Tag Archives: language

Lessons in Language: Eponymous

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I would like my name to go down in history as a standard word in the English language, despite the inherent pitfalls in the idea.

Several people made entertaining suggestions for what my name might mean, if the circumstances were ever right for it.

  • Alan Baxter suggested: To narrelle (v) – to worry existentially about the mark you leave in history.  narreller (noun) She can’t stop writing because she’s such a nareller.
  • Seantheblogonaut said: To narrelle (v) – to approach someone with exuberance and excitement on a certain topic, a pleasant onslaught.  He was narrelled into a corner, overcome by the young man’s exuberance.
  • George Ivanoff said:  To narrelle — to make a great show of having a difference of opinion with someone, only to later discover that you actually share the same opinion. Especially in reference to Doctor Who.

I promised a copy of Walking Shadows to the entry that made me laugh the hardest, and I have to say all three of these people know me rather well! But the winner has to be Sean, because that’s pretty much a perfect way to be remembered for a slightly scary thing I do but in a nice way. 🙂

In that last post, I also cheekily suggested that a carmody (noun) was a period of 13 years between one instalment of a book series and the next. (I hope Isobelle Carmody doesn’t mind…)

Of course, a few more ideas then came to me.

For example, I suspect that Tara Moss will have a big impact on the language.  ‘Moss’ will be an adjective meaning ‘elegant and articulate’. However, the phrasal verb ‘to moss up‘ means for a writer ‘to attempt to become more elegant and articulate (perhaps by scrubbing off the worst of the ink stains), but not quite getting there’.  Using both of these words in a sentence:  Narrelle mossed up for the television interview but she had to face it, she would never really be moss.

Hazel Edwards is going to make her mark as well, as a noun:  hazel: an entrepreneurial writer with a generous spirit.  As Stefan began his career, he knew that one day he wanted to be a hazel.

On Twitter, @angryaussie and I were talking about what gaiman might be (surely Neil Gaiman will become part of the language, if he isn’t already). @angryaussie thought ‘to gaiman (v): To reimagine existing mythologies in completely new ways. (see Sandman and American Gods)’. I thought a gaiman (noun) might be a writer who successfully creates work across multiple genres (books, comics, films and tv scripts, songs and so on). I’d quite like to be a gaiman one day.

Of course, it wasn’t enough for me to get folks to define me in a future lexicon, no! I invited some other writers to suggest what their names might mean, if they entered the language. Here is what a few brave and creative people sent to me.

Trudi Canavan: to be trudied is to have whacky homebaked cookies brought to your ‘do’.

Gillian Polack: A Polack, of course, is what Hamlet’s father killed on the ice, so a gillianpolack is someone who lives in many timelines, with a deep understanding of the foodways of each but who has a secret fear of Shakespeare.

Alan Baxter: I can’t stand it when people are douches and get away with it because no one will ever call them on it. I always do. So maybe “alaning” someone could be calling out their bad behaviour or bullshit.

Rowena Cory Daniells: I would like my name to mean: rowena… One who brings Calm

Kaaren Warren: I’m hoping that to warren will mean to burrow into the subconcious leaving disquieting deposits behind.

George Ivanoff: to ivanoff — to insert a Doctor Who reference into a piece of your own writing. He’s ivanoffed twice in his new novel.
And yes, I have ivanoffed once in Gamers’ Quest, once in Gamers’ Challenge, and thus far twice in Gamers’ Rebellion [which I’m currently writing]).

Helen Lowe: a helenlowe: just one umlaut away from a lion.  (This suggestion comes via Helen’s partner, Andrew Robins)

If you want to play the game, feel free to leave a comment defining your name in the future lexicon!

Lessons in language: Remember my name (fame!)

to narrelle: (verb): to dress in a slightly eccentric fashion, associated with lady novelists

Like many people, I wouldn’t mind my name being remembered by history. Who wouldn’t want to be, like Shakespeare or Herodotus, known and named centuries after their death?

But maybe not quite like other people, I’d rather like my contribution to history to be a new verb. Madeleine narrelled every Sunday. Or maybe a noun.  Everybody appreciates a fine narrelle.

