Karen Elizabeth Gordon strikes again - and language itself is the winner

October 26, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Dust-jacket copy and some reviewers have begun to characterize Karen Elizabeth Gordon's books as "cult classics." I am not by nature a proselytizer, but I believe literacy as a state of being, and delight as a condition of life, would both be vastly amplified if that cult became a major denomination of faith.

Gordon understands and delights in the workings, mechanisms and proprieties of the English language and writes about them with authority. Most impressively, she writes with wit and energy and erudition that are irresistible.

Her work is rich with irony, lush of locution. Puritans will find all of it appalling, for unless the tone captures you, the very elegance could suffocate you, gag you with cleverness.

Truth is that Gordon's books on language very easily could be noxiously precious, too cute to suffer. To my ear and eye, that never happens, never comes close. What justifies and thus saves it is impeccable discipline.

The hard core of everything Gordon has to say about language, in two new volumes and her previous ones, is as solid as any work on language I know in the English language. If I were to recommend a single route out of the fetid swamp of near-illiteracy among high-school and university graduates left by the barbarisms of 1960s educational "reforms," unhesitatingly would put Gordon's books at the head of both instructional text and reference lists.

Beastly labyrinth

Gordon's new books are "The Disheveled Dictionary: A Curious Caper Through Our Sumptuous Lexicon" (Houghton Mifflin. 162 pages. $15), which was published at the end of August; and "Torn Wings and Faux Pas: A Flashbook of Style, A Beastly

Guide Through the Writer's Labyrinth," illustrations by Rikki Ducornet. (Pantheon. 256 pages, $23), which will go on the market in a couple of weeks.

The Dictionary is an indulgence, of self, of language and of pyrotechnics. The words are all legitimate, most quite common, some relatively obscure. Each is given a straightforward definition, followed by an example that has been fashioned by Gordon.

And what fashioning! For all my fondness for her earlier, and enduringly useful and delightful, books, this crowns her glory -simply by its immense cargo of bliss-giving ridiculousness.

I find it impossible to choose my most favorite entries, or even the most delightful dozen, but here are two:

"coiffeur / hairdresser, artiste of the hair, who creates coiffures / My coiffeur calls it his 'Fantasy in F-sharp minor,' and my husband says it's 'Goldilocks at the Moulin Rouge,' although I'm not quite sure what the latter means - curls atumble from the cancan, in the absinthe of three bears?"

And: "raddled / worn out and broken-down / He led her off to a raddled sofa behind the ballroom footbath to sit in her lap and spin her mendacious tales of homeopathic penguins and Balanchine kangaroos."

There are 149 pages of these things, plus ephemera. Only the witless could bear to be without it all.

The second book, "Torn Wings, etc.," is self-described as "a focused, fast, revolving alphabet of style and usage, an emergency roadside and night flight rescue for writers with their myriad perplexities ... an orgy of orthography, shifting positions, inter-species fraternizing, naughtiness given safe conduct by stylistic panache and grammatical gravitas."

Its content falls into three general categories. The largest and most entertaining contains single or dual entries of words or phrases that are often abused or misunderstood. Each has a defining sentence or two and then a Gordonian example or more. Additionally, intermingled with these are small sections that examine grammatical or rhetorical principles - "parallel constructions," "verbs," "double negative" and the like. The third category is encompassed in and appendix, which is filled with Perilous Phrases and guidance on sentence creation.

Embracing it all

An example of the word entries: "compose / comprise: compose means to create, put together, assemble, and rejoices in both active and passive employment. Constanza was composing her memoir of how maddeningly life and art mirrored each other while she was singing the adulterous role of Tereza Terrazzo in La Inclemenza di Signora Rastito at Duque de Caxias. . . . Comprise means to include all of, encompass, embrace, contain, and is on its best behavior in active voice with a direct object following. . . . The Velveteen Rabble, an opera composed by Whiffle Clackengirth, comprises fifty acts, each one requiring a change of scene and a change of the audience's costumes."

Enough! For those who, up to this point, have been deprived of the experience - and the guidance - these are two previous Gordon volumes on language, its use and its joy:

"The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed" (Ticknor & Fields. 148 pages. $13.95); "The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed" (Pantheon. 192 pages. $22).

Surely, it is possible to use the English language passably well without the help of Karen Elizabeth Gordon. Just as surely, there are entirely acceptable people in the English-speaking world who though otherwise decent enough are utterly bereft of sense of humor, of the gift of irony. And, sadly, it is possible to live a useful - or at least a not indictably criminal - life without using language well, or even accurately.

But with those exceptions -left to their pathetic deprivations - I can think of no one whose life and language would not be brightened by any and all of Gordon's work.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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