Sorry, everyone. I am under the weather, so this is a blast from the past… only I’m not sure it was published here. Might have been on my personal blog. Whatever… I think most of us writer-types have an obsession with words to some extent, and with using anything we learn in our stories.

Word Perfect

Etymology has always been an interest of mine, taking apart a word to see how it works, then putting it back together, and letting it go again, part of a sentence and working beautifully to illustrate my point. Another level of complexity up, and we see metaphor, cliche, tropes, memes, and stereotypes all lined up to carry that point home in fewer words than it would take to explore all of it fresh. Finally the whole picture becomes clear, with thesis, apologia, and plot to give the story, essay, or paper the bones all those words flesh out.

I gave my son, when he was six and old enough for them, my box of legos. He will sit and build endlessly with them, each block discrete, and yet full of possibilities. Words, adjectives, punctuation, similes: these are my lego blocks. I have more colors than he has to create with: mauve, puce, maroon, and chartreuse to begin with. Each part of a sentence goes together with a satisfying click, but there is nothing to stop me taking it all apart again to build something new with these same words and phrases.

So learning a new word is a bit of excitement in my life. Just recently in chemistry class I learned the word zwitterion. It’s a biomolecule that changes polarity based on pH level in the body, but that’s besides the point. It’s just a really cool word. I haven’t looked up the etymology of it yet, and it doesn’t sound either Greek or Latin, which are the languages I would suspect in any other science, but I am learning that chemistry has a language all its own. The English language is an entity all its own, prone to knocking up other languages and bearing their bastard children with words like “gesundheit” which I was highly amused to learn sounds to a non-native English speaking woman I once worked with as “goes in tight,” leaving her totally confused over why a sexual reference was made every time someone sneezed. I suspect most who use that old German word don’t even know what it means, any longer. When I was younger, and you could do such a thing, I would read the dictionary. Now, with the ability to type a word into google, I no longer have the pleasure of rabbit-trailing off from looking up one word to discovering others. Googling for the meaning of zwitterion yields that it comes from the Old High German root zwi-, which means twice. Makes sense, since it essentially has the capacity to switch back and forth.

I also get excited when I learn new techniques. In the Latino Literature class I am taking this semester I learned about found poetry, the art of plucking words and phrases from and existing text to create something new. Making a piece of word art resonate out of the dry depths of a syllabus awakened a sense of joy in writing poetry I had forgotten.

Contemporary echoes

with roots


issues of identity

focus, touching, entangle

across ideas.


Collecting ideas for the Art of China, Japan, and Korea to write a paper, I came across the concept of the four treasures of study. Each component of the creation of a text was considered a work of art on its own. Paper, as I write this essay longhand on a college-ruled notebook, knowing it will be transcribed into an ephemeral document of pixels existing only in the cloud. Brushes, that feather-swift movement over paper or silk, now the blunt tapping of fingers on keys. Ink, once ground on a stone with just enough water to release the depth of color desired by the artist, from a pale shadow wash to the boldest black. Now, I make settings for colors, fonts, drop shadows, kerning, and scaling, my eyes fixed to the screen. The final treasure was the inkstone box, a work of art decorated with symbolic meaning, and object of meditation meant to inspire the artist, whether he be painter, poet, or author. My inkstone is my iMac, old and prone to overheating, but precious and full of memories, creations; in short, my life.

This semester, related to writing, has been more about rediscovery than learning anew. The time to stop, look hard at poetry and metaphor, to explore the whys or word usage, has been invaluable. This rest and refreshment is as good as filling my brain full of new concepts, allowing me to resume my work with a sense of energy and joy in it. I will write my next novel over winter break and I am eagerly ready to start in on it.

12 thoughts on “Etymology

  1. On found poetry:

    We used to leaf through hymnals and put the titles together:

    Welcome, Delightful Morn
    With Joy We Hail the Sacred Day
    This is the Day the Lord Hath Made
    O Day of Rest and Gladness.

    1. You are a much nicer person than my friends and I were. We would leaf through the hymnals looking for the (ridiculous) alternate meanings. Hence, the hymn “On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s Cry” was changed into something different by eliminating the apostrophe : from “the Baptist’s Cry” to “the Baptists Cry.”
      And then we wrote the verse:
      On Jordan’s banks the Baptists cry;
      They weep, they mourn, they wail;
      They call for ice cream on their pie;
      Dinner on the grounds may not fail!

      1. We just tried to remember all the “alternative” and “mis-heard”
        lyrics, such as “My Goat Knows the Bowling Score,” “Nero, My Dog, Has Fleas,” and other gems of misspent youth.

        Of course, when your mother uses “All my Sorrows” as a lullaby, you’re going to be a bit Odd.

      2. That was something different. There have been many, though usually it was particularly inane secular songs that got nailed. Most of the time it was singing it with a deliberately awful voice, like Carol Brunette and Tim Conway’s send up of You Light Up My Life (for the younger folks, around 1976 or 1977 that stayed a Number 1 for weeks). I used to really lay it on for that song that starts “Life is like a mountain railway,” and “A Mother’s Smile” (which IMHO should never have been put in any hymnal, and Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.

    2. That’s a good one! We’ve done that, too, with hymn titles. Also, a homesteading forum I’m on (though I rarely visit it anymore — too many left-wing liberals reside there now) sometimes will go through and have fun with the titles of threads on the first page.

  2. I vaguely recall this essay too – I think it was on Cedar Writes. Not that it matters, there are always things that are new to many, and bear repetition for old-timers.

    Feel better.

    1. Did you see my suggestion of C. Chancy’s _A Net of Dawn and Bones_, which is free on KU. (I still haven’t spent the money to read it, but I’m a big fan of her fanfic.)

  3. I think I’ve found a software niche that might be empty.

    I’d guess most wannabe writers are either at the stage where they cannot yet benefit from dissecting a story for its formula, or have already a solid enough understanding that they don’t need help doing so. I think there is a narrow range that might benefit from a tool that helps them analyze stories.

    The idea for the tool is either a reader, a word processor, or a text editor which provides additional information based on user specification. The basic thing it would measure is word count. A user would be able to select portions of the text, and the program would indicate the word count of each section. They would also be able to annotate places in the text where stuff happens.

    You load up a story. You divide it into sections. This could be stages of the story, or view point characters. The program gives you word count and shows what fraction of the story is in each section.

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