Category Archives: Words and meanings

The origin of your computer bug.

Not many people know about Grace Hopper who died in 1992. She completed her Ph.D. Grace_Hopperin mathematics at Yale in 1934 and taught mathematics at Vassar for the next ten years. During the Second World War she joined the naval reserve and retired in 1986 as a Rear Admiral.

She was also a renowned computer programming pioneer. Among her achievements are her involvement in designing the common business orientated language (COBOL) for the first commercial computer, and her role in standardising the computer languages used by the navy.

She was a clever and remarkable woman, but what merits her inclusion of a blog about writers, writing and language, is her coining of a new meaning for the word bug. The average author may not know much about computer languages and programming but, unless they are sticking firmly to pen and paper, few will have completed a manuscript without the occasional bug freezing their computer. Although the first computer bug was, in fact, a moth.

Here is how Grace Hopper tells the story: Moth dead from natural causes isolated on white.

Things were going badly. There was something wrong in one of the circuits. Finally someone located the trouble spot and, using ordinary tweezers, removed the problem, a two-inch moth. From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.”

Whilst we are talking about female mathematicians, another little known fact is that a magazine for ladies know initially as the Ladies’ Diary and then the Woman’s Almanac was a mathematical publication. It started out, as you might expect with titles like that, with recipes and articles on health and beauty. Within a few years however these had been supplemented by mathematical puzzles and questions about arithmetic, geometry, algebra and astronomy that would be answered by the readership. Increasingly, this readership included well known (male) mathematicians. But mostly it was the women readers who supplied solutions, often under pseudonyms.

The magazine flourished – it was published for nearly one hundred and fifty years (1704 – 1841) and suggests that the stereotype of women who can’t do maths, was less dominant in the eighteenth century, than in our own time. The original editor believed in cultivating the female mind as well as offering tips for improving her attractiveness to potential husbands. “Wit join’d to Beauty … leads more Captive than the Conqu’ring Sword.

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Some Meanings Behind Reading.

Readers reckon they know what the verb to read means. Quite simply, it’s what you are doing now! But the verb can be used to imply a range of other meanings too. Here are a few:

reading paper“All I know is what I read in the papers,” doesn’t literally mean that he/she only gets information from newspapers. What the phrase is intended to convey is that the speaker is ordinary, unpretentious, not an expert. The phrase was popularised by the American comedian, Will Rogers, in the 1920s.

Sticking with newspapers, there’s the vendor’s cry “Read all about it.” It wasn’t long before the phrase extended beyond newspaper sellers – hence the BBC programme reviewing new paperback books with the same title.

“Read any good books lately?” An innocuous seeming question from the early twentiethreading book century that then became a catch-phrase to be used when a speaker wanted to divert attention from something. (A young man might perhaps divert his friend’s mother with this question, to stop her spotting his friend kissing a young lady – presumably one he hadn’t been properly introduced to).

“Read between the lines.” Literally, this probably referred to a cryptographic method of conveying meaning in a text via every other line. Nowadays, it refers to an author who conveys more meaning than is in the actual words, perhaps conveying something sensational (or rude) by implication. How many secret Romeos have answered the door whilst buttoning their shirt / trousers – leaving us to ‘read between the lines’ what had gone on just before? (Well maybe not so many these days, where almost anything goes, but it was common practice in books / films a generation or so ago).

“Read my lips.” A phrase popularised by George Bush senior, but used well before that to denote the sincerity of the words being uttered through the lips. It is also an age-old technique used by deaf people or people working in noisy environments.

“Read the riot act.” The original riot act was passed by the British Parliament and read out to the rebellious masses in 1714, ordering them to disperse. Now it is an activity regularly implemented by parents to show disapproval of a child’s errant behaviour.

And finally – “Read, mark, and inwardly digest.” Unlikely though it may seem, this is an actual phrase from the Book of Common Prayer (the Collect for the second Sunday in Advent) and means exactly what it says).


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Words we owe to Africa.

Next week I am excited to have the ‘Queen of African Horror’ on my blog, talking about her work. As a tiny warm-up act I’m doing an African themed blog today. First, here’s a small selection of words in English that we all know, but don’t necessarily realise have an African origin.


  • Banana
  • Banjo
  • Chimpanzee
  • Impala
  • Jumbo
  • Macaque
  • Okapi
  • Safari
  • Zebra
  • Zombie



And here are a few African proverbs that I think might include a lesson for the aspiring writer of any genre or nationality.

Wisdom: The fool speaks, the wise man listens. (And takes notes – could come in useful for a piece of dialogue one day)

Learning: You learn how to cut down trees by cutting them down. (Good writing comes from practice, practice, practice…)

Unity and Community: If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. (Join a writers’ group to help you achieve your goals)

Friendship: Show me your friend, and I will show you your character. (Good tip re developing the synergy between characters in your story)

Money and Wealth: Do not let what you cannot do, tear from your hands what you can. (OK so maybe you aren’t going to write a best seller straight away. But that’s no excuse for not writing anything)

Love and marriage: Love has to be shown by deeds and words (Remember – show not tell, at least most of the time).

Patience: To run is not necessarily to arrive. (No point writing 5,000 words a day, if they are rubbish and not publishable)

Food: Words are sweet, but they never take the place of food. (Very few authors can live on what they earn from their writing …)

Good words are food (… but it is very satisfying to try!)

That’s it for today. I hope you will be brave enough to join me next Thursday (28th) for a journey into African horror.

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Tags and #Tags

Most people who use social media, know what tags are on Twitter etc. and use them to attract more followers. I will, no doubt, add a few tags to this post to advertise it and maybe encourage a few more readers to follow my blog.

Tags, when you are writing away from social media, are a bit different. These are short, questioning phrases, at the end of an affirmative or negative statement. Such as the cheery – “It’s cold today, isn’t it?”  as you hurry pass a neighbour in the street. Or the more hectoring – “You won’t do anything silly whilst I’m away, will you?” from a busy mother to a recalcitrant teenager.

Tags are regularly used in dialogue. Their aim is for the speaker to confirm that the person they are speaking to is listening to them and has understood what’s been said. They do not appear much in formal / literary prose. But they can be found in more informal prose, such as a newspaper article, where the writer wants to grab the reader’s attention, maybe with their opening sentence.

Even if they are mainly used informally, tags have their own grammatical ‘rules.’ They almost invariably use an auxiliary verb – to be, which is usually followed by a personal pronoun – it, you, I, we etc. Sometimes they us irregular verbs – “I’m a clever boy, aren’t I ?” (not amn’t I). I suppose you could say ‘am I not?’ but that sounds a bit pompous. And the perfectly correct, but archaic, contraction – ‘ain’t I?’ seems, to have gone out of fashion, doesn’t it?

As you can see from the above, the most used tags are in the negative, aren’t they? But they don’t have to be – and you don’t have to be a born again optimist to use a positive one occasionally, do you?


Children playing tag – not a very relevant caption for this blog, is it?

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 I am taking a short break now – back the end of April.

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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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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