Daily Archives: December 24, 2013

adventure, misadventure

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0010.

“I will take you by a dear dirty back way, Miss Honeychurch, and if you bring me luck, we shall have an adventure.” —Eleanor Lavish, in A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster.

Thus was the devotchka invited by the diva to an adventure, a diversion. To venture forth to the invention of novelty, voler au vent… But they were overcome and when they came to, they were not in Florence but in Villa Verba, city of words, and their dear dirty back ways had happened to take a different cast.

For what is an adventure? Not a vision of a nun and a novena, no; it is a tour or turn of sorts; but how does it happen to be as it is? Nature or nurture? Does it simply arrive or is it sought? Or do we seek its arrival?

Miss Lavish ventured to find its advent. But what she came to was to come: venire. She sought an uncertain future, quod futurus est, ‘which is about to be’ – is becoming. And she wished ‘to come to’ it: advenire. And what it will ‘have come to’: adventus.

Such is her Vedanta, her path to self-realization in ultimate reality. She has a vendetta against stasis. But now she is looking down this alley of words, and although she has bundled the Baedeker away in her bag, she may be wishing that she had Roget – or at least Bartlett, Miss Lucy Honeychurch’s chaperone. For when etymology turns anfractuous, one may be heading for an accident.

An accident: something that has simply happened. So, too, is – was – an adventure. Simply a thing that happened; it came to pass. Chance, fortune, luck. If Miss Honeychurch brings luck, they shall have luck. But o, Fortuna, velut Luna (not Lucy): Miss Lavish seeks fortune, and it shall tell out as it will – lavishly or not. When you seek chance, if you find it, you shall indeed have adventure.

“Lost! lost! My dear Miss Lucy, during our political diatribes we have taken a wrong turning. How those horrid Conservatives would jeer at us! What are we to do? Two lone females in an unknown town. Now, this is what I call an adventure.”

In the back alleys of Villa Verba, the inversions will put in you a trance position. You seek adventure but you find it in broken parts: a turn, beyond which lurks a raven duet; if you evade it you will slip into the never; if you think your sense of direction is trued you will see it denature at a v in the road; in a fit of vertigo, you find yourself due in a tavern, and if you are naïve and invade further you will be mastered and can only hope that you will, through the stirring mist, find a rudiment to save you, but your number is up, a sum inverted… for you have drunk over your draft, and your fortune is misfortune: when the pieces come back together you have met your match through a misadventure.

Thus is the reality of our ventures revealed. We think adventure is something that we do: we go forth and happen to the world. But when the world happens to us, we are absolved of responsibility; there is no misconduct, no miscreant, no negligence. Simply death by misadventure.

Then something did happen.

Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. “Cinque lire,” they had cried, “cinque lire!” They sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.

Miss Honeychurch recalls later on how the spot came to her dress. It was no fault of her own. There was a young man, yes. So she says. But oh, where is the clever lady and her lavish words? Did she find her adventure? Miss Honeychurch remembers how she was misled by Miss Lavish, hoping for a happening but being happened to unhappily in the alleys and vialetti. Words were getting to her and yet had gotten away from her. So she made her choice: she stole a space so she could find her honey and a church, and when she came to, Miss Adventure had seen her end by misadventure as the word closed in on her.

The city of words is a casually acausally cruel place.


Sometimes you just see a cute little word wandering around on the street and you pick it up and take it home. And you pet it for a little while, and then you use it in a sentence.

And then someone says “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

I have the habit of looking up any word that is new to me. But I didn’t always. And one word that just seemed so cute – and its meaning so guessable – that I picked it up without checking it for fleas was squiffy. Oh, look, doesn’t it just have that squee factor? It’s like a little mouse called Sniffy. It’s squeezable and soft. The ff takes away any clear echo of squid, and most people won’t think of spliff right away. (The hair-conscious may think of quiff.) And that squ that seems ironically so un-square can draw your attention away from the rather iffy aspect of it.

So the 24-year-old me was working away in a bookstore and I came face to face with some unforeseen and undesirable eventuality (there are many of those in the quotidian existence of a bookstore), and I said “That’s just squiffy.” And my manager, Dean Thorup, a fellow who (like at least one other I knew in the book biz) demonstrated by his existence that you could have an unspectactular education but still be quite sharp, said “That word doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

So what does it mean? Let me just say that it’s an adjective that many people will have cause to use during the recycled Saturnalia of late December. To be less coy about it: it means ‘intoxicated’.

But of course there are so many levels of intoxication. To draw a parallel, it’s an old (and not really accurate) idea that the Inuit (also called Eskimos by people who are not them) have some huge number of words for ‘snow’. The idea is that if you have a lot of exposure to something and a lot of reasons to make distinctions between different specific types of that thing, you will have a lot of words for that thing. This idea may have some basis (but do think of the number of things we encounter all the time in many varieties and still have just one or two words for), but another factor that can come into play is that things that are socially outré or taboo but nonetheless desirable tend to accumulate a lot of euphemisms and rakish synonyms.

One or the other of those factors will account for something I noticed in an Irish Gaelic phrase book: Irish has a goodly number of words for different levels of drunkenness. Well, that just plays to stereotypes, doesn’t it? But if you’re going down that road, you cannot ignore the amazing number of words we have in English for different levels of drunkenness – easily enough to make a whole year’s worth of word-a-day. And one of those words is squiffy.

So where does squiffy fall on the scale? Generally on the lighter side: what you may get from a snifter or two, just a sniff of the stuff, a couple of quick quaffs and that’s all. But you do well to check context. You surely know that some people like to downplay the level of intoxication, and others to exaggerate it. The lines between semantic categories are not even as tidy as if they had been drawn by someone who was rather more than squiffy.

Oh, and where does the word come from? It dates from the mid-1800s. The Oxford English Dictionary helpfully says “Of fanciful formation.” Go figure.