Thursday, January 8, 2015

Today's word: myrmecoid

I've been reading Thomas McCormack's The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist. I recommend it to any adult who is or wants to either edit or write fiction — or, like some of us, both. I specifically recommend it to "adults" because it's written for readers with a pretty high reading level. It takes a slow, careful reading to fully take in and appreciate the book.

Not to imply that it's plodding, though. Reading McCormack's book isn't like walking through knee-high mud — a lot of effort to go a little way. It's more like good cheesecake — best savored slowly, with pauses for palate cleansing to make the next taste more delectable. One could shove the whole piece of cake (book) into one's mouth at once, but it wouldn't be enjoyable and would probably cause a stomach ache.

It's not an easy book, but it's worth the effort. Had I tried to read it in high school, I would have struggled with the vocabulary alone. Even now, I had to pull out my dictionary a few times.
Take, for example, this nice metaphor from page 72:

...editing can't be done well by winging instinct alone. Nor does 'long experience' guarantee much. Or myrmecoid industry on the lawn of the book.
Myrmecoid doesn't get its own entry in my Merriam-Webster's, but its meaning is easy to discern from what is there. A quick lookup reveals that myrmeco- is a combining form to indicate a relation to ants. Myrmecology is the study of ants. Myrmecoid, then, means "ant-like" or "relating to ants."

McCormack's "myrmecoid industry on the lawn of the book" is a metaphorical recapitulation of a recurring idea: that an editor can put a lot of work into a novel, find a lot to fix and improve in the novel's language, characterizations, and organization — its lawn — without improving (or even recognizing the need to improve) the deeper, structural problems a book might have — what lies beneath the lawn.

I'm a sucker for superhero movies, but it's an honest-to-blog coincidence that this word myrmecoid came into my life just a couple days after the first TV broadcast of a trailer for the upcoming Ant-Man movie. From what I saw in that trailer, Michael Douglas plays the part of some sort of cutting-edge myrmecologist, or maybe a myrmecophile physicist.

Assuming the word shows up more than once in the movie, legions of moviegoers may add myrmecologist to their vocabularies by the end of summer.

You get a head start.

Logodaedalists take note: The similarities between the words myrmecoid and myrmidon lend those words to interesting puns, comparisons, and intentional malapropisms.

Myrmidons were specifically the Thessalians who marched with Achilles into the Trojan War. More generally, a myrmidon today is, according to Merriam-Webster's, "a loyal follower; esp: a subordinate who executes orders unquestioningly or unscrupulously." In other words, a myrmidon is a minion, a thug, a henchman.

One can easily draw comparisons to a swarm of ant drones possessing legendary (relative) strength, thoughtlessly carrying out the work of the army.