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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Mark Twain’s words

HistoryMarkTwain

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.

NevadaJones

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: going Erewhon with Christina Rossetti

ChristinaRossettiQuote

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…

erehwon

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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Once upon a time…

OnceUponATime

This classic introduction to the modern fairy tale sets a story in the distant past, usually in a land far far away, and changes the tone of everything that follows. It’s possibly one of the most powerful narrative devices in the English language.

After we hear those words, we expect that everything that follows will be whimsical and probably fictional. If a story starts with ‘once upon a time,’ you shouldn’t be surprised if a fairy, witch, or some other magical creature appears. The words ‘once upon a time’ instruct the reader to suspend their disbelief.

It’s as old as the fourteenth century, Chaucer used it and there was a variation in the tale of Sir Ferumbras.  The history of its use parallels the history of the fairy tale itself. In The Wonder of a Kingdome (1636), Thomas Dekker uses it to convey a mode of telling stories orally: “Cannot you begin a tale to her, with once upon a time there was a loving couple…”

The written fairy tale was properly invented in the salons of the next century and the fairy tale, as we know it, was invented the century after that by our beloved Victorians, who took all of the naughty bits out and started saving and creating these stories for children. The Victorians did this to so many stories they had to make up a word for it in 1836:

bowlderize: to expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive; to castrate.

The changes, modifications, and invention of the fairy tale follows shifts in culture socially and economically, like nationalism. Nationalism is also a very Victorian word, which was coined in 1798 to describe a phenomenon that was already underway.

nationalism: Advocacy of or support for the interests of one’s own nation, esp. to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations. Also: advocacy of or support for national independence or self-determination.

The Brothers Grimm were motivated by nationalism. They wanted to protect the stories that were uniquely and historically German from the increasing (even militant) influence of French culture. Before the rise of nationalism, people were generally loyal to their regions. It took the French and American Revolutions to make people think of themselves as devotedly part of a larger national whole, or like they had any role in shaping what belonging to that whole actually meant. Hence, the interest of the Brothers Grimm in creating a record of a distinctly German identity.

Before the Brothers Grimm told their stories, academics were gathering in salons to share fairy stories. These stories were meant for other scholars and were often made up by the scholars themselves. The women, who hosted the salons told stories of aristocratic females, suffering some sort of oppression, who was saved by magic, or came to a terrible end for failing to abide by the social sanctions of her time. Thus, these stories mirrored the experiences of the writers themselves.

Then the industrial revolution happened, which created a new middle class and an idealized concept of what it meant to be a child. Before the industrial revolution, social mobility was a fairy tale of its own (Cinderella), and whole families generally worked together as an economic unit. Children were expected to contribute to the household through labour. The industrial revolution centralized the capitalist system moving labour outside of the home and creating new socio-economic systems.

The Victorian interest in evolution and psychology contributed to the belief that childhood should be a time of personal development, during which one gains the skills they need to successfully contribute to the economic system in adulthood. Consequently, children didn’t need to hear about the real world. Fairy tales were and still are a great insulating tool, especially once the naughty bits are taken out.

What naughty bits do I mean?

In Rapunzel, the witch figured out that Rapunzel had been secretly letting the prince into her tower because Rapunzel was pregnant.

In Little Red Ridinghood, Red and her grandmother obviously die. They were eaten by a wolf! What do you expect?

The original Snow White is a girl of about ten years old, which is way too young. Also, the stepmother asks for the girl’s heart because she wants to eat it.

In Speeping Beauty, the prince does more than just kiss the sleeping princess, and before she awakes, she gives birth to twins.

Today, scholars debate the usefulness of these stories, particularly because we still like to tell them to children. The main argument is that it fills children’s heads with warped ideals of masculinity and femininity. In some cases, stories are modernized, or given a new twist, to make them appeal to modern readers. I spoke about hypermasculinity in my last post.

hypermasculinity

These stories definitely present warped ideas, but if we have to share the story of a warped idea, there may as well be fairies and dragons, or what have you. Maybe a story doesn’t have to be useful.

As Oscar Wilde said, once upon a time:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: frat boys or super villains?

