Sunday, November 10, 2013

Playing With Words

This past week or so has been a period of enormous upheaval. I know I’m listed here as being of No Fixed Abode, but this is now literal as well as literary. I have moved house, something I’ve done many times in the past, but for the first time I have no permanent new home to go to. It provokes a curious feeling of detachment — almost of weightlessness.

I can’t quite decide if it’s rather freeing or scares me half to death.

The only constant is work. The written word. At the moment I have rewrites on an existing book that really ought to be completed before Christmas, and the planning of a new book to keep my mind occupied. I’ve also been talking about writing — no substitute, I know, but the closest I’ve got to the Real Thing recently.

First up was at the 60th anniversary event for the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) at Foyle’s bookstore in London. Here the results of the public vote for the Best Ever Novel (Agatha Christie’s THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD) Best Ever Author (Dame Agatha again) and the Best Ever Crime Series (Sherlock Holmes) were announced. I was honoured to be invited to discuss this with Barry Forshaw, Belinda Bauer and David Stuart Davies.

l to r: CWA Chair Alison Joseph, Barry Forshaw, Belinda Bauer, David Stuart Davies, ZS
pic courtesy of Ali Karim
The second was an Open Mic session for the Elementary Writers at the Avalon Hotel in Whitley Bay, hosted by Victoria Watson. Both were very entertaining evenings. I particularly enjoyed hearing the creepy offerings of Vic’s group.

But now I find myself in a short lull between dashing from London to the northeast and going to Iceland Noir in Reykjavik later this month. In fact, when my next Murder is Everywhere post is due, that’s where I’ll be.

I’m hoping by then my brain will be operating on slightly more than just the lower levels — tree pretty, fire bad, etc. Meanwhile, here are some silly pix and some notes about the thing that brings us all together — words.

It comes to no surprise to those who know me that I love playing with words. My dictionary is falling apart and decorated with Post-It notes of words that would make great titles, names, or just ones I love the sound or shape of. Looking up anything always takes me longer than I expect because I get very easily side-tracked. I collect weird meanings and derivations of unusual words and phrases.

But it’s not just unusual words that fascinate me. I love common words with unusual meanings, or slight misspellings that change everything. (Not so long ago I was sent an email imploring me to sign a partition.) When I started making a note of some words that caught my eye for this post, I quickly filled pages of notes, and then had to force myself to stop. Here are just a few of my favourites, in no particular order.

While androgynous means having both male and female characteristics, androgenous means having only male offspring.

Everyone knows what angry means, but angary is a legal term meaning a belligerent’s right to seize and use neutral or other property, subject to compensation.

Pursue means to harass or persecute — or, in Scots law, to prosecute — and Spenser spelt it pursew with the same meaning. But written persue, it is not only another alternative spelling, but also means a track of blood. (Spenser again) from the act of piercing.

Consent might be to agree or comply, but concent is a harmony of sounds or voices.

The meaning of blanket is familiar, but blanquet  is a variety of pear, blanquette is a ragout of chicken or veal made with a white sauce, and bloncket means grey. (That bloke Spenser gets everywhere.)

A lake is not only a body of water, but also a small stream or channel, or a reddish pigment made from combining a dye with metallic hydroxide to give the colour carmine. Spell it laik and it becomes a Northern English term meaning to sport or play or be unemployed, and lakh means the number 100,000 in India and Pakistan, especially when referring to rupees, or an infinitely vast number.

While a block is a mass of stone or wood, a bloc is a combination of parties, nations or other units to achieve a common purpose.

One that always used to confuse me as a kid was the difference between demure, meaning chaste or modest, and demur meaning to object or hesitate.

And I know for a fact I’ve accidentally mixed up defuse, to take the fuse out of a bomb or, according to Shakespeare (and what did he know?) to disorder, with diffuse, meaning widely spread or wordy, or also to pour out all round; to scatter.

A clue might be anything that points to the solution to a mystery, but it’s derived from clew, being the ball of threat that guides through the labyrinth, as well as being the lower corner of a sail or one of the cords by which a hammock is suspended.

And this is before we get to the words with one spelling but lots of different meanings:

Pernicious means both destructive and highly injurious, but also (according to Milton) swift, ready and prompt.

A tent could be a portable canvas shelter, an embroidery or tapestry frame, a plug or roll of soft material for dilating a wound, or the Scots word for taking heed or notice of.

A rabble could be a disorderly mob, but also a device for stirring molten iron etc in a furnace.

To cleave is both to split apart and to join together.

A race is the descendants of a common ancestor, a fixed course or track over which anything runs, the white streak down an animal’s face, a rootstock of ginger (Shakespeare) to raze or erase, or to tear away or snatch. (Both Spenser. He just made them up as he felt like it, didn’t he?)

Anyway, there are LOTS of others, so what are your favourites, folks? And what’s the best accidental misuse of a word you’ve ever come across?

No Word of the Week this week. I think I’ve used quite enough, don’t you?

And finally, apropos of completely nothing, this just tickled me …


  1. You have such a way with words, Zoe.

    I've always been intrigued by polysemous words.

    And one of my favorite words is fubsy, which means short and squat, but colloquially, if someone is called fubsy, usually means he is a fat, ugly bastard.

    1. Fusby is a lovely word. Apparently it also means a , ahem, lady of ample proportions in all directions. Fusby was one of the words the Telegraph was campaigning to rescue a few years ago, along with skirr, (the whirring or grating noise of birds' wings in flight) vilipend (to regard with contempt) embrangle (to confuse or entangle) and oppugnant (to be combative, contrary or antagonistic).

