Thursday, May 30, 2019

The democracy of reading

The democracy of reading

We book-centric people tend to put a lot of our focus on authors. They’re the ones who bring us the stories & information we love, right? We often forget that we readers brings a unique perspective to each thing we read, making the act of reading a more complex alchemy than one might think.

One of my literary heroes is Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, & heaps of other tasty stories. He has some significant things to say about the role of a reader.

“…there are different things we as readers bring to a text—our different expectations, our varying intellectual limitations or gifts, our experiences of previous texts, our predictions about this one. These are necessary things; without them we wouldn’t begin to make sense of any text at all; and they’re also inevitable; we can’t look at any text in a state of nature, as it were, and pretend we know nothing, and come to it as complete virgins. We have to bring something to the text, and put something into it, in order to get anything out. This is the great democracy of reading and writing—it makes the reader a true partner in the making of meaning.”

His term “democracy of reading and writing” manages to celebrate our differences at the same time it celebrates the connective tissue of our humanity.

I say bravo to the democracy of reading.

The quote above comes from a 2017 collection of Pullman’s essays and lectures, Daemon Voices: On Stories & Storytelling

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Where's my R?

Where’s my R?

We English speakers aren’t very good at keeping track of our Rs. 

Sometimes we lose our Rs through regional dialects. Though Bostonians are famous for dropping their Rs, R-dropping (known in linguistic circles as non-rhoticity) happens in various dialectical ways throughout Britain, the American northeast, the American South, India, Australia, & New Zealand. 

And - over time - we lose our Rs in standard English.

Curse showed up in Old English meaning to wish evil. By the 1300s it picked up the meaning to swear profanely or blasphemously. By the 1800s, that tricky R faded away in what was considered a “vulgar” pronunciation of curse, & voila! The word cuss was born.

Also appearing in Old English was the word burst, to shatter suddenly as a result of pressure from within. Then somehow in 1806 we lost track of that R & found ourselves using the word bust to mean exactly what the word burst means.

The Old English word meaning the tail end of an animal, was arse. In time, this word broadened to mean the tail end of anything/anyone. When it ran up against ass, the entirely unrelated word initially meaning donkey, a bit of a smash-up occurred, & they somehow became synonyms, giving us what appears to be one more lost R.

The word parcel came to English in the 1400s from Latin through French, meaning a small portion of something. Soon, it picked up the meaning a  piece of real estate, or a lot. It appears there may have been some confusion with that meaning a lot, as soon afterward, parcel began to not only mean a small portion, but also a large number. Then after a century or two parcel lost its R, giving us the word passel (a bunch) in 1835.

Thanks for coming by, & thanks to those of you who comment. I still can’t comment on my own blog, but please know I’m in the apparently long, drawn out process of addressing the issue.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Want vs. need

Want vs. need

In modern America it seems awfully easy to confuse what one wants with what one needs. And so…

To want is to feel need, to crave. Want came to English in 1200 as a noun, meaning insufficiency, shortage, deficiency.

Some near-synonyms include:

To desire to long for something with intensity or ardor.

To wish for  weaker than desire, sometimes referring to an unrealizable longing. 

To crave the strong desire to gratify a physical appetite or urgent need.

To covet  —  to ardently desire.

Though all the above words involve feeling a need, the need isn’t necessarily essential. I may want, desire, wish for, crave, or covet a $3000 guitar, but when it comes down to it, my $250 guitar is doing the job just fine.

To need something is to experience an urgent requirement of something essential. Need appeared in English about the same time as want. It came from early Germanic sources originally meaning violence or force. Need broadened on its way from Old English to Middle English to mean distress, peril, hardship, necessity.

Some near-synonyms include: 

To require — to experience need of something that is indispensable to a particular end or goal.

To lack is to experience an absence or insufficiency of something essential.

I’m still unable to reply to comments on my own blog, so I apologize in advance for not replying to any comments. The people at Blogger/Blogspot  don’t seem to perceive my problem as a need — just a distant & irrelevant want.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, Webster’s 1959 New World Dictionary of the American Language, & Wordnik.

Thursday, May 9, 2019



The word kiss has been with English speakers since we were speaking Old English, except back then, it was spelled cyssan. Even back then it meant to touch with the lips. Though most etymologists are guessing kiss is a word imitative of the sound of a kiss, they haven’t landed on a common root for kiss. Still, these forms of the word exist in these languages:

kysse  — Norwegian & Danish
kyssa — Old Norse
kessa — Old Frisian
kussian — Old Saxon
cussen — Middle Dutch
kyssa — Swedish
kuwash-anzi — Hittite

Interestingly, English is a language that gives us the same word for both a kiss of mild affection & an erotic kiss, whereas in Latin, an erotic kiss was called saviari, while a kiss of affection was known as osculum (which translates to little mouth). Might the saviari variety kiss — by comparison — involve a larger mouth?

The idiom kiss & tell appeared in the 1690s.

Kiss my arse has been around since at least 1705.

Since 1825 a bit of chocolate or candy has been referred to as a kiss.

Since 1911 the acronym SWAK has meant sealed with a kiss 

To kiss something goodbye appeared in 1935, as did to kiss someone off.

Since 1937, we’ve had the term kiss-proof to refer to lipstick.

Give me some sugar (a kiss) showed up in the 1940s.

The kiss of death has been around since 1944.

And we’ve got some kiss synonyms, with buss showing up in 1560, smack (meaning a loud kiss) appearing in the 1600s, neck made its way to English as a verb meaning to kiss in 1825, & smooch arrived in 1932.

This week, in lieu of leaving a comment (since I still can’t comment back for unknown technological reasons), offer someone a kiss (your choice whether saviari or osculum).

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Urban Dictionary, Merriam Webster Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & Wordnik.

Thursday, May 2, 2019



Say these words aloud (really. It’ll be fun):
bellows - belly - bilge - billow - bolster - bloat - bulge

It’s easy to imagine these words all come from an ancient root meaning to swell. But wait, there’s more.

Another branch of that same root gave us:
ball - balloon - bole - bollocks - bull - bulk - boulder - bowl

And another gave us:
full - fool - follicle - folly

At some point in history, that same root added the meaning to overflow, which gives you the opportunity to say another list aloud: 
fluid - flux - effluent - flume - confluence - influx - fluvial - influenza - mellifluous - reflux 

And it takes little imagination to reconstruct why these words all came from a root meaning to swell or overflow. Pretty swell, eh?

If you’ve got swell comments, please leave them. I apologize before-the-fact that I won’t be able to reply to your comments, as the folks at Blogger (aka Blogspot) seem to have cut off my ability to comment on my own blog. Not too swell, I’d say.

Big thanks to Sioux Thompson for inspiring this post & to this week’s sources, Merriam Webster Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & Wordnik.