Category Archives: Grammar

History Undusted: William Caxton (the father of English as we know it today)

I’ve been trying to blog the last few weeks, but to do so, it helps to be logged in to WordPress – and it kept logging me out every time I switched to my site. I finally found the solution this morning, so here I am!

One thing I’ve been ruminating about is the etymology of everyday words; words come from somewhere, and I’ve always wondered what word(s) were used before a word came along. There are famous examples of invented words that never stuck, such as Lewis Carol’s “Jabberwocky“, but what I’m referring to are common words. What did they use before the word “egg” came along? The word itself comes from Old Norse, eggys, eggja, or egge, but before the common spelling was decided on, every English dialect in Britain had at least a couple different spellings of the word!

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is sometimes credited with having created upwards of 1,700 words, but many of those were likely already in circulation – he simply wrote them down in his plays. Some words accredited to him are: dishearten; dislocate; auspicious; obscene; monumental; majestic; accommodation; amazement; dwindle; exposure; bloody; countless; courtship; impartial; gnarled; gloomy; generous; reliance; pious; inauspicious; bump; frugal; submerge; critic; lapse; laughable; lonely, suspicious, and many, many more.

But long before William Shakespeare drew breath, there was another William that influenced English in profound ways, and yet his name is little known today: William Caxton. Born around 1420, he was a merchant, printer and the first English retailer of books; he introduced the printing press to England, set up in Westminster, 1476. Though he published many books, the first book he is known to have published is The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s – 1400); that work alone is credited with influencing both the English language and literature, as it shows a clear correspondence between the rhythm of written English poetry and the cadence of spoken English. Chaucer is also known for having looted the French language, bringing into English such words as governance, paramour, difficult, dishonest, edifice, and ignorant, to name a few. Chaucer was aware of the wide variety of English dialects, which we would never recognize as English today, and he was anxious about the confusion of languages in Britain and that his work would be able to be comprehended in the future. In his poem, Troilus and Criseyde, he bids it a poignant but troubled farewell: “Go, litel bok . . . And for ther is so gret diversite In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge, So prey I God that non miswryte the [thee]. . . . That thow be understonde, God I biseche!”

However, because William Caxton chose to publish Chaucer’s work, we still have it to this day. Caxton was also the first to translate Aesop’s Fables into English (1484). Although he was not a great translator and sometimes simply used the French word “Englishified”, his translations were popular; because of that, he inadvertently helped promote Chancery* English as the standard English dialect throughout England. (*Chancery refers to the dialect used by the officials of Henry V’s government). Thanks to men like William Caxton and those who followed, refining and shaping the language we know today, we are able to enjoy a standard English spelling and grammar structure that is understood around the world; there are still regional and national dialect differences, but we can be understood wherever in the world English is used.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, one book I can highly recommend is Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English (The Biography of a Language); it’s available in physical form, e-book, and audiobook.

William Caxton

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Filed under Etymology, Grammar, History, History Undusted, Links to External Articles, Lists, Poetry

Rabbit Holes

These past few weeks have flown by so quickly, I’ve hardly had time to look up from my keyboard! Except when I went to the optometrist for new glasses (there might have been a slight connection between the two). I’ve been editing my final sci-fi draft. When I need a break from editing, I’ve been reading into articles by the new ebook company I’ll be working with, Draft2Digital, which has recently merged with Smashwords (my current and former platform). And in the context of editing, I’ve been down several rabbit holes:

Dashes

Back when I learned English, we had the good ol’ hyphen and the dash. Somewhere along the way the en-dash and the em-dash moved in, and they turned out to be worthy additions to the conversation. Now to make things confusing, 2em-dashes and 3em-dashes have elbowed their way into the punctuation party. I’m not sure how I feel about them yet, but their definitions seem to have squeezed the others so close that they often overlap or exchange places on the definition and usage dance floor. Until I need them to fix me a drink, I’ll probably ignore the party crashers.

