Why the Blank Do We Cuss?

When I started doing Amaze-ing Words Wednesday posts, I knew that I eventually wanted to cover the topic of cussing. Why do we cuss?

English is hardly the only language with its collection of the colorful and profane. In fact, linguists and researchers have noted that every language and dialect ever studied has included words that are not to be spoken in polite company. There appears to be some natural human drive toward foul language.

Indeed, children pick up swear words and usage easily, and all adult speakers know how to use these words properly in multiple contexts. Some use them, some refrain. But we all know how to use cuss words. In fact, it can be a shock to a family when a dementia or brain-damaged patient reveals their implicit knowledge of cursing. Suddenly, Grandma is shouting, “Holy *&@#!” when she would have washed your mouth out with soap for such utterances before the dementia set in. Whether we use them or not, though, our brains are programmed to understand and formulate cuss words as needed and/or desired.

Psychologists note that cussing can relieve stress–such as when you stub your toe or a nearby driver cuts you off in traffic. Mark Twain said, “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

Cussing around friends can also demonstrate a level of comfort and unity: You feel relaxed enough in that environment to let loose and let ‘er rip. There is the added benefit that cursing appears to be more memorable in contexts where other words are more common, so that insulting someone with a cuss word is likely to leave a more lasting mark than calling them, say, “a jerk.”

Now some of you have the mouths of sailors, and some of you can hardly vocalize the word “crap” without feeling guilty. Plenty of people fall somewhere in between. We can prime ourselves to use profanity as part of our regular speech, to use it more sparingly, or to eschew cuss words altogether. I think you can discover where you fall in the continuum with this quick test: Mentally fill in the blanks below.

1. Son of a _________.

2. What the _____ were you thinking?

Was your answer for #1 “gun,” “bitch,” or something even more colorful?

Did you complete #2 as “heck,” “hell,” or something else entirely?

Plenty of well-respected English authors cursed. Shakespeare used “zounds,” a highly offensive term for “God’s wounds” 23 times in his works. And if an original classic doesn’t cuss, you can always turn to BBC Radio 3, which produced a 2011 version of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte with brand-new swearing “to help capture the shock that was associated with the original book when it was published.”

In my lifetime, social acceptance of curse words has increased exponentially. In fact, the Family Research Channel has tracked a rise in profanity during prime-time shows: “Using absolute totals, across all networks use of profanity on prime-time broadcast entertainment programming increased 69.3% from 2005 to 2010.” Sure, a lot of this gets bleeped, but you don’t have to be a master lip-reader to know what they’re saying and hear it in your head.

Is it good or bad or neutral that we have cussing? That we are cussing more?

pic from dalailina.com

I personally try to avoid cussing. That’s part of my own faith and moral stance. Moreover, if you almost never cuss, when once in a blue moon you do, it makes a far bigger splash. (I’m talking cannonball, people.) I was also raised to believe that you could be more creative with speech and come up with your own words and phrases for frustrating moments or situations. Admittedly, my current oft-uttered phrase “Good gravy” isn’t exactly inspiring, but no one blushes either, and I don’t worry about my kids repeating it at school.

Jenny Hansen had an interesting post on 10 Creative Ways to Express Your “Inner F-Bomb” with some more imaginative ways to say what you want to say without saying it. But I admit, it isn’t always easy to push-off the potty mouth and keep it clean. In fact, Christian comedian Brad Stine talks about how maybe Christians should have their own curse words:

Since I try to keep my blog PG-ish, I chose not to name each and every crass or cuss word in the English language or trace their etymology. There are plenty of online resources that do that. Besides, you’ve known them all since you were a kid–whether they were uttered constantly in your family or you discovered them scrawled on a bathroom stall.

But I do think cussing is an interesting language phenomenon. What I want to know is: Do you cuss? Why or why not? Why do you think are some words considered foul and others not? How do you feel about others using profanity or books that contain profanity?

Sources: NY Times: Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore; Parents Television Council: Habitat for Profanity; TwainQuotes.com; Socyberty: Evolution of Profanity–How Swear Words Came to Be; h2g2: The Origins and Common Usage of British Swear-words (fascinating article about etymology of British cuss words); The Guardian: Wuthering Heights to Turn the Airwaves Blue; Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech by Timothy Jay

Oy! Adding a Little Yiddish to Your English

I am proudly one-sixteenth Jewish. For most of my life, I didn’t even know that. I think I learned of my Jewish heritage in my teens or 20s. However, I realized the other day how many Yiddish words I naturally use! Perhaps Jewish genes are just that strong. Whatever the reason, on this Amaze-ing Words Wednesday I invite you all to add a little Yiddish to your English.

