The Wordplay’s the Thing

Some novels are full of puns, quips, humorous asides, made-up words, generally weird language, etc. All of that can be overdone, but it can also be fun. And those books can have serious moments, too.

One novel with a wordplay bonanza is Ali Smith’s There But For The, which I read last week. It’s a quirky book that opens with a dinner guest locking himself in a room for what will be weeks and weeks — angering the homeowner who hosted the meal — before the novel spins into depicting various people who knew the interloper. The turns of phrase come fast and furious, but there are also poignant sections — most notably one focusing on a very sick women in her 80s. Not sure I can strongly recommend the novel — it was a trial to read at times — but the author certainly deserves props for originality.

Another novel with plenty of wordplay is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a speculative-fiction work that combines laugh-out-loud humor, eco-consciousness, genetic engineering, and the post-apocalypse in an unusual but heady mix. The book includes an online game called Extinctathon, a company with the name AnooYoo, etc.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (pen name of Brian O’Nolan) not only has a wacky plot but also some offbeat language flourishes. Two examples: “I am completely half-afraid to think” and “It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter.”

Quite a “snorter” (whatever the heck that means) is Jasper Fforde’s novel The Eyre Affair, in which a “literary detective” uses a “Prose Portal” to pursue a criminal inside the pages of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The detective’s name — Thursday Next — gives you an idea of Fforde’s enjoyable language shenanigans.

Among the many other novels with dazzling wordplay are Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, and Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals (one of the books in that author’s Discworld series), to name just a few.

Last but not least, there are the Lewis Carroll classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Language fun galore, and the latter book includes the iconic poem “Jabberwocky” — which starts and ends with this nonsensical verse:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe”

Your favorite novels with lots of wordplay?

A note: Last week, in my comedic literary version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” one of my poetic couplets read:

“The children are nestled all snug in their beds
Too young for Dostoyevsky to mess with their heads”

I’m feeling a little guilty about that turn of phrase. I was trying to be funny, and the poem’s structure didn’t leave much room for nuance, so I wanted to reaffirm here that I LOVE Dostoyevsky’s brilliant, often disturbing work — even if it’s not exactly children’s fare. Heck, Crime and Punishment is one of my three or four favorite novels ever, and much of The Brothers Karamazov is also amazing — to name his two most famous titles.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which contains FAIL and SAFE but has nothing to do with the “Fail Safe” novel and film 🙂 — is here.

84 thoughts on “The Wordplay’s the Thing

    • Thank you for the comment, KC!

      I also very much admire “The Idiot,” but my Dostoevsky favorites are “Crime and Punishment” and then “The Brothers Karamazov.” Of course, a novel like “The Idiot” would be the best work of many an other author. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The importance of being Earnest is my all- time favourite along with the evergreen Pride and Prejudice.

    I usually miss the snarky humour in ‘serious’ literature but do enjoy the quips thrown inadvertently to trigger a reaction. An example is Tibby ‘Howard’s End’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Yeah, Another Blogger! I’ve read Robin Sloan’s “Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore,” and it was definitely fanciful and whimsical. So I imagine “Sourdough” is a good fit for this blog topic. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This neologism than may be catching!!
    Just today my idiot fingers led me to invent ‘comaprison’ out of ‘comparison’.

    Seems like a useful word, especially to describe a person who has been in one long-term.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. @middlejuly2014 I just wanted to say thank you so much for following my website. I’d like to hear what you think about my writing, because judging by your blog, I’m sure you have a lot of literary insight that would be very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Perhaps, had Dostoevsky only thought to write “Crime and Punishment Means the Naughty Step”, he might have gained more readers among precocious prepubescents, relieved to see that nothing worse could happen. Of course, he being Dostoevsky, something worse could. Hence his actual output.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Sometimes, wordsmiths make durable contributions to the world beyond books. William Gibson, author of “Neuromancer” (1984), is credited for having invented the words ‘cyberspace’ and ‘netsurfing’, and the concept of the matrix.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. F. Scott Fitzgerald like to make up funny names,even at the risk of going a bit far for cheap laugh in a great novel, as when, in “The Great Gatsby”, among the Buchanan’s party guests are The Leeches, Newton Orchid, Dr. Webster Civet, the Hornbeams, and people named Blackbuck, Beaver and Ferret. Then there are the unblinking eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleberg.

    He could also use company names for comic purposes. In a letter to daughter Scottie about the cost of her clothes, he refers to having received bills from Peck and Peck and Peck and Peck.

