Monthly Archives: March 2018

More About Meaning.

So many words mean more than one thing. This can come as a surprise – we get used to using a word in a particular way, and feel different usage is wrong. Often the more of an ‘expert’ you are with words (an unkind person might call you a pedant) the more likely you are to feel that other people have used a word wrongly – or, as George W Bush might say – miss-spoke – only to find if you look it up in a dictionary, that the alleged miss-use has a long and honorable tradition.

Thomas MoreTake the word refute. For some, the word only means ‘to disprove by argument or tangible evidence.’ This was my belief too until recently, though I haven’t taken to twitter to denounce the tweeters who use it to mean deny or rebut. After all, in the context the word was used, it was perfectly clear what was meant. However, the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the use of refute to mean repudiate or deny has been around since atwilliam-tyndale2-300 least the 1880s, and possibly goes back to the sixteenth century when Sir Thomas More in a dispute with William Tyndale wrote: ‘If Tyndale wold now refute myne objection ….’

I have problems with other words too, believing that ‘educated’ people like me should only use infer, for example, to mean something you deduce from what has been said, or you can see, and should not to be used instead of imply. Only people who don’t know any better muddle the two up. But, having just checked in my Collins dictionary, I find infer can also legitimately mean to hint at (or imply) from the Latin inferreto bring into.

All this means I need to be a lot more careful now-a-days in ‘correcting’ people’s spelling and grammar. They might challenge me to look in a dictionary and – horror – find it was me (I?) in the wrong.

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Musing About Meaning.

Meaning, my Collins dictionary tells me, is ‘the sense or significance of a word, sentence, symbol etc.’ It can mean a few other things as well – as in well-meaning, but today I am concentrating on the above definition.

Ever keen on a spot of self-improvement I am currently reading a book by Timothy Gowers that describes itself as ‘a very short introduction to mathematics.’ Re-assured by his preface in which he states that he would not assume by the end of the book that his readers would have understood and remembered everything that he’d written earlier, I was tempted to skip right to the last chapter, and just pretend I’d read it. But I’m not sure that is quite what he meant, so I have dutifully started with chapter one and am now on chapter 2.

Two pages into the first chapter on numbers and abstraction, the author starts talking Wittgenstienabout the philosophy of language and meaning – with not a number in sight. He quotes Wittgenstein – the meaning of a word is its use in the language – and the school of logical positivists – the meaning of a statement is its method of verification. Neither quotation deepened my understanding of mathematics (that started to kick in half way through chapter two – honestly). But they put me in mind of advice given to me when I was training to be a social worker – meaning is what your client thinks you told them, not what you know you said to them.

Does this help when writing? Certainly guidance manuals and legal documents are better if their meaning is crystal clear to the reader. But what about fiction? No fiction writer wants to get into the kind of detail that avoids all ambiguity, but bores a reader rigid. But you do want to be clear enough in your prose for your readers to react to situations the way you intended: if there is an emotional death-bed scene, you want them to cry with sorrow, not with laughter (Charles Dickens, who could be very sentimental, sometimes got this wrong!)

PopeShowing, not telling, creates particular demands on a writer to convey meaning without spelling it out, whilst moving the plot forward. There is always the need to bring your work to life – not always with original thinking (boy meets girl etc. are well used and popular themes) but certainly with original expression. Or as the poet Alexander Pope put it – what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.

Meaning does not have to be immediately obvious – readers often like a challenge and, in regard to poetry especially, sometimes a piece has to be read more than once for its meaning to become clear. In complex work, different readers can take away different meanings from the same piece. Or you can find a different meaning on re-reading something. And that is fine – and hopefully just what the writer had intended.

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A short story from a writers’ group anthology.

I’ve been a bit busy, and feeling a bit ‘meh’ this week and not got round to writing a post till now. I’ve taken a lazy option and used an excerpt of a short story.  It’s from the story Ianthcov2 contributed to the Coventry Writers’ Group anthology before Christmas. We didn’t organise a launch then in case the weather was bad. Instead we arranged it for the beginning of this month. And – guess what? – we had to cancel due to heavy snow. The anthology is called Stories to Make you Smile, but this was no laughing matter!

Anyway, here are the opening paragraphs of my contribution – Storm in a B Cup.

 I was eating toast and nearly didn’t take the call.

       “Hello?” I said eventually, still chewing and coughing slightly as a crumb caught in the back of my throat. I took a sip of tea to clear it.

       “Andrea Peterson?” It was a man’s voice, heavily accented, and nasal, as if he had a cold or was holding his nose. I thought he might be East European, but I’m not very good at accents.

        I “uh-hu’d,” in the affirmative. That, and the tea, helped shift the crumb.

       “Andrea Peterson, we have your father.”

       There was a pause. He, presumably, to let the import of what he’d said sink in. Me because my father had been dead for over two years.

       “Sorry, I think you have the wrong number.” I was about to switch off, but the man cut in quickly.

       “He’s safe – for now. Fifty grand by the weekend or he loses a finger every day you delay. We’ll be in touch.”

       The phone went dead. I took another mouthful of toast. It had to be a mistake. But the man – Russian, I’d decided it had to be a Russian, because this was the sort of thing Russians did in films – knew my name and my mobile phone number. Knew my new name in fact as, since the gender re-assignment surgery, I had stopped calling myself Andrew.

