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Things we think we know


There are some words or phrases in English that everybody both knows the meaning of and how they came about. However, while we may know the meaning, being correct about the true origin is quite a different matter.Here are a few examples:Posh – rich, well-off, upper class, exclusive, smart.The story is that in the nineteenth century the more affluent travellers on the P&O ships sailed out to India from the UK on the port side and home on the starboard. Their tickets were therefore stamped P.O.S.H. However, etymologists think the more likely origin of the word is from the Romany for ‘half’ which became a slang term for ‘money.’This didn’t stop P&O liking the story so much that it started to us...
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Time to Give the ‘Mrs’ a miss?


What is the appropriate honorific for a woman? Mrs? Miss? Ms? Mx? None at all?The debate is not a twenty-first century phenomenon. It has been going on since the end of the nineteenth century at least. According to the academic, Amy Erickson, ‘Ms’ was suggested as a suitable equivalent to ‘Mr’ in 1901, but never caught on.Samuel Johnson, when compiling his dictionary in the mid eighteenth century, was untroubled by the relationship between the married status of a woman and her title, be it Mrs or Mistress/Miss (a bit like the French madame / mademoiselle, where the latter tends to denote youth rather than the married state). However, in the Victorian and Edwardian era, ‘Miss’ started to be a...
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Cut the crackle.


I recently went to an NT Live screening where drinks were allowed into the auditorium. It shouldn’t have been a problem; someone quietly sipping from a plastic glass, and perhaps successfully stifling a niggling cough in the process – what’s in that to disapprove of? But even such a minor food related action in the auditorium can cause irritation and distraction. The pleasant man in the seat next to me brought his drink in with him after the interval. Unfortunately as he put it on the floor when the actors came back on stage, his hand shook and he spilt it on the floor and over my boot. I assured him in a hushed whisper that it was no problem, but his embarrassment drove him to go back out o...
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You Are What You Say.


Did you know that you can identify where a new-born baby comes from by the sound of its cries? So says Jane Setter in Your Voice Speaks Volumes. Not that we should be surprised by this as farmers reckon they can tell where cows come from by the way they moo. And sheep by their baas for that matter. Another thing Setter has researched is the way boys and girls speak differently, even before puberty. Generally girls talk more softly and with a higher pitch. This is particularly marked in Japanese children.And it’s not just pitch and timbre post puberty: women are more likely to be seen as social climbers if they try to modify their regional accents and talk with ‘received pronunciation’ (RP), ...
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As Easy As ABC.


We tend to think the alphabet has been around forever. We tend to think its application is universal. In fact we are wrong on both counts.The alphabet as we know it (20 plus symbols representing sounds) has been in existence for about 4,000 years. It emerged first in Egypt, where before that thousands of hieroglyphics representing individual things was the main means of written correspondence. Progress was slow and most of the development took place in ancient Rome and Greece. The word alphabet is in fact made up of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet – alpha & beta. By about this time most of the written works in the Western world were alphabet based, and have continued to be so. Bu...
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Operation Eye Witness


I don’t normally write about myself on this blog as it is mainly about words and their origins, interviews with authors, and ‘fancy that’ snippets about linguistics. But today I’m going to talk about my recent operation in hospital. Before the more faint-hearted of you stop reading, let me reassure you that the only reddy-pink stuff splattered round the operating theatre was the rather colourful disinfect all my exposed bits were liberally sprayed with before they got going. I know that, because I was awake all the time.I went in for an operation on my shoulder which is normally done under general anaesthetic, but because of a problem with my liver it was decided that it would be better if i...
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Accent and Dialect.


