Exit Stage Front and Center: Brian Doyle

One of my favorite writers died recently—Brian Doyle: a left-leaning story grabbing unapologetic Roman Catholic and one heck of a mentoring inspiration to students, writers and the readers who loved his work.

Did you notice that there were no commas in that post-colon, descriptive paean? Doyle had a habit of running words together, defying grammar’s guidance with great craft and lyricism, so I copied him per Oscar Wilde’s observation— “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

Doyle thought novels were like long dreams in which you ” take an idea out for a walk and the characters take over and you really run along behind them, typing as fast as you can.” After his first novel, Mink River (was published in 2010, his brother sent him a page full of commas and the note: “You might want to learn to use these.”

If you’ve ever heard Brian speak—and I did at one of the Chuckanut Writers Conferences—you know that a podium could not contain him. He moved across a stage, engaging his audience with relentless charm, boundless energy, and a rare degree of empathy.

He died of what he called a ‘big honking brain tumor,” diagnosed last November. There is more information in the obituaries listed below, but for now, I’d like to leave you with Doyle’s Last Prayer and the suggestion that you go to your local independent bookstore or library and buy Mink River, Ben Laden’s Bald Spot, The Wet Engine, Martin, Marten, or his newest, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: a novel of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Last Prayer by Brian Doyle

Dear Coherent Mercy, Thanks. Best life ever. Personally, I never thought a cool woman would come close to understanding me, let alone understanding me but liking me anyway, but that happened!

And You and I both remember that doctor in Boston saying polite but businesslike that we could not have children but then came three children fast and furious! And no man ever had better friends, and no man ever had a happier childhood and wilder brothers and a sweeter sister, and I was that rare guy who not only loved but liked his parents and loved sitting and drinking tea and listening to them!

And You let me write some books that weren’t half bad, and I got to have a career that actually no kidding helped some kids wake up to their best selves, and no one ever laughed more at the ocean of hilarious things in this world, or gaped more in astonishment at the wealth of miracles everywhere every moment.

I could complain a little right here about the long years of back pain and the occasional awful heartbreak, but Lord, those things were infinitesimal against the slather of gifts You gave mere me, a muddle of a man, so often selfish and small.

But no man was every more grateful for your profligate generosity, and here at the very end, here in my last lines, I close my eyes and weep with joy that I was alive, and blessed beyond measure, and might well be headed back home to the incomprehensible Love from which I came, mewling, many years ago.

But hey, listen can I ask one last favor? If I am sent back for another life, can I meet my lovely bride again? In whatever form? Could we be hawks, or otters maybe? And can we have the same kids again if possible? And if I get one friend again, can I have my buddy Pete? He was a huge guy in this life—make him the biggest otter ever and I’ll know him right away, okay?

Thanks, Boss. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. See You soon. Remember—otters. Otters rule. And so: amen.

Links to Obituaries: http://www.opb.org/artsandlife/article/brian-doyle-oregon-author-dies-at-60/

http://katu.com/news/local/brian-doyle-oregon-author-and-editor-of-portland-magazine-dies

The Only Person I Know Who Owns the OED

A few weeks ago I blogged about the Oxford English Dictionary and I mentioned Ara Taylor as the only person I know who owns the print version of the OED. Is there anyone else out there with sagging shelves containing all twenty volumes?

Ara was prompted to use the OED a few decades ago when she was a student at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point (UW-SP) and took a class from Professor Leon Lewis whom she remembers vividly:

“He looked leonine, with a full mane of long black hair, and he paced like a lion in front of his blackboard. His delivery was rapid fire, like a slightly more focused Robin Williams. He had a dreadful way of keeping our attention. He’d spin around suddenly, point directly at one of us, and spit out ‘You! Present us the etymology of the word “x” by tomorrow.'”

This technique was not well received. Half of the class dropped out. Ara stayed. She described herself as “insulted,” when he commanded her to track down the word tic-tac-toe, but off she went to the library and its copy of the OED. That was the beginning of her obsession (that’s my word, not hers, and meant as a compliment) with the OED which led her to request it for a graduation present.

