ON WHAT THEY USED TO SAY

Wednesday already?  It’s great to write this blog every week but sometimes I’d rather not.

Wednesday is an interesting name for a day.  Most people pronounce it “wensday.” Do you know anyone who says “wed-nes-day?”  I don’t, but there must be a few out there.  We all know someone who pronounces the “L” in “salmon.”  Yes, Steve, I mean you 🙂

Anyway, thinking about where “Wednesday” came from meant one thing: research.  And also deciding to ignore Wednesday Addams.

Dictionary.com says Wednesday is named in honor of the Germanic god Woden.  You know him?  He created the heavens and earth out of the body of a giant named Ymir.  Really, no joke. Then he created the first man and woman out of two different trees. Then, when that was taken care of, he created the laws of the universe. What a God!

Fahey_Woden-CCCC-MS-66-p.-69_small
Woden, is that you, dude? image by https://sites.nd.edu/manuscript-studies/2015/04/02/woden-allfather-of-the-english/

Okay, so Wodensday turning into Wednesday isn’t much of a stretch.

But they also say Wednesday is named for Mercury, the Roman god who is extremely fast and also has a planet named for him, which you would think is enough, but evidently the gods can never get enough adulation, like certain presidents, and so he got a day also.  Mercredi, in French, miercoles in English, miercuri in Romanian.

This is also fine as Mercury to mercredi or miercoles isn’t much of a stretch either.  But clearly Wednesday was named for one god, from Germanic culture.  It’s not like someone translated mercredi into Wednesday.  So this means that Romance languages honor Mercury and Germanic cultures honor Woden, and best of all, neither of these characters actually exist.  Except Woden, who may have but I don’t have time to get into that here.

So if you dream of a day being named after you, like some presidents, you’re plum out of luck because, well, you exist.  Wait, that’s plumb out of luck. That expression comes not from fruit, but from a plumb line.  If something is plumb, it is completely straight.  Therefore, you’re straight (or completely) out of luck.

I’m writing a book that takes place in the 1860’s and it’s in the present tense.  So instead of saying “he walked down the road” (a banal example to be sure), or even “he was walking,” it would be “he walks down the road.”  Until you try something like this, you don’t really notice tense, and my experiment will only work if you don’t notice and so I probably shouldn’t be telegraphing this to potential readers.

My book is based on a chapter in a Mark Twain classic.  I feel that writing it in the present tense, if successful, will make it feel more, well, present?  Like it’s happening right now. Like the reader is experiencing the action as it unfolds, even if the narrator seems to know the future, for example, that the Confederacy is doomed.

MarkTwainwith pipe
My God. What a writer.

Mark Twain, like most writers, wrote a lot in the past tense and present and past-perfect tenses.  Open any book on your nightstand (or ebook) to any page, and you’ll see the perfect and perfect progressive tenses all over the place.  It’s how we usually write and until you try to change that, you don’t even notice that  you do it.

I used to teach and tutor writing at a community college in NYC, but that was a long time ago, so I had to look up the kinds of tenses, and there are more than I remember.  12 of them.  No wonder English is such a hard language to learn and use effectively.  What a pain in the ass! And we think Spanish is hard? (note to self: start learning Spanish again)

The other fun thing about this project is looking up language, because if you’re writing in the present tense and want some character to call the other a “nincompoop,” or “asswipe,” for example, you’d better damn be sure that those terms were in use in 1860, because some muttonhead with too much time on his hands will surely point that out.

“Nincompoop” has been in use since the 17th century. Then during the 19th century it was quite in use in the 1840s (when capitalized), but not so much in the 1860s.  Its usage peaked in the 1940s.  “Asswipe,” on the other hand, is a relatively new combination of the words “ass” and “wipe” (I probably could have figured that out by myself), first used in 1952. “Muttonhead?” 1802, American English. I thought it would be older. Guess which two words it comes from? Correct!

I just looked all that up in 20 seconds.  That’s right, not only do they tell you the meaning, etymology, and so forth of all these words, but they actually had a GRAPH of the usage of the word “nincompoop” from the 17th century to the present.  Or present perfect.

Graph of usage of the word nincompoop (and Nincompoop)

On the one hand, the internet can be great, but do we really need to know all of this?  I guess I did? Amazing that a tool that has given us the ability to find very specific and useful information (for me at least), can also be used for such evil.  SAD.

It’s fun writing about a different time, and this internet thing, well, I now have an 1860 street map of a town that no longer exists.  This is where my story takes place, much of it anyway.  So can have the protagonist ride his horse down Emmet Street and turn on Maple and I’m not even making this shit up!  Seriously, you can’t make this shit up!

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01
Did you notice that I left the second “t” off Emmett?  Good reading!      copyright LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

Of course, this being set in Civil War times, I have to also know what exactly was going on in the war, battle-wise, during dates and in the area where the novel takes place, right on the Mississippi River.  Why?  Because some knucklehead will gladly point out the Battle of Baton Rouge was NOT in 1861, but rather in 1862, so I’d better damn well have that correct.  What have I gotten myself into?

Okay so I use Wikipedia a lot.  Sue me. I’m writing fiction for godsakes.

I figured “knucklehead” would be an old word, right?  From “knuckle” and “head?”  See, I figured it out!

Well no, actually. “Originally the name of a mechanical coupling device. R. F. Knucklehead, created in 1942, was a fictional character invented by the U.S. Army to show new recruits what not to do, à la “Goofus and Gallant.” His adventures were displayed in posters hung up around Air Force training fields.” This from https://www.thehairpin.com/2013/05/etymological-origins-of-words-related-to-insults/ .

But this turns out to be only partially correct.

“Knucklehead (n.) also knuckle-head, “stupid person,” 1890, American English, from knuckle (n.) + head (n.).  “That infernal knuckle-head at the camp ought to have reported before now,” he thought to himself, as he smoked. [Charles H. Shinn, “The Quicksands of Toro,” in “Belford’s Magazine,” vol. v, June-November 1890, New York]

Thanks to https://www.etymonline.com/word/knucklehead for correcting The Hairpin. And “as he smoked,” how quaint!

Come to think of it, why would one trust “the hairpin” over “etymonline?”  Who says a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?  Shakespeare, yes I know, but still, these days there is so much in a url.

I’m out of words for today.  The are some 130,000 words in Smoking in Bed, but I swear it feels like 100,000.

Have a great week everybody!

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