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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: cursing and swearing

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The fact that English speakers have been using the word ‘fuck,’ since the sixteenth century is part of what inspired the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties. Yet, like so many other words, it remains taboo.

According to John Ruskin’s explanation, on this Writer’s Quote Wednesday, one might even go so far as to suggest that the F-bomb is both a curse and a swear word. One would be wrong to do so, but one might try. The word is capable of inflicting suffering, as well as (even simultaneously) making a statement, but that doesn’t mean that the word is or invokes a spirit, certainly not from within the religious context of Ruskin’s life.

John Ruskin, like Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, Robert Browning, and John Henry Newman, was raised as an Evangelical Anglican, and although he abandoned his earlier religious beliefs by 1858, his thought and writing long retained the mark of his early religion. – The Victorian Web

The very notion of cursing has religious roots, though curse words are obviously quite different from curses, or hexes, but, as Ruskin explains both have roots in the unChristian practice of wishing, or inflicting, harm on another person because, according to parts of the Bible, to do so is to act against God.

Likewise, swear words don’t really have anything to do with swearing an oath (which also has religious roots).

The earliest swear words were identical to curse words — taking the Christian God’s name in vain, or speaking of acts that were considered sinful. – Dictionary.com

While the act of cursing is different from the act of swearing, a ‘curse’ and a ‘swear’ are simple synonyms of explicit language. OMG most people don’t consider taking the Lord’s name in vain a curse anymore and a ‘cuss’ is just an early-nineteenth century bastardization of a ‘curse.’

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Mark Twain’s words

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The above is a picture of what Mark Twain looked like in the 1860s next to the quote I’ve selected for Writer’s Quote Wednesday.

On 15 April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion that would become the American Civil War. On the same day, four years later, Lincoln would die from a gun shot wound to the head. In the days that followed that, hundreds of people were arrested all over the United States under suspicion of conspiring to kill the president. One of them, Francis Tumblety may have gone on to become Jack the Ripper.

Twain was a deserter of the Confederate side, after serving for two weeks, and claimed to have been ignorant of the politics behind the war when he joined. Later, her reflected that the war was:

“A blot on our history, but not as great a blot as the buying and selling of Negro souls.”

Twain didn’t believe that history repeats it. The idealist in me likes to believe that is because we learn from it, but I do know better. Like each of us individually, we seem to collectively repeat the same mistakes over and over. I confess that I started thinking about the politics behind the American Civil War as I watched the various states taking sides over Indiana and their so-called religious freedom.

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Thankfully, this didn’t start a war, but oh-my-gosh you know you’ve hired a terrible PR firm when the story breaks about you hiring a PR firm to make people stop talking about the embarrassing incident. Sadly, Indiana’s government is happily throwing $2 million at this problem and hoping it will go away, as they sit there, like a bumps on a log, ignoring the ways that its residents are marginalized, discriminated against, and bullied every day for their gender, or sexual orientation.

Incidentally, Twain coined the phrase “bump on a log,” during the American Civil War. It might not rhyme, but there’s definitely a strange poetry to that.

Because it’s April 15th, I feel I should be writing some sort of tribute to Abraham Lincoln. He certainly deserves tribute, but he has many and this is a blog about a dictionary. Lincoln certainly influenced culture and language, but I’ve selected Twain as my author today and his contributions to the English language are manyfold.

He coined so many common terms, like ‘bicentennial,’ or ‘bug,’ as it pertains to eyes, and ‘multibillionaire.’ So, I shall leave you today with a brief selection of Twain’s contributions to the English language.

  1. slim jim: a very skinny person.
  2. poundiferous: characterized by thumping, or pounding.
  3. plunkety-plunk: the sound or action of playing a banjo, or other stringed instrument.
  4. jokist: an actual, or would-be, comedian.
  5. damfool: an idiot, or fool, who is, or should be, damned.
  6. brontosaurian: clumsy, like a brontosaurus.
  7. lunkhead: an idiot, or fool, regardless of their state of damnation.
  8. yawl: a drawn out shout, or the action thereof.
  9. softy: the way I am when I look at my puppy.
  10. slumgullion: roughing it.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: futilitarianism and the history of time travel

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Happy Writer’s Quote Wednesday! H.G. Wells was a prolific English writer, who began publishing in my favourite literary decade of the moment: the 1890s. I chose this quote because it opens many doors in the conversation about writing.

First, it exposes a gap in my knowledge. As my 1890s literary research focuses more on Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker, I do not know the source for this quote, nor its context, only that it has been attributed to Wells, which in the supreme irony of Writer’s Quote Wednesdays may render everything I write on this subject futile.

