Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A story

I wrote up a little story for a challenge by Brian Lindenmuth over at Do Some Damage a while ago. The idea was to use a bunch of famous titles to construct a story from. The challenge seems to have gone a bit on hiatus, though I will update this if things change, but I found it a fun challenge, and posted something on my story related blog. You can find it HERE. If you click on the author name at the bottom you will find a link to the titles I used.

I'm not claiming it's great literature, but it was fun to work out, and it may be fun for you to see where the titles fit in.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


I'm kind of borrowing this word from Bookwitch's post, if not outright stealing. Haven't read Bookwitch, even though I have her blog right there in the blog roll? You should check her out sometime. You don't have to be a fan of children's literature or crime fiction to enjoy her original mind. If she didn't state it boldly, you would never know that she was Swedish, living in England for many years and now Scotland. She is a much better writer in English than she thinks she is, or than most of us native speakers actually are.

In her latest blog post, she admitted feeling a bit perplexed about the precise meaning of "perpendicular". She knew vaguely, but vaguely wasn't good enough when it came to giving directions at a crucial moment. She straightened it out in time, realizing that it meant "at right angles", but a regular commenter there said that she had always understood it to mean "vertical". As in candles on a cake. Both vertical and perpendicular do make sense in that context.

Anyway, I decided to get a little deeper into this. It turns out that the commenter who had assumed verticality has a reason for thinking that. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary. "Perpendicular" comes to us via Old French (perpendiculer) from the Latin perpendicularis--"vertical, as a plumb line". This in turn came from the word perpendiculum, which means "a plumb line". Think about it. What is more perpendicular to the ground than a plumb line? 

The verb that perpendiculum comes from is perpendere, which means "to balance carefully". "Per-" is thoroughly, pendere means "to weigh or to hang".

"Weigh" keeps coming up. We'll get to it. 


Saturday, September 19, 2015

under way

This was another thing that came up through my book group's recent reading of Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr.. I wasn't the only member who was intrigued to see Dana write "under way" (or "underway") as "'under weigh". It sounded right. It sounded nautical. "Anchors aweigh!" and all that. So I decided to look a little further into it.

Great Tea Race of 1866

But it turns out that Dana had this wrong. The original expression actually is "under way". As World Wide Words tells it, the phrase begins in the Dutch onderweg, meaning 'on the way' and becomes 'under way' in English around 1740. It's specifically a nautical term and doesn't take on other non-nautical meanings till the next century. Wikipedia tells us that to be under way has a very specific definition when it comes to seafaring. The "way" in the phrase means that a vessel has enough water flowing past its rudder that it is possible to steer it. There can be legal ramifications to whether or not a vessel is under way. Things like whether a child does or does not need to be wearing a flotation devise. (I say, when they get on the boat, but that is not the legal reasoning.) A ship is under way if it is not  aground, at anchor, or made fast to a stationary object like a dock. The article also says that it is not underway if it is adrift, but this is a bit confusing, because in the next sentence it says it is under way, as opposed to "making way" if it is drifting, which basically means not being steered by anyone.

So if you happen to be drifting, put the life-jacket on. Just in case.

SMS Konig

Very soon after "under way" began to be used, the nautical term "weigh", as in "Anchors aweigh!", confused the spelling. You will find many famous and needless to say reputable writers using "under weigh", including Dickens, Thackeray, Herman Melville, and of course, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. For a while, it had become almost the standardized way of spelling the term. The well-educated, then, were perhaps more prone to make the error. (I noticed Dana also wrote "taut" as "taught" when talking about the ship's ropes, so maybe there was more of a stylistic preference for that added "gh" than there would be now.)

The German Frigate Augsburg and others, 1982

But a funny thing happened. Somewhere around the 1930s, "under way" started being fused into "underway", and the "under weigh" variant began to drop off. World Wide Words posits that it was under the influence of other words with -way endings, and especially "anyway". I always like it when words drift, but its especially interesting to see one drift back, whether it is technically under way while in this drift or not.

