What is Female Agency in Literature?

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When discussing literature or film texts, female agency is the ability of the female characters to take action and make their own decisions that affect their lives and the outcomes in the text. It is the condition of being active and exerting power or influence for oneself.

Agency came into English from Medieval Latin abstract noun agentia in the mid-1600s, and by the 1670s had developed in meaning from ‘active operation’ to ‘a mode of exerting power or producing effect’. Thus, it had a clear association with ideas of making things happen, being a driving force, and having the ability or power to achieve something.
It was not until the mid 1800s that agency was used to refer to a place or establishment where business is done on someone else’s behalf.

It’s fair to say that, throughout history and in most cultures, women have not had a great deal of agency.  

Because most texts reflect the culture in which it is created, the roles of women in any given text tend to mirror the levels of agency held by women in society at the time.

The increase in awareness and acceptance of women’s rights and gender equality during the 20th and 21st century and the associated increase in freedom and independence of women in that time have changed the way women are portrayed in books, film and plays, where there are far more strong and independent female protagonists than previously. Now, female characters are seen to be able to do anything; previously, their ability to do anything at all was limited by the will of men and the rules they created.

In earlier centuries, female characters with personal strength, intelligence and integrity tended to provide a strong contrast to the other women in their society. Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Shakespeare’s Katherine and Isabella, and Harper Lee’s Scout Finch are examples of girls who stood out among their peers and delivered powerful messages in the process. The authors who created them had no intention of portraying them as two-dimensional, submissive females.That would have been a complete waste of those characters’ talents and strengths, and would have only served to entirely defeat their authors’ purposes and messages.

When female characters are able to take action, make their own decisions, and influence those around them, they are understood to have agency.

Sources:
Etymonline

What is Female Agency in Literature?
#women #literature #Explained

Shrew.

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In the coming school term, my year 10 students will be studying ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and comparing it with the 1999 hit film ’10 Things I Hate About You’.

I started writing notes for them about why Katherina was referred to as a shrew. Those notes evolved into a blog post for Shakespeare Nerd, and then I simplified them again for my students.

It’s so easy to get drawn into the vortex of the language and its richness, and to find oneself admiring the ways in which the social values of the time are embedded so deeply in the tapestry of story, character and theme.

If you have ever wondered what a small furry animal had to do with a sharp-tongued woman, wonder no more.

You’re welcome.

Shakespeare Nerd

Shrew on Moss
Common Shrew. Photo by Hannah Knutson on Flickr. Creative Commons licence.

A shrew is a small mammal with small eyes and a pointy nose. Even though it looks like a mouse, the shrew is actually related to moles and hedgehogs. It has sharp, pointy teeth and eats insects, seeds and nuts. One of the most distinctive features is their odour, created by the multiple scent glands in various places on their bodies. There are numerous species of shrew, of which some, but not all, are venomous.

As far back as the 11th century, shrew was also used to describe a woman who nags, gossips or argues, or is otherwise hard to get along with. This came from the Old English word for the animal: screawa.

This probably came from the popular medieval superstition about shrews because of their aggressive nature and sharp bite.

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Satisfying Shakespearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away

There are times when each of us needs to tell someone to go away. Adding a Shakespearean flavour to it lends both style and emphasis to any ejection of a bothersome person.

Begone is the base level entreaty for someone to leave. To say “Fellow, begone!” is the equivalent of “Okay mate, out you go…” today. If not addressing someone who is actually a fellow, you can use any other form of address, or simply say “Begone!” with an imperative tone. A flick of the hand toward the door could add a nice dramatic touch.

Get thee gone! adds a touch of urgency. It’s more like saying “Go, quickly!” or “Get out now!” This is used forty times throughout Shakespeare’s plays, usually when there is a sense of timeliness or hurry about the leaving. It can also suggest impatience or frustration with the person to whom the command is addressed.

Get thee hence! is equivalent to “Get out of here!” or “Get away from here!” It often seems stronger and more urgent than begone! or get thee gone!

It is certainly expressive and delivers a satisfying sense of Shakespearean drama to your demand to be left alone. Of course, if they don’t go when you tell them to, you can always try mixing it up a little just as Imogene did in Cymbeline: “O, get thee from my sight… Dangerous fellow, hence!”

