The stories behind words are fascinating. Why do we call a computer glitch a bug? What’s the origin of the expression ‘mad as a hatter?’ Why are so many pubs called ‘Ye olde’ something or other? And if you think news is called news because it’s new, you’re wrong. Oh so wrong.
And now, here is the news.
We’ll start backwards, so to speak, with the word news. It seems obvious that we call it news because it’s new i.e. the latest information. But that’s not the meaning of the word at all. Nor is it the plural of new, in case you were thinking along those lines. No, the word comes from the first letters of the words North, East, West and South. Never in a million years would I have guessed that one. Though, once you know it, it seems obvious because the information is gathered from – you got it – North, South, East and West. In other words, from all directions, from everywhere.
On the other hand the origin of bug for a technical glitch has a simple and logical, even endearing, explanation. And it’s so patently obvious that, should you even guess it, you’d dismiss it as being far too fanciful. But there was in fact a real bug, a real living bug, in a computer at Harvard. The machine wasn’t functioning properly. Grace Hopper, who was working on it at the time, investigated and found a moth in one of the circuits. And from then on computer glitches became known as bugs. One could maybe challenge the definition of ‘bug’ but this was America. They say things differently there.
As to those mad hatters. Many people think the expression comes from the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland but the expression precedes the book. In days gone by, people wore hats far more than we do now; there was a thriving industry in hat making. Felt was widely used in the manufacturing process, which involved the use of a toxic solution of mercury. This caused chronic mercury poisoning, a condition that attacks the central nervous system, leading to symptoms such a trembling and incoherence. Hatters were also noticeably excitable and irrational, another result of inhaling mercury. Hence the expression ‘mad hatters’.
A thorn in their side
I don’t think there’s pub called ‘Ye Olde Mad Hatter’ though nothing would surprise me. Be that as it may, throughout the length and breadth of Britain there are many pubs with names prefaced by the words ‘Ye Olde.’ Such as ‘Ye Olde Black Horse’ or ‘Ye Olde King’s Head’. I used to ponder whether these were genuinely old names or just created for poncy, marketing purposes, to pull in the punters. Neither guess is accurate. When the Romans occupied England they used the rune ‘thorn’ to represent the sound ‘th’ as no such sound existed in Latin. When Caxton came along with his printing press, they had to represent the ‘thorn’ in some way and the letter ‘y’ was the closest. So to be absolutely correct these inn signs should really read ‘The Old Black Horse’ and ‘The Old King’s Head.’
You will discover more weird and wonderful word origins and fascinating facts, in the Categorical Trivia Collection, the source I used for the facts in this post.
“Money is the root of all evil.”
No, it’s not.
The original phrase is found in the New Testament in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy*.
It actually says: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”
So that’s all right then. You can be both good and rich.
“The ends justify the means.”
If you think this is a quote from Machiavelli, you’re mistaken. Along with most of the people on the planet.
Because he never said it.
What he did say was: “One must consider the final result.”
Which means something altogether different.
Writing is mostly a solitary occupation. Even if you are writing with a cat on your lap, it’s still down to you to get the words onto the paper or the screen. The cat’s not going to do it. But it sure as hell will provide a distraction, whether it’s actually sitting on the keyboard or not. There are plenty of ways you can happily waste time with a cat – whether it’s a real cat or a virtual cat. And it’s not just cats …
Before you even start, tackle the technology. While we curse it and say how much time it wastes, it’s not it. It’s us. Your computer hasn’t got teeth. It’s not going to bite if you don’t look at your emails (though of course it can get back to you in other sneaky ways). So first, turn of the bling or ping or whatever noise your computer makes when an email comes in. If, like me, you also have a distracting little box that appears top right, see if you can kill it. You may not be able to do so, but you can try.
Step away from the phone
And then there’s the phone. Once you’ve set a writing time – I write best in the mornings – don’t answer the phone. There are such things as answering machines. And don’t fret; if it’s urgent they’ll ring back. Even better, tell all your friends, your mother, the cat, the dog, your neighbour that you never answer the phone between, for instance, eight and twelve a.m. Be specific. If you are someone who just has to answer, then unplug the wretched thing, if it’s a landline. With mobiles, turn off the sound but shove it away somewhere. Like in a drawer, on top of the fridge. Anywhere where you can’t see it. (Only don’t forget where you put it!)
