Lily-Livered Literary Devices

Real life wreaks havoc with perfectly good literary devices.
In the hands of professionals, these devices make the world of literature a finer place.
When rank amateurs throw them around, the term ‘verbal abuse’ takes on a whole new meaning.

The simile, saying something is like something else, requires an imaginative mind and clarity of expression:
He uttered a sound much like a bull dog swallowing a pork chop whose dimensions it has underestimated. (PG Wodehouse)
Let an American teens get hold of it and the simile turns into:
‘I was like, just standing there and he, like, winked at me and I, like, died!’

When Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, “I like humanity, but I loathe persons.” she was brilliantly employing an oxymoron.
When we speak of government intelligence or peacekeeping force or media integrity or red licorice we just use one word in the phrase to cancel out the other.

Anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics to animals (sometimes interchangeable with personification) raises our consciousness with totalitarian critters in ‘Animal Farm’ or raises an entire generation of anti-hunting protestors with ‘Bambi.’
Now, commercials try to work up sympathy for lonely cleaning products pining for love in attics. Movies like ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Brave Little Toaster’ convince us that we can’t throw out broken plastic playthings or obsolete appliances because they have feelings too. That just raises my blood pressure.

Euphemisms. Ah. A way to take something prosaic, unpleasant or distressing and make it palatable.
Lucy wasn’t pregnant in ‘I Love Lucy.’ She was expecting. Sometimes women in the 1950’s were in the family way or on the nest or visited by the stork but they were NEVER pregnant.
‘The Godfather’ movies made threatening the life of another sound positively appealing by ‘making someone an offer they can’t refuse.’
See how clever these euphemisms are?
Compare them to the politician who has lied, cheated and stolen. Will he admit to lying, cheating etc? No. He will admit that ‘mistakes were made.’
Collateral damage, friendly fire and enhanced interrogation all have a pleasant ring to them.
Someone had the bright idea to call  taxes ‘revenue enhancements.’
See how clever those euphemisms are?

Portmanteau is that fun little device that joins 2 words to make a new word. Lewis Carroll combined ‘lithe’ and ‘slimy’ to make the great word slithy in Jabberwocky. Smog? I can handle that. Motel? Very clever. How can human beings who come up with a delight called brunch also have infomercials and Brangelina and TomKat?

Invective. If you have ever read the comment section on YouTube videos, blogs, opinion columns,  etc., you’ve probably run across invective. Invective is that nasty, spiteful, lewd, venom-dripping-from-each-word sort of response Internet trolls like to use. Like real trolls, these scourges of social media have a limited vocabulary and use the same 4 letter words over and over and over.
Compare invective in the hands of a master. Shakespeare’s King Lear addresses his faithless daughter’s servant as such: “A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir to a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deni’st the least syllable of thy addition.”(William Shakespeare “King Lear”, II.2)
Maybe when Internet trolls start using words like ‘ beggardly’ and ‘lily-livered’ and ‘filthy worsted-stocking knave’ we can take them more seriously.


SONY DSCPeople of a certain delicate age, we decided last time out, don’t really forget stuff. We just misplace it for a time.
This week we face another conundrum. Why do decisions that were once clear-cut now have more angles than a 10th grade geometry book? When did snap judgements expand to Supreme Court-deliberation length?
Why does a final, rock solid decision continuously elude me?

Something else is going on here. It isn’t only the sheer amount of stuff shoved into my memory bank.
It’s the filter.
My filter assigns virtue to incoming information.
Like my hair, the filter is getting gray and brittle.
Another scourge of middle age.

My grandsons are infants. The world is white to them. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, centers around their needs. A nuclear explosion could erupt in the next town and they would demand a diaper change. Naptime can’t wait for important phone calls to end and they really have no use for Mommy’s migraine when their little tummies rumble. The world is straightforward and monochrome. It is responsible for making them happy and keeping them safe. All is white.

By the time these little ones hit their teenage stride something remarkable will have happened.
Another color, another dimension, will have gradually crept into their ‘me’ world.
Black takes its place along white.
Now, while still wanting to fulfill their own pleasures and needs, these blossoming youth comprehend that some things are bad. They will begin assessing data and assigning colors.
Is this good or bad? Black or is it white?
Decision making over all that info takes more time. They no longer see just a white spotlight focussed on their own needs. They see the dark of wrong, bad, evil. Their brains have more information to process. Not only are they working with more experience to apply to the info. They have to make a judgement call.
Black or white?
Life isn’t entirely simple.
But it still is sort of simple. Rarely in the idealistic absolutes of youth do black and white puddle together into ambiguity.

Here at the tail end of middle age, black and white are no longer the primary colors used by my brain to file information, make an application and deduce, “This is bad. That is good. She is evil. He is pure. Do this. Don’t do that.”

Grayness has set in. So few of the decisions are easy. Implications abound. While some actions I observe are overtly evil or obviously good, I have learned (oh, blast that experience!) that quick verdicts are not always easy to make.
Judgment calls require the sifting of acquired wisdom and accumulated experience and hits and misses. We are so much slower than we used to be because our filter has so much more to sort. Lean chicken or marbled steak? Spankings or time outs? Liberal Republican or conservative Democrat? What does ‘in the world but not of it’ look like? Will the shabby man begging for spare change spend it on liquor? How can one tired finite mind figure this all out?

Humans and situations and issues are complex. People can do bad things with good intentions. Charitable actions can have self-serving motives, honorable nations can fight dishonorable wars and every story doesn’t have 2 sides. It might have a dozen.

There are absolutes in the world. I respect them but understand that fallible humans have trouble living those absolutes absolutely. I respect justice but crave mercy. The gray filter of my mind has seen the dark recesses of my heart struggle with the brightness of Good. It reminds me how foolhardy and hypocritical a rush to judgement can be.
At the same time my brittle, tired filter longs for the day when I won’t have to analyze, appraise and critique myself or others or issues or events.

Someday, my gray filter won’t be needed. All will be White. And I’ll have eternity to enjoy the chicken AND the steak.