Tom McMorrow’s "Words of Wit and Wisdom"
THEATERLIFE.COM has discovered a delightful new book for which we hope to help find a publisher. Written by Tom McMorrow, a former theater critic of the Daily News, past president of The Drama Desk and editor of the Drama Desk News for all lovers of elegant language, Words of Wit and Wisdom has been hailed by educators (see below), who have called it “monumental” and compared it to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary.
This is not one more collection of “Familiar” quotations. From sources ranging from the books of the Bible and the playwrights of ancient Greece to The New York Times, they are generally not to be found in Bartlett’s or other such collections, each one led into by, as the book’s subtitle says: “Words You’re not Likely to Hear on the Crosstown Bus.”
“Tom McMorrow’s “Words of Wit and Wisdom” will certainly be a good addition to any library, and it will have an honored place in mine. The book is much like Sam Johnson’s Dictionary, with quotations serving as illustrations. Dr. Johnson’s 1755 work had some eccentric definitions and a little wit, but I like Tom McMorrow’s explanations better.”
– Valdon Johnson, Professor Emeritus of English,
University of Northern Iowa
“Tom McMorrow has created a monumental work honed from a lifetime of literary interest. With fascinating quotations selected to cleverly illustrate a broad range of words, he has produced a memorable volume that is illuminating, useful and entertaining. It stands solidly in the tradition of love of language and appreciation of wit, and is a most welcome book that one would want to keep handy for exploration and inspiration.”
– William Wolf, NYU professor, critic and author
Specially selected for us, here are some of the book’s theater stories
Cloy – To cause to feel surfeited from too much of something rich or sweet – “Variety alone gives joy; / The sweetest meats the soonest cloy.” – Matthew Prior, The Turtle and the Sparrow – And in one of Sir William Schwenk Gilbert’s delightfully ironic lines in The Mikado, the seriously unlovely villainess Katisha (“My dear fellow, have you seen her? She’s something appalling!”) berating Koko for rejecting her love:
KATISHA: Oh, fool! To shun delights that never cloy!
Defer– Two meanings (1) show deference toward, in a sense bow to: also (2) postpone, put off : “Why should we defer our joys?” – Ben Jonson, Volpone – “Defer not till tomorrow to be wise / Tomorrow’s sun to thee may never rise”, judicious counsel from William Congreve (1674-1729); and those Savoyards again: “Defer, defer, / To the Lord High Executioner!” – The Mikado
Deuteragonist– In the Greek drama, an actor playing the second most important part after the protagonist (for the full Attic stage picture, see Tritagonist) – “Jennifer Paterson cut such an extraordinary figure that it was easy to overlook the fact that she was, for most of her life, a deuteragonist rather than a main player.” – Jonathan Meades, “Before She Was Fat,” about the co-hostess of the popular British cooking show, “Two Fat Ladies,” on which she and Clarissa Dixon Wright cooked up the lardiest, most buttery deep-fried dishes imaginable with cheerful disregard for such annoyances as cholesterol. – The Times, London, Sept. 2, 2000
Gamut – When Dorothy Parker famously reviewed a Broadway actress with the murderous “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B,” that meant as opposed to from A to Z, right? No, sorry, it’s more like A to G. The gamut represents the diatonic scale of musical notes, created about 900 A.D. by Guido d’Arezzo, who assigned the seven letters of the Greek alphabet starting with the third, Gamma, to the first seven notes of the musical scale. For an example directly out of the world of music: “When by the gamut some musicians make / A perfect song, others will undertake / By the same gamut changed to equal it.” – John Donne, Elegies II, Anagram
Heinous (hay-nuss) – Abominably villainous – “For this is an heinous crime: yes, it is an iniquity to be punished by the judges.” The Book of Job, xxxi, 11 – “As for that heinous tiger, Tamora, / Her life was beastly, and devoid of pity.” – Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, v, 3 – “But while he did not hesitate to execute some murderers, he also used his authority to grant clemency to others convicted of equally heinous crimes.” – Joe Conason on former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, The New York Observer, December 17, 2007 – and on the lighter side:
If she says your behavior is heinous,
Kick her right in the Coriolanus.
– Cole Porter, “Brush up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss Me, Kate.
And Cole could get a lot racier than that, in lyrics the general public didn’t get to hear on 1930’s and 40’s radio and records. Remember in “Begin the Beguine” (1935): “And we suddenly know / What heaven we’re in / When they begin the Beguine” ? His sexy original: “And we suddenly know / The sweetness of sin . . .” And in “I Get a Kick out of You” (1934): “Some like that perfume from Spain, / But I’m sure that if / I took even one sniff / It would bore me terrifically too. . .” The general public was not permitted to hear “Some get a kick from cocaine, / But I’m sure that if / I took only one sniff . . .” And, intriguingly, on a late-1930’s evening in a dingy New Haven bar a Yale freshman with a serious drinking problem sang this spinoff from Porter’s
“If I invite a boy some night / To dine on my fine finnan haddie,
I just adore his asking for more / But my heart belongs to Daddy”
He sang: “If I employ a sailor boy / To lie in my bed and pollute me,
I just adore his calling me Whore, / But by God he must salute me!”
Did that drunken kid make that up, or was that the real Cole?
Jocund– Of a cheerful disposition, merry, gay – “Ah cannot we / As well as cocks and lions jocund be, / After such pleasure?” – John Donne, Farewell to Love, st. 3 – in the same jovial family as Jocular and Jocose, more frequently seen today, both of them also signifying a tendency to indulge in good-natured banter; here seen in awful juxtaposition
LADY MACBETH: Then be thou jocund.
Ere the bat hath flown his cloister’d flight,
There shall be done a deed of dreadful note. – Macbeth, iii, 1
For more, including a typical sample page and one of artist Sam Norkin’s hilarious caricatures which will illustrate it, see the website witandwisdomwords.com