Fine Points: Etymology and homographs for thriller writers

I love it when I come across a word that sings in three or four different voices at once. Thriller writers don’t do enough of this!

They do use etymology and homographs in names. Take Greg Rucka’s excellent Alpha. The protagonist’s daughter is Athena, and she is called Gray Eyes. In one swoop, Rucka invests the daughter with a striking physical quality, wisdom, and martial prowess. The mythological Athena’s children are also said to have gray eyes – this myth helps to put our larger-than-life novel hero, Athena’s dad, up on a suitably heroic pedestal. Finally, one common Greek word for Athena’s epithet “gray-eyed” was glaukopis. One modern word we have that shares the “glaukos” root (gray), is glaucoma, a group of eye diseases that can lead to vision impairment. In the novel, our Athena is deaf. Is it too much of a stretch to say that this etymological doubling was purposeful? Probably! (Though I don’t know Greg, and he seems pretty thorough – so – maybe?) But purposeful or not, it is there, and it is delicious to note as you read through the book.

Another delicious name freighted with multiple meanings is MR Carey’s lead from The Girl with All the Gifts. Her name is Melanie. No need to wonder here. Melanie muses upon her own name’s meaning in the book – a passage which is in keeping with both the book’s and Melanie’s self-consciousness. Melanie means dark, and boy is she. Melanin – same root as Melanie – is a skin pigment that is associated with mutations, and she’s one of those, too (mutations, not pigments). The question here is why she wasn’t named Pandora, like the book is (Pandora means the all-gifted). Maybe the book isn’t really about her? Fun to think about.

So much for names. But at the granular word-by-word level, I am often disappointed in my fellow thriller writers. Of course, they’re far better at diction than so-called ‘literary fiction’ writers, whose purpose isn’t emotional evocation but peer puffery.  Still, there is room for improvement: these etymological or homographic issues have all thrown me off at one time or another:

1. Enormous – Big, but also heinous. I get thrown when I see “enormous ice cream cone” if it’s supposed to be yummy ice cream. Enormous things are big and bad, not big and good.

2. Arrive – Thrillers tend to take place in exotic locales. Meetings in the middle of the ocean or in a space station shouldn’t use “arrive,” which means (etymologically) “to the shore.”

3. Deliver – Means (again etymologically) to set free. Please don’t deliver a man to jail! I’ve seen it written that way. I still have the scars.

4. Fire a weapon – Should only be used with weapons that actually require fire, like the earliest firearms, or, arguably, their direct descendants. Firing an arrow is just silly.

5. Orchid – Plant’s name means testicles. Jarring when someone writes that a housewife spent the day admiring her girlfriend’s orchids.

Better stop now. I mean, it’s not the biggest thing, right? It’s a fine point. You can have a great book while committing all kinds of errors, etymological and otherwise (front of the line in this is always Sister Carrie, amirite?).

But how delicious is it when the multiple meanings, whether etymological, homographical, or something else-ical, all converge and harmonize? It’s super delicious, that’s how delicious it is. I lurves it. I wants more of it. Let’s go, thriller writers.

Here’s a valedictory example. Look at Joss Whedon’s script for The Avengers when Loki confronts Agent Coulson. Coulson tells Loki that Loki is going to lose because he lacks conviction. He even pauses before saying “conviction,” and you can hear in that pause Joss saying listen up, everyone, I’m about to lay the literary smack down. And he does. OMG he does. The use of the word ‘conviction’ right there is awesome, easily on par with the famous ‘buckle’ from Hopkins’s “The Windhover” or “offices” from Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” I get chills. Look at the meanings: con- gives us togetherness, which the heroes have – this is a superhero team movie – but Loki lacks; faith, which Loki is a twisted, poor reflection of when compared to Thor, despite Loki’s efforts at instilling faith throughout the movie; vict- from vincere, to conquer, which obviously; legality, playing on the law vs chaos theme; religion, which reflects the religion-and-science theme (look at the origins of the Avengers selected for this movie: almost all science, while one is a god); binding, as the themes are all bound together in that one word. The craftsmanship was beautiful. I want to see more of it.

Background image – Ken Billington, CC BY-SA 3.0

Notes on the Monomyth and the Stan Lee Literary Revolution

Some thoughts are venerated beyond their due. One is Clarke’s contention that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Thanks for pointing that out, Arthur. I really thought if I gave a caveman a rail gun he’d come up with Maxwell’s equations instead of A Wizard Did It. Or von Clausewitz’s famous idea that war is an expression of politics by other means. Duh. He could at least have written in English that swordplay was an extension of wordplay! Right? I know. And there’s a third C to add to Clarke and von Clausewitz: Campbell. As in Joseph Campbell.

