Rex Stout on Language

By John Hertz: These days we have some of the diversity for which we clamored so long. Not enough, in my opinion, but more than before.

One by-product is that it can less than ever be assumed what people have read or heard. I just asked a woman “Does the name Ernie Kovacs mean anything to you?” She said “Of course.” I said “Not of course. I’ve learned I’d better ask.” She thought it over, and agreed.

Also I’ve been saying “The word oldfashioned is oldfashioned.” We who love diversity may take an interest in things long ago or far away, or both, and discuss them in letters carried by jet airplane, or faster.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) beginning in the 1930s was a name on everyone’s lips, for his fictional detective Nero Wolfe, who never leaves his Manhattan house on business — well, hardly ever — and Wolfe’s assistant Archie Goodwin, who does the legwork.

My Death of a Dude (1969) is the 1981 printing; a note at the back says the 46 stories, many novel-length, had by then been translated into 22 languages and sold over 45 million copies. They are, among much else, fine pictures of life in these United States at the time of writing. I’ve read and re-read them. Maybe you have too.

I say this to bring in a passage that comes to mind (ch. 8). Wolfe is interviewing people — in Montana, a startling place for him to come — about a murder. Goodwin narrates. He uses brackets [ ] for his comments, which I have to report, so I’ll use parentheses ( ) for mine.

* * *

(Mel Fox, who runs a cattle ranch.) “It showed me once more, when I heard about it … that you don’t always know what you’re talking about.”

(Wolfe.) “How could you? Not only ignorance. Man’s brain, enlarged fortuitously, invented words in an ambitious attempt to learn how to think, only to have them usurped by his emotions. But still we try. (To Emmett Lake, an old cowhand.) Mr. Lake. Tell me about Mr. Brodell.”

“Dang Brodell,” Emmett said.

Actually that isn’t what he said…. Those of you who like the kind of words he liked can stick them in yourselves, and don’t skimp.

“Dang [AG] Brodell,” he didn’t say.

“It can’t be done,” Pete Ingalls (postgraduate at the University of California, Berkeley) said. “He’s dead and buried.”

“It was me that said the atrocious [AG] scourge [AG] might marry her, and that shows what a misguided [AG] ignoramus [AG] I was.”

“I thought you were showing understanding and compassion,” Pete said.

“Balls. I said how I figured it. You know what I said. You’re a lot younger than I am and you’re bigger and stronger, but if I sit here and cross my legs good, let’s see you get them opened up. Every breathing [AG] female [AG] alive is a born siren [AG]. The reason I called him an atrocious [AG] scourge [AG] was because he didn’t belong here and all the panting [AG] dudes can thumping [AG] well leave their outstanding [AG] bats [AG] at home when they….”

Oh piffle [AG], that’s enough…. Wolfe stood it a little longer … and then stopped him by saying in a tone that had stopped better men with better vocabularies, “Thank you, Mr. Lake, for illustrating so well what I said about words.”

Learning A New Word

By James H. Burns: Is it possible for a new turn of phrase to enter fandom, or pop culturish affiliated events, without realizing it?

Sunday, when visiting MOCCA Fest, the annual two-day festival sponsored by Manhattan’s Society of Illustrators to celebrate all that’s new and alternative in comics art, I heard a word new to me.

When talking to a couple of twenty-something writers and artists gathered amongst three floors of exhibitors and displays (including a few major publishers), I heard the process of buying space at a gathering refered to as:

“Tabling.”

I was astonished.

In my day, which I thought was still this day, we called getting a table, “getting a table.” Or, “I’ll be doing that convention.” And, sometimes, “I’ve bought some space;” or even, “I’ll be at that show.”

But “Tabling?”

I thought this was an entirely fresh coinage. But when I Googled, I was surprised to learn that the expression has been around for at least a few years.

As someone who has been friends with some of the “legendary” dealers of the American scene, going back decades, I am compelled to ask:

When oh when, did this happen?

Tuckerization Inflation

Tuckerization — using a person’s real name in a science fiction story as an in-joke – is derived from Wilson Tucker, the author who made the practice famous among fans.

While he originally did it without charge – indeed, usually without the advance knowledge of the victim — in recent years quite a few sf/fantasy authors have been raising money for charities by auctioning off the privilege of being Tuckerized in a story.

And Andrew Porter says the cost of getting Tuckerized is going through the roof. “I paid about $100 to get my name into Robert Sawyer’s novel Mindscan  in a fan fund auction in 2002 or so; someone paid $800, I think, for the right in a Neil Gaiman auction at the 2009 Montreal Worldcon; and  now, $20,000 gets you into a George R.R. Martin book.” Two people have donated that amount to give their names to characters who will be killed horribly in Winds of Winter.

