Kathleen Rooney, author of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, joined Grammar Girl to talk about the meaning of "flânerie," the frustrating spelling of "graffiti," and the joys of "procrastibaking."
Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?
Kathleen Rooney: Flânerie! Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed mapping new cities with my feet and taking aimless, drifting walks through urban landscapes. So when I got to college and learned that there was a beautiful and precise French term for that activity, I was thrilled.
GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?
KR: Most words that I can’t stand bother me for aesthetic reasons. I despise the phrase “in toto” for 1) its sonic qualities, 2) its mouthfeel, and 3) its pretentiousness: why not just say “as a whole”?
GG: What word will you always misspell?
KR: “Graffiti” bedevils me every time I try to type it; I almost never get it right on the first try, which is too bad because I find myself writing it often. I see a lot of compelling graffiti on my meandering walks through Chicago—flânerie!—and whenever I email or text a photo of a particularly good mural or tag to a friend, I unfailingly forget whether the word has 2 Fs or 2 Ts.
GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?
KR: The New York Times recently taught me the word “procrastibake” meaning “baking to put off work.” In general, I’m sort of addicted to the feeling of getting things done so I’m not much of a procrastinator. That said, on the rare instances when I do procrastinate, baking is my most beloved means of avoiding my real work.
GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?
KR: As a professor at DePaul University, grammar matters a lot to me, but I try not to be a martinet about it. I mark grammatical errors and emphasize the importance of proper style and usage, but do my best not to make anyone feel dumb about or scared of grammar. One peeve that I do have that I’ve been noticing more and more lately is that the use of “who” seems to be dying out, with people using “that” in almost every situation, whether it’s appropriate or not. I’m not sure why that’s happening, but I find it inordinately troubling; maybe because it blurs the boundary between people and objects and that disturbs me.
GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?
KR: Every aspect of language from the largest to the tiniest matters immensely in the creation of a character and their voice, so grammar absolutely is a factor I consider when I’m working on a novel. Grammar and whether or not a character knows and adheres to it, or doesn’t know it, or outright disregards it can say so much about that person’s background, milieu, values and attitude so I think a lot about my characters’—and narrators’—orientations toward the systems and structures of language.
GG: Do you have a favorite quote or passage from an author you’d like to share?
A: My most recent novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, is based on the life and work of the poet and ad copywriter Margaret Fishback. Part of my aim in writing the book was to bring her delightful but largely neglected light verse back to people’s attention. So I’ll share one of my favorite poems of hers, one that draws on the specialized vocabulary of her career as the head of divisional copywriting at R.H. Macy’s in the 1920s and 1930s, when she was the highest paid female ad copywriter in the world
The Fashion Copywriter Turns Nature Lover
Flying here and there,
And sunglow air,
And silversheen rain—
Beckon me down
A fragrant grege lane.
Her wit, her diction, and her humor here make the poem seem breezy and effortless, even though the appearance of such ease more than likely took considerable exertion.
GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?
KR: In an email, I made the typo “June 13rd” instead of “June 13th” and it blew my mind a little bit. I started spiraling down a mental tunnel like, “Why do some dates get an ‘st’ while others get a ‘th’ and still others get an ‘rd’?” Life is so mysterious!