English vocabulary contains some terrific words that come from proper nouns.  Many of these eponyms come from people’s names: sandwich, martinet, quisling, pavlova.

Even place names can become regular English words given enough time: the word doolally (meaning deranged or irrational) c0mes from the western Indian town of Deolali and dates from the 19th -20th century when British soldiers waited there before being mustered home. Between the boredom, the heat and (presumably) serious PTSD, many soldiers were hospitalised in the local sanatorium with mental health problems. Doolally isn’t used so often these days, but the word still pops up in early 20th century British fiction.

Back to people. After some research (at the superb Alpha Dictionary: Eponyms site) it seems that it’s a bit hit or miss whether people who are turned into regular nouns are actually remembered fondly.

I mean, the Earl of Sandwich might be perfectly happy to live on in the language as the inventor of the result of slapping a bit of cheese and pickle between two chunks of bread; Anna Pavlova might think it’s just fine to have her dancing career dismissed in favour of a sticky dessert made of egg whites, sugar, cream and fruit. Chances are that James Watt is perfectly thrilled to have given his name to a unit of power; and 18th Century physician Caspar Wistar might be crooning with delight that the good hearted botanist Thomas Nuttall named the wisteria vine in his honour.

I can’t help thinking, though, that Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling might have thought twice about his choices if he’d known his name would be adopted in the lexicon as a synonym for traitor. Notorious 16th century stickybeak Matthew Parker might have mended his ways if he’d known that ‘nosy parker’ entered the language just because of him.

There are other less-than-flattering contributions individuals have made to the language. US politician Elbridge Gerry gave us ‘gerrymander’, which is a dodgy way to draw up voting boundaries; sharp-tempered Jean Martinet gave us the name for a rigid disciplinarian.

So, it appears than unless I invent something cool (like a biro or a hansom cab) or discover an animal or a plant (like a guppy or a zinnia) or invent a delicious and convenient foodstuff  (or make a friend who’ll name an invention, discovery or foodstuff after me) the chances of my name going down in history are pretty low. Unless I behave in a memorably appalling fashion, and then I can join Parker, Quisling and Gerry in the ranks of the linguistically vilified.

I’m not sure what narrelle would mean in a general lexicon anyway. A propensity to talk about vampires a lot? That writer really narrelles; doesn’t she read anything about living people? A measurement of the period between one book of a series and its sequel? It was a good narrelle between the fourth and fifth installments of the series. (Though that would surely be a carmody, measuring 13 years.)

What do you think, gentle readers? If narrelle were to enter the English language, what would it mean?

There’s a copy of Walking Shadows in it for the entry that makes me laugh the hardest. Entries close on Saturday 8 September 2012!  Just write your answer in the comments.

Lessons in Language: Writers who don’t read

Image from http://bbbsystems.blogspot.com/2011/10/web-content-why-proofreading-matters.html

It seems obvious to me that writers should also be readers, but according to a September 2011 column in Salon, some new writers are apparently finding reading a bore.  The columnist is trying to find an equivalent attitude in another field. The only analogy that springs to my mind is “Wanting to write without wanting to read is like wanting to sing without wanting to listen to music.”

It’s an issue much larger than ‘how do you keep up with what’s current in literature?’. Reading widely is a vital training ground for all writers, not because of trends in writing, but because of the exposure it gives you to the basic building blocks of writing.

I do not have a degree (in writing or in anything else). I do have a very large vocabulary, though. I have a good, broad general knowledge on a variety of subjects and I’m always picking up bits and pieces of information and concepts, both esoteric and mundane.  I read voraciously before becoming qualified to teach English as a second language, and so absorbed vocabulary and grammar by osmosis before I learned how to label the parts of speech.

You may ask what evidence there is that writers are not reading, but sadly, such evidence abounds: mostly in newspapers. News articles are full of the kind of errors that can surely only occur when the writer has only ever heard a phrase and never seen it written down. How else can you explain the following slips?

Why is it important? (I assume it is the non-reading writers asking this question.)

