How to avoid smoking nervous cigarettes


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;
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us:
Then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us:
Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul:
Then the proud waters had gone over our soul.
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.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

2 thoughts on “How to avoid smoking nervous cigarettes”

  1. Nice one. I’m thinking about expressionism which, per Wilipedia, “was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality.” So you might have a filmmaker show somebody smoking a cigarette by using a jittery hand-held camera to convey expressionistically the sense of a nervous cigarette. I think you’d agree that the boundary is blurry boundary between straight-ahead realism and the transference from subject to object. E.g., “this is a book that’s a good bit of fun.” Not to be overly pedantic, but even describing the cedar tree out my window as “green” is to conflate physical properties of the tree and the lightwave frequencies bouncing off it with the ways in which my sensory-perceptual apparatus pick up those frequencies and transform them into subjectively salient information about the tree.


  2. Hey John……..When I first started trying to do some serious writing, I was strongly inclined toward realism. I just kind of assumed that writing well meant describing the world to the reader, exactly as it is. That didn’t last very long, though. For one thing, I realized that I actually didn’t enjoy reading books or essays that were heavy on description. As I’m writing my current novel, I find myself looking for a balance — using both hard descriptions of things (like most recently I’ve been describing the parts of an engine room in a tour boat) combined with getting a sense of how my characters are responding to their world (like describing how complicated an engine room can look the first time you see it, and how difficult it is to navigate in the small spaces, etc.)

    The example of shaking the camera is intriguing. I don’t care for that much, myself, and I’d reckon most viewers/readers don’t either. On the other hand, art/writing/creativity must “shake” our readers, otherwise it simply won’t be compelling. One can’t learn anything if one is not shaken, one can’t even be entertained without being shaken. But too much shaking risks destabilizing the reader, and if a reader is too destabilized, then s/he can’t learn or be entertained.

    It’s all contextual, though. I’m thinking of a YouTube video of police brutality, or something similar, where the shaking camera is part of what makes it “realistic” and therefore compelling for its realism. Or yet again, there was the Blair Witch Project where realism was imitated. The Fourth Kind is a lesser known but (in my opinion) more compelling version of this. It’s a film set in Nome Alaska and it purported to include real footage of an alien/demonic possession. It was like a film that cut away to a YouTube video then cut back to the film. The film was/is compelling only if the viewer is uncertain as to whether this story was “real” or whether the whole thing is made up. The key is to have the audience thinking to themselves, “Shit, did that really happen?!” If the viewer is shaken/destabilized as to the nature of the genre itself, then the thing works.


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