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Etymology Excavation: neither heads nor tails

Etymology Excavation: neither heads nor tails

‘Neither heads nor tails of it’, or, in the UK, ‘neither head nor tail of it’ refers to confusion, a state of puzzlement akin to staring at something so strange that you can’t decipher even which end of the matter you’re looking at. My favourite etymology theory for this phrase involves Cicero and confusion, nothing to do with currency at all.

I decided to look into this phrase after a copy-editor at ROC Fantasy left me staring at ‘heads nor tales’ (a bigger team doesn’t always mean better editing, class), and it turned out to be pretty interesting. 

There’s also some required disambiguation on ‘heads or tails’, the traditional ask when flipping a coin. A few of the etymology sites hold the opinion that the two phrases have the same origin, which I’m not entirely in agreement with, although I can completely understand why that theory looks tempting. 

Confusion doesn’t equal gambling, although it can lead to it

I’m not in agreement that you can draw an equals sign between ‘neither heads nor tails of it’ and ‘heads or tails’ because it smacks of sloppy thinking to me. ‘Heads or tails’, variously ‘navia aut caput‘, ‘heads or crosses’, etc., depending on your era and location is an ‘or’ phrase, a pretty simple ‘if this, then that’ outcome. Flip a coin to decide, because there are two outcomes are so equal it’s impossible to decide between them; let’s leave it to chance.

‘Neither heads nor tails’, on the other hand, indicates confusion at encountering something hitherto unknown or impossible to understand. Although it implies that there are two options to the confusion, you might also be looking at neither head nor tail, but the third generation of conjoined offspring. While you may certainly flip a coin to attempt to decide which end of the issue you’re looking at, or even if it is an end, I put it to you that this phrase is a lot less digital than the ‘heads or tails’, above. 

Neither heads nor tails

So if I’m so smart, what is the true etymology and meaning behind ‘neither heads nor tails’? 

Well, meaning’s easy. The Cambridge Dictionary, with its usual conciseness, boils it down to an inability to understand something.

The etymology seems to have got badly tangled in the ‘heads or tails’ debate. ‘Heads or tails’, after all, has a nice, clear, contemporary explanation, and flipping a coin goes back about as far as there were coins. Simple, and therefore popularly accepted. ‘Neither heads nor tails’, on the other hand, isn’t quite as simple, and, especially in the US, is assumed to relate to gambling, or possibly to a cute UK tradition, probably to do with sheep and isolated rural areas. 

However, if you look at French, for example, there’s an expression ‘sans queue ni tete‘, which translates to ‘without a head or a tail’ and means something confusing, which is anecdotal evidence that the Cicero explanation may have some truth to it. Why? Because French is a Latinate language (mostly); English is a part-Latin, part-Germanic hybrid with a vocabulary on Viagra and a bad habit of mugging other languages for new words. 

Cicero, for those who don’t know, was a Roman orator (calm down, it means a public speaker), and allegedly he used the phrase ‘ne caput nec pedes’ (neither head nor feet) to express a state of confusion. I like this theory because to me, it explains the slight difference in use and grammar between ‘or’ and ‘neither…nor’, and because there is an equivalent phrase in both French and English with the meaning of confusion.

Use in fiction

This phrase could be adapted very nicely to a variety of fictional settings. You’ve already seen three different variants in this one post, so if you toss in fantasy or sci-fi worldbuilding, the possibilities are nearly endless. Take a hydra, for example, or Cerberus, which are two examples I can think of to support the US version of the saying with the plurals.

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).

Character interview: Khyria Ilan

Character interview: Khyria Ilan

Character interview with Khyria Ilan

Remote location on the Canadian West coast, with a Thermos of fortified hot chocolate.

J C Steel: I heard you took an assignment with Irin. Since it was in the news – what was Central Worlds like?

Khyria Ilan: Crawling in security. And high-tech marketing. I’m still debugging my systems of adware.

JCS: What do you expect the fallout to be?

KI: For Irin? He wants it all to go away. He’s refreshingly uninterested in anything that doesn’t have four feet and a tail. He’s been named heir to one of the most influential families in Central Worlds, and the clause he insisted on was making it temporary until another heir could be found. For Wildcat? Officially, nothing. Unofficially…I fully expect to hear from Irin’s father, in some shape or form.

JCS: What was you impression of Irin’s father?

KI: Intelligent.

JCS: And?

KI: You are aware that I was there on assignment, not a holiday.

JCS: Your personal impressions of a man are that highly classified? The Councils must have a high opinion of your intuition.

KI: [laughs] I remember when that line worked better on you. Fine. Intelligent, nasty, and rich.

JCS: Khyria.

KI: If Irin didn’t have – what’s the phrase? Daddy issues? – it’s possible he might find his biological father less odious. Or not. My personal impression of Irian do Maseka do Harek, since you ask, is that he and Irin aren’t so very different on some levels. However, unlike Irin, do Harek’s been running a business empire out of Central Worlds all of his life. There are lines that Irin has never contemplated crossing that do Harek has had to compromise on.

