The Ignoble Art of Circumlocution
Editor's note: This is our final post from Herschel Gordon Lewis. We are sorry to report that Herschel has passed away, and this was the last blog post he sent us. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with him.
Some years back, a semi-literate day helper inadvertently made a comment entitling her to the kind of immortality someone can get only through exposure in immortal columns such as this one.
As best I remember, she had just one name: Tooden.
Tooden had a habit, which sometimes was hilarious and sometimes was frustrating. She would pick up a word and use it, whether her use had any relationship with reality or not.
What comes to mind every time my mind shoots back to those kinder, gentler times was a circumstance in which a family discussion centered on a comment that came to me from an editor at a publication whose concrete walls I had tried to breach. The note complimented my writing style but never came close enough to include acceptance. Somebody pointed out that praise without purpose and praise without acceptance was the type of circumlocution too many editors employed, to get rid of the detritus clogging their mailboxes. (This was in the primitive pre-Internet era.)
Tooden wandered by, picking up the dinner dishes, just as the word “circumlocution” was uttered and repeated. As was her wont, she added her quaint touch of irrelevance: “My mama say that’s dangerous and can make it impossible to have kids.”
Tooden said that a relative of hers had had a baby son, and a handyman “fixed” the child with a box-cutter. “He just circum-wha? Circumlocuted that kid. He’s my cousin but he ain’t worth much.” And on Tooden toddled, unaware that she had added a word to the sticksionary of words gone wrong. Our noble global word-dissection was pilloried on Tooden’s grammar-hammer.
The Negative Principle Survives
With or without Tooden, we as communicators can and should be accused of cheating if instead of adhering to the Clarity Commandment we lapse or jump into the noncommunicative puddle of circumlocution.
(Just in case you’ve read this far and haven’t had the benefit of a Tooden or a thesaurus, circumlocution means talking around a point without penetrating to its totality. And as a second just in case, the Clarity Commandment is — or certainly should be — the overlord of every communication we hatch: When you choose words and phrases for force-communication, clarity is paramount and reigns supreme. Don’t let any other component of the communications mix interfere with it.)
Herschell Gordon Lewis is president of Lewis Enterprises in Pompano Beach, Florida. Author of 32 books including “On the Art of Writing Copy” (now in its fourth edition), “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” and “How to Write Powerful Catalog Copy,” he is a member of the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at 954.782.1750 or email@example.com. Cell is 954.600.7073.