or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, May 19, 2006

Not Quite

Today we have a couple of perfectly usual adjectives in slightly unusual contexts.

From a tongue-in-cheek Slate article about a recent movie on DVD:

Within the space of a few generations, this sad state of affairs will ineluctably result in the replacement of men by a race of pale, limpid eunuchs.

Now, I can't be sure that "limpid" is completely wrong, not at all what the writer meant to say, but in this context it's an unusual choice. "Limpid" means "clear: transparent", either in a literal sense--the adjective's usual target is a brook or other small body of water--or the metaphorical sense of a piece of writing. The prefacing adjective "pale" suggests that "limpid" might have been intended, but it seems pretty obvious, in the context of the sentence, that a much better choice would have been "limp", which is an appropriate word for a eunuch (although, yes, I know that some eunuchs could actually have erections--see "Myths" on this page.)

Somewhat more defensible is this sentence from a Consumerist article:

What is this fell odor wafting out our Garnier shampoo bottle?

Now, "foul" is by far the more common adjective for an unpleasant odour. I had to really stare at the sentence to convince myself that "fell" might well have been what the writer intended, and I'm not sure I succeeded. "Fell" is a pretty strong word: it means "monstrously cruel" when referring to people and "lethal" or "sinister" when describing things or events. I'm not saying "fell" is impossible, or even wrong, in that sentence: it just seems a bit much. But what writer hasn't been known to dabble in comic exaggeration for effect?

The adjective "fell", by the way, is related to "felon", originally "an evil person", now merely "a criminal".

The word "fell" invariably makes me think of the following story:

Tradition has it that Brown, while a student at Christ Church, got into some sort of trouble and was taken to the dean, Dr John Fell. Brown was set to be sent down from Oxford, but Dr. Fell decided to waive the expulsion if Brown could translate, extempore, a Martial epigram:

Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare;
Hoc tantum posso dicere, non amo te.

Legend has it that Brown spontaneously delivered the following translation:

I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well:
I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.

English majors just love anecdotes like this, about, or related by, writers. One of these days I'll tell you about Queen Elizabeth and the farting courtier, courtesy of John Aubrey and his "Brief Lives".


Post a Comment

<< Home