The Intensity of These Times

Image by ractapopulous on Pixabay

There are many ways people have found to refer to this era of Covid-19 and all its baggage: widespread testing and temperature checking, social distancing, hand washing and sanitising, and the wearing of masks. 

One of the most common is ‘these times’ and variations on that — these strange times, these difficult times, these awful times, and so on. There are myriad adjectives one could choose, although some are more socially acceptable than others. 

Recently, I’ve observed that people have started to capitalise the term as These Times in blogs and social media posts. 

This interests me, because of the way in which the language is being ever so slightly adjusted to add weight and significance to the term. Those capital letters are acting as an intensifier.

Intensifiers are those parts of language that add strength to what we’re saying or writing. Words like ‘absolutely’, ‘completely’, ‘terribly’, the commonplace ‘very’ and even the humble little ‘so’ are all intensifiers. Some people use expletives to do the same job, especially in spoken English. The meaning of the sentence doesn’t change if they are removed, but the sense of degree or importance in the words around them isn’t necessarily communicated if those intensifiers are not present. 

By capitalising those Ts, writers are communicating their assumption that their readers will know exactly what they’re talking about. And, in These Times, there is little doubt that they will. 

The Latest, Perhaps Greatest, Swear Word

Last week I asked my students to do something creative. 

 Today, Student A  wasn’t very impressed with the outcome of their efforts. “I tried, but it’s turned out a bit 2020.” 

“It’s a bit what?” I asked. 

“2020.” 

Obviously, I was expected to understand. 

“Mine’s pretty 2020 too, to be honest,”  Student B admitted. 

I looked at their faces on my screen. They were being serious. 

“So…” I asked, “Are we using that as a swear word now?” 

They’re right. It actually works.

“More meaningful than swearing, Miss,” said Student B.

The rest of the class concurred. 

“And we can’t even get in trouble for saying it.” Student A grinned, clearly rather pleased with that reality. 

I smiled, told them their work was way better than 2020, and moved the lesson on. 

I don’t know if they just started doing that by themselves or picked it up from somewhere else, but at least they’re finding some practical use for 2020. I may just follow suit. 

Is English A Salad?

Today’s English class was the most fun I have had in a long time. I wanted to exercise the kids’ minds and get them thinking laterally. I also wanted them to enjoy it. A lesson with a difference seemed to me a great way to start our final week of term and inject some interest into our online classroom.

I began by presenting my students with the contention that a box of chocolates is a salad.

This was not a popular suggestion. 

“No it’s not!” one student said… quite defensively, I might add. “Salad is salad. Chocolate is chocolate. You can’t ruin chocolate like that!”

But, I asked, what is a salad if it’s not simply a mixture of vegetables? Chocolate comes from beans… and if you add nuts, or fruit, or herbs like peppermint, then it’s definitely a salad.

We spent quite some time redefining food, presenting the most persuasive arguments we could think of, and debating the nature of reality. 

Every time it sounded like the students might be in danger of reaching a consensus, I made another suggestion. 

Ice cream, on its own, may just be ice cream – but the minute you put it in a cone, or add fruit or chocolate, it’s a salad. 
Coffee, like chocolate, is made from beans. It’s a salad.

“No!” was the response. “Coffee is hot – it can’t be a salad.”

So then I really twisted it up.

Is coffee soup?
Is cereal soup? Or is it a salad with too much dressing?
According to one student, and I quote, “Soup is not what soup is.”

Is the English language a metaphorical salad? Because it’s a mixture of a whole bunch of languages, right? The flavours are all mixed, but the parts are still recognisable if you know what you’re looking at.

Is the English language a sticky weed? Or velcro? Because you know, it takes something from every other language it swipes past. Maybe it’s double sided tape… 

I am not ashamed to say that I really had fun. Despite their groans and protestations, I think they did, too. 

Perhaps the most satisfying moments, though, were two comments made by different students: 

“You’ve just entirely ruined the English language.”

and

“These have been the most problematic fifteen minutes of my life.”

What started out as a brain tease turned into a really interesting discussion about how we use language and define things in our own ways, and often assume that everyone else understands what we’re talking about, and that everyone else agrees with us.

It’s safe to say most of them enjoyed it… but it’s also safe to say that I enjoyed it more. 

Tristful.

Image by huskyherz on Pixabay.

