Saturday, February 19, 2011

Charming wife: an enigmatic cliché


One of the books I occasionally dip into is a Reader's Digest selection entitled, Sixty Golden Years.  It carries a brilliant piece of writing by Mark Twain.  What has urged me to read the piece ('The Fraudulent Ant') many times over is Twain's inimitable description of the movements of an ant.

Here is a sample:

…he (the ant) fetches up against a pebble and, instead of going around it, he climbs over it backward dragging his booty after him, tumbles down on the other side, jumps up in a passion, kicks the dust off his clothes, moistens his hand, grabs his property viciously, yanks it this way, then that, shoves it ahead of him a moment, lugs it after him another moment…

Each time I read the piece, I am struck by Twain's use of dynamic expressions.  In ruthlessly avoiding stereotyped descriptive phrases, Twain is a refreshing contrast to the cliché expert to whom every mountain is a "majestic mountain", every city is a "bustling metropolis", and every good school or college is a "reputed (not even reputable) institution".

If there is one cliché in the English language which can be most indiscriminately used to describe any woman, it is the word "charming".  I was driven to this conclusion after listening to the overuse -- and misuse -- of this word by speaker after speaker at the annual convention of an international association that I once attended.  The object to which this descriptive expression ("charming") was applied was the wife of a dignitary from abroad, seated with him on the dais.  It was when the first speaker at the convention described the lady as "the most charming wife" of the dignitary that I looked at her for the first time -- and wondered what he meant.  When the second speaker used the same epithet, I sat up and stared at her.  The mystery only deepened.  When the third speaker used the phrase twice with reference to the woman, I became fidgety.  I took off my glasses, polished them, and put them on and goggled at her.  The charms of the lady still remained a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.  Unable to stand the "charms" any longer, I left the hall.  Before I did so, I cast a brief glance in the direction of the "most charming wife" who sat serenely with the all-knowing expression of a Sphinx on her face.

Have you seen the Sphinx?  In pictures, I mean.  If you think the Sphinx looks charming, the lady certainly did.

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