Writer’s Cramp is the blog and site for B. Jenne’ Hall, writer, genius, and pathological optimist. She’s written her first book, is working on her second, and she’s trying to get published. Which from all accounts seems to be as approximately attainable as the gift of flight, but who doesn’t love a challenge?

Entries in language (5)


I do not think that word means what you think it means

Came across these old articles discussing the misunderstood meanings of “bemused” and “nonplussed” and I admit, I felt vindicated after reading about the shifting meaning of both.

Perplexed by “Nonplussed” and “Bemused”

Nonplussed about nonplussed

I reached my 30s before finding out the traditional meanings of “bemused” and “nonplussed”. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that the former meant “confused or puzzled”. Not only did I have to do a find/replace in my massive nearly-finished first book, but I felt like I’d lost a useful word that conveyed the perfect mix of detached amusement, particularly in describing a character. When I discovered that nonplussed didn’t mean, as I’d always thought, “unperturbed”, but rather, “perplexed”, I was doubly dismayed. Another useful word eliminated from my toolbox!

So I was, as I said, vindicated in reading these articles. According to linguists, both words are undergoing the evolution of meaning that is the natural process of a living language. These alternate meanings are even starting to appear in dictionaries.

But now I’m in a quandary: do I start reusing these very useful words in my writing again in the way I’ve always understood them, reinserting them where the substitutes I’d replaced them with just weren’t as perfect? And if I do, am I risking a potential agent’s or editor’s derision for incorrectly using these words in the same way they’d deride me for, say, misusing “between” in place of “among”? Or worse, risk confusing a reader, who has a different understanding of their meanings than I do?

According to Garner’s, I should avoid such words altogether:

When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another — a phase that might take ten years or a hundred — it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use. … A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become “skunked.”

So even though history and the inevitability of change are on my side, in order to avoid confusion, “bemused” and “nonplussed” must be purged from my vocabulary entirely. Boo hiss to that, I say.

This is the same problem that happens with the old rule about not ending sentences in prepositions: the rule isn’t so hard and fast as many people were taught, but if you buck tradition and end a sentence with “for”, you risk your grammar skills being called into question by readers who didn’t get the memo that the preposition rule is bunk.

Sigh. I am a lover of words at heart, but sometimes they test even my patience.


Rules vs. Immutable Laws of the Universe

I’m coming around to the single space after periods and colons. I’ve been persuaded that ending a sentence in a preposition won’t immediately result in a hail of fire and brimstone. I split infinitives with abandon. I can hardly restrain myself from using an em dash for parenthetical asides in every sentence I write. No matter how many dictionaries correct me, I will always spell it “judgement”.

But they will pry the Oxford Comma out of my cold, dead hand.


Delivery is everything

More research for Book 2 as I push through another difficult section. Lots to learn, lots of tiny decisions to make that will make or break the conclusion I want, so that it’s like trying to navigate a maze blindfolded.

But in researching The Battle of Carrhae, I learned about the Parthian Shot, which I am delighted to now know.

The Parthian Shot was an archery maneuver performed on horseback by the Parthians (who lived in part of what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), wherein the archer, at a full gallop, turned his body back to shoot behind him at the pursuing enemy (usually as part of a faked retreat, to lure the enemy into a flanking trap). You may remember that scene in The Two Towers, when the Rohirrim raid the Uruk-hai camp in the middle of the night (when Merry and Pippin make their escape into Fanghorn Forest)…there’s a scene where one of the Rohirrim raiders gallops by, turning and firing on an Uruk behind him as he gallops past. (One of the coolest scenes in the movie, IMO.)

It takes considerable skill to perform this maneuver, both as a horse rider and an archer, as you would expect. The horse must be guided strictly by the thighs, since both hands are otherwise occupied, and of course you must be able to sight and shoot from a very unnatural position while in motion, very quickly. When the Parthians perfected this maneuver, they did it without the benefit of saddles or stirrups, as neither had yet been invented.

The “Parthian Shot” also became a metaphor for delivery of an insult as the speaker departs:

    “With which Parthian shot he walked away, leaving the two rivals open-mouthed behind him.”
    —Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (1886)

We know it now as the “parting shot”.


Progress, word count, and a sign that I may have a brain tumor

An extended weekend coast getaway and I have made some middling progress on Book 2. Gray skies and sea and a cozy cabin will do that to a girl, especially a writerly sort of girl, which I am. God bless the Oregon coast and all its inspirational glory.

Word count for today: 3,274

The day isn’t over yet — I expect I’ll be adding more tonight, after I’ve had a bit of supper — and I got a late start. But as word counts go, it’s pretty sad, considering I regularly bust out 10,000 words or more at a go when I’m more on my game. Unfortunately, I haven’t been on my game in quite some time, a state I don’t quite know what to do with, frankly, and I’m grateful at this point for any word count at all. I may in fact have to start regular word count posts as a means to keep the momentum, at least until I get this train back on track.

And speaking of trains, and tracks jumped thereof…three separate times today, I wrote “thrown” when I meant “throne”, and was in fact thinking “throne”. A simple mistake, you might think, but you would be wrong.

I’ve never had a problem with homonyms, homophones, or homographs, other than the occasional mistake caused by a momentary brain lapse. I have no trouble differentiating the correct usage of there/they’re/their, its/it’s, red/read/read/reed, nor even words that are not technically homonyms/phones/graphs, such as accept/except or insure/ensure. And in fact I have never really had a problem with these vagaries of our delightful language, though I certainly understand the confusion they cause others.

