The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Saw Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot as part of the Tremors Festival at the Cultch. It’s directed by Stephen Drover. The play deserved the wildly enthusiastic audience who saw it on Tuesday night. It is wickedly funny and yet all the timeless themes of love and betrayal, truth and forgiveness are given their due.

Judas Iscariot is on trial for his betrayal of Christ. The action takes place in a courtroom in Purgatory with modern dress and a brilliant, simple set. The actors were almost all outstanding, so it’s a bit silly trying to list all the stellar performances: Kevin McNulty as the judge, Katharine Venour and Marcus Youssef as the lawyers, Dawn Petten as Mother Teresa, Carl Kennedy as Pontius Pilate, and Michael Kopsa as Satan had me laughing so much that I missed some of the words and I vainly tried to remember some of the punchier lines. (The preliminary material says, “Strongest possible language warning.”) Ron Reed has a deceptively simple monologue as a remorseful Butch Honeywell that was note perfect.

The language is the real star in this production; the language of the street and of the courtroom — word meant to heal and words meant to wound. Because the witty script with its deadly verbal duelling keeps you on the edge of your seat, the scene at the end with Jesus and Judas is a bit of an anticlimax. Jesus actually uses the word “verily,” which struck a false note. Drawn-out piety is less appealing than rapid-fire profanity — to this shallow theatre-goer, anyway.


Oversensitive to anachronism?

My recent phase of oversensitivity started with Downton Abbey, the  generally wonderful costume drama set in the early years of the twentieth century. While I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of the television series, I was not so sure about the second. Many of the ingredients were the same and there was even more of the guilty pleasure of Cousin Violet’s withering put-downs. But there were things that jumped out at me as just wrong and they interrupted my enjoyment of the episodes. They were mainly language anachronisms: John Bates and Anna Smith would not have spoken about “starting a family;” William Mason would not have used the first name of a member of the Crawley family when speaking to Matthew Crawley; Sybil would certainly not have said “I couldn’t care less” to her father.

Ben Zimmer’s entertaining article on this topic details some of the language that is not quite right.

I may be oversensitive to anachronistic language: certainly, some of the comments that are directed at Ben Zimmer criticize him for nit-picking. (Nit-picking — first known use, 1956.) There are the drearily predictable “get a life” comments. But Zimmer points out very politely that it is entirely possible to enjoy a book/play/movie/television series while at the same time being sensitive to the language used.

Today, a colleague sent me a link to an interesting post by Mary Robinette Kowal. Kowal has written the second of a set of four novels that are set in Regency times but have a speculative fiction twist. During the editing phase of the second book, she rather cleverly created a spellcheck dictionary of language used in Jane Austen novels as a guide to weeding out language not in use at the time. (The list of words and phrases flagged by this process were surprising: yanked, interplay, empathy, hairline fracture, tailgate, wastepaper basket, storefront, gotten into trouble … how did they ever get into the manuscript in the first place? Well, let’s assume it was the first draft.)

In one of her followup comments, Kowal gets to what is for me the heart of the matter. Getting it right is, she says, a question of balance:

The challenge is to find the balance between comprehensibility and anachronism. If readers are thinking, “My! That’s an authentic word” it will take them out of the story every bit as much as an obviously modern word would.

The Regency and the Napoleonic era in general have very staunch fans who know the language. Now I do think that one can be much more relaxed in the narrative than in dialogue, but even so– why not take the trouble? As long as I don’t make reading it harder, it seems to me that it can serve the story.

I like her thinking and I appreciate her recognition that the era she is writing about has fans who know the language. In fact, this applies to other periods of history as well. Julian Fellowes: take note.

The land of malady

Christopher Hitchens is an opinionated, witty, often harsh writer who defies political pigeon-holing. Among other things, he is noted for his support of atheism and the Iraq war. He is also now a cancer patient.

In an article for the September 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, Hitchens describes receiving a diagnosis of esophageal cancer that had metastasized to his lymph nodes and lungs. In his writing, he remains completely himself at this stage of the disease, being willing to confront the diagnosis and its likely end result with his own candid, articulate and personal touch. The article encapsulates his approach to life and now, I suppose, to death.

