20 September 2014

Word Power

Grenville Kleiser (9th edition 1917)

This is a very brown book. It has neat brown boards with a close-grained cloth texture, the top edges of the pages have traces of what may have been a brown colouring which, though faded, remains brown and the other edges have aged to a brown hue with tiny spots of brown foxing. It feels dull and functional, which is fine, because it is a reference book.

First thing on a random opening. A step was at her heels; A stifling sensation of pain and suspense; A stinging wind swept the woods; A strange compound of contradictory elements; A stream of easy talk; A strong convulsion shook the vague and indefinite form; A strong susceptibility to the ridiculous...

The front bits. The title page gives a block of further explanation beyond the fact that the book contains several thousand useful phrases. This explanation is all set in capitals and elaborates on the title by mentioning the STRIKING SIMILES and ORATORICAL TERMS that can be found within. Grenville Kleiser's qualifications to offer his services are listed extensively below his name. He's a former instructor in public speaking at Yale Divinity School and the author of an impressive stream of self-improvement books, including How to Develop Power and Personality in Speaking and How to Argue and Win.

Leafthrough. Words, words, words - it's just page after page of words. A bit like any other book, then. But these words don't connect to paint a big picture or tell a story, or explain a natural phenomenon or scientific experiment. They are just words arranged in phrases apropos of nothing. It seems to be a hybrid of dictionary and thesaurus; a slightly mad well of phrases and thoughts to dip into whenever inspiration dries up. 
Looking into it.  Grenville Kleiser was the Charles Atlas of the spoken word. Going by the adverts for his correspondence courses, he could turn you from a two-cliché apology into Demosthenes in full flow. He could put muscle into your mutterings, give you the power to kick words in people’s faces. For just 15 minutes a day of your time, you could become ‘the man among men’ (women need not apply). Kleiser offers a dream whereby the stumbling and dull can become articulate and eloquent. There is a power in well-chosen words used in harmonious groupings that has seen great statesmen face out impossible crises, company directors take their shareholders with them into bold enterprises and hosts hold dinner guests enthralled. The gift of the gab is not God-given, it has to be developed and honed like abs and pecs.

It must be true that great speakers and speech writers practise and perfect their craft in different ways. But I have always thought (perhaps naively) that the real power of a great speech is drawn from the orator's own resources; a genuine belief in their subject and an innate lexical toolbox with which to fashion their message. Which is why I find this book so odd.

It is intended as a weapon against cliche and tired usage, and there are certainly some resonant, flowery and frankly weird phrases here. Whether the author came up with them from his own troubled imagination or not, however, these phrases are destined to become secondhand as soon as they are used by his readers. As it happens, I suspect Kleiser found them by the simple method of ransacking his bookshelf. What's left are bits of sentences, fragments of dialogue and random thoughts that are presented with the sinews of their original contexts dangling from them. Where, for example, did the simile "Like some unshriven churchyard thing" come from, and under what possible circumstances would you use it? Or how about the prepositional phrase "snubbed into quiescence", or the 'impressive phrase' "clumsy, crawling, snobbish and comfort-loving"?

Kleiser does warn us that "we should not...study 'sparkling words and sonorous phrases' with the aim of introducing them consciously into our speech". But his instructions on how to use the book include copying the phrases out in your own handwriting and using a pencil to underscore those that "make a special appeal to you". He also suggests an exercise: "pronounce a phrase aloud and then fit it into a complete sentence of your own making".

15,000 Useful Phrases proposes that stocking up with an arsenal of pre-prepared power phrases will give even the most inarticulate the chance to outspeak his opponent. Like Charles Atlas, Kleiser plays to people's self-perception as to their own weaknesses in areas where all around them appear to shine. There is always someone fitter, more fulfilled or cleverer than any one of us and there will always be people who can sell us a way to get even.

The book has been popular enough to run to several editions over the decades. It is still in print and there is even a Youtube version in which the whole thing is read out word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase: "...involuntary yearnings, involuted sentences, involved pomposity..." intones the reader at 1 hour 41 minutes and 12 seconds of a total length of over 9 hours - just for part one of the project. Equally dedicated is the blogger who has decided to Tweet all 15,000 phrases over however long it takes. So, not to be outdone, Id like to establish the Kleiser Challenge by Tweeting a 'useful' phrase each week and getting you to fit it somewhere into your daily conversation or any other real context you may come up against - business presentations, best man speeches, letters to the Tax office, for example. Tweet your best efforts back for imaginary points and another impressive bulge in your word power.


And, good luck - it's a wordy world out there.

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