    He is not alone in making comic names serve his own ends. Dickens of course, comes immediately to mind: Uriah Heep, Martin Chuzzlewit Thomas Gradgrind. And before him, Jonathan Swift who named the island on which Gulliver discovers tiny people ‘Lilliput’ and the giant’s daughter ‘Glumdalclitch’, who lives on the island Brobdingnag.Thomas Pynchon named one of his characters in “V” Roger Mexico, which seemed to be an obscure reference to certain slides of muscular men that identified the poser by first name, and place of photoshoot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Cheap laughs can be okay sometimes; “The Great Gatsby” of course is still a great novel overall, and one remembers its serious/sobering aspects much more than the occasional goofy moments. A sense of humor is not the first quality one thinks of when thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he seems to have had one. I’ve noticed that here and there in his short stories, too.

      Dickens was definitely a master namer, and “Gulliver’s Travel” was indeed memorable in that respect.


  7. Hi Dave,

    For me, the most obvious example this week is Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. I was lucky that this was one of the few classics that landed on my lap when I was a teenager, and I’m so glad it did. The made up words might seem obvious, and maybe even unnecessary now, but I was blown away by how clever they were when I was younger.

    Speaking of younger, Roald Dahl (thanks to Martina for mentioning him) was one of the first writers I ever fell in love with. I remember reading Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and thinking that the sequel was even better than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Well, I’ve read the original numerous times, and seen the movies, but somehow never revisited the sequel… until now. I don’t think there’s been too many made up words yet, but I know they’re coming and I can’t wait.

    Dave, will just quickly touch on your last two blogs as it seems that I was too busy to comment at the time. Of course, your Christmas poem was wonderfully put together. Terrifically clever, and very kind of you to share. I’m a big fan of Dostoevsky, and wasn’t the tiniest bit offended. If you read those Russian classics and they don’t mess with your head – well then you’re reading them wrong!

    I’m nearly finished my re-read of Great Expectations. It’s SO much better than I remember (and I already had fond memories). I wouldn’t say that the Dickens novel is a child of Of Human Bondage (especially as it was written first!), but I’ve never before noticed their similarities. I remembered Pip having a childlike crush on Estella, but he’s just as obsessed as poor Philip Carey was. And Estella is just as mean as Mildred, though maybe with more cause. Oh, darn. I just had a quick look at your post from two weeks ago and see that Clanmother beat me to it! Oh, well. There can’t be too much Dickens in the world. Especially this time of year!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the many-faceted comment, Susan!

      “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a GREAT mention. It indeed contains such interesting, scary, made-up language (“doublespeak,” “unperson,” etc.) that piggybacked on existing language.

      Excellent paragraph about Roald Dahl!

      So pleased you liked the poem. Thank you for your kind words about it! A number of of those Russian classics do indeed mess with one’s head — in a way, albeit uncomfortable, that we’re very glad they do. (Not sure that sentence of mine was grammatical. 🙂 )

      That’s a fascinating comparison between “Great Expectations” and “Of Human Bondage” that I hadn’t really thought about. Maugham must have read Dickens, of course, and who knows what followed from that. Interestingly, some other memorable Maugham novels (“The Razor’s Edge,” “The Moon and Sixpence,” “The Painted Veil,” etc.) don’t evoke Dickens very much.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have come late to the party, which is always a good thing because the discussion gets more exciting as the ideas and comments arrive. Isn’t it interesting how words that come from one person is adopted by all. Think of the Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum and the word “munchkin.” Or how about Shangri-La, the name for the imaginary land depicted in the novel Lost Horizon (1933) by James Hilton. And here I will digress ( you knew I would, didn’t you?). I remember the first time I heard the word “googol” which was when I was around 8 or 9. I later learned that it was a word thought up in 1920 by 9-year-old Milton Sirotta (1911–1981), nephew of U.S. mathematician Edward Kasner. My uncle had just come home from university and told me that it was the number 1 followed by 100 zeros. I could not even imagine how big that number was! Kasner popularized the concept in his 1940 book Mathematics and the Imagination. The term became a household name with the emergence of “Google.” Why was the word spelled differently, you may ask? I understand the change was because the company’s founders misspelled the word, “googol.” Words have the best background stories. And you have given us another excellent post, Dave! PS your line in the Write before Christmas was perfect.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother! A pleasure to read your wide-ranging comment! Yes, SO interesting to think of words that got coined in novels. From “Munchkin” in “The Wonderful World of Oz” to “Muggle” in the “Harry Potter” books, etc., etc.

      “Lost Horizon” is an absolutely mesmerizing novel.

      Fascinating to hear about the origins of the Google name! The word “googol” reminds me a little of Russian author Nikolai Gogol of “The Overcoat” and “Dead Souls” fame.

