“Not Grammar, Diction”

by Paul Nance

Reading a post written a few months ago on metalinguistic comments in John le Carré novels reminded me of the references to language usage in the works of Rex Stout. The novels and novellas feature detective Nero Wolfe, a brilliant, obese aesthete who solves murders without leaving his home (and his 10,000 orchids) on West 35th Street in New York City.

Wolfe frequently notes others’ usage, but, interestingly, his comments are always semantic, rather than grammatical. Wolfe occasionally targets standard usage complaints (imply/infer, will/shall, use of contact as a verb), but his interests cover a far wider range. One telling example could be described as meta-metalinguistic. In the novella “Method Three for Murder” (1960), he corrects a client who uses the phrase “alienating the affection of my wife”. When the client objects, “I didn’t come here to have my grammar corrected,” Wolfe responds “Not grammar. Diction.”

Not all of Wolfe’s talk about language is prescriptive. He seems to have an interest in the way pronouns are used in the language, particularly the way they often obscure the person or persons referred to. And in several novels, Wolfe notes the lack of a non-gendered third person singular pronoun in English. In “Cordially Invited to Meet Death” (1942), when he is compelled to use generic he in referring to a murderer he is not ready to identify, Wolfe blames his usage on “the pronominal inadequacy of our language”.

Consistent with Wolfe’s interest in vocabulary, dictionaries often play roles in these novels: their authority on matters of use or etymology, or simply their presence in a room. In particular, Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s assistant (and the stories’ narrator) frequently consults a dictionary for the meaning of a word. Perhaps the most famous example of the role played by a dictionary is in Gambit (1962), where Wolfe burns a copy of the then-new third edition of the Merriam-Webster Unabridged page by page, claiming that it is subversive, “because it threatens the integrity of the English language”.

The differences between Wolfe’s and Archie’s usage are consistent with their personalities and backgrounds. He is widely read, and has highly judgmental views on matters of culture, food and drink. Wolfe consistently uses formal standard English, and his vocabulary is equally formal, even slightly archaic. Archie, on the other hand, has only a high school education, reads newspapers and popular magazines, and enjoys New York City culture, high and low. His speech is much more informal, and he sometimes strays from standard usage.

Throughout the novels, Archie’s misuse of words is the target of Wolfe’s comments. But in the early novels (pre-1940), Archie also occasionally uses slang and non-standard grammar. Nero Wolfe never criticizes the grammar, but frequently comments on Archie’s slang and criticizes his choice of words. In The League of Frightened Men (1934), for instance, Wolfe ignores three repetitions by Archie of “it don’t matter,” but a few pages later comments on his use of the noun “lop”, referring to a disabled person. Later in the same novel, Wolfe questions Archie’s use of “viva voce”. “Where did you pick that up, where did you learn to pronounce it, and what do you think it means?” When Archie replies that it means “out loud”, Wolfe says, “It doesn’t means out loud. Confound you.”

But Archie is capable of resisting Nero Wolfe’s pedantry. In Murder by the Book (1951), Archie explains having forgotten a piece of evidence by saying, “I am not electronized”. To Wolfe’s critique, “That’s not a word,” Archie retorts, “It is now. I’ve used it.”