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Beautiful Tossed Onion

I work I cniok (2) [1]Take a look at the picture accompanying this column. If you can’t read the text on the hat, here’s what it says:

I work…

I cniok…

my happiness…

I found this beautiful oddity on a recent trip to Europe, at a roadside rest stop where such head-scratching or unintentionally hilarious assaults on the English language can commonly be found on hats, jackets or shirts. Freak that I am, I kind of collect them, or anyway take pictures (though okay, I admit I did buy the hat). On this same trip, I also saw “Genuine Gear Vanguard Original Series All American Ride,” which I can kind of understand. But cniok? What the cniok is that?

I gather from context that cniok might be a verb, and I can reasonably guess that it’s somehow related to work. But how? Maybe it’s intended as a counterpoint, as in, “When not otherwise occupied by gainful employment I enjoy recreational cnioking and cniok-related activities.” Then again, it could be a reference to the higher mind, in the sense that one must first work and then cniok, or perhaps work hard or harder at cnioking, in order to attain one’s happiness. Can cniok be the road to nirvana? Your guess is as good as mine.

And that’s what has me so stoked about the English language today, specifically how it’s used in the global textile industry by those not steeped in it from birth. They create these fantastic permutations of English, and I get to guess what they mean.

Freak that I am, I find that fun.

I find that I want to play, too.

And I find that I easily can.

I merely pretend for a moment that words have no meaning for me, and then string some together, just based on sound. This yields, on first attempt, the phrase beautiful tossed onion. Now, in an exercise of reverse-engineering, I try to imagine where I might find such a phrase, or just speculate on what it might mean. Menu item in a Chinese restaurant? Descriptive phrase on a baby bib? The possibilities are endless.

See? Easy. Fun. And now it’s officially a game, a word game called Beautiful Tossed Onion, and guess what? You can play, too.

To start the game, I just give you a phrase, say, panel sharp looking tree. You guess what it means. If you guess right, or wrong, you get a point. Next, you give me one. Oh, Farewell Hotel Motel? Thank you, that’s a good one. I think it’s either the only inn in the remote village of Farewell Hotel, Arkansas, or a rock anthem about the unbearable redundant monotony of life on the road. Woot!

Hey, before we go any further, I want to make it clear that I’m in no way mocking people who don’t quite have their English dialed. My attempts to even say “cheers” in other languages are generally met with genial mockery by my foreign friends so, trust me, I’m sympathetic to the cause. In fact, people who don’t know English have kind of an edge with this because their approach is informed by an innocence that I can’t match. I could never have invented cniok, I’m sure, specifically because that cn at the start of the word looks so strange. My foundational assumptions about how English works wouldn’t let me make that choice.

Except now I can because now I’m studying it. And by studying it I mean playing with it. And by playing with it I mean watching the bedrock creativity that takes place when I manipulate language on the molecular level. This is my wheelhouse, of course (says the man who has given the world such words as sadlarious and fuckaroundarama). But there’s no reason why you can’t play, too.

Look, I’m a freak. I know I’m a freak and I’ve come to terms with it. I proudly and shamelessly make shit up. Just recently I convinced some poor bartender that Jack Daniel’s and Sprite is traditionally called a Fancy Pants. First of all, Jack and Sprite? But whatever… the point is, I made it up, on the spot, and just for fun. That’s the kind of freak I am.

But come on, that’s the kind of freak we all are. We all have a passionate relationship with language. Mine happens to express itself in making up words, deconstructing words, repurposing words, or just generally bashing words over the head with my cniok.

How does yours express itself?

What gets you off about language and how you use it? A well-turned phrase? A well-revealed truth? A satisfying plot twist? Great jokes? An honest look at the human heart? These things aren’t just your passion, they’re also your wheelhouse, keys to your style and to what makes your writing just sing.

So spend some time listening to how you sing. Identify the strengths of your game (you will find them any time your writing brings a smile to your face). Then, once you’ve identified them, lean on them. Figure out how you do what you do, then do it better.

As for places where you don’t have strength, lean into those, too. Practice things you’re not good at (as I’m presently practicing outlines and research). It’s how you get good. It’s also how you have fun.

Ah-ha! I just figured out what cniok means! It means “to extend oneself in new and different ways for the purpose of improving one’s craft.”

I work…

I cniok…

My happiness…


Seriously, what are you good at? What are the known (to you) strengths of your game? Don’t be shy to admit them. To name a thing is to own a thing, and how can you own your skills if you won’t even claim them out loud? (Oh, and not for nothing, but if you have any fun phrases you’d like me to try and define, I’m over here in my wheelhouse, waiting…)

About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!