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Thursday, January 12, 2023

A Bunny Trail to a Treasure

"Bunny Trail or Rabbit Trail" is an American idiom meaning (among other things) to go off on a tangent while trying to make a point, never or belatedly to arrive at the goal of the speech or conversation. Rabbits don't travel in straight lines; the etymology is obvious.

So here's how a bunny trail led to today's post. I'm a Nero Wolfe fan (a brainy and eccentric American detective created by writer Rex Stout).

I "met" Jim during the golden age of blogging. We became blogging buddies because his blog was about a dog, Dennis' Diary of Destruction. But Dennis was a Vizsla, as was my dog, Maggie. It turned out that Jim and I had other things in common like reading, writing, and some shared locations in our personal histories. So we have stayed in touch via Facebook.

Cue the non-sequitur. The only attempt I'd ever seen to dramatize the mystery series was one created by NBC in 1981. William Conrad (best known for Cannon) and Lee Horsley played Wolfe and his side-kick Archie Goodwin. It was terrible. The screenplays were wretched and Conrad just wasn't a believable Wolfe.

Jim is also a fan of Nero Wolfe. Just a few weeks ago, as a result of a word game not accepting "pfui" as a real word, he mentioned an attempt at a Nero Wolfe series by A&E. "Pfui" is one of Wolfe favorite expletives. Since I am a Wolfe fan, I knew why he was outraged that this word wasn't accepted. We've never had cable TV, and I wasn't even aware the A&E series existed. But I had to watch an episode (available on YouTube) to see what I thought. I've now watched both seasons that were produced and am on my second time through, while reading the original stories first to compare. The scripts have not been dumbed down for TV or spiced up to make them more rough and tumble. The screenwriters did a tremendous job.

Well! Maury Chaykin plays Wolfe and Timothy Hutton is Archie. Chaykin IS Wolfe (although in the pilot the directors didn't let him be quite as rude and brash as he is). Hutton took a few episodes to get into the role, but he is a believable, supercilious Archie. All the supporting characters are perfect, although possibly the best is Bill Smitrovich as the perpetually frustrated, cigar-chewing Inspector Cramer. Fritz, Saul, Fred, Orrie, Lon Cohen, and Purly Stebbins are also on the money. Colin Fox as Fritz occasionally rises to greatness.

Cue the aside. In the pilot and the first episode, A&E chose to dramatize my two least favorite of the Wolfe stories (The Golden Spiders and The Doorbell Rang). But they got the personalities of the cast and the setting so perfect that I had to keep watching.

So, closer to the point. I've always been interested in books mentioned within books. Two titles come into The Doorbell Rang, one is The FBI Nobody Knows. I assumed this was fictional, because it is a pillar of the plot. Turns out that's a real book, published in 1964, the year before the mystery was published. The other book mentioned is The Treasure of Our Tongue, which Wolfe is reading. Of course he doesn't want to stop reading and actually work. But the bank balance is low and Archie must goad the great brain into earning some money to support his chosen lifestyle.

Cue the rodomontade (one of Wolfe's words- look it up). I own every Nero Wolfe mystery, including The Black Orchids which was hard to find, and I've read them all about five times.

The Treasure of Our Tongue is also real, also published in 1964. It's written by Lincoln Barnett. It is a brief (343 pages) history of language in general and particularly of the English language. The first chapter- general history is really dated by being written in 1964, but after that, if you like words, it's a fascinating book.

Cue the mechanics. How did I find a book that old, that fast? There is a web site called Internet Archive. It is a non-profit archive library of books, movies, televison, music and more where you can borrow many things that are not yet in the public domain. And there it is! You can borrow a book for an hour at a time, but you can renew as often as needed. The text is presented as the page of a book, thus fixing what I hate most about reading things online: the too-long lines of characters. You can zoom, etc. The text is searchable. Pretty darn wonderful.

Parts of the book are frankly prescient. There is a whole chapter outlining how the English language has been debased and is declining. This was 1964, remember. Barnett should see the state of the language in 2023! He cites multiple sources of how ill-prepared high-school graduates are for college in the use of language. I graduated HS in 1965. If my near classmates were that bad, I wonder what he'd think of today's crop. For example, this quote from a college administrator: "the graduate of an elementary school today [1960s] cannot with certainty be accused of knowing any given subject, but he can be guarranteed to know no grammar."

The author clearly believes that proper language is not simply a conveyance for social snobbery. One of his final conclusions is "In the health of the English Language, the health of Western civilization may well reside."

Finally, the treasure (where all our wonderful words come from). I haven't done a quiz for a long time, but because I'm finding this book so much fun, I want you to play too. Column A is a list of a dozen English words. Column B is a list of languages/countries. Both lists are alphabetical. Match the word with where it came from. Tomorrow, I'll give the answers with explanations. Put your answers (eg A-5- not necessarily a correct match) in the comments. If you play and leave your email (unless you are sure I already know it), I'll send you my most recent short story, a dark little North-Dakota-inspired noir tale.

Column AColumn B
A. ahoy1. Arabic
B. alcohol2. Austrailian Aboriginal
C. budgeriar (a budgie or parakeet)3. Bengali
D. bungalow4. Celtic
E. cash (n.) 5. Danish
F. criterion 6. Dutch
G. law7. Latin
H. moose8. Native American
I. potato9. Scandinavian
J. shirt10. Spanish
K. Thames11. Tamil
L. Wales12. Teutonic


The Oceanside Animals said...

Java Bean: "Ooh, yes, our Dada loved that A&E Nero Wolfe show!"
Charlee: "We know that. Our Dada is the one she's talking about. Did you miss the reference to our angel brother Dennis the Vizsla?"
Java Bean: "Sorry, I'm new here."
Chaplin: "We are making our guesses below! But they're probably mostly wrong!"


Sharkbytes said...

Unknown- Thanks for playing, but I don't know who you are to send you the story.

Java- tell Dada that 5 correct is not bad