She’s used the OED throughout her life “in every way possible: as fascinating reading material. I’d open to a random word, which often led me on a hunt for related words. Sometimes for hours.” Also, “to deepen my writing” and to “inspire ideas.” She’s even used volumes to fetch books that were out of reach, give height to a chair, as ballast (she didn’t say for what!), and as a leaf press.

Professor Lewis required students to have an hour-long session with him, which accounted for 25% of their grade. Here’s how Ara described her experience:

“He was sitting at his desk when I entered and abruptly asked, ‘So, how do you like me?’ ‘I don’t,’ I replied. He rose from his desk, extended his hand, and said ‘Thank God! Congratulations!'”

She reflects: “Maybe I was the only student who’d ever been honest, but from that point on we had a wonderful if feisty instructor-student relationship.It wouldn’t be a stretch to say  I loved that man.” Ara got an A in the class.

Lewis retired from UW-SP in 1994 and moved to Whidbey Island. Described in his obituary as a “charismatic teacher” and “an artist in the classroom who used provocative wit and comic improvisations to illuminate his main passions: word and language,” I think he would be pleased that he spurred one student’s life-long interest in words.

 

Disovering Zyxt!

 Because I was three days behind in the A-Z Blog Challenge, my wife suggested—just before I wrote X—that I cover three letters in one blog.

“Do you think there’s a word that has X, Y, and Z in it?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, thinking there must be one. But, nothing was listed in the Scrabble dictionary and my OED search was unsuccessful too. No cigar, no XYZ-word, and no shortcut with respect to my self-imposed deadline.

Today, I returned my library copy of Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED, and purchased a paperback edition. For grins, I turned to the Z’sZyxt leapt out at me. How had I missed it?! I went straight to my online OED. When I typed in Zyxt, what came up was see, v. I dug deep into layers of detailed etymology to finally find zyxt.

Shea notes that “it is the second-person singular indicative present form of the verb “to see” in the Kentish dialect. I went to the Britannica to find out about Kentish—one of four Old English dialects, this one spoken in the southeastern part of England where Canterbury is located.

Shea continues: “Given that in the new online edition it has been stripped of its headword status and moved to the middle of a heap of variant spellings of see, (aha!), it seems unlikely that it will ever return to vogue. I do not think that I will ever use it in conversation…However, it will always be a word I remember fondly, as it is the very last word defined in the Oxford English Dictionary.”

Zyxt is also the last entry in Shea’s book, and it’s the last blog topic in my modest A-Z blog foray, so I am fond of it too.

Yirns, Yahoos and Yorgans

Using this whimsical, multi-colored Y-alphabet letter encouraged me to find whimsical, multi-colored, or at least unusual words. How ’bout these from some of the sources I’ve used in the A-Z blog challenge?

Yirn v. “To whine; to pout, or show petulance by facial grimaces. Pronounced the same as yearn. ‘My husband is an idealist; he’s always yirning for something.'”—The Superior Person’s Book of Words by Peter Bowler

Ylem n. The primordial substance from which all the elements in the universe were supposed by early philosophers to have been formed. Thought by the ancients to have been water, by the moderns to be hydrogen, and by the Chinese to be monosodium glutamate.”—The Superior Person’s Book of Words

Yarwhelp n. the bartailed godwit—Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary by Josefa Heifetz Byrne

Yex n. hiccup—Mrs. Bryne’s Dictionary

Yahoo. n. “There’s a good deal of the yahoo in every gang of adolescents that goes berserk, whatever their color…In Dean Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the Yahoos are a tribe of brutes having human form and embodying all the vices of mankind.”—I Always Look Up the Word Egregious by Maxwell Nurnberg

Yorgan n. a Turkish quilt; yaffle v. to eat and drink, especially noisily and greedily; yava n. an alcoholic drink made from the roots of the Polynesian shrub Piper methysticum—Foyle’s Philavery by Christopher Foyle

Demonstrating that word excavations have a practical application, I will now yaffle a yogurt while seated on a yorgan with nary a yex of satisfaction.