GreekWilde

My quote this week should have been from John Oliver, who asks: “How is this still a thing?” Alas, Oliver wasn’t alive in the 1800s and he is not a writer. Because it’s Writer’s Quote Wednesday and I want to talk about fraternities. I’ve selected a quote from Oscar Wilde.

Wilde was a member of the most famous and, perhaps, respected fraternities, the Freemasons. He liked the secrecy, dress, and ritual of freemasonry, joined the Apollo Masonic Lodge at Oxford, and was quickly promoted to the “Sublime Degree of Master Mason.”  He valued his membership as a freemason so much so that he was reluctant to leave the Protestant faith because of it.

Before beginning my research, I knew of the Freemasons, but didn’t really think of them in the same way that I think of school fraternities. Now, that I have, it seems obvious, but before I began looking into the subject, I thought of the Freemasons as an extremely secretive organization of Protestant men, bound by honour, tradition, and myth. My opinion is admittedly biased against fraternities, having experienced first-hand the same kind of sexual violence they are now famous for. In seeking balance, I’ve tried to find their appeal and imagine that supporters of Greek Life sought what the Freemasons represented in my imagination: a bond of honour, tradition, and myth.

I spent part of my afternoon speaking with a respectable former frat boy (the term ‘frat’ originated in 1895). He had nothing but good experiences with belonging to a fraternity and felt that he was able to contribute to both his school and its broader community in a more meaningful way than he might have otherwise, unless, of course, he joined another of his school’s clubs that didn’t charge dues and had a mandate of giving, like the United Way, or numerous honours societies.

I asked him if he is concerned with the reputation members are getting from association with the terrible acts that are being reported in the news, and he said that he was.

I wondered what compels young men to continue joining such organizations, then I attended a lecture on representations of masculinity in superhero films, which talked about the rise of hyper masculinity since the 1950s, which, I noticed, parallel shifts in the history of fraternities.

Fraternities experienced a rise in membership along with the rise in university enrolment after the Second World War, which lead to the introduction of hazing in the 1950s, which is when cinematic superhero history began. The superheroes of the silver screen are overly preoccupied with proving their manhood and impressing their fathers, while disassociating themselves from anything even remotely feminine. Frat boys take pride in joining the same fraternities their fathers participated in, while hazing can be viewed as an exercise in proving one’s manhood.

Dr. Kara Kvaran said that to qualify as a superhero one needs to be two of the following: (1) performing heroic acts for a community; (2) in a costume, or with a hidden identity; and (3) possessing superpowers. Those sound like the things Oscar Wilde loved about the Freemasons, costumes, rituals, and secrets. This leaves me with the question: if frat boys want to be like superheroes, why do they consistently do such terrible things?

I asked the former frat boy that I was talking to today what would be lost if fraternities ended. Is there anything about fraternities that is worth preserving? He couldn’t think of anything that you couldn’t get by joining any other student clubs, which do a lot of fundraising and charitable acts.

If there is an answer to my question, I imagine it must have something to do with what is valuable about masculinity, which is itself a myth. I don’t say that to be derisive; not all myths hurt us; femininity is also a myth. They are myths that many of us choose to identify with (myself included), but we create those myths with our identities. The superhero engages the myth of masculinity by protecting and providing for the communities they serve. Yet, I fear fraternities have become something those communities need to be protected from.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: eggcorns wrecking havoc

Hawthorne

Words are wild unpredictable tools. That’s why (no matter how slowly the fundraising is going) I love writing a dictionary. The wild unpredictability of words is why I’ve chosen this Nathaniel Hawthorne quote for Writer’s Quote Wednesday.

Hawthorne is right that words are potent in the hands of those who know how to combine them, but people who know how to use words are like lion tamers because words are still a potent force in the mouths of people who have no idea what they are saying. That’s why we sometimes want to take words back after we’ve said them.

Hawthorne knew this. That’s why he wanted to take his first novel back after he published it. As an older more experienced writer, he no longer felt that Fanshawe (1828) reflected his ability, or his brand, as a writer. Hawthorne went so far as to destroy every copy of the book he could get his hands on. After his death, his wife even denied he had ever written a book by that title.

