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.

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

Easily Confused Words: Stationary vs. Stationery

Yesterday I saw a sign in a shop that said “Stationary” attached to a shelf. 

They were absolutely right: that shelf wasn’t going anywhere. I suspect it’s still in the same place even now, although it’s been about 30 hours since I was there. 

This is a common mistake because people often don’t realise that ‘stationary’ and ‘stationery’ are two different words.  They sound the same, but are spelt differently and have very different meanings.

Stationary means “not moving”. 
A train stops at a station, and remains stationary while people get on and off the train. 

Stationery, on the other hand, is the sort of supplies you’d get at a Stationer’s stop: paper, pens, pencils, erasers, notebooks, and the like. 

Therefore, in order for the sign in the store to have been fully accurate, it could have said “This stationery shelf is stationary”. 

I suspect, however, that most people  would be less appreciative of such a sign than I would be. 

Ducking Out For A Break.

I try to spend some time each day away from screens and away from work of any description.

It’s good therapy to walk, listen, and breathe, far away from such demands.

It refreshes me, body and soul, and boosts my creativity and concentration.

One of the places I like to visit is the small lake in my town. It has a walking track, an exercise circuit, benches to rest on, barbecue and picnic tables, a playground, and a friendly group of ducks.

Just now, as I wrote “a group of ducks”, I began to muse over which was the correct collective noun for ducks. I suspected that “flock” was used when in flight, and that “brace” was used when they were on the ground, but thought I should check.

A little research in the interests of accuracy yielded surprising results. Did you know there are more than a dozen different collective nouns used for ducks?

According to collectivenounslist.com, those are:

  • Badelynge
  • Badling
  • Brace
  • Dopping
  • Flock
  • Flush
  • Paddling
  • Plump
  • Pump
  • Raft
  • Sword
  • String
  • Team
  • Twack

Some of these terms are more commonly used than others, and I cannot help but think some of them are archaic words. Badelynge definitely looks like the kind of spelling one finds in Chaucer or other Middle English texts. I also suspect that this word has been transformed into “badling” as language and spelling evolved over time.

How, though, are we not commonly calling a group of ducks a “twack”? It’s highly expressive and so delightfully onomatopoeic! Furthermore, it couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a term relating to any other creature.

From now on, ‘badelynge’ and ‘twack’ are the terms I’ll be using to refer to my ducky friends at the lake. Hey nonny nonny!

A twack of ducks! With a badelynge of ducks in the water beneath the boardwarlk!

Easily Confused Words: ‘Dessert’ and ‘Desert’.

This is a confusing set of homophones. 

Dessert is  the sweet course eaten at the end of a meal. What’s your favourite? I’m an absolute sucker for lemon meringue pie, but I also love a creamy lemon cheesecake.  A dessert wine is, similarly, sweet and intended to be enjoyed after a meal. 

The key thing to remember is that this is the only meaning for this spelling.

Fun fact: ‘desserts’ is ‘stressed’ spelt backwards, and an anagram of ‘de-stress’.  
I don’t know about you, but I do not believe that can be a coincidence.

The word ‘desert’ is used when someone gets what they deserve, and it is said they have “got their just deserts”. It is usually used in a punitive way – ‘getting your just desert’ is generally not considered to be a pleasant experience. 

Because this is a “thing” that happens, this use of the word is also a noun. 

Fun fact: this is a phrase that came to us from French via  Shakespeare, who used it in Sonnet 72, albeit in a more positive way than is usually done. So anyone using the word ‘desert’ in this way is using Shakespeare’s language without even realising it. 

The word ‘desert’ can also mean abandoning or running away from a place. A soldier who goes AWOL is said to desert their post, while rats are said to ‘desert a sinking ship’ as a metaphor for people disowning or abandoning a place, person or situation that has become painful, awkward or insupportable. 

When we say a place is deserted, it does not mean it looks like a desert. It means that there are no people around – everyone has departed. 

Finally, a desert is a place that doesn’t get much rain, and is quite barren as a result. 

This is the only meaning that sees ‘desert’ pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable: dez-ert This makes it a homonym, not a homophone.  Because it’s a place, this is also a noun. 

Fun fact: while the Sahara Desert is hot and sandy, Antarctica is the world’s largest cold desert. 

You can use a sentence to help you remember the three different words that share this spelling. Saying it aloud will help you remember which is which.
Example: The soldier got his just deserts for deserting his post in the hot desert.

‘Definitely’ and ‘Defiantly’ Are Different Words.

I am still coming to terms with the fact that this post needed to be written. How do people not know these are different words?

Apparently, though, it’s an all-too-common problem. Social media is littered with posts where someone has answered with “Defiantly!” when what the responder really meant to say was “Definitely!”.

It happens in my own conversations several individuals on a regular basis. In fact, it happened again just yesterday, so I took a screenshot with this blog post in mind.

Yes. I most definitely did turn my friend into a hamburger to protect their identity. 

I don’t know whether autocorrect is to blame, presumably as a result of poor typing, or if it’s just plain old-fashioned ignorance. The answer to that probably varies from one perpetrator to another, but  either way, continuing to mistake one for the other is inexcusable. 

