Monthly Archives: February 2019

Names – again!

I’m still reading What the Dickens! – the collection of words and sayings and where they come from I mentioned in my last blog. Here is a bit about the names of some items of clothing or footwear we take for granted.

The cardigan is seen by others countries as a quintessentially British garment – warm, serviceable, and towards the frumpy end of fashion. It was indeed an English invention, but its origins are quite heroic. The seventh Earl of Cardigan (the one who lead the infamous charge of the light brigade in the Crimean War), was in fact a more benevolent leader than history generally records. He was concerned about the suffering of the soldiers in the extreme cold of a Russian winter and commissioned these knitted garments for them to wear under their uniforms.

The Mackintosh – another unglamorous but essential garment in Britain – is now the term for any coat that keeps out the rain. But the original mackintosh, or mac, was made from a specific material (two layers of cloth bound by India rubber) invented by a chemist, Charles Mackintosh.

Wellingtons are boots named after the first Duke of Wellington, the famous general from the Napoleonic wars, and polititian. Originally the boots were made of leather for military use, but subsequently were made of rubber (or even, these days, plastic). There is no evidence that the duke actually invented this form of boot, but he was such a national hero that many items of clothing were named after him including a hat, a coat, and trousers. It is the boot however that is most universally associated with him.

Before trainers became ubiquitous, people took to the running track or the gym in plimsolls. Not many people know that these are named after a Victorian politician, Samuel Plimsoll, who campaigned for greater safety on cargo ships. Following the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act in 1876, the Plimsoll line was drawn on the side of ships and had to be seen above the waterline to demonstrate that the ship was not overloaded. Later, when a rubber soled shoe was designed to improve safety on wet decks, it was named in honour of him. Subsequently the shoe proved a hit with sportsmen and women.

It is interesting to speculate on the names of these items and how, if these men had switched jobs, we could have been buttoning ourselves into a plimsoll to protect us from the cold, and running round the park in a pair of cardigans.

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Names, and what’s behind them.

Last week, I picked up a little book in a charity shop called What the Dickens! It was published in 2004 and, by the look of it, it’s never been opened before. The sub-title is fascinating stories about our famous sayings. To me, the most fascinating thing about it is the fact that I’ve never heard of most of the sayings, though they obviously had some currency once, as they are often riffs on people’s names.

I thought I was on familiar ground with what the Dickens. But it does not, as you might imagine, refer to the famous novelist. In the English version of how this saying came about, Dicken was a common pet name based on Richard – which was frequently shortened to Dick, and often used as a general name for any man (as in, ‘Tom, Dick or Harry …’ Basically ‘what the Dickens’ can be used as a politer version of saying something like ‘What the Hell!’

I think I prefer the Scottish version, where dickens is a variant spelling of daikins, or little devils / imps. It was seen as bad luck to invoke Satan himself, as in – what the devil!  Or his abode – what the Hell. Much safer to use a euphemism.

Just looking in the ‘A’ section of What the Dickens! I came across two snippets about names that I sort of knew once, but had rather forgotten. Abigail, a popular girl’s name once, was originally the generic term for a lady’s maid. Abigail is Hebrew for source of joy – a somewhat ironic description for a life of domestic servitude. It’s not a common name at the moment, but with the popularity of the film, Favourite, about Queen Anne and one of her ladies in waiting, Abigail Hall, perhaps it will have a new lease of life.

I’m not sure that Adonis will catch on again as a name for boys though. According to Greek legend, Adonis was a beautiful young man who was loved by two goddesses, Aphrodite and Persephone. When he was killed by a boar they pleaded with Zeus to restore him to life. Zeus agreed, provided he divided his time equally between the two goddesses. (Well, it’s a big ask, but a man’s gotta do what the chief god orders). How Adonis managed his menage a trois is not recorded, but his name lives on as a by-word for male beauty.

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Write what you see.

One of the first things you are told when you want to be a writer is to ‘write about what you know.’ Really? It’s a good tip, but it only goes so far, and most good writers ignore it – Shakespeare never visited Italy or ancient Troy; he was never a crowned king; he didn’t go mad. Anyway, what you know can be expanded by trips to the library – or, more likely these days, browsing on the Internet.

