alexandra alger


Archive for the category “Words”

Fairy Tales, Part II


In search of the more obscure fairy tales—in other words, the stranger, more disturbing ones—I checked out of the library The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, translated by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell, with black-and-white drawings by Maurice Sendak (1973). Segal and Sendak chose twenty-seven tales, and most of them were new to me.  

And fantastically strange many of them are. In “Hans My Hedgehog,” a boy is born with the head and torso of the prickly woodlands creature. Sendak makes him menacing rather than adorable in the way of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Wiggle, but he’s also kind of…dashing. Rejected by his parents, Hans goes off to the forest, where he raises pigs, plays the bagpipes and rides a cockerel that’s been shod like a horse. Hans bullies a king into handing over his daughter as a bride, and when she shrinks from him he scratches her with his spines until she’s bloody.  Then she’s sent back to her father,”disgraced her life long.” Hans gets a second chance at a princess, and when she accept him for who he is, she’s rewarded big time: Hans zips out of his hedgehog skin, as if it were a costume. I was quite enjoying this story until the ending jolted me: Now a full-bodied man, Hans is “coal-black” and has to be scrubbed until he is “white,” at which point he’s deemed a “beautiful young man.”  I wondered why Segal didn’t edit this; she made changes to other tales, according to the New York Public Library notes. She could’ve simply excised the reference to coal-black. No one can be surprised that a nineteenth-century German storyteller believes white is beautiful; it’s the comparison to coal-black that rankles.

Then there’s “Many Fur,” an incest story with elements of Repunzel and Cinderella. A dying queen makes her husband promise to marry a woman as beautiful as she and with the same golden hair. (The Germans and their obsession with golden hair!) The king looks around, and there isn’t anyone who is equal to the queen—except, why, his own daughter! The king’s counsellors try to dissuade him (I was relieved to read), and the princess herself is horrified, but the king is firm. The princess has no choice but to run away to the forest. There are no dwarves to rescue her, alas. The king’s men find her, disguised in a fur coat made from the hide of every animal in the kingdom (hence the title). She ends up working in the royal kitchen, carrying wood and sweeping ashes. And this is where the story changes course. The princess is never again identified as the king’s daughter, nor he as the king who wants to do this wicked deed of marrying his own daughter. One day, there’s a ball, and the princess cleans herself up, dons one of her old dresses, and heads to the ball. Mysteriously, no one recognizes her, including the king, though he does note a strong resemblance to his “dear bride.” And mysteriously, she doesn’t identify herself. She hustles back to the kitchen and her role as an abused servant. Eventually, the king discovers who she is—his dear bride!—and they live happily ever after.

As you can tell from my retelling, the story drives me crazy. It’s completely unsatisfying, how the incest is sneakily circumvented. It turns out Sendak found the story utterly delightful, with “such lovely incest disguised & such sweet nonsense,” (See the notes that are in the collection of the New York Public Library, easily found at 

I wonder what he made of “The Jupiter Tree.” I’ve never liked stew, and now suspect that my aversion is tied to some long-repressed reading of this tale. A stepmother chops a boy’s head off, then chops up his body and makes a stew with it, and serves it to the boy’s unsuspecting father (who compliments her on how good it is). Oh, and the boy’s sister is made to believe she’s responsible for his death. It’s all so awful, you keep reading, wondering, what next? How will there be a happily ever after? Incredibly, there is—the stepmother dies, and the boy is even brought back to life. Is this really a children’s story? Or am I simply too old and too soft to handle it? The writer Amanda Katz, in a piece for NPR a few years ago, recalls loving “The Juniper Tree” as a child. As an adult she finds it “horrific.”

There was a tale I particularly liked—”The Master Thief.” It celebrates cleverness  without a drop of blood. And for a change, our man doesn’t end up with a princess. This thief (who is never given a name) could be Jack the giant-killer, grown up. Even though stealing is wrong, you can’t help liking his derring-do and imagination. Also, he specializes in the kind of theft that almost sounds heroic: He only steals from the rich, and he only steals that which is challenging to procure. The local authority figure, the count, gives the MT a challenge: If he pulls off three seemingly impossible thefts, he’s free to leave with his life; if not, he’ll hang—in the count’s colorful terms, “tie the marriage knot with the rope maker’s daughter.” If I’ve piqued your interest, look for it online—or click here: 



Thoughts on Hemingway

Generation gap? My daughter, Vanessa, is reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and can’t stand it. In her view his characters do no more than meander through life, glass in hand. “All they do is drink,” she says disdainfully.

