Friday, February 28, 2014


A drabble is a very short piece of fiction of exactly one hundred words. It's origin is apparently not related to the novelist Margaret Drabble, which is too bad, but comes instead from the Birmingham University Science Fiction Society, which lifted the word though not its terms from Monty Python's Big Red Book, which is nice in its own way. Though in that book a drabble contest was apparently of the "how fast can you write a novel?" variety, the Birmingham U Society apparently "re-purposed" the term a bit to fit their busy student lives.

In drabble contests there are often both theme and time constraints.

All this is just a round about way of saying that I entered a drabble challenge over at Jack Bates' Flash Jab Fiction. There was no clock on this one except "by the end of this month", but there was a very imagination provoking picture. So head on over HERE and check out what minds with criminal tendencies came up with. You have to scroll down a ways to start reading them, but you'll get there.

 Margaret Drabble when not yet a Dame, just a lass.

Friday, February 21, 2014

taking umbrage

Don't get me wrong, I know what taking umbrage is--I do it all the time. It means taking offense, getting one's feathers ruffled, stuff like that. But it never occurred to me wonder exactly what umbrage was until just the other day. I'm sure it must be one of those 'from the Latin' sort of words, but pondering it a bit hasn't led me any further than that. So let's take a look.


All of you Latin scholars out there will of course know that this all goes back to the Latin umbra, or shadow. Apparently, the word umbrage appears in English print in the early fifteenth century, but not with its current association. Shadows and shade are not necessarily bad things, right? And so one use of umbrage was to describe the pleasant shade provided by the foliage of trees. The Phrase Finder has quite a few examples of earlier uses of the word, including this quotation from Sir Thomas Elyot, round about 1540:

The sayd trees gaue a commodyous and plesant vmbrage.

It's interesting that the more sinister sense of "shadowy" has pretty much swallowed up the word now. And I'm still not quite sure how it came to have it's precise current meaning. The Phrase Finder tells us that originally one gave umbrage rather than took it and the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that the meaning is the suspicion that one has been slighted (italics mine). This goes, I think to the more paranoid aspect of taking umbrage. After all, maybe no umbrage was actually intended.

Maybe someone was only trying to offer you a little shade.

* The great rainbow lorikeet picture was taken by Bruce Kerridge and more of his work can be found here,
while the pleasing shade is in a painting by Francis Danby and can be found here.

Friday, February 14, 2014


I'm currently reading a novel by T.C. Boyle called When the Killing's Done, which centers on human intervention in animal control on the Channel Islands off the coast of California. Early in the novel, animal rights activist Dave LaJoy is aboard his boat, the Paladin. For some reason, in a book which so readily supplies the informational context of the story, Boyle is withholding here, even though it's also the title of the chapter. He, or LaJoy at least, even manages to get in a dig at a female character, who, from any other indication, is not an idiot.

"And Anise--she'd been to college, but sometimes he wondered about the gaps, the yawning chasms, in her knowledge--asking, "Paladin? What's a Paladin?"

LaJoy may tell his girlfriend offscreen, but Boyle leaves us in the dark. Apparently, he doesn't think his readers will be so ill-informed.

Well, think again, T.C..

I'm sure that if I had a context other than just the name of a boat, I would be able to have some less hazy understanding of what a paladin is, but what the name evokes without that is some sort of careening wagon or carriage, loaded with goods. Traveling the Spice Route?

Oh, well--enough.


Uh, no. I think I know where I got the careening wagon image, though, but of that, more in a minute. A paladin was one of the twelve legendary knights of Charlemagne, who according to Wikipedia, are often referred to as the Twelve Peers.  Their exploits are first recorded in the chansons de geste, or songs of heroic deeds, and by extension into the modern day, the word has come to take on the meaning of anyone who takes up a heroic or noble cause. English speakers will see the equivalence in some ways to the knights of the Round Table, and in fact their stories form part of a literary cycle known as the Matter of France, just as Arthur's court is known from a similar cycle known as the Matter of Britain.

Etymologically, the word goes back through Middle French to Italian (paladino) to arrive at the inevitable Latin palitinus or "of the palace", meaning a court official. I hadn't known, either, that all these palace derived words go back to the Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome, and the one where the first palace stood, that of Augustus Caesar. I'm sure that Dave LaJoy would be rolling his eyes.

 In one of the rare unintentionally funny moments of browsing the Online Etymology Dictionary, I read:

"The Old French form of the word was palaisin (which gave Middle English palasin, c.1400); the Italian form prevailed because, though the matter was French, most of the poets who wrote the romances were Italians."

Italians had the upper hand in romance? Them's fighting words, Frenchmen!

