On Memorable Phrases

I have been reading Mark Forsyth’s Elements of Eloquence, and it reminds me of all the reasons that I love language, and the English language slightly more than the rest. The book is about the craft of, well, crafting memorable phrases. Craft, not art, because it has many discernible patterns, and can be learnt by chipping away something something, ironing out something something, getting your hands dirty something something…

This is encouraging. Also encouraging is the charge that good writers borrow and great writers steal. And steal they did, sometimes from their own works. Knowing the spell that has been cast doesn’t make you immune to it. Just as you wouldn’t stop gawking at a rainbow even though you know what caused it.

I should not change the topic to anything else without talking about the TV series The West Wing, a show I love for reasons more than one. There are memorable lines from the cast, and cast members who consistently have many many memorable lines: the president, sometimes on his own and sometimes through his excellent speechwriters,

Toby Ziegler, the chief communications director, is the gentlest soul you meet in the series, if you ask me, though at the same time he’s also the most prickly. I love it when he spars with the president. That time when he authorised a state funeral to a veteran who died in a park (the first Christmas special, the festive mood really touched me) – “I can only hope so”. That time when he found out about the president’s MS – “And the walls came tumbling down” – (quite the opposite reaction to what a presidential aide ought to have, I thought). That time when he decides on the National Endowment for the Arts. That time in the campaign when the president – deliberately, we are shown – appears less than the most erudite and statesman-like; later on, after the president loses it and sees a trauma specialist, for such is the power of words, when they make peace, Toby says, “Remember, there is no such thing as too smart.” And this.

Yes, yes, we all crave and value what we don’t have and what we are not, but for me the unmissable feature of the entire series is one, how happy and productive they’re in their jobs that they love so much and two, how well-dressed they are. I don’t think it was unplanned at all.

A million other minds thought likewise.

We’re shown, while reading Elements of Eloquence, how the craft is put to use to a great effect in popular songs and in comedy, besides theatre, its preoccupation. Maybe the pythons put their Cambridge degrees to good use. Ditto for other comedians. Sample this rhetorical question: “Alright, besides aqueduct, sanitation… what have the Romans ever done for us?

And now, for something completely different.

Songwriting. This one should have been obvious but it took me some time to see it. Here, there, everywhere – An Anadiplosis, chapter 9. (Mirrors on the ceiling, Pink Champagne on ice – a syllepis (pg 112) Here’s my $0.02. My memorable lyrics in different languages are memorable for different reasons. In Sanskrit-derived languages, it is the elaborate or concise, dazzling or sly, similes and compound words. In Urdu it’s the deadly combination of love, God, and intoxication and the countless words for each of them. Words of English songs, and I’m only talking of the popular radio hits type, appear to have none of these aggrandizements but are eminently quotable and memorable. What gives? I’ll dig in for an answer.

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