Peeve of the Day

I blame Star Trek.  (The Original Series, of course.  ST-TOS was the s-f show of my adolescence, and I imprinted on it hard.  Next Gen was weak tea – Earl Grey, hot — by comparison.) The weapon of choice for Kirk and Spock and everybody else who was boldly going on the starship Enterprise was the phaser, that handy gadget that looked like a bar of soap and either stunned the target or caused him/her/it to vanish completely, dealer’s choice.  (I shudder to think about the complexities of investigating murders and disappearances in the Star Trek universe, given the availability of that kind of murder weapon and body-disposal tool in one easily-concealed package.   Private ownership of phasers and related weapons would have to be as illegal as hell, which would of course lead to a thriving black market in same.  But those are not the stories that Star Trek was about.)

Television viewers watching Kirk and Spock subdue (and occasionally disintegrate) their adversaries needed a verb to describe the action, and since the weapon was a phaser, obviously what it did to people (and occasional things) was to phase them.

(Later on, we had Kitty Pryde of the X-Men, who phased – passed through – objects.  But Star Trek was there first.)

Which was all very well, but then people started using phased as a word for all occasions, including as a misspelling of the already existing word, fazed, as in, Jane wasn’t fazed – that is, “disturbed, bothered, or embarrassed” – by the sudden reappearance of the ex-boyfriend she thought she’d left behind in Patagonia.

Both phase (as a verb) and faze came into written English in the nineteenth century, but both have older roots.  Phase-the-verb traces its ancestry back through the earlier noun phase (as in phase of the moon) to the Greek verb phainein, meaning “to show, to make appear.”  (That initial ph- would be a dead giveaway even if we knew nothing else.)  Faze, on the other hand, has a sturdy English pedigree, going back to the mid-fifteenth-century Kentish dialect verb feeze,“to frighten, alarm, or discomfit”, and back from there to the Old English verb fesian or fysian*, “to drive away, send forth, or put to flight.”

Which brings us, by circuitous means, to my peeve of the day, which is writers saying phased when what they mean is fazed.

Don’t do that, okay?  It makes the baby philologists cry.

*Consistency in spelling wasn’t a big thing in Old English.  Or in Middle English.  Or in Modern English, for that matter, until the printers and the lexicographers between them started standardizing things.

Peeve of the Day

Because it’s the grey tag-end of October, moving into the dreariest part of the year up here in the north country, when the fall colors are all gone but the winter snow-that-sticks hasn’t yet fallen, and this time of year always makes me feel peevish:

Listen to me, O People. Do not use “decimated” to mean “destroyed.” This is not what it means.

“Decimate” in its most literal sense means “to reduce by one-tenth.” It refers to the punishment used in the Roman legions when an entire unit had committed an egregious offense, such as mutiny or desertion. Rather than executing all of them, the offenders would be condemned to draw lots to choose one man out of every ten.  Those so chosen would then be clubbed and/or stoned to death by their unchosen comrades. Modern usage often implies a much higher proportion of casualties than one-tenth, possibly because of the frightfulness of the practice (even the ancient Romans, who were no wusses when it came to cruel and unusual punishment, didn’t employ it very often.)

Nevertheless, it still doesn’t mean complete destruction.  Nor does it refer to the destruction of a physical object; you don’t say, for example, The Possum  Beach town hall was decimated by Hurricane Humperdinck. Usually, “decimated” refers to a loss of population, or at least, by extension, a loss of countable things:  The massive live oaks that lined the streets of Possum Beach were decimated by Hurricane Humperdinck.   Whether the latter sentence means that literally one oak tree in every ten got blown down, or just that a whole lot of them were, depends upon how punctilious (or nitpicking, take your choice) the writer is about such things.

If what you’re trying to say is that beautiful and historic Possum Beach got blown all to pieces and is going to have a hard time picking itself back up, what you say is, Possum Beach was devastated – which is to say, laid waste – by Hurricane Humperdinck.

Got it?  Good.

I Think I’ve Finally Figured it Out

I’ve always been a sucker for a well-done redemption arc in my fictions of choice, in both written and visual media. And I’ve always been puzzled by the vocal commentary that always arises on such occasions, to the effect that so-and-so doesn’t deserve redemption. Because – in my cultural tradition, at least – the whole point of redemption is that it isn’t something you get because you deserve it, it’s something you get because you’ve done something bad enough that you need it.

But if the naysayers are operating out of a definition of “redemption” that has no theological or philosophical dimension to it, but is instead merely a shorter way of saying “rehabilitation in the court of public opinion” . . . well, I may still think that a lot of them are full of it, but at least I can understand how they got there.

