Tag Archive | words

It means what it means and exactly the opposite at the same time—more adventures in dictionaries

“Bugs Bunny accidentally transformed the word <em>nimrod</em> into a synonym for <em>idiot</em> because nobody got a joke where he sarcastically compared Elmer Fudd to the Biblical figure Nimrod, a mighty hunter.” “Etymology is ridiculous and terrifying sometimes.”

“Bugs Bunny accidentally transformed the word nimrod into a synonym for idiot because nobody got a joke where he sarcastically compared Elmer Fudd to the Biblical figure Nimrod, a mighty hunter.” “Etymology is ridiculous and terrifying sometimes.”

I remember very clearly watching an old Bugs Bunny cartoon on TV when I was a kid and Bugs Bunny referred to Elmer Fudd very disparagingly as a Nimrod. And I didn’t know what it meant. At that time, my family didn’t yet own either an encyclopedia set or a dictionary, which means it was before 1970. So when I ask Mom what it meant, she wasn’t sure. So I had to wait until I could go to the school library and look it up in the dictionary where it was defined as “noun, 1 Grandson of Ham, described in Genesis as a mighty hunter 2 a hunter.” Which didn’t seem very insulting, and clearly Bugs meant it as an insult, right? It took me several minutes of thinking about it before I realized that Bugs Bunny was being sarcastic. It was describing someone who he thought was an incompetent hunter by alluding to a Biblical figure who had been a good hunter.

In subsequent years I started hearing the word being used pejoratively on the playground (this would be late sixties and through the seventies), and clearly the word meant either “idiot” or “dork” or “jerk.” By middle school the insult began to be a bit more sexual, but still definitely an insult, sort of a combination of “c*cksucker” and “wanker.”

Many lexicographers express skepticism that Bugs Bunny is to blame for the shift in the meaning of nimrod, but then fail to offer a compelling alternative explanation. Several of them trot out a line of dialogue from the obscure 1933 play, The Great Magoo. The word nimrod is clearly used as an insult, but it is specifically a reference to a man who had fallen in love with the showgirl, and that he’s another in a long line of nimrods pursuing her. The problem is that while it is being used as an insult, clearly the insult is still a reference to Nimrod the Mighty Hunter—in this case someone who sees this woman as a prize to be captured.

And since all of the lexicographers agree that the “synonym of idiot” meaning became common in the early 60s, it’s a little difficult to believe a play that flopped 30 years earlier was the source.

Another example that is trotted out is a series of humorous stories published in a British periodical in the late 19th Century which ran under the pseudnym of Nimrod. Each story is told in the first person and recounts another humorous misadventure while attempting to participate in a fox hunt. But that’s even harder to believe that the 1933 play, first, because of the longer period of time but also because all the dictionaries agree that the “synonym of idiot” meaning is chiefly a U.S. usage.

I’ve seen at least one person simply express skepticism that a single line of dialogue from a single short film could have the effect. I have several responses to that. First, it is three different Bugs Bunny cartoons in which the insult occurs (amusingly enough, only one of them is it used to describe Elmer Fudd, the other two times are both used against Yosemite Sam). The other thing is that from the late fifties through the seventies, Bugs Bunny was everywhere.

In 1956 Warner Brothers licensed the rights to all of their Looney Tunes cartons made up until mid-July 1948 to Associated Artists Productions. A.A.P. began syndicating them to local stations, and by 1958 were able to claim that the highest rated local shows in every metropolitan market were those that included at least some cartoons. No one had cable, and people could only get three to five local stations over the air, so your choices for entertainment were limited. And the syndication deals weren’t exclusive, so I remember that at one point in my elementary school years, where there was one show on one channel that ran every weekday morning around the time we were getting ready for school that included several Looney Tunes cartoons, plus a half hour show that ran every weekday at 4:30 on another channel that was all Looney Tunes cartoons, and another half hour of Looney Tunes that ran on a third channel every weekday at 5:30.

In addition, in 1960 Warner Brothers started producing and selling to various networks a program that combined cartoons made from mid-July 1948 on. First as a primetime weekly Bugs Bunny Show, then it moved to Saturday mornings. As I said, for a while, Bugs Bunny was everywhere.

According to at least one dictionary specializing in slang, the “synonym of idiot” meaning of nimrod appeared was used prevalently by U.S. teens and pre-teens in the 70s and 80s. All of us kids watching Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 60s and 70s could account for the new meaning of the word arising in our age group quite nicely at that time. Whereas the obscure 1933 play and the humorous 19th Century British magazine origins just don’t make any sense as an origin for American schoolyard slang in the 70s, does it?

Finally, another reason to believe the fault lies with misunderstanding a sarcastic usage of the word is because it has happened in English many times. For example, terrific used to mean terrifying (terrific is to terror as horrific is to horror, as a friend so eloquently put it). How did terrific come to mean the opposite? Simple, the sarcastic or ironic use became far more common than the original meaning. Sometimes language just takes a left turn at Albuquerque, eh, Doc?

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Seriously, it’s all Greek — more adventures in dictionaries

“...involving, related to, or characterized by a sexual propensity for one's own sex; of or involving sexual activity with a member of one's own sex, or between individuals of the same sex.”

“…involving, related to, or characterized by a sexual propensity for one’s own sex; of or involving sexual activity with a member of one’s own sex, or between individuals of the same sex.” (Click to embiggen; I got a new self-lighting magnifier for my Compact Oxford—isn’t it neat?)

It happened after a committee meeting for the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus when we had devolved to chatting. I don’t remember exactly what was being discussed, but one of the women got upset when I used the word “gay” to refer to the entire community. “That excludes women,” she said, icily. I apologized and said I didn’t mean to do that, it was just fewer syllables and sometimes I just wished there were a shorter way to refer to everyone, and homosexual is so clinical. She interrupted, leaning in and getting much angrier. “Another word for men! Geeze, how can you do that?” When I protested that it was a clinical term originally coined to refer to both men and women she really got upset, insisting, “Homo means man! Yeah, yeah, it’s like mankind means everyone because men think they’re all the matters!”

