Where did that Word Come From?
If you have read my previous blogs about how I write, you will know I am always looking up words. I don’t just mean finding an alternative word from the thesaurus, although I do that too, I mean discovering if the word I want was in use at the time I set my stories. (Currently 1888 to 1891.) Recently, I have had to change what I’ve written because some words didn’t exist back then; paperwork, acerbic, acidic, gobbledygook, for example. I also like to look up words to discover where they came from. I guess you might call me an amateur etymologist.
Imagine my excitement the other day when a visiting friend presented me with a present, a Reader’s Digest book, ‘The Origins of Words and Phrases.’ Once I have read the parts about how our language was born and developed and other interesting linguistic facts in the introduction, I will house the book on my shelves alongside my other handy reference guides ready to be used at a moment’s notice.
Talking of such books, I thought I would name a few of them today, in case you want to build up your own reference library and add to your writers’ toolkit. While I am about it, I’ll drop in random examples, and I’ll start with my latest addition, ‘The Origins of Words and Phrases.’
The Origins of Words and Phrases
A dictionary of over 3,000 of the most intriguing, amusing and surprising stories of the origin of some words.
Random example: Lunatic derives from the Latin word for moon, luna. Why? Because it was once thought that people went mad during the time of the full moon. Werewolves and British politicians are good examples.
The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms
Provides clear definitions of phrases and sayings with interesting facts and examples.
Random example: Roman holiday. An occasion on which enjoyment or profit is derived from the suffering of others. Origin; from Byron’s poem, ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, where a dying gladiator is described as having been butchered to make a Roman holiday.
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
This is a great resource for finding old words, those that were in use then (1755) but which aren’t now.
Random example: Gymnospérmous (adj,) [γυμνος and σπερμα.] Having the seeds naked.
Well, I said they would be random! If you want a more up-to-date definition of this word, I managed to find this one: Gymnosperms are other types of vascular and non-vascular plants of the Kingdom Plantae, which produce seeds directly (without) bearing any flower.
Here’s another random one: Réremouse (n.s.) [hreremus, Saxon.] A bat.
An Unkindness of Ravens
A collection of collective nouns arranged in various headings. I could spend hours in this book, but here are a few fun ones:
A worship of writers. A kindle of kittens. A glaring of cats. A glozing of taverners.
Clichés Avoid them like the Plague!
This book is basically a list of our top clichés and where they came from. It doesn’t just go for the low-hanging fruit, it plays hardball, and hits the ground running. You might cry, Houston, we have a problem, but the book certainly kicks ass. When you’re writing, you might find yourself between a rock and a hard place because of not knowing if a phrase is a cliché, so this book is handy for sorting the wheat from the chaff. Yes, you might have to buy it, but then, there’s no gain without pain.
Mark Forsyth’s Ternion Set
Three books by the lexicographer, Mark Forsyth, are both informative and fun to read. I’ll never remember all the information in them, but I dip in now and then to discover the meaning of, for example, syllepsis. Syllepsis is when one word is used in two or more incongruous ways. The author gives an example of the word took being used in nine ways, and I’ll use it to give you an example of my own.
It was late, and the party was winding down, so I took my hat, my coat and my leave.
The set of three books also includes The Etymologicon, ‘A circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language’, and The Horologicon, ‘A day’s jaunt through the lost words of the English language.’ For example: Breakfast (somehow) comes from the Greek word, ariston, therefore the study of breakfast is aristology, and if you like eating breakfast, you are an aristologist.
There, I bet you didn’t know that.
The Vulgar Tongue
This is one of my favourites, and I use it a great deal when writing characters such as Frank Andino, and the new character in the Larkspur Mysteries, Bertie Tucker. This is a collection of slang and cant from 1785. I have a PDF version of it as well as a hardback because the PDF is easier to search. When doing so, I come across words like davy for affidavit. Crank, brisk and pert are all words for a mix of gin and water. A member mug is a chamber pot (or was). Seeing as how I am fast becoming an old fogey, I can tell you that it’s actually a very noble thing to be. Fogey derives from the French word fougueux, meaning fierce or fiery, and referred to retired soldiers.
Knowing your… stuff
I have plenty of other books in my collection, from dialect dictionaries to Brewer’s Fact and Fable, and from Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’ grammar guide to the more succinct Joanne Adams book on the subject, ‘Grammar. Know your shit or know you’re shit.’
The shelves also contain an Oxford English dictionary, a thesaurus, a dictionary of quotations, a rhyming dictionary, and a guide to the English language, among others, and my online reference bookmarks include a glossary of Scottish words and an Irish one. Ship rigging diagrams, men’s clothing of the late Victorian era, a dictionary of idioms, a Cornish dictionary, a Gothic glossary, there’s a whole file about prisons and another about workhouses, and then there are digital, online copies of some of the print books mentioned above.
You don’t need all of these in order to write, but the point is, if you’re writing, words are your tools and how to use them is your craft. Understanding where words came from, and exploring how the language developed is background research for the writer in the way a painter understands what colours go together.
Apart from anything else, reading about words is fun and educational.
I must leave you with that thought now, because I’ve been sitting here for ages without a break, and I need to use my member mug.
See you on Wednesday for the Work In Progress update.