The Pittsfield [Mass.] Sun, October 8, 1868. Accidental poetry like this was, of course, a byproduct of the telegraph. And this is recognizably the sort of thing that Thoreau was anticipating when he famously wrote in 1854 that “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate… We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” Thoreau was a joyless old poop. I’ll take stuff like this over a dreary proto-Unabomber tract like Walden Pond any day of the year. It lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirits, it addeth to the gaiety of nations.
Indianapolis Sentinel, May 24, 1874. This is inexplicable even if you don’t take into account the constituent ingredients of shoemaker’s wax.
One of the drearier aspects of writing for publication in the digital age is that it brings you into contact with a rising class of bore I call the assertive lexiphobe, or AL for short. He (and I find it’s mostly “he”) is a self-esteeming semi-literate who knows that the words he knows are all the words worth knowing and that everything else in the OED is just meretricious verbal tinsel for pretentious, shirt-lifting, elitist poseurs like yers truly. Okay, that’s not quite how AL would phrase the matter. Instead, AL always sarcastically invokes that ponciest of all reference books, the compendium of pretense called the thesaurus. Here’s a case in point, culled from the comments column under my mince pie article over at the Chicago Reader:
“Very interesting article. But I shouldn’t need a thesaurus to enjoy reading it.’Hegemony, assiduously, folderol, japery, provender, vestigial ?!?’ WHAT !?! Please add, ‘archaic’, ‘pretentious’ and ‘stilted’ to your ‘lexicon’. Oh. And maybe, ‘fey’, too. THANKS.”
Okay, no doubt I should just be grateful for and gracious about the “very interesting article” part. But I’ve encountered this thesaurus wheeze so often that I can’t bite my tongue. It’s not just the fact that the words under indictment are not, at least to my mind, specifically high-falutin’. (Is there even a substitute for “vestigial”? Is “vestige” safer, given that it’s two whole syllables shorter?) What I really don’t get is the underlying mentality. Why does it antagonize some dudes so much to encounter unfamiliar words? Personally there’s not much I like better (at least while reading). That’s a good part of the reason why Flann O’Brien is my favorite writer and why S.J. Perelman makes the short list. (Nicholson Baker on my man Flann: “A priceless estate-sale of alien and gorgeous vocabulary.” Exactly.)
Okay, so not everybody is gonna be rabidly gay about words for words’ sake. But what’s with the hostility, the offense taken? Sticks and stones may break AL’s bones, but how much can reading the word “japery” for the first time actually hurt him? More generally, why can’t he go get
his face fucked? buccally violated?
Macon Daily Telegraph, August 22, 1908. Okay, who took the time to divide the excised phalange into two equal portions for the pups? Pretty sloppy reporting.
Columbus Ledger, July 30, 1910. Garden variety racism just isn’t good enough for a certain class of deep thinker.
Baltimore Sun, December 16, 1897. A century ago, partiality to moo shu pork was a mark of extreme eccentricity, at least among non-“Celestials.”
Tucson Daily Citizen, June 7, 1902. The administration and faculty of The Hope Chest wish you laughter and merriment but not congestion of the brain this holiday season. Please drink and eat mince responsibly.
Chicago Tribune, May 17, 1908. First item: Such is the condescension faced by avian-Americans even unto this day: A super-sentient chicken is memorialized not for its astonishing intellectual powers but the brute physical fact that it laid two eggs a day.
Second item: grand theft mince is arguably a self-punishing crime.
Henceforth I will be diverting Chicago-related currents of my historical blogorrhea to the website of the Chicago Reader, where they will appear under the rubric Bad News From the Past. Some such content may feel remedial to close followers of THC, but I’ll try to keep actual recycling to a minimum.
The cover story of the Chicago Reader this week is all mince and all mine. Check it out.