Saturday 19 November 2016

You say 'ceramics'

The American novelist Elizabeth McCracken once tweeted:

My new affectation is going to be pronouncing MacBook as though it were a Scottish surname,  as an iamb & not a spondee.

This immediately reminded of a favourite scene in Howard Hawk's movie The Big Sleep (1946), a film made up entirely of favourite scenes. It was the director's first movie and was based on Raymond Chandler's second novel, published in 1939. The screenplay was by William Faulkner, mostly. The scene I'm thinking of climaxes, improbably, in two different pronunciations of the word 'ceramics' - as a dactyl (wrongly stressing the first syllable) and as an amphibrach (correctly stressing the second).

The private detective Philip Marlowe (played by Humphrey Bogart) is investigating a crooked bookseller called Arthur. Gwynne Geiger. Fans of the film and lovers of Chandler's novel will know why. We see Marlowe in the Hollywood Public Library, consulting a book about collecting rare first editions. Marlowe in a library is (to use Raymond Chandler's odd simile from Farewell, My Lovely) "about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food". His researches complete he hands the thick volume over to a female librarian who says "You know, you don't look like a man who would be interested in first editions." To which Marlowe replies, as he sidles away:

"I collect blondes and bottles, too."

His unambiguous masculinity thus established we cut to the street, outside A. G. Geiger's bookstore. In Chandler's novel Marlowe says:"I put my voice high and let a bird twitter in it." In the film Bogie flips up the brim of his hat, puts on some sunglasses and adopts a prissy, high-pitched lisp. You can watch the ten-second scene here.

The exchange between Marlowe and the hard-boiled faux-bookseller Agnes Lowzell (played by Sonia Darrin) is worth setting out in full - an almost a verbatim lift from the dialogue in Chandler's novel. All that's lost is Marlowe's sardonic description of her ('She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a business men's lunch').

AGNES: Can I be of any assistance?

MARLOWE: Uh, yes. Would you happen to have a Ben Hur, 1860?

AGNES: Of what?

MARLOWE: Would you happen to have a Ben Hur, 1860?

AGNES: Oh. A first edition?

MARLOWE: (tutting impatiently) No, no, no, no, no. Third, third, the one with the erratum on 
page one-sixteen.

AGNES: I'm afraid not.

MARLOWE: How about a Chevalier Audubon 1840, the full set of course?

AGNES: Not at the moment.

MARLOWE (peering over his sunglasses):  You do sell books, hmm?

AGNES (gesturing) : What do those look like, grapefruit?

[They bicker briefly and Marlowe asks to see Geiger, the proprietor.]

AGNES: I said Mr. Geiger is not in.

MARLOWE: I heard you. You shouldn't yell at me. Now I'm already late for  my lecture on Argentine cera-mics. I guess I won't wait.

AGNES: The word is cer-a-mics. And they ain't Argentine. They're Egyptian.

MARLOWE: You did sell a book once, didn't you?

Dialogue © Warner Brothers / The Estate of Raymond Chandler

As thunder rumbles on the soundtrack he leaves the shop and crosses the road to the Acme Bookstore, there to encounter Dorothy Malone, one of the few women in Hollywood who could give Lauren Bacall a run for her money. Marlowe quizzes her about the same two books and, without even troubling to look them up, she confirms her expertise by saying that no bookseller would have them for sale, leaving us to infer that such editions don't exist.

She's right on both counts. There never was a Ben-Hur 1860 with an erratum on page 116. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace was first published twenty years later, in 1880. There was no erratum on page 116 of the third edition (and why even the most obsessive bibliophile should be so keen on that hypothetical edition is part of the fun). 

A Chevalier Audubon 1840 is  another dead-end, as a cursory glance at the Wikipedia entry will confirm. There is no such thing as a Chevaller Audubon 1840.

The set-up in The Big Sleep is wonderful: the idea, first of all, that Bogie's Marlowe goes to the Hollywood public library not to research first editions but to pick up the language used by collectors, then to use it in a kind of double-bluff.

It could be that, having established to his and our satisfaction that Geiger's operation is not wholly legitimate, he brazenly signals his strategic deception by deliberately mispronouncing 'ceramics' (with that stress on the first syllable); allowing her to correct him and crushingly clarify the precise type of ceramics featured in the lecture for which he claims to be late.

Back to MacCraken's iambs and spondees. As a child I recall being entranced by the word 'Entrance' which appeared etched on the glass door of a department store in our seaside town. I've ever since been particularly aware of such shifts in stress patterns, in such commonplace words as the verb and noun forms of 'record'. And I remember being startled on hearing Glenda Jackson's emphasis on the second syllable of 'oregano' in the film A Touch of Class (1973). She won that year's Academy Award for best actress. 

Some stress patterns change over time and it may be a generational marker. I was taken aback recently by a distingusihed TLS staffer, one to whose literary and linguistic standards I always happily defer, who insisted that 'biopic' should be stressed on the second syllable, to rhyme with 'myopic'. Words fail me.


  1. It should be noted that when Bogie says "ceramics", he pronounces the first two syllabi together, making it sound like "Sarah-mix" (the voice he uses just adds to the hilarity!) 😆


    PS. Totally agree with you about this movie being made entirely out of favorite scenes!

    1. Welp! I'm an idiot!....😳

      JUST saw that you quoted the ENTIRE verbal exchange of that bookstore scene at the bottom of the article (INCLUDING the proper phonetic spelling of his particular way of saying "ceramics") haha! Serves me right for jumping the gun 😑

      I'm not going to delete my comment though, because I've deleted my comment several times already (no 'edit' button once it's posted), and it looks as though it keeps a placeholder for the deleted comments.

      So, instead of leaving a trail of 'ghosts from comments past', leaving everyone to speculate what wild and crazy things I could have possibly commented and then deleted haha 😂😂😂, I'll leave it here to save people the trouble.

      (I dunno if the trail of deleted comments will eventually disappear, but if they do, you can delete these ones as well 😉)