or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I have been listening to audiobooks recently, and I have come to the realization that "author" is not synonymous with "voice actor". I understand that a writer might think he or she is the best candidate for the job, since who knows the work better? But committing a book to audio isn't just a matter of reading what's on the page: it requires treating the words as a kind of script, making notations as to what is particularly important, what is linked to what else, what might be tricky to enunciate--in short, drawing a road map through the text.

Malcolm Gladwell's "What the Dog Saw" is fascinating stuff, but he honestly ought not to have been permitted to record his own work, because one would almost think he had never read it before: he phrases things in a bizarre manner, taking pauses between words as if he were inserting invisible and unnecessary commas, stressing some words that shouldn't be stressed while swallowing others that should be emphasized, and overall making the work a bit of a trial to sit through. If it hadn't been so engrossing, I would have given up long before the last chapter.

Some writers, though, were born to it (or studied and worked at it, which is even better). Simon Winchester's "A Crack in the Edge of the World", about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, is on the surface of it a dry bit of work: halfway through the thing, and he hasn't even gotten to the earthquake itself, instead setting it all up with long, sometimes densely worded divagations on plate tectonics, the history of the American west, and the formation of the Earth itself. But he is a tremendously skilled reader, and the audiobook never flags even for a minute.

One of the words Winchester uses, in a passage about the Colorado River, is "debouched", which I think I had never heard before, and isn't it a beauty? Rudimentary knowledge of French will immediately tell you that it is derived from "bouche", "mouth", and clearly refers to the emptying of a river into a larger body of water.

This, interestingly, is not quite how the French use the word: instead of the sense of something pouring out of a mouth (of a river, in this case), there is the sense of unblocking, clearing, or uncorking--the removal of something from a mouth to permit an outflowing, rather than the outflow itself.

"Debouch" inevitably calls to mind the word "debauch" (or probably the better-known "debauchery"), even though obviously the words could have nothing to do with one another: "debauch" means "to seduce into sensual pleasures: to destroy the moral purity of." In fact, nobody is absolutely sure where "debauch" comes from: in what looks very much like a confected etymology, it began life meaning "to entice away from duty", being related to "balk", which once meant a sort of beam, the idea being that a debauchee would be lured from the carpentry workshop with promises of sin.


Blogger andrewctenor said...

I actually believe that derivation—after all, "embaucher" is the French for "to hire."

Friday, May 06, 2011 10:13:00 AM  

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