Quotable Quotidians, Global Province Letter, 09 May 2012

Brevity is the soul of wit--Polonius

Quote/Unquote. The Quote/Unquote Newsletter comes to us from a diligent word detective in the English Isles named Nigel Rees who enjoys multimedia fame, since he has long been a favorite on BBC's Radio 4 and, indeed, many in his radio audience have never seen the printed Rees. Surely he is himself a sub-chapter of the Oxford English Dictionary. He has uncovered many humorous ripostes, one of which we include below.

Quotemasters from Johnson to Wilde to Churchill have long dressed up banalities and ordinary observations by conjoining just a few words but speaking volumes. They knew something about simplicity and economy of style. We're much in need of them now, because our deeply mediocre politicians and the hacks who write for them spew mountains of words endowed with no real meaning. Even worse we have a proliferation of 24-hour news and opinion channels, which provide employment to non-entities who loom large in their own mirrors and whose tongues have never been tied. We're desperate for stylists who can punctuate our brains. A little sharper prose here and there might make our citizenry more suspicious of those who speak with forked tongues and promulgate conspicuous illiteracy. Some quotable verse and quotable prose (Q and Q) may serve to dissolve the muddle into which our thinking has fallen.

Some tasty morsels and wry words have drifted our way lately, so we are sharing just a few with you:

Bonnes Appetites. "The Chinese journalist Jiang Weiping, who spent five years in prison for reporting on Bo family corruption, told NPR last week, 'I think it's an extremely conservative guess to say he had one hundred mistresses.'"—Evan Osnos reporting on the Fallen Rising Star Bo Xilai

Polysyllabic. "That gig, which he has had since 1997, has earned him a new following, who knows him as the slick dresser who never uses one syllable where four will do."  --Reeves Wiedeman nattering on about Walt (Clyde) Frazier, once a Knicks superstar and now a very flamboyant man about New York town.

Wolf Pack. "In olden days the late great poet Norman Macaig met Chris(Hugh MacDiarmid), whom he supposedly loathed, walking down George Street on a dreich day:

'Ah, Chris. How's the poetry?'

 'Keeping the wolf from the door. '

 'Indeed, have you been reading your poems to them?' "---Maxwell MacLeod, a colossal journalist and our constant Scottish correspondent, recalling an anecdote. Lately, incidentally, Giles Harvey, in the New Yorker,essayed on the Englishman's gift for rapier insult. But Armando Iannucci, to whom he mostly referred, is Scottish. We think the Scots have insult down, and the Irish are the better poets. The English assay and essay.

A Noble Accommodation. "This was Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley's stepsister, who had tracked him from London: 'I am not in love,' writes Byron, '…but I could not exactly play the Stoic with a woman ­who had scrambled eight hundred miles to unphilosophize me….'"---Lord Byron explaining away one dalliance. Of course, he had many. Byron was accused of many things, and we imagine they were all true.

Murdoching Your Enemies. "Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the ax in your hand." ----Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies.

Fractured French. "Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French."----PG Wodehouse in The Luck of the Bodkins.

Curious Cat. "Of course I want to live forever. I gotta know what happens next."  --An anonymous quote from Nigel Rees in his Quote…Unquote Newsletter which is required reading for anybody who is bemused by the wiles of language.

Superiority Complex. "In the afternoons he is in the habit of going into crowded rooms and making everybody else feel inferior. The evenings are reserved for extended bouts of name-dropping."------David Brooks mocking William Buckley, Jr. before Buckley put him on the National Review payroll.

A Man of Few Words in the 101st. The most famous quote of the battle came from the 101st's acting commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. When confronted with a written request from German General Luttwitz for surrender of Bastogne, his reply was one word: "NUTS!" (the commander of the 327th GIR interpreted it to the German truce party as "Go to hell!"). After the battle, newspapers referred to the division as the "Battered Bastards of Bastogne." We notice that many veterans of the Second War chose not to talk about it on their return home in 1945-1946.

Short and Sweet. We heard that Will Rodgers once shared the dais with a very gaseous politician at Madison Square Garden. The man talked on and on. And on and on. Finally, finally he sat down. Will took the microphone. He said, "It is an honor to be here with the truly great Chinese statesman On Too Long." That said, Will sat down.

So, prithee, may we find men and women amidst us who will talk less and say more.

P.S We like to say a picture is worth a thousand words. But, more likely, it is worth $120 million, the price Edward Munch's Scream just fetched at auction. At such prices art is no longer a statement, but a parody. Visual images are losing their power to move us, as they become so commonplace. There's a picture on every cellphone.

P.P.S. Even the FBI can be short and witty, but only by chance. Its early report on Barney Rosset, America's most rebellious publisher, said, "The Subject is Left Handed." Rosset's still unpublished autobiography took that as its title. Rosset, you will remember, brought us Lady Chatterley, Henry Miller, and a host of other Banned in Boston books.

P.P.P.S. English has long been said to be the most descriptive language in the world. Are we in the English-speaking world to lose that power and strength?  Oft as not, we are no longer teaching writing in our schools and colleges. The Concord Review, in Massachusetts, publishes serious historical work by high school and prep school students:  it is loved by academics, but has had the devil's own time finding adequate financial support.

P.P.P.P.S. We keep waiting for our historians to revive the notion of "trimmers." They're politicians who sit on the fence. But even more we need words to describe the squirrels that run rampant amongst us now. They run around the barn so fast that they manage to be on every side of every issue, be it two, or four, or seven. But how can we describe the indescribable?  Even chameleons are more straightforward than these super-trimmers.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Trader Vic's, quite a fun restaurant in the Bay Area that has now shuttered its doors, mixed annihilating cocktails that made for uproarious evenings. We favored the Fogcutter. Even Vic himself knew that after two, you could no longer even see the drink, for it was a potion that entirely contradicted its name. It did not cut the fog. "Fogcutters," thus understood, is a fine name for those who pontificate among us, filling the air with impenetrable discourse.

The Fogcutter drink can be quite a stew and has dulled more brains that we can imagine, as one student article attests.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. The Morgan Library in New York City salutes Winston Churchill from June 8 to September 23, 2012 with an exhibit called "The Power of Words." Using drafts, public statements, correspondence, notes, etc. from the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge, it pokes through the main events of his life, speculating that his pen had much to do with the progress of his career, but glossing over the inconvenient truth that his strident voice often held him back. It's his kind of verbal tapestry that convinces us the words can sometimes create pictures that are even more compelling than art.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Flaubert's The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas really put it to French bourgeois society, using zingers to tear down all its norms.


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