At this point I was no longer feeling defensive, I was feeling angry. So I explained that while if one were speaking Latin, “homo” meant man, but the word wasn’t built from Latin roots, it was from Greek roots, and in Greek, homo means “the same” which is why the doctor who first coined the term picked it, as he had written about extensively that he was describing people who were attracted to and formed attachment to member of the same sex, in contrast to hetero which is greek for “other or different.” So “heterosexual” meant someone attracted to the other sex, while “homosexual” meant someone attracted to the same sex. Also, the doctor in question was himself non-heterosexual and spent much of his life trying to prove that homosexuality was not a mental illness.

Suffice it to say that she did not appreciate my lecture.

That was not the last time I got into that argument, by any means.

Other times when I’ve pointed out the difference between the Greek root and the Latin word which sounds the same, people have countered that “a lot of people think it means male!” To which I replied that a many people think the world is flat, but I’m not going to stop using the word “world” because some people are ignorant.

Don’t get me wrong—I understand that perception is important, but here’s the thing: if I point to a crowded room full of people of many different genders and say “they’re all homosexual” not one English speaking person in the whole world is going to think I’m only referring to the men. No one will be confused. Yes, a few of the women in the crowd may raise the same incorrect objection as the person in my first paragraph, and some bisexual or pansexual people in the crowd will make an equally incorrect objection (there is no portion of homosexual that means exclusively with one’s own gender, just that there is a propensity toward one’s own gender). I will grant that if there are any asexual people in the crowd they will have, linguistically, a valid bone to pick with my sweeping generalization.

The thing is, I don’t happen to like using the word homosexual because it sounds so clinical, and despite the word being coined by a pro-homo doctor, originally, it was quickly adopted by the parts of the medical establishment who insisted we were mentally ill or depraved. But I also don’t like using it to refer to the community because no matter how you slice it, it does exclude asexuals, as well as trans people who are also straight.

If I’m in a situation where queer isn’t accepted, I will sometimes punt to “non-heterosexual,” but that has the problem of defining us by what we aren’t, rather than what we are.

There are people who object to the term because it places emphasis on sex, while we often argue that the real issue is love. I have some small amount of sympathy for that line of reasoning, though it often digresses into rather sex-negative prudery. And while there is a difference between love and sex, for most non-asexuals, the two things are tangled together pretty tightly. I am attracted to other men. The initial attraction is, to be honest, about hormones and desire. For me, at least, love is a choice I make as I get to know a person. Yes, there are feelings and admiration and so forth, but I have feelings for lots of people who I don’t choose to commit myself to. I admire lots of people I don’t choose to commit myself to.

This attempt to separate the sex from sexual orientation also ignores another important reality: heterosexual relationships are just as much about sex as queer relationships are. Don’t believe me? What were the only legal arguments that anti-gay people had left by the time the case had reached the U.S. Supreme Court: that marriage was exclusively about reproduction, and that heterosexual people would never make the lifelong commitments necessary to raise the resultant children is legal marriage wasn’t reserved for straights (no, that argument makes no sense, and yes, that’s really what they wrote in their legal briefs!). Yes, the people who claim that we’re the perverts obsessed with sex argued that it was wrong to define marriage as a loving relationship geared toward mutual support (yes, that was also in their legal brief).

But I’ve digressed enough. The word “homosexual” does not simply refer to men, it comes from the Greek word homo meaning “the same.” Neither does the word refer to any exclusivity in that sexual orientation. Also, although hetero means “other or different,” neither heterosexual or homosexual linguistically imply only two genders. Heterosexual literally means sexual activity with someone of a different sex, not the opposite sex. So not only isn’t the word sexist, it also doesn’t deny the existence of genderfluid or intersex or third sex people.

And now you know!

Odd, strange, eccentric — more adventures in dictionaries

“queer - a homosexual...” Looking up the definition in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary requires using a magnifier.

“queer – a homosexual…” Looking up the definition in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary requires using a magnifier.

Twenty-five years ago I was dramatically confronted with the hypocritical nature of my feelings about the word “queer.” My coming out process had been long and convoluted. This particular incident (which I’ve written about previously) happened after I had separated from my wife and begun the process of getting a divorce. Getting to the point of admitting to myself that I definitely wasn’t bi hadn’t been pleasant, and I felt that the ordeal required some sort of rite of passage. So when a friend mentioned that she was going to participate in a National Coming Out Day march, which was going to start from a location near my then-workplace, it seemed a perfect fit. It was only after arriving that I found out the event was sponsored by Queer Nation. Queer Nation was controversial within the LGBTQ+ community at the time for both their radical attitude but mostly (among the LGBT people I knew at the time) just for insisting on using the word “queer.”

The argument against the word was that it had been used as an insult against children who failed to fully conform to the ideal for their assigned gender, resulting in many adults in the LGBTQ+ community to experience great pain when hearing the word. I understood that argument, though I had found myself at the receiving end of a lot of vitriol from within the community if I happened to use the word “gay” as an umbrella term, because it left out lesbians. Similarly, I had also been yelled at from using the term “lesbian and gay” because it excluded bisexual people. And the arguments and screaming fits over the word “homosexual” are so convoluted (and intimately tied to the etymology of the word) that they deserve a separate blog post.

So I had found myself, as an active member of a couple of non-profit organizations related to the LGBTQ+ community, constantly trying to say the full initialism in every sentence.

Some gay friends who really disliked Queer Nation saw me marching up the street behind the Queer Nation banner that day (we were actually doing the Queer Hokey Pokey when we passed in front of the bar where a bunch of my friends had met for other reasons). And I got a lot of grief later from them. Some of them just teased me about it, but some were a bit more upset. While I was trying to explain why I wasn’t embarrassed about marching with Queer Nation nor did I regret it, one friend got in my face pretty angrily about it. And thus I found myself retorting, “I am going to call myself Queer if I want to, and fuck you if you don’t like it!”

My feelings about the word shifted during that argument.

Because I realized the argument has a big flaw. Yes, I was bullied as a kid with the word “queer,” but I was also bullied just as viciously with the word “gay.” And the people who argued most vehemently 25 years ago that queer was completely unacceptable, just as emphatically insisted that I should proudly call myself gay. Similarly, I know many women who were bullied during childhood and beyond with the word “lesbian” and derivatives of the word, yet now they’re supposed to proudly call themselves that word, and we’re supposed to call them that rather than use “queer.”