The devil incarnate – a.k.a. the Internet
Looking for inspiration – always a good excuse – I decided to do some ‘research’ for this post. So I Googled and found much more than even I had bargained for. Just one of the suggestions offered had no less than thirty five new ways to waste time or to find inspiration, if you prefer to think of it that way. That’s the delight and the curse of the web. A true double-edged sword. But I wouldn’t be without it. Nevertheless, it is madly distracting so, if possible, restrict your ‘research’ to evenings.
How many cups of tea does it take to write a novel?
We’ve all been there. You’re a bit stuck. A bit bored maybe. “I’ll just go and make a cup of tea.” Or maybe it’s coffee. Whatever. It’s still a distraction. It can bugger up your chain of thought, even if you weren’t aware of having a train of thought at that particular moment. When you are writing it’s essential that you keep your bum on the seat. Even if that means spending hours staring at the screen. It sounds weird, but by some sort of strange alchemy if you just stay there, something happens. Eventually. (You don’t have to remain immobile all the time, some pacing and stretching is allowed. And the occasional cup of tea.)
Rules are meant to be broken
The thing people often forget to say is that you need to know the rules before you can break them. There’s not a lot of fun in breaking a rule if you don’t know you are breaking it. And there are of course exceptions to any rule, provided you know it in the first place. And as I’ve said before, it’s probably better to make a cup tea or get a coffee than put something in the Google search bar. A cup of tea might take ten minutes. Make that fatal click and you’ll be there for hours. Trust me. I’m a writer.
My parents were both pure Irish. Indeed our family roots are Irish way back to the coming of the Norsemen and subsequently the Armada. Except for one recalcitrant ancestor, reputed to be related somewhat tentatively to some English landed gentry. It’s quite possibly a myth, given that it originated with my Granny Bugger, who was renowned for her snobby aspirations. But that’s another story entirely.
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I grew up listening to and using Irish expressions, without being aware that our vocabulary was any different to regular English. Indeed even now, researching the subject, I am often startled to find that words and phrases I’ve been using for years have their roots in ‘the awld sod,’ to add another to the pile. So here’s a sort of mini-glossary, though it’s by no means exhaustive.
A whale of a time – one day I must look up the etimology of that one.
Was it any use? – Was it any good.
Donkey’s years – A very long time.
Quare – Very. As in it’s quare cold today.
A press – A cupboard. The biscuits are in the press.
Wrecked – Very tired. Or very drunk.
Wet the tea – Make the tea.
Hen’s teeth – As in ‘rare as hen’s teeth’.
Chips – Crisps.
French fries – Chips.
I will yea – I won’t.
Fierce – All weather is fierce. Fierce wet, fierce cold, fierce warm, fierce damp.
Jumper – Not a suicide but a sweater or pullover.
Do the washing – Do the laundry.
Messages – Groceries, shopping. I have to do the messages.
As to the expression, ‘another Russian’. I have no idea of its origins. I don’t know if it was peculiar to my family or a common expression among Irish people of my parent’s generation. They used it to describe any Irish person who came to their attention. So, for example, if they read a newspaper report about a drunken Irishman, or woman, they’d exclaim ‘Oh no, another Russian.’ Or if, for instance, they heard of the appointment of a US Senator, or an official or indeed anyone with an Irish name, you’d hear them say ‘Another Russian.’ If anyone does know the origins, I’d be ‘delighted and excited’ to hear it, as they say in Dublin.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This quote is usually attributed to Voltaire.
But did he say it?
No he didn’t.
It was written by Eveyln Beatrice Hall, who wrote a biography of Voltaire under the pseudonym of Stephen G. Tallentyre.
Many writers have habits and rituals. Some are sensible – like having set hours for working, always starting the day with a walk or never answering the phone during writing hours. Others are mildly eccentric such as only ever writing on yellow paper or always wearing a green cardigan. Then there are those that sound as mad as cheese. Truman Capote had to write lying down, Dan Brown hangs upside down at regular intervals (I’m saying nothing!) and Victor Hugo wrote bollock naked. Though there was a very sensible reason behind this last eccentricity.
There’s no should about it
We are all different. What suits one writer won’t work for another, so don’t listen to anyone who says you should do it a certain way. (On this subject I highly recommend Jon Winokur’s fabulous book – Writers on Writing.) There is no ’proper’ way to write. You need only do what works for you. That said, there’s a great deal of really helpful advice out there. Much of it on the Internet.
