Weird Words: Bend and Bow

It's that time of year when I worry about the Holly Bears. There can't be too many of them in rural France, but you never know.

In France, although there are Christmas songs, there isn't the same tradition of Carol singing, or bearding people to their front doors to either endure the performance with a smile or offer spiked mulled wine to the revellers in the hope of slowing them down. So French people don't know about Holly Bears, and the way they lurk behind Yuletide installations, with their cheerful red waistcoats and wreaths of ivy.

Traditional English woodland spirits aside, there must be something about December that gets me thinking about words. This time from another song, the nursery rhyme, London Bridge is Falling Down.
Courtesy of Bridgewater Links Golf Club - picturesque ain't she?

Thankfully this is no longer any concern for the City of London or its Mayor, since as any schoolboyorgirl knows, London Bridge is in Arizona. It's actually a very handsome bridge, and as the song says, once built up with stone-so-strong it seems to be making a good go of lasting ages long.

By now, you're all wondering what's in this drink.

The children's song asserts that London Bridge is Falling Down. Verse three proposes to shore up the structure with Iron and Steel (eye Nan steal, if you remember was a precious artefact shared between the three blind witches who advised Perseus on his quest to, *cough* borrow Medusa's head in order to kill 'the Kraken'... actually the mythology is all a little confusing in any case, and made all the worse by the 1981 film Clash of the Titans... But that's an excellent excuse for me to drop in a little homage to Ray Harryhausen.)

You might have the impression that this rambling tangential post is out of the ordinary, but actually all my blog posts start out this way. Then I edit them.

Now. Where was I?

Bend and Bow.

Pretty much anyone can pronounce bend. Bow can be a problem. Bad fantasy writers will say that one of their characters (either the cool one or the nerdy one, depends on the writer) is good with a bow. I say bad writers but actually they just don't know that for hundreds of years, people would say that someone was a skilful, gifted or experienced archer - but somewhere along the way, fantasy writers forgot that the word archer existed. Rant over.

In that situation, you know exactly how to say bow. And if I tie a ribbon or a shoelace you know, too. And also if I take a bow. But not if I take a bow and sew it onto a pretty frock. And if I go around to the bow of the ship, but not if I go around to the bow-window to look through it at the bow-fronted cabinet.

It's a minefield. A very small, very well indicated minefield that very few people can be bothered to cross. So lets go around.

In the song, Iron and Steel both bend and bow. In this case, bow is a verb. And you could be forgiven for thinking that the only reason why the song has both words is for the alliteration. Bend and Bow sound good together.

But whoever wrote the song (I'm reliably informed that Nobody Knows who wrote the song), clearly knew that bend and bow are not synonyms. They are very closely related verbs, but their meaning is both subtly, and extremely usefully, different.

In general, Iron is either very rigid and brittle, and therefore does not flex at all - if you try to bend it it will snap - or iron is rather soft, and will tend to bend like an elbow, sharply at its weakest point. Steel, however, can have another property - springiness. So steel, rather like a yew bow, can flex evenly all along its length, forming a continuous curve. Iron bends, steel bows. To bow is to flex like a steel spring or like a wooden (or fibreglass) bow, whereas to bend is to flex like iron, or an elbow.


Nothing is ever black and white in English, and words that are nearly synonyms often just are synonyms. There's no evidence that bend and bow signified different kinds of flexing from their derivations, and throughout much of their existence, they've been pretty much interchangeable. However, the distinction (which for bow-windows and bow-fronted cabinets might be a consequence or that might be a completely different word, bough) seems to have arisen around the way that a longbow flexes, and I quite like this nicety, unnecessary and seldom applied as it might be.

Oh... and the bow of a boat is completely unconnected, and actually comes from a word meaning shoulder so, er... don't put your trust in etymology.


Weird Words: Lacklustre and Dais

Haven't done one of these in a while, and these two words have caught my attention for very differing reasons.


I've already mentioned that I'm a fan of self-describing words, of which the best one I know is the French word cucu which means infantile. Cucu is actually baby-talk for cul which means, well, arse (ass in US English). So the French common-use word for infantile is not only an infantile word, but it's formed in an infantile way, from a completely transparent euphemism.

Love it.

Lacklustre is the opposite. It's a word that is not at all what it describes. The synonymous dull is practically onomatopoeia for dullness. Dull sounds like dull feels. Whereas lacklustre is a sparkly, ostentatious, attention-seeking anomaly. "Look at me!" shouts Lacklustre, "My dullness scintillates like myriad stars."

