Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Wisdom of Perverts

Hi. If you think the advice you’re about to tell me could be best expressed in the form of some fossilized chunk of words that would have sounded clichéd two generations ago, please stop. I won’t hear it.

What’s that? You say “It’s always in the last place you look”? “God never closes a door without opening a window”? “You catch more flies with honey”? I say “Think about what you’re wanting to say and find a new way to say it, you unoriginal suck.” Indeed, homespun (but threadbare) advice will never comfort me as much as something that tells me you actually thought enough to formulate a sentence that applies specifically to me and my current situation in life.

I’m not sure why I resent these kinds of clichés so much, and I can’t even promise that I haven’t ever slipped and myself said one or two, but they just seem lazy to me. This quiet rage has prompted my word of the week.
perverb (PURV-urb) — noun: a known saying that has been modified in a way that makes it surprising, confounding or otherwise humorous.
The word is exactly what you’d guess: a portmanteau of perverse and proverb. It was purportedly coined by writer and literary agent Maxine Groffsky in 2007, even if the concept behind the name is older. Though the go-to source on perverbs seems to be World Wide Words, the Wikipedia entry offers a more comprehensive overview of how people might use perverb:
  • Two proverbs spliced together (“A rolling stone gets the worm,” “A fool and his money is a friend indeed”)
  • A “garden path” proverb wherein homonyms throw off the meaning of expressed thought (“Time flies like the wind, but fruit flies like a banana”)
  • A pun on a proverb (“Slaughter is the best medicine”)
  • And a proverb with a nonsensical ending (“All that glitters is not dull,” and my personal favorite, “Find a penny, pick it up, and all day you’ll have a penny”)
This seems like the best possible antidote for clichés: Frankensteining them into something new and, in the case of the “find a penny” one, something that underscores how the original saying is ultimately stupid and meaningless. And yeah, there’s a significant overlap with a word of the week from back in February, paraprosdokian, which means “a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected, often in a humorous manner.” In fact, both the second and fourth sets of perverb examples seem to also be paraprosdokians. I’m fine with that. As long as people are making fun of inane chatter, I’m absolutely fine with that.

(Hat tip for this one? Dina. Thanks, Dina!)

Previous words of the week after the jump.

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