Words are my business.
I love them dearly, but sometimes, they can be perplexing, confusing, and downright ornery. Here’s one word, a tiny one, that conveys my meaning with its myriad meanings.
The tiny word is UP. And it has more definitions and uses than a giraffe has spots. In the dictionary it takes UP, ahem, half a page to define. Let us count the ways UP is employed.
We wake UP in the morning, go outside and look UP at the sky.
We stand UP. We sit UP.
We speak UP at meetings, write UP reports.
We can be UP to a task or not.
We warm UP the leftovers and clean UP the kitchen.
UP can be an adverb, an adjective, a preposition, a noun, or a verb. See if you can pick those out.
We dress UP for an occasion, lock UP the house and walk UP the street.
We call UP our friends, fix UP an old car, brighten UP a room with flowers.
We can stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite or think UP excuses.
We open UP a drain that’s stopped UP.
We open UP a store in the morning and close it UP at night.
It can cloud UP and rain, then clear UP for the sun to shine.
When it doesn’t rain, the earth dries UP. When it does rain, the earth soaks UP the water.
A candidate can be a runner-UP in an election.
We can pick UP a box, or move UP a ladder.
Then there’s that great animated film, UP, about a flying house and . . . well, never mind.
I think you get the idea. If you have more definitions for UP that I missed here, or, perhaps other similar words, please share!
For my blog this week, I thought I’d spotlight one of my favorite humorists, Ogden Nash. For those of you unfamiliar with this witty poet, he is often remembered for his short but clever poems such as:
“The trouble with a kitten is that . . .
Eventually it becomes a cat.”
So in honor of the coming holidays, here is:
“The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus.” Enjoy.
In Baltimore there lived a boy,
He wasn’t anybody’s joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.
In school he never led his classes,
He hid old ladies’ reading glasses,
His mouth was open when he chewed,
And elbows to the table glued.
He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked No Admittance.
He said he acted thus because
There wasn’t any Santa Claus.
Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying “Boo!” at little babies.
He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.
Yet people pardoned every sin,
And viewed his antics with a grin,
Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
“There isn’t any Santa Claus!”
Deploring how he did behave,
His parents swiftly sought their grave.
They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.
Like whooping cough, from child to child,
He sped to spread the rumor wild:
“Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn’t any Santa Claus!”
Slunk like a weasel or a marten
Through nursery and kindergarten,
Whispering low to every tot,
“There isn’t any, no there’s not!”
The children wept all Christmas Eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared to hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez’ ribald mocking.
He sprawled on his untidy bed,
Fresh malice dancing in his head,
When presently with scalp a-tingling,
Jabez heard a distant jingling;
He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof
Crisply alighting on the roof.
What good to rise and bar the door?
A shower of soot was on the floor.
What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?
The fireplace full of Santa Claus!
Then Jabez fell upon his knees
With cries of “Don’t,” and “Pretty please.”
He howled, “I don’t know where you read it,
But anyhow, I never said it!”
“Jabez,” replied the angry saint,
“It isn’t I, it’s you that ain’t.
Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn’t any Jabez Dawes!”
Said Jabez with impudent vim,
“Oh, yes there is; and I am him!
Your magic don’t scare me, it doesn’t”–
And suddenly he found he wasn’t!
From grimy feet to grimy locks,
Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,
An ugly toy with springs unsprung,
Forever sticking out his tongue.
The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;
They searched for him, but not with zeal.
No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,
And people drank a loving cup
And went and hung their stockings up.
All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donder and Blitzen licked off his paint.
Since my mysteries take place at different time periods in the past, one of my personal “research” assignments is to study the language of those times. The style of language is important, certainly, in the narrative, but, absolutely, in the dialogue.
The flow and rhythm of the narrative helps set the tone for the story in the past.
The dialogue should be close to language at the time, although revised enough so the modern reader can understand it. Here’s a combination of narrative and dialogue from Pure Lies, about the Salem witch trials of 1692.
Sixteen-year-old Felicity thinks: “Was all this a grand deception? A vile and sinful imposture? Could her own friends fabricate such a cruel and terrible scheme? Procter’s words came back to her and filled her with a morbid sense of dread. ‘They have concocted the devil out of the stuff of nightmares and, more, out of taedium vitae.’”
When it is useful to the story, I use the actual language written at the time.
For example, here are some words from an arrest warrant for Susannah Martin:
“You are in their Majests names hereby required forthwith or as soon as may be to apprehend and bring (before us) Susannah Martin of Amesbury in the County of Essex Widdow at the house of Lt. Nationiell Ingersalls in Salem Village, in order to her Examination Relateing to high Suspition of Sundry acts of Witchcraft donne or Committed by her upon the Bodys of Mary Walcot Abigail Williams Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis of Salem Village of farmes.”
Believe it or not, many citizens of Salem were literate at that time, simply because they were required to learn the Bible.
In my research, I read as many books of the time and about the time as I could to get a sense of the proper language but I often had to look up the date which many words or phrases came into use. For instance, I wanted to suggest that the “afflicted” girls were bored and cried out against their neighbors for sport. However, the word boredom didn’t exist at that time. Interesting, eh? It actually came into use around 1852. The word sport, however, dates back to 1582.
The modern story in Pure Lies takes place in 2006 and, for the most part, didn’t present language problems. Although with the constantly changing technology, I had to keep an eye on that as well.
Critique groups and a good editor can be very helpful in pointing out flaws of language in both historical . . . and modern pieces.
Writers, I welcome your thoughts.
In my travels across country, I have run into many signs.
Not omens, by the way, but road signs or signs posted on buildings, restaurants, theaters, etc. I’m always amazed at the imaginative ways the English language is used. Here are some you just can’t help laughing at.
The sign on the left is a favorite, since I’m from Brooklyn and it’s a hard place to forget!
The one on the right is a sample of Dutch humor. Great, isn’t it?
I came across the next two recently.
The first one (left) was in Massachusetts. Makes you wonder whether you’re coming or going.
The second was on a rural dirt road in Vermont. Not a soul around. Seriously?
The next five are just for fun!
I got a great response from my last blog on word play so I thought I’d try another!
Collective nouns are names for a collection or a number of people or things. For example, some common ones are group, herd, flock, or bunch.
I browsed the Net and found these great ones from various sites. Many of these make a welcome change from the ordinary ones we usually see. As writers, these can enrich your story and even add a chuckle or two. Enjoy.
A bask of crocodiles
A shrewdness of apes
A shush of librarians
A shuffle of bureaucrats
A flight of refugees
A bevy of ladies
Or how about . . .
An aurora of polar bears
A prickle of porcupines
A surfeit of skunks
A siege of bitterns
A cry of hounds
A lounge of lizards
A stud of mares
A troop of dogfish
A shoal of minnows
A flotilla of swordfish
A pack of perch
A pandemonium of parrots
An amble of walkers
Think you can use some of these?