According to several of my dictionaries, in the last two hundred years queer has gone from an adjective meaning “strange, peculiar, or eccentric” to a verb meaning “to spoil or ruin” to an adjective meaning “of or related to homosexuality” to a noun meaning “a homosexual man” to a both a noun and an adjective: “a non-heterosexul person” or something “related to non-heterosexuality.”

Words change. Queer may be derived from the Old High German twerh which was an adjective describing something that was “oblique or not at a right angle.” In other words, not straight. One can see how describing something that was physically at an odd angle would come to metaphorically refer to something that was odd or peculiar in other ways.

My dictionaries that cite the first use of a each particular sense of a word by date indicate that the word was not used as an adjective referring to homosexuality until 1922, and then the noun usage for a homosexual man came 1935. Yet an unabridged dictionary I have that was published in 1957 lists only the definition, “odd, strange, eccentric.”

I see people who are too young to really remember the heyday of Queer Nation amid the horrors of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s still making the argument that we shouldn’t use the word. They say “some people” are triggered by the word queer, so we shouldn’t use it. What they mean is they have been told by some LGBTQ+ folks my age that they are triggered by the word. I, however, remain extremely skeptical of anyone who claims a single word is a consistent trigger. Triggers are tricky, but in my experience, the people claiming to be triggered by the mere utterance of a single specific word really mean that they dislike the word, not that hearing it gives them flashbacks forcing them to relive horrific experiences. This kind of claim cheapens the very useful meaning of the word “trigger” to describe a phenomenon that some survivors of trauma experience. And I’ve never, ever heard anyone claim to be triggered by the words “gay” or “lesbian” even though those words were used as vicious insults just as often as “queer” was.

“We're here, we're queer, get over it.”

“We’re here, we’re queer, get over it.”

So, I’m not going to try to squeeze the various QUILTBAG initialisms (LGBT, GLBT, LGBTI, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQA ad nauseam — and boy, does it get nauseam!) into every sentence. I’m queer. I’m a queer man who is a member of the queer community. The community includes trans people, bisexual people, pansexual people, asexual people aromantic people, non-heterosexual people of all genders, genderfluid people, two-spirit people, bigendered people, ambigendered people, et cetera, et omnia, et perpetua. No matter how you look at all of those people, if you get us all together, many of us are quite strange, a little odd, or wildly eccentric in wonderful ways. So queer is a word that encompasses us well.

If a specific person asks me not to call them queer, I will make an effort not to use the word to refer to them specifically, but I’m going to go right on calling myself and the community queer. I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m not going to be silenced by anyone.

Weather shifts, linguistic relativity, and the search for the perfect writing beverage

“Have you ever stopped to think that maybe coffee is addicted to me?”

“Have you ever stopped to think that maybe coffee is addicted to me?”

According to the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” a particular ethnic group had over 50 words for snow. Though I’ve also heard people misquote the same pseudo-factoid as 180 words for snow. You can follow the link to get some information on the faulty reasoning that led to the initial viral spread of the misunderstanding of an anthropologist’s book in the 1940s, but I always thought that if the myth were true, that the dialect of English spoken by inhabitants of Seattle would have developed at least 180 synonyms for drizzle. Not rain, drizzle.

Despite Seattle’s reputation for rain, we don’t get a lot of the heavy rainstorms that people who live in other parts of the world are used to. We don’t actually get that many rainy days at all. What we have are lots of overcast days. Many, many days of cool, damp weather that may include a little drizzle or mist here and there. Yeah, during some months (November, for instance) we get some deluges. This year we had literally the wettest winter since we started keeping records here 122 years ago, and last year was the second-wettest ever, so the pattern may be changing. We’ll see. In any case, much of our reputation for rain comes from all those cool, damp overcast days where it feels as if it must have just rained a bit ago, even though it may not have for several days.

Another reasons we have such a reputation is the sneaky prank Mother Nature likes to play on newcomers every spring. Every year, at some point in the month of May, we get a week or two of weather that seems like summer. It usually only gets into the low or middle seventies (Farenheit), but the thing is that after months of overcast days, drizzly days, and occasional rainstorms, a week or two of sunny weather with no rain at all and warm temperatures in the daytime fools people who think that summer is here. Never mind that most of those nights the temperatures drop back down to the 50s or 40s, in the middle of the day it was warm and sunny and dry, so summer must be here.

And then the June Gloom hits.

An upper atmosphere trough settles in causing almost constant on-shore flow. Cool, moist air from the ocean keeps coming inland. So every night we get overcast/foggy cool weather, and the clouds and fog may or may not burn off at all during the day time. And we get drizzles and light showers. Temperatures may get up into the low 70s for a little bit each day, but between the lack of sun, the damp, and the rain, it doesn’t feel that warm. Statistically, we have mostly June Gloom instead of summer until about July 12. And particularly in contrast to those couple of weeks of what seemed like summer, that long cool period breaks the spirit of people who aren’t from around here.

This last weekend was the end of our faux summer. And it was a lot warmer than our usual May foray into warmth. The temperatures got up into the 80s. But then the drizzle and rain came back. I happen to love the rain and the cooler days, but it this time it was a bit of a shock even to me. I couldn’t figure out last night—after I got home from work and ran my two errands, then peeled off my office drag and switched to shorts—why I was so cold! I actually had to pull a pair of sweat pants out of the drawer!

I’ve also heard a theory that the reason people who don’t live here long think it rains a lot is precisely because common English doesn’t have a single word that means “cool, overcast, with the impending feeling of rain.” Since the categories we sort things into are at least someone dictated by the language(s) we speak, the argument goes, people actually mentally perceive those days without rain as rainy. A friend once told me about the time she admonished her husband and son to go outside and get some activity in while the sun was out… it was late winter/early spring and the sun was not out at all, the sky was very overcast. But it wasn’t raining and it had been the day before. She said, “You live enough years in Seattle, and you start seeing any time when it isn’t raining and it isn’t so dark you need artificial light as sunny!”