Below are some of my favorite Yiddish words that we English-speakers have incorporated, along with their definitions from Dictionary.com and examples of usage.

bupkes. absolutely nothing; something worthless. Stupid muse. I stared at my screen for hours and wrote bupkes last night.

chutzpah. unmitigated effrontery or impudence; gall; audacity; nerve. You’ve got a lot of chutzpah to ask me out after I divorced your brother!

glitch. a defect or malfunction in a machine or plan. There is a glitch in SPECTRE’s plan to take over the world.

klutz. a clumsy, awkward person. I am such a klutz that I fell off the stage right after accepting my Oscar.

maven. an expert or connoisseur. I would love to be a maven of words and their origins.

mensch. a decent responsible person with admirable characteristics. My little brother paid for our lunch with his first paycheck; he’s such a mensch.

putz. fool; jerk. (In Yiddish, literally penis.) Get your hand off my knee, you putz!

schmaltz. exaggerated sentimentalism, as in music or soap operas. (In Yiddish, it’s literally chicken fat.) My guy won’t watch chick flicks with me because he says they’re all schmaltz.

schlep. to carry; lug. I schlepped my grocery sacks up the stairs to my apartment.

schmooze. to chat idly; gossip. At every work party, I have to schmooze with the higher-ups for at least an hour.

schmuck. obnoxious or contemptible person. (In Yiddish, literally penis.) My friend’s ex-husband better watch out because I have no patience for that schmuck.

schmutz. dirt; filth; garbage. Hey, you have a little schmutz on your cheek. Want me to wipe it off?

schpiel. (In Yiddish, to play a game.) a usually high-flown talk or speech, especially for the purpose of luring people to a movie, a sale, etc.; pitch. The politician gave me the whole schpiel on why I should vote for him.

tuchas. the buttocks. After sitting in this chair for hours, I can barely feel my tuchas.

It might help to practice making your h have a little k sound in it as well. That will help with words like “chutzpah” and “tuchas.” Also, you should note that spellings of these words in English vary. For instance, you might see hutzpah, chutzpah, or khutzpah. Take your pick.

When you get comfortable with Yiddish words, you can start talking in Yinglish (Yiddish/English). For instance, “Rosie schlepped through the mall with her packages, while I got bupkes. Some putz had stolen my card, and the credit company kept saying it was a glitch. I had to schmooze my way up to a manager who had the chutzpah to give me his schpiel about upgrading to a gold card. Oy, what a schmuck. It’s just as well, I suppose. I can’t find any pants these days to fit my big tuchas.”

If you still need some help, perhaps this video will help: Yiddish with Dick and Jane (based on a book of the same name by Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman).

Do you have any favorite Yiddish words? Do you find yourself using any of the ones above? What Yiddish words would you add to my list?

Sources: The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know – Daily Writing Tips; Yiddish Phrases – Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara; Some Yiddish Words – HebrewforChristians.com; Dictionary.com

Tips for Talking Texan

It’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday again! It’s also conference season, and many writers are busy preparing for their trip, classes, pitches, or table-dancing performance. Since we’ll have some non-Texans attending the DFW Writers’ Conference, I thought it was a good time to re-run a post from May of last year. In case you’ll be in the Lone Star State anytime soon, or you just want to decipher want the heck we’re all saying down here, here are my Tips for Talking Texan.

In a prior post, I said that I enjoy mimicking accents, though I am not fluent in any foreign languages.  But I should qualify that some people think my native tongue of Texan is a foreign language.  In fact, an ad for the Texas Tourism Bureau has had a slogan for years to promote travel to the Lone Star state:  “It’s like a whole other country.”

Now I don’t believe I have a strong drawl and, with concentration, I can eliminate it from my speech almost entirely.  But put me in a herd of fellow born-and-bred Texans or get me super-excited about something, and I twang like a dueling banjo.  If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to speak Texan, here are a few pointers from me:

1.  Take It Easy.  First of all, Hollywood totally overdoes it.  DO NOT try to sound like J.R. from Dallas.  If you do, you should get shot.

2.  Use Y’all.  The proper plural of “you” is “y’all.”  It’s the perfect contraction of “you” and “all,” which comes in handy when distinguishing a single Dallas Cowboy cheerleader from the whole scantily-clad cheer squad or one particular misbehaving child from the group of rambunctious hellions.

3.  Be polite.  Our language is infused with Southern courtesy and superfluous manners.  I was downright flummoxed by Senator Barbara Boxer getting her granny panties in a wad over a Brigadier General Michael Walsh calling her “ma’am.”  That’s a compliment and a sign of respect down here.  My children had better not say to some teacher, “Yeah”; they are expected to answer, “Yes, ma’am.”

