Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lugubrious times five

I just finished one of my airport-waiting-room novels for this trip: Isabel Allende´s Island Beneath the Sea (2010). Historical fiction, the story takes place in colonial Saint-Domingue, which later became Haiti.  Following the life of a slave woman who faces great challenges with courage and creativity, it gives an insider´s view of slavery in Haiti, as well as in Louisiana.  As usual, Allende tells a compelling story.  The English version is a translation from the original Spanish.

But a funny fact poked me in my literary ribs, something probably no one else would notice. Believe it or not, Allende uses the word lugubrious five times in this one novel.  Five times!

So what, you say? Well, you need to know that lugubrious is not the most popular word in the English—or the Spanish—language.  In fact, its use is so rare that it leaps out at me every time I run across it.

I remember the first time. About twenty years ago Hal and I were reading aloud Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson’s award winning novel for young people about growing up on a small island in the Chesapeake Bay.  It was Hal’s turn, and as he read, he came across the sentence, “This piano is lugubriously out of tune.”  That stopped us, and he read it again. We rarely pause to look up new words when we read together, especially if the context hints at the meaning. But the sound of this word captured and delighted us.  It’s one of those words that you don’t just say; you chew it out loud.  So we looked it up and again were delighted to discover that lugubrious refers to something exceedingly gloomy or morose.  What a good word to have available if you ever need to say something exceedingly gloomy or morose.  No harm in being prepared. (My delight led me to write a poem in honor of the word lugubrious, which I’ll add to the end of this reflection.)

But it’s true that one doesn’t come across it much in contemporary literature.  So Allende took me by surprise.  Even with a great word, once is probably enough; twice is permissible.  But five times?

Granted, the author wrote in Spanish, and while lúgubre is not common in that language either, it’s used more frequently than its English counterpart.  Even so…..

I would still recommend Island Beneath the Sea. It provides a rich literary banquet. But beware.  The heavy use of words like lugubrious is like adding too many hot peppers to your lunch.  Even with a skillful word chef behind the creation of the dish, you’re apt to burn your mouth.

Mine is still tingling.


needs a poem of its own.
Consider the slime and the slink of it,
the slightly sinister wink of its eye
as it peeks from behind potted plants at wakes,
lingers at the altars of Protestant revivals,
or sobs with soap opera heroines.
An irreverent Uriah Heapish word,
a marbles-in-the-mouth sound,
it offers no apologies
for its lumpish singularity.

Some suggestions for everyday use:
--"This piano is lugubriously out of tune."
--"He shed a lugubrious tear
            as she passed him the marmalade."
--"This morning at exactly 5:37,
            a lugubrious lummox was sighted
            at the corner of 11th and Lucerne
            in downtown LA.  We have investigators
            on the scene and will interrupt our broadcast
            to bring up-to-date coverage
            on this fast-breaking story."
--"Not tonight, dear.  I'm feeling lugubrious."

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