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August 29, 2010

Steal, Pinch, Pilfer, Purloin, Thieve




Not Roger

A pivotal incident in my lifelong love affair with English words was an act of petty larceny.

One day during our sophomore year at high school, a friend that I will call Shane (since that is the name I give him in my upcoming book) and I finished lunch early and began wandering the corridors in search of trouble. We ended up in the office shared by the science teachers, and Shane was delighted to discover that the glassed-in bookcase used by the creepy teacher of our freshman class—whose name was Roger—was unlocked. He began to rummage for anything that he might want to take home and read.

Shane was/is everything that I was/am not: tall, handsome, athletic, and absolutely unflappable. “Here,” he said, handing me a thick brick of pulp, “you can have Roger’s thesaurus.”

In my anxious and highly suggestible state I misread the cover and thought the book actually was titled Roger’s Thesaurus—that Roger had written it and that, given the context, it was about his favorite dinosaur. I’ve forgotten what books Shane helped himself to, but my share of the loot consisted in its entirety of the fat dinosaur book.

Over time I figured out what a thesaurus was, learned a little about the word-crazed lunatic Peter Mark Roget, and got over whatever guilt I might have felt about pilfering Roger’s reference book, since I’m pretty sure I got a lot more mileage out of it in the years that followed than Roger would have. It came in handy in my capacity as Copy Editor of the underground newspaper that Shane and I soon thereafter began to publish, for one thing.

And the following year, when, at sixteen, I began to compose my first volume of memoirs, Roger’s thesaurus proved essential. That is to say, vital. Or indispensable. Or central. Or possibly elemental. Surely the opposite of redundant, superfluous or pointless. Though I devoted a great deal of wordage in my memoir’s two hundred pages to telling readers what was going on inside my pimply little head, I probably* used the verb think no more than twice. How could one be content to plain old think when armed with Roger’s thesaurus? No, no. I opted instead to ponder, to contemplate, to meditate. God help me, there were even times when, in my innocent and youthful exuberance, I cogitated or cerebrated.

This drove Mrs. Battersby quite batty. Mrs. B (who features prominently in that upcoming book) was my high school drama coach who test-read for me. On the whole, she was quite supportive, and even sent the manuscript away to a publisher on my behalf so that, at age seventeen, I could lose my rejection-letter virginity a full year before losing the regular kind.

Roger’s thesaurus (I could never call it anything else) spent six years at college in Minnesota with me, where it shepherded me through several dozen college newspaper columns and, through no fault of its own, facilitated the composition of an execrable, multiply-rejected novel. Then it accompanied me to Japan to assist me in ever more shovelfuls of shitty writing. In increments, its cover fell away. Large swaths of its thin, waxy pages got permanently folded or twisted. It got marked up in all shades of ink. A large coffee stain—at least I hoped it was coffee; I could never remember how it happened—spattered the outer margin of the latter third of the pages. Perhaps the coffee had been Roger’s contribution.

I have a memory of parting company with it, but can’t say that it’s an entirely reliable one. It’s of the same stripe as a childhood memory of the sick family dog who was given to a kindly farmer so that she could have more room to run and get well. But I sort of think this is what happened: I frequently moved and changed jobs until my mid-thirties, so in the teachers' room at one of the schools where I worked in those days, I solemnly placed it inside a glassed-in bookcase very like the one from which I had rescued it those many years before—so that, perhaps, some other thieving youngster might discover it—or encounter it, or unearth it or simply come across it—and give it a new home.

This much I’m sure of: I could never betray good old Roger’s thesaurus by buying a replacement—not in book form, at least. I’ve made do the last fifteen years or so with Word’s thesaurus function which, in the pre-2007 versions of the software, was practically a state secret: One had to navigate a tortuous path through the pull-down menus to get to the thing. (Now any moron can find it.) I’ve also learned to use synonyms more judiciously, especially Latinate ones. No one actually cerebrates, after all, except perhaps liquored-up Asians with poor spelling skills and a video camera.

The selection of just the right word for a particular situation has been much on my mind of late, as I finish polishing my upcoming third book—which you may have heard me mention earlier—for publication in ebook format within this year. Word selection is a talent that deepens with age, I’m happy to report, but also a talent that remains mysterious, hard to explain, unyielding to analysis. (←I came up with those synonyms on my own!) Instinctively, I know that substituting a certain word for a similar word can make a paragraph many times funnier—but I can’t tell you why it does.

All I know is that the substitution of one word or idiom for another can make all the difference in the world—can render a whole essay more amusing, more provocative, more terrifying, or more boner-ific. Then again, there are times when one actually wants to ratchet down the stimulation by yanking a flamboyant word in favor of a blander one, so that the events or characters can step forward and outshine the language. That’s a whole other art in itself.

Sometimes I think I really ought to track down Shane and thank him for turning me on to Roger’s thesaurus. If only her weren’t so darned arrogant—or conceited, or haughty, or maybe supercilious




* I chucked the whole thing down the trash chute of my college dorm halfway through my freshman year. It was the only way to stop myself from trying to resuscitate it.



Note: I’m posting a week early this time because next week I’ll be unavailable—or engaged, or—okay enough of that already. If all goes well, I’ll return around September 18.