My generation approaches cancer and other potentially fatal diseases differently from my parents’ generation, who rarely used the word. Their discussions of terminal illnesses employed euphemism, lowered voices, and vagueness as to detail. I don’t remember hearing any of the patients themselves talking about their condition. In contrast, we learn everything we can about medical vocabulary, symptoms, and treatments.

My friend Teresa, who died in 1999, was the first of my contemporaries to openly discuss what she was experiencing. She provided summaries that I emailed to a large group of friends: a very personal gift of intimacy and knowledge that opened up the hidden world she had abruptly moved into.

Hitch describes it as another country — his experience of the emergency services taking him to hospital “as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” His description of this country reinforces all my own fear and prejudices about hospitals:

… the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult …

I had thought of chemotherapy-related hair loss as a particularly hard thing for women to deal with, but Hitchens’ description of his own is poignant as well as sharply funny :

… I wasn’t quite prepared for the way that my razorblade would suddenly go slipping pointlessly down my face, meeting no stubble. Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look as if it had undergone electrolysis, causing me to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie. (The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.) I feel upsettingly de-natured. If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice. In the war against Thanatos, if we must term it a war, the immediate loss of Eros is a huge initial sacrifice.

Hitch wants to live to write “the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger” and I hope that his current battle (he comments on the peculiar struggle imagery used uniquely of cancer) allows him to write for a number of years yet.

Juicy joy

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately: New Yorker short stories are perfect for the commute!

But my all-time favourite podcast so far is Stephen Fry on language.

You can immerse yourself in Fry’s orotund voice (in the most flattering sense of the adjective) as in a warm bath. I love that velvety timbre, that assured delivery — slightly world-weary but always gentlemanly, the unexpected choice of words that turns out to be perfect, and his sheer delight in “the juicy joy of language.” He speaks about the way today’s English has grown from its earliest origins and gathered words here and there over the centuries from a myriad sources. He likens it to the architectural landscape of today’s England: a base of Roman ruins, with medieval cathedrals built on top, with Georgian squares and Victorian railway stations and twentieth century housing projects and corporate headquarters. So we end up with a language that can be “glass and concrete sentences next to half-timbered Elizabethan phrases.”

You should be able to find this podcast (or “podgram,” to use his word) on iTunes, but searching for it is not all that intuitive. It’s easier to go to Fry’s website and click on Series 2, Episode 3, Language.

Always watching one’s back

Those of us who love language are probably familiar with H. W. Fowler. I was practically brought up on his A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (the second edition, of course, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers). I rather like the firmness with which Fowler described the rules of correct English, although the Wikipedia entry says he provided a mix of the prescriptive (the old-style, stickler approach) and the descriptive (modern, politically correct).

I think I’m closer to the prescriptive end of the continuum, though I do acknowledge the evolving nature of language. (Good of me, you may think.) But I am aware of the pitfalls waiting for those who pride themselves on knowing some of the arcane rules of correct usage. As David Crystal says in his introduction to the reissued first edition,”You must always be watching your back.” See the New York Times essay by Jim Holt.

Aunt Angela on written communications: 1


Use the fewest words possible to convey your message

People are busy. They want to find the underlying information quickly. If they don’t, they are likely to give  up and move on.

The sentence below was used by someone who wished to tell her clients that under certain circumstances they could get their confirmation deposits back. She wrote:

A refund of your confirmation deposit will be made to you.

Total: 11 words. The same information could be better conveyed by six words:

Your confirmation deposit will be refunded.


Use the active voice

Bureaucracies often use the passive voice. It’s unfriendly. It sounds as though something will happen without human intervention and that no individual or group is willing to take responsibility.

We can continue to improve the original sentence by changing it to:

We will refund your confirmation deposit.

New homonym-detecting software needed urgently

floodLately, there has been an epidemic, a flood, of misused words where the correct ones sound the same as the wrong ones. Some of the more entertaining errors I’ve noted this week are:

“the teaming rain”
“with baited breath”
“take a sneak peak”

— which conjure up some wonderful images!

Of course, there is the usual “stationary” where “stationery” is meant; “principle” and “principal” are used interchangeably; and “palette,” “palate,” and “pallet” are routinely confused.

Even if people use the ubiquitous spell checking functions provided with word processing software, errors may go undetected if the writers are not  thoughtful about the meaning of their communications. So we need a homonym detector. I propose ContextCheck as a suitable name. Please, software developers: step forward and save the language.