I, too, read Hemingway in high school (hasn’t everybody?). But I found all the drinking, amid the bull fighting of Pamplona, kind of glamorous. Drinking counts as doing something, doesn’t it? Then again, when I was my daughter’s age—18—I liked beer and wine and had already discovered that rum gave me a crushing hangover. Vanessa doesn’t like any kind of alcoholic beverage I can see it might be difficult to settle in with Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises if you aren’t wondering what a Jack Rose is—one of the drinks Jake orders—and half wishing you were in the Paris hotel bar with him. (Turns out a Jack Rose is composed of applejack, grenadine and lemon or lime juice. Hmm. Not sure what to make of it.)

The drinking scenes throughout Hemingway’s oeuvre are famous enough to have inspired Philip Greene’s Hemingway cocktail compendium, To Have and Have Another, a second edition of which came out last year.

Of course, the drinking is not the only reason Vanessa shuns Hemingway. She’s indifferent to the unvarnished style that made him famous. She finds it really boring. I’m fascinated by her confidence here. I don’t remember feeling as if I could not like Hemingway. We were expected to appreciate, if not revel in, the short declarative sentences, his insistence on cutting away everything but the essence, leaving the reader to interpret what is left unsaid. (That’s what I vaguely remember. If I’m misrepresenting Hem, let me know.)

Thinking about him now, I know I didn’t just like him because I was supposed to. That man could write. Okay, he was clearly a male chauvinist pig. But he could write. Here’s something he once said about the training of a would-be writer, in an interview with Paris Review editor George Plimpton, back in 1958 (as printed in Newsweek):

“Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”

P.S. In my local Barnes & Noble, on the “Books Everyone Must Read” table, two Hemingway classics lie front and center:



I spotted For Whom the Bell Tolls on another side of the table, along with The Old Man and the Sea. He was the only author to have more than two books, and only two had more than one–Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kurt Vonnegut. What does this mean? Is it a reflection of Hemingway’s stature in American literature? Are the B&N staff composed of big fans? The former seems more likely than the latter.


The sound of E.B. White


Do you know that word? I’m reading about Shakespeare’s ability to summon “plangent feeling,” as well as “robust comedy” and “penetrating psychology” in the four history plays currently being put on by the Royal Shakespeare Co. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The admiring words come from New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, whose reviews (quite good) don’t usually cause me to pause and think, “What was that?” I was sure there was a typo of some kind—could he have meant “urgent”?—but no, plangent’s a word. It means a loud, reverberating, often melancholy sound.

The plangent sound of bells. That’s the example dictionaries like to give. How about the plangent moo of a cow? The plangent drone of a garbage truck at 4 am? (That sound might be more grating than melancholy.)

The noun is plangency. That doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? Doing a bit of online research, I found that Newsweek once described E.B. White’s audio-book reading of Charlotte’s Web as having “a plangency that will make you weep.”

Oh, leave it to a journalist to use a fancy, un-child-like word in a story about a children’s book! I’m allowed to complain; I was a journalist once. Still I have to admit it’s an interesting use of plangency, and if anyone could summon that kind of sound, maybe it would be E.B. White.

I like saying “plangent.” It’s not onomatopoeia, but it’s a nice meaty word. Or as Isherwood might say, muscular. I’m not picking on him, just noticing his review includes a word that seems to be in vogue as an alternative to robust, powerful, dynamic. He calls some of the scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry IV “muscularly staged”. When I read that, I honestly think of men with bulging calf muscles, which you might well see in a Shakespeare play involving kings and courts. I myself use “muscular” in the old way, to refer to someone’s physical state. (I’m all for bulging biceps.)

I see I’ve fallen into the habit of writing about words I don’t plan on using, instead of the ones I do. Get with the program, Alex!

