September 4, 2014

No pictures, thousands of words

THOSE OF YOU who visit this space regularly will know that, strictly speaking, this is not a blog. It’s a column. The word blog is an abbreviation of web log, which signifies a kind of personal diary, a record of your recent comings and goings and happenings and emotions, all published for the world to see on the world-wide web. (All the world that’s interested, that is.)

A column is quite another matter. This a column for readers, and by readers I mean people who can assimilate more than 140 characters at a time — people who can read several contiguous sentences without having to pause to feed their brains on eye candy.

This column is called Mainly about Boats, although you’d probably not know that unless you read the small print at the bottom. You will, however, have noticed that this column almost always appears without illustrations, something that is very unusual in the electronic publishing business these days. In fact, if it were a blog it would be a blingless blog, which apparently is not the way to attract traffic. Too bad. I happen to prefer words to pictures.

Words, on their own, are quite tricky enough to manage without having to bother about pictures. When I was editing books for International Marine they came up with a very professional manuscript by Migael Scherer, of Seattle. It’s called A Cruising Guide to Puget Sound. I could find no fault with her copy, except that she constantly referred to those places where small boats are placed in the water as “boat launches.” I knew full well that everybody around here calls them boat launches, but when it came to the printed word I found it confusing, because a launch is a type of boat. Webster’s New World describes it as “an open, or partly enclosed, motorboat” or (formerly) “the largest boat carried by a warship.”

So I changed “boat launch” to “launching ramp” about a million times, after having carefully considered such alternatives as slipway, marine railway, etc.  Migael wasn’t happy about that and wanted me to change a million “launching ramps” back to “boat launches.” But in the end I prevailed, mostly on the grounds that such a classy book deserved language with the highest degree of clarity.  “Launching ramp” might have been fuddy-duddy, but it was certainly clear.

And, talking about that, it is interesting to note how difficult it is sometimes to use clear words to describe the simplest of objects or emotions. On the same page as “launch” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is the world “laugh.” Have you ever tried to describe a laugh?

The COD makes heavy weather of it:

“laugh (lahf) v. & n. 1. make the sounds and movements of face and body by which lively amusement, sense of the ludicrous, exultation, and scorn, are instinctively expressed; have these emotions.”

Webster’s dives even deeper into these muddy waters, adding definitions for laugh, chuckle, giggle, titter, snicker, and guffaw.

In other words, it’s far easier to laugh than to describe it.  And it’s far easier to fill a blog with pretty pictures than with interesting words.

Today’s Thought
The words! I collected them in all shapes and sizes and hung them like bangles in my mind.
— Hortense Calisher, Extreme Magic

“Any Royalty in your wife’s family?”
“No, but she had an uncle who was a Peer.”
“Really? I had an uncle with bladder trouble, too.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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