This goes along with other seemingly over-the-top courtesies, like saying “Hi” or “Howdy” to people you don’t know (you can’t walk the Texas A&M campus without being greeted that way); having a store clerk invite you to “Come back” – meaning you should return to shop sometime in the future, not turn around because you’re being accused of shoplifting; and waving at drivers in other cars if they allow you to pull ahead or pass (okay, that’s not spoken language, but it is communication).

4.  Tex-Mex It.  Throw in words borrowed from Spanish.  Texas has, after all, been under Six Flags in its history – one-third of those being Spanish-speaking nations (Spain and Mexico).  We also have a wonderful population of citizens with Hispanic, or Latino if you prefer, heritage –many of whom are bilingual.  And we sure do like our Tex-Mex food.  (You would too!)  Try out a few like Spanish words like these:  “Everything” becomes “the whole enchilada.”  “Goodbye” is “Adios, muchachos.”  And “Stop parking on your lawn like a hillbilly!” becomes “Loco!”

5.  Channel your Inner Texan.  Mostly though, what you need to remember is to spread your mouth wide, add a syllable or two when there is a long vowel (“lamb” becomes “lā-ă-ĕmb”), and channel your inner Dixie Chick. 

Lyle Lovett, a native, has a great song called That’s Right, You’re Not from Texas, with the next lyrics being “but Texas wants you anyway.”  We’re happy to have anybody identify themselves with the Lone Star State, so take this opportunity to practice a down-south drawl and be an Honorary Texan for a spell. 

Meanwhile, I enjoy hearing accents from all the regions of our union.  Where are you from?  Do you have a strong accent or not?  What are the particular idiosyncrasies of your area’s rendering of English?

Why Grammar Matters in Your Book

I’ve been called a Grammar Nazi, a grammar geek, a grammar freak, a grammar nut, the grammar police, and a stickler. What they say behind my back, I don’t know.

I’m not that bad. I don’t critique tweets, personal emails, texts, slang, or other informal communication. I am, however, concerned about proper language usage when it comes to published works.

Before you think I’m here waving a red Sharpie and poised to attack your misspellings, mispronunciations, or mistaken word usage, you should know that first and foremost, grammar geeks are word lovers. Just like writers.

I spend one day a week talking about language on Amaze-ing Words Wednesday. Those posts range from grammar advice to etymology to word games. Language is fascinating. The human ability to communicate a wide range of emotion, information, and ideas sets us apart and allows us to accomplish together what we couldn’t do alone. Words have meaning and power. And I agree wholeheartedly that language isn’t all about where the dang comma should go.

However, where the comma goes matters.

Lynne Truss illustrated this in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The title is based on the funny story of a panda walking into a restaurant and brandishing a pistol. He devours a sandwich, fires his weapon, and starts to leave. The server asks, “Why did you do that?” The panda tosses an encyclopedia over his shoulder and answers, “Panda. Look it up.” The bartender finds the entry for panda, which in part reads, “Eats, shoots, and leaves.” One extra, misplaced comma made a huge difference. Ms. Truss goes on to make the case for why punctuation in particular matters in language.

Grammar matters. It assists writers to convey meaning effectively to their readers.

Proper grammar is a framework. Language has structure. We know a sentence is comprised of a subject and a verb. He smiles. She swoons. He kisses. She slaps. These are the building blocks of any book. And there are rules about how you string these blocks together so that you communicate your meaning to others.

Rather than think of it like the rules at school (no chewing gum, must have a bathroom pass, etc.), think about your favorite sport. Mine is baseball. It’s a terrific game of throwing, hitting, fielding, catching, and running. A grand slam homer can send a crowd of spectators into a wild eruption of excitement. However, what if there were no rules? If everyone threw wherever, hit however, caught or didn’t catch, and ran in any direction? That’s not a sport; that’s chaos. And it wouldn’t be interesting to watch or play. You’d probably get smacked upside the head by a wooden bat in ten minutes.

Language is exciting – full of meaning, fluidity, and passion! But it needs a framework to keep that excitement alive.

Proper grammar demonstrates professionalism. What is one of the major complaints about self-published books? They haven’t been properly edited and are full of grammatical and spelling errors. Of course, that isn’t true of many self-pubbed works, and there are plenty of mistakes in traditionally published novels. However, paying attention to those details puts you at a more professional level.

When we see an egregious error on a company’s sign or a brochure, it speaks to a lack of professionalism in getting their content correct for the consumer. People may wonder about the quality of the product itself if the company wasn’t willing to take the necessary steps to ensure proper spelling on an advertisement.

Likewise, people expect the purveyors of words – writers – to have a fairly good grasp on language and its usage. It speaks to our quality level. I recently tossed aside a traditionally-published novel after a few chapters when I read several incorrect phrases, including “could care less.” (It’s could not care less.)

