Friday, April 18, 2008

Parvum Opus 274 ~ Inelegant Variations


Number 274


Inelegant Variations

Garner's Usage Tip of the Day renamed the “elegant variation” (named by Fowler) the “inelegant variation”, that is, the suggestion not to repeat the same word in a sentence or passage.

When Fowler named this vice of language in the 1920s, "elegant"* was almost a pejorative word, commonly associated with precious overrefinement. Today, however, the word has positive connotations. So lest the reader think that the subject of this article is a virtue rather than a vice in writing, it has been renamed unambiguously: inelegant variation. ... [However,] variety for variety's sake in word choice can confuse readers. If you call a car "the BMW" in one place and "the sporty import" in another, can your reader be certain that you're referring to the same car? If you write about a person's "candor" in one sentence and "honesty" in the next, is the reader to infer that you are distinguishing between two traits, or using different words to refer to the same one?...

Today: "Elongated Yellow Fruit. "Perhaps the most famous example of inelegant variation is "elongated yellow fruit" as the second reference for "banana." Thus Charles W. Morton named "the elongated-yellow-fruit school of writing," citing examples such as "the numbered spheroids" for billiard balls, "the azure-whiskered wifeslayer " for Bluebeard, "hen-fruit safari" for an Easter-egg hunt, "succulent bivalves" for oysters, and "rubber-tired mastodon of the highway" for a truck. "The Elongated Yellow Fruit," in A Slight Sense of Outrage.... There is even a book full of these things, in which a minister is "an old pulpit pounder," a prizefighter is "a braggart of the squared circle," and a vegetarian is "a confirmed spinach-addict."... See J.I. Rodale, The Sophisticated Synonym Book....

Sometimes the variation leads to real confusion. For example, in the following headline, the reader must wonder at first whether "victim" and "loved one" refer to the same person: "Victim's Family Can Witness Death of Loved One's Killer," Austin Am.-Statesman, 17 Nov. 1995, at A11. The solution there would be to delete "Victim's."

Reminds me of The Romance Writer's Phrase Book, which lists 3,000 metaphors to be used in the garden-variety romance novel. ClichĂ©’s, or in other more or less elegant words, pre-digested language.

Writers have also been told not to repeat “said” in dialogue, but substitutions can become much more intrusive than repeated “saids” which blend into the woodwork. You might as well make it a rule to avoid frequent use of “the”. In grade school I was also taught not to repeat “I” too much, and not to begin a letter to a friend with “I”. I do not follow this rule. Do kids even learn to write letters in school anymore?

*Regarding “elegant”, I think I wrote once about the confusion in the use of “elegant” in Jane Austen, describing the character Anne Elliott in Persuasion. In this case, “elegant” was a compliment, in its meaning of refined, without excess; you can have an elegant solution to a problem in mathematics, for instance. But some reader thought it meant too fancy, fussy, and affected. Not so.


Heard at the Post Office on tax day: “I’ll give you a red-eye.” A red-eye is a hand-stamp, one of those round cancellation hand stamps used with red ink. So add this to your list of definitions for red-eye: red-eye gravy (made from ham drippings and coffee); a flight that arrives early in the morning, maybe before dawn; the demonic effect of light on the retina in photographs.


Just wondering why we have attendees at meetings instead of attenders. Attendants is already taken and means something else. The “ee” ending usually denotes a passive recipient of the action, grammatically, as in employee, donee, payee. By attending one actively provides, not receives, one’s presence.

Anniversary Celebration

Fred and I were married fours years ago yesterday, on April 17, 2004. Here’s an interview with my musician friend Sonny, whose performed with his band at our wedding. (The video link only works in Explorer, not Mozilla Firefox or Netscape.)

Spoiler Alert: Beyond Here Be Drags

Ancient campaign history now ~ going back several weeks ~ but I finally figured out Geraldine Ferraro’s remark about Barack Obama. Remember that? Something to the effect that he’s where he is in the campaign because he’s black. She must have been thinking of John Edwards: good looking, successful, left-wing. Obama is a slicker speaker, and, of course, black, but aside from a few other superficial differences, there’s not a lot to choose between them. But John Edwards couldn’t and didn’t offer to repair your soul, which Obama’s wife said was on offer. Edwards wasn’t mailing out specially blessed prayer cloth / shop rags with the imprint of his face on them.

I usually don’t seek out this sort of insane rant, but while following this riveting campaign, I ran across Harlem Dyse of the Black Anarchists, whose support of Obama (and his minister Jeremiah Wright) goes like this:

Anytime you can sneak a fox to the door of the hen house to play guard, do it. The hope of black America is that this fox’s teeth are sharp and his appetite verocious. America’s chicken houses are full of foul white birds that need to be slaughtered.

Of course it’s the word “verocious” that really caught my eye, an efficient combination of ferocious and voracious. (Shouldn’t he have tried out “foul white fowl”?) And Dyse’s unique take on global warming:

Obama’s got soul and is the Fard Muhammad of our times. He is in touch with the gifts God has given him through his skin color. He knows white people burn in the sun and will hasten global warming and the destruction of the Ozone layer so that the earth may be purged of evil. Obama’s soul is with black people & God. And that’s easy to say because white people don’t have souls or a God.

Am I taking his words out of context? Is he really a great guy if you get to know him? I doubt it. “Out of context means” distorting the meaning, not taking a sample of someone’s expressed ideas.

More rhetorical analysis: Obama said small-town people in Pennsylvania (i.e. white), bitter from lack of jobs, go to guns and religion and antipathy to people who aren’t like them and anti-immigrant sentiment. That is, they have no reason for their religion, no tradition for their gun ownership (including the Bill of Rights), no rational opposition to illegal immigration that might be affecting job availability. So instead of voting on the important economic issues (which they can’t understand), they vote on trivial issues like gay marriage. They’re bitter because they have to rely on family, friends, and God rather than the government, as any rational person would. Well, it analyzes itself, doesn’t it. But just let me note that guns usually mean something different in South Chicago than in rural Pennsylvania. Apparently religion does too. And does Obama mean that affluent people ~ say, rich Republicans ~ vote rationally?

Incidentally, Obama’s web site has a bid for the Amish vote in Pennsylvania, but an Amish observer/journalist says they don’t often vote for candidates, usually only for local issues.


Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning ~ Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Back issues from December 2002 may be found at Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2008. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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