    2. OK, just realised you said fubsy and I said fusby. Close but no cigar for me ... Both just as interesting though!

  2. If wandering about homelessly results in posts like this one, Zoe,I can't wait to read the book you'll be penning! And from the way you and Stan are going back and forth at it with the words, there's nothing left for me to do but ask one question: If a blanquet is a pear and a blanquette a ragout, what pray tell is a Cake Blanchett?

    I know, I'd best stop with the (lousy) punning before it becomes a Hobbit.

    Enjoy Iceland and big hug to Yrsa from me.

    1. A pale but interesting peach Melbourne?

      I'm looking forward to Iceland, and will certainly pass on your big hug :))

  3. Zoe, I love this game because I love words, too. Especially ones that feel wonderful on the tongue. Here are my entries:
    Pusillanimous - irresolute, fainthearted, cowardly (especially lovely when applied to politicians who stand for nothing but themselves.)
    Swanky - which I always use as a compliment to describe something that is expensive and attractive, but it also means ostentatious, or slender and agile. In another incarnation, it means inferior ale or beer.
    Bodacious - impressive, excellent, admirable, attractive, remarkable, gutsy. I like to apply it to certain very attractive males, and particularly to my splendid nine-year-old grandsons.
    I will be a good colleague and not express my envy that you are going to Iceland and I am not. Oh, wait. I just did.

    1. Pusillanimous is a particularly nice one, isn't it? I always thought swanky was pure slang. Nice to find it has a proper definition. Bit like a jiffy, which is an informal word for a short period of time, but was actually put forward by Gilbert Newton Lewis as a unit for the length of time it takes light to travel one centimetre.

      Yeah, I'm SO looking forward to Iceland, even if I am packing all my thermals!

    2. "Swanky" is in my Webster's Unabridged Second Edition, which to this Yank's way of thinking is the best dictionary ever. Mine sits on a antique bible stand near my desk--an apt location because it is my idea of a bible. Have a great time in Iceland. Being near Yrsa will keep you warm.

    3. Love the idea of your Webster's taking such pride of place. I can lose myself in a comprehensive dictionary, and am equally lost without access to one. Online help just isn't the same as leafing through those pages, is it?

      And yes, I agree about Yrsa!

  4. I’m going to stick three words into the debate; Shilpit which means that leggy look of supermodels and young foals. Now unfortunately used for that extreme thinness associated with drug abuse.
    I would use the word smirkle to mean that involuntary twitch of the lips when you know you have seen something that good taste says you should not find funny. It’s an innocent word though, with no smugness about it. Used when a two year old repeats a four letter swear word and the other throws you a look daring you to laugh.
    Looking it up, others use it for nicking property, to carry or move in a covert manner , to disrupt an organised line up in some way or used as a noun to mean a practical joke.
    Wersh is a great word which refers to that taste that makes you pull a face – bitter lemony but not quite!

    1. Hi Alan. Wow, Smirkle rings a bell, but I've never come across shilpit or Wersh before. The latter seems more descriptively apt than the former somehow. I wonder what the derivation is?

      Hmm, where's my dictionary ...

  5. Wonderful words, Alan. Thanks.

    1. I agree. They are lovely, all of them. The challenge will be to slip them into everyday conversation before the meanings can be forgotten.

  6. I certainly won't swallow chewing gum from now on Zoe!
    Have fun in Iceland and give Yrsaa a hug, please.

    1. Yeah, swallowing the gum doesn't look like a good idea, does it? In fact, I'm pretty sure I was told as a child that is exactly what would happen ...

      Of course I'll give Yrsa a hug from you. Although carefully, as I still have a cracked rib!

  7. I have just discovered that when writing I confuse discrete with discreet, something I never do while speaking -- I discovered this because my editor pointed it out! More than once. May a writer use either word more than once in a mss? Aren't there rules for that kind of thing?

  8. Michael, I'm afraid you are write. Righters are not allowed more than one mistake. Never mind. You are still most welcome on this blog (hint, hint).
    Michael Sears (the other one)

    1. Wait a minute, one of you may be right and one of you discreet, and as discrete as you each certainly are in your styles, I can't tell who's who without a scorecard. Any chance on one of you award winning seers adding on a further tag to your moniker as is done for keeping track of a bevy of widely wandering roe bucks?

    2. Wait a minute, one of you may be right and one of you discreet, and as discrete as you each certainly are in your styles, I can't tell who's who without a scorecard. Any chance on one of you award winning seers adding on a further tag to your moniker as is done for keeping track of a bevy of widely wandering roe bucks?

  9. Thanks, Zoë! Although, I'm not sure if it was a typo, or if you were just playing some meta-head-game with us when you wrote:

    "...but it’s derived from clew, being the ball of threat that guides through the labyrinth, as well as..."

    I imagined the next paragraph was going to be something about how our culture suffers from a threat of violence because of the thread of violence that runs through every individual.

    Or maybe not. Maybe my head is just fuggy from too little sleep. Great fun none-the-less! Even if I did have to put up with Jeff's inveterate punning. Or should that be invertebrate punning???

    But really, it's a good thing that most words have so many different meanings. Otherwise, if each word had but one meaning, think how many more letters we'd have to have in the alphabet in order to spell the hundreds of thousands of new words we'd need!