We’d had enough warm days that I was starting to think that making a pot of ice tea might be a good idea. Of course, we tossed out a lot of redundant dishes and such during the packing, and when I looked in the cupboards, I couldn’t find a proper pitcher. We haven’t completely unpacked, yet, so I may well have something that would work in one of the boxes. So I didn’t want to run out and buy a pitcher. The other problem is that Michael will only drink tea if it is so saturated with sugar that you can’t get more to dissolve in. Ordinary sweet tea like my grandma’s used to make (where you dissolve several cups of sugar into the tea when the water is still boiling, because once you’ve iced it you can’t get them much sugar to dissolve into it) isn’t quite sweet enough for him. Meanwhile, I can’t drink that much sugar anymore, so I drink all my tea (hot or cold) or coffee without any sweetener.

If we had had one more day of hot weather, I would have broken down, made a mug of hot unsweetened tea with my electric kettle, then poured it into a big glass full of ice cubes. Which isn’t quite as good as having a whole pitcher of tea you can refill from, but tastes good. And now we’re going to cool weather for a while. So I’ve pulled my collection of tea bags out of the pantry. The tea bags had been out of sight since sometimes early in the move, so I haven’t been making tea at night. On days that I’m home all day, I wind up making a second pot of coffee and drinking coffee into the evening. Which is fine, except I think that tea in the afternoon and evening changes the way my brain works.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to get back into the writing zone. Or maybe I’m just too tired from all the packing and unpacking. And it isn’t as if there isn’t still a lot of unpacking to do!

Maybe I should have a nice cup of tea before I tackle the next box.

Cromulent is as cromulent does — adventures with dictionaries

Looking up daughter-in-law in my unabridged Oxford English Dictionary.

Looking up daughter-in-law in my unabridged Oxford English Dictionary.

I am a collector of dictionaries. I love browsing dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias, and other references. But while I can be very pedantic and love reading dictionaries (comparing the various definitions and variants from one to another, teasing out interesting bits of the history of the language in the process, and discovering new nuances of meaning and usage), I am not a Prescriptionist. I don’t insist that people must always use words only one particular way.

In fact, I get irritated at the kind of people who use phrases such as “That’s not a real word!” when someone uses a word that they don’t believe is in the dictionary. One reason they annoy me is that they are usually wrong. For example, “embiggen” is a word that has been used in print since at least 1884—one hundred and thirty-six years ago. Similarly, another word I’ve seen people sneer at other for using, “kitty-corner” (and its variants cater-corner and catty-corner) have been in the language for many centuries, since at least medieval times when it was spelled “catre-cornered.”

But another reason they irritate me is that the dictionary defintion of the word “word” is “a sequence of sounds or morphemes intuitively recognized by native speakers as constituting a basic unit of meaningful speech used in the forming of sentences.” In other words, if the people listening understand it, it’s a word.

But sometimes I run across a word or turn of phrase that I understand, but wonder why it’s needed. The last few years I’ve noticed a bunch of my evangelical relatives and their friends referring to the wives of their sons as “my daughter in love” and the husbands of their daughters as “my son in love.” Now, the first time I saw it in a Facebook update or where ever I read the update, I thought maybe it was a bit of autocorrect weirdness.

But I started seeing it more and more, and realized it couldn’t be that many autocorrects. So for some reason a bunch of people had decided to abandon the perfectly understandable and long-standing words “son-in-law” and “daughter-in-law” with phrases that sound similar, and mostly mean the same, but also seem to be a kind of virtue signaling, you know? As in, “see what a great relationship I have with my son-in-law/daughter-in=law?”

I admit, one reason it felt like virtue signaling to me is that, because most of the people I saw using the term are folks I’ve known for many, many years, I couldn’t help notice that one person with a gay son who happened to be married to another man kept referring to the husband of her son as “his friend.” I suppose it could be worse—she’s not calling him her son in shame or anything like that.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites as the first use in writing of the term “daughter-in-law” in the year 1536, but traces the use if the suffix “-in-law” (though it was spelled “yn law”) a couple of centuries earlier to approximately the year 1300. Daughter-in-law usually refers to the wife of one’s son, though it was sometimes used also to refer to step-daughters. Brother-in-law is oldest form of the suffix, which can refer to the brother of one’s spouse, the husband of one’s sibling, or even the husband of the sibling of one’s own spouse.

The law in question, by the way, isn’t related to civil marriage laws. The original sense of the word comes from older religious and social prohibitions against marrying the widow of one’s own brother. The widow can’t marry her late husband’s brother, because in the eyes of Sammy the Supreme Being or whoever, her late husband’s brother is the equivalent of her own brother. Once the person has married into the family, they become the equivalent of a blood relative to the other members of the family.

I realize to modern ears the “in-law” suffix might imply the one is required by law to accept the person, whether you wish to or not, having forgotten that the original law in question wasn’t like the modern sense of legislative constraints

I did some google searches on “son in love” and “daughter in love” with and without hyphens, hoping to find something to give a clue as to when this particular construction came about. Most of my searches weren’t very useful, leading to blog posts and articles that were fairly recent and didn’t strike me as the sort of thing that would become part of the American Evangelical gestalt. I also kept finding references (mostly at wedding sites, and usually under the heading of Religious Service) a poem that began with the phrase “You came to me not after nine months of waiting…” and is suggested as something that the mother of the groom could read at some point in the ceremony to welcome the bride into the family. Most of the sites list it without attribution, but I eventually found a version of the poem posted without blanks for the mother-in-law to fill in with things like her age and so forth, attributed to Roberta Anne Hahn. And it includes this sentiment:

Here was not a person I could call
“Daughter-in-Law,”
because that sounds like a contract
and doesn’t begin to describe our relationship.
Law has nothing to do with it… but LOVE does.

It’s the kind of poem my grandmother would have described as “lovely.” Words I find more accurate are “cheesy,” “corny,” “cloying,” “schmaltz,” and “eye-rollingly bad,” It is also way, way too long for a reading at a wedding and I feel great sympathy for any people who have had to sit through a reading of it. Since variants of this thing have apparently been read (or at least considered for reading) at the weddings of people who turned to the internet rather than the Book of Common Prayer for guidance on their religious marriage ceremony, I could see how “daughter-in-love” as a preferred term for the wife of one’s son would catch on in certain evangelical circles.