To move forward to my modern misconception now, the wagon image must be from an old Western show called Have Gun, Will Travel, which was probably airing in reruns during my childhood, though I don't remember it like I do shows such as Bonanza or Gunsmoke. I'm sure some wagons and stage coaches figured into this somewhere. Anyway, the main character is named Paladin. Paladin in his Clark Kent aspect lives the life of a connoisseur and dandy, but when he undertakes the solution of a crime he dresses in black and carries a derringer, becoming in essence a "black knight". In fact, here is his business card:

 I'm intrigued by the show now. Apparently, Paladin drops references in nearly episode to some figure of what used to be called the Western Canon, and the writers were not afraid to have Paladin quote lengthy passages from Shakespeare, either.

It was a different era.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

burying the lede

I was watching Chris Hayes, I think, when I saw these words pop across the screen. I was startled. I have of course heard the phrase before, but I realized I must not have seen it spelled out before, because I had always assumed it was spelled "burying the lead". When coming across it in the past, I'd taken it to mean something like losing the main point of a newspaper story in the less important text below, but, shaken by this unfamiliar spelling, I wondered if I had gotten more wrong than simply that.

Hence, an investigation...

Well, first of all, both spellings are correct. I was surprised to learn that lede is not some old Anglo-Saxon variant spelling, as I'd half suspected. In fact, it is a very modern variant, with its first appearance in print not being until 1965. The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests the possibility that it may have become part of the jargon to avoid confusion with the word for the element lead, and particularly the molten lead of typesetting machines. I don't know--seems a little late in the day for that. I liked the more humorous comment of someone over on the Merriam Webster site, who suggests that some journalist brought it into existence when their 'a' key broke.

I was looking around for some examples of burying the lede when it occurred to me that this whole blog could be taken as a prime example. I realized this after reading a piece of advice on writing press releases. In it, the writer counseled the press release writer not to start with a chatty forward but to cut to the chase--do you think people want to spend their lives reading press releases that are any longer than they have to be? And what about blogs?

Here's a diagram of how a journalist would write a story:

And you could say that that's pretty much the opposite of how I write this blog, if indeed, I could be said to have a plan at all. Good thing I never pretended to be a journalist, or actually to be efficient at anything. I'm not blogging to "build a platform" or gain readership or anything else. I'd say I write this for my own edification, but considering how little I retain  of all this, it might be better to say that I write it for my own amusement.

If you, on the other hand, do want readers of your blog to pick up specific content, you might read this Slate piece by Farhad Manjoo from last year, on how much online readers do actually read of articles. It will be a good incentive to get to the point.

As is the way of these things, I have now seen "lead" written as "lede" twice since starting this. Ledes, apparently, are everywhere.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


At a dinner party the other night, a friend was heard to say about her son, who was also in attendance, "He's the biggest conniver I know." Since the son is also a friend, and on the whole someone we both think highly of, I asked her to clarify her definition of a conniver. What she meant was someone who works the angles. Someone who knows where the deals are, and how to get them even when they're a little, shall we say, hard to find. She meant conniver as more or less a compliment.

It got me thinking about the word, as I wouldn't have used it to mean anything flattering. I think of the phrase "you conniving little (expletive deleted)". In fact, since I started this post, I happened to hear it used in just this sense on an old Eastenders episode I was watching, when one character said to another "Why you conniving little cow!" In this case, it was definitely not a compliment.

I realized then that I really didn't even have a sense of where the word came from--was it some kind of slang, or did it have a more conventional origin?

We shall see.


"Connive" seems to have accumulated various meanings over time, all somewhat related but not really the same. "Conniving" has come to take on one meaning of "scheming" as in the Eastenders example, but also, in a more benign sense, as in my friend's mother's usage. A little sneaky, might be her meaning, or, just on the right side of the moral line. But the word also and in an older sense means, "to secretly allow something immoral, harmful or illegal" to occur. In this sense it's more strongly related to collusion. It can have the implication, as the Free Dictionary has it, that one is feigning ignorance or giving tacit consent to some wrong. It can also mean, according to, to have a secret sympathy or a secret understanding about something shady.

That site and others link it to the word "wink", as in "to wink at something". This is because of the origin of the word. Connive is not slang, as I suspected, but is one of those old Latin through French derivations. Connivere meant, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "to wink at" and implicitly, "together". The "con-" beginning is that common "with" prefix, while the second part comes from a lost word related to "nictare", which means "to wink" or "to blink".

I find it interesting to think about the difference between wink and blink in this case. Because other dictionaries define connive as to close one's eyes to. To blink at the right moment. Both wink and blink carry a host of associations for us, but their connotations are somewhat different. So maybe the wide spectrum of meaning involved in conniving was there from the very start.

Not that I'm implying anything about President Putin, but that's a pretty good wink.