Tristful is an archaic word that means to be melancholy or full of sadness. Like forswunk and forwallowed, it is a word which is said to be obsolete now, but it is so beautiful that I want to bring it back. 

It came into the English language, as many words did, courtesy of the Normans and the Plantagenets, in medieval times.  The Latin word tristis gave French the word triste, which gave English trist meaning sad or gloomy, and thus tristful. 

I discovered this word today while looking for words to describe my feelings and state of mind at this point in my grief journey. Over the past few days, I have been feeling as though everything is too hard, and I just want to withdraw into my cocoon and wallow. I’m not angry, nor am I ungrateful, but I am definitely not numb. My emotions are very close to the surface, and at times I am unable to hold back the tears. 

I know all of that is completely natural, and I know I need to accept it and work through it. I know it won’t last forever.

But I also needed the words to understand and express my emotions. 

I have been using the term ‘melancholy’ a lot, and it describes my condition perfectly. However, I know that while one cannot actually wear a word out, it is entirely possible to cheapen it with overuse. Melancholy is a word that I love because it is so expressive, and because it’s beautiful to say and to hear, so I would hate to be guilty of turning it into a cliche. 

Sad isn’t deep enough. Miserable would be appropriate, but it feels more temporary and somehow more minor than what I am experiencing. 

I very quickly rejected morose and in a funk because both suggest sullenness or a bad mood, which is not reflective of my feelings or state of mind. Moody was no better.

When I saw tristful listed in my thesaurus under the entry for melancholy, I had an immediate sense of having discovered a gem that most people had laid aside and forgotten about. As I researched its meaning and etymology, I knew I had discovered the perfect alternative. 

Tristful: to be melancholy or full of sadness. #words #emotions #etymology #English #blogpost

Rumination and Overthinking.

Today in one of my classes, a student commented that they were ruminating on the answer to a question. I responded that I hadn’t even noticed her swallowing it in the first place. I laughed, and she looked at me blankly.

As I explained to my class, the word ‘ruminate’ has two different meanings which are related, but quite different according to context.

To ruminate means both “to turn over in the mind,” and “to chew cud” as cows and other ruminant animals do.  Both senses of the word were being used in English by the early 16th century.

It comes from the Latin word ‘ruminatus’ and carried both meanings  even in Latin. It is related to the name of the rumen, that part of the stomach from which cows, buffalo, deer, moose, elk, sheep, goats, llamas, camels and giraffes bring up their cud to chew it over again. 

One might think it might be more of a challenge for a giraffe, a llama or a camel  to achieve it  because their necks are so much longer, but  it does come naturally to them. Personally, I’m thankful that it’s not something I’m required to do at all. 

It is this idea of bringing things back and chewing them over again that relates the two senses of ‘ruminate’. 

It’s also normal and healthy for people to think things over carefully, especially serious or important matters. That can prevent hasty or unwise decisions being made. 

The danger of rumination arises when thoughtful consideration gives way to overthinking.

Overthinking is a term that can describe behaviours that range from overly prolonged deliberation to being caught in destructive cycles of fear, doubt, criticism or agonised indecision. 

Overthinking can result in drawing wrong and sometimes dangerous conclusions, relationship breakdown, self abuse, substance abuse, and self-destructive thoughts and behaviours. It can affect sleep, emotions, physical condition, and mental health, anxiety levels, concentration and performance. 

Overthinking doesn’t solve anything, and often actually makes things worse. 

It’s probably better just to leave the rumination to the animals. 

Rumination and Overthinking
#thoughts #words #language #psychology #emotions

References and reading:
6 Tips To Stop Overthinking Amy Morin Feb 2 2016

How to avoid the detrimental effects of overthinking. Evelyn Lewin May 17 2016

Learn How To Stop Overthinking Everything Tony Robbins

How Overthinking Can Affect Mental And Physical Health Syeda Hasan July 12, 2019

Psychologists Explain How To Stop Overthinking Everything Thomas Oppong Nov 16, 2019 

The Psychology Behind Chronic Overthinking (and How to Stop It), According to an Expert Kelsey Clark and Carolin Lehmann Oct 10, 2019

What is Overthinking Disorder? By Sarah Fader July 9, 2020

A Dark And Stormy Night

Image Credit: Mylene2401 on Pixabay

I generally love a good thunderstorm. Tonight, I appreciate it even more than usual.