Aroint thee! Is stronger again because of its implied disrespect for the recipient of the command.It really just means ‘go away’ or ‘begone’, but at the same time indicates that the speaker holds higher status or demands more respect than those to whom they are speaking. It also has supernatural or spiritual connotations, as it was commonly used to eject witches from one’s presence.

Avaunt takes telling someone to get lost to another level, as it carries even greater spiritual or superstitious weight. This is the word one would use for commanding demons or any other evil presence to leave. When directed at people rather than the supernatural, it carries connotations of derision, hatred, or fear; that the speaker seeks to protect themselves from those to whom they speak is understood from this choice of word.

It is important to note that a great deal of suspicion toward witches existed at the time at which both plays were written and performed, and at both points in time in which each play was set. Therefore, Shakespeare’s use of injunctions such as aroint thee and avaunt is a clear indication that the characters on the receiving end are either held in contempt and/or malevolent.

A longer, more detailed exploration of each of these terms is available at Shakespeare Nerd.

Shakespearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away.
#Shakespeare #words #communication

Hibernation.

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Now really is the winter of my discontent.

I know I’m misquoting – in Richard III’s famous soliloquy, Richard continues the line to say that the winter of the Plantagenets’ discontent is made glorious by the success of the Yorks in succeeding to the English throne and achieving prosperity for England. The civil conflicts experienced in the Wars of the Roses are over, and the turmoil of decades of striving for supremacy has subsided into feasting and celebration. Richard amd his family are in a pretty good place.

I, on the other hand, am not. I’m exhausted, I’m not sleeping, my pain levels are skyrocketing… and the hits just keep coming.

Many of the pressures and expectations are beyond my control, and because it doesn’t look as though things are going to back off anytime soon, I find myself having to give up something I love doing.

Consequently, I’ve made a really hard but necessary decision: I’ve decided to put my Book Squirrel in his nest and let him hibernate for a while. I will put off making a permanent decision about the until the end of the year, when I hope to be able to get some rest and some perspective.

I have spent five and a half years building up that particular blog, dedicated to Indie books and Indie authors, and working hard to develop a following. Now, it has all just stopped.
It hurts. It feels unfair.
Even so, giving the squirrel a rest is my own choice.

I am discontented, without a doubt.

Contrary to apparent popular perceptions, I can’t actually do everything, and I don’t have unlimited time or energy. Something has to give or else I’m going to break, and although it makes me incredibly sad, right now it’s one less thing for me to think about and feel guilty about neglecting.

I am calling it a hibernation for Book Squirrel.

Interestingly, the word hibernation comes from the Latin word hibernationem, which referred to the Roman army’s practice of passing the winter in a specific location or quarters. Interestingly, it was a military word long before it became a zoological one.

It was not until the 1660s that various plants and insects’ different ways of slowing down or suspension of growth during the winter months was called hibernation. Think of a naked deciduous tree, having cast off its leaves in autumn, or a bulb waiting underground for spring, when it would burst forth in furious growth and then bloom to show that winter had come to an end. It was later still— in the 1780s— that the term was used to refer to the way some animals go dormant or sleep through winter, which is the sense in which we most frequently use the word now.

It seems fitting, then, to respond to a winter of discontent with a squirrel’s hibernation.

I do plan to keep blogging here and on Shakespeare Nerd, so those of you who never followed Book Squirrel’s blog dedicated to Indie books and Indie authors will probably not perceive much difference.

To those of you who have come to love the Squirrel and his bookish enthusiasm: I’m sorry. I tried.

To my beloved Book Squirrel: I really am sorry. I’ll miss you. Bye for now.

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Sources:

Etymonline
Macquarie Dictionary

Anti.

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Yesterday I read a book that featured some excellent characters and a most intriguing plot. One of the reasons the story worked so well was because, in a wicked twist revealed toward the end of the book, one of those characters who had appeared throughout the story as an heroic figure turned out to be both an antihero and an antagonist, albeit unwillingly.  

An antihero is a character who appears to be a champion of the cause but lacks the usual heroic qualities one might expect, such as bravery or honesty. An antagonist works against the hero or protagonist and their efforts to resolve the conflicts and complications of the plot. 

