Toe the Line vs. Tow the Line

Toe the LineRecently I used the title’s idiom, and to be honest I don’t know if I’d ever used it before in writing; I’ve heard it said onk-times, but never had much use for it so far in written form.  Then came the question, is it “toe” or “tow”?  Actually the original phrase is nautical; but that could still be either spelling.  I did a bit of research, in both etymology dictionaries and a book of naval slang, online and in my library.  The consensus, I present here.

“Toe the line,”  according to Naval History & Heritage, comes from the practice of waterproofing between deck boards with a layer of oakum, pitch and tar, thus creating a striped deck; when the crew was ordered to fall in at quarters they would line up at their designated area of the deck, toes to the line to ensure a neat line for inspection.  Toeing the line was also used as a form of punishment for lighter misdemeanours aboard a ship, such as younger crew members talking at the wrong time; they were made to stand at the line for a specified amount of time to remind them to behave.  A logical leap later and we have our idiom, because the young lads were warned to “toe the line” – they were to mentally toe the line to avoid getting in trouble.

Tow the LineHowever, “Tow the line” could be seen as a malapropism, a mondegreen, or an eggcorn.  A malapropism (also called Dogberryism) is the substitution of an inappropriate word or expression in place of the correct and similarly-sounding word.  Example:  “Officer Dogberry said, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons” (apprehended two suspicious persons).  A mondegreen is an error arising from  understanding a spoken word or song text incorrectly.  Example:  “The ants are my friends, blowin’ in the wind” (the answer my friends) – Bob Dylan.  An eggcorn is an idiosyncratic (but semantically motivated) substitution of a word or phrase for a word or phrase that sound identical, or nearly so, at least in the dialect the speaker uses.  Example:  “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”.  Depending on your view of things, “tow the line could fall into any of those categories.  But it has so often been misused that it has begun to develop its own connotation independent of the original idiom:  While “toe the line” indicates a passive agreement or adherence to a particular regulation or ideology, “tow the line” implies more of an active participation in the enforcement or propagation of that “line” whether political, social, or business policy, as towing an object is not passive, but participative.

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Obscure Word of the Week: Darkling

The use of Darkling over time.  Source:  Google

The use of Darkling over time. Source: Google

Darkling comes from Middle English derkelyng, and the verb darkle is a back formation thereof.  As a noun it means either darkness or a (fantasy) creature that lives in the dark.  It can also appear as an adjective meaning dark or darkening, or something that is obscure, unseen, or happening in the cover of darkness.  As an adverb it means in the dark or obscurity.

There is a Darkling Beetle, and a poem by Thomas Hardy called The Darkling Thrush, though the more usual use of the word is to be found in Science Fiction, e.g. in Star Trek Voyager, Marvel Comics, and a wide range of fantasy characters on the dark side of the fence.

According to the Urban Dictionary, you are a darkling if you are more sarcastic than charming, or if you are a geek, but a cool one.  Another application might be a portmanteau word from dark and darling.

 

 

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The Eddic Poems (Poetic Edda)

Poetic EddaIn the course of research for the novel I’m currently polishing, I developed a taste for obscure literature; among other manuscripts I’ve read is the Poetic Edda, or Eddic Poems.  What I find fascinating in the poems is not just the language itself, but encapsulated within the language is always a glimpse into the mentality, humour, and mindset of a people.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse poems and mythology, mainly preserved in the medieval manuscript Codex Regius which was written in the 13th century, though the poems and tales are centuries older, having been oral history passed on by the skalds for generations before they were written down.  The poems were originally composed in alliterative verse (the alliteration may have changed from line to line, such as “Over beer the bird of forgetfulness broods / and steals the minds of men”), and kennings were often used (a compound noun used instead of a straight-forward noun, e.g. “wound-hoe” for “sword”), though they were not as complex as many skaldic poems were.  For a far more detailed history on the collection, click here.

I’d like to share a few gems with you; the reference “EP#” is the page number embedded in the Kindle manuscript.  These gems are either sayings, kennings, customs, or historical trivia.  Enjoy!

EP17:  “The wolf that lies idle shall win little meat, or the sleeping man success.”