Certainly, my blog post’s effectiveness depends on my success at opening doors in the conversation about writing, which might be misconstrued as a literary ambition steeped in futilitarianism (another fantastic Victorian word).

futilitarian (1827): one who is devoted to futility.

On the surface, Wells’ advice to writers may be read as the familiar: “Write what you know,” which is ironic in Wells’ case because his most successful works weren’t at all about things he knew, but about things that he imagined. It might be argued that Wells knew about Time Travel before he wrote the Time Machine (1895), but can you know about something imaginary?

Certainly, you can know something and not think it is real, and certainly Wells thought so too, or he would have considered his own work futile. By “systematic knowledge,” I don’t think he was talking about the sciences, or systems of government, or some understanding of how things really are, but rather about a familiararity with how the history of an idea is organized.

This is especially true of literary ambitions.

literaryism (1879): a use of language that is particular to writing, like a literary device, or cliché.

Language is not just a means of communicating such ideas, but an idea itself. I don’t think Wells was speaking specifically about the idea of language, though he might have been speaking about the idea of time travel – both of which provide interesting examples of the history of an idea.

The dictionary I am working on traps the history of words that are particular to a period in their context, in terms of their usage at that time. However, any particular word, or phrase, may have meant something else at earlier, or later, dates.

The history of time travel tells us that until at least the eighteenth century the concept of time travel only involved travelling forward in time. Time only moved in one direction. King Raivata Kakudmi in Hindu mythology, the Buddhist Pāli Canon, and Rip Van Winkle, all get preoccupied with some other task (trips to heaven, a very long nap) and find that far more time has passed than they previously thought possible. There was no going back until (debatably) the first Russian science fiction-novel (1836), in which the protagonist rides a hippogriff into the past to meet Aristotle and Alexander the Great before returning to the nineteenth century.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, time travel happened in dreams, by magic, or by accident without significant consequences for anyone other than the time traveller – until Edward Everett Hale published Hands Off in 1881. Hands Off is the first story to create an alternate history as the result of time travel.

That same year also saw the introduction of a device for time travel in “The Clock That Went Backward” (1881), a story that also presented the first temporal paradox in fiction.

To my mind, this kind of history of time travel is the kind of “systematic knowledge” that Wells likely relied on to write the Time Machine (1895). Familiarity with the history of an idea enriches the writer’s understanding of the idea, enabling them to access the intertextuality within any genre, thereby creating richer texts. I would never argue that writing without knowledge of the genre is futile, but it is hard to imagine a modern time traveller moving through time and space without something like a Police Box.

All of this goes back to why I am writing the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties. I’ve put a lot of work into the historical fiction that I’m writing and see no reason why other writers shouldn’t benefit from my work.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: going Erewhon with Christina Rossetti

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It’s Writer’s Quote Wednesday and you can see by her quote that Christina Rossetti was a poet, not a novelist. I love working on the Dictionary Project, but sometimes I wonder if it would have been better had I never started the novel I’m working on. Then last night, there was a plot twist in a recurring dream I am having about a dystopian post-apocolyptic future. Do I really need to start another project right now? Do I?

As a poet, Rossetti contributed several new words to the English language, including burnishment (a polish for metal) and shallowing (an adjective to describe something, or someone, that is increasingly shallow).

The nineteenth century was a great time for adding words to the English language; more words were added (especially during the second half of that century) than at any other time in the modern history of the language. They also invented dystopian fiction.

Dystopian fiction is utopian fiction’s jealous sister. While utopian fiction puts on a pair of rose-coloured glasses and insists that, if you listen to her, everything will be fine; dystopian fiction doesn’t think things are ok, but is going to show you that things could get worse. The first dystopian novels only problematized utopian fantasies, as in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), which seems like a utopia at first…

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Though I’m not sure that Erewhon can really be called the first dystopian novel, it introduced a popular dystopian theme: the tyranny of machines; a theme we are still terrified by to day (think of Stephen Hawking and artificial intelligence). The notion of machines developing consciousness started in Erehwon.

As writers, not starting a work means not exploring certain ideas, which is why – as much as I love Christina Rossetti – I don’t think that not beginning particular works is so sad. I’m glad that I’ve begun the projects I am working on at this time, but should maybe hold off on starting anything about dystopian post-apocalyptic futures until I finish a few other things.

Are you a writer? How many works in progress do you have right now, or at any given time? How many are too many?

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