One of my favorite discoveries of 2015 is The Elements of Eloquence, written by a chap named Mark Forsyth. Forsyth is a Brit, hence the reason that I’ve picked up the term “chap.” Don’t let the title of the work fool you, because The Elements of Eloquence is by no means a serious or pretentious work. While it’s true that you can’t appreciate it unless you are a writer or have an inner grammar geek, this is a book that’s a good bit of fun. It’s packed with pithy puns and offhand irreverence, it’s a book I’d imagine Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy) might write had he written a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grammar or something along that line. I’ve had more laughs with The Elements of Eloquence than with any other book this year.
Another way to put the same point is that I’ve had many a delighted chortle reading through Forsyth. A “delighted chortle” is an example of a transferred epithet, and a transferred epithet is an example of a literary device, and literary devices are the subject of Forsyth’s wry, smart little book.
We might use the term “a restless night” or “a happy morning” but nights themselves are never restless nor are mornings happy, per se. (There are probably a few readers who would dispute the entire existence of a “happy morning,” but that just proves the point.) It’s a literary device we use to talk about spending the better part of our regularly scheduled nocturnal activities tossing and turning about on our bed. The night isn’t restless, we are.
Another transferred epithet that I quite like is, “the man smoked a nervous cigarette.” The man is nervous, not the cigarette. The cigarette couldn’t care less. Or, maybe it does, after all, it’s about to be lit up like a heretic and burned to death; but then again, cigarettes (unlike heretics) don’t actually die. And that’s a relief.
The transferred epithet, though, works quite well, don’t you think? We all know that it’s the man who is nervous, not the cigarette, but talking about “a nervous cigarette” is evocative and makes for compelling writing.
The transferred epithet can be taken a bit too far, though. Forsyth lists this example from P. G. Wodehose. “It was plain that I had shaken him. His eyes widened, and an astonished piece of toast fell from his grasp.” Your cigarette may be nervous, sure, but when your breakfast food starts jiving and hoping about, then things might be getting out of control. It makes me think that brooms and pots and pans are going to start floating around, like in the old Disney film, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That didn’t turn out well at all. On the other hand, maybe an author wants an astonished piece of toast because s/he wants things out of control.
The biblical Psalms, of course, doth make use of transferred epithet, yea verily. Hence today’s readings mention the “proud waters,” which is the old English term for what we would term “raging waters” or waters that will kick your ass. That’s the point of Psalm 124, which, if you liked the astonished toast or metaphors and poetry that get as crazy and chaotic as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, then you’ll get a kick out of this one:
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, now may Israel say;
2 If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us:
3 Then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us:
4 Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul:
5 Then the proud waters had gone over our soul.
6 Blessed be the Lord, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth.
Or you might just be confused. The use of “had” rather than using the more definitive term “would have” throws the whole meaning up in the air. Using a solid conditional perfect tense settles things down for the reader so that s/he can fully appreciate all the benefits of favorable divine intervention, and perhaps, just perhaps, the reader can then relax thereby avoiding any restless nights filled with the smoking of nervous cigarettes.