Never, that is, until recently. In the last few years, I’ve noticed an alarming problem that has me a bit freaked out. Have I suddenly begun confusing there/they’re/their, the bane of most English users? Do I now struggle with whether it’s it’s or its? Am I now conflicted about whether the word I want is accept or except? No, no, and no. Again, except for the occasional brain lapse, these give me no trouble.

But recently, I have found myself typing words that are different than the ones in my head, homophones that I’ve never before struggled with and in many cases, didn’t even think about as being homphones until I found myself typing the wrong word all of a sudden. Like today’s repeated use of “thrown” when I meant “throne”. It wouldn’t have been a homophone pair I ever would’ve thought of if I were listing them, and yet my brain made the connection and took it upon itself to order my fingers to make the substition. Even as I was typing the word, I was thinking “throne”, yet I typed “thrown”. And even after I was aware of it, I kept doing it.

It happens in blog posts, emails, texting, book writing…I’m doing it frequently, discovering homophones that never before occurred to me. It wasn’t that I didn’t recognize before that the word I’d intended had a homophone equivalent, but simply that they were never connected together for me before unless I was specifically trying to think of homophones. We’re not talking about common, everyday mix-ups here. And it’s happened to me so often now that I’ve lost track of all the different pairs that’ve popped up, and I’m constantly discovering new ones (thrown/throne is my new one today).

Other homophone mix-ups I’ve made since this whole problem began:  roil/royal, bawled/bald, sordid/sorted, brood/brewed, wrapped/rapt, nose/knows (this one happens to me often now), righting/writing(!), chews/choose, sewn/sown, rigger/rigor, praise/preys, coulee/coolly, wheeled/wield. Those are just the ones I can remember at this moment, far from a complete list.

It’s got me so freaked out that the day that I substituted “eyed” for “I’d”, I googled demon possession and brain tumor pathology. Because seriously! How is this not a sign of something being majorly frakked in my noggin?? My brain is melting together, you guys! The orderliness of my previously awesome cerebral cortex is breaking down into chaos!

I have an alternative theory that my synethesia is spreading…that in addition to my spatial-sequence synesthesia*, where my brain has made connections between the flow of time and the three-dimensional world, my brain is now forming connections between words that have similarities. This would be a far cooler explanation than a brain tumor, and it’s the only reason I haven’t fled to the nearest neurologist’s office for every expensive brain scan available.

Or it could just be that I’m getting old and losing a bit of my mental faculties. But I think I’ll stick with the synesthesia theory.


*(For those new to the show, yes, I have spatial-sequence synesthesia, which that link up there explains very succintly:  “In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may have a (three-dimensional) view of a year as a map (clockwise or counterclockwise).” My synethesia is strongest in relation to time, but I experience it with all number forms (hence the number form link). And that is the cool fact about me for today.)


The hills are alive with the sound of...

Working on the synopsis today — Eru bless the three-day vacation — but I have a random thought that’s been drifting about my wee brain and distracting the hamsters that run the little wheels up there. Where better to offload that randomness so I can buckle down and get to work?

I was thinking the other day about some of my favorite words and why I like them, and I started thinking about words that give me a visceral reaction and what about them makes me react that way. Like everyone, I have words I love and hate for varying reasons. But for some words, it’s the sound of the word that’s the cause of my strong reaction. In some cases, those are the best words because they’re so evocative and I love using them. Other words I hate the sound of so much that I’ll avoid using them if I can.

My strongest reaction-related word is “vulpine”. I have a love/hate relationship with that word. Love it, because it’s so deliciously descriptive and evil. (When describing people, obviously, not when describing foxes.) It’s such a wonderfully evil word that I reserve it for the really special occasions. You don’t even have to know what it means to be skeeved out by it. Just the sound of it makes a cold shiver run down my spine. When I think “vulpine”, I have a vision of a sharp, angular face, half-hidden in shadow, perhaps at the back of a poorly lit room. A half-smile that hints at unspoken horrors. Eyes bright and predatory. Maybe yellow or red, because those are my own personal squicks, or maybe solid black.

I first came across it in a description of a vampire-like character in a horror story when I was about 11, and I didn’t even have to look it up to immediately conjure a picture. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that it’s a vampire-ish image I associate with the word, but listen to the sound of it: the seductive, almost sensual nature of that first syllable, the undercurrent of danger, the similar sound to “voluptuous”; the abrupt edge of the second syllable, not a hard edge like a “k” sound would be, but rounded a bit, like a well-used blade that still cuts as fine as it did the first time. You hear the word “vulpine”, you run, run, run in the opposite direction because things are not going to end well for you otherwise.

Then there are the words whose sounds I detest so much that I avoid using them as much as possible. I don’t like the word “pregnant”* for that reason. It’s that “gn” sound that puts me off, like the sound you make in your throat when you’re trying not to hurl. Not a particularly charming sound, and other than the morning sickness, incongruous with the actual definition of the word. I mean, there’s a reason “malignant” sounds just like what it is, and yet that same “gn” combination is the identifying characteristic of “pregnant”. Heck, that whole “gnant” — so gutteral and back-of-the-throat — is completely repugnant.

I have others. In both categories. Squib. Babe. Guffaw. Puce. Most studies of loved and hated words list “moist” as the most oft-hated word, but “moist” doesn’t bother me. How about you?


*(Unfortunately, the alternatives aren’t any better. “Expecting”? It’s a baby, not a dinner party. “With child”? How very King James version. “In a family way”? Ugh, spoken by people who aren’t able to even whisper the word “sex”. “Preggers”? Barf. “Gestating”? Sounds like you’re hatching an egg. That, or an alien that’s going to pop out of your chest in the middle of dinner. No thanks.)