Monday, January 31, 2011

Without Repetition

British radio game shows are amazing.  No money or dumb contestants.  Just clever people from a country known for extemporaneous wit, playing a game with such panache that listeners stay enraptured by the entertaining volley of ingenuity.  If the phrase "game show" brings recollections of Let's Make a Deal to mind, think instead of Whose Line is it Anyway? (which started across the pond), and you'll be on the right track.

My favorite programme is Just a Minute, a panel show on BBC Radio 4 whose run has lasted now for forty-three years.  In this contest, four participants try speaking on a given subject for sixty seconds without hesitation, repetition, or deviation.  The first and third infractions would eliminate almost any American from the challenge: those in this country who can talk without pause almost never stick to a topic named for them.  But the second offense is what fascinates me, as players attempt astonishing feats of verbal gymnastics in order to avoid saying a word twice.  Someone having mentioned pants may try "trousers" on the second pass and "breeches" on the third, but what is he to use on the fourth?  "Coverings for the lower extremities"?  Often the solution involves something like "the aforementioned article of clothing."  Of course the other two rules don't always allow for careful thought and eloquent phraseology; Paul Merton once followed up "gravy" with "meat liquid."

The English language offers and has a preference for fresh and varied vocabulary.  It's not that every author has to be a master of slightly rare words, like Dickens, or the inventor of entire new lexicons, like Shakespeare.  It is enough to be able to get through a paragraph without reiterating what has once been written.  I'm enjoying Thackeray's Henry Esmond for, among other virtues, its creator's command of this very skill.  Consider this sentence:
These happy days were to end soon, however; and it was by Lady Castlewood's own decree that they were brought to a conclusion.
The switch from active voice to passive makes way for the substitution of "end" with "conclusion," and the result delights with the classically conceived beauty of unity in variety.  Soon afterward we read:
Tom Tusher's talk was of nothing but Cambridge now; and the boys, who were good friends, examined each other eagerly about their progress in books.  Tom had learned some Greek and Hebrew, besides Latin, in which he was pretty well skilled, and also had given himself to mathematical studies under his father's guidance, who was a proficient in those sciences, of which Esmond knew nothing.
How many ways of expressing the ideas of knowledge and learning do we find?  "Cambridge," "progress," "books," "skilled," "studies," "guidance," "proficient," "sciences," and "knew" skip through the passage like a well-practiced team shuffling a ball effortlessly back and forth without a misstep.  In the presence of a master, my humble hazard at the challenge sounds lumpy and awkward.

Some historical episodes of Just a Minute are available on CD, and selected recent offerings can be heard on BBC Radio 4's website.

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