      A Google of another sort was the “Barney Google” comic, whose creator Billy DeBeck coined words in the strip such as “horsefeathers” and “heebie-jeebies” during the 1920s. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Don remembers Barney Google and my father would say, from time to time, “horse feathers.” Thank you Dave – you just made my day. My father would have been 95 years old yesterday. What a wonderful gift you gave me with this comment.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Great that Don remembers “Barney Google,” and that your father would say “horse feathers”! Yesterday’s 95th anniversary of your late dad’s birth is quite a milestone. 🙂 😦

          Barney Google still appears once in a while in the “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith” comic now done by John Rose. Many years ago, the strip shifted over to Snuffy, who was the city-dwelling Barney’s country cousin or something. Interesting how an urban feature became a rural feature.


              • I tried to find a recording contemporary with the song, (and the strip, of course). The lyricist, Billy Rose, was better known as a showman and impresario, and best known for being the husband of Fanny Brice.

                But to me, he will always be beloved for having written lyrics for “Does your Spearmint Lose Its Flavor On the Bedpost Over Night?”, a song recorded decades after its conception by Lonnie Donegan, king of the skiffle bands, which became a minor novelty hit in the early ’60’s here in the US. As a boy, I thought it was all kinds of funny. Donegan recast it slightly as “Does Your Chewing Gum, etc.”

                Liked by 2 people

                • Interesting that the current “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith” cartoonist has the same last name as Billy Rose. But it’s a relatively common name, of course.

                  I remember that “Does your [Chewing Gum] Lose Its Flavor On the Bedpost Over Night” song! I had a friend who played it constantly — on a 45 rpm single I guess — a few years after it came out. All kinds of funny indeed!


    • Thank you, Bill! Excellent mention! I haven’t read a huge amount of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, but “Slaughterhouse-Five” certainly has many a turn of phrase.

      And — LOL! — a character being “transinfundibulated to the planet Tralfamador” is pretty eye-opening language. Hopefully some frequent flyer miles involved…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Good morning Dave, I have always considered stories written in a very creative language, as wella as slang to be the most difficult for me, probably also because I don’t have enough humour! Of course I have in mind Lewis Carrol, but I best remember The Witches by Roald Dahl, with for example the following sentence:” It comes to me” said The Grand High Witch, “that you ancient vuns vill not be able to climb high trrrrees in search of grrrruntles’ eggs.”
    Thank you very much for your excellent ideas:) Best regards Martina

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Thomas Pynchon for sure! I am now inspired, and recovered sufficiently from Mason & Dixon to tackle his Gravity’s Rainbow. As you say, Dave, sometimes these literary romps require websites dedicated to them! Thanks for that 🙂 Lewis Carroll for sure. I’d forgotten Atwood’s humor in Oryx & Crake with its dystopian horror, although it’s on full display in The Heart Goes Last. I don’t know if Dickens created new words, but his characters’ names and expressions fit this fun theme today. Perhaps the strange language in his novels is merely unfamiliar British dialect to American readers. Can you imagine readers in decades to come trying to decipher American slang? Heck, I don’t kids can understand our language from either the 18th or 19th century. They find it difficult to believe it’s even English!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! Excellent comment, with some nice humorous flourishes. 🙂

      “Inherent Vice” is the only Pynchon novel I’ve read, and it’s probably not exceptionally representative of his work compared to the two you mentioned, but he seems to be pretty masterful with language.

      I don’t know if there’s any novel with quite the combination of dystopian and comedic elements as “Oryx & Crake.”

      Yes, many of the expressions and character names (Fezziwig, Mr. Bumble, Wackford Squeers, etc.) in Dickens novels are funny and memorable, even if they might have seemed a bit less interesting to 19th-century British readers. Time and place definitely affect our perception of things like that. And American slang does change at a VERY rapid pace.

      Liked by 3 people

  11. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess fits the bill I think. Been many, many years since I read it but the antics of Alex and his droogs are quite unpleasantly memorable.

    You mentioned one of my favourites ‘Alice in wonderland’ and the nonsense poetry that was popular around that time. I was very fond of Edward Lear poetry as a child.

    I suppose we can’t ignore William Shakespeare in this matter either. Didn’t he introduce about 1800 words into the English language? At the time it must have required some context to understand what was meant. Of course, specific examples of words escape me now…

    Liked by 4 people

  12. I don’t read science fiction or fantasy very often, but when I do, some of the terms and words “throw me for a loop,” so to speak. Sometimes they can be guessed by context, of course, but if not, I don’t even know if they’re “real” and whether looking them up will help:)

    Liked by 4 people

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