I do find it ironic that the original meaning of the “in-law” suffix came from religious law, and now the same people who are always clamoring about how god’s law should trump man’s law are trashing a bit of god’s law under the uninformed notion that this word has something to do with the legislative code. But then, those folks aren’t known for reading much of their own holy book, anyway. Why should I expect them to know how to use a good dictionary?

Getting the words down

“If the pen fits, write it.”

“If the pen fits, write it.”

One of a writer’s worst enemies is procrastination. And procrastination can be very clever. Research is a common trap procrastination lays for the writer. Research is often vital for writing projects, but it is insanely easy to waste a lot of time running down research rabbit holes. A lot of people blame the internet for this, but trust me, it happened to me all the time with paper research before the internet1. But then, I was the kind of guy that would use one book that had some of my research data as a bookmark inside another book for a spot I kept trying to find.

So in the old days I would have piles of books around my typewriter, some with note paper stuck in them to hold a place2, others with multiple bookmarks7 stuck in them so I could find multiple facts scattered over multiple pages, and so forth. The internet has only changed the amount of physical exercise that is necessary to run down rabbit holes on the research front, at least for me.

Tools and implements is another class of thing8 that can be either a help or a procrastination trap. But tools are important. So while it is possible for procrastination to latch onto the exploration of new tools as a means to keep you from writing, talking about good tools can also be a help in the writing process. Therefore, here is a list of my current favorites:

  • Scrivener 2 – the absolute best writing project managing tool/word processor available for Windows, macOS, or iOS, bar none. For all the features it packs, it’s also incredibly affordable! It’s multi-platform. I use it on both of my Macs and my iPad, and they make it easy to move back and forth. If you don’t have an iPad but do need to work on other platforms, you can use the Sync to External Folder feature in conjunction with Dropbox or Copy or Box to edit files in application that can open Rich Text Files when you’re on the go, then sync back to Scrivener on your Windows or macOS box later. I’ve used this latter feature before the iOS version was available, and it worked well. Not as cool as having all of the features of the full product on my iPad or iPhone works now, but… .
  • Scapple – by the same people who make Scrivener, this is a brainstorming/outlining tool. I’ve used it for charting plots and subplots that had gotten out of hand. It’s also really good at family trees and charting out character relationships.
  • iA Writer – a full featured word processor available for macOS and iOS. I use it when I need to format something I made in Scrivener, or just to type out notes for later. I’m particularly enamored with the iOS version’s built-in “share as PDF” because I’m often working on large projects in Scrivener on the iPad, and just need to send a single chapter or some other small bit to someone for comments, et cetera.
  • Honorable Mentions: There are some products that I used to use a lot more than I do. Particularly before the advent of Scrivener of iOS.
    • Textilus – iPad text/rtf editor. This is a good word processor for working from iPads and integrating with Dropbox and similar cloud sharing services.
    • SimpleNote – this is a good multiplatform Note taking program that is useful for getting down something quickly, that will automatically be available on all of your devices so you can copy into a main writing program later.
    • Pages – Apple’s free word processor that works on macOS, iOS, and iCloud. I liked the mac version of the program a lot before they decided to unify the features in all versions. It’s still a good program and they keep updating it. Just not quite as good as it used to be.
    • Scrivo Pro – A Scrivener-like word processor for iOS when Scrivener’s official word processor that could read Scrivener projects in their native format if you saved them to Dropbox. It was pretty good. I used if for several months until Scrivener for iOS became available.
    • WriteRoom – If you need a good, simple distraction-free writing program on the Mac, I highly recommend WriteRoom for macOS. I originally bought the iOS version to write on the bus and other places when I was away from my computer back in the days before I had an iPhone or iPad (it ran on my iPod Touch just fine). The software maker has stopped supporting the iOS version, as it wasn’t generating enough income to justify the work. Since it hasn’t been updated for a long time, it will still work if you already have it installed on your phone, but it’s clear that iOS is going to stop supporting it, so I finally have stopped using it on the phone.
  • RhymeGenie – I use this for poems and song writing… and for composing prophecies14.
  • AffinityDesigner – has become my replacement for Adobe Illustrator for many illustration tasks, including drawning maps for my fantasy stories.
  • iTunes – I often listen to music while I’m writing. Not just random music; I make special playlists for certain characters or projects. My oldest playlist, called uncreatively enough “Writing”15 was created in 2003, when iTunes first became available for Windows18. That’s right, I used iTunes for three years before I owned my first iPod.
  • Leuchtturm 1917 – These notebooks are awesome and are available in a lot of cool colors. Occasionally I like to write on paper. Certain types of thinking process just work better for me that way. But I know it doesn’t work for everyone.
  • Goulet Pens – I love a good medium- or broad-tip fountain pen for fun colored inks. Again, when I’m in one of those moods where I need to write it needs to be a good pen or…
  • a 0.9mm or 2mm mechanical pencil – my very favorite pencil is a tigerwood mechanical pencil that was handmade by Pandora House Crafts. If I don’t happen to have that specific pencil with me, any mechanical pencil with at least a 0.9mm lead will do.
  • And of course, 20+ paper dictionaries at home – I use the paper dictionaries often, because they tend to have more information than the affordable software versions. But the software ones don’t usually require me to stand up, so I often go to them first:
    • Shorter Oxford – I have this version of the Oxford English Dictionary20 installed on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
    • Merriam-Webster Dictionary & Thesaurus21 – I have more than one electronic version of this dictionary on all my devices.
    • The Chambers Dictionary22 – I keep this on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
    • Chambers Thesaurus – Companion to the Chambers Dictionary.
    • WordBook Universal English Dictionary and Thesaurus – another one that I’m not sure why I have it on iPad and Mac, but not the phone.
    • SPQR – a Latin dictionary app on my iPad and iPhone, very useful when I need to make up incantations for one of my wizards or sorceresses.
    • American Heritage Dictionary23 – I have this one on the iPad only.

Anyway, so that’s my current set of favorite tools. Though the truth is that my real tools are sentences. I can compose those with word processors, typewriters, pen & paper, or pencil, or technically anything I can scratch symbols into a medium with. The important thing is to start writing.