Time Magazine thought that so newsworthy it tracked down and interviewed one of the donors. David Goldblatt, who works for Facebook, says he has chosen to appear in the book as a Valryian, a race known for its purple eyes and platinum white hair.

The second winning bidder, a woman, has elected to remain anonymous. Or at least as anonymous as you can be once you’re a character in what undoubtedly will be a #1 bestseller.

Quasiquotes

Ned Brooks recently brought the quasiquote to the attention of the Shady Characters blog (about “The secret life of punctuation”) .

Thanks to Brooks, Shady Characters featured scans of two original definitions as they first appeared in mimeographed copies of Speer’s 1944 Fancyclopedia and Tucker’s 1956 Neofan’s Guide.

Jack Speer originally called them quasi-quotemarks:

It frequently is impossible or inconvenient to quote a speaker’s exact word, and not vital to do so. In such a case, you may merely give the substance of what he said, and in place of quotation mark, use quote-marks with a hyphen under each like this instead of qualifying the quotation with a clumsy phrase like “or words to that effect”. Such quasi-quotemarks indicate that you will be answerable for the substantial meaning and implications of the quotation, but either do not have the exact wording available, or have rearranged the construction and wording of the original statement to fit conveniently into your sentence structure. Examples: “but, Every intensely active fan I know of is some kind of disgusting character, says Miske.” “He said he had just been too busy.” (In the first example, Miske’s wording was, “I know of no fan who ranks as ‘intensely active’ who is not some sort of disgusting character.” In the second, “have” in the original has been changed to had).

Author Keith Houston agreed they are useful —

They certainly have a neatly unambiguous function that is not already fulfilled by any other mark of punctuation; writers have been paraphrasing quotations since time immemorial, but either they do not trouble to tell their readers or they signpost their words with exculpatory statements such as “in other words”, or “words to that effect”. And unlike some novel marks of punctuation… the quasiquote is not offensively weird to the eye.

As for myself, I was surprised to discover that what had become a secondary use of quasiquotes by the time I encountered them was once their exclusive purpose. By 1970 they had evolved into something besides an “honest summary.”

I first saw them used in LASFS’ Apa-L, where quasiquotes were often presented as a satirical de-coding of a person’s real meaning. A writer used quasiquotes when mockingly putting words in someone else’s mouth that were more candid but less socially acceptable than what he or she had written, usually done in a kidding manner. I’m now wondering if that innovation was unique to LASFS or spread throughout fandom.

As further explanation I’m tempted to compare how quasiquotes were used in Apa-L with the internet’s “Fixed That For You,” however, online sources don’t all agree what that expression means. It’s at moments like this telepathy would be convenient.

Fans Into Pros

In response to a question from an academic, I spent an hour yesterday generating a list of pro writers who began in fanzines.

Within fandom the idea of what is a “pro” can be rather flexible. Very few people become full-time writers. And among friends, anybody who’s sold one sf/fantasy story might claim to be a “pro.” In the Sixties my local sf club, LASFS, held a Fanquet when a member sold his/her first story. That rite of passage transformed the person’s social identity from fan to writer.

I prefer to reserve the word “pro” for those who have repeatedly sold sf/fantasy stories — who have demonstrated a journeyman level of craftsmanship. In that respect I find myself in company with Dr. Gafia (rich brown)

PRO

In fandom, generally it means anyone who has been paid for a published sf story. Although, since it is in fact short for “professional,” it probably should only be applied only to those who have made a significant portion of their living by writing sf.

Surprisingly, there isn’t that great a difference between the minimum fannish definition – anyone who has sold a story – and the minimum professional qualification for a writer to join SFWA as an Active member, which is “Three Paid Sales of prose fiction (such as short stories) to Qualifying Professional Markets” for $250 in aggregate.

Incidentally, I am not including my list of pros-into-fans because I don’t want people who aren’t on it to feel bad. (I’ve made bloggers feel bad enough this week.) Besides, there are only so many Ray Bradburys who belong at the top of this pyramid, and while Mike Resnick has bought a story or two from an awful lot of fans over the years, there is no urgent reason to widen the bottom of the pyramid by adding our names.

Bob Tucker Rides Again

The imminent release of Prometheus prompted Lev Grossman to write about “space opera” for the June 11 issue of Time Magazine (Into The Void, subscription required).

And Grossman remembered to pay homage to fan who coined the term, Bob Tucker —

But the term space opera was originally meant as an insult. It was coined in 1941 by Arthur Wilson “Bob” Tucker, a novelist and influential science-fiction fan who wrote in his fanzine Le Zombie, “Westerns are called ‘horse operas,’ the morning house wife tear-jerkers are called ‘soap operas.’ For the hacky, grinding, outworn space-ship yarn, or world-saving for that  matter, we offer ‘space opera.’”