The tip doesn’t place much value, either, on a writer’s imagination: did Terry Pratchett live on the back of a tortoise? Did Ruth Rendell join the Police? Or go round murdering people for dark psychological reasons? Better, perhaps, is the tip to write convincingly, having done enough research for your needs – be it into your own experiences, or through wider reading and travel, or through dreaming up a whole new world.

Tracy Chevalier wrote a book based on a picture that fascinated her, The Girl with a Pearl Earring. She liked the painting and had a poster of the Vermeer painting on her wall for years, but never really thought much about it until one day a thought struck her. Why did Vermeer make her look like that? Suddenly the painting stopped being just a picture on the wall; it was a story (and a very good one too, once she’d put it down on paper!)

So here is a tip from her: When looking at a picture, write what you see. In an article in The Times recently, she elaborated on this:

First I act like a movie camera and zoom in on details; then pan out to view it from a distance, and from one side or another. Each angle gives me a new perspective. When I zoom in, I pick out the details: the clothes people wear, the background, the landscape, the colours and brushstrokes the artist has used. Then I start asking questions. Why is she wearing that? What is he thinking about? Do they love or hate each other? What happened just before this painting was made? Where does that road lead to? Asking and answering draws me in so I become part of the creation of the story that the painting is telling.’

With The Girl with a Pearl Earring, the process certainly worked for her. It could work for the rest of us too – though I suggest we pick a different picture!

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Do the Brits swear better than the Yanks?

Josh Clancy is a journalist for the Sunday Times who has been living in America for over two years. He’s learnt a lot about America since he’s been there, as you would expect. What he didn’t expect was to develop an appreciation for the eccentricities and vividness of English as used by the Brits.

He maintains that we swear better (perhaps because we are almost permanently irritated by people and events?) Not necessarily full on rude, but words like sod, cow, tosser, git, gormless to express disdain for someone. To a Brit these all have their subtle differences, sometimes relating to the gender or age of the person referred to. We also use a range of adjectives like naff, twee and bollocks for things and opinions we don’t think much of. (Again, these are not full on swear words – though bollocks is quite naughty, even for a Brit).

We have plenty of phrases to describe when things go wrong: lost the plot, car crash, shambles, omnishambles, up the Khyber, up a creek without a paddle.

For a reserved (not to say repressed) race, we have a surprising number of ways to convey a rich emotional palette: From gobsmacked to chuffed to gutted. From over the moon to sick as a parrot.

Put a few Brits in a room talking about football, or the current political situation, and you would soon find that this is only a very small sample of the range and versatility of their use of English.

So, is it true that American English is a bit lacking in this respect? Or has Josh just not lived long enough in the country to pick up the lingo? Discuss.

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Remembering Kim Bok-Don

Last Sunday I hosted Paige Etheridge on my blog. Paige has recently written an historical novel about the pan pan girls in Japan. Pan pan was a new word / phrase to me. It is a derogatory term for a prostitute and refers to the Japanese women who provided sexual services for the occupying forces (mostly American GIs) after the Second World War. Although despised by polite Japanese society, the pan pan were in fact encouraged by the Japanese Government, with the intention of protecting their upper and middle class women from the attentions of the foreign soldiers.

The pan pan, as Paige’s novel recounts, were seen as the shameful ones, not the system that used them. By contrast the ‘comfort women’ cannot be dismissed so lightly, as there are no outside forces, or female moral turpitude, to blame. The comfort women were girls and young women who were brought into Japan during the war from Korea, which was then a Japanese colony. None knew what was in store for them when they arrived in the country; most thought they were going to work in textile factories. In fact they were taken to comfort stations where they were forced into non- consensual sex with 15 Japanese soldiers a day (and 50 on a Saturday and Sunday). That’s 175 rapes a week. Many of the women, on returning to Korea, were too ashamed to tell their families what had happened; and too traumatised to be able to marry and have families of their own.