Neil Gaiman24 is fond of saying that the only secret of writing is to just keep putting one word after the other. That advice is true and succinct. It is also extremely difficult to do, while sounding quite simple. We have to make ourselves sit down and write. That’s what makes a writer.


Footnotes:

1. This might be less true for people who didn’t have multiple encylopedia sets in their houses.

2. And with notes written3 on said pages related to things I wanted to do with the information in said book.

3. Well, most often scribbled. Have I mentioned that my handwriting is atrocious4?

4. Part of the problem is that I learned how to type on a mechanical typewriter when I was ten, for reasons. And so I stopped doing the work at school where they were taught us cursive writing. So I only ever formally learned how to print5

5. If pressed, I can produce by hat writing in cursive, but I have to visualize what the letters look like, and then draw them individually. I just don’t have the muscle memory to write. It’s is painstakingly slow and frustrating6.

6. But I still consider learning to write that way as an archaic and obsolete waste of time. Learning how to read it is much, much easier than writing it.

7. Another thing that has changed a lot in my life the last decade or so: I no longer go to great lengths to save and collect bookmarks. It used to be extremely important to have physical bookmarks I could stick in books. I still am usually reading multiple books at the same time, but more than half of them are e-books, so I don’t need physical bookmarks any longer. And it’s kind of sad.

8. thing Old English, noun 7. That which exists individually; that which is or may be an abstract object of perception, knowledge, or thought; a being, an impersonal entity of any kind; a specimen or type of something. Also, an attribute or property of a being or entityThat which exists individually; that which is or may be an abstract object of perception, knowledge, or thought; a being, an impersonal entity of any kind; a specimen or type of something. Also, an attribute or property of a being or entity9.

9. Please note that this is the seventh sense of the word to be defined in the Oxford dictionary, while it is closest to what I think most people would say is the primary definition. The first definition in Oxford is “A meeting, an assembly; a court, a council.” which happens to be the oldest known meaning of the word, but only seems to be known among most modern speakers of English who are also into the history of England and Northern Europe. I used this particular meaning in a draft scene in my fantasy novel series without thinking, and of the people in my Writers’ group, only my husband10 understood the meaning I was going from when I used it. So I switched to on Old Norse derived word instead, folkmoot.

10. My husband who has been described by more than one of our friends as “the most capable man I know” and his areas of expertise include computers, repairing computers and other electronics, bartending, history, obscure languages, science fiction and fantasy, science, electrical engineering, farm equipment repair and maintenance, quantum mechanics, chemistry, and cooking11

11. The latter is an understatement. The state he lived in at the time allowed children as young as 14 to work as prep cooks12, and that’s one of the two jobs he held down at that age. I have commented many times that if you want to be amazed just hand my husband and nice sharp knife and a box of vegetables and ask him to assemble a veggie tray. He will chop up all of the veggies you give him, no matter what they are, into exactly uniform slices, in a time frame that will make you suspect that he is actually super powered. I am not exaggerating in the least13.

12. Most state in the U.S. don’t allow children under the ages of 15 or 16 to work around commercial kitchen equipment, because limbs can be chopped off, basically. Although the are often exceptions carved out for children working in family businesses, which is how my Great-grandmother and a Great-uncle got away with teaching me how to drive a truck when I was about 12 years old.

13. When people who have only interacted with him in certain social situations have scoffed at this, I have smirked, because I’ve seen his school records, which include IQ tests, and most of the scoffers are nowhere near as smart as he is13.

13. No, I really don’t know why he settles for such a jerk as me. I really don’t.

14. I have a lot of characters in my fantasy universe who can see the future: the Oracle, Madame Valentina, Brother Ishmael…

15. Followed by “Writing II,” then “Laying Out an Issue of the Fanzine” then “Writing Faust and “Writing III.”16

16. I have since become slightly more creative with playlist names17. The playlists I’ve been using while working on my latest novel have names such as “Dead Witch,” “Ballad of a Lost Soul,” “Only the Wicked,” “Ballad of a Would Be Dark Lord,” “Zombie vs Dragon,” “Ballad of the Unrepentant,” “Night of the Monkey’s Uncle,” or “Ballad of Dueling Masterminds.”

17. I previously thought that I had hundreds of playlists, but since I recently merged together two previously separate iTunes libraries18, I now really I have nearly 4000 playlists.

18. Remember that I started using iTunes many years before owning on iPod (and later an iPhone). So my main iTunes library started on my old Windows 98/Windows 2000 machine, was imported to my early 2009 model Mac Pro Tower, and was updated over the years as I bought music and finished importing the rest of my old physical CD library. Meanwhile, the machine that slowly took over my day-to-day computer was on old white plastic Macbook, which was built from an import of one of on old Windows laptop that only had a subset of the Windows desktop, and then was augmented and updated to a Macbook Pro, then updated to a newer Macbook Pro, and then for a bit over five years I tried to maintain two similar libraries: one on the old Mac Tower which contained six-and-a-half terrabytes of internal storage, and my Macbook Pro laptop that only had a a 512 gigabyte drive, and therefore not enough room for my entire music, video, and film library plus all my story files and so forth.

19: I have a lot of characters in my primary fantasy series who can see the future in various ways: the Oracle of the Church of the Great Shepherdess, Madame Valentina (a.k.a. Alicia), Brother Jude, the Zombie Lord, Brother Ishmael, Mother Sirena, Brother Theodore, Mother Bedlam…

20. The platinum standard of English language dictionaries. In hard copy I have the Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus, a pocket version, as well as the single volume version of the unabridged that you need to have a good magnifying glass in order to read.

21. Genuine Merriam-Webster dictionary is the gold standard of U.S. desk dictionaries. I have a couple different editions of the Collegiate version in hard cover, a pocket version, and a hard cover of the giant unabridged Third International.

22. Chambers was the dictionary most commonly found on bookshelves and desks in the U.K. for years, much as the original Merriam-Webster was in the U.S.