Love it even more. A word that is not what it means.


Authors seem to have a problem with this word. Hardly anyone other than authors even use it. In speech, I've only heard architects, historians and archaeologists.

And I suppose that authors are dimly aware that the word gets minimal use outside a few special contexts, because although many authors seem to want to use the word, most authors seem worried that readers won't know what it means. And rightly so. Doug Harper says the following:

Died out in English c. 1600, preserved in Scotland, revived 19c. by antiquarians.

This is his deliciously polite way of saying that in modern English its use is limited to a pretentious few.

So it's understandable that authors can't resist putting things like:

"on a low dais" (a dais is by definition a low platform)
"The raised dais" (the whole point of a dais is that it's raised)
"raised up on a low platform that formed a dais" (I'm speechless...)

In part, this issue arises because authors are not conscious enough of their, and their readers', relationships with words, and are making these qualifications, justifications and explanations unconsciously. But mainly, it's because these authors are not being judicious in their choice of words, instead allowing the words to 'flow out organically.'

I got new for you: you can do both. If you've trained yourself to be conscious of your word choices, then you can write organically, you can "pants" a whole lot more than just your plot; but only once the groundwork has been done.

Oh yes, and while I think of it, next year, 2016, over on Narrative Path (link in the tab at the top), you will be able to access the first 30 lessons of a course that will teach you how to become an effortless language expert. This is my 100 lessons poetry challenge. I'll blog again about it when it launches.


24 Things No One Tells You About Book Publishing that are oversimplified for clickbait

So there's this, and it's cute: On Buzzfeed

Here is the list, with my responses, with my view from both sides of the coalface.

1. When it comes to fellow writers, don’t buy into the narcissism of small differences. In all their neurotic, competitive, smart, funny glory, other writers are your friends.

Some folks are friends, some folks are not friends. And some folks are colleagues. Think of other writers as colleagues. If you become friends with another writer, congratulations: you made a friend. Not a writer-friend.

2. Unless you’re Stephen King, or you’re standing inside your own publishing house, assume that nobody you meet has ever heard of you or your books. If they have, you can be pleasantly surprised.

Be true to yourself when you react to being unrecognized or being recognized. 'Pleasantly surprised' is hard to fake, and I've seen it faked a whole lot. Badly.

3. At a reading, 25 audience members and 20 chairs is better than 200 audience members and 600 chairs.

This is complicated. Reading to 25 dedicated fans is hugely rewarding, and you'll get a really strong feel for how they feel about your book. But you won't get from them what you get from 200. If you have 200 people and 400 empty chairs, ask everyone to move down to the front so they're as close to you as possible. If necessary, tell them you prefer not to have to speak too loud. What you'll get from the 200 is a sense of what, in your book, is working. Because you'll feel a generalized reaction from the room, the way an actor or a standup does from an audience. You will learn so much more.

4. There are very different ways people can ask a published writer for the same favor. Polite, succinct, and preemptively letting you off the hook is most effective.

Okay, I have no idea what this means. So it may be good advice.

5. Blurbs achieve almost nothing, everyone in publishing knows it, and everyone in publishing hates them.

If this were true...
The reality is that too many people, both in publishing and on it's fringes, think a blurb is supposed to be some form of the statement "please buy this book, whoever you are." The best blurb, and I'm sure I'll never tire of saying it, is the blurb that does not try to get everyone to buy the book. The best blurb is the one that tries to ensure that people who will not like it do not buy it. It's carefully worded to say: this is the sort of thing this book is, if you like this sort of thing, open the book. If you don't like it, put it down.

6. But a really good blurb from the right person can, occasionally, make a book take off.

See? See above.

7. When your book is on best-seller lists, people find you more amusing and respond to your emails faster.

In demand. The funny thing about this is that it isn't that they are pretending to find you more amusing. They genuinely do. It's like the price tag on a bottle of wine.

8. When your book isn’t on best-seller lists, your life is calmer and you have more time to write.

See #19 below. When you are in demand, be blunt in your refusals: 'no, not now, I have to write,' is th best one.

9. The older you are when your first book is published, the less gratuitous resentment will be directed at you.

Haters gotta hate.

10. The goal is not to be a media darling; the goal is to have a career.

There's nothing wrong with being a Dilly if that's your thing. I know a couple of really smart people who could have become full time writers but who prefer to flit from one all consuming passion to another. So don't think that just because you had a success that you have to get all serious. Be true to your joy.