The Japanese Government spent years trying to deny the existence of the comfort stations, or would suggest that the women had chosen to live in them of their own free will. During the 1990s however, many of the comfort women found the courage to speak out. One such was Kim Bok-Don, who was taken to Japan as a sixteen year old and did not return to Korea for 8 years. She described it for what it was – sexual slavery. She was still campaigning when she died, aged 92, in January. “What we want,” she said in 2016, “is a sincere apology and legal reparations from Japan that would help restore our honour.”

She never married, and left her money, and any posthumous reparations, to a fund for women who suffered sexual violence during the war. Apparently her last word was a swear word expressing her anger for what had been done to her. It wasn’t included in her obituary, otherwise it might have been another new word to add to my lexicon.

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Meet Author Paige Etheridge

Paige Etheridge is a Black Belt in Shaolin Kempo Karate, Pisces Sun/ Leo Moon/ Aries Ascendant, Taoist, and of Athenian descent. She is also a compulsive writer

What is the title of your latest book? Kissing Stars Over the Rising Sun is my debut. It deals with the forgotten Japanese subculture of the Pan Pan women. They were nearly erased from history for being too sexual and wild. The Japanese were embarrassed they existed and did everything they could to make them disappear. My goal in writing this book was ensuring the Pan Pan would be remembered. It’s a heavily researched historical fiction and erotica set in 1940s Japan. It follows the story of Miyako as she lives as a Pan Pan, while exploring the meaning of sexuality and individuality.

Book Blurb: Emerging from the ashes of Post WWII Japan, the Pan Pan were born. Transforming themselves into the antitheses of what Japanese women were supposed to be; they were the loud, vulgar, and independent lovers of the American GIs occupying their land. For many of these Women of the Night, it became more about pleasure and riches than survival; burning brightly for a few years before being wiped out by the Japanese themselves. Nearly erased from history for being too wild. This is the story of one of these women. Her name is Miyako.

What are the most challenging aspects of being a writer? And the most rewarding? The emotional roller coaster which comes when writing forces me to face personal baggage can be pretty hard to deal with at times. But knowing the book, and likely the baggage, is finished when all is said and done is wonderful.

What is your top tip for an aspiring writer?  Consider why you’re doing it. Are you looking for fame or to answer a higher calling? Consider if your reasoning is truly worthwhile.

What are you working on at the moment? I actually just finished a Cyber Punk novel which includes Cyborg Orcas.  I’m taking the month of February off novel writing.  Then I’m going to have my readers vote between my story idea about the trans-knight or the were-dolphins of Brazil and Peru.

What do you like to read? Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Inspiration, Self-help, Historical fiction, Horror, Graphic novel, Manga

Where can readers find you? If you follow me on social media, you’ll be able to vote on my future content. Possibly even win some stuff. I post lots of photos of my awesome dog Athena as well.


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Cutting the Waffle.

I am a bit preoccupied at the moment. Beta readers have returned the first draft of my latest work with a pile of mostly helpful suggestions and corrections, which I am working through. One reader intimated, very tactfully, that I might have used some phrases rather too often, and hammered home certain points with more repetition than was strictly necessary.

A less considerate critic would have bluntly told me to cut the waffle.  Re-reading the work after a three month gap I can see exactly what he means, and my word count is going down by several hundred each session.

First drafts of potential master-pieces are not the only haunts for the verbose. Some judges have said they are tired (note, not ‘sick and tired’ – why three words when one is sufficient?) of overly wordy addresses. In December, Lady Justice Rafferty called for the end of archaic phrases such as ‘with the greatest respect’ when the speaker means no such thing. She also dislikes the repetition of ‘my learned judge’ in outline arguments.

“Speaking for myself,” she said recently, “life will still hold meaning if I am [simply] referred to as the judge. Similarly, the author’s respect for the judge’s efforts doesn’t need to be repeated 15 times [especially] when it becomes ‘the greatest respect.’”

She took issues with report writers who use the passive too much – it is thought / it is suggested / it is arguable. Written grounds of appeal had become, she said, “rambling, waffling, and warbling.”

I am approaching my redraft with my beta reader’s gentle nudging, and the judge’s more robust castigations ringing in my ears.

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