Friday, August 5, 2011

Editorial Hissy Fit

I've decided my occasional word feature will be called Pet Words. Because they are my pets, really. I collect them and love them and fondle them. Thank goodness I'm not allergic to them, like I am to almost every other pet! (Which itself is a sort of blessing, because otherwise I'd be a crazy cat lady for sure. Much better to be a crazy word lady.)

My editor and I have a most harmonious relationship. I agree with nearly all of her suggestions, and she trusts my judgment in those places where we differ. There's only one tiny conflict, and it seems to crop up in almost every manuscript. She, and the copy editor, are adamant that in order for a word to be hissed, it must have an “S” in it. I think that if you say the word in a whispery, breathy manner like you're translating Parseltongue, you can hiss anything. (J.K. Rowling reportedly said she derived the word Parselmouth from an old term for someone with a hare-lip or cleft palate. I couldn't find that word, though it might derive from parcel, a part or division, such as a snake's forked tongue.)

Hiss is of course an onomatopoeia, that is, a word that sounds like what it means, an imitative word. It is related to the word sibilant, which I had assumed was itself related to the word sibyl, one of the ancient oracular priestesses such as the famous one at Cumae. Which is natural, because they probably had sacred hissing snakes, and the Delphic sibyl was called the Python, or Pythia, which might have been because Apollo slew the Python and her home was in its rotting corpse. (Python means “to rot” and might also have referred to the chthonic fumes that rose from the earth and intoxicated the sibyl into prophesy.) But actually sibyl seems sibyl comes from Doric siobolla, meaning “divine wish.” Oh well.

Hiss is also related to another of my pet words, which I don't use nearly often enough – persiflage. Wodehouse loved the word persiflage, meaning “frivolous talk.” I don't know if the hissing part refers to the fact that it is guiltily whispered in a hissing manner, or that those hearing it hiss in condemnation.

So what do you say, friends? Can you hiss anything, or only something with an S?



Between The Lines said...

I'm no great editorial fiend, but I agree with you that anything can be hissed. After all, you can hiss a whole sentence, but unless it's a tongue twister you never get a sentence where every word has an s in it...meaning that any word can be hissed regardless of whether it has an s or not. I think the action of hissing indicates an underlying bitterness, which can come across with any combination of letters - as you say, it's about how you say it rather than what you say. I see what your editor is getting at, but I'm guessing your characters are not all snakes, so I don't think it really matters. It's your story, go with what you want!

Dlsarmywife said...

I'm with you on this one Laura, I think anything can be hissed. When I think of someone hissing something, I think of them saying it through clenched teeth. So go with it! =D

FBT said...

Yeah, I think you can hiss anything.

Also, yay for randomly stumbling onto your blog and finding someone who likes looking up words - I love words and occasionally spend hours looking them up (cos I'm a nerd like that). And yes, persiflage is a really good word.

anachronist said...

You definitely should hiss as much as you like as long as it fits the story. Hissing is far more visceral than say, whistling of sibilating or wheezing. Cats hiss ( I am a future mad cat woman but now I own just a yorkie, kind of camouflage), snakes hiss and some birds too. Great explanation of the word sibilant btw - I love word histories!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Editors would always say the word I wrote was hissed couldn't be. To which I replied to the rejection slip, "You can say that only because you never got my half-Sioux/half-Irish mother mad!"

Great blog you have, Roland

Laura L. Sullivan said...

Hooray! Now I'm armed and ready for the next round of copy edits! And Roland, I really wish I could hear your half-Sioux/half-Irish mother hiss -- I can well imagine it, though. Thanks to you and to FBT for stopping by my blog. I love new visitors!

(I should also add that neither the editors nor I have ever thrown an actual hissy fit over a manuscript. At least, not where the other could see/hear!)

Shanan, The Book Addict said...

I have been thinking about this question, and I think any word can be hissed. However, when a word is typically hissed I think it sounds like an s is being added to the word. I do think the s sound is important to the hissing process. :)