Etymology Excavation: strong suit

Etymology Excavation: strong suit

‘Strong suit’ is a phrase meaning a strength, something you are good at. You can easily substitute ‘strong point’ or ‘forte’.

A common mis-spelling is ‘strong suite’, which may have its roots in common terms like ‘Microsoft suite’. It is nonetheless incorrect, however tempting,

My favourite sources are unusually firmly in agreement on the origins of the phrase, and they universally state that it derives from card games, where the suits are hearts, diamonds, aces, and spades.

To be more exact, most of the etymology sources say it originated from the game of bridge. Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology dictionary disagree on when this phrase came into use: Merriam-Webster holds it was 1742, and Etyonline says 1845. I’m going to go with some considerable time after cards came into common use and before people all got too keen on online games to play cards.

Examples of ‘strong suit’:

  • Patience is not my strong suit
  • He’s playing the long game; it’s his strong suit.

This seems to be a phrase that’s used in pretty much all variants of English, and it could be easily adapted for use in SFF world-building; admittedly, you would need to come up with some basic game concept to root it in first. The concept could equally easily be turned around in the world-building for a game-related phrase meaning a fatal weakness.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Self-editing for dummies, or how to not annoy your readers

Self-editing for dummies, or how to not annoy your readers

Self-editing

First seen on the By Rite of Word Blogspot

Readers are picky beasts, and just because they couldn’t necessarily correct your writing, it doesn’t mean that they can’t recognise and be annoyed by constant technical issues. Leave enough editorial screw-ups in your manuscript, and not only will you lose readers, but arsehole book reviewers, like me, will call you on it in public. Actually, so will Amazon.

Yes, editing is expensive – or time-consuming. And boring, for the most part. But no, people won’t cut you slack just because you’re indie – and nor should they have to.

When you publish a book, you’re producing something you’ve spent months or years on. You owe to yourself, not to mention your readers, the respect of doing it properly.

You may not be able to afford to have your 350-page manuscript professionally edited at $45/hour.

However, there are a number of things you can do yourself.

Will this self-editing be as good as having it done professionally? No, probably not. But at least you can minimise the chance that someone’s going to use your precious manuscript for toilet paper because the typos, homophones, and other easily-avoidable technical eff-ups are making their brains hurt.

Step 1: Eliminate the obvious

I use MS Word, but whatever word-processing tool you use, either find the native spellcheck option or mug someone for their computer and load your MS up into software that has one.

  1.  Highlight your entire MS. (In Word, Ctrl+A.)
  2. Select the dialect of English (or whatever language you’re in) that you want your MS to use. I use UK English.
  3. Go through your entire MS and check out all the errors.
    • If a word, phrase or sentence has a coloured line under it, that means you either have a spelling error or a grammar error – or the spellcheck thinks that you do.
    • If you write fantasy / sci-fi, or some other genre that you’ve made up words for, I recommend adding them to your dictionary. It saves you having to ‘ignore’ them several times a page.
    • Spellchecks can be wrong. If you aren’t certain that your red, blue or green wavy underline is actually right, go online and do your research.
    • Spellcheck, for the most part, will not catch homophones (words that sound identical but mean different things). You’re going to need to figure out that a horse doesn’t have reigns yourself.

Step 2:  Use your brain

Go back up to the very first sentence in your MS. You know, the one you hoped never to see again, because you agonised over it for weeks.

  1. Re-read your entire MS. Don’t skim. Read it as a reader.
    • If a sentence makes you pause, highlight it.
    • If you see an error you missed and the spellcheck missed, either fix it or highlight it.
    • If something doesn’t seem logical, highlight it (possible plothole).
    • If you find yourself starting to skim, ask yourself if it’s because you’ve inserted four words, four paragraphs, or four pages of unnecessary yak. Highlight it.
    • Does your scene suddenly change view-points? Highlight it.
    • Got sections where the hero’s rugged face took on a look of surprised dismay before he began to reach out to gently touch the heroine’s velvety, petal-like cheek? Highlight ’em.
    • Be consistent. If you hyphenated ‘cloud-filled’ in chapter 1, hyphenate it in chapter 20. If you spelt it ‘adrenalin’ in chapter 3, don’t use ‘adrenaline’ in chapter 4.
      • If you find yourself wondering about a word or words each time, make a list of the things you keep having to back-check on and use the list to stay consistent.
  2. Go back over all the sections you highlighted.
    • Could you rephrase the sentence / paragraph / section to get rid of whatever made you uneasy when you read it? For example, have you used the same sentence structure multiple times in a row? Is there a pet word that you’ve just used too often? Is the sentence structure just clunky?
    • Get all the weird and wonderful things that spellcheck missed and you highlighted. Spellchecks are tools, not a substitute for your brain.
    • Check the places where something struck you as not logical or missing something. Maybe you need to add an explanation or tie up a loose thread.
    • Check the spots were your eyes started to unfocus. Do you really need them in the book? Or are they pacing disasters that are going to put your reader to sleep?
    • Check your point of view. If you needed and planned to head hop, fine. If you’re just slipping from one character to another at random, or sliding into the omniscient view-point, re-write.
    • If you think that a lot of adjectives and adverbs enrich your writing, please think again. They’re like spice. Add none, and you’re bland. Add a bit, and you’re great. Add too much and you need to start freezing toilet rolls.