The devil incarnate
Ah! The Internet. The devil incarnate, were you to believe its critics. And there is no denying that it can be the most colossal, even destructive, time waster. If you let it. And it’s so easy to let it. There they are, just a click away, all those fascinating sites. Bringing you hours of entertainment involving cute cats, clever cats, grumpy cats, dogs rescued from burning buildings, dogs saving kittens from burning buildings, burning buildings… There’s no end to the fun you can have. And I haven’t even mentioned Social Media. Or email.
Cats and teacups
But you’re supposed to be working, right? And the Internet is a distraction, right? But remember what I said, it is if you let it. And I must admit, it does take a great deal of discipline not to click on a favourite site when you get stuck, or a bit bored. However, it would be much better and waste less time to go and make a cup of tea, do a quick set of exercises or go for a short walk. And before you say ‘but that would take too long’ consider this.
Making a cup of tea might take five minutes, the exercises five to ten, the walk, perhaps twenty. But once you click on that URL – you could be about to lose not just five, ten or twenty minutes but an entire hour, or more. All that said, the Internet can be a rich source of inspiration and ideas. Apart from the fun stuff, there are plenty of splendid blogs out there – on every subject under the sun. They not only inspire but can educate as well as entertain. The trick is to capitalise on this wonderful asset while not allowing it to distract you too much (it’s almost impossible not to be distracted at all.)
Tricks and treats
It’s easy enough to say ‘be disciplined’ but actually doing it is a different matter. It’s not impossible though. While, ultimately, it’s up to you, nevertheless there are quite a few tricks you can use like turning off the sound so you don’t hear the email notifications. Or getting into the habit of only doing your research at certain times of the day. Or allowing yourself fifteen minutes ‘fun’ browsing while having a coffee or tea break. The trick here is to set a time limit and stick to it. You could even set a timer. Or give yourself certain tasks and reward yourself with time on the net when you’ve completed them.
Overall, it’s question of habit and of not giving up. You’re going to fail. Accept it. The lure of those cats will overcome your good intentions. But if you keep trying, eventually you will form new habits. Good ones. And, regarding this blog post, don’t they say you teach what you need to learn!
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”
Did the Wicked Queen say this in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves?
No she did not.
What she did say was …
“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all.”
But still a misquote.
When I first started writing, I simply wrote. I wrote in every form except the novel. Too long. Too difficult. Not for me. Or so I thought. Until I tried it and found it was a perfect fit. Typical! I discovered how to write by writing and by copying what my favourite authors did. Later, when I began to write novels, I also read some wise, practical ‘how-to’ books on the craft.
For it is a craft. Yes, there is such a thing as inspiration and inherent talent. Yes, some things can’t be taught but there’s a great deal that can be learned. You just keep on writing, keep your bum on the seat and don’t give up. I’m not ashamed to admit that I used to write with pen in one hand and how-to book, or a novel, in the other.
I read anything and everything. And this too was, I believe, critical to my formation as a writer. I had read most of Agatha Christie’s work by the time I was twelve. My school made us read the classics so Dickens, Tolstoy, Thackeray and other great writers were my companions. I owe my very survival, in no small part, to reading.
Then came the MA at Sheffield Hallam and another steep learning curve. Luckily the skills I lacked were the skills that could be taught. Skills like understanding narrative drive, the difference between a first draft and a finished novel. As a copywriter I knew how to cut and edit. But throwing out great chunks because they are not working. That’s hard. But necessary.
Here are just a very few of the many books I learned from along the way. Only a small sample, but an important sample nonetheless.
Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular - Rust Hills Beginning, middle end. Character and plot. Setting and motivation. It’s all there. Whether you are writing short stories or novels, this is a practical, down to earth book that no writer should be without.
The Writing Life - Annie Dillard This book has been called ‘a kind of spiritual Strunk & White. It’s full of little stories about what it’s like to be a writer. It’s an inspiration. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel you are not alone and gives you the courage to carry on.
The Forest for the Trees - Betsy Lerner Subtitled An Editor’s Advice to Writers, this common sense and indispensible book gives valuable insights into an editor’s mind. It’s not a ‘how to’ book, it’s a ‘must have’ book. Fascinating, authoritative and comforting at the same time.
Revision –Kit Reed I doubt I could ever have managed to edit and revise my books without the help of this splendid volume. Part of a series, it takes you step by step through the process of revision. And shows how rewriting is a natural, essential part of writing fiction.
How to Write a Million – Dibell, Scott Card & Turco Don’t be fooled by the title, which was probably thought up by the marketing department. This is no ‘get rich quick’ manual. This is a solid, common sense set of guides. The three topics – Plot, Characters and Viewpoint and Dialogue – are each broken up into short sections, which are easy to read and absorb.