       How had he got hold of my mobile number? Was this part of a new spate of transphobic trolling? I’d had a fair bit of that in the past few years. I scrolled through my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Nothing. So far, this call was a one off.

       But the thing about chopping off Dad’s fingers bothered me. Was it some kind of coded digital message? How do you chop a finger off a dead man anyway? So dead, in fact, his ashes had been deposited in an old cocoa tin on my mantelpiece whilst I decided what to do with them. I needed to agree his final resting place with my brother, who currently wasn’t speaking to me. Or maybe he was – but I’d made it a rule two years ago not to open letters addressed to Andrew Peterson, and he knew that. Besides, I’d been told by an old neighbour that he had moved to a new flat and salon, but she didn’t have any contact details.

       I finished my toast, took three hormone boosting pills with a few swigs of my now cold tea, and rinsed the mug and plate under the hot tap.

       The phone rang again. I picked up quickly this time.

       “Don’t phone the Police.” He rang off before I had time to say a word. This time I felt the accent had a hint of Welsh, but the line went dead so quickly, I may have just imagined it. I sat looking at the phone screen – option one seemed to have been ruled out before I’d even thought of it.

       The tablets always made me feel a bit queasy for a bit after I’d taken them. But it was worth it – my breasts had been growing since the start of the hormone treatment and I was a decent B cup size now. I felt them appreciatively, and for a moment they took my mind off the recent phone calls.      Then the phone rang again.

       “Yes?” This time I forgot to modulate my voice in the way I’d been taught, and the word came out as a basso bark.

       “Hey, steady! What’s this with the macho aggression?” It was my transition mentor. I was due to see her in an hour.

       “Clare, I’m sorry.” I willed my voice up half an octave. “Been having a bit of bother over the phone. I thought it might be them again.”

       “Trannie haters?” I hated Clare using that term – in her book it seemed to cover ninety percent of the population. But I had never known how to tell her, and just now didn’t feel like the right time either.

       “Don’t think so. It was about my Dad.”

       “Poor you. You think you’ve got them dead and buried, but there’s always something still needs doing. No peace for the wicked eh?”

       I glanced at the cocoa tin. For the second time in less than a minute I felt Clare’s counselling skills were somewhat lacking. But she’d been through the system, well not the full bells and whistles – she’d decided to keep her bells and whistle intact – so, in the absence of any other mentors being available, I was stuck with her.

        “Anyway,” she went on, “I’m just ringing to say I’m running terribly behind this morning, can we leave it till the same time tomorrow? That’s great. You’re a star. Must dash” She rang off without waiting for a reply. I didn’t believe she was too busy. More likely she had been out on a date last night and still hadn’t got home. Clare never seemed short of male partners looking for something a bit different.

       The phone rang again almost immediately.

       “Hello?” I remembered to use my lilting contralto this time. ……

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Who says ‘whom’ these days?

I was brought up to use the word whom when writing ‘correct’ English prose. Whom isHemingway the accusative form of who, as in the title of Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), or in the phrase – I didn’t realise to whom I was talking.

The first phrase is a truly memorable title for a book (and is taken from an equally evocative sermon by the poet John Donne, when he was the Dean of St Paul’s, London – never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee But the latter comes across as clumsy and old fashioned. Wouldn’t it sound better to write: I didn’t realise who I john-donne-1-638was talking to (complete with stranded preposition – but that’s for another blog)?

The fact is, whom is used less and less these days, and almost never in conversation. Publishing houses and newspapers will have their preferred style guide, which it is wise to follow if you want them to publish your work, but otherwise it seems that it is perfectly OK to use who, and perfectly OK to use whom. You choose.

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It’s snowing, in other words.


It has been snowing for the past couple of days. That’s a rare, but not completely unknown, event for the beginning of March in this part of the world (Coventry UK). But the snow that fell seemed different from our usual moist mush – each flake has seemed unusually small and dry. And it has been blown about by high winds leaving large parts of the pavements almost clear of snow and other parts with deep drifts. I tried googling to see if there is a special word for this type of snow and it just might be ‘soft hail’ or graupel – a word that came into English in the nineteenth century from the German graupe, meaning pearl barley.

The Inuit are said to have 100 words for snow, which does seem rather a lot, even for such a snow bound region. However theresnow flake are several words in English that, if not exactly synonyms for snow, can be used for different types of snowy conditions. Some are quite well known – blizzard, sleet, slush …

Here are a few less familiar terms that you can try impressing your friends with, next time you’re out for a winter walk – though you may end up with a snowball in your face.

Onding: a heavy fall of snow, but not enough for a blizzard (from Scots / NE England dialects).

Skift: a light fall of snow (probably nineteenth century)

Sposh: slushy snow (based on the archaic meaning of posh – a slushy mess of mud and broken ice).

Neve: compacted granular snow, such as you find on top of glaciers. (The word is originally from the Latin for snow – nix. Other derivations include niveous – resembling snow, and subnivean – under the snow.)

Grue: thin floating ice or snow. To grue can also mean to shiver with cold or fear – perhaps at something gruesome? (Nineteenth century)

Corn snow:  granular snow formed by a mix of thawing and freezing. (It is an early twentieth century term, used to describe the best snow for the newly popular sport of skiing).

Snow 2


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