11. The farther you live from New York, the less preoccupied you’ll be with literary gossip. Like cayenne pepper, literary gossip is tastiest in small doses.

No. Comment.

12. Contrary to stereotype, most book publicists aren’t fast-talking, vapid manipulators; they’re usually warm, organized youngish women (yes, they are almost all women) who love to read.

Yes. Absolutely.

13. Female writers are asked more frequently about all of the following topics than male writers: whether their work is autobiographical; whether their characters are likable; whether their unlikable characters are unlikable on purpose or the writer didn’t realize what she was doing; how they manage to write after having children.

You want the biggest generality about gender? I'm going to give it to you: 
Female writers are generally better writers than male writers at the same level of sales, even though their cover prices are (still) generally lower.
There is a good reason for this, and it's called the 'approval gap.' Because, throughout their education, women have to work harder for the same level of approval, they work harder. And the continue to look out for anything that will give them an edge. Which means they are also more likely to try out other people's suggestions. On a positive note, in younger writers (those under 35 in the USA, under 50 in Europe) I'm seeing more and more men who work as hard as the women. So as the approval gap closes, the attainment gap closes too.

14. If you tell readers a book is autobiographical, they will try to find ways it isn’t. If you tell them it’s not autobiographical, they will try to find ways it is.

All books are autobiographical. Once I've read just one of your books, I KNOW YOU. And this is exactly as it should be. Underneath, all books are about being what we are.

15. It’s not your responsibility to convince people who don’t like your books that they should. Taste is subjective, and you’re not running for elected office.

I'd go even further. See #5 above. It is your responsibility to give the reader the best possible experience. But some people just aren't your reader. And you have a responsibility to discourage them from reading your books at all.

16. By not being active on social media, you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot. That said, faking fluency with or interest in forms of social media that don’t do it for you is much harder than making up dialogue for imaginary characters.

Meh. Social media is good for getting reader reaction. But not as good as live reading. Its effect on sales is limited. So have no regrets if you can't be doing with it.

17. If someone asks what you do and you don’t feel like getting into it, insert the word freelance before the word writer, and they will inquire about nothing more.

Awesome advice.

18. If you read a truly great new book and feel more excited than jealous, congratulations, you’re a writer.

See the gender divide on #13 above. There's this progress to maturity that begins with 'bastard, why didn't I think of that!' and progresses through 'damn, I wish I'd thought of that!' and finally matures to 'awesome, I'm totally using that in my next book!'

19. Fiercely, fiercely, fiercely protect your writing time.

Not kidding: your spouse should know that your marriage is at risk if he/she trespasses on writing time.

20. It’s OK to let your book be published if you can see its flaws but don’t know how to fix them. Don’t let your book be published if it still contains flaws that are fixable, even if fixing them is a lot of work.

Dangerous advice. Prioritize flaws. You have a duty to learn to be a better writer through each book. So eventually you have to weigh the seriousness of the flaw against the difference between what you will learn  by fixing it and what you will learn by moving on to the next book.

21. Talking about how brutally difficult it is to write books is unseemly. Unless you’re the kind of writer who’s been imprisoned by the dictatorship where you live and is being advocated for by PEN American Center, give it a rest.

In fact, if it is brutally difficult to write, you're doing something wrong. Perhaps we should talk?

22. Books bring information, provocation, entertainment, and comfort to many people. You’re lucky to be part of that.


23. Sometimes good books sell well; sometimes good books sell poorly; sometimes bad books sell well; sometimes bad books sell poorly. A lot about publishing is unfair and inscrutable. But…

But good authors endure longer than bad authors, and authors who get better and better endure longest of all. Even in this new world of digital publishing, this is as true as it ever was.

24. …you don’t need anyone else’s approval or permission to enjoy the magic of writing — of sitting by yourself, figuring out which words should go together to express whatever it is you’re trying to say.

This is a weird kind of advice. Everyone needs positive interaction with other people, and artists need to know that their work is appreciated and understood. So I'd qualify this by saying that until you have readers who depend on you (and that's how it feels, by the way), you don't need anyone's approval or permission to go in search of the magic of writing. But once your writing sees daylight—and realistically this means 'has been read by 200 or more strangers—approval matters and there's nothing wrong with admitting that you need it.

And in reality, a lot of people
do need permission. That's exactly what #24 is doing—it's giving you permission. It may be in your culture, or in the way you were raised. I have worked with many authors who needed someone to act as the authority figure and say to them "yes, you can do that, if you want to." People don't learn that they didn't need permission until after it has been given.