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Posts by Margaret Ball

Besetting Sentences

In St. Jago, der Hauptstadt des Königreichs Chili, stand gerade in dem Augenblicke der großen Erderschütterung vom Jahre 1647, bei welcher viele tausend Menschen ihren Untergang fanden, ein junger, auf ein Verbrechen angeklagter Spanier, namens Jeronimo Rugera, an einem Pfeiler des Gefängnisses, in welches man ihn eingesperrt hatte, und wollte sich erhenken.

Clear as mud? Allow me to provide a first-draft translation, the kind of thing you hack out before normalizing the word order and all:

In St. Jago, the capital of the Kingdom of Chili, stood just at the moment of the great earthquake of 1647, in which many thousands of people their downfall found, a young, of a crime accused Spaniard, on a pillar of the prison, in which one him locked-up had, and wanted to hang himself.  Read more

When the music dies

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn.”

-T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone  Read more

Have we reached peak virtue signalling yet?

 

A couple of days ago Sarah mentioned in passing that she thought she was seeing a welcome shift in popular fiction: “I think the mood is changing.  Only six months ago, I swear every cozy mystery released genuflected towards the homeless, who were always laid off computer programmers, or something.  Now… not so much.”

That observation cheered me for two whole days… until I decided to take a break from my current preoccupations (reviewing German and soaking up Appalachian folklore) with the latest Dana Stabenow. Read more

I’ll take it anyway

newyear

One of the few good things about being an old codger is the sense of perspective. We may not have flying cars or moon colonies yet, but 2020 has a lot of features that I find more immediately useful than being able to zoom over the live oaks to the supermarket. (Grocery delivery, for one.)

90 percent of my favorite books are available as e-books and, for the first time since 1990, I can see pockets of empty space on the bookshelves!

I get to research a historical fantasy from my couch instead of trekking over to the rare books collection where I’m strip-searched and refused any writing implements other than one pencil… to read a modern facsimile edition of an Elizabethan fencing manual.

The kid in Brooklyn can call any time she wants to chat instead of waiting for messages urgent enough to justify three minutes at night time lower calling rates.

Instead of parsing mainstream media stories to figure out what they’re carefully not saying, I can check out a wide variety of alternative news sources and form my own opinions about the story behind the spin.

Looking farther afield… charities that distribute used clothing overseas now tell me that they don’t want any garments that aren’t in excellent condition. Being able to hold out for a new-looking shirt instead of being happy with a ripped and stained undershirt probably doesn’t seem like luxury to us in America, but it’s a vast improvement for much of Africa. The wealth created by the Industrial Revolution continues to spread.

Those millions of people who were supposed to starve to death during the overpopulation famines to follow 1970… didn’t. I’m sorry about the ones who did starve and are starving because of our inability to completely destroy all manifestations of socialism/communism/totalitarianism, but in celebration of the non-famines, we could do worse than erect a statue to Norman Borlaug.

And as for the personal robots… Pass on that one. I’m not letting Alexa or any of her friends into the house, thank you very much! And the First Reader gave me a nifty little phone case that supposedly blocks location tracking, so in the unlikely event I actually go anywhere, the Data Giants won’t have an automatic record of my movements. Some “progress” is to be celebrated, but some is to be thwarted.

(Header image: Interior of Stanford Torus. By Donald Davis – NASA Ames Research Center)

Regency Collection

At this time of year I’m more inclined to sit back, digest, and think over the past year than to do anything more creative than finding room for another piece of pie. And one of the great joys of the last year – well, the last couple-three years, actually – has been the discovery of research sources that would have made me think I’d died and gone to Heaven, back in the unlamented days when I made weekly pilgrimage to the university library to lug home a double armload of books that just might contain some of the nuggets of information I was looking for. With reprints, online books and useful websites, easily available information on Regency manners and mores, in particular, has exploded since those days; here’s a quick list of some of the sites and books I’ve found most useful (and most dangerous, considered as time sinks). Read more

Free reign and other eggcorns

What’s an eggcorn?

It’s a new word, introduced in the early 2000’s and referring to the replacement of a rare/archaic word in a phrase by a common and similar-sounding word that may have nothing to do with the original meaning of the phrase. It was coined by a guy who claimed that he’d seen acorn written as eggcorn. I’ve never actually seen that (and I kind of doubt it: it’s not like acorn is a rare word unfamiliar to most readers…is it?)

I think our language is impoverished every time someone replaces a meaningful metaphor with meaningless jargon. Besides, it irritates the heck out of me. So today I’m just going to rant about the eggcorns created by writers who apparently had no idea of the context and original meaning of the phrases they butchered. If I went on to list stupid/illiterate word substitutions this post would be way too long. Maybe next week.

