Category Archives: Etymology

Sex Drugs and … vocabulary?

Having just found this article on Facebook, I now feel slightly ashamed of my dog-eared and well thumbed thesaurus….

Apparently, learning new words activates the same parts of the the brain as sex and drugs do.

Well, well.

Who knew?

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The Man Booker Prize Longlist

Okay, so I uploaded a photo of the Longlist a couple of week or so ago. This photo here, from The Guardian:

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Since then, I’ve managed to get my hands on half a dozen of the list. Not read them yet but I’ve got hold of them!

What I thought I’d do is read the first page of each and give me humble thoughts. So, firstly, the beautifully bound The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.

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IMG_5100-0.JPG No prizes for guessing the most obvious thing here! As I fear many people would say, my stepson’s response was

“It’s very hard to read”

and my wife’s was

“There’s crappy spelling.”

It appears that Kingsnorth has set this, his debut novel, specifically in 1066. I have no problem with historical fiction: I love Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies as well as Jim Crace’s Harvest and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, last year’s winner, both of which were historical. C J Sansom, Shardlake series are fully enjoyable. But none of these attempted this faux-archaic language as the novel

is written entirely in its own language: my interpretation of Old English, recreated for modern eyes and ears.

Well, that’s jolly clever; it is a brave decision. And, I think, a wrong decision. The story, according to Kingsnorth’s website is set during the Norman invasion as an Englishman’s familiar world is destroyed by the invaders, which is no doubt represented by the “great wind” in the opening page when “all wolde be blaec after and for all time”. Which does sound very similar to Crace’s narrative from last year’s Shortlist.

But why create that language barrier between your reader and what sounds like a gripping story? I have a Literature degree from Cambridge; I’ve studied Chaucer. And it’s not an easy read! To say the least. And not only that, but eliminating all words of a French-Latinate etymology may create an earthy narrative voice but is also likely to adversely affect the lyricism of the writing.

I may be wrong.

I hope I’m wrong because it does sound like it could be a great story.

But I imagine it will be one of those books many people start from a sense of obligation and never finish.

Next, let’s look at Orfeo by Richard Powers.

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IMG_5092.JPG Now I bought this one in paperback rather than (or actually in addition to) electronically for one simple reason: I’d locked myself out of the house and had to pass a couple of hours in Costa before Mrs P came home to let me back in! So I have read a bit more of this than the others.

It brings us back to the modern day: our protagonist is a retired music professor with a hobbyist’s interest in biochemistry. Which, following the death of his dog, attracts the attention of Homeland Security and he finds himself investigated as a potential bioterrorist. A good premise with the potential for a lot of comedy, actually!

In this opening page, we do come across mismatched jargons: musical and chemical (lexuses? lexi? lexa? lexus?) vocabularies dance together as the

nucleotides … fall in line like enlisted men for a five am reveille

and there’s a certain charm to the description of the pipetting of

no more colorless liquid than a hoverfly might take from a sprig of bee balm

albeit that droplet is then described – somewhat clumsily in my opinion – as a “dollop” in the next line. To me, a dollop is a large quantity of something thrown somewhat carelessly about. It puts me in mind of a prison (or school) canteen serving mashed potato. It sounds almost onomatopoeic, even if its original meaning was more pastoral. In any event, it jars with the description of the droplet.

The narrative continues to interweave the current misunderstanding with Homeland Security with a Bildungsroman of Els childhood and education. It’s enjoyable enough: unlike Kingsnorth’s novel, I got through a fair proportion of it in the 90 minutes I had. I suspect my lack of knowledge of music, rhythm and chemistry may be to blame, but I wasn’t gripped by it. The narrative voice was a little distant for my liking.

Moving on to The Lives Of Others by Neel Mukherjee.

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IMG_5098.JPG Now, I have only read the first page of this so, beyond the blurb I have no idea of where the novel is going. But there’s a power to that opening page which I love: the harshness of the sun that “burns his blood dry” and the irony of his “lingering grain of hope” for the monsoon. There’s a sparseness to the sentences here which captures the harshness of the world and which isn’t undermined by that metaphorical imagery.

The blurb for this one describes it as

An epic saga telling the story of a Bengali family in Calcutta – exploring a family that is decaying as the society around it fractures, and one young man who tries to reimagine his place in the world.

From this, I anticipate a contrast and conflict between the abject poverty that we see in this opening page and the opulence of, perhaps the ruling classes. I do have a penchant for Indian Literature and post-colonial writing from Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Rohinton Mistry, V. S. Naipaul, Vikram Chandra and Arundhati Roy to name a few. So, this one I’m looking forward to seeing on the Shortlist.

It feels like it has been a while since there was a non-Anglo-Saxon Man Booker winner (was it Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger?)