Thirteen ways of Looking at the Novel - Jane Smiley ‘What to read and how to write.’ That’s it in essence.an analysis of each book, it covers a vast range of topics from the psychology of the novel to its origins and history.
On Writing – Stephen King Part autobiography. Part level headed advice for aspiring writers. This is an absorbing and compelling book, from one of America’s most prolific and successful writers. And a book that hammers home the need for writers to read. And read. And read some more.
The Shipping News - E. Annie Proulx Go for the original. Forget the film. It has nothing to do with the book. Another novel that was always open on my desk. Her prose is poetic, her style distinct. The regular omission of active verbs validated my own style. (Am I allowed to do this?) I found it spellbindingand instructive.
The House of Stairs - Barbara Vine Published in 1988, this is the third novel Ruth Rendell wrote under the name Barbara Vine. This, above all the others, was my bible. It was one of the books nearly always open on my desk as I wrote. To see how it was done. I believe that, along with King Solomon’s Carpet, it influenced me to set my books in London, in real time.
King Soloman’s Carpet - Barbara Vine Three years after The House of Stairs came King Soloman’s Carpet. Once more the action takes place in London, noteably in West Hampstead and in the London underground. This too was a big influence. I’ve just pulled out my old copy to find that twenty-three post-it notes still adorn its pages.
Lipstick and green powder
We writers are a strange lot. Or at least we like to think so though there cannot be anything much more weird than the things some other folks get up to. Like having yourself buried in a coffin for 150 days, knitting covers for trees and phone boxes or creating a museum of burnt food. Compared to all that Truman Capote’s habit of only writing when he was lying down or T.S. Eliot’s need to wear green powder and lipstick may not seem so odd.
A strange use for a fridge
Be that as it may, we all have our own writing rituals. Nabokov loved index cards – but he was very specific as to the type. They had to be lined 3 x 5 inch cards, which he paper clipped together and stored in slim boxes. He used medium pencils, the sort with erasers at the end. Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel leaning on a fridge. As he finished each page he would toss it in a box and the whole lot would be brought to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, to sort out.
What would Maxwell have to say?
I don’t use index cards. Nor do I lean on a fridge to write. As to throwing everything in a box for an editor to sort out – these days many publishing houses don’t even have in-house editors. If they do exist said editors now have to take on so many other roles they don’t have the luxury of nurturing an author as before. The days of Maxwell Perkins and Charles Monteith are long gone.
So what are my particular rituals? I begin with notebooks where I try out ideas and then work out the plot details. The notebooks have to be Ryman’s Europa spiral bound, ruled A4 Notemakers. The covers come in cheerful colours – deep pink, egg yolk yellow, soft green and also in darker bright shades of blue, green, purple and red.
Write on the left side of the paper only
I write only on the left page initially, leaving the right hand page for jotting down new thoughts or ideas that come to me while I’m working things out. That way I don’t lose anything, though I have to say that the pages end up with lines and arrows crisscrossing from one side to the other, like a web created by a demented spider. When I have a fairly solid idea of the plot, I start to write.
Screen or paper or both?
But then the story takes over and often leads me in a totally different direction to the one I envisaged. However, the outline in the notebooks gives me a framework I can go back to. Like many writers these days I write directly onto the screen – it makes it so easy to move lines and paragraphs around. I also find it helpful to copy and paste a paragraph that I want to work on. That way I have two versions on the page in front of me; if I screw up I still have the original. (If a passage is particularly tricky I will print it out and edit it in pencil. I find I have more control with a pencil – and you can rub it out. And, somehow, the physical connection of my hand with the paper via the pencil seems to create some sort of alchemy.)
Just as I have more than one paragraph on the page I also have more than one document in the folder. If I’m about to do something drastic I save the document with a new name and work on that, keeping the earlier version – or versions as there are often several. That way I can always go back to it if I need to. It works in theory. In practice I end up with a whole load of similar documents carefully labelled, but still confusing when you come back to them months or even years later. In general I don’t need to but I still find them essential – like a sort of security blanket.
What are your processes and rituals? Please do share them. Do you have a special pen, prefer a particular coloured paper or have strange writing habits – like only being able to write with a cat or dog in the room? (Not so strange in my book. Animals are total timewasters but immensely comforting to have around. Even if they do insist on lying on the keyboard or batting your pencil behind the radiator.)