EP20:  “Hard is it on earth / With mighty whoredom; axe-time, sword-time / shields are sundered, wind-time, wolf-time / Ere the world falls; Nor ever shall men each other spare.”

EP30:  “A faster friend one never finds / Than wisdom tried and true.”

EP31:  “Less good there lies / than most believe In ale for mortal men; / For the more he drinks / the less does man / Of his mind the mastery hold.”

EP35:  “To mankind a bane must it ever be / When guests together strive.”

EP36:  “Love becomes loathing if one long sits by the hearth in another’s home.”

EP36:  “Away from his arms in the open field a man should fare not a foot / For never he knows when the need for a spear / Shall arise on the distant road.”

EP39:  “No great thing needs a man to give / Oft little will purchase praise. / With half a loaf and a half-filled cup / A friend full fast I made.”

EP41:  “To question and answer must all ready be / Who wish to be known as wise. / Tell one they thoughts, but beware of two / – All know what is known by three.”

EP44:  “Wealth is as swift / As a winking eye, / Of friends the falsest it is.”

EP45:  “Give praise to the day at evening, to a woman on her pyre, to a weapon which is tried, to a maid at wedlock, to ice when it is crossed, to ale that is drunk.”

EP45:  “From the ship seek swiftness, from the shield protection, cuts from the sword, from the maiden kisses.”

EP48:  “Wise men oft / Into witless fools / Are made by mighty love.”

EP71:  “If a poor man reaches / The home of the rich, / Let him speak wisely or be still; / For to him who speaks / With the hard of heart / Will chattering ever work ill.”

EP167:  “Drink beyond measure / will lead all men / No thought of their tongues to take.”

EP250:  “On the gallows high / shall hungry ravens / Soon thine eyes pluck out, / If thou liest…”

“Welcome thou art, / for long have I waited; / The welcoming kiss shalt thou win! / For two who love / is the longed-for meeting / The greatest gladness of all.”

EP277:  “In the hilt is fame, / in the haft is courage, / In the point is fear, / for its owner’s foes; / On the blade there lies / a blood-flecked snake, / And a serpent’s tail / round the flat is twisted.” (Runes carved on a sword)

EP296:  A “breaker of rings” was a generous prince, because the breaking of rings was the customary form of distributing gold.

EP299: “There was beat of oars / and clash of iron, Shield smote shield / as the ships’-folk rowed; Swiftly went / the warrior-laden Fleet of the ruler / forth from the land.”

EP300:  Raising a red shield was a signal for war.

EP304:  “Helgi spake: “Better, Sinfjotli, / thee ‘twould beseem Battle to give / and eagles to gladden, Than vain and empty / words to utter, Though ring-breakers oft / in speech do wrangle.”

“…For heroes ’tis seemly / the truth to speak.”

EP305:  “Swift keels lie hard by the land, mast-ring harts* and mighty wards, wealth of shields and well-planed oars.” (*the ring attaching the yard to the ship’s mast.)

“Fire-Beasts” = Dragons = Ships:  Norse ships of war, as distinguished from merchant vessels, were often called Dragons because of their shape and the carving of their stems.

EP349:  “The word “Goth” was applied in the North without much discrimination to the southern Germanic peoples.”  “The North was very much in the dark as to the differences between Germans, Burgundians, Franks, Goths, and Huns, and used the words without much discrimination.”

EP368:  “Combed and washed / shall the wise man go, And a meal at morn shall take; For unknown it is / where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”

EP369:  the “Bloody Eagle” was an execution for a captured enemy, by cleaving the back bone from the ribs and pulling out the lungs.

EP373:  “Few are keen when old age comes / Who timid in boyhood be.”

EP374:  “When one rounds the first headland” means, “at the beginning of life’s voyage, in youth”.

EP378:  “Unknown it is, / when all are together, / Who bravest born shall seem; / Some are valiant / who redden no sword / In the blood of a foeman’s breast.”

EP379:  “”Better is heart / than a mighty blade For him who shall fiercely fight; The brave man well / shall fight and win, Though dull his blade may be.”

