Saturday, April 10, 2010

I is for Ignominy

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition) definition of the noun ignominy:

1. Deep personal humiliation and disgrace.
2. Disgraceful or dishonorable conduct, quality, or action

And then there's the adjective: ignominious

1. Marked with or characterized by disgrace or shame -- dishonorable
2. Deserving of shame or infamy -- despicable
3. Humiliating, degrading (suffering an ignominious defeat)

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Here's a quote from the self-editing handout I use for classes and workshops:

"Habit words. That’s what I call them. Some editors lump them into the repetitive word category. Others include them in articles about adjectives and adverbs. I’ve dubbed them habit words because they flow into our writing in the same way they clutter up our speech. The little devils were probably hard-wired into our brains when we were born.

Knowing that, let’s accept the truth. Our early drafts will be littered with these throwaways. Our brains (and our keyboards) think the words belong. We might not see them, no matter how many times we go through our manuscripts. Knowing that, how do we identify them, and how do we eliminate them?"


And here are my notes about the most common habit words:

"Since many of us have the same habit words, here are those I find most often in my own work and in the manuscripts I critique: just, really, pretty, some, actually, so, well, back, up, oh, off, somehow, like, very, many, that, finally, real, rather, anyway."

Then there are the words unique to each of us, as when a fantasy writer gets the word "slashed" in his head and uses it over and over in battle scenes. Or an author writing vampire romance who can't let go of the word "fangs." Or the writer whose characters "shrug" on every page.

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As I mentioned yesterday, I'm rereading The Scarlet Letter by National Hawthorne. Nate had a couple of habit words of his own.

Ignominy
Ignominious

It's the kind of word you don't really notice the first time, maybe not the second. The third time is a red flag. After that, each use of a habit word takes me out of the story for a few seconds while I wonder why the author persisted in its use. Sure, the words fit the story and the times, but it's the kind of word that a reader notices.

The only explanation I can produce in defense of Hawthorne is the possibility the words were in common usage by the Puritans and no more cause for attention than pillory or scaffold.

I'm obviously picking away at a classic novel of great worth to have a little fun, but it's getting so hard to read any book without reading as an editor or writer, looking for the things that just wouldn't work in a contemporary mainstream or genre manuscript. The three things that jumped out as me as I read:

1. Of course, ignominy and ignominious -- the two "habit words" that distracted me. My critique group would find all of them with a little "Word Search" in Word's "Track Changes" and we'd be fixing that right now.

2. Long, long, long passages of narrative with long paragraphs. Great dialogue is there, but there's not nearly enough for the modern novel (unless, perhaps, it's literary). It's not that long narrative is wrong, it's just that you'll lose the modern reader.

3. I'm having a little trouble with point of view in The Scarlet Letter, and I need to read more carefully to figure out what's bothering me. If I focus on that, perhaps I'll have a decent writing-related post on Point of View as my "P" post in Arlee Bird's A to Z Blog Challenge.

Now that I have ignominy and ignominious stuck in my brain, I may have to start using it in all my manuscripts. Just once per novel, though.

If you've hung around this long, you must be interested enough to use one of the two "i" words in a sentence in your comment. Heh heh!

And if you're a classical purist who wishes to tell me off for making light of Nate and The Scarlet Letter, I invite you to leave your words of wisdom in the comment section.

10 comments:

Jemi Fraser said...

Too bad Hawthorne didn't have Wordle to help him! That's one of my favourite tools!

Kay said...

Keep working hard to mention every letter in the alphabet.

Sorry, I can't offer any comments on "The Scarlet Letter". I read it too long ago and barely remember more than the broadest outlines.

Ann Elle Altman said...

Wow, if those were his habit words, what is the rest of his vocabulary like. I just habit words, especially when blogging. 'great' 'brilliant' and I find it annoying. Love these alphabet posts.

ann

Amy Tate said...

Great post. I've got a question for you. Do you have a favorite dictionary? Mine is so out-dated and I need a new one.

Patricia Stoltey said...

At least I now know what ignominy means...

I answered Amy's question about dictionaries via e-mail, but I'll pass on to everyone that someday I hope to own one of those monster dictionaries that comes with its own stand. And also a big world globe. Maybe if I win a little Lotto jackpot...

Paula Reed said...

I had to laugh when I read this. When I teach The Scarlet Letter in my English class, I tell kids my secretly fond and wildly optimistic hope is that they'll use the word ignominy spontaneously one day. When I wrote HESTER, I had a moral obligation to use the word, though not nearly as often.

To Hawthorne's credit, the kids say, "'Imbibe,' 'quaff,' 'draught'--didn't the the guy ever just say 'drink'?"

Just a heads-up, I'll be talking about HESTER on "Colorado Matters" on Colorado Public Radio Monday!

Paula Reed said...

Um...talk about using a word too often. The kids say "the guy," not "the the guy." Sheesh!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks for stopping by, Paula. I was hoping you would, since I know you love teaching "The Scarlet Letter." To be totally honest, I'm enjoying the read -- I may have to revisit a few other classics I haven't read since high school.

5 Kids With Disabilities said...

You have taught me that I really need to expand my vocabulary. One word I use often is facetious. That is my polite way of saying sarcastic, of course. What I do has to be in a fun, positive manner, not the in the sarcastic manner of a negative person!
Lindsey Petersern

SonshineMusic i.e. Rebecca T. said...

Oh those overused words. I'm going to have to find a way to work ignominious into a conversation soon. I love doing that with big words!

My favorite professor loved the word "penultimate" and I created a way to use it in my senior thesis just for him :)