Interestingly, antihero and antagonist both have roots in the same word element: anti

To be anti-something is to oppose it in belief, thought and/or action. 

The prefix anti- is very old, dating back to Ancient Greek and, even before that, Sanskrit and Proto-Indo-European. It means against, opposed to, or opposite of. It can also mean in front of or before.

From the Greek, it made its way into Latin, and thence into Italian, Spanish, English and French. That makes it a prefix that is very widely understood around the world, and one that is attached to many, many words to add a sense of opposition or contrast. 

Thus, although anti-masker is a quite recent term and antichrist is a designation as old as the Gospel itself, we understand both equally well because of the simple clarity and strength of the anti-  prefix. 

Sources: 
Etymonline
Macquarie Dictionary

Overwhelm.

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Because I have both a very dodgy spine and fibromyalgia, I frequently find myself overwhelmed by pain and fatigue. People can find things such as motion,  loud noise, emotion or anxiety overwhelming.

Overwhelm is an old word with even older roots: it evolved from Old English, and from Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European before that. The original Middle English sense of the word was quite physical, but it soon became less literal in its application.

In the mid-14th century, the word overwhelmen meant to turn upside down, overthrow, or knock over. This word was derived from the Middle English word whelmen, meaning to turn upside down“, which is the origin of the word whelm, meaning submerge or engulf

Whelm was a Middle English blend of whelve and helm, which had evolved from the Old English words gehwelfan, meaning bend over and helmian meaning cover.

Overwhem had come to mean to submerge completely by the early 15th century, which made whelm rather redundant. It is evocative of a boat being thrown about and overcome by waves, or a person at the mercy of a current, waves or tide of a body of water.

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By the 1520s, overwhelm had gained another sense: to cause complete ruin or devastation. Thus, one could be overwhelmed by a storm or by debt, rather than just by liquid.

Underwhelm is a relative newcomer to the party: it was not recorded until the mid-20th century as a somewhat derisory play on overwhelm. To underwhelm is to fail to gain approval or favour, while be underwhelmed by something or someone is to be less than impressed.

Overwhelm.
#words #etymology #language

Birthday.

April 20th is the anniversary of the birth of both my grandfather and my niece. While my grandfather is no longer with us to celebrate his birthday, we will have dinner and cake tonight in honour of my niece. 

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The word birthday dates back to the late 14th century, having come from the Old English word byrddæg which meant the anniversary or celebration of one’s birth. At that time, though, it was usually used to commemorate the birth of s very important people, such as kings or saints. Regular folk did not commonly speak of the day on which they were born as their birthday until the 1570s, and about fifty years later they also spoke of their birthnight.

Author’s note: I am disappointed that we no longer speak about our birthnight. I was born at 7pm on a Thursday, and I could really make a thing of saying “tonight is my birthnight!” all day, and “last night was my birthnight!” on the morrow.

By Shakespeare’s time, observation of one’s own birthday was far more commonplace. Not only does Cleopatra acknowledge her own birthday in Antony and Cleopatra, so does the Roman senator Cassius in Julius Caesar V.i: “This is my birthday; as this very day / Was Cassius born.”
In Pericles II.i the first of three fishermen with whom Pericles discusses the king, Simonides, observes that it the king “hath a fair daughter, and tomorrow is her birthday, and there are princes and knights come from all parts of the world to joust and tourney for her love.” This shows that celebrating or at least making note of one’s own birthday was something understood by the regular folk who made up most of Shakespeare’s audiences in the late 1590s and early 1600s.

The tradition of birthday cake also came from Germany in early modern times: presumably as people started to observe their own birthdays, they started celebrating with special food as they had long done for kings’ and saints’ days. By the 1800s, the German tradition of Kinderfest was fully established. This involved presenting the birthday child with a cake topped with candles — one for each year of their life, plus one in the middle of the cake to represent life— which would be kept burning all day, and replaced as they burned down. This was done because they believed people were more vulnerable to evil spirits on their birthdays, and the burning candles would ward those spirits off. After dinner, the cake was presented again, with the candles still burning. The child would make a wish and blow out the candles, with the smoke rising to heaven to keep the evil spirits away once the candles had been extinguished. Then the cake would be shared among the family.

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This is very similar to what many people do today, albeit without the religious superstition and all-day candle burning.