I went to an interesting talk recently about accent and dialect. They are not synonyms: accent is the way someone pronounces things; dialect is the grammar and sentence structure behind how this is delivered. It is (relatively) easy to convey dialect on the page; much harder to convey accent. We do not know, for example, how our predecessors actually spoke – though poetry can help as it will show some words that rhymed then that do not rhyme now. To pick just one word: right was once universally pronounced reet (and still is in many northern accents) but is now commonly rhymed with rite. (This change in pronunciation is known as the ‘great vowel shift’ that took place in England between the ...
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Leaving the EU and the Oxford Comma


The Oxford comma is in the news again – and all because the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on Friday 31st January. Who would have thought that with all the other matters to argue about – like trade agreements, and free movement of citizens, and immigration, and squaring numerous other circles, there would be time for the Brits to have a tiff among themselves about a comma? The Oxford comma, as you well know, is the insertion of a comma in a list of words before the final and + word.  Many argue that a comma is unnecessary here as the and indicates you are coming to the end of the list. Others always insert one. Others again say they use one if, by not adding a comma, the senten...
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The Language of Cyberspace.


We all know how the Internet has changed our access to knowledge (two clicks on the laptop rather than a trudge to the local library), and our access to readers (how else would you be aware of this post?). We also know that language constantly evolves – and has done so since the start of time, or at least since the beginning of speech.Always, in both speech and writing, there have been two styles: informal for communicating with friends, formal for oration and essays. What the Internet has done in recent years is speed up the pace of evolution and added a third dimension – cyberspeak.Take, for example, the keymash – in this context  a random bashing of the keys (e.g. afshjkf) to signify inte...
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Our Anglo-Saxon Linguistic Heritage.


Diversity is an important issue for policy makers and all types of businesses. Even – or especially – novelists, playwrights and poets need to be mindful of the rich tapestry of human life and history, and publishers actively seek out books that celebrate cultural diversity. The problems arise when the desire to be inclusive is contradicted by historical fact.Alfred the Great – Rex Angul-Saxonum (King of the Anglo-Saxons)Take, for example, the International Society of Anglo Saxonists (no, I hadn’t heard of it before, either) who voted in September 2019 to delete the term Anglo-Saxon from their title to encourage a wider range of people to work on their subject. There was a danger, they felt,...
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Lee Child Reaches Out.


Lee Child comes from Coventry, the city I have lived in for the last 30 years. He is the author of the fantastically successful Jack Reacher series in which his hero tours America righting wrongs. Child has been in the news recently as he has announced that he will no longer be writing Jack Reacher novels, but that his brother Andrew will continue the series – provided that he uses the surname Child rather than the family name Grant. Andrew, perhaps not surprisingly, has agreed to this condition.Why has Child taken this decision? A clue may be in a book he wrote last year, The Hero, analysing the role a hero has played through time and story-telling. He has also agreed to be a Booker prize j...
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Who’d be an Assassin?


President Trump is reported to be displeased when people refer to the recent killing of the Iranian military chief as an assassination. I’m not surprised; after all an assassin, both in history and popular fiction, is usually the baddy (a revolutionary or a hired hand) who murders a goody (a Tsar, say, or an arch duke).But is the assassin always the bad guy? Certainly my dictionary describes one as ‘a murderer, especially one who kills a prominent political figure.’ The noun, apparently comes from the Latin assassinus (singular), which in turn came from the Arabic hashshashin (plural). So far so good. But the singular of hashshashin is hashshash, which means one who eats hashish / cannabis.I...
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Writing Resolutions 2020


Happy New Year, and I hope 2020 goes well for you, whether you have made a resolution to write / write more / write better or not. There are plenty of ‘how to’ books out there to advise you, as well as a growing number of podcasts, including In writing with Hattie Crissell.Advice is varied, so you can take your pick for what suits you best. Or decide it is all just too confusing, and you’ll take up knitting instead. Certainly, depending on who you ask, you should: Plan and plot each chapter meticulously // rely on your instinct to develop the story.Get a life, so you have something to write about it // dedicate yourself to writing virtually from the cradle.Work in total quiet so you can conc...
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A Fast Moving Story for the Teenager in Your Life