Strunk and White’s The Element of Style is a cornerstone of grammar and writing style and is widely considered timeless; in fact, it was listed by TIME in 2011 as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923. The irony of this cartoon is that when I recently pulled out my copy to find out the nitty-gritty of using en- and em-dashes in dialogue, I found not a jot or tittle about them in the entire book. It covers hyphens and dashes, both briefly, but nary a word beyond. Every website that I looked at had contradictory definitions and usages of all types of dashes; so until an authoritative source comes up with a defined set of rules, I will continue to use them the way I’ve learned them, and just be consistent in my punctuation within my current manuscript.

Dialogue Tags vs. Action Tags

Another rabbit hole I went down was a learning curve on the two types of tags. On one hand, I’d never honestly thought about the fact that there could a difference in punctuation between the two; on the other hand, for the most part, I’ve intuitively done it right, though not always, which is why I’ve added it to my checklist of edits – and something I will keep a closer eye on in the future. Here’s an example:

He said, “Oh, the irony of ignorance!” – This is a dialogue tag with its attending punctuation. Dialogue tags are any verb that can be spoken – said, cheered, whispered, etc.

He nodded. “I hadn’t thought about it, but that makes sense.” – Nodding is something done, and this is, therefore, an action tag. Notice that its attending punctuation is a period separating the action tag from the dialogue.

Two things make less logical sense to me; if you have insight on them or experience using them or reading them in novels, please comment! [Keep in mind that these are American English rules; I am writing my current novel in American English, though until now, I’ve written in Commonwealth English (I use that term rather than British English because it is used beyond Britain).]

  • How often have you spoken and laughed, chuckled, or smiled simultaneously? These are, for me, nuances in spoken vocabulary, and not action tags. Would you rather write: He smiled, “I thought you might say that.” or He smiled. “I thought you might say that.” ? In this particular instance both would work, but there are times when it has the potential to break up the rhythm of a sentence or scene too much. Which do you prefer?
  • When an action interrupts dialogue, it needs to be separated with (IMHO) rather odd punctuation, for example: “From what I’ve read about these dwellings” –he looked at the woman kindly– “they’re far from mud huts.” My years as an English teacher mean that missing commas and attached en-dashes hurt my eyes; maybe that’s why I needed new glasses!

Euphemisms

Another tangent this week has been looking for creative swear words. Nothing irritates me more, when reading a book, for the author to fall back on standard F-bombs. That just says too lazy to be creative to me. It’s unimaginative. It doesn’t make a character stand out from the rest of the lazy crowd. There are so many fun alternatives, there really is no excuse! Here are a few I’ve come across and found myself smiling:

  • People cussing in a foreign language; it sounds better to them.
  • Fart knocker (e.g. “you little fart knocker”)
  • Sun of a nutcracker! Sun of a biscuit!
  • Cheese n’ crackers!
  • Shoot a monkey!
  • Shiitake mushrooms!
  • Well, butter my bum!
  • Clusterfluff!
  • In a type of Chinese Whispers, “Hells bells” became “hells bells, conker shells”, misunderstood by kids as “hells bells, taco shells” – now that family just yells, “Taco shells!” when they’re upset!
  • Names as swear words might backfire if you happen to meet someone by that name; here are a few: Christopher Columbus; Gordan Bennett (in Scotland); Gottfried Stutz (here in Switzerland – I actually taught English in a company that had an employee with that name!)
  • Sugar Honey Ice Tea!
  • Sunny Beaches
  • Fudgenuts
  • Someone I used to know would say things like “bug knuckles” or “dog feathers” or “ants pants” when she was upset.
Credit: Getty Images

These are just a few of the areas I’ve delved into in the past few weeks; I’m still deep in the editing/proofreading process; once that’s complete, the “behind the scenes” checklists begin – those are the things readers will never see: The number of hours put into finding the right images and designing the best cover art possible; choosing the right fonts; formatting for the various mediums online and print; writing blurbs, preparing marketing bits and bobs, and setting up all the dominoes in a row for the final push of publishing!

