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John McPhee and Words 3 min read

John McPhee and Words

Simply put, he loves them.

By Cary Littlejohn
Tabula Rasa: Volume Four
A project meant not to end.

In his most recent piece for The New Yorker, he confessed as much in its opening lines.

In a cogent sense, I have spent, at this writing, about eighty-eight years preparing for Wordle. I work with words, I am paid by the word, I majored in English, and today I major in Wordle.

In multiple places in the piece, you can just tell how much he respects words and their power and how he regrets not a second of his life's dedication to them. Some of my favorite takeaways from the piece were of that playful joy he found in words.

John McPhee's Order of Wordle Answers

  1. Lottery
  2. Luckshot
  3. Insight
  4. Autodidact
  5. Buffoon
  6. D.U.I.

The old master's rating for how quickly one gets the Wordle answer reminded me so much of those triangular wooden peg games, where the goal is to leave one. My papaw had half a dozen of them in a bin at his house, and we'd always marvel at his ability to get it down to the prized single peg.

Cracker Barrels are where I've last seen them, and the games have their own version of this sort of rating system:

  • One peg: Genius
  • Two pegs: Pretty Smart
  • Three pegs: Just Plain Dumb
  • Four or more pegs: Eg-No-Ra-Moose

On His Literary Will

After a long list of examples of things he'd prefer not to be changed in future editions of his books published after he's died, McPhee ends the section with this passage:

My books have been proofread with exceptional care by proofreaders at FSG, by proofreaders at The New Yorker magazine, by myself, and by others. In more than a million words, there are probably fewer than ten typographical errors. Please do not fix one unless textual evidence allows you to be absolutely positive that you have found one of those ten. I warmly thank you for your attention to these words.

I love the confidence this must take to say and even more so the swaggering ability that makes it most likely unassailable.

On Great Writing Being Made, Not Born

He gave his students zany sentences that seem unlikely (if not impossible) for a right-thinking person to write down, and those are good for a laugh. But it's this collection of clunkers from a former New Yorker editor that gives me hope when I lament that my sentences just aren't quite good enough. Because even sentences that end up published in The New Yorker can't begin as indecipherable nonsense.

The late Charles Patrick Crow was an editor of nonfiction pieces at The New Yorker. He did not acquire manuscripts. They were assigned to him after they were bought. With the exceptions of fly-fishing and family, Crow had a distanced, not to say cynical, view of most aspects of this world. He kept in his wallet a little blue card that bore selected sentences from manuscripts bought by the magazine:
  • Very likely, if we knew the answer to this question we wouldn’t have to ask it.
  • Until the orchestra didn’t exist, composers didn’t write music for it, and instrumentalists didn’t form such groups because there was no music for them to perform.
  • Grey-haired, yet crewcut, he was clean, precise and appeared somewhat cold, just as one would expect a surgeon.
  • These two atolls being studied prior to returning the people that had been removed from those atolls prior to the nuclear testing.

On Final Exams and The Hardest Spelling Test

More gamification of words. I loved spelling tests (on paper) and spelling bees (the competition) when I was in school, and while I consider myself pretty good at it, I think I would wilt under the pressure of McPhee's test to his students. How many could you spell correctly? (The really brutal part is that assuredly you'd come close on many of them.)

Rarefy, liquefy, pavilion, vermilion, impostor, accommodate. 
Supersede, desiccate, titillate, resuscitate, inoculate, rococo, consensus, sacrilegious, obbligato.

I love words, and John McPhee loves words, and I love John McPhee.