Poor grammar disrupts the flow. Have you ever been reading a marvelous novel and had to stop on a sentence and reread it? You might wonder who that pronoun “he” refers to or stumble on an “it’s” when there is no need for an apostrophe. Perhaps a misspelled word or a missing question mark gives you pause.

Whatever the error, a grammatical oops can disrupt flow. Since we want readers to remain deep in our plot, we should eliminate anything that encourages them to jump back out of the story. A few such moments in a novel are not a problem; we are human and make mistakes. However, if you disrupt the flow of your story too may times with grammatical errors that could have been avoided, there goes the reader.

So should you turn into a grammar geek? We aren’t all grammar geeks, of course. (Thank goodness! Right?) Moreover, I misspell words and miss errors plenty of times. We all do. Have you heard the saying, “Even perfect people use pencils with erasers”? I can’t recall the last time I read a novel and didn’t see a typo somewhere. Most books have a few to several errors, and these works have typically been viewed by numerous people prior to publication.

The standard is not getting a Ph.D. in Grammarology or achieving perfection. It’s recognizing the importance of grammar and exerting reasonable vigilance to get it right.

If you’re taking all that time to develop a story, write 60,000+ words, and focus on the importance of those words, why not check for proper structure so that you can best convey your meaning? If you suck at spelling and grammar, have a grammar geek friend or copy editor take a look.

Now grammar isn’t a first draft endeavor. Don’t sweat the comma when you’re throwing out the word count. But it’s worth paying attention to in the editing and revision stages. Because we deal in language, its usage matters. Grammar matters.

What do you think, readers and writers? Does grammar matter when you’re reading books? What do you do to ensure proper grammar in your own writing?

(And as always, correct me if you see a typo here.)

Introducing Professor Punctuation

Welcome, Prof Punc!

Today, we are welcoming a newcomer to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday. From our local college faculty, I now introduce Professor Punctuation. I’ll hand over the mic now. Thanks for coming, professor.

I know, I know: I don’t look like a professor. However, trust me when I say that I know my stuff. Forget the chalkboard and textbook: All you need for today’s lesson is your eyeballs and my expertise. And call me Prof Punc.

Punctuation is the part of language expressed by:

 , ; : ‘ ” . ? !

And today’s topic is the apostrophe.

First, imagine that you’re an apostrophe. How would you feel? Misunderstood? Misused? Well, the Doubleclicks pretty much cover it with a song. Grab your latte and take a listen.

So there are several ways that poor apostrophe gets abused. Let me help you and that ol’ apostrophe out with some tips.

If you want a plural, leave the apostrophe out of it. It’s rude to wake up an apostrophe and make him stand around before an s at the end of a word when he could be sleeping in. How about we look at some examples?

I swear there’s not a theme here. These are simply the best photos that came up. But it does make a girl wonder. Anyway, if you mean a bunch of something, you don’t need to bother an apostrophe for that plural. Simply add an s.

EARTH-SHATTERING ANNOUNCEMENT. This is true with names as well! So if your last name is Smith, and there are a bunch of you at your family reunion, you have a gathering of Smiths, not Smith’s. The invitation should read, “Please join the Smiths for their son’s bar mitzvah.” The welcome mat should say, “The Smiths.” It’s just plural. If your name ends with an s or a z? Hey, toss an e in there like you would for any other s or z-ending word: “The Hesses” or “The Gutierrezes.”

This is also true with decades. You lived through the 1990s. Some will debate that you should put an apostrophe in there as “1990’s.” But really, it’s just plural, so why would you? You don’t need it.

If it’s only a verb, leave the apostrophe out of it. I felt the need to include only one photo on this one. Renee Zelwegger represents this gigantic oops well enough for all the misguided out there.

Seriously, Renee? Apostrophe is never part of a verb word itself. If the apostrophe hangs around verbs, it’s because there is a pronoun contraction involved. Example? You are = you’re. It is = it’s. He will = He’ll. Get it? But if you’re simply making a verb plural, it’s the same rule as with plural nouns: No apostrophe.

If you have a contraction, call an apostrophe. An apostrophe often takes the place of letters that are missing. When we use a shortcut to say two words together, then the apostrophe is happy to step in. So you are becomes you’re. Where I live, you and all make y’all. There are plenty of other examples. A picture is worth a thousand words?

I have no idea what the rest of the billboard says. Come up with your own.

If you have a possessive, get an apostrophe. Apostrophe loves coming around for possession. If someone owns it, slap an apostrophe in there. Thus, it’s Bill’s date, Tawni’s mohawk, your parents’ love life, and my ex-boyfriend’s sister’s husband’s jail sentence. You get the idea. This is also why the following businesses have an apostrophe in their name.

A special note on it’s/its. This is the face palm moment for a lot of you, right? When do you use “its” and when do you use “it’s”? One is possessive and one is a contraction, and I just said that contractions and possessives get apostrophes. So which is it?! Where does the “its” come into play?