Sources:
Etymonline
Etymologeek
Candles, Wishes, and the History Behind Our Birthday Cake Traditions
Why Do We Eat Birthday Cake?

Birthday.
#history #etymology #tradition

Contronyms.

I remember reading, as a kid, a children’s storybook called ‘Amelia Bedelia’, in which Amelia got a job as a housekeeper without having any knowledge of how to keep house. It was memorable because of the humour involved in her being told to dust the living room, but having no idea how. She proceeded to cover every surface in the living room with the dusting powder she found  in the bathroom. Obviously, the result was the exact opposite of what her employer had intended.

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I still remember the experience of understanding for the first time that there are words that have opposite or contradictory meanings despite being exactly the same words. What a revelation! Words had just become automatically more interesting and exciting.

Dust is one of a small and interesting collection of words called contronyms.
A contronym is more than just a homophone or homograph: it must have two meanings that are contrary to one another.

To dust can mean to remove the dust from a surface: Amelia Bedelia learned that to dust the furniture meant to polish or sweep the furniture in order to keep it clean. It can also mean to sprinkle the surface of something with a powdery substance:: a baker might dust a cake with sugar, a weightlifter dusts their hands with chalk to create extra grip, and snow can dust the landscape.

To cleave is to chop or cut through something. One can cleave a piece of wood in two with an axe, or cleave a piece of meat on two with a special knife called a cleaver.It is even possible to cleave through something figuratively: a swimmer might be said to cleave through the water, or a plane through the air. However, cleave can also mean exactly the opposite: to hold together.One can also cleave to one’s partner or spouse by holding them close, or by remaining faithful to them. In the same way, one can cleave to one’s faith or ideology by living faithfully according to its tenets and teachings.

Fast can mean with great speed: one can run fast, or a lab test might have a fast result if it happens quickly. It can also mean to not move at all: a tile might be held fast to the wall by strong glue, or a vine might cling fast to a tree.

Buckle can mean to bend or fold. A wall can buckle under the force of water or wind. Legs can buckle underneath a person who is carrying something too heavy for them, or as the result of a shock or impact. Buckle can also mean to fasten or hold something in place, just as a buckle on a belt or shoe does.

You could even say that someone who cleaves to something holds fast to it, while a buckle can hold a shoe fast to the foot wearing it!

Note that not all words that are contronyms have only those two meanings.

To bear can mean to carry, as in a burden or a grudge.
To bear can also mean to give birth – meaning that the child is no longer being carried.
These meanings make bear a contronym, regardless of its multiple other meanings and nuances.

A koala – which is not actually a bear – bearing her baby, which she previously bore.
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Contronyms: Words that have two opposite meanings.
#grammar #words #English

A Butt-load Of Butts.

A butt-load has long been one of my favourite ways ton refer to a large amount, either physically or a figuratively—  one might have a buttload of work, or have to carry or store a buttload of stuff. It amuses me, though, that butt-load can actually refer to an actual unit of measurement.

A butt is a large barrel for wine or spirits that holds roughly four times the size of a regular barrel or two hogsheads Butt came into English in the late 14th century from the Old French word bot  which was the word for a barrel or wine-skin. This came from the late Latin buttis which also meant cask.

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The butt used to be a legal measurement, but because the actual size and capacity tended to vary quite a bit — it could be anywhere between 108 and 140 gallons— it fell out of favour.

In Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, the Duke of Clarence is drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. In terms of  methods of execution, there are probably worse ways to go. Still, the references to the malmsey- butt never fail to make my students laugh.

This sense of the word is also used in ‘The Tempest’ where Stephano claims to have escaped the storm by floating “upon a butt of sack which the sailors heaved o’erboard”.

That’s because butt canalso mean one’s buttocks: the behind, the rump, the posterior. It first took this meaning from  animal parts in the mid 15th century in relation to butchering and cookery, as a shortened form of buttocks, which was the name given to the meaty rear end of animals and people by about 1300. The application of butt to humans  came later, as part of American slang in the mid 19th century.

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Butt came to mean the the thick end of something or the extremity of a piece of land by about 1400, which is most likely how the term came to be used for the end of a rifle, and therefore a pistol, or of a smoked cigar or cigarette, which was first recorded in 1847.

