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.

5 thoughts on “Lily-Livered Literary Devices

  1. Not being familiar with King Lear, I am delighted!! I absolutely must commit that incredible insult to memory. Imagine my husband’s face when I pop off with bits of that–only in jest, of course! (He’s a theatre nut, so he’d get it!) Fun post, as usual, Anita. Blessings–

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