This chick needs to relax.

Well, just with the contraction here. When you mean it is, bring on that apostrophe for the contraction and make the shortcut it’s. If a pronoun is possessive, however, you leave out the apostrophe. So it is his, hers, mine, yours, ours, theirs, and its.

Now get out there and use those apostrophes right, students! Just ask what could happen if you don’t know where the apostrophe goes.

I hate grading papers over the weekend, so no homework. In fact, I never give real homework. Your homework is to be smart and stay cool. As they say, peace out.

Thanks Professor Punctuation — I mean, Prof Punc — for that important lesson. I remember watching an Angel episode in which a lawyer presented a business card that read “Attorney’s at Law.” If only the TV show makers had consulted you beforehand . . .

Now what do the readers think? Where do you struggle with the use of an apostrophe? What mistakes have you seen people make with an apostrophe?

Neologistically Speaking

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday! Some time ago, I wondered if I could make up my own word. And then I did.

New words are called neologisms (neo=new, logo=word). Neologisms are added to our language all the time. For instance, technology has brought us “texting,” “tweeting,” and “Googling.” When you can’t find any word in the English language that conveys exactly what you mean, you could try adding a neologism to the existing vocabulary.

This is risky, of course. Language is, after all, for the purpose of passing along meaning between people, and if no one else understands your word, your meaning falls flat. Still, it’s worth a shot, and some great terms have made their way into our common lexicon by throwing a new word out there!

Here are a few I’m adding to my own word bank.

Scread. I picked this up from an episode of Fairly Legal. The main character, lawyer Kate Reed, is asked whether she read or skimmed a client’s file. Her answer is that it was something in between: She scread the file. Past tense, this is pronounced [skred]. It now applies to how I often go through blog posts, newspaper articles, and all of the paperwork the school sends home with my kids.

Infinimore. I give credit to my younger, and quite creative, son for this this word! We have a game of saying “I love you” and then the other says “more” or “infinity.” So he combined the two to come up with infinimore. He defines it as “more than infinity.” While I don’t know how more than infinity is possible, I now adore trading “I love you infinimore” with him. (I know, I know, he’ll eventually stop using it with me and use it on girls.)

Humblebrag. This one I saw on author Jenny B. Jones’s website. It immediately piqued my interest, so I searched the word “humblebrag” on the Urban Dictionary. The simplest definition is “a brag shrouded in a transparent form of humility.” An example tweet: “Uggggh just ate about fifteen pieces of chocolate gotta learn to control myself when flying first class or they’ll cancel my modeling contract LOL :p #humblebrag.” It’s a statement that sounds like you’re complaining but conveys that you are superior to others. Another one on the site was something like, “Just stepped in gum on the red carpet! Ugh.” Makes you want to say, “Ooh, poor baby.” *massive eye roll*

Hairitude. As you can see from this list, by far the easiest way to come up with a new word is to take two known words and shove them together somehow. That’s exactly what I did when Jenny Hansen asked for her peeps to vote for fictional character Rapunzel in Clay Morgan’s March Movie Madness. I was quite happy to vote for Rapunzel whose spunk and 80-foot long hair I admired and desired. I slapped together “hair” + “attitude” to say that Rapunzel’s got hairitude! I think this term can apply, however, to any chick with an out-of-the-box, over-the-top hairdo that communicates an “I am all that” attitude. Personally, I think these ladies have hairitude:

Kate & Cindy of the B-52s
Farrah Fawcett with THE hairdo to have when I was growing up.
Princess Leia & the buns
Amy Winehouse - Gone too soon, but the hair rocked.

If you love adding new words to your vocabulary, check out Natalie Hartford‘s Urban Word Wednesdays posts. Some of these terms are too raunchy for work water cooler conversation, but Natalie does a great job introducing neologisms and giving us a hilarious primer on their use.

So what words have you made up? What neologisms should we add to our common language? Are there concepts or things for which we need a new word? Maybe we can help.

(Note: I do try to keep this site PG-ish, so keep that in mind. Thanks.)

Word Game: Similes

Pic from baldworm.blogspot.com

A few weeks ago, I blogged about an alphabet game I found in a book published in 1940 called The Fun Encyclopedia. My father passed this book to me, and with it another book (which my grandfather originally owned) called The Complete Book of Games by Clement Wood and Gloria Goddard, which also came out a whopping 72 years ago.

The red binding is cracked, the pages are a yellowish-tan, and some of the games are outdated (for instance, one about sending telegrams). However, there are still some gems in this treasured gift.