Books sales, especially to teenagers / young adults, are on the up. Christmas is coming and many avid readers’ thoughts turn to how many new books they will find in their Christmas stocking, be it print or virtual. And Alex Still Has Acne, has been written to appeal to boys as much as girls. It’s fast paced and can be read in one sitting – a near perfect gift for the Christmas holiday’s quieter moments.And Alex Still Has Acne is about three teenagers who, on the face of it, have ordinary, comfortable lives. Life for fourteen year old Alex is OK most of the time. He enjoys school, has a best friend Sam, and a pretty and only mildly irritating younger sister, Nicky. But then Sam starts acting ...
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The Amazon Myth


Amazon plays a major part in many people’s lives at this time of year – all those presents and party outfits to get delivered to your house in time for Christmas. This blog isn’t about that, it’s about another kind of amazon entirelyAmazons, as we all know, were a race of women from classical Greek times. They were famed and feared because of their ferocious fighting techniques, which included removing their right breast so that they could use their bows and arrows to greater effect.Very little is known about their origins. Even the earliest histories had them reputedly living on the eastern shores of the Black Sea (so not in Greece at all). And paintings and sculptures depicting these Amazo...
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Origins of the word ‘taxi’.


Taxi is a word in regular use that is understood across the globe. When abroad, we may have trouble ordering a pint, finding out where the nearest public convenience is, or when the next bus will arrive; but we can usually recognise a taxi when we see one. A good thing too, with Christmas on the way and the party season in full flow.The word, taxi, is commonly regarded as an abbreviation of taxicab. Various dictionaries will explain that the word derives from the Latin word, taxa, meaning charge, assessment or tax; and taxare, meaning to assess or to tax.  Fast forward to the nineteenth century, when a German entrepreneur named Friedrich Bruhn and associates invented a device, originally ref...
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Mr Apostrophe hangs up his marker pen.


John Richards has been campaigning for the correct use of the apostrophe since 2001. But, at 96, he has decided to bring his Apostrophe Protection Society to an end. A society he created not because there is now a shortage of apostrophes, rather that they keep springing up in all the wrong places.Mr Richards, a former newspaper sub-editor, started his society when he kept seeing the same mistakes cropping up over and over again. He thought it would be of interest to half a dozen or so like-minded people, but he immediately attracted over 500 letters of support. Clearly he wasn’t the only one who thought that ‘cyclist’s dismount,’ ‘potato’s,’ Ladie’s,’ ‘the 1980’s,’ and the like, were crimes ...
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What’s in a name?


Most writers don’t make a lot of money, especially when they start out. So they need another job to pay the bills. Needless to say, even with another job, they probably don’t have servants, and more time gets taken up with shopping, chauffeuring kids, cooking, cleaning, and general household maintenance. Precious writing time gets nibbled away at by the day to day needs of keeping food on the table, clothes on our backs, and homes relatively free from grime and germs.Consequently, when they do finally sit down to write, writers will find their own ways to make the best use of their time. One of my time savers is to give main characters short names, or abbreviations of long names. It is a lot...
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Poetry in Prose


We all think we know what poetry is – or what it isn’t.On the IS side, according to Alexander Pope, poetry is ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so wellexpressed.”On the ISN’T side, several people still feel that it’s not poetry if it doesn’t rhyme; without rhyme, it’s just prose with pretentious line spacing.What fiction writers and poets have in common is that their basic material is words. Poets sometimes argue that what is distinctive in their work is that every single word has to count, and carry meaning beyond the simple letters on the page. However a fiction writer thinks about words too, and not just which ones best carry the narrative forward. They also want to create an atmosphere, g...
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Things we think we know.


There are some words or phrases in English that everybody both knows the meaning of and how they came about. Well, we know the meaning, but being correct about the true origin is quite a different matter.Here are a few words we all know:Posh – rich,well-off, upper class, exclusive, smart.The story is that in the nineteenth century the moreaffluent travellers on the P&O ships sailed out to India from the UK on theport side and home on the starboard. Their tickets were therefore stampedP.O.S.H. However, etymologists think the more likely origin of the word is fromthe Romany for ‘half’ which became a slang term for ‘money.’This didn’t stop P&O liking the story so much that itstarted to use the ...
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0
  104 Hits