(Also – if you’re going to write a redemption arc, don’t cheat by making your character-to-be-redeemed guilty of something that they/their culture think is a Big Wrong Thing but that we, enlightened souls that we are, consider to be Not Really That Big a Deal.  They need to be really and truthfully guilty of something really and truthfully bad, or there’s no point to the exercise.)

A Peeve and a Signal Boost

First, the signal boost:  Fran Wilde’s novel Updraft comes out today.  Smashing science fiction from a Viable Paradise alumna, available in hardcover and ebook formats from the usual suspects.

And now the peeve, because while it’s the first of September summer isn’t quite ready to let go of us just yet, and hot weather makes me feel peevish:

For heaven’s sake, people – copyeditors of the world, I’m looking at you – learn the difference between auger and augur.  Writers have at least some excuse, since the gift of good writing and the gift of good spelling are very much not the same thing, but it’s a copyeditor’s job to be aware of these  differences and keep good writers from looking like bad spellers in front of the reading public. For that reason, it annoys me when I spot mistakes like this in published work.

Okay.  Deep breath.

An auger, with an e, is a drill, specifically a tool with a helical bit for boring holes in wood or dirt.

As part of his cunning plan to do away with his fishing partner, Joe used an auger to drill a hole in the bottom of the rowboat they used on alternate days.

An augur, with a u, is an ancient Roman prophet or soothsayer, specifically one who was trained in reading the future from omens such as the flight of birds (and not to be confused with a haruspex, who did the same thing by studying the innards of sacrificial animals.) The predictions thus obtained are known as auguries, and the verb to augur still means “to portend a good or bad outcome.”

Joe’s fishing partner (who commuted on alternate days from ancient Rome by way of temporal translocation) consulted an augur about the day’s fishing prospects.  The augur, observing a flight of geese in the left-hand rear quadrant of the sky, said that the signs did not augur well for going on the water that morning.  When the rowboat sank at the pier later that day with no-one on board, Joe’s partner’s confidence in the auguries was confirmed.

So.  Two different things, two different spellings.

Peeve of the Day

Today’s peeve:  breech and breach are two different words. 

Breech refers to the rear end of something, as in a breech-loading rifle, which is one where you don’t have to shove the powder and ball down the muzzle with a ramrod.  Likewise, a breech birth is one where the arriving infant shows up rear-end first.

Breach, the noun, refers to a gap or a broken place, as in breach of contract, where some part of the contract has been broken, or a breach in the defenses, where some part of the literal or metaphorical wall has been taken down. A breaching charge is an explosive charge designed to take down a door or make a gap in a wall.

Breach, the verb, means to make a gap or a hole in something, usually by force.  Don’t use breech when you mean this one, either.  (There is a verb, to breech, but it means to promote a male child into trousers and out of toddler-wear – which used to be petticoats for both boys and girls. Like the petticoats, the verb itself isn’t all that common these days.)

So there you have it. Breach and breech – don’t use one when you mean the other.  It makes the baby lexicographers cry.

Ah, Summer!

I’d like to say I’ve been on vacation, but alas, the latter half of June wasn’t that entertaining.  Mostly it was spent dealing with assorted mundane but distracting issues like household repairs (ongoing and expensive . . . most of the time, when you live in a big old house, things fail one at a time, but this was the year when everything – including the dishwasher and the hot water heater – decided to go on strike at once), and oppressive weather  (after a prolonged winter, we’re now in the middle of a cool and clammy summer, with all the associated mosquitoes and mildew), and workshop work (reading all the submitted applications, and helping to finalize the roster of admitted students), and writing work (a set of revisions that I’ve been chasing for this long while now like Achilles trying to catch the tortoise.)

But now I’m back, and just to amuse you, a couple of peeves, or at least one peeve and an interesting word pair.

First, the peeve: People, you don’t beckon someone, you beckon to them.

Jill beckoned to Jane.  “Come look at this.”

I see this one even in published material, and can only conclude that either a lot of copy editors are falling down on the job, or a lot of authors are stetting more stuff than they should.

Now, the word pair.

Consider, then, immigrant and emigrant.  These two words can often be used of the same group of people – individuals who, singly or in groups, happen to be relocating from one country to another.  The difference is a matter of point of view.  If you’re standing on the pier and waving farewell as you watch their ship pull away, they are emigrants, people who are traveling from their country of origin to make their home elsewhere.  The clue is in the e- prefix, which comes from the Latin preposition ex, meaning (among a bunch of associated concepts) “from” or “out of.”

If, however, you’re on the other side of the ocean and watching their ship pull up to the pier, the same people are going to be immigrants, people who are coming into a country from somewhere else.  Once again, the  prefix is the key; this time, it’s im-, from the Latin preposition in, meaning “in” or “into.”