“Brave men better / than cowards be, When the clash of battle comes; And better the glad / than the gloomy man Shall face what before him lies.”

EP382:  “There is ever a wolf / where his ears I spy.”  This is an Old Norse proverb that basically means, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.

EP398:  “I rede thee, / if men shall wrangle, And ale-talk rise to wrath, No words with a drunken / warrior have, For wine steals many men’s wits.”

EP399: “I rede thee, / if battle thou seekest With a foe that is full of might; It is better to fight / than to burn alive In the hall of the hero rich.”  “The meaning is that it is better to go forth to battle than to stay at home and be burned to death. Many a Norse warrior met his death in this latter way; the burning of the house in the Njalssaga is the most famous instance.”

EP400:  “I rede thee, / that never thou trust The word of the race of wolves, (If his brother thou broughtest to death, Or his father thou didst fell;) Often a wolf / in a son there is, Though gold he gladly takes.”

“Battle and hate / and harm, methinks, / Full seldom fall asleep; / Wits and weapons / the warrior needs / If boldest of men he would be.”

EP405:  Eating snakes and the flesh of beasts of prey was commonly supposed to induce ferocity.

EP409:  The actual mingling of blood in one another’s footprints was a part of the ceremony of swearing blood-brother hood.

EP418:  “Borne thou art on an evil wave” i.e. “every wave of ill-doing drives thee”.  A proverb.

“Flame of the snake’s bed” = Gold, so called because serpents and dragons were the’ traditional guardians of treasure, on which they lay.

EP452:  “As the leek grows green / above the grass, / Or the stag o’er all / the beasts doth stand, / Or as glow-red gold / above silver gray.”

EP455:  “On the tapestry wove we / warrior’s deeds, And the hero’s thanes / on our handiwork; (Flashing shields / and fighters armed, Sword-throng, helm-throng, / the host of the king).”

EP457:  “In like princes / came they all, The long-beard men, / with mantles red, Short their mail-coats, / mighty their helms, Swords at their belts, / and brown their hair.”

EP458: “Heather-fish” = snake

EP468:  The punishment of casting a culprit into a bog to be drowned was particularly reserved for women, and is not infrequently mentioned in the sagas.

EP513:  “Thou hast prepared this feast in kingly fashion, and with little grudging toward eagle and wolf.”  = “You’ve been generous in the men you give to die in battle today.”

EP524:  “Full heedless the warrior / was that he trusted her, So clear was her guile / if on guard he had been; But crafty was Guthrun, / with cunning she spake, Her glance she made pleasant, / with two shields she played.”  In other words, Guthrun concealed her hostility (symbolized by a red shield) by a show of friendliness (a white shield).

EP546:  “The dawning sad / of the sorrow of elves” (i.e., sunrise – the Old Norse belief was that sun killed elves).

 

Notes from The Poetic Edda (Snorri Sturluson), translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Kindle Edition.

 

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The Jabberwocky and the Totemügerli

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard of Alice in Wonderland; at the least your curiosity might have been piqued enough to read it after seeing The Matrix, or be mistaken in thinking that you don’t need to read the book if you saw Tim Burton’s film with Johnnie Depp.  The sequel to Lewis Carroll’s most famous work (mentioned above), called “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There“, written in 1871, contains the famous nonsensical poem called the Jabberwocky, which I present here:

“Jabberwocky”

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Many of the nonsensical words are what Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) coined Jabberwockyas “portmanteau words” meaning the combination of both sound and meaning of two words into one; e.g. frumious being “fuming” and “furious”.  Some of the words have since made it into the English language, such as galumph or chortle, while some were words he revived, such as gyre and beamish.  And personally I think some of his words deserve wider use, such as brilling, slithy, snicker-snack and Bandersnatch!  Click on the photo to the right to hear the poem read.