23. The American Heritage Dictionary has a very interesting history. A publisher and dictionary enthusiast was angry when the Merriam-Webster Third Edition shifted to a more descriptive philosophy, and so set out to make a competing dictionary. Then he hit on an interesting marketing scheme. They published a huge unabridged version which they offered for sale at less than cost to public libraries and schools, along with a discounted pedestal or lectern that ensured the dictionaries were prominently displayed in libraries. Then after getting these dictionaries in hundreds of libraries and school for a few years, they released a subset of the dictionary as a desk edition, which made the desk edition an immediate best seller.

24. Winner of the Newberry Medal, numerous Hugo Awards, Locus Awards, Nebula Awards, the Bram Stoker Awards, the Carnegie Medal, Eisner Awards, British Fantasy Awards, Shirley Jackson Awards, a World Fantasy Award, a Harvey Award… I could go on and on.

Confessions of a sentence-wrangler

“There is no use crying over spilled milk… Spilled coffee however, may get you stabbed.”

“There is no use crying over spilled milk… Spilled coffee however, may get you stabbed.”

If I had a dollar for every time someone (often a co-worker) asked me an obscure grammar question (often to settle an argument with someone else), I’d probably have enough to buy a second car (and a really nice one, at that). If, however, I had a dollar for each time that one of those thousands of questions involved an actual rule of grammar, I might be able to get a latte or two. By which I mean, a lot of what people think of as grammar is actually about style or usage or it’s about spelling. And even more important, language isn’t like physics: it isn’t defined by anything analogous to the fundamental underlying properties of the universe. Language is something we have made-up (collectively), and continue to make-up as we go along. The process isn’t rational. And the resulting language doesn’t follow algorithmic rules like algebra or computer programming does.

A lot of people think that writers are obsessed with rules of grammar. They also think that good writing requires an extensive vocabulary of obscure words. Similarly they assume that anyone who has ever had the job title of editor is perfect at spelling and is even more obsessed with grammar. Those are copyeditor skills, which is different.

Don’t get me wrong, understanding how language works and having a facility with words are important skills for a writer, but words aren’t like gears and pulleys and cogwheels, and writing isn’t like assembling a machine. Words aren’t even the fundamental tool of a writer.

It is true that I am fascinated by dictionaries and have quite a collection of them. But open up a good dictionary and skim down the page and you will notice that just about every word has multiple definitions. Words have meaning, yes, but they have lots of meanings, and not always terribly precise ones at that. For example, let’s take the word “bear,” and imagine for a moment that you were explaining our language to an alien. If you told this alien that the word refers to a large omnivorous mammal with thick fur and plantigrade feet, what would that alien make of these sentences:

  • The petitioner will bear the cost of the investigation.
  • My manager is a real bear.
  • Before accepting the offer, bear in mind the responsibilities that come with it.
  • And then the bear flashed his lights, and I knew I was going to get a ticket.

That’s only four of the six definitions of “bear” that are listed in one of my dictionaries. Now at least one of those uses is metaphorical, but the verb “bear” meaning to carry something is spelled and sounds exactly like the noun “bear” which refers to an animal. The only way you can know which meaning of the word is meant is to hear it in a sentence.

The fundamental unit of a story isn’t the word, it’s the sentence. Yes, to understand a sentence you need to know the various meanings of the words in the sentence, but not necessarily all of them. You can often understand a sentence which uses a word you never heard before. Lewis Carroll composed a poem, “Jabberwocky,” in which nearly every sentence contained at lease one nonsense word he made up for the purpose:

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Nobody knew what galumphing meant when Carroll wrote the poem, but everyone who read or heard it at the time inferred that it meant to move or run in some manner, perhaps similar to a gallop or maybe more of a loud blundering through the woods. In any case, an image of the triumphant hero making haste toward home carrying the head of the defeated creature was conjured by the sentence with the nonsense word. Never mind that vorpal was also a word that Carroll made up. Most nerds know exactly what it is: a magically sharp sword, right?

Anyway, being a writer isn’t about making text pretty. Nor is it about mastering the rules of grammar to somehow hypnotize readers with the mystic powers of predicates, prepositions, and pronouns. It’s about telling a story. In my day job I may be telling the story of what problems a particular software product solves. In my fiction writing I may be telling the story of how a thief with a cursed artifact will save the world. And here on the blog I may be telling the story of why marginalized people try to find hints of themselves in cultural events. Humans tell stories–we construct narratives–to give things meaning.

You can’t tell a story if you’re obsessing over the proper placement of a comma (the rules of which are infinitely less restrictive than you think). You can’t tell a story if you’re arguing with yourself about which synonym for brown best describes the color of your protagonist’s eyes. You can’t tell a story if you’re writing, deleting, and re-writing the opening sentence of your tale, each time changing just one adjective. Neither can you tell a story if you’re beating yourself up about the fact that you haven’t been able to finish it when you want to. It’s as useful as crying over spilled milk.

Which is about as useful as arguing about so-called rules of grammar. The final test is whether a reader understands it, and whether they care enough to get to the end. If they do, you wrote correctly.

Now, bring me a coffee, pour yourself your favorite beverage, and let’s see what kind of tales we will tell!

Don’t like bandwagons?

Bandwagon meme diylol.com

I think we need a bit more meta…

If my various social media streams are any indication, there are a lot more people posting about why they aren’t going to create year-in-review posts or new year resolution posts, including sometimes rather snarky comments about those that do. For someone like me, that just increases the pressure to do it.

I’ve already posted about some goals I’m setting myself, so I’ve already probably outraged or disappointed a few. I could do a really verbose and intricate summation of my 2013, but I really don’t think even I would enjoy that. But all this talk about not doing things just because other people are does have me thinking…

Read More…

“The following contains…”

We put warning labels on all sorts of things.

I read fan fiction with some regularity, and it has been customary for some time at most places where one can post such stuff for the authors to include “trigger warnings.” Trigger warnings didn’t start on fan fiction sites, they were first used on forums where people discussed topics such as rape, rape prevention, domestic abuse, and so forth. The original intent was to alert people who suffer from psychological trauma that the story or commentary they were about to read contained intense and graphic description of one or more common areas of trauma. Psychologist refer to events that cause a person to relive a traumatic event a “trauma trigger.”

