The Right to Ovate, and Other Problems

At Cannes recently, the actor Matthew McConaughey spoke out on the negative response to Gus Van Sant’s new film, The Sea of Trees.

“Anyone has as much right to boo as they have to ovate,” the actor observed.  Before any knickers get twisted over the switch in pronoun number, I should make clear that what stopped me cold was the infinitive form to ovate. Really?  Was I the only reader who looked at this and thought first of ovaries, which as a point of anatomical fact not anyone has?

A little digging in the Oxford English Dictionary, however, turned up an entry (last edited in 2004) that defines to ovate as a colloquial form meaning, 1. “to give (a person) an ovation” and, 2. “to applaud enthusiastically.”

The earliest citation is, surprisingly, 1638, in a text that tells us the president of Kabul was “ovated for his victory.” Sporadic citations in the following centuries put scare quotes around the word, thus safeguarding its neighbors from colloquialism.

The Google NGram viewer suggests that the word ovate has always been pretty scarce, though if it ever had its 15 minutes of linguistic fame, that would have been between 1820 and the late 1830s.

But to ovate seems to have some sort of continuing life, at least in the entertainment industry, where much depends on whether the audience ovates regularly, loudly, and vertically.

If you don’t believe me, please attend any Broadway show, where vertical ovating has become the required last function of the audience. When, as the OED tells us, the Evening Standard  reported in 2001 that “The packed house stood to ovate,” one’s only response can be, “Well, they would.”


Assuming blogs have limbs, here’s a footnote to my post about female pseudonyms. First, apologies to the late Anne Desclos, who did in fact publish The Story of O under the pen name Pauline Réage. No Clara Gazul, Anne Desclos was in fact real and female. My thanks to DanK48 for the correction.

The fiction of Ed Wood Jr. is as terrifying as his films, and just as wacky. OR Books recently published Blood Spatters Quickly, a lurid collection of Wood’s short stories, surely culled from the steamiest of magazines from an era when a magazine might actually be characterized as steamy. Ann Gora is the inevitable pseudonym for the director who wore angora sweaters. Thanks to popegrutch for this.

The long list of contemporary crime and mystery writers who take on female personae is only part of uconnche’s impressive list of responses to my original post.  Note to self: In next life, consider reading mysteries and thrillers. In this life, academe provides sufficient shock, adequate thrill, and all the mystery necessary to keep me busy, puzzled, and intermittently stunned into silence.

Even I knew that Carolyn Keene was the collective pseudonym of the writers who produced the Nancy Drew books for Edward Stratemeyer’s Syndicate. Whether Stratemeyer ever wrote under the name Carolyn Keene himself is beside the point for my purposes — yes, this is a male confecting a prodigiously inventive female writer.

I didn’t know about L. Frank Baum’s multiple female personae. Or about Bill W. and his pseudonymous contribution to the foundational text of Alcoholics Anonymous.

But nothing quite tops Joe Orton’s Pythonesque letter, over the signature of Edna Welthorpe, complaining of lewdness and frivolity in the works of Joe Orton. My thanks to Becky Sharp for bringing this piece of Ortoniana to my attention.

The point — should I have had one — is that the invention of the female pseudonym is an invention of the Romantic era, put to use mostly in popular genres. None of this is surprising in itself – there are lots of socio-historical reasons why writing purportedly by women but composed by men would be naturalized within particular literary forms.

Writers (both female and male), syndicates, and corporate persons have their reasons for inventing women to do their work. Franklin’s Mrs. Silence Dogood is in the tradition of what the British call agony aunts and Americans call advice columnists. Eppie Lederer took on the mantle of Ann Landers, an advice-column pseudonym that had been invented a decade earlier, but that was a woman-as-woman masquerade.

Corporations don’t write novels, but they do invent female creatives. The pantry of my childhood was populated by imagined women, not quite pseudonyms but nevertheless female personae concocted to market their products to homemakers. Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, and Ann Page — doyennes of syrup, cake mix, and canned veggies — each had her own graphic presence on a Yonkers kitchen shelf.

Mrs. Silence Dogood and Clara Gazul aren’t responsible for any of this, but their creators were on to something. Whether they should be ovated for it is another matter.


You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano





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