Skillful Turns of Phrase

frank burnsEveryone loves an exquisite turn of phrase. Those of us who dabble in writing are particularly susceptible to their numinous power.

I’ve been doing some research on the Father Mulcahy character from M*A*S*H. William Christopher transformed the fictional character from a caricature of military chaplaincy, into a compassionate and respected representative of the Holy. During my research, I’ve been reviewing episodes of the series in which he was featured.

In “Alcoholics Unanimous,” which originally aired in 1974, Mulcahy has been tasked with delivering a lecture on temperance. In an interesting twist he wears full clerical garb and prepares what is essentially a sermon. Since the lecture is a “mandatory formation,” the mess tent (which doubles as the chapel) is filled to capacity.

Sitting in the front row are the hypocritical Majors Burns and Houlihan. (For those unfamiliar with the show, they constantly call for the most rigid of military standards, even as they are all the while breaking the military’s Uniform Code that prohibits adultery.) Major Houlihan’s nickname, in fact, is “Hotlips.”

In the aforementioned episode they have a delightful little exchange that illustrates through its witty banter the skill of the Hollywood writers at their best. As the hospital’s temporary commander, Burns has banned all alcohol and mandated attendance at the lecture. The tent is filled to its limits as Houlihan turns adoring towards her paramour and says:

Houlihan: Frank, what a turnout!

Burns: Lemmings must be directed to the sea.

Houlihan: You’re magic with a phrase!

It requires skill to create a well-crafted turn of phrase. Well, even a fool like Frank Burns can stumble across a clever phrase, but only a master can repeatedly coax them from their ethereal realms.

C.S. Lewis was just such a master. His works abound with profound and captivating language. And he recognized it in the works of others. In “Dante’s Similes,” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he wrote:

[Dante] is the most translatable of the poets—not, probably, that he entrusts less wealth than others to the music of the words and the nuance of the phrase but that he entrusts more than others to the “plain sense.”

In The Four Loves, Lewis reveals just how impoverished much of our language is . . . even when it relates to the most inspiring of matters. Describing the difference between carnal “love” and genuine love, he shows that even impoverished phrases can begin to grasp the truth behind the dynamics of affection and commitment.

We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present. This all good lovers know, though those who are not reflective or articulate must be able to express it only in a few conventional phrases about “taking the rough along with the smooth,” not “expecting too much,” having “a little common sense,” and the like. And all good Christian lovers know that this programme, modest as it sounds, will not be carried out except by humility, charity and divine grace; that it is indeed the whole Christian life seen from one particular angle.

Surely those who are more articulate can more expressively communicate our love for our spouse. Yet, even in so-called matters of the heart, we frequently utter phrases that are utterly mundane.

The History of the Phrase “Turn of Phrase”

One online dictionary uses these definitions:

a turn of phrase

1. a way of saying something “Significant other,” meaning “partner,” now that’s an interesting turn of phrase.

2. the ability to express yourself well She has a nice turn of phrase which should serve her well in journalism.

The Phrase Finder website provides excellent information about numerous phrases. And, in discussing this idiomatic phrase about phrases, they do not disappoint.

So, a phrase was a style of speaking or writing, and style meant beauty of expression. We can now interpret a fine “turn of phrase” as analogous to a skillfully crafted piece of wood turned on a lathe. John Dryden referred to the “turning” of words in this sense in The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 1693: “Had I time, I cou’d enlarge on the Beautiful Turns of Words and Thoughts; which are as requisite in this, as in Heroique Poetry.”

Check out their entire article about turns of phrase at the link above. And, may your own writing be filled with impressive verbal ballets, replete with inspiring leaps and unforgettable pirouettes.

14 thoughts on “Skillful Turns of Phrase

  1. I was a devout fan of M*A*S*H when it first aired in prime time, and when it was made into a two act play for high school consumption I played the character of Frank Burns. I watched the episode anytime and anywhere I could find it, in reruns, in syndication . . . I have seen every episode multiple times. The writers and contributors to the show’s scripts certainly did have a wonderful wit and skillful ability to turn a phrase. It was perhaps the with of the dialogue which drew me most to it.

    I never was much a fan of C.S. Lewis. I read the Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity and was not well impressed. His theology seemed too shallow and populist for my taste, but that is my taste in his writing perhaps and may or may not have something to do with his ability to capture certain readers with “skillful phrasing.” *shrug*

    I think there is a danger when referring to “carnal love” as not being genuine. It certainly is not the agape love that we experience from the Creator but is none the less significant for the purpose it serves. It is when carnal love or “eros” is turned into an object of compulsion or worship that troubles are encountered. In a healthy, divine sanctioned relationship I believe it is fully reasonable, even necessary, form of love. Anyway . . .

    Thanks for the good writing and thoughtful insights. M.

    1. I was wary of M*A*S*H’s antiwar agenda (as the son of a Marine who served there prior to the show’s beginning). But, boy, could those writers write. There is a generous portion of humor in nearly every episode, and a nourishing amount of pathos in many.

      Sorry about your experience with Lewis. He is, as you hint, striving for a popular lay audience, and not involved in exploring theological systematics. Of course, he did not shy away from difficult subjects like suffering. I strongly recommend that you read his book A Grief Observed. His reflections on the death of his wife are much deeper and more raw than what you have been exposed to through the two titles you cite.

      Yes, eros is not evil. In fact, I often say in wedding “sermons” that “eros, when consecrated by the covenant of marriage, is one of the Lord’s greatest gifts.” In my post I really am referring to “carnal love” in its most self-focused and dehumanizing expression.

      Thanks for your insights, and do take me up on the suggestion to read, A Grief Observed.

      1. I have a current reading list that is threatening to overwhelm me but I will keep Grief Observed in mind. I greatly enjoyed Shadow Lands which as you know dealt with the relationship and death of his wife.

      1. I’ll keep my eyes open. Lewis is my lifelong author. His thoughts, his way with words, his desire to follow after Christ, his glorious Lion, and his steady ability to drop me to my knees make him top on my list. Love your blog!!

  2. I loved that show – for the writing. So rare. Must view the show for research? Oh life is hard (If anyone deserves a good laugh you do)
    Great post as always.
    Thanks for the phrase link.
    ” skillfully crafted piece of wood turned on a lathe.” and “impressive verbal ballets” – just a phrase phase? Quite a nice place to be.

  3. Domoa

    I would just like to point out the irony in Michael’s reply:
    It is when carnal love or “eros” is turned into an object of compulsion or worship that troubles are encountered.

    So… God, pretty much?

  4. Keely Nelson

    Interesting especially as i am a bit caught between worlds. Just two days ago having stumbled across Alan Alders podcast regarding science after seeing his interview with Colbert and realizing that i was witnessing a genius at work And after painfully watching most of Blacklist due to my obsession with an actor and looking to find meaning in a series that could give me a clue into what it is that i am looking for.. when they keep mentioning certain metaphors and styles of perceiving even describing ‘turn of phrase’. Thank you for cluing me in.

    1. I’m pleased you got some benefit from reading this post. I just opened the Alda/Colbert interview to watch after I get home from church tomorrow. Appears quite interesting. Thanks for mentioning it.

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