Growing up, I loved seeing Snoopy start his stories with “It was a dark and stormy night”. I used to giggle at that clichè long before I understood the deeper allusion to the fact that authors sometimes use the weather to reflect or foreshadow what characters in their stories feel or experience.

This is a literary device known as pathetic fallacy. It is used to set mood and tone in a piece of writing or art, emphasising emotions and heightening reactions. Rain can be used to reflect sorrow or misery, dark clouds can suggest anger or resentment, and a storm can suggest conflict, inner turmoil or violence.

If you’ve ever read ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte, you will have experienced pathetic fallacy being used so expertly that you may not have even noticed. Blended seamlessly with gothic imagery, turbulent relationships and the isolation of the Yorkshire moors, Bronte’s use of snow, rain, storms, cold and dark makes for incredibly powerful writing. Who can forget Cathy at the window during that storm, begging Heathcliff to let her in? It’s legendary because it is powerful, emotive writing that embeds its imagery in the consciousness of the reader.

My other favourite example of pathetic fallacy is Shakespeare’s King Lear shouting at the snowstorm, “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!” Lear has literally been left out in the cold by his daughters Goneril and Regan, who have exploited his love and trust before throwing him out, homeless and broke. It’s such a potent scene — the depths of human coldness are amplified by the vision of a broken-hearted old man outside in a blizzard. It is chilling in more ways than one, and possibly one of Shakespeare’s finest scenes.

At other times, pathetic fallacy seems predictable and cliched. Sometimes it is almost painfully obvious and clunky. It often appears to be overused by authors who don’t have the finesse required to make it work — possibly because when authors do have that skill and it is done well, it it works as it is intended to without irritating the reader.

Tonight, nature is doing the author’s work for me. Outside, it is indeed a dark and stormy night. It has been raining steadily for hours now, thunder rolls and reverberates every now and then, and a draught of wind occasionally howls at the door. I am sitting in my father’s hospital room, having been called in late at night because he has been distressed and agitated. I have shed tears while talking with family members or sending messages. My emotions are all over the place. I’m both incredibly tired and wide awake.

A rainy night with the occasional rumble of thunder is most fitting.

On Tenterhooks.

Image Credit: Daniel_Nebreda

This morning I used the term “on tenterhooks” and then wondered where it came from.

It’s a term that means painful anticipation or being kept in suspense, commonly used by English speakers to describe any situation of tension or anxiety while waiting.

I imagined something being suspended or hung up, waiting for something to happen— which is exactly how I felt when I said it. I imagined the hooks to be larger and more cruel than they actually were, perhaps as some form of medieval torture or punishment, like hanging someone on a wall or in mid air using hooks to hold the body. That is an indication of several truths about me: my own feelings at the time, my love of medieval history, and my horror author’s tendency toward macabre imagination.

As it turns out, I was overthinking that part.

A little research at etymonline.org and worldwidewords.org informed me that it’s a very old word from the early 14th century that relates to the preparation of cloth, particularly woven woollen fabric, by hanging it up on a frame known as a tenter to stretch, straighten the weave, and dry. Tenter hooks were bent nails that held the fabric in place on the frame.

By the early 1500s, people spoke of being on the tenters to express being in suspense or waiting anxiously. The phrase “on tenterhooks” appeared in print for the first time in Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random in 1748.

It is related to the word tent in that the word was used to describe the way in which hides, skins or coarse cloth were hung over a framework of poles to create a temporary dwelling, which then came to be called a tent.

Both tent and tenterhooks come to English from the Latin, tendere, meaning to stretch, via the old French word tente. They are related to the words tense, tension, intense and the phrase highly strung.

Although the ideas have come to be closely associated, tenterhooks and suspense are not related words.

Holy Moly, It’s a Minced Oath!

Oh gosh! I do this all the freaking time!

Having discussed the meaning of “not mincing one’s words” n my previous post, it seemed logical to explore the practice of using minced oaths. 

You might never have heard of a minced oath, but most of us use them all the time. 

A minced oath is a term we use instead of a swear word. Just as minced words are diplomatic so as to not cause offence, minced oaths are likewise designed to express surprise or to emphasise reactions or feelings without causing offence through swearing or blasphemy. 

Therefore, it’s a kind of euphemism: a word we use instead of a less polite or more uncomfortable term. We use them all the time, and there are probably thousands of them in common use in English. For example, we call the toilet “the bathroom”, we call dying “passing away” and the dead our “dearly departed”, and we refer to swearing as “colourful language”.

