Friday, January 12, 2007

More Word For The Weary

As you've seen from two earlier postings ( For The Love of Words and Ba-a-a-a-d Words, Go To The Corner )I love words. They are the paints we use to create our literary art. A writer without command of words is a poor artist. Knowing when and how to use a word or phrase in context can take a mediocre expression and turn it the most profound of statements. The key there is context. For instance: "George, I get to tend the rabbits," is an absurd statement on its own, but put into context, it defines the gentle giant turned murderer, Lenny, in Steinbeck's "Mice and Men".

Context is everything. Context means the difference between divorce and a night of extreme passion. Of course, sometimes the reverse leads from one to the other.

Sometimes words demand historical context. Taken away from their period, they take on new meaning, often so divorced from the original that they would be unrecognizable in their original context. To prove my point let me offer a few phrases we take for granted today, but which have seperate meaning away from our world and back in the original context.

I dedicate the following trivia to Jon Zech.

PAGAN- This word today is often meant to define someone who believes in more than one god or a person who doesn't believe in God altogether. Oddly, the term is from the Latin paganus. Meaning? One who lives in a rural district.

PANDEMONEUM- The word today means "a state of extreme chaos or confusion". There is some conflict over the origin here. One group believes it was first coined by Milton for "Paradise Lost" and that it literally meant a place of demons, or Hell. Another group believes the term refers to the god Pan and the affect he would have on young maidens who found themselves lost in the wood.

BOB'S YOUR UNCLE- I never heard this expression before the last few years, then suddenly I seemed to hear it from several sources. It's origin? An unpopular political appointment in 1887 when Lord Salisbury appointed his uncle Lord Balfour to the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland. At the time this expression this was a sarcastic allusion to nepotism. Today the phrase means "there you are" and "mission accomplished".

KATIE BAR THE DOOR- this odd phrase is only used by extremely odd people. It sort of means "unbridled enthusiasm" to some and "here comes trouble" to others. I know. The phrase itself has no clear origin. Some people attribute it to the Civil War in the U.S., other people attribute it to a poem by Rosetti, written in 1881. In the poem a lady-in-waiting is attempting to save the King James as the king cries out "Katherine, bar the door!" Who knows.

GIVING SOMEONE THE BIRD: Ah...well, this apparently comes from an old Australian theater usage. Actors were given the bird, which meant they were hissed at. Hissing is of course what geese do. The term eventually came to represent another gesture of derisiveness.

WHOLE NINE YARDS: Originated in the WWI. A Vickers Machine Gun had a nine yard magazine belt. The phrase referred to using an entire magazine when firing on the enemy.


SQT said...

I love this kind of stuff, I really do.

But I have never heard of "Katie bar the door" before. Strange how some euphemisms seem so common to one person and completely unknown to another. I always think of "Bob's your uncle" as an British saying as that's the only place (typically in movies) that I've ever heard it used.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I never heard this until my wife said it some time ago. I looked at her with horror on my face. I thought it was the most moronic phrase I had ever heard. I had no reference point for it. "Bob's you uncle????? What the hell???" I thought it was just something her family said until I heard it on TV.

James Burnett said...

OK, the coolest revelation on this list for me was "the whole nine yards." That was a great bit of history. I've always wondered about that one.

And my dad has been saying "Katie bar the door" since I was a kid. I swear I don't even think he fully knows what it means. I'm gonna have to tell him to read your post.

jedimerc said...

I am also a fan of word entymology... I had heard of 'bob's your uncle' thanks to Monty Python or something British in history. I remember the 'whole 9 yards' as well from a history of the Great War.

And you hit it on the head about context: a lesson many a politico might want to learn about history :)

Chuck Zaglanis said...

While researching a sailing story, I was surprised at how many of our modern cliches actually have their roots in naval parlance. Here are a few, I think I got them from Wikipedia.

Above board - On or above the deck, in plain view, not hiding anything.

Bitter end - The anchor cable is tied to the bitts, when the cable is fully paid out, the bitter end has been reached. The last part of a rope or cable.

By and Large - By means into the wind, while large means with the wind. By and large is used to indicate all possible situations "the ship handles well both by and large".

Devil to pay(and no pitch hot) - 'Paying' the Devil is sealing the devil seam. It is a difficult and unpleasant job (with no resources) because of the shape of the seam (closest to the hull).

Let the cat out of the bag - To break bad news (the "cat o' nine tails" being taken out of the bag by the bosun was bad news, announcing a flogging).

