3.23.2006

Statistically Improbable Phrases

I collect phrases -- exotic phrases, offbeat phrases, uncon- ventional phrases. Nowadays, I read like a big game hunter creeping through the African brush. But instead of an elephant gun, I hold a Hi-Liter. What am I hunting? Words. Phrases.

My trophy wall is over my desk. It consists of two pages, two columns per page in ten point font. Mounted on it are phrases I've bagged during my expeditions. Here's some of them...

cocooned in the heat of an Indian Summer
disembodiment of desire
cannibalized by committee
custom had staled their infinite variety
shameful complicity
fantastical contortions
mill wheels of the mind
predatory calculation
rooted in the undergrowth

There's a certain rhythm, elegance, peculiarity to these combinations. But I nailed them. Now they're affixed to my workspace for inspiration -- as a reminder to transcend the probable.

Yes, the longer you write, the more probable certain phrases become. You could call them clich├ęs because, over the course of time you will, a.) Hear them and b.) Use them. Phrases like

fill the bill
true blue
its the quality not the quanity
a marriage made in heaven
caught'em with his pants down
fall head over heels
smells fishy
larger than life
too good to be true
so far, so good
sick as a dog
time flies

And so it goes. I think it's safe to say that originality means avoiding the probable. Given enough time, even a monkey banging on a keyboard can string together an atypical admixture of elocution. Bonzo might stumble upon a "to be, or not to be" here or there, but he's got about as much chance of producing a Hamlet as does some sea sludge of evolving into a soulful biped. Good writing is not an accident.

Being the word nerd that I am, it's no wonder the Inside This Book feature at Amazon tickles me. Part of the feature is what they call SIP's -- Statistically Improbable Phrases. They are just that: Statistically improbable groupings of words.

For instance, in Walter Wangerin's classic, Book of the Dun Cow, you'll find the phrase canonical crows. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner, contains oodles of unusual combos. Things like innovative policing strategies, white boy names, teacher cheating, crack gang and test score gap. How 'bout Map of Bones by James Rollins, featuring these wild almagamations: hematite slab, liquid body armor, entry pool, golden reliquary, primordial light and ancient alchemists. Khaled Hosseini's title, The Kite Runner, is itself an SIP. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, has a couple of good ones: honey house, bee hum and (my favorite) peach farm. Her The Mermaid Chair is even better, with phrases like whirly girl, turtle skull, slave cemetery, crab trap, and marsh island.

All these words... I'm in heaven. Where does your writing sit on the probablility scale? Monkeys mimic. But we're called to rise above simian cerebra. So next time you read, might I encourage you to go hunting. Whip out that Hi-Liter of yours and keep your eyes peeled. Start your own collection. And maybe some day, your SIP's will be mounted over someone else's desk.

9 comments:

Janet Rubin said...

Mr. Duran experimented like a mad scientist, recklessly mixing adjectives and nouns-- his beakers bubbling with metaphors, His test tubes with similies--determined to find a cure for the common cliche.

Anonymous said...

Yes, marriage of the right words does give Twain’s “electrical and prompt” sensation. They interrupt my productivity, though. I stand and admire them too long.

“Her neckline dipped low, exposing a bib of pale skin.”

Noel

Mike Duran said...

Is that what I'm experiencing -- an “electrical and prompt” sensation? Please Noel, there shall be no more bibs of pale skin exposed on this blog. And Janet, I never place metaphors in beakers. They are strictly meant to be scrambled in a cast iron skillet. Thanks for the the visit girls! Now it's back to the lab...

Vicki said...

Always a pleasure to run into other word nerds :-) I've got notebooks full of odd phrases and curious words that pop off the page.

Fun post--enjoyed it.

Blessings,
Vicki

PS--your blog post 'placement' seems a bit off-kilter this evening. Had to scroll way down to the bottom of page to find your recent entry. No problem, though. We word nerds will eagerly scroll for an offbeat phrase or two:-) THANKS!

Heather Smith said...

Thanks, Mike, for once again reminding me to delve beyond the norm!!

Anonymous said...

Okay, I've got to know. Where do you find these amazing images? Google? yahoo? family albums?

Noel

Gina Holmes said...

I like your new picture, though you probably ought to update the typewriter to a computer. :) Great entry as always.

Mike Duran said...

Thanks for the comments Vicki, Heather and Gina. Noel, the Wikipedia Public Domain Image Resource page is great as is the Photoshop Tuturials Blog, and lots of good stuff can be found on the Google Images search. But don't think I'm overlooking the "family albums" jab.

Gina Holmes said...

Thanks for sharing that resource, Mike.