Accent on Living
IT WAS around two decades ago, in the city room of the Boston Evening Transcript, that I first became aware of the elongated-yellow-fruit school of writing. The phrase turned up in a story, a determinedly funny story, about sonic fugitive monkeys and the efforts of police to recapture them by using bananas as bait. The young rewrite man on the story was bowling along in high spirits, full of references to “the gendarmes and the “ blue-coated minions of the law,” and it was inevitable that in such a context the word banana would seem woefully dull. So it was that bananas became, after first mention, “the elongated yellow fruit —a term which the Transcript staff always used thereafter in dealings with the office fruit peddler, especially when the young rewrite man was within earshot.
I have pamphleteered from time to time on the elongated-vellow-fruit school of writing, and friends and strangers alike have sent me many examples of it. As a category, its limits are imprecise; I estimate that it lies somewhere between the cliché and the “fine writing” so dreaded by teachers of English Composition. It is not hackneyed, for some examples of it are certainly one-of-a-kind and could result from only the most inspired meditation, but neither is it always overblown, it does bespeak an author who wishes to seem witty, knowledgeable, and versatile — this last quality, no doubt, being the goal decreed by the other sort of composition teacher, who objects to “repetition” and demands synonyms for anything mentioned more than once. It can also bespeak an author who is merely pompous.
News and sports stories are the main vehicles for the elongated-vellow-fruit writers, yet examples are found in a variety of places. “Here lurks our Cyrano of the deep,” asserts the copy writer in an advertisement of Campbell, Wyant and Cannon Foundry Company, unable to bring himself to repeat the word swordfish. In listing “New Words and Words in the News,” the Funk and Wagnalls Company informs us that a mess sergeant in the U.S. Air Force is now called a “food service technician.” It would he impossible for some writers to mention oysters without a furl her reference to “the succulent bivalves" or for a sports writer to ballyhoo any athletic event and fail to speak of “the coveted pasteboards.” Perhaps these are clichés, but surely one has need of the e.y.f. category when Standard Oil Company describes a sheet of glass in the wall of an engine testing room as “an aperture for visual observation.”
The true elongator abhors a word like milk, usually preferring to call it “the lacteal fluid”; it has reached me also as “the white gold” and “the vitamin-laden liquid,” and the cow as “the bovine milk factory.” Bluebeard, on the second reference in a New York Herald Tribune book review, was elongated into “the azure whiskered wife slayer.” Here is how the Boston Globe described Harvard’s reaction to a lucky break in a game with Dartmouth: “The Johns were not guilty of inspecting the bicuspids of gift-nags.” A few more examples recently received : —
Easter-egg hunt . . . “hen-fruit safari (Los Angeles Mirror)
Billiard halls . . . “the numbered1 spheroids” (University of California Clipsheet)
Money . . . “that green folding stuff that hubby brings home every week" (Dr. George Gallup)
Chocolate . . . “the beverage derived from the nuts of the cacao-tree” (London Sketch)
Cats . . , “loving little fur bundles” (New York World Telegram)
Peanuts . . . “the succulent goober” (Associated Press)
Trucks . . . “the rubber-tired mastodons of the highway” (United Press)
Deer . . . “the antlered ruminants” (Everett. Wash., Daily Herald)
Tennis balls . . . “the furry spheres” (Boston Globe)
Skis . . . “the beatified barrel staves” (Travel)
Rabbit . . . “the fluffy fence-hopper” (Boston American)
Ice (for skaters) . . . “the extremely frozen medium of their gyroscopic maneuvers” (Los Angeles Herald and Express)
Football officials . . . “the Nuremberg Jury equipped with stripes and whistles” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Inveighing against the elongated-vellow-fruit writers is much like denouncing sin: the results, if any, are hard to measure, and there is always a willing newcomer to occupy a vacancy.
Every so often a copy desk will send me in galley proof an elongation which it has intercepted on the way to publication, and there are times when I have fell the faint stirrings of a crusade on the subject. But now comes a book called The Phrase Finder which lists thousands of what sound like elongated-vellow-fruit examples, not, according to its publishers, with a view to suppressing them but to recommending them to all who write. “For those who want to achieve a truly striking style in humor,” so the publishers say of the third section of their new book, “The Sophisticated Synonym Finder is a sparkling thesaurus of witty phrases. . . . To establish your wit and reputation in all categories of company, you need only thumb through this section to discover, to your amazement, that love-letters have become ‘petting by mail’. . . . Longevity becomes ‘a matter of outwitting the grave,’ while Gratitude is realistically described as ‘a lively sense of favors to come.’ ”
My own reaction to “The Sophisticated Synonym Finder” is the same as that of John May, Jr., commenting on a proposed rate increase and quoted verbatim in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. The increase, said he, would be “the bit of dried grass that will rupture the dorsal vertebrae of the ship of the desert.”
- Pool, not billiard, balls are numbered. ↩