Monday, February 06, 2006

PD James Takes Aim at Verbal Pretenders

When I read P.D. James’ exceptional murder mystery, A Taste for Death, I was pleasantly surprised by the heightened lingual awareness displayed in her writing. Previous James novels (I’ve been reading her Adam Dalgliesh series chronologically) were brilliant, but less self-conscious about language.

James betrays her love for verbal perfection at every turn, but in Taste, her delight in the well-chosen word emerged with unmistakable zest, Adam Dalgliesh being the prime linguaphile. As in this paragraph:
“He throws over his job, his career, possibly his family. Then, don’t ask me how or why, he discovers that it’s all a chimera.” Nichols repeated the word as if to reassure himself of the pronunciation. Dalgliesh wondered where he had come across it.

I found little to quibble over and lots to love with this approach (despite the fact that the word “excrescence” appears at least twice in every book James writes. I’ve always argued that if you’re going to have favorite $5-words, you had better be oblique about it; i.e., your readers shouldn’t be able to tell).

Probably the one point of debate is whether an author should overtly expose her characters to ridicule when they fail to do justice to an exceptional noun. Such censure, coming from Dalgliesh, a published poet and arguably a cultural snob, is highly entertaining, but could it deter aspiring word-lovers from experimentation? One has to wonder.

Just the same, James has risen to the status of honorary VRP activist. And in case you're wondering, chimera is pronounced "ky-meer-ah" or "kih-meer-ah," as near as I can reproduce it phonetically.


Blogger Andrew Simone said...

"Chimera" is from the greek word meaning "day," if I recall correctly. I supose the idea is that the illusion does not last; it lacks permanence. The interesting thing about the word, etymologically, is how the "k" slowly snuck its way into the pronunciation. The greek word starts with an "eta" with a hard breathing mark, this would give it an "h" sound to start with the first syllable sounding roughly like "hey". The more I think of it, the more the english pronuciation makes sense: the harder the "h" sound, the more the "k" sound peaks out.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Belinda said...

Interesting, as I was just reading (and getting ready to post about) this word as it defines experiments in recombinant DNA in human/animal combinations. Apparently there is a scientist fully capable of producing mice with 100% human brain tissue, and he has this project on hold awaiting the findings of a large ethics conference in March. He has already developed mice with 10% human brains. Frightening times, in some ways.

3:47 AM  

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