Category Archives: Words and meanings

Fancy that! (More words and meanings)

There are a several words or phrases that I know well, but have never known how they have come to mean what they now do. Last week, however, I picked up Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk, in a second-hand book sale, and found some answers. Here are a few:

Take stalking horse.  When I hear this term on the radio, I understand it to mean a pony-1149420_960_720politician who runs for senior office against the current post holder (often, in the UK, a back bench member of parliament running against the sitting prime minister). They have no realistic expectation of winning, but are setting the stage for a stronger candidate to come forward. Now I know that in the fifteenth century, a stalking horse was literally a horse that had been trained to approach birds or other wild game slowly, with the rider hiding under its belly. Once close enough, the rider would step out and shoot the intended prey. By the sixteenth century the term had come to mean a sneaky type of military manoeuvre, and by the seventeenth century it could mean an accomplice who, often unwittingly, assisted in underhand ventures. So it’s easy to see how its modern use has come about.

Petty-fogging  now denotes unnecessary bureaucracy, usually imposed by lawyers or other rule enforcersAs far as I can see, petty-fogging has never had any positive connotations. A petty-fogger was a term first in use in the sixteenth century for a lawyer who, for a fee, would quibble over the smallest detail in order to win a case. Such a person is depicted by Lewis Carroll (the author of Alice in Wonderland):

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law, Lewis carrol

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength that it gave to my jaw.

Has lasted the rest of my life.”

 flunkeyBoth flunkey and lackey are now used dismissively about one person’s subservience to another. But flunkey (from the French verb flanquer – to flank) started out in the eighteenth century as a neutral noun for a servant in livery who stood alongside his master to provide help as needed. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did it start to acquire its negative connotations, such as slavishly obeying orders, or ‘flunking’  (dropping out of) a difficult task / test.

The older term, lackey (also from old French – laquay), described a servant with similar role to the flunkey. It was not a derogatory term – it was, for example, used by Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew, to describe, without malice, a man-servant. But lackey too has degenerated into a term of derision.

If you have enjoyed this post, you may like to read more of my published work. This is Cast Offavailable from my Amazon author pages.

 My latest collection of 13 short stories, CAST OFF – based around female characters from plays by Shakespeare was released by Solstice Publishing on the 14th July.

Cast Off: myBook.to/CastOff

solstice logo (1)

 

The Power of Using the Right Words

Many years ago, Louis Armstrong was asked how come he could play so well. His response was basically that he just let the notes come – they just had to be the right notes!

A similar theme was used by the advertisers of a well know alcoholic beverage a while back. Pretending to be the poet, William Wordsworth, an actor was filmed struggling with the opening line of a poem. He makes a number of false starts, including “I walked daffodils 2about a bit on my own,” but nothing seemed quite right. Then he had a sip of said beverage and was instantly inspired to write:

I wandered lonely as a cloud …” And a world famous poem was born.

Why am I telling you this? Partly because both anecdotes illustrate the enduring power of using the right words (notes) in the right places; something all writers struggle with on a daily basis (with or without recourse to the occasional tipple). And partly because I am off to Wordsworth country (The Lake District, UK) in the next few days. The daffodils will be gone by now, but who knows what inspiration for new work awaits me in the local hostelries?

So, in keeping with my growing holiday spirits, here is Wordsworth’s poem in full.

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the Milky Way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

daffodils 1

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, and would like to read more of my work, please go to one of my Amazon Author pages.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

 You can download Festive Treats for free at any time. This anthology includes one of my short stories, Mary’s Christmas.

Look out for my collection of Shakespeare themed short stories – Cast Off – due out later this year from Solstice Publishing. http://www.solsticepublishing.com

 

 

Was P.G. Wodehouse a traitor?

PGWodehouseP.G. Wodehouse, creator of Bertie Wooster and the butler, Jeeves,  has been one of the most  popular writers of English comic fiction for decades. His books remain in print and are frequently adapted for television.

But during the Second World War he became deeply unpopular in Britain, owing to his alleged siding with the Nazis, and his work was banned from libraries and the BBC.  In 1940, he was living in Le Touquet, an enclave of Englishness on the French side of the channel complete with golf course and club. Being by all accounts extremely unworldly, Wodehouse appeared not to have noticed the outbreak of war, and the invasion of France. That is, until German troops arrived in Le Touquet and he was interned for a year (spending some of the time in an asylum for the mentally ill).

On his release he agreed to do a series of programmes on the Nazi radio station. Listening to these now, they sound like little more than dotty ramblings, and he utters no word of support for the German cause. But he did not denounce it either, so his broadcasts caused outrage in Britain.