[Thanks to Chronicles of the Dawn Patrol for the story.]

Fandom’s Most Beloved Typo

Wordnik.com’s “Word of the Day” for May 25 is “filk” —

adj. (adj) About or inspired by science fiction, fantasy, horror, science, and/or subjects of interest to fans of speculative fiction; frequently, being a song whose lyrics have been altered to refer to science fiction; parodying.

The Wordnik post takes its definition from the Wikitionary entry for “filk”.

Unlike most developments in the history of popular culture, how the word “filk” got its start is precisely known. Lee Jacobs typoed the word “folk” in the title of his manuscript “The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music” intended for distribution in a mailing of the Spectator Amateur Press Society in the early 1950s. While I’ve never seen the article and can’t say what the problem was, Wrai Ballard, SAPS’ official editor at the time, feared its bawdy content could get him into trouble with the Post Office under the Comstock Laws and he refused to send it out. Ballard nevertheless enjoyed the typo, as did the others he told about it. “Filk music” rapidly became part of the faannish jargon.

Thanks to Lee Gold, we even know that the first composition to designate itself a filksong was “Barbarous Allen”, lyrics attributed to Poul Anderson, in Karen Kruse Anderson’s SAPSzine Die Zeitschrift für Vollstandigen Unsinn #774 (1953).

[Thanks to Sam Long for the story.]

Happy Birthday “Nerdagassing”

Two years ago, in June 2008, John Scalzi coined the word “Nerdgassing”. All you students of fanspeak will remember the definition:

Nerdgassing: The venting nerds emit when some (often minor) detail of a book/movie/TV show/comic book/etc either conflicts with canon and/or handwaves through some some suspect science.

John declared at the time, “I coin this word in the name of humanity,” a bit of impudent humor that resonated with me, so I wrote a post that put the new word through its paces.

Lately I’ve wondered — did the word catch on? Who uses it?

A Google search returned 1,980 hits, though only 84 in the past year and just 2 in the past month. John himself last used it on Christmas Day 2008.

On the other hand I know the word remains in fannish memories yet green — as I was researching this post it suddenly popped up in a lively exchange of comments on Joseph Mallozzi’s blog, here and here.

So I learned — nerdgassing is still likely to break out at any moment.

Brave Old Words

It’s the time of year when the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s editors tell the world what “new words” have been added since the last edition. (Note: Some of these words appear in the wire service story, but not on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary webpage.)

The editors really like to make sure a “new” word has sticking power before dignifying it with an entry in their pages. Half a century is not too long to test a newcomer. Or even longer.

Consider “new” entry fan fiction, defined as “stories involving popular fictional characters that are written by fans and often posted on the Internet.” It dates back to World War II and has just now been added.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry says “fan fiction” originated in 1944. It doesn’t identify the source of the date, which would be interesting to know because the science fiction field can document even earlier usages. Brave New Words cites an example by Bob Tucker from a 1939 issue of Le Zombie.

However, Tucker used it as an implied contrast with pro fiction, which is not the meaning that’s brought the term into common usage. Brave New Words‘ earliest example of that meaning (stories using popular characters) is from Star Trek Lives! in 1975. I wonder which meaning was intended in the Merriam-Webster staff’s 1944 example?

Another “new” dictionary entry that should resonate with science fiction fans is “flash mob”, dated to 1987 and defined as “a group of people summoned (as by e-mail or text message) to a designated location at a specified time to perform an indicated action before dispersing.” Fans know Larry Niven coined essentially the same term in his 1973 story “Flash Crowd” to describe a side-effect of the worldwide system of teleport booths.

[Thanks to Andrew Porter for the story.]

Up To Your Wiki in Ghu

It’s right here in the Wikipedia, says Richard Johnson. “The word ‘God’ in English is ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European word ‘Ghu’!”

Ghu, of course, is the satirical deity invented by 1930’s science fiction fans.

Read for yourselves the entry for God, and pay particular attention to Note 4:

The ulterior etymology is disputed. Apart from the unlikely hypothesis of adoption from a foreign tongue, the OTeut. “ghuba” implies as its preTeut-type either “*ghodho-m” or “*ghodto-m”. The former does not appear to admit of explanation; but the latter would represent the neut. pple. of a root “gheu-“. There are two Aryan roots of the required form (“*g,heu-” with palatal aspirate) one with meaning ‘to invoke’ (Skr. “hu”) the other ‘to pour, to offer sacrifice’ (Skr “hu”, Gr. ???i;?, OE “geotàn” Yete v).

So that, as clear as is the summer’s sun.

[Thanks to Bjo Trimble for the story.]