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Etymology Excavation: When push comes to shove

Etymology Excavation: When push comes to shove

Where does ‘when push comes to shove’ really come from?

‘When push comes to shove’ means when you get down to something, when a subject or situation is stripped down to essentials, when the point is reached at which a commitment must be made.

No one seems to be exactly certain where this phrase actually originated, although there are a lot of interesting theories flying around the Internet. A couple of my favourites:

It originates from the game of rugby, where pushing and shoving is a vital skill. (This origin appears to have the most votes.)

Terry Pratchett, in Thief of Time, hints to the phrase coming from midwifery (Nanny Ogg).

It’s also been featured in songs, notably Grateful Dead ‘When Push comes to Shove‘, and Van Halen ‘Fair Warning –  Push Come to Shove‘.

Examples of ‘when push comes to shove’:

If push comes to shove, I doubt he’s got the guts for it.

Governments may encourage gender equality, but when push comes to shove, they’ll follow the money.

I’ve heard it used reasonably often on both sides of the Atlantic. While it’s definitely a colloquialism, it’s one that’s now been around so long that it wouldn’t be out of place in a range of settings.

Could it be adapted for use in a fantasy or sci-fi scenario? I can’t imagine why not; the phrase itself evokes vivid imagery, so it could be inserted as-is into a lot of world-building without flagging itself as an anachronism. Given the (probable) sporting origins of the phrase, it could be equally easily adapted to a pastime invented as part of your world-building.

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: Raining cats and dogs

Etymology Excavation: Raining cats and dogs

‘Raining cats and dogs’ means a very hard rain, or a downpour.

Happily, I haven’t come across any mis-uses of this one – feel free to chip in if you have, my comments section is your comments section – but I hate to think what today’s creatively illiterate might come up with as alternates for it.

There’s a rather nice (but convincingly de-bunked) theory that had it that cats and dogs would shelter in thatched roofs in rainstorms, but if the rain was much more than than a shower, they’d be washed out – hence, heavy rain came to be expressed as ‘raining cats and dogs’. Sadly, as anyone familiar with thatched roofs will realise, thatch is very tight. You won’t fit anything much larger than a beetle in thatch; and while a cat might sun itself on top of a roof, it wouldn’t stay there after more than a couple of drops of rain. Also, the next time I see a dog on a roof of any make will be the first.

A more gruesome, but probably more historically accurate, theory states that due to the poor (read non-existent) drainage prevalent for much of England’s history, smaller domestic animals frequently drowned in very heavy rain, and in the aftermath, their bodies would lie in the roads, giving the appearance of it having literally rained cats and dogs.

There’s also a nice version involving Norse beliefs, cats and dogs having influence over winds and storms, and adoption of the phrase into English. Take your pick.

I’ve seen dates on this one from from the 17th Century to the 19th; I’m inclined to credit the earlier end of the spectrum as thatched roofs became increasingly less common, giving way usually to roof tiles in Britain, the closer to the modern day you get. A gentleman named Jonathan Swift seems to be universally credited with one of its earliest uses in writing, in 1738.

It also seems to be largely a phrase used in British English. I haven’t heard it used in North America, although I suspect it’s been around long enough that most people would understand the basic idea, even if it might sound rather quaintly old-fashioned. My usual favourite source for these posts, Etymonline.com, wasn’t willing to commit to much on this expression.

While this phrase might be tricky to adapt as-is to an SFF world, taking the base idea and running with it would provide some excellent world-building opportunities. Take the mythology angle, and you get the chance to develop a spectrum of creatures with influences over the elements, for example.

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).

Don’t write what you know

Don’t write what you know

Don’t ‘write what you know’, it’s boring. Be a little daring, my children.

‘Write what you know.’ always makes me grin, but then again I mostly write about an interstellar mercenary cult. If I were writing what I knew, I’d be dead. Of course, according to any sane standards (or at least a jury of my friends and peers, who may or not qualify as sane), I should be dead several times over anyway. And have the good sense not to laugh about it (I digress).