"Boat Adrift" by Charles Napier Hemy

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Dear Lucky Agent contest 2015

Sorry to post this at the last minute, but in order to enter a contest, I have to mention the Dear Lucky Agent contest in a couple of social media places. I'm not on Facebook or Twitter, so lucky you, I'm mentioning it here. I am not intentionally doing it late in order to give you less of a chance, I'm doing it late because I'm a procrastinator. And didn't know today was the day. Not great excuses, but real ones.
Anyway. If you have a completed mystery, suspense or thriller novel, you can submit the first 150-250
words for a chance at a critique of your first ten pages, a subscription to Writer's Market for a year, and a book, How to Get a Literary Agent. And, you never know--the agent might like your book. It happens.

Get going because you only have till midnight Pacific Standard Time. And good luck. Here's the link.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

a carp by any other name...

I heard about some carp or other on the Rachel Maddow Show. It seems such a strange word and I wondered about its origins. Here is what I discovered, thanks to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The word entered English in the late fourteenth century from the Old French carpe.

 That came directly from Vulgar Latin carpa--which led to the Italian carpa and the Spanish, uh, carpa.

It all seems to go back to the German, as the carp is originally from the Danube. The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the German source may be *karpa, because of the Middle Dutch carpe, the Dutch karper, the old High German karpfo and the german karpfen.

Lithuania borrowed the word, hence karpis. So did Russia, breaking boundaries by calling it karp.

So a carp, in a lot of other languages, is still basically a carp.

Except occasionally, when it's a goldfish.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Lesson Learned

Remember a few posts back when I used this blog to talk about a story contest over at the Criminal Element's The M.O.? Well, now I'm at it again. The theme this time around was "Lesson learned". I submitted a story but it didn't make the short list. C'est la vie. The good news, though, is that I happened to mention the contest to an old friend of mine who ended up submitting this time--and made the short list!

As usual you should vote for the one you want to read. But I will say that I have had a chance to read A.M. Thurmond's story "Night Watchman" in its entirety and, well, it's really good. Check them all out HERE. Midnight September 23rd is your deadline for voting. (I don't know what time zone they're in, so err on the side of caution.)

Monday, September 7, 2015


Houghton Mifflin, 2011
This month my reading group is delving into Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s account of sailing from Boston around Cape Horn to California as a young man in the 1830s. It has a lot of nautical language, and fortunately a glossary is provided in the back of my book, but one funny thing early on is that Dana is at pains to tell us all what "Land ho!" means, while he just drops in the unfamiliar word "oakum" without further explanation.

It was clear at least in context that oakum was a substance used in ship repair. Dana's first mention of it is in explaining all the things sailors got up to because they were never allowed to be idle, and so when there was nothing else left to do they were "picking oakum-ad infinitum".

So what is oakum? I gathered from some other mention in the book that it has something to do with the fact that it involved taking apart old ropes in order to reuse the fibers in other ways. It turns out that oakum is basically what you have when you completely untwine the rope. The fiber is then sometimes treated with tar, as seems to be the case in Dana's book, and then used to caulk the seams in those old wooden ships, among other things.

I was hoping the word had some relation to the slangy word 'hokum', but such is not the case. "Oakum", according to the Online Etymology Dictonary, comes from the Old English word "acumba" which meant "tow, oakum, flax fibers separated by combing" and more literally "what is combed out". the "a" at the beginning means "away, out, off" and the rest comes from "cemban", to comb.

It wasn't just sailors on shipboard who were consigned to picking oakum. According to Wikipedia, it was a common occupation in both workhouses and in prisons of the Victorian era. At a place called Coldbath Fields Prison (a Dickensian name indeed) the prisoners had to pick two pounds a day of this stuff unless they under hard labor--in which case they had to pick three to six pounds a day. It may not sound like hard labor, but in fact the tiny fibers would cut into your fingers very soon.