A minced oath can also work as an intensifier: it can give emphasis and power to a statement, just as effectively as a swearword or any other adjective or adverb. To say “that dratted virus” or “that freaking thing!” enables the speaker to inject more force and emotion into their statement without actually offending anyone.

21st century English is full of minced oaths.
Darn. Dang. Dagnabbit. Gosh. Golly. Jiminy. Jeepers Creepers. OMG. Geeze Louise. Heck. Holy Moly. Shut the front door. 
If we tried to list them all, we’d be here all day.

Some are closer to actual swearing than others — in fact, some come painfully close — but most are used without causing any real offence to most people. 

When I was a kid, my parents never allowed me to say anything that approximated ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ because they believed it was just as bad as using those names as blasphemy. My friends and I used to joke that “heck is where you go if you don’t believe in gosh or jeez’, but we still wouldn’t use those terms around our parents. In contrast, kids now are shocked to discover that those are the origins of their common expressions. 

It’s all part of the way in which language evolves and adapts to suit different purposes and situations. 

Holy Moly, It’s A Minced Oath!
#Language #EnglishLanguage #vocabulary #grammar #words

Mincing Your Words

We might still hear someone say “she doesn’t mince her words” but do we know what it means?

Anyone who knows me will affirm that I tend to say what’s on my mind, although I try to think before I speak and to be more tactful than I used to be. 

My mother used to remark to me that I had “a neat turn of phrase”, and would occasionally comment to others that I didn’t mince my words. I always took the first observation as a compliment, although I’m not sure it was ever really meant that way. The second, though, always seemed to be rather a strange image because it made me think of minced meat or minced fruit. 

Of course, “mince” is one of those words that has multiple meanings.  It can mean to chop or grind something into very small pieces.  It can mean to walk in small, affected, or dainty, steps. And, when it comes to words, it can mean to modify your language so as to not cause offence. 

All of those meanings relate to the idea of making something smaller or diminishing in size. It’s easy to see how ‘mince’ is related to other words such as diminish, miniature, minute, and minimise. 

The use of ‘mincing words’ to mean making them softer or more moderate goes as far back as the 1500s, and is a term used by Shakespeare himself. 

To mince one’s words means to speak in an indirect or perhaps a diplomatic way rather than stating something directly or bluntly. To do so is to make what you say less of a stumbling block, easier to move past or step over, or even easier to digest. 

Thus, to not mince one’s words means to speak without worrying about how the listener will feel or respond. 

Well, okay. That might sound a little like me. Sometimes. 

That has changed, though, as I have got a little older. 

If I am at home, or comfortable with the company I am in, I still tend to express my thoughts freely. Elsewhere, though, I feel as though I do not feel that freedom. And there are many occasions on which I simply couldn’t be bothered. One cannot, as the saying goes, fix stupid. 

These days, I often choose to simply remain silent when someone says or does something ridiculous, because there is no polite way to say what I am thinking. Thirty years’ experience as a teacher and a fair few years as an actor and performer have helped me refine my ability to keep my facial expression neutral, although I will admit that sometimes I just don’t bother. Some people should be thankful that the look on my face is all they get. 

So, it seems I do sometimes mince my words. On other occasions, I  mince them between my teeth and swallow them. 

Mincing Your Words.
#speaking #words #choosewisely #EnglishAtHome #EnglishTeacher

Forwallowed.

Forwallowed is a very old, but very relevant, word.

image by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

Having successfully incorporated ‘forswunk’ into my vocabulary and introduced it to my friends and family, I am delighted to have discovered another word equally useful as a fibromyalgia sufferer. 

Forwallowed’ is an archaic word from the 15th century that means ‘weary from tossing and turning all night’. 

Not only is it perpetually relevant to my life, it sounds and feels beautiful when spoken. 

It is one of those words that evokes the sadness and tiredness of the very feeling it expresses, both physically and mentally, almost like a form of emotional onomatopoeia.  

It seems so versatile and germane that I don’t understand why it ever fell out of fashion. Forwallowed is a wonderfully expressive word that deserves to be brought back into regular use.

Mission accepted. 

Forwallowed: an old but highly relevant word that deserves to be brought back.
#words #englishvocabulary #englishtips #vocabulary #blogpost