Thursday, June 17, 2010

The pleasures of not staying focused on the goal, or, Fear not, for now, the grue!

On Tuesday I made two discoveries in the course of wandering away from what I was supposed to be doing that pleased me and, I hope, will amuse you.

1 What's better than an Invisible book? Surely it's a book that seems as if it ought to be invisible, but then turns out to be real! Which is what happened as I read Eric Kraft's lovely and gentle novel Herb 'n' Lorna (1988) and one of the characters consulted The Automobile: Its Selection, Care, and Use, by Robert Sloss. At first I assumed that Kraft had invented the handbook to suit his needs, but a quick check of Google books proved me wrong: The Automobile: Its Selection, Care, and Use was actually published, by New York's Outing Publishing Company, in 1910. Even better, the first lines of its opening chapter, "Buying an Automobile," are deliciously overwritten, offering a wonderful mix of high diction and chumminess:
Choosing a car is by no means so esoteric a task as choosing a wife, since, of course, there could never be as many nice cars in the world as there are nice girls. But there are enough of the former to quite bewilder any one who approaches the array of them for the first time with serious intentions. I venture to put it thus because of an apt illustration furnished by an acquaintance of mine who chose his wife and his automobile at the same time.
It strikes me that this opening is the early automotive equivalent of the scantily clad young lady draped over the car on the garage calendar. The friend, I probably need not say, does better with the wife than the snappy runabout he heedlessly picks up at the same time and eventually has to abandon on a Pennsylvania back road.

The book is remarkably readable and fun, for an instructional manual a century out of date. Take this bit, for example, from the same chapter about choosing a car:
In fact, as an authority said to me recently, "sometimes the best thing you can say about a car is that it has no talking points." In other words, the more closely your mechanism approaches the type which manufacturers are developing along standard lines, the more comfort and use will you get out of your selection. It is but common sense to avoid freak construction, for which the claim may be made that it will accomplish more easily what is already being accomplished in a way which experience has taught the skilled mechanicians of the industry to be the most reliable and worthy of dependence.
Advice that would have saved non-mad-scientist DeLorean buyers a pretty penny, no?

2 In the course of writing a piece of copy for work, I wanted to find a clever way to talk about the grotesque details of grave robbing, and my first instinct was to write about the "grue and gore." But wait, I thought: is "grue" even a word?

The Oxford English Dictionary said yes--and what a word it turns out to be! It has no fewer than five meanings as a noun and an additional pair as a verb--and rather than mere shadings of the same ultimate meaning, these seven definitions represent at least six fully distinct uses of the word.

The first noun meaning is the only one that's not at least rare:
With negatives: not a (one) grue, no grue: not an atom, not a whit.
Even for that one, however, the most recent citation is from 1939.

The second meaning, considered rare, is very straightforward: a grue is a crane. That usage is reflected in one of the meanings of "grue" as a verb, which is for a crane to "utter its characteristic cry." That meaning, however, is obsolete, as is Noun 3, "A kind of meal cake made in Cheshire"--or, one assumes, no longer made in Cheshire. Meaning four is also rare, which is sad because it seems to make grue a wonderfully useful word:
The action of GRUE; shivering, shuddering; a shiver, shudder.
That noun sense's counterpart on the verb side gives a nicely expanded account of what it means to grue:
1. To feel terror or horror, shudder, tremble; quake; to shrink from something; to be troubled in heart.

b. Of the body: To shiver, shudder.

c. To thrill.

2. it grues me: I shudder, tremble, quake; I shrink from something. Obs.
Then there's the last noun definition: in northern dialects, grue can mean "Ice in flakes, or detached pieces," such as, from the Leader of February 3, 1891, "The 'grue' floating down the Tweed."

Al of these definitions pleased me greatly--but they still left me unable to use the word the way I wanted--even as, it appears, almost no one is using it these days in any of the ways it is defined. Thus, feeling feisty, I offer you my own new, sixth noun definition of "grue":
The pulpy, red bits of flesh and brains that are the sometimes residue of an attack by zombies, werewolves, kraken, or other dangerous creatures; the cumulative feeling of queasy horror evoked by the sight of such bodily detritus.
If we do this right, by October, everyone will be talking about the grue and gore that surely awaits us as the days grow shorter.

1 comment:

  1. I have an idea for a blog: The Visible Library!