I also have a first novel that I don’t feel entirely comfortable sharing with the world. It’s a politically-charged drama that was the result of my thesis writing as a student. I only want to write historical fiction now, so I empathize with how Hawthorne must have felt.

On a smaller scale, the wild unpredictability of words causes this kind of embarrassment whenever we have to stand helpless watching an unchecked phrase that we’ve unleashed wreak havoc in the world.

wreak havoc: to cause or effect chaos (1817)

On point, wreak is such a weird word, meaning to cause or effect, as in the definition above. A common eggcorn of the idiom “to wreak havoc” is “to wreck havoc.”

eggcorn: a linguistic term for an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase that also bears a phonetic likeness (1844)

I like to imagine that eggcorn sprung from the use of ear horns, but that’s another story.

eggcorn

The notion of wrecking havoc is so far off of what people are meaning to say with “wreaking havoc” that it actually means the opposite. Havoc means chaosWreak means to causeWreck means to break, or otherwise ruin. Consequently, to wreck chaos would be to end/destroy/break chaos, thereby restoring order.

See why it is so important to know how to combine your words?

Have you ever written/published something you were embarrassed by? Know any good examples of an eggcorn? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Don’t Be a Villain

Bronte

Whenever I hear someone talk about getting even, or enjoying “karma,” I wonder about their media literacy. Aside from the occasional Inigo Montoya out to avenge their father’s death, rarely is the hero’s story a revenge plot. As a literary device, revenge is generally only employed to generate sympathy (however slight) for the villain. If you are plotting revenge, or laughing as someone “gets theirs,” ask yourself whether you really want to be a villain because that’s how you will come across.

villain n. Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes [from the Oxford English Dictionary].

I almost didn’t finish my post for Writer’s Quote Wednesday on time this week because I’ve finally lost all hope that Spring will ever arrive and resigned myself to staying in bed with this stupid flu, but I chose Emily Bronte’s line about treachery and violence because I’ve been trying to better understand the burning desire some feel for what they consider justice.

Retributive justice, revenge plots, and the Western bastardization of karma are all based on the notion that justice looks like a pair of scales that balance rightness/goodness in the universe. To take justice into our own hands involves appointing ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner. It makes sense, then, that the original use of the word “villain” was to refer to someone who was low-born with a head full of ignoble ideas.

I like Bronte’s quote about treachery and violence because it emphasizes these fundamental characteristics of someone walking around with a revenge plot: (1) their own spear is something they’ve “resorted” to, which has consequently made their character more base, and (2) it hurts to be angry and vengeful; it’s like a violence we do to ourselves. It is the violence that a villain does to themselves and villains rarely end well in fiction.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Fat Fierce Trust

muchness

I spent all night colouring that publicity photo from an 1898 production of Alice in Wonderland, anticipating that today is Writer’s Quote Wednesday. Clearly, the quote I’ve chosen belongs to Lewis Carroll a.k.a. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Popular culture cycles through a variety of feelings over Carroll as a prominent figure in children’s literature because the relationship he had with children isn’t acceptable today, but his stories were so good.

I chose the quote about muchness because it would take a great artist indeed to draw muchness and I want to challenge myself with the Writing 201 poetry class I’m in, which is a bit of a crap shoot, the way they surprise us with a new prompt, form, and device, every morning. I figured I could throw muchness at any prompt they gave me and incorporate it all into my love of Victorian language.

The prompt was trust; the result thus:

My tubbish trustfulness is endogamous

Un-substatiators underestimate its gameness

Close harmony is key to the corporealization of my queenliness

Humble in my aspirational suchness, passing out

New halos to

Embonpoint

Spunky punk

Spit-cats – affirming the pluckiness of my trustingness.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Carroll’s Hatter ever told Alice that she lost her muchness. I love the line in the film, but it puts new meaning on the word that isn’t part of the Victorian definition. The Victorian “muchness” referred to quantity, or size. In the Tim Burton movie, “muchness” seems to be synonymous with fire, or spunk. One of the points behind the dictionary project is to capture the significance between old and new meanings of words, helping writers make the most of language.

In my poem, my trust had to be fat and fierce to meet the muchness of Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. What do you think of the result? Which Victorian words do you want to hear more about?

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