(If the same group of people are traveling from one place to another and either don’t intend or are unable to stay in one place, they are simply migrants. As for why the term emigrants should have more positive connotations than immigrants, which in turn has more positive connotations than migrants . . . all I can say is that language is sometimes weird, and people are sometimes jerks.)

Two Peeves and a Link

Yes – it’s grey and rainy outside today, which means that it’s peeve time here in blogland.

Peeve the first:  It isn’t “per say” (though that’s what it sounds like.)  It’s per se, because it’s Latin, meaning “by itself.”  Per is one of those useful prepositions that also shows up as a prefix, usually one that means “thoroughly” or “extremely” or “completely” – probably from one of the other meanings of per-as-a-preposition, which is “through.”  (If you think that’s a wide range of meanings to stuff into a single word, just consider for a minute some of our English prepositions, which let us say things like “He came by himself to the house by the river by car.”  Which is an awkward sentence – I’d flag it in a heartbeat if I ran across it during a revision or editing pass – but not an ungrammatical one.)

But seriously, people, if you’re going to throw in Latin phrases, at least spell them right.

Peeve the second:  Don’t say “this begs the question” when what you mean is “this raises the question.”

Nobody, but nobody, gets this one right, and it drives me batty.  “Begging the question” is the English term for one of the common logical fallacies, also known by its Latin name, petitio principii, in which the person making the argument assumes as true, and argues from, the very thing which he or she is seeking to prove.  (For a fuller explanation, with diagrams, you can look here.)

Finally, to sweeten things a bit after that outburst of peevishness, a link:

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America 50th Anniversary Cookbook, edited by Cat Rambo and Fran Wilde, is now available for pre-order.  It contains 175 recipes as well as interior illustrations, and is available in both print and e-book formats.

Peeves of the Day

Because hoo, boy, am I feeling peevish at the moment.

Peeve the first: taught versus taut.

Taught is a verb; it’s the past tense of teach:  Jack taught Joe how to tie knots.

Taut is an adjective, meaning stretched or pulled tight, the opposite of slack:  Joe pulled the line taut.

Peeve the second: Will somebody please ask all the budding fantasy writers out there to stop having their colorful secondary characters speak in generic rural bumpkin/hearty seafarer/urban rogue dialect while their main characters speak in standard English?

Honestly, writing dialect is difficult (and problematic) enough when you’re dealing with an actual known real-world example.  Most of the time, dealing with a made-up dialect only compounds the problems.  (The usual “if you’re a stylistic genius with a golden ear” exception applies, of course.  But most of us don’t qualify for that one.)

And that’s quite enough peevishness for one day, I think.

Peeves of the Day

Because it has been entirely too cold up here of late, and cold weather makes me peevish.

Peeve the first:  Mixing up tic and tick.

A tick is a bloodsucking parasitical insect.  (Okay.  Technically, an arachnid.)  Or the sound made by a clock.  Or a check mark against an item in a list.

A tic is an involuntary muscular movement.

So a character with a facial tick . . . no, I don’t want to go there.  Just thinking about it makes me twitch.  Gives me a tic, if you will.

Peeve the second:  Oh and O.

“Oh!” is the interjection:

“Oh, no!”

“Oh, what a day!”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!”

O is the particle that goes in front of a noun that is the name of somebody or something that is being directly addressed by the speaker:

“O Lord, we beseech thee….”

“Hear me, O King!”

“O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches!”

If we were talking in Latin, O would go with nouns in the vocative case.  In modern English, it tends to show up in archaic or formalized or poetic speech . . . and in the manuscripts of writers who are attempting, with varying degrees of success, to write forsoothly.

To whom I can only say:  If you’re going to do it, get it right.

Today’s Cranky Observation

If ever I needed to present any evidence that this blog post by Matthew Yglesias was mindboggling in its sheer wrong-headedness, this quote alone would do the trick:

Transforming a writer’s words into a readable e-book product can be done with a combination of software and a minimal amount of training.

It appears that even noted bloggers on politics and economics aren’t exceptions to the widespread belief that novels aren’t so much made objects as they are the naturally-occurring fruit of the fiction tree.

There are a whole lot of things that have to happen to an author’s manuscript before the printer, or the e-book producer, ever gets hold of it, and surprise, all of these things involve the services of people who expect to get paid for their labor.  Yes, the author could do these things him-or-herself,  or could hire other people to do them for him/her – but authors generally have other things to do with their money (such as eating, or paying the internet bill), and other things to do with their time (such as writing more books.)

Maybe some things could be better for authors than, in the current scheme of things, they are . . . but improving the lot of authors by bringing down traditional publishing is a bit like improving the lot of coal miners by closing down all the mines.