Hemingwayese: Ernest Hemingway and the OED
Please note: this blog post discusses language that some readers may find offensive.
Ernest Hemingway, born on the 21st July, 1899, is remembered as one of the greatest voices in American writing. He was a journalist, an ambulance driver during the First World War, a fan of drinking, bullfights, fishing, and hunting, and a prolific writer of short stories and novels. He was also the recipient of the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature, and he is known for his direct and unadorned prose. Though he never sought to overcomplicate his prose with weighty literary words, he still made a lasting impact on the English language, and these are recorded in the occasions of his name in the Oxford English Dictionary.
It’s notable that the first example given in the OED for the word ‘by-line’ – the line in a newspaper or magazine article that names the author – comes from Hemingway’s 1926 usage in Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises – ‘I sorted out the carbons, stamped on a by-line’. A further example of the word in the OED, from Punch magazine in the 1960s, reads: ‘To win a by-line is… the rising newspaperman’s dream’. Impressive, then, that the young newspaperman Hemingway not only won by-lines, but now has his name alongside the term itself.
Hemingway’s fondness for the drink is also indicated by some of his words. He managed to import to English several foreign words relating to drinking, some of these apparently for the first time. He mentions ‘Izarra’, a herb-infused brandy liqueur drunk in the Pyrenees, and he currently provides first example for ‘anis’, a variant on ‘anise’ or ‘anisette’, for any liqueur or wine flavoured with aniseed. His writings are also used as the first examples of ‘salut’ as a drinking toast (‘good health!’) taken from the French, and the Spanish equivalent ‘salud’ – one thing you can say for certain was that Hemingway, who travelled extensively throughout his life, was an international drinker. He also enjoyed a snack or two with his alcohol, and he brought to English ‘mariscos’ – a Spanish or Portuguese dish of mixed shellfish, to be, as he wrote, ‘eaten in the cafés while drinking beer’ – as well as ‘scallopini’, thin slices of fried or sautéed meats.
A point of return for Hemingway in his writing was bullfighting. Both Death in the Afternoon and Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises deal with the sport extensively and unflinchingly. It’s little surprise that some of the terms associated with it that appear in the OED – usually Spanish words – got there by way of his work. A brief lexicon of bullfighting terms that Hemingway gives example to in the dictionary would include coleta (a pigtail worn by a bullfighter), cornada (the wound made by a bull horn), morillo (the muscle at the back of a bull’s neck that bullfighters target), morucho (a half-breed bull of mixed fighting and domestic descent), and querencia (the part of a bullfighting arena where the bull takes its stand). He is quoted for two definitions of ‘pic’, both short for ‘picador’ and for the lance carried by a picador, and for ‘mono’, a picador’s assistant (‘picador’ itself is from the Spanish verb ‘to prick’). He describes moves that are now in the dictionary, including the ‘farol’, where a bullfighter tempts the bull by passing his cloak over his own head, the ‘molinete’, in which the matador turns away from the bull as it passes (for stylish effect), and the ‘quite’, a series of passes made to distract a bull from a wounded horse. Hemingway is also cited as an example for the word ‘faena’, meaning ‘bullfighting’ itself. His knowledge and vocabulary concerning bullfighting was exhaustive, and his are still the greatest writings on a terrible sport.
It is irresistible to mention Hemingway’s word ‘whunk’, which, the OED notes, is ‘apparently only in the work of Hemingway’. The dictionary cites four occasions of the word or of a variant (‘whonk’), and it is always used as an onomatopoeic term for the sound of a bullet. Hemingway, who was seriously injured by mortar fire in Italy during the First World War, reported from Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and was a witness to the Normandy landings in the Second World War, no doubt had firsthand experience of the sound a bullet makes striking something.
No journey through Hemingway’s words would be complete without a brief mention of his coarser contributions. Along with the many and varied bullfighting terms, Hemingway brought over from Spanish the word ‘cojones’, used to mean courage, though literally, in Spanish, meaning testicles. He is listed for a 1933 use of the word ‘Chrisake’, a colloquial rolling together of the phrase ‘for Christ’s sake’ that was also put to good use by J. D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye, and has a distinctly American sound to it. Hemingway seemed to prefer ‘crut’ to ‘crud’, the usually American slang word for excrement; he is listed twice alongside it as a noun, and once as an adjective (‘crutting’). He used the word ‘bitchingly’ in a letter of 1933, and finally, and rather wonderfully, he seems to have coined ‘shit-faced’ in 1932. However, he doesn’t use the term to mean drunk, as we might be familiar with it today – rather, his is a term of abuse for a critic he doesn’t appreciate.
Hemingway is rightly remembered for his pared-down speech and minimal sentences, and he wrote, in his lifetime, against the overuse of adjectives in journalism and literature alike; he writes that the poet Ezra Pound, in A Moveable Feast, was ‘the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations’. Of course, distrusting adjectives is not the same as not using them at all – ‘certain’ is an adjective, after all. But it does still feel a little ironic that Hemingway now lends his name to not one, not two, but three adjectives of his own. The OED records use of ‘Hemingwayesque’, as well as the derivatives ‘Hemingwayish’ and ‘Hemingwayan’; the latter is used by Jack Kerouac in the original text of On The Road, to describe a character’s writing. The noun ‘Hemingwayese’ – for language like Hemingway’s – is also recorded by the OED. The sense of irony in these multiple adjectives is compounded by the fact that they all refer to Hemingway’s plain-speaking manner, which he himself attributed to his lack of adjectives; an OED quotation from a scholarly essay reads ‘the opening and closing of the book are archly Hemingwayesque; some parts of the 640 pages that come between are simply Hemingwayese’. Whether or not the word ‘Hemingwayesque’ is a useful tool for critics, we can be fairly sure that Hemingway himself would never have used it.