Here’s another Amaze-ing Words Wednesday treat! A word game based on similes. In fact, this is the party game played in The Christmas Carol (1984) by guests at the party hosted by Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew. (In fact, the one simile I found in Dickens’s original novella was the sentence “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”)

So the rules are simply this. A simile is presented. (Random House Dictionary defines a simile as “a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared.” The two unrelated things are connected by the words “as,” “like,” or “than.”) The adjective is stated, but you must fill in the comparative noun, and the word “as” is always used. An example (which you should all know if you listened to Foreigner):  Cold as _____. [ice]

Now let’s see how you do with the following similes from The Complete Book of Games (1940):

  1. Black as ____________.
    Pic from myteachingspirit.blogspot.com
  2. Blind as a ___________.
  3. Busy as a ___________.
  4. Clean as a __________.
  5. Clear as  ___________.
  6. Dry as a ___________.
  7. Fit as a ____________.
  8. Flat as a ___________.
  9. Good as ___________.
  10. Light as a __________.
  11. Mad as a __________.
  12. Neat as a __________.
  13. Pretty as a _________.
  14. Quick as __________.
  15. Sharp as a _________.
  16. Slow as  __________.
  17. Stiff as a __________.
  18. Thick as __________.
  19. Ugly as ___________.
  20. White as __________.

Answers (some have several options):

  1. Black as coal/night/pitch/sin.
    Pic from buzzingwithmsb.blogspot.com
  2. Blind as a bat.
  3. Busy as a bee.
  4. Clean as a whistle.
  5. Clear as a bell/crystal/daylight.
  6. Dry as a bone.
  7. Fit as a fiddle.
  8. Flat as a pancake.
  9. Good as gold.
  10. Light as a feather.
  11. Mad as a hatter/March hare.
  12. Neat as a pin.
  13. Pretty as a picture.
  14. Quick as lightning/a wink.
  15. Sharp as a razor (not mentioned in the book, but I’ve also heard “sharp as a tack.”)
  16. Slow as a tortoise/molasses in January (I would have said “turtle“; surely that counts.)
  17. Stiff as a board/poker.
  18. Thick as molasses/thieves.
  19. Ugly as sin.
  20. White as snow.

There were many more similes provided in the book. Indeed, some are outdated. For instance, has anyone ever heard the following?

  • Full as a tick.
  • Mean as gar broth.
  • Plain as a pikestaff.
  • Stupid as an ostrich.
  • Safe as the Bank of England.

I hadn’t.

Similes are wonderful! They help us clarify an adjective by bringing up a visual image of something we can compare it to. There are the ones we have all heard, and the ones authors come up with on their own. It’s a lot of fun as a writer to try to come up with a simile that expresses a situation or a character’s emotion.

What are your favorite similes? How did you do on the quiz? Do you enjoy creative similes in fiction?

The Cat’s Out of the Bag: Idioms

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, where we enter the labyrinth of language and look for something interesting among the hedges. Today’s topic is in honor of our feline friends. I was going to do a post with idioms that included both dogs and cats, but there are so many that I will need to cover “man’s best friend” next Wednesday. Stay tuned.

In full disclosure, I am a cat person. While there are some lovely dogs out there, I gravitate toward the furballs who largely ignore you unless they want food or petting on their own schedule. In case you care, here are my cats:

Eclipse & Shadow

And now for the feline-inspired idioms and their origins.

The cat’s meow. A lot of slang words were introduced in the 1920s, including “the cat’s meow” — meaning something excellent or outstanding. It was introduced by American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who also coined “dumbbell,” “for crying out loud,” “hard-boiled,” and another popular cat idiom: “the cat’s pajamas.” From what I can tell, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. But it caught on.

Couldn't find "cat's meow" comic. Here's "dumb-bell."

Cat got your tongue? Several theories exist on this one. Here’s one to make you cringe: Hundreds of years ago in the Mideast, liars had their tongues cut out and fed to the king’s pet felines. Well, maybe. But the first incidence of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary occurs in 1911, so this phrase wasn’t used much before then. It may simply be the general superstition about cats (e.g., don’t cross a black cat) that inspires this phrase meaning you can’t talk.

Not enough room to swing a cat. I had heard that this phrase came from 17th century sailors swinging the cat o’ nine tails, but according to Albert Jack (White Elephants & Red Herrings) this isn’t about a whip. Two centuries earlier, there was a “sport” of swinging cats by the tail into the air, making them moving targets for archers. This activity occurred at fairs and festivals, and if there were large crowds, there wouldn’t enough be room to swing a cat.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. After reading the swing-a-cat story, I was so relieved to find that this one isn’t even about cats! Catfish are easy to catch, but their skin is difficult to remove. Apparently, there are several ways to skin a catfish, but no one in their right mind would skin a beautiful furry feline.