Horses and riding

By far the most frequent offender is the substitution of reign for rein, creating phrases like free reign and reign in. I suppose this comes from somebody who has the vague notion that rein in and free rein have something to do with exerting or abdicating control, but who has never actually used reins and can’t figure out what they have to do with it, so… well, reign has something to do with control, doesn’t it? Plug that word in and to hell with the fact that the new phrase doesn’t mean anything.  I foam at the mouth when people substitute reign for rein. You might say my annoyance is unbridled.

Moving on:

Curve your appetite. No, no, no. It’s curb, as in, controlling a horse’s movements with a curb bit. Sheesh, my people didn’t even use curb bits but I still know what the word means.

Straddled with. I saw this only once, but it was weird enough to stop me and throw me out of the story. Was it a typo, or was the writer never saddled with the notion of a saddle?

Nautical and military

I probably should have started with this, because it’s the largest category. Look, I are not a naval or military historian, but at least I’ve been in a sailboat, read the Hornblower novels and researched the Blitz. That shallow pool of knowledge is enough to annoy me at the following eggcorns:

Pass mustard. Evidently the concept of a muster at which you get experiences like an on-the-spot equipment check (which you may fail) is foreign to the writers who perpetrate this eggcorn. You’d think they would at least pause to consider that a discussion of condiments is out of place in the context of whatever they’re trying to convey.

Tow the line. It’s toe the line, folks, from a way of lining up soldiers or sailors for that muster. Writers may be confused by towline, which means a rope or whatever used to tow a vessel. You don’t tow lines, though; you tow other things with them.

Shot over the bough. Fellow Hornblower fans will wince over this one. A shot over the bows is aimed at the other ship, just high enough that you don’t actually hit it. It’s a way of signaling to the folks on the other ship that you’re serious… and that you’re in a position to do serious damage with the next shot.

Way anchor. As far as I know, the meaning of weigh as “lift” survives only in weigh anchor and related phrases (Anchors Aweigh!), but that’s no reason for replacing it with way and creating a meaningless phrase.

Change tact/take a different tact/take a similar tact. The word should be tack. As in, a change of direction. Change tack actually means something; change tact doesn’t. Meaning takes another hit.

Taking flack. Flak is literally anti-aircraft fire and metaphorically criticism, as summarized in the aphorism, “If you’re taking flak, you know you’re over the target.” A flack is a PR person, probably just as annoying but less likely to be fatal. I’m going to be nice and not tell you about the German term that got abbreviated to “flak.” Suffice it to say that they started out with seven syllables and ended up with this one, and aren’t we all grateful for that?

Don’t know much about history

Beyond the pail. I suppose the writer thinks that pale is an archaic spelling for pail. Nope. It’s an archaic word for a fence made of palings. You couldn’t make much of a fence with pails! Beyond the pale means outside a boundary. The Irish may dislike the usage, since the English generally called the English-controlled parts of Ireland the Pale and considered the rest of Ireland to be uncivilized – literally, beyond the Pale. But at least it means something, whereas beyond the pail makes no sense whatsoever.

Straight-laced, straightjacket. It’s strait-laced, meaning tightly laced, and straitjacket. The meaning has to do with confinement, narrow spaces, etc, not with straight lines. You know, like the Bering Strait, which I expect to see rendered as Bering Straight any day now. I guess nobody reads the Bible any more, or they’d know: Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life.

The dye is cast. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon and said “Alea iacta est,” he wasn’t saying that he had dyed the Rubicon red – or any other color. Die is the singular of dice. He was saying that he’d made his throw and now he’d find out if he won. I guess nobody shoots craps any more either?

Motte/moat. Possibly forgivable, since they both come from the same Old French word. Trouble is, the meaning and spelling changed over time. A motte and bailey castle is built on raised ground (the motte) defended by an enclosing wall (the bailey.) Later the motte came to refer to the dry ring of excavated ground created in building the raised ground, and still later to mean a water-filled ditch surrounding the bailey – but by that time it was spelled moat. To be fair, I’ve seen this only once, but the usage had the unfortunate effect of making me giggle every time I hear the name of a perfectly nice woman who wrote historical romances in the eighties; she put her heroine in a motte-and-bailey castle, which was fine and perfectly in period… until the lady mounted to the top of the keep, overbalanced and fell into the motte.

If you’re going to make your readers giggle, do it on purpose and not out of ignorance, okay?

(Image credit: http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=693)

 

Thanks for the arguments

For our household, this is a day of negative thanks. Really, things could be a lot worse.

The Organizer and the grandkids could have waited to get sick until this afternoon, thereby ensuring that the First Reader and I had a chance to catch the really awful virus going the rounds in Hutto. Instead, she’s stuck up there dealing with projectile-vomiting pre-schoolers while herself feeling too miserable to consider anything more than crackers and ginger ale. So it’s good that they aren’t joining us for Thanksgiving dinner. Really.

The Fashionista and her husband could have decided to fly in from Brooklyn, in which case I would even now be tiptoeing through the conversational minefields generated by a fervently politically correct couple, so it’s good that…

Naah. Scratch that. Restart. Read more