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The Write Way

22October 2004

Overworked and Overdone


Before we get started this week, I have a little favour to ask ... It's just a little one ... Would you be able to help me by inviting one (or more) of your friends or colleagues to sign up for the newsletter? Just send them this link and rave a little about all the brilliant wit, unbelievable information and incredibly useful sites in each week's edition ... OK, then tell them they have to sign up to get their own copy so you can compare horror stories about each week's rambles. Gee ... some people ... Here's the link:

And I suppose you're sitting there, nodding to yourself at my comment about the "unbelievable information" and muttering things like, "She got that right!"

"Unbelievable" is one of those overworked words, isn't it? And it's not alone.

I can vividly remember sitting in one of my first English classes at high school and our teacher chastising one boy for using the word "fantastic" to describe something or other he thought was pretty good in the novel we were reading. Mr Byrnes (a wonderful fellow who must have been in his 50s when he taught us) or "Cookie" (as we came to call him, after the character in the TV show, 77 Sunset Strip), used to get out his comb at the beginning and end of each class and comb his one strand of hair elaborately over his bald pate, mimicking Ed Byrnes from the show. (And we thought he didn't know his nickname!)


We spent almost a whole lesson discussing this one word as Cookie asked all of us in turn what it meant and then explained its origins (so, yes, you have Cookie to blame for all the times I carry on about where words come from). He told us that it came from a Latin word that meant 'in the imagination' and that when we used it to describe a pop song or a pair of shoes, we were doing it a grave disservice. 

It does in fact come from the Late Latin phantasticus, which means 'imaginary' and this in turn comes from the Greek phantastikos, meaning 'able to create mental images.'

There are hundreds of words and phrases like this; words that were once tall and proud but now have the dubious distinction of being allied too closely with the hoi polloi and tied inextricably to the common denominator. Not to put to fine a point on it, they've been used and abused until they've thrown in the towel, cried 'uncle' and gone to meet their Maker.

I can see you cringe after that little lot ... 

I've mentioned before how blessed we are to have so many words to choose from in English - around a million in some estimates - but there are just fifty words, which make up 60% of everything we say - and not one of these has more than one syllable ... which brings us to ... "stuff." Why, oh why, (oh WHY) do otherwise professional sites insist on using (shudder) Free Stuff? Surely with a million words to choose from it's possible to find a term to describe more specifically what's being offered.

If you visit ten websites at random, you'll find more than half will have a link to "Free Stuff," and regardless of the nature of the site, the link will read "Free Stuff."

Looking for graphics? Click on "Free Stuff."

Looking for information on black holes or quantum physics? "Free Stuff' will take you to it.

Need a dietary plan for diabetics? Try clicking on "Free Stuff."


Enough stuff!

"Stuff" indicates a lazy mind - one that can't be bothered spending a second or two scouring the memory banks for a precise term. 

For those of you who are gluttons for punishment, here's a page full of what the Marion Press people call Dimwit Definitions. I double dare you to read them and not squirm as you recognise that witty turn of phrase and whizzo metaphor you used just last week.

This week's quiz:

Since we spent some time exploring (and yea, verily, squirming) through the Dimwit Definitions, let's regain a little pride by trying to fathom the words suggested. Many of these have already made an appearance as the Word of the Day or in previous quizzes:

bedizen, bootless, caliginous, compleat, cotquean, hebdomadal, helpmeet, logorrhea, quondam, wont

1. a man who busies himself with affairs which properly belong to women 

2. appearing or occurring every seven days 

3. dress up garishly and tastelessly; decorate tastelessly 

4. having been formerly; former; sometime; person dismissed from a post

5. dark and misty and gloomy 

6. pathologically excessive (and often incoherent) talking

7. a helpful partner 

8. unproductive of success 

9. a pattern of behavior acquired through frequent repetition 

10.of or characterized by a highly developed or wide-ranging skill or proficiency; being an outstanding example of a kind; quintessential 

Last week's quiz:

1. bathos - writing ('bathos' is an anti-climax)

2. pirouette - dancing, ballet

3. molecule - science

4. creel - fishing

5. theodolite - surveying

6. yaw - sailing or flying (navigating)

7. tibia - medicine, (orthopaedics)

8. gradient - engineering, driving

9. fulcrum - engineering, building (anything where you use levers)

10.epidermis - medicine (skin treatment)

Our Map of the World has some fascinating glimpses into the places our Merry Band call home. Drop by if you haven't been back for some time and don't forget to read the messages. (Just click List) :  

A Little Something Extra

Here's a nifty little exercise from Susan Letham on how to get your readers into your story:

Zoom Readers Into Your Text
by Susan J. Letham

Try zooming your reader into your text. You can zoom in one
of two ways: from a general overview to a particular point,
or from a detail to the overall context. Metaphorically, you
can work your way from a view of our planet from space to a
view of Europe from a plane five miles up, to snapshots of a
Dutch city taken from a balloon, to the view of the market
place from the top of the church tower, to the price of
tulips chalked on the board of a flower stall in the square
--or the reverse: from the chalk board to the stars. Either
way, the zoom technique can help you show your reader where
the details of your story fit into a bigger picture.

The Activity

Master the zoom technique by writing your way through the
above zoom-in example.

The Context

You've been asked to write a non-fiction article for the "In
Our World" section of a magazine for 10-12-year olds. The
aim of the "In Our World" section is to show children where
the things around them come from. You've been assigned the
topic of "Tulips from Amsterdam."

The "space to specific" zoom is used to start each of the
articles in the "In Our World" series. It's part of the
section's signature and a way of creating interest and
excitement. With each zoom step, the writer is expected to
give the children increasingly more concrete written clues
about the country, city, and product the body of the article
will tackle.

The Process

Start with an image of Earth from space. Write one sentence
about what you see. In a second sentence, give a broad hint
to do with The Netherlands (Holland) and Europe. Again, in
one sentence, describe a view of western Europe from a plane
five miles up. Give a more definite (one-sentence) clue to
do with The Netherlands, Amsterdam and tulip fields.

Now imagine a balloonist taking snapshots of a Dutch city
from a balloon. Describe the city in one sentence, without
naming it. The next sentence will describe the view from the
church tower, and the final sentence will bring the reader
to the flower stall, the price board (in euro, not dollars),
and to the product in question--the tulips sold on a stall
at an Amsterdam market.

Want more tips like this You'll get a wealth of practical
guides in the "First Feature Articles" class.

2004, Susan J. Letham

Word of the week: Whilom (n) formerly; once; of old; erewhile; at times

And isn't this a word that deserves to be revived? It sounds so much better to describe Billy Bloggs as the whilom Minister for Foreign Affairs instead of the ex-Minister ...

It's an Old English word that was favoured by Chaucer, as shows: "Whilom, as olde stories tellen us, There was a duke that highte Theseus." (Chaucer)

Oxymoron of the week: present experience

And speaking of hackneyed phrases ... If you just can't think of anything fresh, new and innovative ... why not say it in Latin?

Hodie adsit, cras absit. (Here today, gone tomorrow.)

Uno viso, omnia visa sunt. (Seen one, seen them all.)

Id quod circumiret, circumveniat. (What goes around, comes around.)



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