Now, one can understand that in a discussion dedicated to a topic such as domestic abuse, that from time to time descriptions of specific cases of abuse might come up. One can also understand that among the people who might be reading content on such a site will be people who have suffered actual domestic abuse, and they are seeking information, or recommendations, or just commiseration. So the original notion of “trigger warnings” in those sorts of places makes perfect sense.

One can also understand that in a fiction-publishing setting sometimes people will write stories which include the bad guys doing bad things to the hero, or to innocent bystanders who will need to be rescued by the hero. So if one is familiar with the notion of trigger warnings, it is understandable that one might decide such warnings are warranted on some stories.

But when you see a 700-ish word story sporting three dozen trigger warnings, one suspects that perhaps someone has lost sight of the purpose. I’m sorry, there is simply no way that in 700 words you can graphically describe that many different potentially traumatic events.

The problem is two-fold. People are worried that they’ll forget to warn someone about something, and someone will be traumatized, so they figure it’s better to be safe than sorry. On the other hand, a lot of people who don’t suffer from psychological trauma get all upset if they accidentally read something which is merely distasteful to them.

Now, I understand that people have a right to not look at anything they want. I have certainly gone on a rant or two about certain themes and topics in certain works of fiction. When I run into those topics, I may get angry or disgusted. I may literally throw the book across the room. But I do not have an actual panic attack. I do not relive an actual traumatic event.

I simply stop reading the stupid book.

That sentence right there is a great example of this phenomenon. There are people putting trigger warnings on stories merely because one character calls another “stupid” once. There are people who insist that trigger warnings are needed for one character calling another stupid once. There are people who insist that the word “stupid” is completely unacceptable in any civilized conversation—as unacceptable as reaching across the table and stabbing someone in the eye.

That is unintelligent, foolish, and utterly lacking in any understanding or sense of perspective.

In other words, that is a stupid.

Yes, it is extremely rude to call another person stupid. It is also true that one could write a scene where one character heaps a lot of abuse, including using the word stupid, on another character that could be intense enough to trigger a traumatic memory for a reader who survived an extended period of verbal and emotional abuse at some point in their past.

But if the word pops up in the dialog of a scene depicting two characters engaging in verbal banter, that story doesn’t deserve a trigger warning. What makes the other scene a trigger is not merely the inclusion of the word “stupid,” but the intensity of the entire abusive behavior of the character.

Getting back to a person’s right not to read something: such a right does not entitle you to a guarantee that you will never inadvertently see, read, or hear things that you find distasteful. You are not entitled to a world in which you only see what you want. Your fellow humans are not obligated to contort their own lives, words, or artistic expressions in such a way that your delicate sensibilities can never possibly be violated.

Courtesy dictates that we observe the niceties and comport ourselves in public and social situations in a manner that won’t cause harm or humiliation. But the obligation is to refrain from behavior and speech which could reasonably be expected to cause someone pain or embarrassment. Describing an autopsy at the dinner table can reasonably be expected to cause some people to feel nauseated, so it would be rude to do it. Telling that story of the drunken, debauched weekend you and some buddies had in college during the best man’s toast for one of those buddies, in front of parents and families of both the bride and groom, can reasonably be expected to cause embarrassment and perhaps instigate an argument between the couple-to-be, so it would be both rude and stupid to do it.

But mentioning that you are really sad that Dry Soda has discontinued their kumquat-flavored soda* in the presence of a friend of a friend who years ago had a beloved aunt die in a tragic kumquat-related accident, and mention of the fruit always makes the person break down into sobbing? It’s not at all reasonable for you to anticipate that, so you are not rude or insensitive for doing it.

And, let’s be real, here. Even if we accepted the notion that it’s reasonable to warn about a single instance of a single word, how could you possible do that? “Warning, mentions kumquats?” The warning itself would be the trigger!


* Seriously! I like the Blood Orange flavor which they brought out to replace it, but I really do miss the Kumquat Soda.

That’s not what nonplussed means

“I don’t understand why anyone goes to see movies any more. And another superhero film? I couldn’t be more nonplussed.”

I followed up with the person who posted this to make certain I understood them. They meant that they couldn’t care less about seeing another superhero movie. And they expressed amusement that I didn’t know what nonplussed meant.

I sent them a link to an actual definition.

They stopped talking to me.

It isn’t used often, and I’m quite certain that if the word “nonplussed” doesn’t go extinct altogether, that very soon the word will come to mean “not impressed, uninterested, or unmoved.”

But that’s almost the exact opposite of what it means.

nonplussed adjective, 1. filled with bewilderment, 2. perplexed completely, 3. dumbfounded, 4. rendered speechless or incapable of further action.

The word comes to English from a Latin phrase: non plus, literally “no more,” as in “nothing more to do.” According to Oxford, it first appeared in English in the late 1500s as a noun meaning, “a point at which no more can be done, a dead end.” Within a century it had come to mean a state of being so exasperated by an intolerable event or insoluble problem to the point of being overwhelmed—a point when one is ready to throw their hands in the air and shout, “I can’t take any more of this!”

As time went on, it frequently referred to a situation during an argument or conversation in which one person says something so unbelievable or mind boggling, that the other person just stares back, speechless, perhaps with their mouth hanging open in consternation.

I remember I used to see the word a lot in books I read during elementary and middle school. There would be a discussion going on between two or more characters, and eventually one of the characters, instead of replying to a particularly witty statement of the other, would be nonplussed. I remember trying to work out the meaning from the context, and being confused until I got hold of a dictionary. Then I became rather fond of the word.

I think the problem (besides the fact that people aren’t being taught Latin and Greek roots any more) is that the word doesn’t look like it is describing something as energetic and frantic as “being exasperated to the point of being overwhelmed.” Flabbergasted or dumbfounded are active states. When a person is in that frame of mind they do things like a double-take, or their mouth drops open and their eyes bug out.

Nonplussed looks like a much more laid back, almost contemplative word.

Which is a shame. Dumbfounded and flabbergasted are great words, don’t get me wrong, but neither conveys both the idea of being perplexed and at one’s wit’s end in quite the same way as nonplussed once did.

However, language is a living thing. So I know in the long run it’s a losing battle. Right now, at least half the readers will think it means the person is unconcerned and cool as a cucumber if you do use it.

And that’s a real shame.

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