The English language is simply marvellous. On second thoughts, perhaps ‘simply’ is not the most apposite word. Our language is anything but simple. It’s rich, fascinating, intricate and often infuriating. There are rules, sort of. Although as often as not they are there to be broken. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that you absolutely have to know the rules before you are allowed to break them. Indeed, what’s the fun in breaking things if you don’t know you’re breaking them in the first place?
Browsing through a bunch of websites, all devoted to the vagaries of English grammar and spelling, I was startled to discover that, according to the BBC, a new word is created every 98 minutes. Some people who are good at maths conclude that this is 40,000 every decade. Goodness. Since the average person knows between 35,000 and 75,000 words, if you live a normal life span you haven’t a cat’s chance in hell of keeping up (sorry, cats! It’s just an expression). Even so, it behoves us to use as many words as we can and in as much variety. And if that means inventing, then go ahead and invent. It all adds to the abundance.
There’s an excellent precedent in Shakespeare. Although he didn’t invent half the words he used, as some claim, he did invent an awful lot. Assassinate, besmirch, impartial, worthless, grovel, mimic, noiseless, bump – just a few of those he created. So for the purist who goes all humpy when words like frack, phablet, geek chic, blondies and death stare appear within the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary – just remember. Shakespeare did it first. Or indeed he probably didn’t because scribes were probably inventing new words and scandalising the establishment from the time the alphabet was invented.
There are many sites with fabulous lists of assorted facts and trivia pertaining to English, both spoken and written. It’s there that you’ll discover that W is the only letter in the alphabet that has not one but three syllables. That there are no words that rhyme with orange, purple, silver or month. You can stretch things a bit if you like and contrive some great rhymes, but they won’t be exact enough for the exacting. ‘Go!’ is the shortest complete sentence in the English language.
The most difficult sentence, or more accurately the toughest tongue-twister in the English language is said to be “the sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick“. As for that dough-faced ploughman. There are nine different ways to pronounce the letter combination “ough”. All nine can be found in the following sentence. A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed. How’s that for rich, fascinating and intriguing. Not to mention infuriating.
The quote comes from Siegfried Unseld; I don’t know what the publisher in question did to annoy Bonaparte. And I’m not suggesting we go that far. But to any writer who’s received a rejection – especially of the dismissive and unhelpful ‘not right for our lists’ variety – will perhaps feel a twitch of sympathy. Rejections are the warp and weft of a writer’s life. You have to deal with them; no matter how ill judged or unfair you believe them to be. Nevertheless, I’m sure I’m not the only one who cannot hide my pleasure when publishers get it so wrong.
J.G. Ballard, whose distinctive novels and short stories spanned over two decades, certainly made an impression on one publisher. But not in a good way. Commenting on the manuscript of Crash, Ballard’s iconic and controversial novel, one publisher wrote ‘the author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.’ Max Beerbohm, submitting the manuscript for his classic Zuleika Dobson, was damned for being too fond of himself although he ‘has never reached any high standard in his literary work.’
The characters in another classic, Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale, were found to be ‘so deadly and monotonously dull … so depressing … that they make a most fatuous assembly to find between the covers of a book.’ Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was turned down as it ‘contains unpleasant elements.’ H.G. Wells War of the Worlds was refused on the basis that it was ‘an endless nightmare.’ George Orwell’s Animal Farm was rejected, for a variety of reasons, by several publishers. One was afraid of that the choice of pigs as the ruling class would upset the Russians. Another, missing the point entirely, said that ‘it is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.’
Of course cultural attitudes played a part in some infamous rejections, so one does have to allow for that. When D.H. Lawrence submitted the manuscript of Lady Chatterley’s Lover he was urged not to publish ‘for your own good.’ Indeed its first edition was published privately in Italy in 1928. When the full unexpurgated version was finally published in the U.K., in 1960, Penguin Books were immediately put on trial under the new obscenity laws. The publisher won this infamous case by successfully proving the book to be a work of literary merit.
Cultural and historic considerations aside, many extraordinary works of fiction have fallen foul of publishers down the years. War and Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watership Down, Lolita, Moby Dick, Catch 22, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Ipcress File – the list goes on and on and on. Many illustrious authors – among them Kipling, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James and F.Scott Fitzgerald have all been recipients of excoriating criticism. Luckily for us they persisted and found publishers who had a greater vision.
