Word-Twisting Versus Nonsense (1887)

NOTHING is more characteristic of the humorists of the age in contrast with those of previous generations, than their employment of purely mechanical processes to secure a grotesque result; and just as in the decorative arts a similar change has been accompanied with a deterioration in the quality of the product (at any rate, in all highly individual work, such as that of India, China, and Japan), so we cannot help thinking that the spread of this mechanical fun is a sign of decadence. Let us illustrate our meaning. Unless we are greatly mistaken, the modern punster by no means considers that it is necessary for the obvious and the suggested sense to be both appropriate to the context. His strokes of wit depend largely upon a conscious watching for phonetic resem-blances, a shuffling of words, syllables, and initials until the desired result is attained. Much so-called wit of the present day is nothing more than the systematic torture of words. If in their natural form they will not satisfy the sense of the grotesque, they must be twisted and dislocated, or the shades of Mrs. Malaprop and Mrs. Ramsbotham must be invoked to wring laughter from “alien jaws.” “As a word-torturer, he is unequalled,” so, evidently meaning to express high praise, remarked a writer the other day of Mr. Burnand, the most characteristic representative of this method. We do not wish to speak slightingly of Mr. Burnand’s powers, which are very remarkable, and in the domain of legitimate parody have (380) often been exerted with signal success; but we cannot help thinking him largely responsible for much that is idiotic and insufferable in modern strivings after fun, by having set an example so easily imitable in its vices. In Mr. Burnand’s own hands, the process yields at times very ludicrous results. For example, he is credited with explaining a poet friend’s choice of a mince-pie to lunch off by saying that “he evidently was getting him-inspiration.” But such a pun, excruciatingly good in itself, nevertheless suggests the dangers of such a method when ridden to death by inferior imitators. Employed consciously at first, it becomes almost automatic in the case of some confirmed jokers, — verbal contortionists, whose conversation is as fatiguing to listen to as the dislocations of a mountebank to watch. A very favorite device with such performers is the transposition of initials. They invite you to “poke a smipe,” or tell you that it is “roaring with pain.” Such habitual toying with words, as we have already hinted, tends to become mechanical, and just as a stutter has been known to be acquired by constant imitation, so it is open to conjecture that the undesirable habit of saying the wrong word — which, if not on the increase, is so curiously noticeable at the present day — may have been largely assisted by the practice we have described above. We are not speaking of the actual complaint known to medical men as aphasia, in which the brain and tongue refuse to work in perfect accord, with a result that would be laughable were it not painful. And then, short of aphasia, there is that mental haziness which has its outcome in malapropism more or less pronounced. Thus, we have heard recently of a hospital nurse who spoke of the victim of a terrible accident as being “methylated beyond all resignation” [mutilated beyond all recognition], and who alluded to a person of arbitrary and imperious behavior as “a regular tyradical.” So, too, we know of a lady who accounted for the sudden arrival of her son from Cambridge by explaining that he “had ridden all the way on his encyclopedia,” which was approaching perilously near to aphasia. The mere addition of an extra syllable will sometimes produce an amazing result, as in the case of “Immanuel labor,” where nothing was further from the mind of the speaker than any profanity. Lastly, to end this digression upon malaprops, we hope to be forgiven by the fair author of a passing allusion to “the Roman Irene” (i.e.; arena), for recording a confusion too exquisite to be consigned to oblivion.