Definitely means “for sure” or “absolutely”. 
In fact, those are excellent choices for anyone who wants to agree with something, but doesn’t actually know how to spell “definitely”. 

Here’s a hint, though.
Definitely even sounds exactly as it is spelt: def-in-it-ely.
It’s phonetically straightforward.

Therefore, anyone trying to spell it should get to the ‘a’ in ‘defiantly’ and know they’re making bad choices. 

Defiantly is a word most often used by parents or teachers describing the way in which a child refused to do as they were told. 
Examples:
The child sat in stony silence, arms crossed defiantly. 
“No!” Robin yelled defiantly, “I won’t apologise for being a grammar snob!” 

You get the idea. 

It’s definitely in your interests to get this right.

Make good choices, people… please?

Frequently Mistaken: ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’

Today I received an email which included the line, “It doesn’t matter who’s responsibility it is…”

Written by a professional who should know better, it was ironic that it was me, and not them, doing a massive facepalm.

This incorrect use of the homophone “who’s” instead of “whose” is a common error, but that doesn’t make it excusable.

The apostrophe in “who’s” signals that it is a contraction— a shortening of two words into one, so that “who is” becomes “who’s”. Alternatively, it can also be a contraction of “who has”. You can tell which one it is by determining if the sentence is in past or present tense,

Examples:
That’s the boy who’s a really good actor.
Who’s in charge around here?
Who’s been eating my porridge?

‘Whose’ is a pronoun of ownership. 

Examples:
This is the farmer whose cows ate all my corn. 
Whose car is that? 

Once you know the difference, it’s fairly straightforward. That means there is absolutely no excuse for getting them wrong, even if they do sound the same when spoken.

Fun fact: “it’s” and “its” work exactly the same way.

‘Then’ and ‘Than’ Are Not The Same Word.

Some word confusions are understandable, especially if they sound the same when spoken. We call those homophones, and they sound the same even if they are spelt differently.  Examples are peak/pique/peak or there/their/they’re.

The confusion between ’then’ and ’than’, however, is a completely different matter.

Sadly, this is happening more and more, especially on social media. I don’t even spend that much time on Facebook, but it feels like I see someone saying something like “Nothing is better then this!”  or “I love you more then anything!” at least twice a day. 

Yes, they are similar. 
However, they are clearly not the same.
They don’t look the same.
They don’t sound the same. 
If one doesn’t mix up ’then’ or ’than’ with ’thin’, there is no excuse for mistaking them for one another. 

I swear, it makes my eyes want to bleed.

The two words’ meanings are so vastly different that getting them wrong just makes the person writing look  either poorly educated or plain stupid, even if they are neither. 

This is one of the best and most self-evident arguments in existence for proofreading what one is writing, anywhere and every time. 

‘Then’ rhymes with ‘when”— which is an easy way to remember that it relates to time or sequence. 
Examples: 
He put on his shirt, then his jeans, and then his boots. 
She ran up the hill, then back down again. 
When you have tidied your room, then you can go to the movies. 

‘Than’ rhymes with ‘man’ and is used for making a comparison. 
Examples:
His piece of pizza is bigger than mine. 
A triangle has fewer angles than a square. 
I would rather stay home and read a book than go to work. 

Knowing which is which, and taking care to use the right words all the time, is a simple way to protect your credibility.

And for the love of Merlin’s beard, if you call yourself an author or a teacher, get it right. It’s not that hard. 

The Pun.

The pun is often quite an under-appreciated  form of humour. Also known as paronomasia, its a device of word play that relies on the multiple meanings of words, or the alternate meanings of homophones, to make a joke or draw attention to an idea. 

All my life, puns have been a much-loved form of humour in my family. Sometimes deliberate, other times incidental, my mother always took great enjoyment in teaching us to play with words and meanings, and to take great satisfaction in a well-executed pun.      

Birds, flowers, food, animals, jobs… you name it, we punned about it. 

One of my personal favourites occurred the first time we played Trivial Pursuit as a family.  My brother-in-law asked me a Science & Nature question: “Which is bigger, the Moon or Uranus?” “Hold on and I’ll check!” I quipped, then bent right  over and stuck my head between my knees.  The combination of sight gag and pun had everyone roaring with laughter. Since then, the story has been passed on numerous times to friends, extended family, and the next generation. 

Admittedly, some can be fairly lame, but when wielded by a person with great vocabulary and word power, a pun can be a thing of beauty. 
Shakespeare himself loved a good pun, incorporating many of them into his plays. Shakespeare often engaged in paronomasia in both humorous and more serious contexts as a way of exploring or developing key ideas.. 

Mercutio’s joke as he is dying, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” is a prime example, and a master stroke of dark comedy genius secreted within a play that actually has very little to laugh about.

The ability of characters such as Iago and Richard III to twist words using puns demonstrates just how easily they are able to manipulate both meaning and situations to their advantage, and provide powerful insights into each one’s evil genius.

It’s nice to think that Shakespeare and I are of the same mind when it comes to puns. They are fun; they are clever; they engage the intellect; they bring ideas into sharp focus. And the fact that there are a plethora of ways to use them means a lot. 

Of course, some people just don’t appreciate that particular brand of humour. There’s no point, for example, trying to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they can’t help taking things literally.