 

X Marks the Spot, J.M. Barrie, The Urban Dictionary, and Xystus

According to the online Urban Dictionary, “X marks the spot” was a symbol pirates used to designate the location of treasure. Then the British Army appropriated the phrase and the X for executions. They marked a piece of paper with a black X and positioned it on the heart of someone sentenced to death. The officer in charge would announce “X marks the spot” and the firing squad would shoot the x.

Bear in mind that, like Wiktionary which uses volunteers, the Urban Dictionary relies on its users to add content. One can vote on a word or phrase by choosing, “Add it,” “Keep out,” or “Can’t decide.”

This edgy database called the Urban Dictionary kinda does and kinda doesn’t take itself seriously as in this March 2017 definition:

“An outlet for word addicts, who can be grouped into six main characters: the rarely creative, the hypocritically cynical, the politically irreverent, the sexually depraved, the religiously racist, and the sarcastically narcissistic. On a lighter note, the Urban Dictionary motivates us not to take life seriously—let’s laugh at our idiocies and idiosyncrasies, not to say, our frailties and fatalities.”

Back to X Marks the Spot. The Oxford English Dictionary, which I never tire of accessing for quotations indicating usage over time, quotes J. M. Barrie’s 1918 line from Echoes of War: “In the rough sketch drawn for to-morrow’s press, ‘Street in which the criminal resided’…you will find Mrs. Dowey’s home therein marked with an X.”

We know Sir James Matthew Barrie not for his short story collections (Echoes of War) or for his theatrical productions (What Every Woman Knows) or for his sentimental novels (The Little Minister), but for Peter Pan, first performed as a play in London in 1904.

The letter “X” (24th in the alphabet) marks the spot, so to speak, where I shorten my blogs because I have three to write in one day to complete the A-Z Blog Challenge. My wife suggested that I write a single blog spotlighting a word that contained X, Y, and Z. Great idea, I thought, certain that I’d run into one in our Scrabble dictionary.

There were no words, other than long scientific ones, that contained all three letters. (Prove me wrong, if you know of one!) The closest I could come was the noun xystus which can also be spelled zystus.

The OED defines Xystus like this: “Among the ancient Greeks, a long covered portico or court used for athletic exercises; among the ancient Romans, an open colonnade, or walk planted with trees, used for recreation and conversation.”

Wrestlers also used Xisti. (Xisti is one of the plurals of zystus): “Zystus was a Place where the Wrestlers exercis’d.”—Phillips New World of Words, 1706.

In 1871, F. W. Farrar wrote in Witness of History, “Philosophers…aired their elegant doubts in the shady xystus.”

I leave this shady xystus, this shadowy blog, for the letter Y.

The Word Detective…Again

Way back on April 5th, I talked about John Simpson’s The Word Detective, a memoir about Simpson’s time as an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. Meanwhile, I found The Word Detective by Evan Morris, published in 2000 by Algonquin, a most charming book, right there on my very own bookshelf.

The Word Detective is a collection of columns from Morris’ newspaper and internet columns. The format is Q and A. I opened the book to page one. Doris A. from Toledo asked about the phrase “run amok.”

I’ve been thinking about that phrase myself. Lately, our pastor’s sermons, always ebullient, as she herself is, have  contained the sentence  “The spirit is running amok.” I think she means that God-driven spirituality is on a fierce upswing in our congregation. Perhaps so, but to my discredit, I visualized some kind of unholy ghost cyclone touching down on the Peterson’s pew to awaken a dozing spouse or swooping up (kindly, of course) the ever cranky Matthews’ toddler.

