Friday, May 27, 2011

Of Nitwits, Nincompoops, & Knuckleheads

Recently I made a post on an internet forum in which I referred to a certain female half-term politician / failed reality-TV star as a “nincompoop”. Subsequent posters observed that nincompoop is an under-used word but so appropriate for the person I applied it to. This pleased me because I have a fondness for words like that. I used to work with a guy who always referred to an annoying co-worker as a “knucklehead” and it always made me chuckle when he said that.

There are a lot of really good words that have fallen out of use which I am totally in favor of reviving. I have been watching a lot of old 1940s and 1950s movies lately and I'd forgotten about so many of the words that were in common usage back then. Last night I watched Henry Hathaway's incredible Niagara with Joseph Cotton, Marilyn Monroe, and Jean Peters. In one scene, after he has just behaved badly, Cotton says that he feels “kind of goofy” which made me laugh even though the scene wasn't supposed to be funny. Marilyn Monroe uses quite a few now-quaint expressions, too – “swell”, “corny” – I wonder if there is a movie made in the past 30 years that includes such words in the script.

Actually, I did notice Gabriel Byrne say he was “feeling kind of daffy” in a recent re-watch of the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, one of my all time favorite movies. Personally, I've always been fond of “nitwit” and “fruit loop”, too. Language evolves and transforms with the times but, as writers, we have to stay mindful of those terms when writing period fiction. Nothing quite captures the flavor of a period like using the right slang words. When a character refers to a “dame with a great set of gams”, well, we know he's not talking about a woman from the 21st century.

The psychology of characters has changed, too. In Niagara Joseph Cotton talks about being sent home from Korea with “battle fatigue” and spending time in, what one of the characters refers to as, a “psycho” hospital. But mostly he is burned out by trying to keep his “tramp” wife (Marilyn Monroe) happy because, despite her betrayal, he is still “stuck on” her. As I was watching it I couldn't help but wonder how that movie might be re-written today – leaving aside the fact that those old wooden walkways in and around the Falls are long gone, replaced by metal ones which are better for safety but not for murdering unwanted husbands.

I also watched Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit which I don't think I had ever seen before. The story deals with a man trying to come back from war – World War II in this case – and lead a normal life. In the course of the story it is revealed that he fathered a child while stationed in Italy, probably a fairly common occurrence but not one that movies dealt with back then. He decides to do the right thing and support the child but, when he tells his wife, played by Jennifer Jones, about it, she becomes understandably upset. This took place in the era when men did not talk about their feelings and about what happened in the war. While trying to make her understand he says that he got involved with the child's mother because he was so frightened and didn't know if each day would be his last.

In an effort to explain himself he says, “I killed seventeen men face to face, one of them just for his coat, and that is not counting the ones killed in battle.” She replies to this saying, “Yes, but none of that effects me.” Nitwit.

I'm not sure where all this is leading but it doesn't matter. Fascinations are the way writers' brains tell them they are on to something. So I keep collecting words and thoughts and, well, who knows?

Thanks for reading.


  1. Fun stuff, Kathleen. I love the old words; dames and dolls and swells and stiffs. I remember when gay was not a fag and fag was just a cigarette but if someone was a "weak sister" then he really was gay. People put their money where their mouth was, if not on the barrel head, and it was still common to go somewhere "as the crow flies." You wouldn't leave the house without a hat anymore than you'd leave without your underwear. The language of my parents and grandparents still rings so true in my ears and I can see their lifestyles as if they were here now. It was a time when everyone knew about Burma Shave as well as Burma; they understood the bum needed them to spare a dime and no one begrudged another a cup of hot joe.

    I think it's so important to get the region and the period nailed when we write and I'm especially irritated with all the young writers who love to write historical fiction and don't adjust the language to suit the times. I read something the other day where the author wrote about a Depression era love affair between teens; her young heroine called the boy she had a crush on a "hunk" and "eye candy." Not likely, sweetie.

    Another peeve: readers who cannot grow & won't grow or see the world through the smallest lens. I especially love it when an infant chastises me, an old lady who's lived 3 lifetimes. A young reader told me what she didn't like about January Moon was that I "made up words" that don't exist. Huh? Give me an example... she did: Chi-town. "That's stupid. I never heard that." Really? How old are YOU? "17." Well, honey bunny, what you haven't heard yet would fill volumes! Have you ever lived in Chicago? "No, but I read about it in Wikipedia." Nitwit. :)

  2. LOL! Yes, I've written about youngsters (!) ailing to understand the times in which books were written before. Case in point was a discussion I stumbled into among young people who had watched "Rebecca" and couldn't figure out why the second Mrs. DeWinter let Mrs. Danvers push her around. No clue about the British class system at all.

    Oh well -- that's why I don't buy their books.


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