Over the barrel - Adult sailors were flogged on the back or shoulders while tied to a grating, but boys were beaten instead on the posterior (often bared), with a cane or cat, while bending, often tied down, over the barrel of a gun, known as (kissing) the gunner's daughter.

Pipe down - A signal on the bosun's pipe to signal the end of the day, requiring lights (and smoking pipes) to be extinguished and silence from the crew.

Scuttlebutt - A barrel with a hole in used to hold water that sailors would drink from.

Slush fund - The money obtained by the cook selling slush (greasy substance obtained by boiling or scraping the fat from empty salted meat storage barrels, or the floating fat residue after boiling the crew's meal)ashore. Used for the benefit of the crew (or the cook).

Son of a gun - The space between the guns was used as a semi-private place for trysts with prostitutes and wives, which sometimes lead to pregnancies.

DesLily said...

i've never heard "bobs your uncle" or "katie bar the door" before you wrote them right here... but then I don't get out much ..heh.

as for the modern day "giving someone the bird".. has anyone ever "given you the pinkey" instead of the ummm "ususal" finger?... well if they do.. it means the same thing..except, it's for those "who don't care to send the very best"...
I'll go to the corner now.

mist1 said...

I always thought that pandephoneum referred to when someone's cell phone goes off in public and lots of people scamble to see if it's their phone. I always learn something new here.

Stewart Sternberg said...

chuck...I knew some of this...but some of these are great. The bitter end..I never knew that. Thanks for posting. Good good info.

For all who may be reading this, by the way, go check Chuck's website for a sample of his salty writing. I've read a good chunk of the tale to which he is alluding and I love his writing style.

Stewart Sternberg said...

James, this stuff fascinates me, too. I could have written fifty more. However, this info, like most trivia, is best when doled out in digestible amounts.

jedimerc, entymology is my thing. I can't help it. I think the language is so rich. I am always unnerved at it shrinking away and lapsing into a crunch of slang and babble. I remember a teacher once suggesting that we would someday speak like this: "He am the same person I saw yesterday. He got same black hair, blue eyes. He the man." arrrrgghhh

deslily I LOVE that...I will give the pinky more often. I am sure you know the origin of the finger. Me? I like "read between the lines"

mist, thanks for proving that puns are the lowest form of humor.

jedimerc said...

I am quite the reactionary with language. I rarely use any Internet slang and as a point, I tend to be rather in my blog as my protest to the overuse of slang and expletives in writing. I understand it can be useful in creative writing and to make a point, but surely we did not scratch and claw our way to become the paragon of animals to lose one of the most unique aspects of existence: words.

lee said...

I was interested to read that about "Bob's your Uncle". I've known that expression my whole life -and had always assumed it was an American saying. The same with giving someone the bird -that always sounded American to me as well.Well, there you go :).

Kate S said...

"KATIE BAR THE DOOR- this odd phrase is only used by extremely odd people."

LOL, my mother says that, so I can attest to that fact.

Christina Rundle said...

Interesting and fun. You find the neatest things to post about.

I don't think I use a lot of those expressions, except Pagan, though my context was different. Now I won't look at it the same way.

Clifford said...

Odd. The general consensus among the educated seems to be "slang is bad", but these same people can be caught extolling the virtues of what can only be termed as "historic slang". Historic, but slang nonetheless. Years ago I interviewed Forrest J. Ackerman, and he told me that as a kid "don't rub it in" was considered obscene. I think I raised my eyebrows at that. He smiled and explained that the full phrase was "You can sh*t on me, but don't rub it in."

When all is said and done, I find "knocking boots" as gleefully irreverent as "Katie bar the door". Language is a living organism that refuses to stop growing. It's owned by the people, a reflection of time and place, and as much as we might like to catalog it, index it, and force it to behave, it wont. It'll look us straight in the eye, break wind, and refuse to open a window. That's what I like about language.

Another great topic, Stewart!

Stewart Sternberg said...

CLIFFORD:You Rock. Great comment...You can shit on me but dont rub it in. WOW. And you also got to interview Forrey. Just don't tell me you interviewed Stan Lee and Ray Bradbury or the envy factor will be too much.

CHRISTINA, I was surprised about the origin of pagan as well. It makes sense though. You know, what Clifford said about historic slang taking on a new meaning, context, and validity was kind of interesting.

