Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Stab at Equality

A Stab at Equality

All badness does not belong to the boys. Though a quick survey of Disney movies suggests that nearly all antagonists are women (generally stepmothers), the language itself clearly leans more toward male malefactors. This final installment of antagonistic labels include two that initially referred to bad gals and one that referred to bad guys who employed women and soiled their reputations. Oddly, usage for all three has leaned over the years toward the boys.

Rapscallion is a term now associated with males, but it appears to have started with the Middle English term ramp, or ill-behaved woman. Many etymologists believe the grandmother word for ramp is romp, a rude, awkward, boisterous, untaught girl. The similarity with rascal is probably responsible for this word’s gender identity shift.

The term hussy has maintained its gender-associations, though somewhere along the way, this perfectly upstanding word moved to the dark side. In the 1500s Hussy was a respectable synonym for housewife or goodwife and had no negative connotation. The term shameless hussy originated in these times, with shameless modifying the perfectly upright term hussy. By the 1600s, though, hussy began to mean a woman or girl who shows casual or improper behavior. Since then, it’s been downhill for the word hussy.

When the business of women exhibiting casual or improper behavior was “managed” by a man, that man was referred to in Middle Latin as a ruffian, or pimp. Interestingly (& frighteningly) enough, the term ruffian appears to share some etymological roots with words meaning lover, brother, & bully. We can still see a tiny part of this odd history in the phrase Bully for you, in which the term bully maintains its positive meaning.

Life can be pretty weird & language reflects life’s weirdness.

What thoughts do you have, good followers, regarding ruffians, hussies & rapscallions?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Hugh Rawson’s book Wicked Words,,, & the OED.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

More Bad Boys

More Bad Boys

Last week’s entry on hooligans, hoodlums & thugs doesn’t begin to account for all the terms we use for our bad boys, so here are three more, all from Old French: rascal, miscreant, & villain.

The term rascal comes from the early 1500s, from a word meaning outcast, rabble, or the lowest class. Many etymologists suggest that the original term comes from an older form which was the grandmother of the term rash, meaning mud, filth, scab or dregs. Those early fifteenth century rascals really had it bad. Since the late 1500s, the term has meant dishonest, unprincipled, &/or lazy, which may be negative, but at least it doesn’t involve nasty skin conditions.

A miscreant, on the other hand, is lacking in spiritual understanding (or so suggest those applying the label). Miscreant comes form mes- meaning wrong & -creant meaning believe, defined originally in English as infidel, unbelieving, or heretic. Early on in its life as a French word, it simply meant heathen. Today in English, miscreant has the broader meaning, evil or immoral.

Villain, like rascal, was originally a term used to define someone of the lower class, someone base, low-born or rustic. The word villain is related to villa, or country house (which, interestingly, now carries a high class tone). Though starting out meaning inhabitant of a farm, the term morphed into meaning peasant, churl, boor, clown, knave or scoundrel. It wasn’t until 1822 that villain was associated specifically with the bad boys of literature.

So, my few & trusty followers, please consider commenting on the class warfare reflected by these etymologies, or offer thoughts about these three coming from Old French (though last week’s hoodlum, hooligan and thug had more widespread roots). Also, could you suggest some other synonyms for rascals, miscreants & villains?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Hugh Rawson’s book Wicked Words,,, & the OED.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bad Boys

Bad Boys

Fiction often depends on the villainy of the villain, and there are so many great terms to refer to those villains. Here are some of my favorites:

Hooligan – Though there is definitely some disagreement among the etymologists on this one, most seem to lean toward the theory that hooligan is one more slur against the oft-maligned Irish. It’s likely that a family by the name of Houlighan (one of the spellings of Hoolihan) was giving the police a tough time in London before the 1890s, about the time the derogatory term we now know first appeared in print.

Hoodlum – Though a theory exists that hoodlum is actually another Irish name, Muldoon, flipped backward (noodlum) and mistakenly read by a San Francisco typesetter, most etymologists lean toward a Bavarian root for this word. One possibility is huddellump, a ragamuffin. Another contender is the term hydelum, meaning disorderly. The Bavarian argument generally wins out, since in 1870s San Francisco, Germans were one of the larger non-English speaking groups in the City by the Bay, and it’s no secret that, whether right or wrong, those who don’t fit in tend to be suspected of evildoing.

