Tag Archives: #wordsandmeanings

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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It’s snowing, in other words.

snow

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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Sent to Coventry

Coventry

Coventry UK has just won the bid to be City of Culture for 2021. The official announcement was made just as the audience was settling down to a play in my local theatre. The production was delayed slightly for the artistic director to tell everyone the news, which was greeted by a huge roar of approval and clapping – a good way to get the actors geed up for their performances too!

I have lived in Coventry, with its world famous new cathedral, for over twenty years – longer than I have lived anywhere elseCoventry 2 in England or Wales. What surprised me most when I first moved to the city was how down beat everyone was about the place. “Why made you move to live here?” was a regular question, not uttered in an unfriendly way, people were simply amazed that someone would choose to live in Coventry. But there has been a lot of excitement about the city of culture bid, and genuine pleasure, not just among arty types, in winning.

Where once the talk was about how good the roads around Coventry were for getting out of the city quickly, now these same roads are seen as a huge plus for getting people in for events etc. in 2021. This is a far cry from the old consensus (not actually based on fact) that you were either born in Coventry, or you were sent there – so didn’t have any choice in the matter.

The phrase ‘sent to Coventry’ is known far outside the city. It now means to become a social outcast, one who should be ignored socially. The phrase arose because during the English Civil War, in the mid 1600s, Coventry sided with the Parliamentarians. Captured supporters of the King (Royalists) were sent to Coventry. They were not actually imprisoned in the city, but were dumped there and left to wander around, ignored by the locals who would refuse them food and opportunities to work. Maybe worst of all, they were refused entry to any of the local inns!

The city’s hostile reputation among Royalists was such that any of their soldiers who were deemed to be rather apathetic in their duties would be threatened with being posted to Coventry as an incentive to show more commitment to the King’s cause.

If you have enjoyed this post, and would like to read more of my work, please go to my Amazon author page. As we are rapidly approaching the Festive season, you may wish to consider one of the anthologies, the Winter Holiday Anthology, published by Solstice, and Festive Treats, published by the Pigeon Park Press, are both available from my page or via the following links. 

AWinter Holiday Anthology:

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Playing with words.

Just a few lines today on words that describe games people can play with words. (More popular perhaps in the time before TV and social media, but could come in useful in a power cut if all you have is pen, paper – and a torch.)

An acronym is made up of the first letter of each word in a phrase. It is a comparatively new phenomenon (the first recorded use is in the early 1940s). Radar (radio detecting and ranging), and scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) are acronyms) are acronyms. An acronym needs to be pronounceable – hence RSVP at the bottom of a letter requesting a reply is an initialism, not an acronym.

Acrostics is where, in a poem for example, a number of letters form a word or phrase. This could be at the beginning of each line in a poem as in Lewis Carroll’s (of Alice in Wonderland fame) poem which starts:

A boat beneath a sunny sky

Lingering onward dreamily

In an evening of July –

Children three that nestle near

Eager eye and willing ear

And goes on to spell out the real Alice’s full name through the first letter of every line.

An anagram is a rearrangement of letters of a word or phrase to form a different phrase or word: Evil / vile. Clint Eastwood / old west action. An antigram is similar, but the alteration means the dead opposite to the original word: funeral / real fun. (Sorry)

Lipograms are works where the author chooses to avoid using a particular letter. No problem if you decide, say, to omit the ‘z’ or ‘q.’ But Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a 50,000 word novel (Gatsby) without the letter ‘e’ in 1939. Univocalics, by contrast, are where just one vowel is used, as in ‘he went where she heeded her texts.’

Palindromes are words or phrases that read the same backwards as forwards: ‘Was it a car or a cat I saw?’ Or the more famous ‘Able was I ere I saw Elba.’

A pangram is a sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet), as in ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’ The same letter can be used more than once – I’m not sure anyone has managed to come up with a phrase that makes sense using each letter just once.

So there you go – Boxing Day post-prandial games sorted!

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Let’s talk peace!

Leafing through my Latin dictionary (as one does) I came across the word pax. I think we all know that the word has something to do with peace, as opposed to war. These days the word is largely used in reference to children’s games: ‘Pax’ as in wanting to call an end to a game, or declare immunity from any consequences of a game. The word is often called out while crossing fingers, and /or holding up one’s hands. Even in this context, the word has an old fashioned feel to it, and doesn’t appear much in the dialogue of modern books for children.

Pax is still to be found as part of a Latin tag in more literary or historical books. For roman soldierexample:

  • Pax Romana – the long peace of the Roman Empire brought about by the impressive strength of the Roman military.
  • Pax Britannica – a similar state of peace imposed by the British on members of its colonial empire (when there was one!).
  • Pax in Bello – peace in war, whereby fighting continues, but at a reduced rate.

Pax, from these examples, would seem to be used in association with more bellicose activity. Not so the ‘pax vobiscum’ (Peace be with you) that Christ is reported to have said to the apostles on the first Easter morning.

 

45paxPAX was the name given by the Romans to their goddess of peace. The Greeks called their goddess of peace Irene, from the Greek eirenikos (peace). The word eirenic / irenic, meaning tending towards conciliation, or promoting peace, is clearly linked to the name Irene. Not so the word ire, and all its angry associations!

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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

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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: 

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