Curiosity killed the cat. The original phrase was “care killed the cat” from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play, Every Man in His Humor: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” Don’t ask me what that line means. In Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it was defined as “Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives [see below], but care would wear them all out.” That same year, the word “care” was exchanged for “curiosity” in The Galveston Daily News: “It is said that once ‘curiosity killed a Thomas cat.'” This new turn of the phrase was used by O’Henry in 1909 in Schools and Schools: “Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat; and if emotions, well recognized as feminine, are inimical to feline life, then jealousy would soon leave the whole world catless.”

I don’t know why care, or worry, would kill a cat to begin with. However, curiosity hasn’t always had the positive connotation it has today. Curiosity has at times been seen as challenging the status quo (tsk, tsk). Lord Byron called curiosity a “low vice” in Don Juan. I personally prefer the line I’ve seen several places: “Curiosity didn’t kill the cat; it was framed.”

A cat has nine lives. The number nine is considered sacred or mystical in some religions and mythology. Think about the trinity of trinities, nine muses, “dressed to the nines,” and a cat’s nine lives. Thus, when people in the Middle Ages had no X-Box or American Idol to entertain them, they threw cats off towers and watched them fall. Surprisingly, cats survived the murderous drop by twisting their bodies and landing on four paws. A cat seemed mystical in that moment: Surely it must have nine lives! My conclusion: The medievalers needed to get one life.

Let the cat out of the bag. Two good options here. First, back in the Middle Ages, people bought their food from the local marketplace. Apparently, some vendors were less honest than others. This idiom comes from a person purchasing a piglet at the market. While the vendor exchanged money and distracted the customer, the piglet in the bag would be exchanged for a cat. Only when the customer arrived home would the secret be discovered, as they “let the cat out of the bag.” Second, and far less appealing to me, there was once a game in which a cat was put in a bag filled with soot and hung on a tree. The game’s object was for competitors to cut open the sack, let the cat free, but not get covered with soot themselves.

Are you a cat person, a dog person, both, or neither? Can you think of any other cat idioms? What are your favorite feline-inspired sayings?

Sources: The Pet Wiki, The Phrase Finder, Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack, Lambiek Comic Shop, Cat-ch Phrases, The Word Detective, Moggies – Online Cat Guide, Westminster Gazette, Askville by Amazon.com

Miss Spelling Returns: Words that Get Confused

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday. By popular demand — or simply because she asked — Miss Spelling has returned. Her insistence on making a reappearance stemmed from a nonfiction book she is reviewing. While the book itself is written well, a different author wrote the foreword. Appallingly, however, said author of many books used the word forward instead to refer to her contribution. That settled it. Miss Spelling politely requested to come here and focus on words that get confused.

It’s my pleasure to return to the fine folks here at Ms. Glover’s blog. I adored the comments from A Lesson with Miss Spelling. I hope to shed some light today as well. I have collected pairs of words which get switched all too often like Parent Trap twins. They are not exchangeable, however. You likely have seen them misused as well.

Affect/effect. Simply put, affect is always a verb. In turn, the result (a noun) is the effect. For instance, seeing my muscular personal trainer shirtless affects my heart rate. The effect of seeing my muscular personal trainer shirtless is an elevated heart rate (and flushed cheeks and sweaty palms, but I digress).

Effect can also be used as a verb, but it is rare. It means to bring something to fruition, such as “he effected his plot to take over the world.” Most of the time, however, affect = verb, effect = noun.

Note: The views of Miss Spelling regarding shirtless personal trainers in no way represents this blog’s owner — who has no personal trainer and whose heart rate is affected by her wonderful husband of 19 years.

Capitol/Capital. The only capitol is the Washington, D.C. building in which the United States legislature congregates. Otherwise, it’s capital, as in the following: (1) the capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou (wah-guh-doo-goo); (2) Ouagadougou is a name so it begins with a capital letter; (3) I have invested no capital in the country of Burkina Faso. Why is the U.S. Congress fond of confusing us with the different spelling? The name capitol hails from the ancient temple of Jupiter at Rome, and it stuck.

Compliment/Complement. To compliment someone is to flatter them by saying something kind and true or something ridiculous that will get you what you want. “How sweet of you to compliment my house! Of course I’ll sign your petition to protect the mosquito.” To complement is to balance, enhance, or complete. “Yes, Angelina, that right leg is a wonderful complement to your dress’s slit.”

Desert/Dessert. I’ll make this one easy: It’s Sahara vs. Soufflé. One would hope that when dining in a dirt-infested wasteland, one could have a French baked treat. However, these words are not usually seen together. A desert is to die in; a dessert is to die for.

Forward/Foreword. Forward is the direction you are facing. A foreword is the section of words before the main book. Thus, the foreword is several pages of a different author telling you why you should read the main author and what an amazing contribution his or her book is to you personally and to humanity as a whole for moving forward in life.