 

Now… “what is the Totemügerli,” I hear you ask?  It is the Swiss-German version – not a translation, but an original story by Franz Hohler, a Swiss cabaret performer; Bernese German, to be more precise.  Bern is the political capital of Switzerland, and historically has one of the richest, most colourful dialects of all the Swiss German dialects; I am fluent in the Zürich dialect, and can understand all the other Swiss-German dialects, including Walliserdïïtsch, which is the oldest of all Swiss dialects; and I can guarantee you that the Totemügerli story is 90% nonsense, and yet tells a clear tale!  For those of you interested in the text, here it is:

Ds Totemügerli

von Franz Hohler

Gäuit, wemer da grad eso schön binanger sitze, hani däicht, chönntech

vilicht es bärndütsches Gschichtli erzelle. Es isch zwar es bsungers

uganteligs Gschichtli, wo aber no gar nid eso lang im Mittlere

Schattegibeleggtäli passiert isch:

Der Schöppelimunggi u der Houderebäseler si einischt schpät am Abe,

wo scho der Schibützu durs Gochlimoos pfoderet het, über s Batzmättere

Heigisch im Erpfetli zueglüffe u hei nang na gschtigelet u gschigöggelet,

das me z Gotts Bäri hätt chönne meine, si sige nanger scheich.

«Na ei so schlöözige Blotzbänggu am Fläre, u i verminggle der s Bätzi,

dass d Oschterpföteler ghörsch zawanggle!»

«Drby wärsch froh, hättsch en einzige nuesige Schiggeler uf em Lugipfupf!»

U so isch das hin u härgange wie nes Färegschäderli amene Milchgröözi,

da seit plötzlech Houderebäseler zu Schöppelimunggi:

«Schtill! Was ziberlet dert näbem Tobelöhli z grachtige n uuf u aab?»

Schöppelimunggi het gschläfzet wie ne Gitzeler u hets du o gseh. Es

Totemügerli! U nid numen eis, nei, zwöi, drü, vier, füüf, es ganzes

Schoossinjong voll si da desumegschläberlet u hei zäng pinggerlet u

globofzgerlet u gschanghangizigerlifisionööggelet, das es eim richtig agschnäggelet het.

Schöppelimunggi u Houderebäseler hei nang nume zuegmutzet u hei ganz

hingerbyggelig wöllen abschöberle. Aber chuum hei si der Awang ytröölet,

gröözet es Totemügerli:

«Heee, dir zweee!»

U denen isch i d Chnöde glöötet wie bschüttigs Chrüzimääl dure Chätschäbertrog.

Düpfelig u gnütelig si si blybe schtah wie zwöi gripseti Mischtschwibeli,

u scho isch das Totemügerli was tschigerlisch was

pfigerlisch binene zueche gsi. Äs het se zersch es Rüngli chyblig u

gschiferlig aagnöttelet u het se de möögglige gfraget:

«Chöit dir is hälfe, ds Blindeli der Schtotzgrotzen ueche z graagge?»

Wo der Schöppelimunggi das Wort «Blindeli» ghört het, het em fasch

wölle ds Härzgätterli zum Hosegschingg uspföderle,

aber der Houderebäseler het em zueggaschplet:

«Du weisch doch, das men imene Totemügerli nid darf nei säge!»

U du si si halt mitgschnarpflet.

«Sooo, dir zweee!» het ds Totemügerli gseit, wo si zum Blindeli cho si,

u die angere Totemügerli si ganz rüeiig daaggalzlet u hei numen ugschynig ychegschwärzelet.

Da hei die beide gwüsst, was es Scheieli Gschlychets ds Gloubige

choschtet u hei das Blindeli aagroupet, der eint am schörpfu, der anger a de Gängertalpli.

Uuuh, isch das e botterepfloorigi Schtrüpfete gsi!

Die zwee hei gschwouderet u ghetzpacheret, das si z näbis meh gwüsst hei,

wo se der Gürchu zwurglet.

Daa, z eis Dapf, wo si scho halber der Schtotzgrotzen

uecheghaschpaaperet si, faht sech das Blindeli afah ziirgge u bäärgglet mit

schychem Schtimmli:

«Ooh, wie buuchet mi der Glutz!»

Jetz hets aber im Schöppelimunggi böös im Schyssächerli gguugget.

Är het das Blindeli la glootsche u isch der Schtotzgrotz abdotzeret,

wie wenn em der Hurligwaagg mit em Flarzyse der Schtirps vermöcklet hätt.

