Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Wit or meaning?

Words can creep up on you, carry you off. Lucy recently had visitors and admitted her batteries needed recharging. But ended her post with: “Lovely to see them, withal.” No prizes for guessing the abductive word. The dictionary stigmatises it as archaic and offers two meanings: besides and nevertheless - quite a close two-horse race. My untutored view is it works because the sentence is short and the effect comes at the end, like a mini whip-crack. I’d like to use it myself but I’ll have to wait. Currently I’m overshadowed.

Just recently I’ve been road-testing forsooth. This is doubly stigmatised as archaic and/or humorous. It means indeed but like that word it can be used sarcastically. Parvenu: We’ve just exchanged our Peugeot for a Bentley. Clever-Clogs (or if you like, Journalist): A Bentley, forsooth! Normally I’m proscriptive but the screamer is, I think, justified. I file posts like this under Anti-over-the-moon Substitutes.

WELCOME TO THE CHRISTENING I’ve been discussing the novel’s title with Plutarch. It started out as Con-Rod but that was dropped because it excluded the joint main character. Changing Gear brought in that character via a jeu de mots link but was a little too obvious for my allusive taste. Plutarch frowned on my third attempt, Working Stiffs, and talked about corpses. It’s American and means working class. It’s been scratched subsequently but the text will carry an allusion to the phrase at the very beginning and right at the end.

The subject is relevant given the popularity of Wolf Hall, a title which is almost meaningless to the subject matter. But does that matter? Wolf Hall is short and fairly memorable and that may be enough. Plutarch thinks Working Stiffs might put people off. But it is memorable. Well Employed would work but has it got pizzaz?

8 comments:

The Crow said...

Someone once told me that if I could summarize my story in 25 or 30 words, my title would be in that summary.

Well Employed sounds a bit stiff to me, but, then again, I haven't read the whole story and that title could be perfect.

Good luck naming the baby, BB.

christopher said...

What a fine example of English wit! "Forsooth" Sooth is truth as forseen, thereby having an anticipation and a tinge of the visible future...as in the usage "soothsayer". "Indeed" looks like "as written in the black print in a legal document and thus definitely established by law or custom". Shakespeare's Porter says, "Here's a knocking indeed!" - a knocking that cannot be denied.

I love this stuff but it is insufferable to so many.

christopher said...

Now I've read to the end and found another delight..."working stiffs" which in my halo of connotative satellites gathers visions of the Depression years and migrating labor so not only the working class but those in it who are often forced to uproot in order to stay alive, going where the work is if they can find it.

But you surprised me. Of course "working stiffs" is American but like a fish in the ocean, I had never thought of the phrase as part of the bonnet/hood divide and you pointing it out from the British position gave me a double take.

One delight for me here in the blogs is when you and Lucy turn British phrases and I get to guess what you mean.

Barrett Bonden said...

The Crow: That's only one way of dreaming up a title. It may be an ironic comment (eg, Farewell My Lovely), it may turn facts into abstractions (eg, Pride and Prejudice), it may be just one of the characters (eg, Moby Dick), it may be purely joky (eg, A Work of Staggering Genius), it may be a quote from the classics (eg, Exits and Entrances), etc, etc.

I agree that it would be hard for you to come up with a title but suppose you half-knew what the subject matter was (in this case the problems of finding work during the Thatcher era in GB) and you were faced with Well Employed. Might you pick the book from the shelf and flick through? In fact coming entirely uninformed to a book is rarer than you might think. You may know the author, you may have read other books by him/her, you may have half-read a review, somebody may have mentioned something in passing. Some authors believe a title can sell the book, others that it's just a label and only needs to be memorable. Imagine not knowing anything about Joseph Heller or about his works (pretty unlikely) and trying to come up with a reaction to Catch-22. Another example of how not to do it is Gone With the Wind: four humdrum words, doesn't summarise the story, open to scatological interpretation.

However, starting out with an empty screen seems to change all the rules.

Christopher: Yes I like it too but, like Marmite, a little of it can go a long way.

Phrases and words start out with a hard specific meaning and this gets blurred (often creatively) over the years. (Though this doesn't mean I'm a Sarah Palin fan)I'm sure your Depression resonance is true for Working Stiffs but by the time I came upon it it was less specific. Here's how I'm using it in the first reference in the novel. Hatch the joint main character, is a soon-to-be-out-of-work production engineer; Tom is a solicitor (let's say attorney); Pichon Longueville is a highly regarded claret:

Hatch laughed harshly. “Pichon Longueville talking, Tom. Your view of manufacturing is a teensy bit suspect whereas I’m rather in love with that American phrase: a working stiff. I like the self-deprecation, the honesty. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be – a working stiff. etc, etc.

Interepreting the BB/Lucy/Plutarch exchanges. I can't remember your geography but I may have the advantage over you, having spent six years working at either end of Penssylvania. I think I was reasonably well-read about American life but the two great discoveries were (and I hope I can say this without being patronising or politically incorrect): the conciseness and sharp humour of working-class speech, and the self-evident and valuable contribution to all forms of humour by Jews. And I mean Jews open about being Jewish, unlike their British counterparts who usually preferred to hide this factor.

The Crow said...

BB, I think Hatch has written your title, even though Plutarch doesn't like the plural form (which might suggest a bit of necrophilia): A Working Stiff.

That fits with how he likes to see himself, and fits a more evolved interpretation of the Depression Era expression. (Besides, I already have a heavy crush on Hatch, so anything he says is gold to me.)

Thank you for this, which I see as a worthwhile attribute: "...the conciseness and sharp humour of working-class speech..." Sometimes it is such humor that gets us through the week.

Barrett Bonden said...

The Crow: I'm delighted about your affection for Hatch but Con-Rod/Changing Gear/Working Stiffs is, for most of its length, a story about two people quite separate. I'm not sure it would be fair to Clare (whom I adore with a passion equal to yours for Hatch) to turn the title into a singleton. Melville did it but the whale was bigger than Ahab and - surely the point of any American story - the whale won.

Julia said...

So hard to suggest without reading it all the way through (hint hint ;-).

I do like a title like Wolf Hall, leading you to a place you never quite get to, keeping readers guessing all the way through.

Barrett Bonden said...

Julia: I realise this. But I'm trying to get reactions to various titles from people with a minimal knowledge of the plot. As one might after reading a brief review in Saturday Review. Does that still exist? Used to read it back in my Pittsburgh days.