On Calvin, soaps and international Scrabble

Wajnryb, Ruth: Snippets of Truth. Drum Publishing, Sydney, 2008. RRP $24.95. ISBN: 9781921263361

Snippets of Truth by Ruth WajnrybRuth Wajnryb — the author of this slim, nicely packaged collection of 'ponderings from a word watcher' — starts with several advantages. Not the least of these is her consonant-laden name.

Don't be appeased by the purely ritual nod to one vowel: Wajnryb is international scrabble territory (elite levels of competition allow use of names). Moreover, it's pronounced 'vine rib'.

With that sort of lead in, Ruth W. couldn't help being quirky and funny — anything to take the heat off the name and avoid having yet again to explain how to pronounce it. And quirky and funny she is.

This is the sort of book you dip straight into, and when I did I landed on 'Oz is Different — We Do Pedantry Better Here'. I was immediately won over. 'Toxic feedback' is an occupational hazard for columnists. You learn to ignore the simple aspiration of some readers to see you fed to sharks or eviscerated in public. But the pedants are harder to cop.

Ruth Wajnryb's ironic deferral to outraged literalists sees her opening sentence amended — with a nod in the direction of Stan 'Elderly Man River' Freberg — to: 'To quote (but slightly amend) L. P. Hartley's words, "America is another (metaphoric) country. They do things (sic — excluding grief) differently there".'

Columnists need voracity — though not always veracity — and a wide, increasingly lateral, range of reference. Wajnryb is obviously a voracious reader and has a mind which may very well be like a steel trap on its day but which, more to the point, notices, draws in and retains absolutely everything and anything that might serve the columnar art immediately or in an imagined future.

Einstein, the Bible, billboards, a dictionary load of words, amiable inventions ('happsicle', 'apocalisp' — look them up: page 73), bullshit, Time, time, Schopenhauer, TV 'soaps' and much else are all grist to her mill — I resort to the cliché deliberately so I can add, Wajnryb-like, that it was probably first coined by the Protestant Theologian, Calvin, in a 1583 sermon on Deuteronomy: 'There is no lykelihoode that those thinges will bring gryst to the mill', he said memorably.

In less sure and heavier hands, Wajnryb's relentless pursuit of lexicographical meanings, provenance and mutations might jar, but she has a light touch in which irony, an implied self-deprecation, a satirical bent and an unerring eye for the odd, the ridiculous and the pompous all stand as effortless defences against the kind of laboriousness into which this sentence, well-meaning though it is, has quietly drifted.

Ruth Wajnryb's snippets of truth are more often gems than snippets and, as for truth, well, as Calvin might have said: 'There is som lykelihoode but what the Hell'.

Drum Publishing
Purchase online

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG.



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