P.S. David Tennant, the Scottish actor, is starring in Richard II at BAM right now. Only standing-room only tickets right now. (I’m mulling whether I could stand for two-plus hours). If you haven’t seen Tennant in the 2013 TV series Broadchurch, and if you have Netflix, and if you like murder mysteries set in small seaside English towns (and who doesn’t like those, I ask you?)—I urge you to download! There are two gripping seasons to watch, and another one being filmed this summer. He’s also incredibly good and creepy in the 2015 TV series about superheroes, Jessica Jones. “I don’t watch that much TV, I swear,” she cried plangently.

A Waggish Aside

Waggish—I’ve seen this word twice recently, in two different articles, both in the context of political commentary. Politicians tend to invite mischievous humor, for obvious reasons (believe it or not, neither story was about Trump—or Palin or Cruz!).

Waggish! Meaning silly; humorous, in a mischievous, or facetious way. Why don’t I ever use this playful word?

Come to think of it, I don’t hear it much in conversation. I never heard it in conversation. Is “waggish” a part of anyone’s day-to-day vocabulary?  Is there somewhere someone cooing to her child, “Oh, you little wag!” Or flirtatiously: “What a waggish thing to say!” Or admonishingly: “No waggish comments when Mother gets here.”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “wag,” dating from the mid-sixteenth century, was a “person fond of making jokes.” The origin of the word is murky—it could be a shortening of a early-German word used to describe pranking children. My vote goes with what seems obvious—it’s based on the transitive verb, which was used to describe what dogs did with their tails as early as the mid-1400s. What’s more joyful (and possibly a sign of mischief-making) than a dog (I picture a Lab or Golden Retriever) wagging its tail?

That gives me an idea for a story….

Agatha Christie and the Color Puce

What color is puce?

I haven’t read or heard the word “puce” in ages—possibly not since childhood, when children’s books were full of orphans dressed in hand-me-downs that were some drab color—if not brown, then gray, or…puce! I feel sure I bothered to look up the exacting meaning; it was so obviously an ugly color, just from the sound of it. Phew! with an “s” at the end.

Then again I may well have first encountered the word in Agatha Christie’s 1972 mystery, Elephants Can Remember, which I just unearthed and am happily rereading. The book opens with mystery writer Ariadne Oliver considering a hat to wear to a luncheon. The hat she chooses is a “kind of turban of various layers of contrasting velvets, all of rather becoming pastel shades which would go with anything.”

I can’t for the life of me imagine how such a hat could go with anything at all. Anyway. The main point is, she pairs the turban with a wool dress “of a delicate puce color.”

There it is. Puce. A color that apparently can be “delicate” or—presumably—vibrant. And might (though my faith in Mrs. Oliver’s taste is now shaky) go with a number of other colors. Mrs. Oliver mentions the colors in her hat —green, blue, red and chocolate brown (Why Mrs. Oliver calls the latter two pastels is beyond me.) There is no way to guess, based on this welter of info, what color this wool dress is.

I look it up, and it turns out there is some disagreement on what color puce actually is.

Grayish pink? Light green? Maroons brown? All these shades pop up online as puce. And that’s not all. It’s “dark purple brown,” or a “brownish purple,” asserts that eminent source, the OED, which obviously has two constituencies to please, those on the side of purple, and those who insist on brown. This is one strange, and let’s face it, ugly, set of possibilities.

Who would set off such a debate? The French may have that dubious honor. Puce is the word for “flea” in French. That’s right: Puce literally means flea-colored.

Oh, the French and their love of fleas! They use “puce” as a term of endearment, such as calling a child “mon petit puce” (my darling little flea). “Flea market” is a literal translation from the French for a market that sells second-hand goods likely to be flea-infested. Personal hygiene being low on the list of priorities in past centuries (even until recent decades, some may argue), I’d wager that the French have a long, intimate history with fleas.

A historical novelist named Catherine Delors avers that France’s King Louis XVI—the one who met his end at the guillotine in 1793, along with his infamous wife, Marie Antoinette—coined “puce” to describe the color of one of his wife’s favorite gowns. On her blog Versailles and More, Delors has a picture of a scrap of this gown, put up for auction at Christie’s a number of years ago. It looks to be a light brown, what I would call the color of dark honey; banal, as royal colors go, and certainly not dark purple brown. Had it perhaps faded or gone through some sort of change over the course of two hundred-odd years? (This question may not have bothered the buyer of the scrap, who paid $76,000 for it, according to Delors.)