Wodehouse himself says he agreed to do them to re-assure his fans that he was still alive, PGWodehouse.2and it is unlikely that he was a Nazi supporter (his story, Code of the Woosters, suggests he rather disapproved of Nazism). However his actions provoked an enquiry by MI5 after the war. This resulted in a decision that, whilst he could have done more to disassociate himself, he had not consciously assisted the enemy, so should not be prosecuted. The author subsequently went to live in America, where he continued to write. His reputation as a great comic writer was soon restored.

However, what is easily proved by reading his work (and is seen by some English language purists as a heinous treachery) is that he was prsonally responsible for a great number of American words and phrases entering common English usage this side of the pond:

Awol, bender, buckle down, hook line and sinker, on the blink, sitting pretty ... These words and phrases, and many more, first came to the attention of British readers via his books.

If you want to read more about American words used in Britain, a new book has been written by Matthew Engel, That’s the Way it Crumbles . If you want to read more of my work, please go to one of my Amazon Author pages: 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

Prices range from £/$0 – 15.00.

The Amazon myth.

An Amazon, as we all know, was a member of a tribe of women from classical Greek times. They were famed and feared because of their ferocious fighting techniques. To enhance which, they would cut off their right breast so that they could use their bows and arrows to greater effect.

AmazonVery little is known about their origins. Even the earliest histories had them reputedly living on the eastern shores of the Black Sea (so not in Greece at all). And paintings and sculptures depicting these Amazonian ladies show them with two breasts that, according to the historian Lyn Webster Wilde, “are usually firm and prominent.”

So that’s two myths busted.

But the myth of chief interest in a blog on the meaning of words, is that concerning their name. According to the fifth century BCE historian, Herodotus, the name came from two Greek words: ‘A’ meaning ‘without’; and ‘mastos’ meaning ‘breast.’ A later historian, Philostratus, demurred. He thought it probably meant ‘not breast fed.’ Others have variously suggested the name comes from ‘Ha-mazan’ (fighting together), or ‘Am-azon’ (mother lord).

Disappointingly though, the author of Women in Classical Athens, Susan Blundell, who has spent some time researching the origins and location of the Amazon race, has found no evidence that they ever existed at all. As a consequence, the meaning of their name also remains a mystery.

Yet so famous have they been through the ages that the largest river in South America is named after them (some explorers apparently transferred the search for them to this part of the world, but had to settle for re-naming a river). And Adrienne Mayor, in The Amazons, believes there really is archaeological evidence that there were female fighters, in the area of Europe known as Scythia to the Greeks.

The Amazon story captures the imagination, so no prizes for guessing one reason why this was the name chosen for the biggest online retail business and bookshop in the world. Another reason, of course, was that the CEO didn’t just want a catchy title, but one that came early in the alphabet, so would be quick to find on the Internet.

So the name lives on, and plays a big part in many people’s shopping habits. Quite a feat for a race of single breasted female warriors that probably never existed.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog, and would like the read more of my work, please go to my Amazon (that word again!) book page: 

N.B. Festive Treats, an anthology in which my story – Mary’s Christmas – appears, is currently free to download.

 

 

The Art of Rhetoric

What am I like, writing a blog on rhetoric?

Don’t worry, that is a rhetorical question, as is your possible answer to the question (if you’d decided to provide one after all) ‘Who cares?’

Rhetoric had its origins in Mesopotamia, but is largely associated with ancient Greece where, alongside grammar and logic, it was regarded as one of the three ancient arts of discourse. Rhetor is the ancient Greek for a public speaker.

Cicero

Cicero

Rhetoric was part of a scholar’s education from the time of the ancient Greeks, through ancient Rome (Cicero being perhaps the most famous of the Roman practitioners) and into the twentieth century. One could argue that modern university courses in ‘communication studies’ are continuing the tradition.

 

Aristotle

Aristotle

Rhetoric – the fine art of constructing sound arguments – according to Aristotle, was largely  seen as a good subject to teach. However, even all those centuries ago, Plato could see that, in the wrong hands, it could be used to justify bad actions. He likened the specious rhetoric used by the Sophists to justify murdering Socrates, to cooking – which he saw as the means of masking unhealthy food by making it taste good.

 

Today, the word sounds old fashioned and pompous, and we often associate it with bombastic speakers and empty arguments (the image of a tub-thumping rabble-rouser springs to mind). But its first two meanings in my latest Collins dictionary are:

  • The study of the technique of using language effectively
  • The art of using speech to persuade, influence, or please …

Such aims are not a million miles away from what a writer tries to do, when sitting down to write a story that they want someone to read, be moved by, and sufficiently motivated to go out and buy their next book.

And in case you are still wondering what exactly a rhetorical question is, it is a question to which no answer is required. Who knew?

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, and would like to read more of my work, please go to my Amazon author page: 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

Whose language is it anyway?