By the way, I understand that some bookstores will turn down carrying a book if they see foreword misspelled; they figure if you can’t get that right, you didn’t take enough care with the book generally.

Lightning/Lightening. This may take the cake as the most confused pair. I covered this in A Lesson with Miss Spelling. It bears repeating, or perhaps a visual instead.

Lightening (pic from josydoodle.blogspot.com)

Peaked/Piqued. If you have peaked in life, you have reached the pinnacle, the highest point you can achieve. Meanwhile, your interest may be piqued in what the heck you’re going to do now. I often see the statement, “That peaked my interest.” Does that mean your interest is hovering at the top of Everest?

Perhaps it will help to explain that pique means to arouse or excite. Having your interest piqued means your interest has been stirred up like a witch’s cauldron brew. Who knows what magical things could happen next?

Precede/Proceed. I am saddened to report that our own fine language lover, Ms. Glover, made this alarming error in her friend’s obituary. To precede is to go before, while to proceed is to go forward. By definition alone, they don’t seem so far apart. However, consider a procession, in which a parade of people proceed along. Thus, when Ms. Glover proofread the obit and saw that her friend had proceeded several family members, she should have corrected it to read preceded since her friend had died before the others. Instead, it sounded a funeral parade.

Now, now, Ms. Glover. No need to hang your head. You won’t make that mistake again. Moreover, your friend would have made a lovely Grand Marshal of any parade.

Principal/Principle. Consider this sentence: The principal problem with Congress is their lack of principles. While I believe the statement is true, more importantly it demonstrates the difference between principal, or primary, and principle, or ethic.

Principal McGee from Grease

Principal is also used as a noun to express this concept of the primary — such as when the money you pay on your loan goes in great part to the interest and in some part to the principal. Additionally, it refers to the warden of your local high school, as in Rydell’s Principal McGee. Meanwhile, principle refers to a guiding tenet, whether a moral one or, say, the principles of physics.

Now store all of your book under your seats and pull out one fresh sheet of paper and a pencil. It’s Pop Quiz time!

Just kidding. I’m sure you’ll all do wonderfully with these words in the real world. It has been my pleasure to be here once again. Ta-ta!

My thanks to Miss Spelling for helping us navigate the tricky world of spelling. Remember that natural ability to spell is not highly correlated to intelligence, but a complete disregard for checking your spelling is.

So which of these words give you trouble? Do you have other words spelled or pronounced almost the same which get switched in your mind?

The Fun Encyclopedia: Alphabet Game

My father recently went through his library (which is extensive). He came across a few old books he no longer wanted and offered them to me. Skimming through the pages, they looked interesting, so I carried the books home . . . and promptly put them on a shelf.

Last week, I finally started sifting through the books. One of them was published in 1940 and is titled The Fun Encyclopedia. Now you gotta up open a book that has the brass to be called THE Fun Encyclopedia. As it turns out, the book is chock full of hobbies, games, crafts, sports, music, magic, and party ideas. Some activities are outdated, but plenty are still worthy of the adjective “fun”!

Now I love fun games with language (e.g., Tom Swifties). So for today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, I feature one of the alphabet games from the book written by E.O. Harbin 72 years ago. By the way, this book is subtitled — I kid you not! — “A Comprehensive, All-purpose, Entertainment Plan-book for the Home, Club, School, Church, and Playground.” Wow, that’s a mouthful, people.

The following is a quiz for which the answer is a word that can be expressed with a single letter. Here’s an example: A body part? I

See how you do with the rest of them. Answers are given below.

  1. A drink?
  2. A body of water?
  3. An exclamation?
  4. A female sheep?
  5. An insect?
  6. A bird?
  7. An actor’s signal?
  8. A query?

Answers: 1. T,  2. C,  3. O,  4. U,  5. B,  6. J,  7. Q,  8. Y

Now that you’ve got the hang of it, let’s try a few two-letter words! Example: Surpass? XL

  1. Chilly?
  2. Too much?
  3. Rot?
  4. Not hard?
  5. Jealousy?
  6. Tent?
  7. Composition?

Answers: 1. IC,  2. XS,  3. DK,  4. EZ,  5. NV,  6. TP,  7. SA

And here’s a bonus for those doing great with this mental exercise (or those willing to give a shot anyway): Three-letter words.

  1. Happiness?
  2. A small boy has lots of?
  3. A foe?

Answers: 1. XTC,  2. NRG,  3. NME

Perhaps you aren’t as giddy as I am after that brief stretching of our brain’s language center, but try these out on your friends or kids. See if you can stump them (now that you know all of the answers).

How did you do? Can you think of any other examples of words represented by one, two, or three letters? (Wouldn’t you open up a book called The Fun Encyclopedia?)