December 20, 2015

Looking into a Magic Mirror: On My Unusual Words and Phrases


Josh CookCopy editing isn’t just catching typos and mistakes (though it certainly involves quite a bit of that) but also unifying stylistic choices like when numbers are spelled out or how place names are presented or dialog is punctuated. It’s strange to say it, but it takes a second mind (at least) to ensure that a book reads like it was written by a single mind. This requires getting to know the author’s mind enough to distinguish between mistakes and idiosyncrasies. Part of that process, at least in the copy editing of my book, was the creation of a list of “unusual words and phrases.”

The list of unusual words and phrases is a magic mirror. It is a reflection of me, through a selective reflecting, revealing my work from a very specific perspective. And I find it fucking delightful. I mean, from a copy editor’s perspective what is “unusual?” Some of mine aren’t surprising. I researched slang from various subcultures and I don’t imagine the hyper-specific knitting terms or archaic circus equipment find a lot of use in, well, books that aren’t about knitting or the circus. But then there are others that, to me, seem like they should find common use, even under whatever strict and absolute terms copy-editors use to decide commonality, like “accoutrement,” “douchebag,” and “resumé.”

It makes me wonder if there is some way to collect and analyze these lists from other authors. What trends would be revealed? If we could do this over time, how would certain words move in and out of unusualness? How would the differences between these lists reflect the differences between the authors? In theory, we’d be able to find the book with the most “unusual words.” What would that list say about the book? Would it say anything about the book? And, as a fan of Oulipo experiments, what kind of work could be created from such a list? What would happen if we tried to recreate a book from its list of unusual words? What would you write from my list?

This list is also like a photo album. Every word is a moment so the list is a series of snapshots of a major part of my life. As pictures of a vacation, these words don’t tell the whole story of the experience, but I see them and remember. I remember where they occur in the book and how I came to choose “dad-stache” instead of “mustache,” for example. So here are some of my favorite snapshots from this slide-show of my novel.

Favorite Word I Assumed Was Usual: Whiskey

I feel, as a member of the writing and literary community, we have made some very poor life and art decisions if “whiskey” is technically an unusual word.

Favorite Verbing: Jabberwocked

I know, I know, “verbing weirds language,” but I like weird language and I like that language moves and shifts and I like that sometimes you can create an act by creating the verb for it.

Favorite Technically Grammatically Correct Word: Playtpodes

One of the two accepted plural forms of “platypus.”

Favorite Inside Joke with College Friends Who Probably Don’t Even Remember It: Thalassacreteo!

Well, obviously if I explain it here, it wouldn’t be an inside joke anymore.

Favorite Use of a Hyphen: brain-sploding

The runner up, obviously, since this is a literary detective story we’re talking about, is “dick-punching.”

Favorite Term Drawn from Mythology: Yggdrasil

It is the tree of life from Norse mythology and easily one of the greatest words ever. Obviously, I used it in relation to infamous hockey enforcer Marty McSorely

Favorite Portmanteau: Duplinicate

As a reader, I am fascinated by words I don’t know, that I have to look up or figure out from the context, whether they be untranslated foreign words, terms, or phrases; technical terms; portmanteaus or neologisms; or just words I don’t know. It is an interaction with potential meaning of course, but it is also an interaction with the endlessness of words. Which, to me, is another way of saying the endlessness of humanity. As individual readers and writers, no matter what happens in your life, what you think, what you feel, there will always be a word for you, whether it exists or needs to be created, and so everything that can happen to us can be shared. I think that act of sharing through words is a fundamental act of being human and I’m proud to participate in that sharing in my own small way.

Writers live in their words and words can be a pretty damn strange place to live. So much of our time is spent there alone that we can develop curious rituals, untranslatable languages, and bizarre mythologies. The environment of our words can become like a hoarder’s apartment, stacked and cluttered and crammed with the detritus of our existence to point where we can no longer move around. The process of publishing lets other people into that weird apartment of our words, so they can mess with our stuff and tell us to put on pants, and though that can be painful, it is important to maintaining enough of a connection with the world outside our skulls that we can actually communicate with it. Though ultimate responsibility for our words rests with us alone, and though I, and many others I imagine, see creative value in those chaotic and crowded apartments of our words, it is vital, every now and then, for some one to tell us that “thunked-out” is an unusual phrase.




Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. His first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, was published by Melville House in March 2015.