In the course of looking into all this, I ran across a really interesting blog by a guy named Stuart Godman called AheadofHistory, and in this particular post he describes teaching his students about the Victorian poor by showing them about oakum picking and even getting them to do some. He has a little YouTube clip on the post from a series called "The Worst Jobs in History" and oakum picking features about halfway in:

Speaking of Dickensian, I should have been familiar with the word "oakum" from long ago. I guess I just wasn't paying attention at the time:

" Well, you have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade," said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.

" So you 'll begin to pick oakum to-morrow at six o'clock," added the surly one in the white waistcoat. 

For the combination of both these blessings in the one simple process of picking oakum, Oliver bowed low by the direction of the beadle, and was then hurried away to a large ward: where, on a rough, hard bed, he cried himself to sleep.
                                                          --Oliver Twist, Chapter II

And if you look at this page you can see that "oakum" crops up quite a bit in earlier British and American literature. "Oakum" must have been better known back then, as Dickens uses it in a descriptive way in this sentence from The Old Curiosity Shop:

Sound it might have been, but long it was not, for he had not been asleep a quarter of an hour when the boy opened the door and thrust in his head, which was like a bundle of badly-picked oakum.

It's quite vivid, isn't it, so long as you know what oakum actually looks like

Once again from AheadofHistory

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

pore (over)

Stamp collectors pore over specimens from the Brown University collections in the John Hay Library

I had occasion to use the phrase 'pore over' in something I was writing the other day, and though I was pretty sure I had the right spelling, it's one of those sort of things that I can sometimes get exactly wrong, so decided to look it up to be sure. While I was doing this though, I started wondering about the word 'pore' and where it had come from. After poring over a few etymology sites, here are the results:

No one knows.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that its meaning of  'to gaze intently' has been in English since as far back as the early thirteenth century, but from there the trail fades out. It is not connected to any obvious word in Old French, unlike the more familiar 'pore', as in one of those openings in your skin, which for some reason has been more easily traced back to the Latin porus and the Greek pore, which literally means a passage or way. It's odd and a little frustrating that an identical sounding word has left these clues, and this one has not. The Online Etymology Dictionary records the speculation that it might be from a hypothetical Old English word purian, because there did exist the word spyrian, which means to investigate or examine, and the more familiar sounding spor, which meant a trace or a vestige, and seems to be related to the word 'spoor' which is still in use when discussing tracking, although that one came to us from the Dutch via South Africa. Again, check out the Online Etymology Dictionary.

We get a fair number of guesses over the origins of 'pore' over at English Language and Usage. There we learn that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it might be related to the obsolete word pire, which meant to peer or gaze at, but they are quick to say that there is no reason to think that it has any connection to our own word 'peer'. Aye yi yi!

There's also a tangent leading off after the obscure word 'purblind', and I particularly liked this quote from none other than Francis Bacon, otherwise known as Shakespeare. (I'm kidding--I have no idea who wrote those plays and poems. Regardless of identity, they would still be a miracle.)

Pore-blinde men, see best in the Dimmer Light; And likewise have their sight Stronger neere hand, than those that are not Pore-blinde; And can Reade and Write smaller Letters. [...] But being Contracted, are more strong, than the Visuall Spirits of Ordinarie Eyes are; As when we see thorow a Levell, the sight is Stronger: And do is it, when you gather the eyelids somewhat close: And it is commonly seene in those that are Pore-blinde, that they doe much gather the Eye-lids together.
                                            Sylva Sylvarum or Natural History--1627

Interesting, but not really what we normally think of as Shakespearean prose.

Another thing that fascinates me is that to "pour over" may be gaining ground. One commenter over at Grammarist said that they had read the phrase 'pour over' in the Smithsonian (I think meaning the magazine rather than the museum). And another staunchly defends 'pour over' as perfectly legit:

I would say that using my eyes to pour over a book is exactly the right use of the word, where the eyes flow over the text like water covering every little word and detail in the text ensuring that nothing is missed.

And thus a folk etymology is born. Call me crazy, but I'm predicting that 'pour over' will eventually win the day.