The Write Stuff – Charming the Serpents

Alan Crawford write stuff
27 Apr, 2022


The Write Stuff

Alan Crawford write stuff
April 2022

Charming the Serpents

By Alan Crawford
Impact Editor

“Language,” Ambrose Bierce wrote, “is the music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.” Remember that the next time you try to persuade an elected official to support a piece of legislation. Bierce (1842-1904) included that definition in The Devil’s Dictionary. He also wrote the haunting short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

He had a lot to say, so I recommend a small book, published in 2009, by Jan Freeman, a longtime Boston Globe columnist, called Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right: The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers. It’s a compendium of words and phrases that Bierce had strong, often acidic, opinions about, which Freeman explains in a useful, sometimes amusing way. Some of Bierce’s observations are dated and stuffy, but they will make us think more clearly about the choices we face as writers ourselves.

Alan Crawford is a published author and journalist who, in his books and articles, has written on the period of the United States’ founding and the American tradition.

Bierce detested gubernatorial. It’s “not English, is needless and bombastic,” and Freeman writes that it seems to derive from “the nonexistent Latin gubernatorius. (Gubernator was good Latin, but not a good foundation for an adjective, according to the purists.)” Bierce suggests we leave gubernatorial to “those who call a political office a ‘chair.’ ‘Gubernatorial chair’ is good enough for them. So is hanging.”)

How about candidate? “In American politics,” Bierce writes, “one is not a candidate for an office until formally named (nominated) for it by a convention, or otherwise, as provided by law or custom. So when a man who is moving Heaven and Earth to procure the nomination protests that he is ‘not a candidate’ he tells the truth in order to deceive.’”

Freeman notes that purists continue to follow Bierce’s guide, “saying that the rafts of presidential hopefuls in primary season are not yet candidates for the presidency, but only for the nomination.” While true, Freeman adds, this not especially useful. I disagree. It makes us consider the possibility, and that alone tends to make us better writers.

ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH: Transformative. It’s no longer good enough to improve something, whether it’s a process for boosting sales, the way we respond to climate change, or how a president carries out his duties. Everything has to be transformative. That’s asking too much, even if it were remotely possible once in a great while. Besides, most of us don’t want our way of life transformed. We’ve got enough problems as it is.

Additional Resources

March Write Stuff – How Politicians Talk

Workshop: Advocacy Content Creation

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