Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What I learned today

For a couple of months now, I have been sloooowly working my way through a book entitled The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. It's not so much a book of obituaries as it is a book about obituaries -- about the joys of reading and writing about people, often very ordinary sorts, who have finished with this life. Today I came across a delightful section on euphemisms and a list that one may use to decode the obituary section:

We figure that the alleged killer probably is the killer. When the obit says someone was vivacious or sociable, we can guess what's behind these chirpy, mom-approved words: the departed liked to party; she felt comfortable on the barstool. Jude Law, playing an obit writer in Closer, got points with Natalie Portman and his audience by translating the code used at his newspaper: "'He was a convivial fellow,' meaning -- he was an alcoholic. 'He valued his privacy' -- gay. 'He enjoyed his privacy' -- raging queen!"

This coded understatement is an art, and part of the pleasure of reading and writing obits. [Hugh] Massingberd spent his career at the Daily Telegraph refining that art. "We all know 'he didn't suffer fools gladly' translates as 'a complete bastard,'" he told a gathering of obituarists in Bath, England. Massingberd is a great elegant bear of a man, and in a self-penned mock obit claimed to possess "an appetite of such magnitude that friends counted him three men at their table." He smacked his lips over his list as if it were a tower of profiteroles, then read it with lusty pleasure:

Gave colorful accounts of his exploits = Liar!
No discernible enthusiasm for civil rights = Nazi!
Powerful negotiator = Bully!
Tireless raconteur = Crashing bore!
Relished the cadences of the English language = Old windbag!
Affable and hospitable at every hour = Chronic alcoholic!
He was attached to his theories and sometimes urged them too strongly = Religious fanatic!
Fun-loving and flirtatious = Nymphomaniac!
An uncompromisingly direct ladies' man = Flasher and rapist!

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