We’ll all get rejections, some of us more than others. Writers whose first novels are welcomed with open arms are rarer than hens’ teeth. Nevertheless, seasoned and proven writers still receive their fair share of setbacks. The only thing a writer can do is just go on. Persevere. Don’t’ give up and, next time you get that unwelcome letter, just remember that you are in good company. If you can, try to get hold of a copy of Rotten Rejections edited by Andre Bernard. It’s this book that I relied on to write this post. I cherish my copy, especially since to buy it brand new could cost nearly £60. However, second had copies are still available, for pennies.
Have you ever wondered why we call bits of bullet and shell shrapnel? Or when and why sausages became known as bangers? And who was Big Bertha and what on earth had she to do with Tommy Atkins? The answers to all these questions lie in the First World War. So many of the words and phrases we use today had their origins there. Some are disputed, of course. If in doubt refer to that fountain of knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Major Shrapnel invented the shell, although his name these days is applied to the horrible, fatal fragments of a shell rather than the shell itself. Big Bertha was the large bore mortar gun that did so much damage to the men in the trenches. It was made at the Krupp works and said by some to be named after Mme Krupp von Bohlen, owner of that industrial empire. I have no idea how big her bottom was but I doubt she would have been flattered by the name.
Tommy Atkins refers to the common British soldier. Sometimes shortened to just Tommy it became popular in the First World War but its use dates from much further back. The actual origin is debatable. A letter from Jamaica in 1743 referring to a mutiny among the troops says “except for those from N. America ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly”. However the popular belief is that it was chosen by the Duke of Wellington, inspired by the bravery of a soldier, Private Thomas Atkins, during the Flanders Campaign in 1794.
As to bangers. Due to severe food shortages during the war there was little meat to spare for sausage making. Instead, the manufacturers packed the casings with scraps – bits of vegetables – and with water. When they were cooked over open fires, especially on shovels in the trenches, the water caused them to hiss and burst and pop. Hence bangers. The popular bangers and mash also acquired a new name in the war – Zeppelins in a cloud. However, this is one name that didn’t stick.
Blighty did though, for a long time. It comes from the Urdu word vilayati, which means foreigner. When the British ruled India it was applied to an English, British or European and was bastardised into the word blighty. It’s popularity increased in the First World War. It was slang for a period of leave back home. In time it simply came to mean England as immortalised in the song Take me back to dear old Blighty.
Next time you take or look at a snapshot remind yourself that in the war it meant quite literally to aim quickly and shoot with your rifle. Or when you drop into someone’s office for a chat, think of how different it would have been in the trenches. Chat was another name for a louse. Since it took some time to pick the vermin off their clothes and skin, the soldiers talked or, in their own words, chatted, while they did so. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, chatting for talking goes back to1440. And lice have been called chats since 1690.
Bonking, bullshit, joystick, muck about, ace, camouflage – these are all in use today but they are populalry thought to have their origins in the First World War. So if you are feeling washed out, or downright lousy and thoroughly fed up with the bumf your boss piles onto your desk and don’t feel you are getting a fair whack, thank your lucky stars that you are living in 2014 and not 1914. Compared to what those soldiers had to endure, you really are onto a cushy number.
The Oxford English Dictionary has been an invaluable source of pleasure and learning since it was first published in 1884. Now that it’s on the web it’s there, whenever you want it. You can of course subscribe but much of it is free. Constantly revised and researched by an army of editors and experts in England and the USA, the online version is updated no less than four times a year.
It’s fascinating how a new or updated word will have one person smiling and another snarling. Why, for instance does the new addition srsly make me grin, whereas merch for merchandise has me reaching for a gun to shoot someone? Or myself. I mean OMG, do we have to reduce everything to text speak? Dear OED what were you thinking of! My loathing of such monstrous non-words is only partially offset by my joy in discovering that OMG, far from being an invention of today’s youf, has its origins in the early nineteen hundreds. OMG indeed.
It came as a surprise to discover that fewer than 100 new entries date from 2000. The youngest word in the OED was crowdsourcing until it was supplanted by copernicium, an artificially produced radioactive element. Hashtag is pretty new; it’s only been in since 2007. On the other hand bezzie – best, favourite and now a short form of best mate or best friend – goes back to the mid nineteenth century.
So here, with no apology whatsoever, are some I love and some I hate and some that are just a little weird. The interpretations below are entirely mine, not those of the OED. Oh and BTW I never claimed I would be consistent.
- Flexitarian – I didn’t know I was a flexitarian although I have a varied diet.
- Snacky – feeling snacky? Go and eat something snacky. Or just some nuts!
