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.”

15 thoughts on “Rex Stout on Language

  1. _Death of a Dude_ is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe books, largely because of the setting–I have family in Montana. John, did you see the A&E Nero Wolfe series? I thought they did a great job.

  2. Maybe it is because I’m not a native speaker of English but I don’t undestand what the [AG] means…

  3. I think you meant Rex was born in 1886, not 1866. Rex Stout and Jack Vance are my heroes of language and it’s usage.

  4. my heroes of language and it’s usage.

    I hope that the apostrophe in “it’s” was intended ironically.

  5. @Abraham: Archie Goodwin is initialling every place where he replaced what the guy really said with a word that wouldn’t make the postal inspectors refuse the book from the mail (as was US law at that time).

  6. Just replace all the [AG] with “Horsefeathers!” and it’s fine.

    The [AG] notes aren’t actually replacing words. They’re notes that the previous word was replaced by something printable.


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

    doesn’t mean:

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

    but rather:

    “It was me that said the fucking shitheel might marry her, and that shows what a shit-for-brains dumbfuck I was.”

    Or words to that effect.

  7. Death of a Dude is on my nightstand (along with my favorite, Death of a Doxy). Thankfully, I married into a nearly complete Nero Wolfe collection.

  8. I never could believe that the situation in “Death of A Dude” would rile Wolfe up enough so that he’d actually schlep himself all the way to Montana, but that book does have its nice moments.

  9. I think “Death of a Dude” is one of a handful of Nero Wolfe adventures I’ve not read; must rectify! And I agree, I quite enjoyed the A&E Nero Wolfe Mysteries series, sadly only two seasons, done by a repertory company headed by Timothy Hutton & Maury Chaykin; Hutton also was one of the producers and sometimes directed episodes. There’s a pretty extensive article on Wikipedia.

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