JCS: I see. Did you ever find out how Cahan of the Golden Valleys managed to make getting you to Central Worlds the problem of do Harek? Or even how he got an audience with the man?

KI: No. On the other hand, the link between Irin Seviki and Wildcat Cortia is publicly documented: that ill-considered rebellion Irin’s planet staged was covered by every major newscast. Once you assume that the initial step of Cahan gaining access to do Harek was feasible, as it demonstrably was, the rest was a simple matter of playing the odds.

JCS: Things you call simple keep my costs for headache medication high. It must have been…odd, to see Cahan and Irin in the same room.

KI: Was that a question?

JCS: An invitation. If you don’t want to discuss Cahan, how about Warron?

KI: Competent. Intelligent enough, on Central Worlds, to focus on understanding what the security measures and the threats were, rather than freezing at the amount of the unknown. Cahan made a sensible decision  when he put him in as guard commander. He’s tough and adaptable.

JCS: High praise, from a Cortiian for a human.

KI: You’re fond of the saying that the exception proves the rule.

JCS: [grins] Ouch. Do you think Cahan’s planet is going to get its entry into the Federated Planets?

KI: That would be the positive outcome for them and for the FPA. Taking a planet back to bare earth and re-populating is expensive, not to mention hard to keep quiet. Cahan’s appearance on Central Worlds indicates that the likelihood is high.

JCS: That happen often?

KI: The eradication approach? Not that the Cortii is aware of. Perhaps twice in the last millennium.

JCS: What do you think about their entry into the FPA?

KI: I recommended it.

JCS: I know that. I didn’t ask you what you thought the most practical containment solution was.

KI: I’d sleep better if the FPA were to erase life on that planet, my personal respect for some of its population not withstanding. As it’s not likely to happen…I’ve done what I currently can.

JCS: Last question: do you think Irin’s going to hear from his father more often?

KI: Yes. Irian do Harek didn’t strike me as someone who lets go of anything useful easily.

Egging on Easter traditions

Egging on Easter traditions

Egging on Easter – some of the less traditional traditions

I’m a big fan of any festival that involves bright colours and good things to eat. Chinese New Year is one of my personal favourites, since it includes firecrackers as well as all of the above. Christmas, too, is a great excuse for competitive gluttony followed by a food coma with a mound of new books by my side.

However, the one currently up on the roster is Easter, that icon of the Christian calendar, marking the death and resurrection of Christ. Which, for some reason, is widely celebrated with chocolate bunnies and eggs in weird colours (more on that later). As I’d be struck dead if I tried to claim I was a devout anything, I thought I’d have a look at some of the lesser-known Easter traditions and where they came from.

Pretty much everyone’s familiar with the bunnies and the dyed hard-boiled eggs. So how about fashion shows, kites, and murder mysteries?

Well, the fashion show apparently started in New York, according to Mental Floss, sometime in the mid-1800s. Traditionally, it’s considered lucky to wear new clothes on Easter (no real idea why, but I’d posit some link between new beginnings and new clothes…), and apparently some of the New York upper crust felt they should be displayed for a bit more than just the Easter church service. The tradition’s broadened a bit over the years, but still exists today in the Easter Parade.

And I mentioned kites, too, didn’t I? Well, in Bermuda they fly kites to symbolise Jesus’s ascension to Heaven. The kites are brightly coloured, and designed both to fly and to make noise in the air; a great tradition for an island where the Trade Wind blows from the East 364 days of the 365.

Murder mysteries. Well, I have no idea why murder mysteries, but in the Nordic areas, Easter is celebrated with murder mystery TV shows, book releases, and even short mysteries on the sides of the milk cartons. The Visit Norway site thinks it started as a marketing stunt in the early 1900s by a couple of young authors, but whether they’re right or not, Easter in most of the Nordic countries means crime mysteries galore. (And, may I say, Nordic crime shows are fantastic? Generally I have an issue with crime shows, because I figure out whodunnit it five minutes in and spend the remaining 40 minutes being sarcastic, but there’s a couple of Nordic ones that knocked my socks off: check out Trapped and Border Town.)

So… what’s your favourite weird and off-beat Easter tradition? (Beat kites and murder mysteries, I dare ya.)

Easter 2019 Sparkly Badgers

Tiffany Passmore, Galaxy of Authors

Tiffany Passmore, Galaxy of Authors

Tiffany Passmore

‘If you can not find the book you are looking for, then it up to you to write it.’

Buy the books!

In the beginning…tell me what made you decide to start writing?

When I first started writing with a serious purpose in mind, I was a babysitter/nanny for my nieces and nephews and my younger siblings. They truly enjoyed it when I would read to them before nap and bed time. The stories they enjoyed the most were the fantasy and the sword and sorcery stories. As they became older, I began to search for stories about people that looked like us. People of color are rarely seen in the genre as more than the bad guys, or the comic relief, etc. So, I began to tell them stories that were based on research into African mythology. Now when my niece wants to dress up as a warrior princess for Halloween, she does not have to wear a blond wig, she can wear her natural hair and rock the look.

