Basically Clark

1. I’m completely against the anathematizing of specific words or word-types. Except. You know. Sometimes.

Does anyone except a geologist ever really need to say “epicenter”? And “virtually”: there’s virtually never a reason to use it. Those are old complaints. The thing that’s bugging me lately is “basically”: what does it tell the listener except that they can’t trust what you’re saying? But “basically” is the new “virtually”–people are using it all over the place, sometimes several times in a sentence and–this is the main thing–they should not. It makes the angels cry. And I believe this strongly and sincerely, but I heard myself using “basically” this morning, so maybe there’s nothing that can be done about it.

2. It has been perfect biking weather lately–cool and clear, with the color changes in the leaves well under way. But time pressures of various sorts have kept me off the bike-trail. I’ve been trying to keep up on the exercise thing by using the old rowing machine we’ve had around the house, eh, basically forever.

The thing is, this practice causes one of our cats very deep concern. Clark is an older kitten, maybe five or six months now, and he evidently considers me his second-string human, worth paying attention to when my daughter isn’t around. When I sit down on the rowing machine, he usually comes from wherever he is in the house and perches in a window nearby, staring bemusedly at me as I work the machine or vice versa. He clearly thinks the rowing stuff is puzzling and stupid.

Once, though, as I started to row, it happened to start raining. Clark whipped his head around to stare out at the drops falling on him through the screen, then whipped his head back to stare at me accusingly: What did you do?

Post hoc, propter hoc,” I said to him, but he was already out of there. It probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference if he’d stayed to listen; kittens are surprisingly unresponsive to Latin or logic.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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22 Responses to Basically Clark

  1. renesears says:

    I hate when I hear myself say something I kvetch about hearing other people say.

  2. sartorias says:

    I think words like ‘basically’ are verbal attempts for the talker to think to the center of a question. Like writers who nitter on in a first draft about the situation, then when it comes clear, edit the heck out of it.

    Also used as intensifiers. And this is why “reality” TV is boring, because despite the crazy situations the people are put in, when they have to come up with their own words, they use the same vocabulary over and over, interlarded with intensifiers like totally, basically, God-its-like, and the rest.

    • JE says:

      That’s a good way to think of it. I have been hearing it a lot on political gabfests, and, all kidding aside, it’s starting to raise my hackles for lots of non-stylistic reasons; I tend to read it as a sign that the speaker is going beyond the evidence, and knows it, but is doing it anyway. Maybe I should be less judgemental: people can be unsure of themselves for lots of reasons besides a lack of evidence for their assertions (especially when there’s a camera in their face).

      • sartorias says:

        As writers, we walk a very fine knife edge between the way people really talk (have you ever noticed how most people don’t ever finish a sentence? They create trainloads of subordinate clauses, or parallel clauses?) and polished, thought-out discourse. We don’t want our characters sounding like Catulus and Plato on the steps, but we don’t want to write stories that sound like the twits on reality TV, “Oh-my-God it’s like I’m all, totally, man, just whoa, it’s so totally amazing, wow!”

        • JE says:

          Right! The classic 20th C. detective writers (Hammett, Chandler, Sayers) walked this line really well, I think. Hard to believe that anyone ever talked like Philip Marlowe, but his speech was obviously drawn from popular sources (and influenced them in turn). Sayers is writing a world away, not just geographically, but I think her dialogue is pretty plausible, too. (Except maybe some of the lower class or professionally criminal types; they start to sound a little Dickensian to me.) But the language has changed since then–and, anyway, the task is inherently harder for imaginary-world fantasy. Should we make the dialogue local to Elfland, or Poughkeepsie? Somehow it needs to cross that uncrossable gulf between them.

          • sartorias says:

            Yes! And what sounds perfect to one reader rings false to another.

          • JE says:

            Very true. I was just thinking that this morning while reading someone who was criticizing Fritz Leiber’s style. (Too many adverbs and “said”-synonyms for the blogger in question.) I’d never have said that Leiber was bulletproof, but I do think that style is one of the elements where he stands head and shoulders above his s&s peers. But that’s another blog-post, maybe.

          • sartorias says:

            Yeah…the whole question of style versus so-called verisimilitude is a fascinating one…and one I’m too brainsozzled to write. Hope someone else does!

          • JE says:

            I’m trying to figure out now how (or if) I should represent differences in speech when Morlock enters a community that speaks a different language (as he does a few times in the sequel to Blood of Ambrose). Verisimilitude for an imaginary universe: there’s a hall of funhouse mirrors… I guess to some extent we just have to hope that readers will be willing participants in the game.

          • sartorias says:

            Yeah…I tend to favor the Jack Vance et al idea–alter grammar just slightly, and maybe vocabularly, to suggest a different language pattern.

          • JE says:

            This is a good way to go–it’s there for people to see it, but not too intrusive for those who aren’t reading for it. Thanks!

  3. peadarog says:

    I agree with missing biking — that would be #2. However, #1 is a lost cause. ‘Silly’ used to mean ‘holy’. ‘Fulsome’ derived from ‘foul’ blah blah — you know all those. Also, you know that words mean whatever the consensus says they mean regardless of history, etymology or the academic brilliance of a cycling legend such as yourself 😉

    • JE says:

      Well, I totally agree that linguistic change is inevitable, but I don’t think it’s predetermined. I figure it’s sort of like voting: everyone gets to have their say, and the received standard is the sum of what everyone says it is, or is willing to accept that it is. On the other hand, as soon as I began to complain about “basically” I started thinking of ways I wanted to use it, so…

      “a cycling legend such as yourself”

      More of a myth really, but thanks!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Cats. What’re you gonna do?

    –Jeff Stehman

    • JE says:

      I’m not sure. But I’d better figure something out, because we have four of them now. (Two more appeared this summer while I was overseas.)

      • Anonymous says:

        Mitosis? My God, man, you must be very, very sparing of overseas trips. Once more would be bad enough, but could you imagine if you went two or three times? That’d be a lot of cats.

        Mine is being particularly argumentative today. It’s cold in here, so I made her a nest, but since I made it for her, she’s refused to use it. We’ve argued over the matter, and you’re right, they’re not–

        You know, I think I just discovered the inspiration for my goblins.

        • JE says:

          My wife and kids say that they got the kittens at a pet store. But one of them is a nearly exact replica of one of our older cats. And the other one might well have gotten a dye-job; I have my suspicions. So mitosis, or cloning, or a kitten-emitting rift to a parallel universe seem like the most reasonable explanations. And you’re right: a doubling of cats on every trip could be very dangerous. I knew all that Chinotto Neri would have to be paid for somehow…

          On a more serious plane, I totally see the goblin/cat connection.

  5. Actually, everyone would use the word “epicenter” in L.A. whenever we had an earthquake. We’d always want to know which area was hit hardest (e.g. Northridge).

    Also, Clark probably thinks you are just a foolish human and he is above logic. Pics or it didn’t happen.

    • JE says:

      I figure everyone in a fault zone is a practicing geologist. The people who frost me are the ones who think “epicenter” is an emphatic way of saying “center”.

      I’m sure Clark thinks I am just a foolish human–nor am I saying he’s wrong.

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