Next is The Narrow Road To The Deep North which is an lovely title and conjured up images of journeys into a mythical and rather British past. Which would be completely and utterly wrong.

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The novel by Richard Flanagan

tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a wartime love affair with his uncle’s wife. Post war, he finds his growing celebrity as a war hero at odds with his sense of his own failings and guilt.

Again, there is a vividness to the imagery here which is delicious: the description of the crying’s rhythm as a noise which

reminded him of a rabbit’s hind legs thumping the ground as it is strangled by a snare

is particularly striking but what I love in this opening page is the unfolding of the memory: light interrupted by shadow which becomes a shape, then an arm, then a person.

Our final two nominees – the last two that I have anyway – appear to be curiously similar: two somewhat rambling Bildungsromans written from the point of view of two female characters.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler opens not dissimilarly to The Narrow Road To The Deep North as our narrator tell us of her first memory, preserved in a home movie.

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IMG_5104.JPG There is something beautiful about the way this simple home movie slides into the profundity of a fairytale, the worthless piece of quartz transforms in memory and imagination to a diamond. And perception and the language used to create and convey that perception may be important in this novel: what we don’t realise from this page is that the sister is a chimpanzee.

Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and our narrator, Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons. “I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact: that I was raised with a chimpanzee,” she tells us. “It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone. I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. But until Fern’s expulsion, I’d scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half, and I loved her as a sister.”

There is a Q & A session with Karen Joy Fowler on the book and her ideas for it here.

The book which has most caught my eye, ear and imagination, though, is this one:

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Our narrator here is Ruth Swain, sick with some undefined illness and closeted in the attic room recounting her and her family’s lives as well as searching for her father amongst the books.

There’s an interview with Niall Williams about this book on Radio 4’s Open Book here.

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling.

This is a book steeped in language and literature and teeming with vivid imagery

the throat of the river laughed, realising what a peculiar thing was a father and daughter

and a genuinely joyful comedic language. The episode where Jesus is stolen from the Nativity is wonderful:

By this time the whole school was on the side of the kidnappers and false sightings were announced hourly. Jesus was in the Chemistry Lab. He was in the Girls’ Changing Room before Games. He was taking French Oral with the Sub Miss Trigot.
That lad is everywhere, Thomas Halvey said.

He is eventually replaced for Mass with “a lamb on whose forehead someone had taped the word ‘Jesus’.”

This book has a lyricism that makes it stand out: the sparkle of a real diamond. As well quirky self-aware narrator. It seems to explore and tease the heart of any writing: the relationship between the writer and reader. It reminds me of nothing so much as The Life And Times Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, along with a smattering of Dickens, both of whom are explicitly referenced in the text itself.

Is it a little too knowing and smug? Is the description of Faha a little too cliched and romanticised? A little too Sunday Evening television? Possibly some people would think so but nothing has grated on me so far. It is a book that has sung.

So, my rank list so far would look like this:

1. Niall Williams, History Of The Rain
2. Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
3. Neel Mukherjee, The Lives Of Others
4. Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road To The Deep North
5. Richard Powers, Orfeo
6. Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake

However, this is an incredibly superficial assessment of only a portion of the books on the Longlist.

Good luck to you all!

Shades of Meaning: Lay and Lie

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There are so many times when I have had to explain that these are actually different words with different meanings and different morphologies.

Obviously, there is a shared etymology here from Middle English leyen and Old English lecgan but, in the eight hundred years since the thirteenth century, this single root has diverged. To lay is transitive and requires an object to have been put down; to lie is intransitive and has no need for an object.

And, it goes without saying that the homophonous (and also intransitive) verb to lie meaning to deceive and dissemble is from a different root altogether: the Old English lēogan. Phonologically equivalent but etymologically and semantically totally distinct.

Who says the English language is easy?

Ghul and Ghoul

I had started reading The Golem and the Djinni as an end of year treat to myself and so far absolutely loving it! Only two chapters in but loving both the Golem and the Djinni! A few rather Frankensteinesque moments I. The creation of the female golem. Brilliant!

But the Djinni reminds us that he is only one of many djinn creatures including the ifrit (familiar to any player of Final Fantasy and star of a rather tender body-exchange gay sexual encounter in Gaiman’s American Gods)

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I was intrigued. I had never heard if a ghul save for Batman’s Ra’s al-Ghul. The book describes the ghul as

loathsome and flesh-eating

which did wonder whether there was a connection between the ghul and ghouls beyond mere phonological similarity.

And there is: ghouls which have somehow always struck me as a particularly British and somewhat archaic synonym for ghost is actually a bastardised image of an Arabian shape-shifting desert demon.

Who knew?

Well, the writers at DCC Comics presumably!

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The God Particle?