«Häb dure, Münggu!» het em der Houderebäseler na naagräätschet;

u de het er nüt meh gwüsst.

Am angere Morge het ne ds Schtötzgrötzeler Eisi gfunge, chäfu u tunggig

wien en Öiu, u es isch meh weder e Monet gange,

bis er wider het chönne s Gräppli im Hotschmägeli bleike.

Totemügerli u Blindeli het er keis meh gseh sis Läbe lang, aber o der

Schöppelimunggi isch vo da a verschwunde gsi.

S git Lüt, wo säge, dass sider am Schtotzgrotzen es Totemügerli meh desumeschirggelet.

If you’d like to hear it read out by Franz Hohler himself, in a cabaret show recorded during the ’80s, just click on the image below.

 

Totemürgeli, by Willy Vogelsang

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The Handshake of Character Development

business.gov.au, the Australian Government's dedicated business website1Have you ever stopped to consider the handshake?  It is a non-verbal form of communication, and it can tell you volumes about a person.  It is usually the first contact in a face-to-face transaction, used not only as a greeting form, but as an aid in assessing the other person’s confidence, assertiveness, aggression, or social skills.  What if the handshake is weak or strong, clammy or crushing?  Is it too short (which sends the signal that the person who breaks off the touch either disdains or disrespects the partner), or too long (which is an invasion of private space, too intimate, or disconcerting – it can even interrupt verbal exchange if it’s too awkward)?  Is it a neutral-valued exchange, or does the touch signify some ulterior motive (power-play, intimidation, invasion of the partner’s intimate sphere, a sexual connotation, etc.)?  What difference does it make for any of the above factors to take place between partners of the same sex vs. the opposite sex?  In other words, if two men shake hands and one is crushing, what message comes across differently if the partner being crushed is a woman?  Different cultural interpretations enter into the equation as well, as touch signifies various things in various cultures.  What difference is there to a handshake with a superior or authority figure to that of a peer or inferior?  What if the superior is a woman shaking the hand of a man of lower rank?  Or a woman of lower rank?  Or a man from a culture that does not recognize women as authority figures?

When developing a character for a novel, the handshake can be a telling gesture.  Even if none of the above questions are answered explicitly in your manuscript, just answering the questions for yourself can go a long way to your own understanding of the character, and how you want to express them to your readership.  So the next time you shake someone’s hand, alert your writer’s mind to take notes – putting those feelings into words develops your senses far more than simply identifying those feelings.  There have been a lot of studies on body language, particularly in the field of international business.  For a humorous yet telling video of the “Top Ten Bad Business Handshakes”, click on the image above.

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Politeness Cultures

I recently came across a very interesting TED video addressing the differences between the American and British cultures on the specific aspect of politeness.  I grew up in the Midwest of America, emigrated to Scotland, lived in England for a while as well, and have friends scattered all over the “British Empire” & Commonwealth; I now live in Switzerland (adding several “Germanic” mentalities to my experience in that process!).  What the speaker (Lynne Murphy) observes makes a LOT of sense on both sides of the Puddle (Atlantic).  I share it with you because as a writer I know that those subtle, unspoken, unwritten differences in the ways people interact with each other and show their masks, or as Lynne calls them “faces”, make or break the authenticity in writing both prose and dialogue.  Click on the image below to watch the video; it’s 18 minutes long, so please watch it when you have time to focus! (By the way, the two cartoons below illustrate perfectly the difference between the “positive” face and the “negative” face.)

Politeness Politeness2

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The Vegetarian’s Nightmare

In 1987, Baxter Black recited “The Vegetarian’s Nightmare” on the Johnny Carson Show.  It’s a masterpiece of poetry and storytelling combined! Slapping words together and centering them down the center of a column is not poetry (just sayin’).  True, traditional poetry has rhyme, rhythm, and reason, and takes a true artist to master its intricacies.  Whether or not you are into country music or lifestyle, there is no denying his success; New York Times proclaimed him America’s most successful living poet.  Take a few minutes to experience a true poet at his craft by clicking on the image below.

Baxter Black, USA's most successful living poet

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