Clusterfluff! I’d better get my fanny in gear!

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Filed under Articles, Etymology, Grammar, Lists, Musings, Nuts & Bolts, Research

Today is…

Today is both a palindrome and an ambigram! At least, in countries where the date is written day, month, year…

You can read it front to back, back to front, or upside down. Now ya know.

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Filed under Grammar, Images, Riddles

Euphemisms: Stupidity

Euphemisms… we use them daily, whether we realize it or not. They abound in English, multiplying like rabbits in every dark corner of life. In fact, they hardly ever multiply in the sunny spots, because we don’t require them there. The very definition of the word confirms that notion: “The use of a word or phrase to replace another with one that is considered less offensive, blunt or vulgar than the word or phrase which it replaces.”

euphemism - Dog, Doing BusinessEvery generation creates new ones, because a parent’s euphemism becomes the general term which is then too close to the original meaning, and so the children get creative with words, and so on. There are a few euphemisms that have remained unchanged over centuries, such as passed away, which came into English from the French “passer” (to pass) in the 10th century; others shift gradually, such as the word “nice”: When it first entered English from the French in the 13th century, it meant foolish, ignorant, frivolous or senseless. It graduated to mean precise or careful [in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, Anne Elliot is speaking with her cousin about good society; Mr Elliot reponds, “Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.”  Austen also reflects the next semantic change in meaning (which began to develop in the late 1760s): Within “Persuasion”, there are several instances of “nice” also meaning agreeable or delightful (as in the nice pavement of Bath).]. As with nice, the side-stepping manoeuvres of polite society’s language shift over time, giving us a wide variety of colourful options to choose from.

Recently, my husband and I were talking about the topic, and the specifics of the word stupid came up; so without further ado, here’s a round-up of ways of getting around describing someone as stupid, dumb, or, well, an ass:

  • Thick as a post
  • Doesn’t have both oars in the water
  • Two sandwiches shy of a picnic
  • A beer short of a six-pack
  • A brick short of a load
  • A pickle short of a barrel
  • Has delusions of adequacy
  • Has a leak in their think-tank
  • Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
  • Not the sharpest tack in the box
  • Not the sharpest pencil in the box
  • Not the sharpest tool in the shed
  • His belt doesn’t go through all the loops
  • His cheese has slipped off his cracker
  • The light’s on but nobody’s home
  • If you stand close enough to them, you’d hear the ocean
  • Mind like a rubber bear trap
  • Would be out of their depth in a mud puddle
  • Their elevator is stuck between two floors
  • They’re not tied to the pier
  • One prop short of a plane
  • Off his rocker
  • Not the brightest light in the harbour
  • Not the brightest bulb in the pack
  • Has a few loose screws
  • So dense, light bends around them
  • Their elevator/lift doesn’t reach the top floor
  • Dumber than a bag of rocks
  • Dumber than a hammer
  • Fell out of the family tree
  • Doesn’t have all the dots on his dice
  • As slow as molasses in winter
  • As smart as bait
  • Has an intellect only rivalled by garden tools
  • A few clowns short of a circus
  • Silly as a goose
  • Addlepated
  • Dunderheaded
  • A few peas short of a casserole
  • Isn’t playing with a full deck of cards
  • Has lost his marbles / isn’t playing with all his marbles
  • Has bats in his belfry
  • A dim bulb
  • He’s got cobwebs in his attic
  • Couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag
  • Fell out of the Stupid Tree and hit every branch on the way down
  • If brains were dynamite, he couldn’t blow his nose

I’m sure there are dozens more! If you know of any that haven’t made this list, please put them in a comment below!