Everybody knows that Campbell detailed the monomyth, a single Hero’s Journey myth form that repeats throughout literary history and across cultures. But then he gives 17 different aspects of the myth and says that not all stories that fit the monomyth archetype must contain all 17 aspects.

That’s a lot of wiggle room.

In other words, Duh. I mean, a hero’s a hero. A story about a hero is likely going to have certain elements because to be a hero, you have to, you know, be a hero.

But there’s a distinction within the Campbell mythic structure that doesn’t get enough attention. This is the distinction between the Christian myth, where the source of the hero’s suffering is the hero’s power itself, and the Greek myth, where the source of the hero’s suffering is separate from the hero’s power.

Take Odysseus. He doesn’t suffer because he possesses legendary cunning; he suffers in spite of that. Or look at Achilles. His thousand pains in the Iliad are not hurled upon him because he’s a great warrior but because he’s an ass (and so are most of his friends). Alcestis and Admetus both suffer because of the pride of a goddess and because Admetus considers women chattel, not because Admetus is a powerful Argonaut.

But then look at Christ. He suffers precisely because he _is_ a superhero, the Son of God. Because he can work miracles, he must suffer. The Romans don’t crucify him because he was too proud or because he forgot to make a sacrifice to Artemis; they crucify him because his power is a threat to them. Other prophets in the Judeo-Christian religion fit this description, too. Think of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their superpower – faith – is also the source of their pain.

This is an important distinction because of the way that heroic literature has gone in the West since Stan Lee. Before Stan Lee you had heroes in the Greek mold, heroes whose reason for suffering was distinct from what made them heroic. Superman – beginning in the 1940s – suffered from kryptonite, not because he was a god among men. Hornblower’s isolation and self-doubt make him suffer, but he is not great because of these qualities. Holmes had his vices, but none were identical with his ratiocinative faculties. Rather, these faculties were a source of comfort to him, and he was pained when he did _not_ have the chance to exercise them. Tarzan is a tricky but illustrative example. Instead of his situation bestowing upon him both pain and extraordinary power, the King of the Apes is portrayed throughout the novel as benefiting from his status as noble savage. While many of Tarzan’s challenges arise because of the same origin and nature that give him superhuman powers – part of the genius of the novel – these challenges are not fonts of existential pain but mere toys with which Tarzan can demonstrate his savage superiority.

And then look what Stan Lee did, and what he does not get enough credit for. He turned from the Greek version of the monomyth to the Judeo-Christian one. His quintessential hero, Peter Parker, experiences depths of anguish because of his superpowers. Would he feel guilt over not stopping his uncle’s killer if he had not been able to stop him, that is, if he did not have superpowers? Would he be as torn over his relationship with Mary Jane if he did not have superpowers? Would he be in trouble constantly with his boss JJJ if he did not have superpowers? No, no, and no. The source of Spider-Man’s pain is his existence as Spider-Man. This is fundamentally different from the heroic journeys seen before. Lee did the same thing with characters like the Hulk and the X-Men.

It is difficult to overstate the influence of the Lee revolution. Buffy is the perfect example. Her angst is deeper than the Hellmouth, and it’s all because she’s the Slayer. If she didn’t have superpowers, she wouldn’t have problems – at least, nothing of the soul-wrenching, family-threatening sort she is put through. Not only that, but _every_ slayer is like that in the Buffyverse. Before Buffy, they all died sooner or later, simply because they were Slayers. It’s a superpowered life, but because of those superpowers, it’s a painful and doomed one. Many, many other heroes have followed this Christian monomyth archetype since the Stan Lee revolution, ranging from Hellboy to Katniss to Edward Cullen to Thomas Covenant. Even Harry Potter, for example, when he breaks up with Ginny to protect her from Voldemort. If he hadn’t been The Boy Who Lived, if he hadn’t had the power to defeat Voldemort, he would not have had to endure that pain.

I suppose that you could say something about the Stan Lee Revolution and our view of ourselves. You could say that the shift in hero types has paralleled our change in opinions regarding technology. Technology once solved problems, only; nowadays it is often viewed as the source of the problem. Another, more fruitful way to look at it may be in light of the increasing power developing in the hands of individuals as civilization has progressed. Superpowers aren’t just fun and games anymore when you’re the one who has them.