Step 3: Use someone else’s brain

Yep. Really. Even if you can’t afford a full edit (we get it: they’re expensive), there are a number of options that won’t cost you $3,000-plus.

  1. Beta readers. Get some. Beta readers are free, if occasionally difficult to come by. Ideally they should be people who read your genre, but who don’t know you, don’t care about you, have never seen your manuscript before, and will tell you the absolute truth. Try Goodreads as well as the options in the other links.
    • Give them some guidance (The Killzone Blog questionnaire is a good start)
    • Give them a timeline
    • Give them a free copy of your spell-checked, re-read, re-edited manuscript
  2. Get a manuscript critique, or partial manuscript critique. This may probably will cost money, but it’ll be double digits to low hundreds money, not thousands.
  3. Friends / family. Not ideal because they will for the most part want avoid hurting your feelings, but they’re usually easy to come by. Again, if you choose to go this route, give them some guidance (like the Killzone Blog questionnaire). Tell them when you need the feedback by.
  4. Join a writers’ group. Again, the standard on these varies wildly, but they’re another free option to get some feedback.
  5. Read some bloggers who publish editorial hints and tips. Here are a few to get you started:

Most important: while the manuscript is out with your critiquers / beta readers / Aunty Mae … don’t open it, don’t edit it, don’t read it, don’t think about it. 

Step 4: Use your brain some more

First off: Thank your betas / friends / family. You’re not obliged to agree with what they had to say, but all these people did donate their time to try and help you.

And now … oh yes. Now that you’ve got your beta read feedback, your manuscript critique, your Aunty Mae’s 4,000 word essay on why she never reads science-fiction except when it’s yours … grab a beer / cup of tea / relaxing beverage of choice and open up all the emails / documents / spreadsheets where people have taken their best shots.

Throw a pity-party, get over it, and spend a few profitable and possibly pleasurable minutes duct-taping your ego to the bedframe. I’m not judging.

Then, go through all the feedback. I recommend sorting it into at least two categories (1) things everyone, or more than one, of your sources is saying; and (2) the things only one person has noted.

If more than one person has highlighted something, put a big red circle around it for serious consideration. If only one person has it as a pain-point, well, it’s worth considering, but not agonising over.

Now … Yup! You’re going to read your manuscript again!

The good news is, the time while your readers were doing their thing means you haven’t seen it in a while. That means you will have got a bit of distance from it and you’ll probably be much more efficient (and ruthless) with the remaining errors.

Re-read it with the feedback, especially with the feedback where multiple people had the same thing to say. Implement what you feel needs implementing.

Keep in mind, however, the beauty of being indie: if you truly feel, after reviewing a bit of feedback and your book that you prefer your original set-up … well, you’re indie. Your call.

Now that you’ve added, deleted, struck scenes out altogether, spell-check it again. (You remember how that works, we did this already.)

Then, if you’re using Track Changes, get the final view, or print out a clean copy, or copy the whole thing into a 5x8 print template – make it look totally new and different – and repeat Step 2.

Step 5: Publish your masterpiece

This is the easy bit, right? You’ve got your cover, you’ve decided if you’re going Kindle Select, or Kindle and everywhere else you can get your book formatted for, you know if you want to do print-on-demand or not …

Good luck and thank you from all your prospective, un-pissed-off readers.

Etymology Excavation: sabotage

Etymology Excavation: sabotage

So, sabotage: what does it mean, and where does it come from?

I wrote a post recently about mercenary troops through the ages, and sabotage (raise your hand if you’re surprised) showed up.