Can a flea be a variety of colors? A site called says there are about 2,000 different kinds of fleas around the world, so maybe so—though this source says they are brown or reddish brown and doesn’t elaborate. I have to admit that I’ve been lucky enough never to have seen a flea up close. On another site, I found pics of a cat with fleas—and believe it or not, they were light brown. Louis XVI might’ve been a connoisseur of cat fleas.
Still the question lingers: What is the color of Mrs. Oliver’s wool dress in Elephants Can Remember? If only Agatha were still alive. What was puce to Agatha Christie in the early 1970s?

If we start with the assumption that Agatha has given Mrs. Oliver a modicum of taste—the unfortunate turban aside—green might be the color: a pale green, not quite pea but close. Louis’ brown might work, too. It’s probably not dark purple brown, but it could be a lavender with a hint of beige. Pink is out, unless Mrs. Oliver were one of those women who liked pairing red and pink.

Oh, well. There’s no way to know. Agatha has unthinkingly created a small unsolved mystery. The only conclusion about puce I can make is what I knew at the start—it’s probably hideous. Except one: The one true essence of puce, we can say, is it’s a Vomitous might be another word for it. Might Marie Antoinette have kept her head had she not been fond of puce?

As I gaze into the empyrean….

It’s been a while since I’ve run across a word that’s made me sit up and take notice. Here’s one: empyrean.

It’s another word for heavenly or celestial. It specifically refers to the highest reaches of the heavens, a sphere composed of pure fire or light, according to ancient and medieval cosmology, so says Merrriam-Webster online.

Empyrean. Em-peer-ee-an. Oxford Dictionaries online provides a list of rhyming words, most of which (oddly but amusingly enough) derive from Greek mythology or geography: Caribbean, Cyclopean, Fijian, Herculean, Sisyphean, Tanzanian…Oxford, how about just any word that ends with the sound “ee-an”?

Wiki tells me I’d know this word if I’d gotten around to reading Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Oh, well. As it happens I found this word in Anthony Doerr’s mesmerizing All the Light We Cannot See. At least I think I did—for the life of me I cannot re-find it, even though I’m sure it was used to describe the 133-carat diamond that is both a wonder in the novel and a wonder of the novel.

Empyrean. It can be used as a noun (the empyrean) or an adjective (and there’s also empyreal). I wonder if I can figure out how I can use it without sounding pretentious. Doerr can get away with it, because he’s a gorgeous writer. He doesn’t use many fancy words; he uses the right words. If you haven’t read this book, try to!

Lurid, II

Author Michael Cunningham would raise an eyebrow at my recent off-the-cuff discussion of “lurid.”  On page 7 of his 2011 novel By Nightfall, which I impulsively picked up at the Grand Central bookstore (how did I miss this back in ’11?), he describes “a white Mercedes canted at an angle on Fifth-ninth, luridly pink in the flare light.”

Right. I missed a meaning. So lurid can mean pale as can be, and it can refer to a color that glows in a disturbing way.

And now to move beyond the lurid lights of Cunningham’s accident, in which a car hits and kills a Central Park carriage horse. I wonder why a horse had to die. Terrible! Perhaps there a critique of the New York City horse-carriage business here, or the callousness of the moneyed classes. I’ll have to read on and see.

She Looked…Lurid?

Testing my teenage daughter on her vocab, I learned that “lurid” had a meaning other than sensational, causing shock or horror; it can also mean pallid or wan.The word comes from the Latin word for “pale,” according to my American Heritage Dictionary.
Really? As in, “She had a lurid complexion”? This brings us a confusing image of a face somehow mixed up in a shocking crime. Next time I see a friend looking pale I’ll say, “You’re looking lurid, my dear. What’s wrong?” Nah. I probably won’t.

More Than Dirty

Soiled. Here’s a word I don’t often see in print. It was common enough in mid-twentieth-century classics, in stories where children ran free much of the day–“Look how you’ve soiled your good dress!” a mother or nanny would scold. I can’t think of any examples (I’m such a lazy blogger, already), but I’m definitely right about this. Perhaps it’s a word the English use more. Martin Amis used “soiled” in a reference to post-World-War-II American anti-semitism–this in a recent NYT Book Review piece on Philip Roth–and I was reminded what a pungent, powerful word it can be. Soiled: corrupt, morally filthy.

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