I enjoyed this brief essay on compound nouns from both a writer’s and a reader’s perspective and I hope you will too.
The primary influences on my writing have always been Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Based on what I have read, neither was a fan of metaphors. Somewhere in the back of my mind I seem to recall Hemingway once calling metaphors “the weakest of animals” or “the “weakest of literary devices” or something like that (I have searched for this quote and haven’t found it yet). Ergo, I have always shied away from metaphors and I have found that it has helped my writing immensely by forcing me to be creative in my comparisons and analogies. While searching in vain for Hemingway’s quotation on metaphors tonight, I ran across this quotation from George Orwell which makes a few good points:
“By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dash [sic] … it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.”
Metaphors are a bridge to another idea; they take the reader onto a tangent. If I say, “The hunter stumbled through the woods like a wounded bear,” I am shifting the reader’s visual image from that of the hunter to that of a bear. Yes, I give the reader a concise description of how the hunter was stumbling, and the reader can probably visualize the stumbling rather accurately, but wouldn’t the reader become more involved with the hunter and be able to visualize the scene more precisely if the hunter is described as if he were a wounded bear stumbling. Wouldn’t it also be a bit more of an intriguing psychological puzzle for the reader to solve and come to his own sudden epiphany of something like “Oh, he’s moving like a wounded bear!” For example:
The hunter, half-dazed from a blow to the head, his dark eyes fixed on some point on the dim horizon, staggered back and forth, bumping into trees, sometimes leaning against them to keep from collapsing into the hard-packed snow, dropping to one knee then rising slowly, painfully catching his breath, limping, often groaning, sometimes bellowing out in a desperate hope that someone passing through the distant shadows might come to his aid.
Isn’t that more dramatic? Doesn’t that involve the reader more into the actions and situation of the main character? Yes, it’s considerably longer, but now the reader can visualize precisely the hunter’s agonizing movements. Now, instead of having to visualize a bear, all attention is focused entirely on visualizing the hunter. Now you are forced to be creative, to use something other than Orwell’s “stale metaphors, similes and idioms” and have to use something more dynamic. No one can accuse you of not really thinking or of being lazy in your descriptions.
In short, if I want to compare two objects, I describe one using the characteristics and attributes of the other. If I have done it well, the reader will see the likeness between the two, but will still remained focused, and maybe even more intensely, on the subject.
I have used this method for some time now, and I believe it has strengthened my works considerably.
For more on this method of describing objects, see my article on the Tao of Writing Part 3: Talking about Dogs.
Here is a superb explanation from http://grammar.about.com/od/alightersideofwriting/a/sensualgloss.htm of the distinction between two words I still confuse (no matter how many times I watch the supermarket scene from Animal House). Knowing the history of the two words helps. I stumbled across this article today while double-checking its usage for a story I am writing.
After reading this it occurred to me that a good mnemonic for the difference would be to remember that sensual and sexual both end in -ual. As a matter of fact, the only difference in pronunciation is that one has an x (a ks sound) and the other has ns.
The adjective sensual means affecting or gratifying the physical senses, especially in a sexual way.
Sensuous means pleasing to the senses, especially those involved in aesthetic pleasure, as of art or music.
But as explained in the usage notes below, this fine distinction is often overlooked.
- “If one wants another only for some self-satisfaction, usually in the form of sensual pleasure, that wrong desire takes the form of lust rather than love.” (Mortimer Adler)
- Her first book of poems included several sensuous descriptions of flowers.
- “The controversial 1969 bestseller The Sensuous Woman would have been more accurately titled The Sensual Woman because its explicit subject matter concerns the unabashed gratification of sexual desire.
“Here’s how you can keep the two words straight. If you mean lovely, pleasurable, or experienced through the senses, use sensuous; if you mean self-gratifying or pertaining to physical desires, use sensual. Sensuous thoughts have a pleasant effect on your senses as well as your mind. Sensual thoughts are erotic, sexually arousing, maybe even lewd.”
(Charles Harrington Elster, Verbal Advantage: Ten Easy Steps to a Powerful Vocabulary. Random House, 2009)
- The Origins of Sensuous
“Sensuous is an interesting word. The OED says it was apparently invented by [John] Milton, because he wanted to avoid the sexual connotations of the word sensual (1641).
“The OED cannot find any evidence of the use of the word by any other writer for 173 years, not until [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge:
Thus, to express in one word what belongs to the senses, or the recipient and more passive faculty of the soul, I have reintroduced the word sensuous, used, among many others of our elder writers, by Milton. (Coleridge, “Principles of General Criticism,” in Farley’s Bristol Journal, August 1814)
“Coleridge put the word into ordinary circulation–and almost immediately it began to pick up those old sexual connotations that Milton and Coleridge wanted to avoid.”
(Jim Quinn, American Tongue and Cheek, Pantheon Books, 1980)
Overlapping Meanings“The consensus of the commentators, from Vizetelly 1906 to the present, is that sensuous emphasizes aesthetic pleasure while sensual emphasizes gratification or indulgence of the physical appetites.”The distinction is true enough within one range of meanings, and it is worth remembering. The difficulty is that both words have more than one sense, and they tend often to occur in contexts where the distinction between them is not as clear cut as the commentators would like it to be.”(Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)