To sabotage something, today, means to damage it, to render it unusable or in need of repairs, or to perform a task so badly as to make it pointless.

Examples of the word in use include:

  • We slashed the tyres to sabotage their transport.
  • The interruption completely sabotaged the flow of the class.

The most direct word origin is a French word, ‘sabot’, which means a wooden shoe, a clog. An expression common in my linguistic background was ‘clog up the works’, in the sense of slowing things down, which is almost certainly related. The term appear to date back to the early 1800s (in French),

Most people who’ve thought about the word ‘sabotage’ have a really alluring theory that it relates to abused French peasants tossing their sabots into the works of their machinery and causing shut-downs. Unfortunately, this has been pretty convincingly de-bunked in terms of actual history (but hang onto the thought for your writing – just because it’s not true here doesn’t mean something similar didn’t happen in your world-building).

The Online Etymology Dictionary and Grammarphobia hold that while there is a link to sabots, the actual reference is to workers moving slowly and clumsily in wooden shoes, and therefore being far less productive than those in leather shoes; industrial action (or inaction), if you will, rather than actual damage.

For another take on the topic of clogs doing some serious damage, check out Jackie Chan in ‘Who Am I?’ fighting with and in clogs.

The origins of the word, in this instance, may be of more interest to writers even than the word itself. As a reader, I find that it’s the small details in world-building that can really make a story click into place for me, and the idea behind sabotage, of a historical item of clothing that so hindered work as to have become proverbial, is something that could be built into almost any civilisation.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: fascinating

Etymology Excavation: fascinating

Well, I haven’t done an etymology excavation in quite some time, and it occurred to me that now would be a good time, because I recently found out where the word ‘fascinating’ comes from…or at least, I think I have, and it’s epic.

So why ‘fascinating’? Usually I look at phrases, where they come from, how they could be adapted to fiction, how they often get misused…well, I reckon actually that you may be misusing ‘fascinating’ without even knowing it.

Fascinate is originally from the Latin half of the English language, from fascinare. Feel free to run that through a few web searches, but originally to bewitch (or to hex, curse), to irresistibly attract, and also to deceive or to obfuscate (hide). You can see how that set of meanings vaguely relate to each other.

So that’s what the origin word meant, and how it got used down through today, when it’s used pretty much interchangeably with ‘interesting’.

However, I put it to you that fascinate shouldn’t actually be used as a conversation-stopper when whats-his-face will not STFU about whatever…fascinate deserves much better than that, and here’s why: I feel there is a solid argument to be made that fascinate, and fascinare, come from the name of  an ancient Roman deity, Fascinus. See the header for a few images of a fascinum amulet…

If you’re thinking that a fascinum amulet looks startlingly akin to a donger with wings on, well, you aren’t wrong. Ancient Romans, eh. Very similar to modern culture in so, so many ways…

But long story short, unless whatever you’re saying is fascinating is at least as good as a flying penis that wards off the evil eye, you’re probably using it wrong and blaspheming to boot.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: Toe the line

Etymology Excavation: Toe the line

‘Toe the line’ means to follow orders, to do as you’re told, conform to a set standard, or to not rock the boat. An alternative phrase that means exactly the same thing is ‘toe the mark’.

It’s often misspelt as ‘tow the line’, since the nautical term to tow something (drag something behind a boat via a line) sounds very similar, and also involves lines (usually, a rope).

Common theories on the origins of the expression include sporting events, where athletes line up with their toes literally on a line; the armed forces; and English public schools, where students would line up for roll-call. Wikipedia offers some entertaining alternatives, including lines separating armed politicians by a minimum distance to restore decorum during heated debates.

Examples of ‘toe the line’:

If you want to keep your job, you’d better toe the line.

She toed the party line when it came to immigration.

This phrase is very common in UK and US English, as is, unfortunately, the misspelling I noted earlier. Sources are notably unclear on when exactly it came into use, but the practice of scratching a line in the dirt to serve as a starting point for races, duels, or even ‘cross this and I’ll turn you into jam’ has been around for at least a couple of centuries – most likely, much longer.

It’s a nice colour phrase that usually adds a slightly ominous shading to the context, and could be used in most contemporary fiction. In sci-fi or fantasy genres, it could be adapted to match a culture from your world, and shouldn’t be used verbatim. In historical fiction, you run the risk of anachronism without doing a lot more careful checking on exactly when the phrase started to be used.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

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