The foregoing examples, however, illustrate a mental habit which had existed for centuries until Sheridan immortalized it in the person of Mrs. Malaprop, a character which there are good grounds for supposing him to have drawn from the life. What we are more nearly concerned with at present is a species of dislocation or entanglement, which takes various forms, but finds its fullest development in the portmanteau system, as formulated by Lewis Carroll in his preface to “Alice through the Looking-Glass.” The writer of the present article had the privilege of working as a boy under an eminent headmaster who, if at all flurried, used to trans-pose his words freely. “My dear boy,” he once asked of a Philistine member of his sixth form, “do you mean to say that you have never heard of that magnificent statue of Michael Angelo, by Moses?” Clergymen seem especially addicted to this habit, perhaps because their excessive anxiety to be correct renders them nervous, and to those of their congregation who are gifted, fortunately or unfortunately, with a keen sense of the ridiculous, such slips are excessively trying from the impropriety of openly testifying appreciation. “Sorrow may endure for a joy,” so an Irish clergyman is reported to have read with the utmost feeling; “but night cometh in the morning!” With the transposition of initial letters, a new field of solecism is opened up, in which a living cleric, in other respects intelligent and accomplished, works with an involuntary assiduity that is most upsetting to his hearers. “My brethren,” so ran one of his most startling announcements, “we all know what it is to have a half-warmed fish [i.e., half-formed wish] in our hearts.” With him, however, the mischief goes further, extending to the mutual entanglement of words which is terrible to contemplate. He has been known to speak of “kinquering congs,” and on one occa-sion, ever memorable to his interlocutor, addressing himself to a gentleman who had intruded upon his seat in church, he politely remarked, “Pardon me, sir, but I think you are occupewing my pie.” Here we are next door to the carrying out of the portmanteau principle, a proximity illustrated by the feats of two other clergymen, one of whom gave out his text from “the Colostle to the Epissians,” while the other read “knee of an idol,” for “eye of a needle.” The rector of an Irish country parish, whose church the (381) writer has frequently attended, was also liable, out of nervousness, to contort and entangle his words in strange fashion. Thus, we have heard him speak of the “imperfurities” of man, when it was quite obvious that he could not make up his mind between “imperfection” and “impurities,” and ended by amalgamating the two words into one. Here we have arrived at the portmanteau system pure and simple, and it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that an immense literary impulse has been given to the practice by the writers who not only have illustrated it, but in one case already mentioned, formulated its principles in the clearest way. In an age where so much has to be crammed into a brief compass, no doubt much might be said on the ground of economy in favor of the extension of this “oral” shorthand, a “brachylogy” of which the grammarians never dreamed. It might be hard to fix the precise date at which portmanteau words were first used, or to decide to whom belongs the credit of having invented them. We are inclined to think that the laureate of all nonsense poets — Edward Lear — was the initiator of the practice. “Scroobious” and “borascible” certainly are to be found in his first book of rhymes, and in the third, when the influence of Lewis Carroll had doubtless begun to react upon him, we discover an allusion to the “torrible zone” which is one of the most beautiful of portmantologisms. In calling Mr. Lear the laureate of nonsense writers, we have not scrupled to place him above Lewis Carroll, which will doubtless seem rank heresy to many of the admirers of that delightful writer. Our reason for so doing is that no nonsense is so absolutely devoid of arriè pensée as that of Mr. Lear, none so refreshingly destitute of sense or probability. Our favorite piece is the “History of the Four Little Chidren who went Round the World,” a wonderful effort of sustained and imaginative absurdity. It does not lend itself well to quotation, for the illustrations are exceedingly comic. But two extracts will serve to defend our position: “After a time they saw some land at a distance; and when they came to it, they found it was an island made of water quite surrounded by earth. Besides that, it was bordered by evanescent isthmuses with a great gulf stream running about all over it, so that it was perfectly beautiful, and contained only a single tree, five hundred and three feet high.” Our next quotation shall be from the passage describing the children’s adventures in the land of the Happy Blue-Bottle-Flies: “At this time an elderly Fly said it was the hour for the Evening-song to be sung; and on a signal being given, all the Blue-Bottle-Flies began to buzz at once in a sumptuous and sonorous manner, the melodious and mucilaginous sounds echoing all over the waters, and resounding across the tumultuous tops of the transitory Titmice upon the intervening and verdant mountains, with a serene and sickly suavity only known to the truly virtuous. The moon was shining slobaciously from the star-besprinkled sky, while her light irrigated the smooth and shiny sides and wings and backs of the Blue-Bottle-Flies with a peculiar and trivial splendor, while all nature cheerfully responded to the cerulean and conspicuous circumstances.” “What dreadful stuff!” some will exclaim. What delightful and unadulterated nonsense, we prefer to call it, free from all far-fetched equivoque, and needing for its comprehension no intimate acquaintance with the latest “gag” of the music halls. If Mr. Lear twists words into fanciful and grotesque forms, it is with no malice prepense, with no ulterior motive. There is hardly such a thing as a pun from beginning to end of his books. Since some of his critics had shown a disposition to attach a symbolical meaning to his rhymes, he published in the preface to his third book a vehement disclaimer. “Nonsense pure and absolute has been my aim throughout.” And it is just for this reason that we are inclined to attach such a high value to his contributions to the recreative literature of the day.

“Word-Twisting versus Nonsense”, Littel’s Living Age, Fifth Series, vol. LVIII (CLXXIII), April-May-June 1887, pp. 379-81. Reprinted from The Spectator. Page images available at Cornell University Making of America: here.

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