.”

There’s the rub: “a growing indifference to excellent writing.” Even worse, humans seemed inordinately gifted at malapropisms. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “malapropisms” as “ludicrous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound.” According to LiteraryDevices.com, “malapropism comes from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in the 1775 play ‘The Rivals’, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Mrs. Malaprop was a humorous character in the play who often used incorrect words in her dialogue. Sheridan likely took that name from the French phrase ‘mal a propos,’ which means ‘poorly placed.’”

Don’t confuse malapropisms with spoonerisms and eggcorns. Spoonerisms are accidentally switched vowels or consonants in two nearby words, as in meaning “dear old queen” but saying “queer old dean.” Eggcorns, on the other hand, are the intentional switching of similar-sounding words that are relevant, like quipping “old-timer’s disease” for “Alzheimer’s disease.”

English speakers are drawn to utilizing malapropisms, as evidenced in a recent online academic article by Chi Luu titled “What the Folk? The Charming Yet Totally Malappropriate Story of Folk Etymology. Luu said etymology “is the fascinating and popular study of word history and how words change meanings over time.” Folk etymology “is what happens when etymology gets into the wrong hands – those of the people who speak the language. Folk etymology is essentially that moment when speakers try to mansplain the origins of idioms in an effort to understand them, by linguistic analogy with something that sounds similar and is more or less semantically fitting.”

Luu cited an array of common examples, such as “waiting with baited (bated) breath,” “passing mustard (muster),” and “being on tender (tenter) hooks.” The most intriguing example was when Luu asked, “Is it really true that the American idiom ‘say uncle’ emerged from the bullying of a poor parrot.” An article from the October 9, 1891 edition of the Iowa Citizen read, “A gentleman was boasting that his parrot would repeat anything he told him. For example, he told him several times, before some friends, to say “Uncle,” but the parrot would not repeat it. In anger he seized the bird, and half-twisting his neck, said: “Say ‘uncle,’ you beggar!” and threw him into the fowl pen, in which he had ten prize fowls. Shortly afterward, thinking he had killed the parrot, he went to the pen. To his surprise he found nine of the fowls dead on the floor with their necks wrung, and the parrot standing on the tenth twisting his neck and screaming: “Say ‘uncle,’ you beggar! say ‘uncle’.”

Editing’s a necessary part of every smooth-running literary world, including libraries, and especially public libraries. Here’s a library truism: patrons of public libraries despise ratty-looking books and shelves filled with books they don’t want. So well-run libraries constantly inventory their shelves looking for damaged and unused books, remove them, and sell them to raise money to buy new, popular titles.

Everyone involved in communicating with words can use good editing, for the perspective of others is usually wonderfully leavening. As Nathaniel Hawthorne pointed out: “Good reading is damn hard writing.”








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