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Filed under Articles, Etymology, Grammar, History, History Undusted, Humor, Lists, Musings, Quotes, Translations

Obscurities: Petrichor

Obscure 19Today’s obscure word is one which describes something most of us know and love, but which most of us have probably never even thought about naming: Petrichor. It’s used to describe that delicious scent hanging in the air after rain has fallen on dry ground. The word entered the English language in the 1960s, and is a combination of the Greek terms “petra,” which means stone, and “ichor,” which means the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

I grew up quite aware of nature: We would sit outside on porch swings to soak in the atmosphere of a spring or summer rain, sometimes curled up in blankets and usually silent as we listened to the rain pattering off tree leaves, or grass, or hitting the steaming asphalt of the street in front of our house. I could recognize the smell of approaching rain; I could recognize the signs of a coming tornado (that’s Kansas for you!) and could feel the crackle of electricity in the air prior to a lightning storm. Just before lightning strikes, there’s ominous silence, as if all energy has suddenly been diverted to that interaction; after it releases, the sounds of nature pick up again where they left off.

One sound I miss that was associated in my mind with those spring and summer rains is the chirping of cicadas in the evenings. We don’t really have such insects here in Switzerland, though I still have the sounds of crickets chirping at night, and the rain dancing across the forest and housetops, and the smell of Petrichor hanging in the air.

Rain 2

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History Undusted: Bells

Recently, my husband was catching up with the articles on my blog, and he made the cheeky comment that I’d written about everything except the history of bells. Now, I know that’s not true – there are other things out there I still have yet to discover – but I took up the challenge; hence, this post. The history of bells, or of anything, for that matter, is an audacious title; as Mark Twain once said, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” At best, such an online article can skim the surface of any historical topic; my purpose is not to give an extensive report – it’s to whet your appetites to search out history for yourself. I “undust” it for you – it’s up to you to grab it by the horns and hang on.

Every country has their favourite bells: Americans have the Liberty Bell (“At noon, on the Fourth of July, 1826, while the Liberty Bell was again sounding its old message to the people of Philadelphia, the soul of Thomas Jefferson passed on; and a few hours later John Adams entered into rest, with the name of his old friend upon his lips.” – Allen Johnson); the Brits have Big Ben (it’s the actual name of the bell, not the clock tower) and other, regional celebrities; the Russians have the Tsar Bell, in Moscow; the Polish have the Sigismund, located in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. but where did they come from originally? What was their original purpose?

The oldest known bell is from around 2000 BC, from Neolithic China, and it was made of pottery tiles. As far as historians can deduce, the bell has always been associated with two social functions: As a signal for messages, such as when a work day would begin or end, and for calls to religious ceremonies or as reminders for specific times of day for various rituals. The sound of bells have always been associated with divinity, likely because it was a sound unlike any natural sound known to the people who heard them ringing out over a great distance – they could hear them, but not see the source of the sound. In ancient times, when most people were both uneducated and superstitious, it’s not hard to follow such reasoning.

Bells can range from tiny jingle bells to several tonnes; the Great Bell of Dhammazedi was the largest bell ever made, in 1484, for King Dhammazedi of Hanthawaddy Pegu (Lower Burma), and weighed 327 tonnes. It was placed in the temple of Shwedagon Pagoda and stolen by the Portuguese – whose ship promptly sunk under the weight of the bell.

Today, church bells still ring out across Europe, calling parishioners to church services, as well as ringing out on the hour to mark the passing of time. They ring out in special ways for various celebrations, whether weddings or holidays such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Easter.

16th century Islamic painting of Alexander the Great lowered in a glass diving bell - Wikipedia

16th-century Islamic painting of Alexander the Great lowered in a glass diving bell – Wikipedia

Certain kinds of bells hold special value: Ship’s bells are like catnip to divers – they’re the primary method of identifying ships, as their names are engraved on the bells even long after the painted names on the hulls have succumbed to the sea; they are a wreck-diver’s trophy of desire, and always hold special place in their collections. An interesting link between diving and bells is that the first actual diving bells – the rigid chambers designed to transport divers from the surface to the depths and back – were shaped like ringing bells; the air would be trapped in the upside-down chamber, allowing a person to be underwater and still breathe. The first description of its use is recorded by Aristotle in the 4th century BC; the most famous diver from that period is Alexander the Great.

