Category Archives: Words and meanings

Plain – or Plane – Sailing?

Last month there was an article in The Times titled Turning a boat into artwork isn’t plain sailing. This prompted a curt letter to the editor from a retired merchant naval captain who said that the term was plane sailing not plain sailing. Plane sailing, he explained was ‘a simple method of sailing short distances, assuming the earth is flat.’

He’s right that this is the correct definition of plane sailing – I looked it up. But what, therefore, does plain sailing mean? I turned back a page in the dictionary and discovered that the most commonly understood meaning of plain sailing these days is ‘smooth or easy progress.’ It also means ‘sailing in a body of water that is unobstructed.’

The Times is a daily newspaper, not a nautical magazine, so I think their heading, conveying a lack of smooth progress, is perfectly acceptable. But to avoid getting into choppy waters and risking a fleet of irate sailors tacking towards my front door, cutlasses at the ready, I may play safe, choose to avoid any nautical reference, and just say that ‘turning a boat into an artwork isn’t easy.’

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Putting Your Word(s) in Order.

Legal documents are dry, precise, pedantic – and consequently make for rather a dull read for those of us who are not solicitors. They are written that way because their meaning has to be crystal clear – ‘for the avoidance of doubt’ – as they often state. Fiction writers are not so hide-bound. They may want to convey a mood, an atmosphere, a feeling, an impression … Metaphors, hyperbole, humor, irony and, not least, word order, will help with this more than the unvarnished truth.

That said, a novelist needs to take care with the order their words are written in, so that they get the meaning they intend across to the reader. There are subtle (and not so subtle) differences between ‘I only bought the vase’ (no big deal), I bought the vase only (no big deal?) ‘I bought the only vase’ (big deal), and ‘Only I bought the vase,’ (Very big deal?)

The rules of grammar are not so strictly adhered to these days, with the guidance now being that grammar should help the reader understand the text (and appreciate to mood), rather than enforce a defined word order. So infinitives can be split if it makes sense to do so – and who would prefer the grammatically correct ‘to go boldly’ over ‘to boldly go?’ A pedant might say that this is a phrase ‘up with which they will not put’ – another phrase that is grammatically correct, but a bit of a mouthful. The rest of us are likely to prefer ‘to put up with it.’

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The Queen’s (or her heir’s) English?

The Prince of Wales was in the news last week. As he is often written about, that fact is not, in itself, newsworthy – at least not for a blog about writing and writers. What drew literary minded people’s interest was his letter to President Macron after the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in which he used a number of Americanised spellings, namely –ize instead of –ise. The prince’s fuddy-duddy reputation as a traditionalist was under threat – had he fallen under the influence of his new American daughter-in-law? Was he trying too hard to be ‘down with the kidz? Was ‘Western civilization’ (as he wrote) under threat from his expressions of sympathy for the French in this ‘most agonizing of times’? As one British woman living in France tweeted, ‘Lovely sentiments, but not impressed by the Americanisation of spelling here. Are we British or what?’

Well she, monarchists at home and abroad, and pedants everywhere can relax. The prince was being both British and traditionalist. He has been a longstanding user of –ize rather than –ise, and has the full support of established lexicographers. An article on the website of the Oxford Dictionary points out that while it is now believed that –ize is only correct in American English, it has been in use in Standard English since the fifteenth century, when there was no such thing as American English. The prince’s writing style, in fact, is traditional with knobs on.

Some publishing houses in the UK still use –ize as their preferred house style (the Oxford University Press, for example, who prefer it because of its origins in ancient Greek.) So, we Brits can choose which way to spell words like realise or organize. But it is best to be consistent and, of course, adhere to the recommended house style if you are lucky enough to get a publisher.

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Viking Talk

The Vikings were an energetic and ruthless bunch of pagans, who travelled from Norway (Norge) in the late eighth to late eleventh centuries to raid the North of England, amongst other places, and indulge in a spot of rape and pillage, before sailing back home with their loot, or deciding to settle in the balmier English climate.

There have been attempts during the last few decades to portray the Vikings as misunderstood, peaceable, immigrants, who liked nothing better than sharing their art and poetry and settling down with a local girl. But in reality they had a well-deserved reputation for savagery, and were more than just the ‘long-haired tourists who occasionally roughed up the locals,’ as one academic described dismissively the arguments of the pro-peace lobby.

That said, transcriptions of Viking poetry show a complex array of stylistic conventions, and many words used regularly these days are Viking (Norse) in origin. That includes the word viking – Norse for pirate / sea traveller; and the name of the settlement that became their main town – York, which the Vikings originally called Jorvik (pronounced Your-Vick). Other places whose names end in –thorpe (e.g. Mapplethorpe), or –by (Derby), were originally Viking settlements, and at least two days of the week are named after Norse gods (Thor’s day and Tiw’s day). We talk about Yule-tide as synonymous with Christmas, but it is a Norse word, referring to a pagan feast, Jol, celebrated around the winter solstice.

Given their savage reputation, it is not surprising that some of the words that have endured have a rough or violent meaning: slaughter, from slatra – butchery; and ransack – to search a house, none too gently.

Other words are of a more domestic nature, such as husband (hus (house) and bandi (occupier), and wife (vif – veiled one. This suggests the wife was very much the second citizen, though in fact the Viking wife had more independence than most of her European counterparts, including equal rights to divorce and a favourable financial settlement.)

Window comes from vindauga (wind-eye), loft / aloft from lopt (sky), and happy from happ (good fortune). And weighing scales come from skal, drinking bowl, also a drinking toast.

So the Vikings, whilst being a pretty destructive bunch, were not all bad? I’ll drink to that. Skal!

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What’s your reading age?

Recent research by Renaissance UK into the length of sentences and words in books intended for children and young people has come up with some surprising results. The research is intended to guide teachers when deciding what books their students should read.

One result that has raised eyebrows is that the Mr Men books by Roger Hargreaves which are intended for the youngest pupils and pre-schoolers is rated as harder than some of the Roald Dahl books, and almost as hard as John Steinbeck.

Some passages in, for instance, Mr Greedy are indeed quite complex: Over on the other side of the table stood the source of that delicious spell, A huge enormous gigantic colossal plate, and on the plate huge enormous gigantic colossal sausages the size of pillows, and huge enormous gigantic potatoes the size of beach balls, and huge enormous gigantic colossal peas the size of cabbages.

Yes, plenty of long words and sentences. However, as some people have pointed out, books by authors like Roald Dahl might be linguistically simpler, but the stories themselves are more complex and often morally ambivalent, so more challenging for the reader, and therefore more suitable for an older child.

Each Mr Men book, on the other hand, follows a simple structure, has a simple resolution and a happy ending, and so is more suitable for a young child. What they might also have said is that the Mr Men books are intended to be read aloud, so we’re really talking about young listeners rather than young readers. Parents and teachers can have fun reading a paragraph like the one above, building up the picture and the excitement with the repetition of the lists of words. They are books intended for an almost theatrical performance by the adult, rather than for a child to read quietly in a corner. And very good for this purpose they are too. But an older child, once able to read independently, is going to want a bit more of a story line and plotting, even if that means shorter words and sentences initially.

Which leaves me wondering, is this sort of research, done by computers scanning word and sentence length, actually any help to teachers? Or wouldn’t actually reading the books for themselves give them a better idea of what is suitable for the ages and abilities of the children in their class? (Which is probably what they do anyway).

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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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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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