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This is, apparently, according to the power of Google image search, something to do with the Higgs Boson particle. I have no idea. Is it what the particle looks like? How it works? How it was discovered? Who knows?

But the Higgs Boson – and the CERN Large Hadron Collider – is something that captured our imagination. I remember Year 8s terrified that a black hole would be created and we’d all be sucked into it; Dan Brown used it to create the threat in Angels and Demons; I’ve read quite an academic and esoteric – by which I mean I only understood 48% of it – treatise in which the Dust of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was compared to the Higgs Boson.

As much as anything, this fear and angst, in my humblest of uneducated opinions – derives from the nickname The God Particle. Could a nickname be more inflammatory? Could science threaten the church in any more obvious way?

And so it was that I genuinely snorted outloud in my car yesterday hearing Radio 4’s Thought For The Day. This is not a common reaction to the sanctified Radio 4’s flagship spiritual reflection. But, according to the Reverend Dr Michael Banner, Leon Lederman was writing a book about the search for the Higgs Boson and was so frustrated by it elusivity that he gave it the title “The God-damned Particle” but his publisher removed the “damned”.

The God-Damned Particle.

A minor piece of censorship that appears to me to have sparked the world’s imagination along very unexpected tangents!

Weasel Words: regularly

Imagine the scene as I drive to work through the rolling countryside of Dorset, through the winding villages of Abbotsbury, the sea heavily to my right and Radio 4 in the background.

“Half of Britons eat porridge regularly,” intone the dulcet tones of John Humphreys or some other lark-minded presenter.

What?

Half of Britons? Regularly?

Sounds like a brilliant news item! Porridge is a fantastic food: economical, tasty and healthy full of slow-release carbohydrates – and a smell which takes me back to my granny’s farmhouse kitchen when I was six. I’m not that keen on the taste I have to say but a divine, comforting smell! Like a thick and heavy woollen jumper!

But really? Half of the country? Regularly?

John Humphrys, or which ever presenter it was, seems also to have questioned the language. What did regularly mean? Apparently, something in the region of ten times a year, less than once a month.

“Regularly” is one of those weasel words which can mean anything you want it to. After all, Santa arrives regularly, albeit once a year! But for a breakfast for which there is an opportunity to take it 365 times a year, I don’t think 10 times classes as regularly: that’s 2.7% of the opportunities available (not including the opportunities to take porridge at other times of the day!). At least Santa arrives on 100% of the available opportunities (even the naughty list receive coal from him and, with energy prices as they are, are probably quids-in!)

So where does its weasliness come from? Etymologically, “regularly” never denoted frequency: from the Latin regula and regularis meaning rules and guidance, the word “regular” actually referred to those who lived according to religious rules in contrast to the secular life.

“Regular” and the adverbial form “regularly”, therefore, have meant, since the fifteenth century, “according to order and at the appropriate time”.

I’m not sure when the idea of frequency has been accepted as part of the meaning of “regular” but it appears to have attached itself to the word almost as an addendum: to occur according to an ordered routine (and reasonably often).

And so it is that a weasel word is born! Want to suggest that something rare is common? Use the word “regularly”! Want to interpret your statistics positively? Use the word “regularly”!

Anyway, for porridge enthusiasts, the Daily Mail also ran the same article here.

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Word of The Week: Shuffle

I was deeply disappointed – though hardly surprised – to see that Michael Gove wasn’t re-shuffled in the Political game of Happy Families. Mr Bun the Baker, Mr Field the Farmer and Mr Gove the … Gaffer? The Game Player? The Garbageman? Considering his grip on power and rumours of his being Leader-in-Waiting – one can only hope in a party in Opposition – I suppose we couldn’t expect anything more!

Anyway, complaining about Gove and the Omnishambles which his time in the Department For Education has become was not the point if this blog post. It would feel more at home elsewhere!

No. What I wondered was the aptness of the term “shuffle” itself.

It’s connotations conjure up two images: one of a weak an enfeebled old man in carpet slippers bowed over a walking stick; and a card shark in a a dimly lit backstreet gambling den. Neither of which – I don’t think – Messrs Cameron, Clegg or Milliband intended.

It is such an odd word to use for the purpose!

By definition, it suggests that the selection of ministers is random, like shuffling cards. Looking at some ministers and appointments (Norman Baker to the Home Office?) one might be tempted to agree: where are ministers being given the experience of the areas they now govern? How can you go from the Northern Ireland Office to Work and Pensions without years of training?

For a complete list of those moved, raised and shifted, The Spectator has a good list here.

Milliband’s shuffle has been more of a cull of Blairites!

Cameron’s was an attempt to rebrand the party as anything other than white, posh and male!

Anything except shuffling! Perhaps more “shoving” (which might be an etymological origin of the word “shuffle”)?

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