My last post was about Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a play that apparently isn’t done with me yet.
You will remember that the mystery of Jack Worthing’s birth is revealed in that play’s final moments—Jack turns out to be Ernest Moncrieff, Algy’s elder brother. Happy ending, three marriages, curtain. All the play’s puzzles have been solved.
Except for the matter of dung. We really do need to talk about the dung, Mr. Worthing.
The word worthing has an etymological surprise for us. The Oxford English Dictionary strings us along with a familiar first definition: worthing as meaning value or honor. The OED having a slow day, you’re thinking. But not yet.
A second definition points us to Middle English wurþ meaning dung or manure. In the 19th century, a device for moving those piles of manure around your barnyard could be called a dung fork or—it’s just too good— a wording fork. There are all sorts of garden and farm implements with tines. I’m assured that a manure fork might be the same as a compost fork but is not the same as a pitchfork. Nevertheless, a manure fork is a familiar agricultural tool employed in the business of business.
It’s not easy to find references to a wording fork today, and if you look for one at Home Depot your trail will end with offers to sell something like a “Truper Tool Pro Manure 5-Tine Fork.” (I looked at this page online and wondered for a moment what it meant to be pro manure. Maybe like writing, manure is a subject on which it’s impossible to be neutral.)
The OED’s example for this sense of worthing/wording dates from the 1860s. The shift from worthing to wording is a subject for historical linguistics, but even without a technical explanation there is something wonderful about an even incidental relationship between worthing and wording. A relationship between dung and discourse. Or, if you will, between manuscripts and manure.
Recall if you can a famous line from Jerry Herman’s 1964 blockbuster musical Hello, Dolly! (and as an aside note the rarity of a two-word title requiring two pieces of punctuation).
Dolly Gallagher Levi, the show’s redoubtable heroine, observes that “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.” (I read this to mean that money—and not manure—is the expression for which pardon is needed here.)
Dolly! was, of course, adapted from Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker, itself a revision of his earlier The Merchant of Yonkers. The bon mot about money and manure comes from Wilder, who got the idea for the show from the 19th-century Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy who got it from an English writer named John Oxenford. Tom Stoppard produced his own version of Nestroy called On the Razzle. A good plot isn’t worth much unless it’s spread around, either.
But what about wording? If you’re a Lingua Franca reader, you’re probably devoted to one form of ”wording” or another, though I’d guess you didn’t have manure on your mind when you last sat down at the computer.
Then again, you just might. Writing is, in fact, a lot like manure. Titter ye not, as the English comic Frankie Howerd would have admonished us. You may think what you or I or anyone else has written is best flushed away. Everybody writes rotten sometimes, but just now I’m not thinking of bad academic writing as waste ready for disposal. Writing can be like manure in other, better ways.
In academe we might speak of a subject as being “fertile,” meaning that there’s something there worth digging into and turning over because we can produce something new out of what we’ve found. But the writing we produce should be fertile for others, too.
That’s what I mean by writing and manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things (and older ones, too) to grow. It’s a point I’ve been returning to this year in my talks in academic writing, but the force of the worthing/wording figure hasn’t hit me until now. Thank you, OED.
Turning your writing into manure sounds pretty counterintuitive. But think about the wording fork the next time you’re revising your writing. Will what you write help anyone else—or any other idea—to grow?
I’m at work on a book on revising prose, and I’m thinking that The Wording Fork would make a fine title.
Author Bio: William Germano is dean of humanities and social sciences and a professor of English literature at Cooper Union.