for 48 hours or so, now. Nothing fascinates me; the greatest curiosity I can achieve is a kind of abstract Orwellian intellectuality: We’re all doomed, and I can express the sentiment with excellent prose. I find myself straining to visualize a blueprint or a mechanical drawing of some revolutionary object which is just barely beyond my powers. I have fantasies of inventing bold new weapons, based on heretofor unknown principles of science, by an act of profoundly original innovation, of the type which only naive laymen and children are really capable: A new route, perhaps, to a fusion bomb, without the use of a fission primary–a garage-scale process unlocking megatons, realized secretly by Einstein, hinted at by Oppenheimer, and ruthlessly suppressed by history. The hardware store thermonuclear bomb. A manipulation of plywood and foam rubber that creates momentary access to new dimensions. Necronomignosis. When it finally comes to me I will have relief, and the world will tremble.
This holiday season found me stretched out in front of the giant TV at my parents’ house watching Stanley Kubrick’s first movie Spartacus, a fictionalization of the Third Servile War of 73 BC with Kirk Douglas in the eponymous lead, on cable one evening. As I drifted in and out of consciousness, I was reminded of the last time I saw the movie, which was 17 years ago, at Westwood Junior High, in my Freshman Latin class. I cannot for the life of me remember the teacher’s name, but although I disliked her at the time, looking back as an adult I recall her as a patient and diligent instructor.
We watched the movie, Spartacus, in her class, including the famous climactic scene in which the defeated slave army refuses to identify their leader to the conquering Romans in exchange for leniency and, as a consequence, is crucified en masse along the Appian Way.
Some days later, Ms. What’s-Her-Name was conjugating verbs on the chalkboard, with her back to the class, while my friend Lee, who sat beside and slightly ahead of me, was practicing spinning, tossing, and juggling his pen a la David Letterman. The pen slipped out of his control and flew toward the chalkboard, impacting just beside the teacher and falling into the chalk-tray. She picked the pen up, turned slowly, and presented it to the class.
“Who threw this?” she asked quietly.
There was a long pause, pregnant at least with triplets. Lee squirmed in his seat.
“I’m Spartacus!” I cried, suddenly.
A wicked grin spread across Lee’s face. A second later, he echoed, “I’m Spartacus!”
“I’m Spartacus!” called an unknown voice from the back of the room.
And then the whole class joined in: “I’m Spartacus! I’m Spartacus! I’m Spartacus!”
She was beaten, and she knew it. Her anger melted into an amusement she tried, unsuccessfully, to conceal from us, and class went on with a wonderful feeling of light good humor.
It is one of my fondest memories from that otherwise-traumatic period of my life.
In honor of Ambrose Bierce’s subversive lexicon The Devil’s Dictionary, I hereby coin the word “devilnition” as follows:
devilnition – n. a verbal definition, in the style of a dictionary entry, which imparts a subversive, ironic, or humorous meaning to the defined word, e.g. “Scientist – An intellectual who distracts himself from depressing contemplation of insoluble philosophical problems by meticulous attention to inconsequential physical ones.”
The little lip at the top of the spray can and the little indentation in which the nozzle is set catch paint from the spray. On extended spraying, it pools there and begins to slosh out and drip onto the floor. If the top of the spray can were a smooth curve without this lip and indentation, the can would work much better.
So, it turns out, at least according to www.dictionary.com, that “configurate” actually is a word, but its meaning is essentially indistinguishable from “configure,” and it costs one more syllable and two more letters. William Safire could probably give a name to this phenomenon, but it’s notable also in the cases of “obligated” versus “obliged” (where the savings is a more impressive 2 syllables for 2 letters), and in that of “ironical” versus “ironic” (again 2 and 1).
Several years ago I undertook to update George Orwell’s classic maxims of clear prose, from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, to better reflect modern sensibilities.
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech which has been run into the ground.
2. Never employ a polysyllabic construction where a monosyllabic construction will suffice.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always be sure to cut that word right out of there.
4. The passive is never to be used when the active is possible.
5. Never use patois, neologisms, or argot if you can think of everyday English equivalents.
6. Any of these heuristics should be disregarded, if, in the course of putting them through their paces, respectively, one is impelled to commit unpardonable stylistic faux pas.
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.
But do you recall
The most tragic reindeer of all?
Rudolph the sh*t-faced reindeer (Reindeer)
Had a very ruddy nose. (Like a crabapple!)
And if you ever saw it, (saw it)
You would say his drinking shows. (Like Bukowski!)
All of the other reindeer (reindeer)
Call him names behind his back, (Like degenerate!)
So Rudolph the sh*t-faced reindeer, (reindeer)
Crawls inside a fifth of Jack. (As in Daniels!)
Then one hazy Christmas morn,
Santa intervened: (Oh, no, no)
“Rudolph, you have wrecked your life:
You crashed my sleigh and it killed your wife.”
Now the reindeer take turns driving (driving)
Rudolph every other day (Even Saturdays!)
To meetings of a 12-step program (Al-Anon!)
At the local YMCA. (Like where Daddy goes!)