Monthly Archives: December 2009

December 31, 2009

Language changes.

The phrase “spitting image,” for example, was a few centuries ago “spirit and image.” In those days, however, “spirit” was pronounced “sprit,” and since “and” is in pronunciation often reduced to the consonant “n,” you had something that sounded like “sprit n image,” which is but a hop, a skip, and a jump from “spitting image.” At some point somebody heard it wrong (this is called misanalysis) and started saying it like that, and other people spoke in his or her, um, tonguesteps (this is called diffusion), until everybody knew what “spitting image” meant even though the expression makes no sense whatsoever. And now if you said that somebody was the spirit and image of Chris Meloni, nobody would have any idea what the fuck you were talking about, not just because Chris Meloni and only Chris Meloni is the spirit and image of Chris Meloni but also because it’s not an English idiom. “Spitting image” has become the correct expression.

I need only look to my own childhood to see modern examples of the phenomenon. When I was ten or so, I wrote a play in which I distinguished one character, who was a Valley Girl, solely by her use of the word “like” a few times every sentence. I did this partially because it allowed me to avoid creating actual character traits but mostly because only those ridiculous Valley Girls said “like” and everybody else thought it was stupid. Now, though, I say “like” a few times every sentence, same as everybody else I know under the age of fifty. “Like” is now a particle common in less formal spoken English, and I embrace it.

Another change that doesn’t bother me is the use of the word “implement” as a verb. When I was on the high school debate team, one year the resolution we had to discuss was, if memory serves, “Resolved: that the United States should implement a policy to increase political stability in Latin America.” I found this deeply offensive, since “implement” was a noun and only a noun, referring usually to the tools with which one accomplished a particular task (silverware, pens and pencils, and so on). You might as well say, “Resolved: that the United Stated should fork a policy to increase political stability in Latin America.” I would use the polluted version of the word when forced to do so in service of winning debate matches, but otherwise nothing was going to be implemented in anything I said or wrote. Now, of course, “implement” passes my lips as a verb with nary a bat of an eyelash.

So I accept and, in my capacity as a descriptivist, embrace such change.

As an arrogant, pretentious snob, however, I can’t fucking stand it.

There are any number of expressions in flux that are driving me crazy. The one I’m thinking about at the moment is “forbid X to Y,” which has in the last few years suddenly become “forbid X from Ying.” “You’re forbidden from seeing him” I remember hearing Bree say to Andrew on an episode of Desperate Housewives last season (my memory is a little vague, and in fact “seeing him” might be an invention of my own whimsy; perhaps it was “forbidden from hosting an orgy in my house” or “forbidden from staying up late to read Thomas Aquinas”). I hear people saying this everywhere. And it makes me want to defenestrate them.

Because it’s WRONG.

Again: I know perfectly well that, in all likelihood, in fifty years “forbid X from Ying” will be proper English, and I am delighted that language has the flexibility to grow and change.

But in my nature reign all frailties that besiege all kinds of blood, and so while delighting I also grit my teeth and wish it would go away and leave me alone.

Happy New Year.

Posted on by Joel Derfner | 11 Comments

December 8, 2009

I’ve been in auditions since last week for a show of mine that, God Satan Fannie Lou Hamer willing, will open off-Broadway in February. This is the first set of auditions I’ve been to on this scale, and I’ve learned a lot of very interesting things during the process, but one thing has struck me with significantly more force than the others:

The life of an actor has got to be a wretched, wretched thing.

Last Monday, I sat in a room with six or seven other people (the casting director, the artistic director of the theater, her assistant, the choreographer, the accompanist, and a few others) for seven hours while a seemingly endless stream of people ran into and out of the room. Actors would walk in, and this is more or less how it went after that:

ACTOR (brightly): Hi!
SOMEONE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TABLE (SOTOSOTT): Hi. What are you going to sing for us?
ACTOR (brightly): I’ll be singing [Name of Song].
SOTOSOTT: That’s great.
ACTOR (to accompanist, sotto voce, pointing to the sheet music for [Name of Song]): We’ll start here, and then after sixteen bars we’ll cut to here. Then we’ll take the key change and through the end.
ACTOR (brightly): Okay.

(ACTOR sings truncated version of [Name of Song].)

SOTOSOTT: That was terrific. Thanks very much.
ACTOR (brightly): Thank you! Have a good day.
SOTOSOTT: You too.

(ACTOR exits.)

This whole process took about three minutes. We saw over a hundred and fifty people that day, each of whom had to walk into the room, knowing absolutely nothing about what we were looking for, sing a song that might or might not show us what we wanted to see/hear, and leave, not knowing anything at all about how the song had actually been received, and pretend to feel chipper about the whole thing.

At first I smiled broadly at everybody who came in, because I wanted people to feel at least a little bit welcome, but by the afternoon my face muscles were too tired to manage it and I basically stared at people with a sickly half-grin that made me look like a deathly ill Colombian drug lord.

And actors have to deal with this, several times a day, basically forever.

I remember a television program in the early 2000s called, if memory serves, The It Factor. It followed four actors—three from New York and one from Los Angeles—as they went about their careers, or what they were hoping would eventually be their careers, or what they desperately wanted to be their careers. This one girl got audited by the IRS at some point during the season and she went to her friend who’d done her taxes with this big box with receipts and statements stuffed in it and falling out every which way. It made me want to peel my skin off.

But the thing I remember most about The It Factor is a piece of information given in the introduction to every week’s show, which is that, at any given time, of all the professional actors in New York, exactly 1% are working.

One percent.


There are a lot of terrible things about being a writer, let me tell you, but I don’t think any of them can compare with the hideousnesses actors confront every day.

Hats off to you. For there is none of you so mean and base, that hath not noble lustre in your eyes.

Posted on by Joel Derfner | 7 Comments

December 3, 2009

Last night in my writing workshop we had to write for ten minutes within the following constraints:

1. Use third person.
2. Refer to four colors.
3. Refer to an article of clothing.
4. Refer to a repeating sound.
5. Refer to quality of light.

Here’s what I came up with. (Click here to read what I wrote last time I had an exercise like this.)


Max eyed the mass on the floor. “It’s sort of greenish,” he said.

“Green greenish or yellow greenish?” asked Theseus.

“Greenish. I don’t know. It’s green.”


Crap. This was bad. The “hmm” had been “hmm” #6, the “hmm” that, roughly translated, meant something along the lines of “your inability to [verb] to within any satisfactory degree of satisfaction makes me want to unweave my shirt, tie the threads together in one long, long string, and mummify you with it.”


“Maybe it’s more bluish than greenish.”


Crap. “I don’t know, I can’t tell, if you’d let me put a decent bulb in the lamp I’d be able to see it better, but as it is the best I can come up with is that it’s sort of greenish-bluish.” Thunk. “They’re getting closer.”

“And whose fault is that?”

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Theseus, fine, fine, I fucked up, I fucked up, okay? How many times do I have to apologize for you to let it go?”



Posted on by Joel Derfner | 3 Comments