Thug – The oldest (and possibly most honest) of these three villainous terms, thug showed up in English about 1810, originating in Hindi (thaq, meaning cheat or swindler), which may have come from a Sanskrit word meaning cunning and fraudulent. The moniker was adopted by a powerful gang in fourteenth century India known for brutally strangling travellers and passersby.

What other beautiful words are out there to describe the bad boys (or bad gals) in our stories? I’m hoping to collect some intriguing ones from your comments this week. Comment on!

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Hugh Rawson’s book Wicked Words,, & the OED.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


The word read has come a long way, baby.

The primary definition we know today – “to understand the meaning of written symbols” appears to have been born in Old English, though its roots go much further back. I find it fascinating that read’s original meanings all funneled their way through Old English, but still magically apply to our modern understanding of the word read.

The Old Irish root meant “to deliberate or consider,” and the Sanskrit grandmother of read meant “to succeed or accomplish.” Old Norse, Old Frisian, Dutch & German meant “to counsel, advise, or guess.” One must be particularly appreciative of words with meanings as disparate as advise & guess. Those Old Frisians, Germans & Dutch folk may have been trickier than we might imagine. 

I see all kinds of tweaky present-day applications for these meanings of read’s ancestors. In a blatant attempt to garner a couple extra comments, I’ll ask you, dear followers & guests, to please comment, explaining the connections you see between these ancestral meanings & our present understanding of the word read.

-to deliberate
-to consider
-to succeed
-to accomplish
-to counsel
-to advise
-to guess

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, & the OED.

Thursday, December 1, 2011



It used to be that a novel’s inciting incident came thirty or forty pages in, after the reader had settled into the world of the novel, met the major characters, & gotten a feel for whatever the norm was in the protagonist’s life. Over the years, the inciting incident has inched closer & closer to the beginning of the novel, so that now it’s not surprising at all (especially in teen lit) to discover the inciting incident on page one. We live in a world of immediacy – but that is another post.

The word incite came to English in the 1400s through Middle French (enciter) which came from Latin (incitare – to put into rapid motion). The in- can mean in, on, into or upon, while the –citare means to rouse, instigate, stimulate, urge, stir or encourage.

So while a novel’s inciting incident puts the story into rapid motion, the story as a whole incites much more. The year Carol Plum-Ucci’s compelling novel What Happened to Lani Garver first hit the stands, one of my 8th graders plowed through the book in a night, then rushed into my class the next morning, clutching the book to her heart and exhorting, “This book changed the way I see the world.” Wow. There’s a novel that did some inciting.

Few authors expect to incite that sort of internal riot, but most of us do dream of inciting something: the heart, the head, the aspirations, political awareness, action, reverie, appreciation, humor...

Good followers, what sort of inciting do you hope to do with your novels?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, the OED,, &

Wednesday, November 23, 2011



Gratitude is a fine thing, and in honor of the one holiday that focuses on gratitude, let’s dip our toes into the etymology of the word thanks. It came to Old English through a heap of loosely related languages including Old Saxon, German, Old Norse, Danish, and Old Frisian. We can still see the relationship with the modern German word danke.

All these terms shared the simple meaning, “to thank.” What I find fascinating is that the Proto-Indo-European grandmother of all these gratitude-expressing words instead meant “to think or to feel.” This might suggest that one must be thinkful in order to be thankful. The flipside being that thinklessness causes thanklessness.

This post is intentionally brief, as I’m hoping you’ll take some time to indulge yourself in thinkfulness and thankfulness. If you are inspired to express gratitude in the comments section, feel free.

My thanks go out to those who read this and to this week’s sources,, the OED, &

Thursday, November 17, 2011



So often we authors are perceived as dreamers. A look into etymology, though, finds that we artsy writerly types aren’t the only ones who take an occasional snooze. So do words.

When it comes to the word dream, some form of the meaning we know today existed in most the languages that led into Old English, but the written record of Old English only employs a meaning of the word dream that we don’t acknowledge at all today: make a joyful noise. The written record suggests that the modern meaning of dream took a several-century snooze.

The word Dream occurs with both meanings in Middle English, which suggests that both meanings were present in Old English, but one of them somehow avoided the printed page till the darn-close-to-contemporary year of 1179.