- Time Suck – cats on the Internet.
- Srsly – I just like this one. I think we’re back to cats on the Internet again.
- Blondies – white chocolate brownies.
- Death stare – We’re good at this in my family.
- Fabrosaur – A type of dinosaur. Made of fabric?
- Bikeable – an environment suitable for cyclists. Why not say suitable for riding bikes?
- Guac – would saying guacamole strain your brain too much?
- Boyf – OMG OED!!!
- Deets – Ditto
- Citational – I hate it when nouns are turned into adjectives.
- Babymoon – probably used by people who have ‘baby on board’ in their cars.
- Apols – Good God, nooooo. See OMG above.
- Bouncebackability – what the @%$&£ is wrong with resilience?
- Blamestorming – there’s original. And there’s silly.
And then there’s just weird
- Food baby – fat tummy, as in looking pregnant but really just being fat.
- Ship – relationship in fan fiction. Really, really strange.
- Slash – as in actor/dancer. So not taking the piss then.
- Jorts – short jeans or jean shorts. Yuck.
- Fauxhawk – not a bird of prey. They’d have more sense.
- Meatspace – reality check! What planet are you on?
- Derp – The new ‘Duh!?
- Screenager – too clever by half.
What have you found that has you smiling or that sets your teeth on edge? Put your comments below – I’d love to hear what you think.
Browsing through a variety of websites, looking for Irish words and expressions, I was struck by a couple of things. By the amount of words we have for being drunk. And by the fact that, being drunk apart, there are far more words for bad things than there are for good. Nevertheless, most of these expressions are savage. No, not running round in grass skirts with spears; it means really brilliant.
I noticed another thing this time round. Many of these expressions are so familiar to me that at first I was surprised to discover that they are Irish. I guess because I grew up in an Irish family, albeit in England, I assumed that the words we spoke were the words everybody spoke. Not so. Having ‘a whale of a time’, ‘donkey’s years’, ‘rare as hens teeth’ – these are all Irish. As are ‘bang on’ and ‘earwigging’. Others though, indisputably and gloriously, could have no other source than Holy Ireland. Lets start with the drink – or for those who ‘have the drink taken’, as we would say.
There’s a rich vocabulary to choose from, much of it describing various degrees of inebriation. If you’re rubbered you’re in a fairly jolly and inoffensive state. Someone who is flutered is also a good-natured drunk, though talking a lot of gobshite and not in control of his or her legs. Even when you’re slaughtered you can probably still string two sentences together. If you become twisted, though, you’ll be off your head and need help even to get home. Plastered has become fairly widely used in England – this is another one I hadn’t realised had it’s roots in the old country. Then there’s jarred, stocious, gargled, legless, polluted, blethered, smashed, pickled, lashed, mouldy, banjaxed, soused and ossified. To say nothing of locked, trousered, elephants, transmogrified, mortal and bolloxed.
But my favourite of all time is and still remains – ‘circling over Shannon’. It originates, some years back in the visit to Dublin of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yer man had, as we say ‘the drink taken’. Indeed so much drink had he taken that he was legless and not fit to get off the plane. Which was obliged to circle over the airport while attempts were made to sober him up. Meanwhile the Taoiseach and members of the government waited on the ground – and yet another brilliant expression was added to the Irish vocabulary. Do you have any brilliant expressions to share? They don’t have to be Irish. We’re not the only ones who like a jar or five! Please share in ‘comments’ below.
My latest discovery, via Twitter, that wonderful source of mind food, is the splendid Mental Floss. It’s stuffed with amazing, informative and fascinating facts and articles. Among them these delightful examples of up-goer five speak. What on God’s good earth is up-goer five speak? I’ll explain. Up-goer five speak was inspired by Randall Munroe of the webcomic xkcd, who published a description of the Saturn V rocket using only the 1,000 most frequently used words in the English Language. Thus restricted, the rocket was called ‘up-goer five’. This prompted Theo Anderson, a geneticist, who believes science should be accessible, to create a text editor that would force the user to write using only those 1,000 words. In their turn, two geologists, Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan, created the Tumblr Ten Hundred Words of Science’, a collection of scientific texts that had been turned into up-goer five speak. The Mental Floss site has 18 examples from 18 different fields. I’ve taken some more from the Tumblr site as well. There’s only room here for a few, but I urge you to explore both sites and read them all. Especially the original ‘Up-Goer Five’. Incidentally, if you are a writer, a copywriter or need to write texts of whatever nature, this is a valuable exercise. Not specifically in précis or summary, though it’s that too. It’s primarily an exercise in clarity and precision. And in my opinion the world needs as much clarity and precision as it can get.
