The Dance We Do with Readers

My friend Eileen Hosey writes to let me know that she’s keeping a lookout for malaprops in my column—malaprops (or malapropisms), those linguistic flubs where one word is mistakenly used for another. My personal favorite comes from actor Leo Gorcey, who, as Slip Mahoney in the Bowery Boys films of the 1940s, would often speak of his ambition to become a financial typhoon.

Contemporary philosophers of language suggest that the humble malaprop is an example of how all language works. When we hear Slip Mahoney’s malaprop we recognize the literal meaning of the word “typhoon,” and we laugh at Slip’s slip because our comprehension has already reached beyond that literal meaning that word to the context’s required homophone, tycoon.

We understand the meaning of each word not simply from its denotation, the definition the dictionary gives us, but also and just as much from its context. Otherwise we would have no way of understanding the meaning or laughing at the humor of a malaprop.

In discussions of how language works and how to write well, it turns out that the malaprop hits the nail on the nose.

(That’s for you, Eileen.)

The malaprop is a kind of pun—and there are at least four categories of pun catalogued by our ancient rhetoricians, but I speak of only one here. Just like Slip Mahoney’s malaprop, Hamlet laments in his first soliloquy: “Oh that this too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,” the sense of his sentence calls not for “sullied.” “Sullied” means dirtied, but the context calls for “solid”: the flesh is too solid, too substantial, to dissipate in the way that Hamlet seems to wish for. The pun begins one of Shakespeare’s constant themes in the play: that to be solid is to be sullied, to be alive is to be impure.

The point is this: the meaning of a sentence emerges from the meaning of each individual word in the sentence, but the meaning of each individual word is itself determined by the sentence it appears in. We know that in Mahoney’s sentence typhoon doesn’t really mean typhoon. Or rather, we know that typhoon doesn’t only mean typhoon. And we see that Hamlet means “sullied,” but Shakespeare means “solid.” The full meaning of the word emerges only from the context of the sentence as a whole.

This is a pretty basic idea: we understand what a word means not just from the word itself but also from its immediate rhinoceros.

(See?)

Here’s the wonderful thing about all this: language is a finite system capable of producing an infinite variety of sentences. And if the specific meaning of a single word emerges only from its overall context, and the variety of contexts it can be placed in is infinite, then any given word, any word at all, must really contain an infinite number of potential definitions.

The dictionary can really do little more than suggest a hint of a glimmer of a word’s potential.

Running to 20 volumes in its second edition of 1986, the Oxford English Dictionary turns out to be just a memo.

And this is part of my beef with Strunk & White. “Omit needless words” is perfectly good advice, but it doesn’t go far enough. It can’t. No book, not even the 20-volume OED, can begin to elucidate all the possible reasons why a word might be necessary—or unnecessary. And that’s why we have to think for ourselves. There’s no book on earth that can tell us how to determine whether a given word in a given context is necessary or not. To make that determination, we have to call on everything we know from all our interactions and experiences with others of our kind—the ones who will be reading what we write.

As we make judgments about what our words mean and all the possible meanings they can have in their immediate context, we have to also be making judgments about readers’ abilities to comprehend those meanings. The malaprop, the pun, metaphors and similes—we think of these as literary devices germane to poetry and belles-lettres, but they work in the same way that all writing works. In innumerable ways, we make meaning also out of our readers’ expectations and their willingness to comprehend.

This is the dance we do with readers. We make meaning not just out of our words but also and more importantly out of our projecting ourselves into and imposing ourselves onto the reader’s comprehension. If we’re not thinking about how our readers will engage with and accept and wrestle with our words, then we’re not writing. We’re just tossing out words like litter thrown from a speeding car.

We just passed another Bloomsday last week—the celebration of the day immortalized in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, June 16—and Joyce has been on my mind a lot this week, so perhaps it is not inappropriate that we conclude with an observation about the book that is his greatest experiment and his greatest failure.

Joyce wrote three novels: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is pretty good; Ulysses, which is the greatest novel ever written in English, and Finnegans Wake, which is an attempt to create a language in which each word carries as much meaning as possible—a language which is based in English, but goes just as far afield as Joyce’s genius can carry it.

But each word seems to expand as you come upon it, growing in multifarious ways that, finally, impede the reader’s progress through the sentence and through the paragraph and ultimately through the book. Joyce gambled on our willingness to comprehend his meanings. It’s hilarious, and I never dip into it without coming up laughing. It’s a failure because most readers (myself included) have a hard time even finding the plot. But in that gamble Joyce gave us the most glorious literary failure the world has ever seen.

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