Along the way, there are some great tweaky meanings for dream & its cognates, which include but aren’t limited to:

-joy, pleasure, gladness, mirth, rejoicing
-a cherished desire
-deception, illusion, phantasm
-a train of thoughts, images or fancies passing through the mind during sleep
-a fancy voluntarily indulged in while awake
-a state of abstraction or trance
-a wild fancy or hope
-a reverie

And those are only the nouns. Dream’s verb forms deserve an entry of their own.

Naturally, there are steaming heaps of quotes having to do with dreams, dreamers & dreaming. I like the dreamlike nature of this one from Carl Jung:

“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

So, fellow writers & artsy types, are your works manifestations of your dreams, or the other way around? Do any of the alternate meanings above appeal?

Thanks to this week’s sources,, the OED, & &

Thursday, November 10, 2011



The OED offers one full page on the word compose and over two pages on its forms (composition, composed, composer, composedness…).

Surprisingly, the word compose was used to refer to putting words on paper as early as the 1480s, yet wasn’t applied to writing music until the 1590s.

Compose comes to English from Latin through French. It’s made up of com- which means together & -posere, which means to place or put down. This basic idea makes lots of sense. What I find most intriguing are the varied meanings of compose over the years. I love how they tweak my thinking about what it is to compose.

Here are a few from a very long list:
-       to invent & put into proper form
-       to arrange artistically
-       to tranquilize
-       to form words and blocks of words (to set type)
-       to compound or to mix
-       to settle, adjust or arrange
-       to make seemly & orderly
-       to lay out a dead body

Modern mystery writers take that last definition so seriously, they try to “lay out a dead body” in the first chapter of every novel. John Irving, Robertson Davies and their devotees really take the “to compound or to mix” definition seriously, getting some of their joy from weaving unlikely themes and topics and together. There are days when any of us feel as though all we’re doing is forming “words and blocks of words” which we pray will have some value the following day.

On a more twisted note, a quick visit to Brendan's On-Line Anagram Generator produces six anagrams for compose, my favorite three being:
-       cop some
-       spec moo
-       scoop me

And what kind of light does that throw on the subject?

So dear and steadfast followers, which shades of meanings appeal to you and your composing process?

Thursday, October 27, 2011



We writers deal with rejection all the time. I’m with Louise Brown, who wrote, “I could write an entertaining novel about rejection slips, but I fear it would be overly long.”

Indeed. Back when many magazines still published short stories, I was quite a collector of rejection slips. I didn’t realize it at the time, but some of my rejections were giving me a glimpse of the future. In August of ’99, June of ’00 and August of ’05 I received rejections that also notified me the magazines I had submitted to were shutting their doors (Story, Whispering Willows Limited and Pangolin Papers, respectively). In November of ’08 I felt personally responsible when I received a message scrawled on a form rejection, stating, “We regret to inform you that the magazine has closed. The editor died.” Ouch.

Delivering rejections might be as damaging to the health as receiving them.

The word Rejection came to English from Latin, through French. Unsurprisingly, Reject means “to throw back.” Reject’s other meanings include:

-to refuse to recognize
-to set aside or throw away as useless or worthless

There’s a rare meaning, “to be disobedient,” which I suppose may relate to many writers’ responses to rejection.

There are also some meanings that appeal to the fifth grade boy within:
-to expel from the mouth or stomach

As little as I like receiving rejection, I must admit to a sick fascination for truly good, cutting rejection. Dorothy Parker, author, literary critic and wielder of one of the sharpest tongues ever, once reviewed a book by writing, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." Oooh. That’s good.

What great rejection tales can you add to this Steaming Heap of Rejection Stories?

Thanks to this week’s sources, Jon Winokur’s The Portable Curmudgeon,, the OED, &

Thursday, October 20, 2011



Ah, the Muse. We writers depend upon her visits.

Etymologically, she started out as a verb, which somehow seems appropriate. Once the Greeks got hold of her, it’s tough to figure out the family tree, but all the various etymological limbs are pretty intriguing.

Many sources connect muse to some unknown language which contributed to the Gallo-Romance word musa, meaning snout, suggesting a connection to a dog snooting around in the underbrush. Though the OED seriously doubts this connection, it appeals to me in terms of an author’s work.

