Saturday, October 12, 2013

A WORD TO RETIRE: No Bones Before Bedtime

(NOTE: May seem peculiar
/How I think of you
/If you want me, darlin’/
Here’s what you must do/You gotta give me
/’Cause I can’t give the best/
Unless I got room to move/If you want me darlin’/
Take me how you can/
I’ll be circulatin’/’Cause that’s the way I am/You gotta give me
/’Cause I can’t give the best/
Unless I got room to move)

Good readers sometimes write, but every good writer reads a lot. Books such as Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2013), Slow Reading by John Miedema (Sacramento, CA: Litwin Books, 2009), and The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement by Thomas Newkirk (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2011) show how reading is active, not passive, and the skill is much more than an ability to turn pages. A reader has to get inside and mix it up with character, setting, and themes to find what the book is really about. Reading slow reveals the unlimited possibilities of language. Skipping through a book like a morning jog is a disservice to the story and the reader. Any book worth reading deserves to be read well, and more than once.
Like all good practices, reading slow has its drawbacks. The reader of contemporary books sees words used more for fashion than meaning, like oligarchy (who are the oligs?), paradigm (a nonfiction favorite from the late eighties and early nineties), ebullient (say it fast three times to win a prize), and the absolute worst offender, pathetic.
The Latin (patheticus) and Greek (pathetikos) roots of pathetic have the word meaning that one is able to feel or be impassioned. Further down the etymological line, the word relates to those who suffer, who have suffered, and who will suffer real soon. Modern usage has pathetic as a hard slap to the cheek meaning weak or outright stupid, and a description of tawdry surroundings. Pathetic appears in dialogue when a more appropriate word cannot be found. Besides, it gives the speaker a chance to sound educated, always good when belittling the bad guy.
At the end of the eighteenth century readers knew what pathetic meant. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, is also known as the Pathétique, for the suffering the composer underwent while finishing what would be his last symphony. Somehow the word changed and now we are stuck with pathetic as imprecise, rarely used where it should be, and not much use to the writer.
Writers begin with a close relationship to the dictionary. They find a portable one for hauling around in a book bag and spend too much for a big dictionary at home. Both are necessary on account of the English language has about 250,000 words (excluding twerk) and no one knows all of them. Words whither and die like any organic substance; they depend on frequency of use for continued life. What keeps language alive are the writers who put the correct word in the correct place. When a word has its meaning watered-down or taken too far from its beginnings, it’s time for public internment. Pathetic is ready to be measured for a coffin and sunk deep into barren ground.

The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95) is a wonder of ink and paper. Many of its pages are numbered for easy reference. Recent readers have said many nice things to the author, never seen in public without his masculine silver tiara of genuine pre-war plastic and who is prone to blushing. The good-looking staff at your local independent bookstore will be thrilled at your discernment in purchasing this swell book, full of information about writing and publishing and the proper use of pralines. The Dog is for writers and readers eager to know the unknowable and dress better. Log on to for the nearest independent bookstore ready to slip this well-behaved corgi into a plain brown wrapper, just for you.

NEXT: Bargain Wash and Clip

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Anonymous Cynthia said...

I am always mixing up the "pathos" words. Empathy, I certainly understand. But then, is one empathetic, empathic? Or does that require ESP? Inquiring mind wants to know!

7:03 PM  

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