It’s important, dear writer, because words are your business. They are the bricks and mortar, the wood and nails, the paint and canvas of your job, which is to communicate. If you do not know how to construct a sentence that people can understand, you fail to communicate. If you don’t know how to punctuate a sentence correctly, you fail to communicate. If you can’t think of the exact word to describe your meaning, or you use the completely wrong word because you don’t know it *is* the wrong word, you fail to communicate. Or you communicate the wrong thing.

In the instance of ‘death ears’ mentioned above, it can take power away from your story and, worse, be disrespectful to people in pain. When I first saw the headline ‘Woman’s cries fall on death ears’, I assumed it was a slightly jokey story about some poor woman who had been locked overnight in a morgue or a crypt. But no. It turns out a young girl being raped had cried out for help, but people had walked past without assisting.  The writer didn’t mean to trivialise her ordeal, but their carelessness and lack of knowledge about a common phrase was awkward, at best.

I don’t have a problem with the average person not knowing the right words for the right situation, but writers? Writers who do not understand vocabulary, punctuation and grammar are, to me, like builders who don’t understand building and attempt to just slap bricks together without first constructing the foundations and frame.

If you don’t know your tools, how can you create the effect you want? How can you communicate your idea clearly if you don’t know the right words or how to use them? How can you depart from the rules of grammar and spelling with creative meaning if you don’t understand the rules to begin with?

You don’t need a writing degree. You don’t need to be able to label a past participle or define a secondary object. But you do need to have a feel for a correct sentence and to have an excellent vocabulary. They are both the tools and the building blocks of your craft.

So please, writers, please. Read.

Lessons in Language: Toe to tow

I was in Beechworth recently – enjoying a spot of fine food, excellent wine and a luxurious B&B called Freeman on Ford. It was all very wonderful, made more delightful by Beechworth’s generally intact historical architecture and cheerily promoted link with Australia’s most famous bushranger, Ned Kelly.

It was while partaking of the Ned Kelly tourist walk that I heard tour guide Daniel Goonan talk about Ned’s exploits as a boxer. Goonan referred to boxers having to ‘toe the line’ or ‘come up to scratch’, referring to the way that 19th century bare knuckle fighters had to come up to the central line drawn in the ring – the line or ‘scratch’ – before beginning the bout.

After the tour, I chatted to Goonan and his colleague at the Beechworth Visitor Centre about the etymology of both expressions, and we discussed their boxing origins at length. We also discussed spelling.

‘Toeing the line’ is another of my language bugbears. According to my dictionary, ‘toe the line’ means ‘comply with authority’. These days, I often see it in print as ‘tow the line’, which annoys me. Tow it where?

Actually, to stick pins in my own pomposity about this, I thought the term derived from military usage – ranks of soldiers having to line up, toe to the line, in precise ranks. Of course, just because the Beechworth historical experts say it’s a boxing term doesn’t mean they are necessarily correct. The Wikipedia entry on the subject (and we all know that this is an utterly reliable source of information) refers to its origins variously as foot-racing, the military and the British House of Commons.

Nobody, however, is suggesting it is or was ever spelled as ‘tow’ in this context.

Coming ‘up to scratch’ is a whole other matter. My dictionary lists this as ‘up to the required standard’, which I suppose you would want to do as a boxer or risk a broken nose. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that it’s a sporting term dating from 1778 but how it transformed from being at the starting line to being of a high enough standard to compete isn’t covered. However, English for Students has attempted a more comprehensive reply, with reference to boxing and knockout punches, and who am I to disbelieve them?

As much as I love etymology, it can be frustrating. Many words and particularly expressions are in use in the vernacular long before they are ever written down. As a result, people often try to reconstruct the origin of words by deciding what seems likely or logical, rather than by tracing the actual route the words have taken. When it’s all just words in the air, until someone pins them down on paper (or screen) that’s not always possible. Remind me to tell you about the Australian expression ‘Buckley’s or none’ one day.

In the meantime, I’m going to hunt up some more of that excellent Beechworth beer and wine, and drown my linguistic sorrows.