Evan Morris explains that amok comes from the Malay word amuck—“a state of murderous frenzy.” The story goes that inhabitants of Malaysia were given to bouts of depression and drug use, a combination leading to murderous rampages. “Anyone in the path of the person running amok,” Morris explained, “was likely to be sliced and diced with a particularly nasty native sword known as a kris.” The word was also applied to out-of-control elephants who attacked humans.

Morris observes that the meaning in English has become diluted as the centuries rolled by and has become a metaphor used “to describe someone who was simply out of control in some respect and not necessarily chopping folks up.”

I feel much better now, but smile suppression will not work if I hear anything amok preached from the pulpit.

What I don’t feel better about—and now I’m quite serious—is my tardy discovery of Evan Morris. The Word Detective began 62 years ago as “Words, Wit and Wisdom”by  Evan’s father, William Morris, an editor in chief at both Grosset and Dunlap and American Heritage Dictionary.His column appeared in newspapers all over the country and abroad. After writing for thirty-five years, he announced at the dinner table one Sunday afternoon, that it was time for him to quit—unless one of his six grown children were interested in assuming it.

Evan heard himself say he’d take a shot at it. He did. Eventually, he posted the column online. Hundreds of discussions are archived. He has taken on obscure and common words and phrases—malaprops and mondegreens,  duck soup, kerfuffle, hara kirl, brouhaha, flesh out and flummoxed, Peck’s Bad Boy and the Pied Piper.

But now a great sadness. Unlike his father who chose to discontinue writing his column, Evan Morris is being forced to discontinue writing. He has advanced multiple sclerosis and stage four cancer. His last columns are witty and graceful explanations of his declining health and financial reverses. Take a look a look here at his website, Check out the archives, an amazing compilation of etymological dissections and whimsical digressions.  Contribute to his site. I’m going to.

You might even want to contribute to his cause which can be done through PayPal or by sending a check, small or large, to Evan Morris, P.O. Box 1, Millersport OH 43046.

I’m going to.

V is for a Vigilant Virago

I never know where I’m going to find a compelling word, in this case, a V-word—in, say, the OED,  from one of our 30+ word books, or in some random, unexpected place.

Since I had a hangover bad mood, triggered by yesterday’s two-hour wait for a mudslide-delayed Amtrak train and then, today, a 90-minute wait in a doctor’s office, I thought this self-description might apply. Virago: “a fierce, bad-tempered woman.” (Source: The Superior Person’s Book of Words).

Such an admittance of distemper (rare, I assure you, the distemper, that is) could qualify me as a veracious individual: “Habitually speaking or disposed to speak the truth; observant of the truth; truthful.” (Source: OED.) In  The Superior Person’s…Words, Peter Bowler points out that veracious is pronounced exactly like voracious: “Of greedy disposition.”

Just because I like the mellifluous oddity of English sentences from older times, I present a few illustrative quotations from the OED:

Virago: “And as to the Neutralities, I really think the Russian virago an impertinent Puss for meddling with us.”—William Cowper, 1781

Veracious: “I am a most veracious person, and Totally unacquainted with untruth.”— Percy B. Shelley, 1822

Voracious: “I had seen him about a year before…and had noted well the unlovely voracious look of him.”—Thomas Carlyle, 1850

V, I vouchsafe, is the beginning letter of negative descriptors on the glass-half-full spectrum of attitude and behavior: Vapulation; flogging; Vecordy: mad, obsessive;  vellicate: to twitch or cause to twitch: Varlet: Low, menial scoundrel; Venefical:  associated with malignant sorcery or witchcraft.

I was glad to find a v-word of a positive nature, Vigilant,  in one of those random, unexpected places, a museum bathroom. The Vigilant was a five-masted schooner that won a Hawaii-to-Bellingham race in 1930. Hence, its picture hangs in one of the less prominent, but much-used rooms, of the Old City Hall Museum on Prospect Street in Bellingham, Washington.

I will be vigilant—that is,”wakeful and watchful; keeping steadily on the alert; attentively or closely observant” (OED)”— with respect to language.  I hope never to describe myself as a vigilant virago.