It’s something authors and wannabe authors hear a lot. ‘Write what you know.’ That little oft-cited piece of wisdom may well be the white fluffy pillow applied to the mouth and nose of many a promising fiction career. One of the problems with writing what you know is that a lot of other people probably know it too.

“Writers should not be in the business of propping up stereotypes.” ~ Douglas Adams

I’d prefer to tell new authors to step out of their comfort zones. Write something that’s going to diagonally-park someone’s brain in their humdrum existence of parallel lines. Write something that’s going to make them run away to join the Space Marines and leave their resignation nailed to their office door with their lunchbox.

I’d advise taking what you know, spreading it out flat, cutting it into interesting shapes, reciting the names of a few demons over it, shaking it vigorously in stardrive lubricant, and then give writing about it a shot. If nothing else, the fumes from the stardrive lube should have woken your Muse up.

Of course, enough research to be clear on the fact that there is no black hole between Earth and Mars is a good idea (true story). Research never hurts. Well, unless you’re one of my friends, who mislaid their bag with one of their notebooks in it, and got picked up and questioned by the police because part of their plot was notes on how to dispose of an unwanted ex. (Seriously, you can’t make this shi*t up.) Or…I digress again.

Instead of ‘write what you know’ coming in on every channel, let’s try a little ‘write something new and different’, or  ‘write whatever you can’t stop writing.’

Etymology Excavation: At full tilt

Etymology Excavation: At full tilt

“At full tilt” means flat out, at top speed, as fast as possible. Its origins don’t have anything to do with being unsteady, at an angle, or, indeed poker.

The term derives from the sport of jousting, or tilting (ever heard of ’tilting at windmills’?), and ‘at full tilt’ is believed to have first come into use as an expression in the mid-1600s. Common theories (check out etymonline.com for even more good stuff) are that it comes from either the practice of leaning in to meet the attack when jousting, or, conversely, from tilt or tent, referring to the flimsy barrier that separates the two riders when they joust.

Examples of ‘at full tilt’

I ran down the hill at full tilt.

We’re going to need to work at full tilt to get this done in time.

Is it still in common use? Depends who you ask. I’m a Millennial, and I use it; my parents’ generation certainly did. On the whole, it’s probably more likely to be used in British English than American English.

It’s one of those phrases you can use to hint at a character’s background in contemporary work such as a thriller – maybe your anti-hero is British and gives himself away with it, for example.

If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, you can also adapt this type of expression. If (random example, honest) your invented culture includes people swinging on big metal balls hung from cranes, you’d use ‘at full swing’. (Oddly enough, ‘in full swing’ is another weird English idiom that I probably will be covering on another day.)

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).

NaNoWriMo – this year’s a ‘no’ on National Novel Writing Month

NaNoWriMo – this year’s a ‘no’ on National Novel Writing Month


So why am I being so boring? At this time of year, it sometimes looks as if every writer across the world is gearing up for National Novel Writing Month, which is awesome.

For them as aren’t writers or haven’t come across NaNoWriMo before, the NaNoWriMo challenge is to write 50,000 words through November, which averages out to about 2,000 words a day. It’s an annual thing, with regional, national and international support, social media pushes, and every bell and whistle you can think of, and it’s a great way for people to set a writing goal and have millions of other people inspiring them to stick to it.

I participated in 2014 and won (defined as getting 50K words down in November), and I now have about 66K of an urban fantasy novel sitting on my hard drive. NaNo 2014 got me to actually write most of it, which is the idea. However, because of the way I prefer to write (write when I can, do at least a prelim edit as I go, end up with something almost reasonable by ‘Draft 1 complete’), NaNo and my writing style are basically incompatible.

I haven’t dared open that manuscript since 2014, because I know it’s a horrible hurrah’s nest that will take most of a year to edit – assuming it isn’t quicker to simply take the bones of the story, cut my losses, and start over.

So, while I’m going to be cheering for my friends who are participating this year, I’m going to stay out, focus on the upcoming launch of my new urban fantasy, Death is for the Living, and not kill myself ‘just getting words down’ that I won’t have time to work on the way I like to.

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