Are there any authors or artists who influence(d) you?

There have been many greats over the years that I have read and grew inspired from. My first love was romance. Johanna Lindsey. I then moved on to fantasy greats like Tolkien, Gaiman, King, Catherine Asaro and Elizabeth Haydon.

Tell me about your book / series.

The first series is The White Lion. It is a mash up of sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, action, adventure and a bit of romance. I have always been a bit of a genre soup writer. A Seraphim is mourning the creation of humanity and the way that they treat the world and each other. She infuses her tears into the blood of several families. When the children who can utilize the gift of her tears are born at the same time, that is when the battle for humanity and the Earth begins.

“We will show the heavens that there is something left here worth fighting for.”

The main thing is there is a demon that wants to take over the Earth and the humans with the gifts are having a hard time deciding if humanity is even worth saving.

What’s your opinion on the practice of ‘banning’ books?

It really is a foolish attempt at controlling the masses. If you can control what the public reads, you can control what they think. Banning books stagnates the growth of society.

Tell me about a principal character in your books. What makes them memorable?

The principal characters in The White Lion are actually a trio; the High Princes and a High Princess. The High Princess (Tiffany – I know, she is named the same as myself) is relatable to readers because she is not a perfect warrior. She has an autoimmune disorder, she is spoiled and cries a lot, yet when it is time to battle, she comes through. The High Prince Kenneth is beautiful on the outside, yet he has insecurities and is prone to hyper-sexual activities. The other High Prince, Nicklaus, he was a vampire made human by his good deeds, has a past of cruelty that he turns to the benefit of the group.

It’s said that to write well, you need to read a lot. What do you think?

Reading is fundamental to writing. They are flip sides of the same coin. You can better your craft by studying the masters.

Tell me what you feel the worst, and the best, aspects of being an author are, and why.

The best is the ability to reach people that you may never meet. The worst is the lack of sleep.

Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

I love hiding secrets in books. Most, okay, all of my books and series, while stand alone, are connected in some way.  Not to mention, the characters in The White Lion are based on actual friends that I have or people that I know. When reading it, there is always a guess of ‘did this actually happen?’

Tell me about one favourite hobby or pastime that isn’t writing or reading.

Tap dancing. I perform in charity shows for children with cancer or women and families in need through Our Art Of Giving.

What are you writing at the moment?

At the moment, I am writing the sequel to Sheherazade’s Princess and a new series called Elemental Bonds. As well as my online free fan-fiction, The Sugar Series.

What is your favourite genre to write, and why?

My niche is Fantasy, whether in blended genres or urban.

Tell me three unique things about you.

I enjoy painting ceramics.

My home is referred to as the Library due to the mountain of books that I have collected.

I am a crazy cat lady.

Tiffany, thank you for participating in Galaxy of Authors!

Snow and escapism

Snow and escapism

Well, so, this happened this week. Generally, by February, Vancouver’s more about the cherry blossoms and rainbows. This February decided to remind us sissy Lower Mainlander types that Vancouver is, in fact, in Canada, and we should learn how to use a shovel like the rest of the country.

It looks a bit like an out-take from ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’ movie. Look, I’ve even got a lantern.

Until I was six, snow was something that happened to other people. I grew up in the Caribbean and southern Europe, and while sunburn was something that happened with tedious regularity, along with cockroaches taking over the bilges and jellyfish stings, snow was something I’d only read about. (Oddly enough, in  The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.)

I had my first encounter with snow when my grandmother was taken ill in mid-winter in the UK, and my mother packed me and the warmest clothes we had (not a whole heck of a lot, really), and took off to Brighton to look after her. We arrived at Gatwick in a snowstorm, travelled south in a snowstorm (me wrapped in Dad’s ancient down puffer vest that pretty much dragged the ground at that point), and arrived in my granny’s house to find that in her absence all the pipes had frozen.

To distract me from the fact it was debatably colder inside than outside, my mother decided to broaden my education with a quick overview of applied ballistics, took me outside, and tried to teach me to make snowballs so I could shoot back. Suffice it to say, six-year-old me thought this idea blew massive chunks, that I preferred my ice in drinks, and we could go home any time, thanks.

Sitting and researching topics ranging from harbour approaches to Trinidad to how to analyse blood spatter, it occurs to me that there can be few better methods of escapism from a spell of bad weather than writing, and looking at that satellite view of Trinidad with the snow piling up on the roof outside reminded me of that very cold day in Brighton.

Despite my co-workers’ occasional disbelief, writing is a fantastic exercise in escapism. I actually really do work a full day, drive home through Vancouver traffic (and while Canadians in person are some of the nicest, friendliest people I’ve ever met, the vast majority are shite drivers), and then often head upstairs salivating to write. Or edit. Or, as any author will tell you, perform that vital part of writing known as research (aka screw around on social media while waiting for the words to go).

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