 

English has many idioms associated with bells: Alarm bells ringing (or set off alarm bells, or warning bells going off – i.e. your mind is warning you about a danger or deception in a particular situation); to be as sound as a bell (to be healthy or in good condition); when something has (all the) bells and whistles (extra or entertaining features or functions that aren’t necessary, but nice-to-haves); Hell’s bells! (an expression when one is surprised or annoyed); something rings a bell (i.e. sounds familiar); saved by the bell (i.e. a difficult situation is ended suddenly by an unforeseen interruption); with bells on (i.e. if you go somewhere or do something with bells on, you do it with great enthusiasm or energy); to bell the cat (i.e. undertake a difficult or dangerous task); something to be as clear as a bell (i.e. clearly understood); pull the other leg/one – it has bells on it (i.e. you don’t fool me); one can’t unring a bell (once something has been said or done, you can’t unsay or undo it); the final bell (the end of an event or, euphemistically, a life). I’m sure there are more – if you know of one, please leave it in the comments below!

There is also a powerful experience written by Corrie Ten Boom, a Holocaust survivor, about the Bells of Forgiveness – you can read her story here.

If you’ve got an hour to spare, BBC has an hour-long “History of Bell Ringing” video on YouTube.

So there you have it: Bells, undusted, to pull your rope cord and get those bells ringing in your head, to find out more for yourself!

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Filed under Articles, Grammar, History, History Undusted, Military History, Quotes, Research

Wordless Wednesday #65: Cats & Commas

Cat & Grammar

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August 14, 2019 · 6:32 PM

A Rabble of Animals

Collective Noun - Murder of Crows

Did you know that a group of vultures has a sense of humour? Or at least the people who decided to name them did (likely back in the 16th century, when a slew of collective nouns emerged): While hanging out and doing nothing, vultures are called a committee. When feeding, they’re called a wake. There’s irony in them thar’ varmints.

Some collective nouns are common sense, and others simply common, such as packs of wolves, flocks of birds or herds of cattle; but did you know that lice flock, and sea urchins form herds, too? If I say swarm, you might think of flies or gnats or even minnows; but you could use the same word to describe a group of eels.

Worms bed, dotterels trip, cheetahs form a coalition, and Hippopotami bloat. Rhinoceroses either crash or form a stubbornness, while skunks stench and squirrels scurry. Jellyfish smack, brood or fluther, while oysters bed and goldfish glint or create a troubling. Butterflies flutter, swarm or kaleidoscope; caterpillars army, while grasshoppers cloud.

There are some fun combinations: Crows murder (they also gather as a storytelling or a parcel), Flamingos flamboyance, guillemots bazaar, gulls screech (don’t they, though?), and hawks kettle (flying in large numbers) and boil (two or more spiralling on an updraft). Hummingbirds charm, as do Magpies (unless they murder), and owls and rooks hold a parliament – I’d trust them to do so more than most politicians. Peacocks muster, ostentation and pride, while penguins tuxedo or huddle (I kid you not). Young penguins gather in a Créche, just like human toddlers, and seagulls squabble.

Starlings form beautiful murmurations and chatterings, while swifts scream and tigers ambush. I’d love to see a zeal of zebras, but not so much a prickle of porcupines. Whales pod while trout hover and stingrays fever; snails walk, frogs knot and, believe it or not, rattlesnakes rhumba! Elephants gather as a memory, while deer gang and bucks clash, and gnus form an implausibility. Running into a mob of kangaroos might be quite pleasant, but not an intrusion of cockroaches!

There are hundreds more such collective nouns; English is an ever-changing language, but some things are just too good to allow them to go the way of the Dodo, so add a few more colourful expressions to your language, and enjoy the idiosyncrasies of English!

I’ll just add that, by now, my grammar-checking program is having a nervous breakdown.

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Wordless Wednesday #54: Punctuation

Punctuation

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October 31, 2018 · 5:32 PM

Wordless Wednesday #51: Punctuation Matters

Punctuation Matters.jpg

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August 1, 2018 · 11:43 PM