In Which We Get Nerdy About Word Histories

A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the connection between the words freebooter and filibuster, I linked to this chart showing the frequency with which the two words have been used in the last couple of centuries: 

I generated this chart in Google’s Ngram Viewer. The Ngram viewer is a great resource for a writer, or for anybody who is interested in the ways language has changed since 1800. It’s a search tool that combs through the forty million books and periodicals that have been scanned into Google books and calculates the frequency with which a word appeared in print each year from 1800 to the (almost) present.

In this chart you can see that the word ague (meaning “chills and fever”) isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be:

Why did ague drop off a cliff after 1880? I don’t know. But I heard a lot of people complaining of chills and fever after they got the Covid shot; I didn’t hear anybody complaining of ague.

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No Conflict Is Too Small for the Storyteller

Last week I wrote about the ways that P.G. Woodhouse uses overstatement and understatement for comic effect in his Jeeves and Wooster books (and particularly in Right Ho, Jeeves). The principle at work, I suggested, was a distortion of scale and proportion.

To speak of small things as if they were big and big things as if they were small is a tried-and-true technique for writing funny. Last week I focused on the ways this principle gets worked out at the sentence level. This week I want to look at some ways Wodehouse distorts scale and proportion at the larger story level, and especially in his characters’ motivations. Bertie Wooster and co. tend to miss the point by treating small issues as if they were big and big issues as if they were small. Then wackiness ensues.

A recurring theme in Right Ho, Jeeves is Bertie Wooster’s conflict with his valet Jeeves over a white mess jacket with brass buttons. Bertie likes it (he picked it up while on holiday in the South of France), but Jeeves, the soul of propriety, considers it inappropriate for polite English society.

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Maryrose Wood’s Hilarious Broadway Debut

The “Sad Stories Told for Laughs” series continues with Maryrose Wood, author of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place and Alice’s Farm: A Rabbit’s Tale. Before Maryrose Wood was a novelist, she was an actor. In this episode, she tells the story of her Broadway debut, in one of the most spectacular flops in Broadway history. It is a story of youthful naïveté, public chagrin, a brutal review in the New York Times, and, ultimately, perseverance and triumph.

(The documentary The Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened tells the story of Merrily We Roll Along, the show that was Maryrose Wood’s Broadway debut. You can find it on Netflix.)

What’s So Funny About Jeeves and Wooster?

In Writing with Jeeves and Wooster, my upcoming online class, one of the things we’ll be talking about is how P.G. Wodehouse manages to be so funny…which puts me on the spot to understand and explain his particular humor. Few things, I’m afraid, are less funny than an explanation of why a thing is funny—something you have noticed if you have ever started a sentence with the phrase, “Yeah, but it’s funny because…”

Anyway, I am happy to report that I have made some progress in my investigations into Wodehouse’s humor.

One key aspect of humor writing is the distortion of scale and proportion. In Wodehouse, this kind of distortion is happening on many levels, and all at once. At the sentence level, this tendency expresses itself as a near-constant stream of gross overstatement, punctuated by the occasional gross understatement.

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Right Ho! Writing with Jeeves and Wooster

It’s summertime, and my “Writing with...” series of six-week creative writing classes will continue with one of my go-to authors for light summertime reading. P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books are hilarious from start to finish. The situations are funny, the characters are funny, the plots are funny, the narrator’s voice is funny, the dialogue is funny, almost every sentence is funny. I’m willing to admit that Wodehouse isn’t exactly Dostoyevsky, but he’s a genius at what he does, and he does things that all storytellers need to be able to do. No lesser a light than Evelyn Waugh said of him, Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.” 

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Fun with Appositives

I thought it would be fun to talk about appositives today. An appositive is a noun that renames a noun that  comes earlier in a sentence (or, occasionally, prenames a verb that comes later in the sentence), but without a to be verb (am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been) to link the two nouns.

Here are some examples (the appositives are in bold):

  • Fred the mailman retired last week.
  • Soon we shall have watermelon, the fruit of kings.
  • The possum, the only marsupial native to North America, is also the only non-primate with opposable thumbs.

As you can see, in each of those cases the appositive phrase is spang up against the noun that it renames, with no intervening verb. That “verblessness” is your clue, in fact, that you have an appositive.

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Buddy, Booty, Freebooter, Filibuster

The other day I got to wondering whether the word buddy was a corruption of the word brother. This rumination was occasioned by Tom Petty’s song, “Listen to Her Heart,” which is one long second-person address to a rival for a woman’s affections. At one point, the speaker says either “Buddy, you don’t even know here” or “Brother, you don’t even know her.” I couldn’t remember which. I talked it over with my wife, and we decided that Tom Petty was more likely to address a romantic rival as “Brother” than as “Buddy.” It just seems more Gainesville, Florida.

The fact that the two words are more or less interchangeable in that situation made me wonder whether they had a connection. Bubba is a corruption of brother. I wouldn’t be surprised if buddy turned out to have a similar origin.

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