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Shakespeare’s Richard III uses this sense of the word when he responds to his mother’s invocation to “put meekness in thy breast,  Love,charity, obedience and true duty”  with “and make me die a good old man! This is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing— / I marvel that Her Grace did leave it out!” This is also a pun for butt as in his being on the receiving end of  her insult.

By the early 1600s, butt had come to be used for the target of a joke or an object of ridicule. 1610s. This was derived from the Old French word but  which meant an aim, goal, end, or a target in archery, which swans in turn the product of the Old French words bot for end and but for aim or goal which was used for a target for shooting practice or a turf-covered mound against which an archery target was set that dated to the mid 1300s.

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It is this earlier sense of the word used by Richard, Duke of York in ‘Henry VI part 3’ when he tells his killer, “Come, bloody Clifford, rough Northumberland, I dare your quench.ess fury to more rage. / I am your butt, and I abide your shot.”

Othello also uses sense of this word in his final scene, where he says, “Be thou not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d; / Here is y journey’s end, here is my butt.”

The verb to butt meaning to hit with the head, as a goat, a fighter or a soccer-player might do, was in use by 1200 . This came from Anglo-French buter and Old French boter which meant to push, shove, thrust or knock. This came from either Frankish or another Germanic source which traces back to Proto-Germanic word butan, and before that to the PIE root *bhau which meant to strike.

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In the banter between Katherine and Longaville‘Love’s Labours Lost’  V.ii, he admonishes  her: “Look how you butt yourself with these sharp mocks, Wilt thou give horns, chaste lady? Do not so.” Katherine responds with a comment about he should die a calf before his horns grow, which is a witty little bit of innuendo as they part ways.

Another example of Shakespeare’s word play is the pun on butt in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ where Gremio describes the clash of wits between Hortensio and Petruchio thus:  “Believe me, sir, they butt together well.” Bianca responds with both pun and innuendo: “Head and butt! A hasty-witted body / Would say your ‘head and butt’ were ‘head and horn.”

To butt against, meaning to adjoin or sit right next to, dates back to the 1660s,p and comes from an abbreviation of abut.

A butt butting on a receptacle for butts. Image: WordyNerdBird.

To butt into a conversation by intruding without invitation came into American English at the turn of the 20th century.

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Sources:

Etymonline
Macquarie Dictionary

A Butt-load of Butts.
#words #language #Englishvocabulary

Passion.

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Most of the time when we use the word passion, we are referring to either powerful emotion or a strong desire to do something. 

However, when people talk about ‘the Passion’ of Jesus at Easter, the word has a different meaning altogether. 

It doesn’t mean that He had a strong desire to die the way he did— even though he was absolutely committed to doing so— nor does it refer to His emotional state, even though he definitely would have experienced a plethora of powerful emotions. 

Passion came into English from French around 1200 AD,  meaning physical suffering. This came from the Latin word passionem meaning suffering or enduring

Interestingly, passionem came from the past-participle Lati stem word pati- which meant “to endure, undergo or experience.” This means that passion is a cousin of patient and patience.

By the mid-13th century, passion had also come to mean an ailment, disease or affliction; rather than just the condition of suffering one. At about the same time, any emotion, feeling or powerful temptation to sin that might be considered as an affliction” might also be called a passion. 

Therefore, when medieval theologians and teachers used the phrase ‘the passion of Christ’ they had no concept of how those words might cause confusion or be entirely misconstrued in the future. 

It was another century or so before passion was used to refer to the intensity of an emotion or desire.  Later again was the use of the word to refer specifically  to sexual love or desire, which had developed by the late 16th century. By the 1630s, it had evolved again to include the sense of a strong liking, enthusiasm, or preference”, and by the 1730s, the object of that pursuit or desire was also referred to as one’s passion.

Because language continually evolves, old words often come to have several very different meanings.  The beauty of etymology is that it explains the relationships and solves the puzzles that we might otherwise find very confusing. 

And fhat, friends, why everyone needs wordy-nerdy people like me in their lives, ready to answer the tough questions and enrich your word power and vocabulary. 
You’re welcome. 

Happy Easter. x

Why is Jesus’ suffering called ‘passion’?
#Easter #GoodFriday #words Vocabulary