Wednesday, December 02, 2009


(NOTE: This holiday season, forget friends and relatives and buy presents only for you. They can take care of themselves, at least those that still have a job. Books are the best presents: saucy and tame books, silly and serious books, useful and useless books, and scary and placid books. Go to for the nearest independent bookstore, slap cash on the counter, and get crazy with fat bound pages of type and adventure. Greater sales will force the publishing industry to stop wasting time staring up its Twitter and get back to making books. In these perilous times, think of yourself first and let others take a distant second or third, especially those with questionable fashion sense.)

John McPhee is said to have replied to an interviewer who asked about a picture being worth a thousand words, “Yes, but the right word is worth a thousand pictures.” So why do writers insist on using the wrong word? Corrupt usage. Words and phrases that started out meaning one thing have been corrupted by series of dumb people into meaning something else or nothing at all. Below are the most misused of the bunch. There will be more unless writers smarten up and think before whacking the keyboard.

SURREAL, SURREALISTIC, SURREALISM: Has ever a word been more misunderstood? Guillaume Apollinaire, the walking wounded of Montparnasse, coined the word “surrealism” in 1917 for the introduction printed in the theater program to Jean Cocteau’s play, PARADE. The original spelling was “sur-realism,” meaning “beyond real,” and was adopted by French artists unsatisfied with the nihilism of Dada. André Breton was the main theoretician and arbiter of surrealism as shown in his 1924 MANIFESTO OF SURREALISM:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy: Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and all every other psychic mechanism and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life….

(André Breton, MANIFESTOES OF SURREALISM, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969)

Now you have no excuse for throwing this word around where it doesn’t belong, and also frustrate colleagues at will with your erudition. Being smarter is always a burden.

AMERICAN DREAM: The next time you read or hear the phrase “American Dream,” ask the writer or speaker for a definition. Those that do not hide behind “everyone knows” will flush red at being exposed as a semi-literate poseur. Historian James Truslow Adams laid out the dream in his book, THE EPIC OF AMERICA (Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1931):

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Heady stuff, right? For further consideration, get down to that local independent bookstore and pay retail for THE AMERICAN DREAM: A SHORT HISTORY OF AN IDEA THAT SHAPED A NATION by Jim Cullen (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003).

HUMAN NATURE: Stop and think for a long time before sticking this one on the page as an explanation for why someone does something. The generalized dictionary definition says that human nature is the sum of qualities and traits shared by all humans, but what are the qualities and traits? No one knows for sure, or they refuse to let the information trickle down to the ordinary man or woman waiting for a bus.

Basic human drives are just like those belonging to our hairy forbearers—eating, copulation, safety, goofing around, and status seeking—and anything else is still debated. An individual like that bozo in the cubicle next to yours can be selfish and competitive compared to the friendly and habitually honest you. Who is showing examples of human nature, both or neither? Philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century dug deep with sharp shovels through layers of culture and social conditioning to find what was truly shared by the entire human race. They came up with fancy notions like benevolence and self-interest as being part of human nature, and later philosophers disproved these with big words in foreign languages.

For those unwilling to embrace Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or give up on the concept and pound down egg nog until the confusion goes away, get a copy of Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault’s, THE CHOMSKY-FOUCAULT DEBATE: ON HUMAN NATURE (NY: New Press, 2006) and ON HUMAN NATURE, revised edition (NY: Harvard University Press, 2004) by Edward O. Wilson.


Lighten your wallet and brighten your prose with multiple copies of THE DOG WALKED DOWN THE STREET: AN OUTSPOKEN GUIDE FOR WRITERS WHO WANT TO PUBLISH (Cypress House, 2006). As the decade of doom comes to a close, a swell book with a nifty cover full of literate advice is good to have on hand. Plus, a portion of the cover price will go directly to the writer. This is called a royalty.

NEXT: New Fashions for the Unleashed

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