Olfactory Biology “I watch boy flies try to do it with girl flies to see if they really like to do it, or they like boys flies more. This happens when they can’t smell something the girl flies have that makes them want to do it with girl flies or something the boy flies have that makes them not want to do it with boy flies.” Jennifer Wang, research technician in a lab studying fruit fly olfactory behavior
Web Development “Computers are used to share pictures, words, and movies (usually of cats) with other computers. The computers need to show the cats on boxes with tiny lights in them, but don’t know how. People like me tell the computer many words so that it knows how to change the tiny lights to look like a cat. We try to make the lights change very fast so that you don’t have to wait for your cats. Some days the lights are all wrong, and we have to tell the computer more words to make them look like cats again.” Brandon Jones, Google Chrome GPU Team
Political Economy “I try to see if bad people with power let bad people in business do bad things for easy money. Also I try to see if this hurts good people and their money.” Warren Durrett, political economist
Biological Anthropology “I study old human stuff. We look at the old stuff to see when and where humans came from and why we look and act so funny instead of acting like other animals.” Meagan Sobel, Biological Anthropology student
Circadian Rhythm Biology “Little flying animals can tell time of day. Little flying animals can tell time of year. It’s all in their heads.” Bora Zivkovic
Robotic Surgery “When people get sick they are fixed by doctors. Sometimes this is hard because doctors need to get into your body using small things moved by computers. I study how to make this better for the sick person so that everything is safer. Lorenzo Grespan. Studying patient safety in robotic surgery
Computer Simulation “Some people learn by trying things out. Some people learn by thinking very hard. I make a world inside a computer the way people think the world works, and then try things out, to see if we are thinking right.”Lots of scientists still don’t understand the value of this. Matthew Hoyles.
One of my Christmas presents this year was a splendid book about the history of English spelling. Browsing through it I found a chapter on the differences between the way we say and spell things over here and the way it’s done in the USA. The book is about spelling, rather than usage. So while I don’t think I’ll ever be happy about ‘different than’ as opposed to ‘different to’ or ‘different from’, this wonderful book does throw light on why we write ‘humour’ and they write ‘humor’. Why the American’s plow their fields, while our ‘ploughman homeward plods ….’
The book is stuffed with fascinating and little known facts. Did you know that, initially, the American way of spelling many common words was a deliberate, political act? I had thought it had just happened, that the different spelling had just evolved. Not so. It’s all Webster’s fault. Yes, that Webster, the one of the dictionary. The one in the Johnny Mercer song.
Noah Webster, he of the dictionary, was a schoolteacher in Connecticut in the late eighteenth century. He wasn’t too happy with the teaching materials of the time; he didn’t feel they reflected the ethos of what he called the ‘new nation’. So he did something about it. In 1783, the year the American War of Independence ended, he published a textbook called The American Spelling Book. The date of publication was, therefore, significant and tied in with his views on the ‘new nation’.
Here comes the political bit. Six years after he’d produced his spelling book, Webster published a dissertation promoting an American standard of English. Asserting that it was a matter of honour ‘as an independent nation … to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.’ He went on to advocate that spelling reform play a major role in this aspiration. He saw the difference between English spelling and American as ‘an object of vast political consequence.’
It didn’t all happen at once. And thankfully some of it never happened at all. At one time Webster preferred nebor to neighbour, hiz for his, ruf for rough and even bed to bead, a change that might have led to all manner of hilarious mix-ups and misunderstandings. As to the changes that did take place, there was, inevitably, a fierce reaction over on our side of the pond. One Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, fulminated “at the process of deterioration which our Queen’s English has undergone at the hands of the Americans.” He wasn’t the only one. And there are plenty more Henry Alford’s around today.
There’s so much in this book – material for a plethora of blog posts. I’ll certainly return to it in the future. In the meantime I do urge everyone to go out and buy Spell it Out’. It’s a treasure trove of fascination. David Crystal writes with humour and clarity. He makes what many might think of as a dry, esoteric subject totally accessible. Some feat. It’s well researched and erudite, certainly: it’s also a very good read. It’s a ‘dip into’ book – though I warn you, once you’ve dipped you may find yourself indulging in a long and pleasurable wallow.
(Don’t forget to go to his website and discover many more lexicographic delights)