Words That Come into Leaf

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Is old hat old hat?

A valid question. Old hat is an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is used to indicate that something is old-fashioned, outdated, hackneyed. But has the entry itself become outdated and hackneyed?

You could ask similar questions of other words: has calling something boring become boring, or is talking about clichés now a clichéd activity for a writing blog?

Let me dwell on that last one because, like any writing blog embarking on the topic, I am enticed by the thought that I’ll be able to offer my readers an offbeat experience.

Clichés are the bane of the creative writing (cottage) industry. All aspiring authors realise fairly soon that the phrases first to mind are the phrases first to everyone’s mind. They’re uninteresting in their banality. And to be read, a writer needs to either say something different (in a world where most things have already been said), or say the same things differently (which requires extirpating clichés).

Reaching for unusual words—like extirpate—and combining them with usual words—like cliché—is a common method of seeking out original expression. The problem resurfaces, however, when it becomes apparent that thesauruses are not shortcuts to a rich vocabulary, and that a rich vocabulary in itself is not a shortcut to an ear for elegant phrases (and the discipline to apply said ear consistently). My example works as an eye-stabber, or a comedic hyperbola designed to make a point, but usually an author of fiction isn’t keen to draw attention to word combinations.

(The exceptions are modern meta-fiction or genres dependent on wordplay. For example, Joe Orton’s Loot is a black comedy, so it relies on witty cliché-breaking elements, like the one I marked in bold:

TRUSCOTT. Have you never hear of Truscott? The man who tracked down the limbless girl killer? Or was that sensation before your time?

HAL. Who would kill a limbless girl?

TRUSCOTT. She was the killer.

The darker the humour, the harder it’s weirdness strikes.)

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And so, in the beginning at least, extirpating clichés involves an arduous hide-seek-and-destroy game. They hide in your prose; you seek them out, then destroy them by applying dubious shortcuts or strenuous feats of innovative thinking. What if there were another way? What if clichés could be regenerated, refurbished, reanimated—wholesale—injected with new life that makes them fresh for everyone? What if this could be done over and over again, whenever necessary?

Paul Willems (1912–1997) was a Belgian novelist and playwright. In his explorations of magical realism, mirrors, and wordplay he found an imaginative (pataphysical) solution to the linguistic regeneration problem. In the following excerpt the narrator is being told of a Horse-riding people called the Schwu and how they deal with well-worn words. Concretely, with the word horse.

When a word in the Schwu tongue shows signs of wear, they carve it into this marble they raise on the plain, beneath the sky, in the wind. Men passing by give the word life again, recharge it with meaning. In this way, their language stays strong.

We have forests, but among the Schwus, it is words that come into leaf. I have seen it. A rider stops, reads the signifier graven on the stele, pronounces it loudly, slowly, solemnly:

‘Horse!’

Then he collects himself, gathers his strength, and flings out:

‘Horse! I give you the gallop in my soul!’

And in this way, each man gives words a bit of his strength, like watering a tree.

(From In the Horse’s Eye; translated by Edward Gauvin.)

Something like this already happens on a global scale when a new generation appropriates a word, setting it agallop in a different direction, until it again becomes mundane (think: cute, matrix, gay, sick, tool). On the other hand, Willems offers a literal, atavistic mechanism for reviving the old hat by flinging at it one’s own soul and strength. Come to think of it: that’s precisely what every author does when playing the extirpating game.

After all, I appear to have said nothing new. I can but hope that you thought Willems said it in a new way.

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Still only a leaf, though seen in a new way

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

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