The perils of ONW

Rolf Heimann’s 2005 book The Royal Flea has a droll story — “Miss Featherstone and the Fire” — in it that illustrates the perils of Omit Needless Words.

(Thanks to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky, who gave me a copy of the book, just because it had this story in it, although it’s entertaining throughout. It’s meant for children who are old enough to appreciate the word fart, a peeing dog, and an allusion to a word the reader will take to be bitch but turns out to be bigwig. Heimann is German-born, but has lived and worked in Australia for most of his life.)

The story has the “elderly English teacher” Miss Featherstone coming across one of her pupils calling out from the porch of the Black Swan Inn (owned by his parents; note Australian connection in the black swan):

Come in out of the rain, one and all, and warm yourself in the Black Swan Inn. There’s a warm fire in our fireplace!

She sees that the boy is reading this speech from a slate in his hand. She checks his spelling — stereotypical fussy English teacher alert! — and pronounces:

“The spelling is good, but you should choose your words more carefully. ‘Come in out’, for instance — that sounds clumsy. And ‘one and all’ — that is quite superfluous. So is ‘warm yourself’. You don’t expect people to freeze at the fire, do you? As for ‘warm’ fire, have you ever heard of a cold fire? And you say ‘in our fireplace’. Where else would you put a fire? On the table? In the cupboard?” And as she spoke, she wiped all the unnecessary words from the slate.

Then she entered the inn, and held her hands towards the warming flames. Suddenly she heard Johnny call out: “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

Panic ensues, because “The word ‘fire’ was simply the only one left on Johnny’s slate.”

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