Wednesday 9 March 2016

De-WOWing 'wow' words

"If you want to find the old battalion,
I know where they are, I know where they are, I know where they are
If you want to find the old battalion, I know where they are,
They're hanging on the old barbed wire,
I've seen 'em, I've seen 'em, hanging on the old barbed wire.
I've seen 'em, I've seen 'em, hanging on the old barbed wire."

Those lines form the final verse of a soldiers' song from the First World War. It's a - mostly - sarcastic protest song that recounts the safe location of all the officers and ends with this, the location of all the privates, the regular soldiers. (You can read the whole of it here or listen to it here.)

Where does the impact come from in this song? What is the 'wow' word?

That question - well, without the word 'wow' - was put to me more than 30 years ago by the headmaster of my school as his test of whether I could actually understand how writing works or whether he was wasting his time. (It was part of the six hours of preparation he gave me for the Cambridge entrance exam, a thing never previously encountered in my school.) It was a good test, and one that should be set for the champions of 'wow' words.

That paragraph was just to put some distance between the question and answer so that you could think about it. The answer is 'old'. The entire song hinges on it. Its first use is slightly ambiguous: 'old', as in ex? Or 'old' to communicate familiarity and affection, as in 'my old mate'? It turns out to be both. It also links the battalion with the barbed wire. The familiarity, the normality implied by the word, when encountered again in 'old barbed wire', brings with it all the pathos and tragedy of that war, of the young lives wasted on the barbed wire of northern France. The horror of the corpses hanging on the wire is redoubled by the application of the affectionate, familiar 'old'. This is the soldiers' normality. In a life and landscape so devastated and devoid of comfort, the desperate need for something to engage with locks onto the familiarity of the barbed wire: the 'old barbed wire.'

It doesn't need me to point out that 'old' is not what the Education Secretary would consider a 'wow'-word and yet that's how it functions here. This is how literature - writing - works. Not by bringing in a flashy word to do the work for you, but by employing the real, ordinary words of our language to do the work together. The tricky bit must be done by the writer, in choosing, combining, juxtaposing, even missing out, the words that are just right. It's not clever to use an unusual word. It's clever to use ordinary words in a new way.

Impact is an emergent property. It comes from making the words spark off each other, producing more than the sum of their parts by drawing on all they have going for them - associations, connotations, their sound, the way they feel as you say them or the way they look on the page. Wordsworth knew that. In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1801), he pleads for poets to use the “language really used by men” rather than the esoteric, arcane language and often bombastic posturing that characterised much of the writing of the eighteenth century - or "inane phraseology" as he put it. The philosopher Wittgenstein, one of the most influential authorities on language of the twentieth century, declared that we need to “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” (Philosophical Investigations, 1953). Have we lost sight of this soon?

Effective writing is not about studding the page with sparkly words. It's about making something spectacular out of the ordinary stuff of language, just as sculpture is about making art from a lump of rock or wood, not about sticking some diamonds on a rock. Of course, it's much harder to make words work together to produce something startling. That takes some teaching. But that's the case with most things that are worth doing.

The practice of writing a piece and then adding some 'wow' words recalls making a cake and then adding coloured sugar sprinkles on top. If the cake is good, the sprinkles add little and if the cake is bad the sprinkles disguise it only for seconds. Also like cake sprinkles, wow-words are for children. As soon as the kids get to university, we have no end of work in unpicking the damage and teaching them to write concisely and clearly. Maybe we'd all be more streamlined if we ditched both sprinkles and wow-words.

I will leave you with another poem in ordinary language, this one probably about 600-700 years old, though the oldest surviving text is from 1530:

Westron wynde, when wylt thow blow
The smalle rayne downe can rayne?
Cryst yf my love were in my armys
And I yn my bed agayne.

The 'wow' is in all the words working together, as it should be. (But I guess that's a bit too socialist a principle for Conservative education ministers. They'd rather have a top-hatted wow-word lording it over the ordinary words and collecting its bonus as the one that makes the piece work. Which, of course, it doesn't. The wow-word often impoverishes the rest...)

Anne Rooney
Latest book: Flashpoints in Science, Bounty, January 2016


Anne Booth said...

Brilliant examples here. That last poem is one of my all time favourites. I so agree with this post.

Anonymous said...

How beautifully expressed - and so true.

Susan Price said...

Cheers! - for the literary and political good sense!

John Dougherty said...

Fabulous post, Anne. Thank you.

Nikki Gamble said...
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Nikki Gamble said...
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Nikki Gamble said...

Absolutely. I have just been discussing exactly the same thing with teachers after reading Charles Causley's 'Maggie Dooley' in which 'family' is might be considered the most potent word in the poem. Excellent post, Anne

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Sandra Horn said...

Great post! Thank you! Wow...

Becca McCallum said...

Great post. I love the last poem. I like the idea of making 'ordinary' words sing.

Cathy Butler said...

Yes, a wonderful post.

C.J.Busby said...

Hear hear - so true. And yes, I love the last poem too.

Anonymous said...

I like the poem from WW1.

But ... I hate to go against what everyone else here feels ... you obviously all love your words. But some of us really dont love words.
We have to take English because its important for us to then continue in Science or Engineering. But the way English is now taught (certainly in Scotland) is just making it impossible for us. We really are not that interested in words and close reading. In fact I have often heard authors saying that in fact they had not meant what people who are analysing their poems or books attribute to them ...
If people wish to study English Language or literature then fine.
But can we also have a certificate in using English language - where it just covers the essentials for the rest of us ?! I remember we used to do Report Writing in the old English Higher - where you summarised information down to a 100 or so word report. Now I have heard so many people who are disappointed this is no longer there. And instead of a reasonably straightforward interpretation we now have "Close Reading" !