Muse’s OED-approved multi-century voyage to English began as an Indo-Germanic root meaning, “to think, to remember.” It passed through Greek, Latin and French, with its English form first making it to paper in the hands of Geoffrey Chaucer.

The OED offers five full entries on muse, each packed full with shades of meaning, some of them downright quirky. Among the many worth a gander are:

“to look or wait expectantly”
“waste of time”
“to grumble or complain”
“to murmur discontentedly”
“to excogitate”
“to marvel”
“a deception” 
“profound meditation or abstraction”
“to stare about, to idle, to loiter”
“one of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne”

Milton referred to his muse as an idealized version of one of these daughters, Urania, his “true, celestial source of inspiration.”

Given my lack of success when it comes to novel publication, I’m thinking I should try bowing to a new muse, a completely unrelated muse, one which came from the Arabic term, mauz, “fruit of the plantain or banana.”

What do you think? Do you share Milton’s “true, celestial source of inspiration?” Does your muse feel more like a verb or a noun? Does it involve deception, marveling, excogitation? Or, like me, might your inspiration involve peeling the rubbery skin off the Great Banana Muse?

Thanks to this week’s sources:, the OED, &

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Weird ideas and the word idea

Weird Ideas & the Word Idea

We fiction writers are regularly harangued with the question,

“Where do you get all those weird ideas?”

Instead, I’d like to counter with the question,

“Where do we get that word, idea?” 

One of idea’s oldest non-living relatives was the proto-Indo-European term wid-es-ya which comes from weid-, “to see.”  Over centuries, this oozed into the Greek word, idein, which continued to mean “to see.” About 400 BC, Plato introduced the ontological meaning of an “externally existing idea from which individual things derive their existence but are only imperfect copies.” By the late 1300s idea had made its way into English, and developed the lofty, somewhat metaphysical meaning, “an archetype of a thing in the mind of God.” Whoa.

When it comes to writing, all these shades of meaning seem to apply.

-Doesn’t a well-told tale help us see the world in a new light? -Does any draft ever reach a point above imperfection?
-Aren’t stories all about the true essence of things, more than what might have actually happened?
-And as for “…the mind of God,” many might argue that the writer plays a somewhat godlike role in his/her characters’ lives, while others might argue that the only true ideas come from the mind of God. 

So, where do you get all your weird ideas? Or for that matter, what are your thoughts on the word, idea?

Thanks to this week’s sources:, the OED, &

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Self-Flagellant, or Happy Camper?

Bad Boys
Self Flagellant, or Happy Camper?
I’m one of those annoying happy-camper types who writes because I actually like to write. It stokes my fire, yanks my crank, makes me smile. Sure, parts of the editing process are a real pain, but the pain for me is entirely figurative. Still, I’m intrigued by those who – in order to write – have to open up a vein and bleed all over the keyboard, and then after doing so, they go back and do it again.
Erica Jong wrote, “Writers are doubters, compulsives, self-flagellants. The torture only stops for brief moments.” (1974) Her writing reality was not my writing reality, but it causes me to wonder about that simple five-letter word, write.
Etymologically speaking, there isn’t much support for the pain and suffering Ms. Jong and her ilk experience, though at first glance it appears there might be. Both writanan, write’s proto-Germanic grandmother and writtan, it’s Old Saxon grandmother, originally meant “to tear or scratch.” In fact, most the Indo-European languages’ precursors to write referred to carving, scratching, cutting, or vigorously rubbing.
These violent-sounding word histories simply reflect on a world without keyboards, legal pads, fountain pens, ballpoints and yellow pencils – a world which required writers to scratch their brilliance into bark or chisel it into stone before it could make its mark on the waiting reader.
George Sand, a self-confessed bleed-all-over-the parchment writer, offers this. “The profession of writing is nothing else but a violent, indestructible passion. When it has once entered people’s heads it never leaves them.”  (1831)
I’m all for the idea that once the passion enters, it never leaves, but the pain and agony simply aren’t a part of the game for me.
So, my meager yet stalwart followers, is writing more akin to cutting, scratching and carving, or is it simply a joy?
Thanks to these sources: the OED, The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women (1996), &