KATE Mothers are such interesting forces of nature. I wonder if women who are mothers look at these mother comments and think:Not me, Dear God. Not me.

Stewart Sternberg said...

JEDICMERC, I think you are correct. I used to get heat in college when I would use terms like maintaining the macroculture when talking about language. Ultimately the issue of dialect, race, gender, etc would arise, and I would stand my ground, only to have my fellow leftists beat on me for being reactionary.

LEE: I would imagine Australia has some pretty interesting phrases all its own, unfathomable to us in the States. Considering the history of the country, and its sense of isolation in many cases from its initial period of colonization, I would imagine the culture, although primarily English, has developed some amazing language riffs.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't mind slang. My only complaint about modern language usage is the overuse of crudities such as "fuck" and "bitch."

SQT said...

I don't mind slang either. If I'm trying to write realistic dialogue it's impossible to avoid slang. I won't try to use slang I can realistically pull off, but from the standpoint of building character, you can't avoid slang.

SQT said...

I meant to say if I can't realistically pull it off.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I don't even think about slang when I write. If it occurs, then it occurs. The only problem I have is when the slang manifests itself as cliche. Usually slang is fine as part of dialogue, but as part of the narrative itself, it needs to be used judiciously.

SQT said...

I really try to stay away from cliches at all costs. That can be hard too, it just kind of comes out since we're so used to speaking that way. But it's unimaginitive, so I avoid them.

molly said...

wow very interesting

i must say im FANTASTICALLY jealous of your concerts. And as a former Michael Jackson fanatic and current casual fan, i don't think you should be ashamed of any Jackson 5 concert. was it great?
what year did you see bowie?
what year did you see csny?

i ALMOST saw alice cooper last year and youre making me greatly regret that i didn't. my friend went and brought me back a key chain along with stories of how awesome and theatrical it was.

Clifford said...

The use of slang in fiction is tricky. I definitely think less is more in this case, even if the end result isn't necessarily a "true" representation of the character you're creating.

Ever listen in on a group of 16-year-old boys talking? I ride the bus in town so I'm treated to it all the time. I wouldn't want to capture their true-speak in my fiction. I think fictive-speak is often much more purposeful, interesting, and less guarded. And in some strange, ironic way, more real.

I never eschew slang altogether, but finding that balance between how people really speak and how my characters speak is tricky. I often have to go back and "slang-down" the dialog, to smooth it out and make it seem alive.

As a side note, in my bus travels, I sometimes hear youth spewing drama that sounds inspired by fiction. Kids today are basted in movies and television programs -- it's no wonder we're seeing a blurr between fictive-speak and true-speak...

jedimerc said...

Well, fiction is a totally different mindset when it comes to language. I mean, if I talked like I wrote, I would be far more boring than I already am :)

And certain slang is a necessity, but like others have mentioned, I feel the crudity of certain phrases gives me pause and concern. And Hollywood, TV and the media are excellent culprits in all this as well.

As an educator, Stewart, did you despair when you gave out essay exams and had to grade 'lists' as opposed to coherent thought? It seemed worse in history classes because the professors expected you to be able to write but most of the students were expecting exams that involved a no. 2 pencil.

Stewart Sternberg said...

jedimerc, I'll tell you what makes me crazy as an educator. I give an assignment from the book to the students with questions like:
Identify three things that motivated the Early European Explorers.

The students will immediately run to the first paragraph that appears to apply and try to copy word for word the topic sentence, believing that will be sufficient. So they will write: "Gold, religion, and glory."

Now, the sentence they are taking this from reads:" Early explorers were motivated by gold, religion and glory to brave the dangers and trials of exploring a new world."

What follows in the book is a page explaining how each of these applies.

Students giving me the answer above will usually be marked down. Students giving me some sense of understanding, showing cause and effect, they will get full credit.

Bird on a Wire said...

I love this stuff. Somebody today told me that "Yankee Doodle Dandy" was sort of a gay battle cry, "Macaranoni" being a French gay bar. Perhaps you could shed some light on this.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Bird, I've researched it a bit. I am not sure where the gay thing came from except that the term "macaroni" refers to a style of dress that was going around the elite in London at the time of the song's writing. Apparently different dandies were mimicking styles from Italy.

So by sticking a feather in his cap, the country bumpkin that was the yankee, the New England rube, foolishly developed pretense and joined the ranks of elite London society....this was of course said with cruel ridicule.

I've read this before in a couple of other places.