Last week, BBC Radio 4 had a short feature on American words that have come into common usage on this side of the pond. Although it is not quite that simple! It would flagsseem that many of us Brits are using American words without being aware we are doing it. Or believing a term is American when in fact it has a long and noble record of usage in England.

Here are some of the points made in the programme (program?) along with a few of my own

  1. Words we know are American, but like anyway: Movie, cool, cookie. A lot of words came to England in the last century via films (movies), popular music and books: concrete overcoats, taken for a ride, bump off.  Somehow the American terms seemed more glamorous, especially to teenagers, who found them ‘cool.’

2. Words we know are American and tend to dislike, often because they are verbs that started out as nouns: to diarise, to reach out, to impact. Many of these terms were associated with business, so rather ‘uncool,’ as well as being less acceptable to an older, more conservative age-group.

3. Words that are in such common usage, we never think of as being American: hangover, commuter, double-decker. (So, if you commute into work on a double-decker bus suffering from a hangover – can you fool yourself that you are living the American dream?)

4. Words we are sure, wrongly, are American: gotten, trash, wow. In fact the first two appear in Shakespeare plays, and ‘wow’ is sixteenth century Scottish. The words probably travelled to America with the Pilgrim Fathers, got forgotten in the UK, and then travelled back to the old country in the twentieth century.

5. Words that appear both sides of the Atlantic, but mean something different: baby (UK – girlfriend/ darling), pants (UK – underpants), pavement (UK – where the pedestrians go, not the cars).

6. Words that mean the same, but are spelt differently: color, honor, program. It is commonly understood that Webster (of dictionary fame) pioneered this form of spelling as he wanted to standardise written American, and thought he’d simplify it whilst he was at it. True, but a lot of such words started out in English minus the ‘u’ etc. centuries ago, and just got embellished over time.

imagesThe Oxford English Dictionary lists 26.000 Americanisms in English. These, along with all the words we’ve adopted from the Greeks and Romans, India and beyond, just add to the richness of the language (and the confusion of foreigners and natives alike).

If you have enjoyed this blog, and would like to read more of my work, go to one of my Amazon author pages. Watch out for my collection of short, Shakespeare themed, stories due out shortly.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

How are your apostrophes today?

How are your apostrophes? Does that question look odd to you? Do you feel you need an apostrophe before the ‘s’? The answer is no, but there does appear to be a growing amount of confusion about when and where an apostrophe should be used

For example, over the last few days I have been helping with the shortlisting of applicants for a senior post in a local company. We have had a large number of applications, and many have impressive work records. It has been hard work making the selection for interview.

What has been noticeable though, even within this group of highly intelligent, articulate, experienced and educated candidates (a degree is an essential requirement, a management qualification, desirable), is that quite a few do not know how to use an apostrophe correctly. Examples of misuse include apostrophes being inserted before the ‘s’ in plurals –  ‘I have been a senior manager for many year’s.’ Or dates – ‘during the 1980’s I…’  

As you know (of course), there are only two kinds of apostrophe:

The apostrophe that denotes possessionMargaret’s blog, the dog’s bone (or, if there are several of them, the dogs’ bones) …

And the apostrophe used to indicate that one or more letters have been omitted – It’s a bit chilly today, so I won’t be swimming. Instead of It is a bit chilly today, so I will not be swimming.

In Bristol, UK, one man has felt so impassioned about the misuse of the apostrophe by shop keepers and other local businesses that he has taken to creeping out in the dead of night to correct their mistakes. At risk to life and limb (Bristol is not the safest city in the world after dark) he climbs a step-ladder to paint over offending apostrophes (or insert them where needed). He’s even made his own gadget for reaching the hard to get to signs.

Earlier this year this self-styled grammar vigilante featured in the local and national news. His interview with BBC Radio Bristol is on Facebook, so you can see more about the ‘apostrophiser’ on this link:

https://www.facebook.com/bbcradiobristol/videos/1359545534102549/

Some of the abuses of the apostrophe simply add to the gaiety of life, and allow clever folk to have fun at the expense of our less literate compatriots.  The fruit stall selling  ‘Potatoe’s and tomatoe’s, for example, or the business advertising itself as a Gentlemans Outfitter.

It is true, too, that we can be overly pedantic. Grammar, after all, is there to assist with clarity, and language is an evolving entity with spelling and grammar changing over time. If it didn’t, we’d all be writing like Chaucer, or still communicating via ‘uggs’ and shrugs, like cavemen.

But for now, the apostrophe is still in the game. So, like the tennis backhand or the football cycle kick (I think  that’s the right term), it should be played selectively and appropriately.

If you have enjoyed this blog and would like to read one of my stories or novels, you can find more about them on my blog page for published work, or go to:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00RVO1BHO