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).

Teaser for Rebels’ Bargain, the fifth in the Cortii series!

Teaser for Rebels’ Bargain, the fifth in the Cortii series!

Rebels’ Bargain, Chapter 1

“Much as it annoys me, I need your help to kill someone,” Maklin said calmly.

Khyria leant back in her console chair. “You’re the specialist with a century of kills to your name. What do you need, applause?”

“Bait,” Maklin said succinctly.

She gave him a view of a brilliant, calculating smile. “How much?”

Unexpectedly, he chuckled, uncoiling from her couch, and came to stand much too close, trapping her in the heavy chair, looking down at her. “You’ll do this one for free.” This close, his empathy rubbed against her mental defences like a warm blanket on a cold night, enticing her to relax into it, to let him in. “I’m hunting Evor Leistor.”

It would be very interesting to find out why, after decades of tolerating each others’ existence, Maklin had chosen tonight as the last night of Leistor’s life, and it seemed unlikely he was going to simply tell her. Khyria let her smile widen.

“You expect that you and I together will be more than he can resist?”

Maklin shrugged, propping a hip on the console desk. It didn’t move him noticeably out of her space, which was undoubtedly deliberate. “He’s been avoiding hareni gatherings, and most of his other usual haunts. I don’t feel like spending most of the next month beating him out of whichever conduit he’s gone to ground in. So, yes. I hope that word of you and I, together, will offer him a target he can’t resist.”

Etymology Excavation: chasten, chastise

Etymology Excavation: chasten, chastise

Chasten and chastise

Well, my brain is wired a little oddly (yeah, fine, all right, ‘little’ may be contextually dubious…), so it woke me up at around 0500 this morning with the announcement “Hey!! I betcha ‘chasten’ and ‘chastise’ have something to do with religious purity standards, y’all should look that shit up!!”… so here I am at lunchtime finding out that my brain was worryingly spot on, and doing an etymology excavation.

So, chasten and chastise both mean (today) something close to punish, or reprimand. You’ll also find the related word ‘castigate’ in use. None of the three is very common in today’s English, but you’ve probably heard or seen at least one of them – e.g. ‘Chastened, the princess lowered her shining head.’ You’ve probably also heard of ‘chaste’ and ‘chastity’.

If chasten and castigate instead bring up images of leather, spikes, and a dominant with a whip, well, I’m not here to judge, although that thought brings us neatly into the actual etymology of the word.

Depending on where you look, chasten showed up in either the 13th century or the 16th, and comes from the Old French ‘chastiier’ or ‘chastier’, which meant to punish, to dominate, to instruct.

That verb in turn appears to have a Latin root, coming from castigare, ‘castigate’ or castus, ‘morally pure, chaste’.

So, from ‘castus’, we find ourselves in need of a way to enforce a state of castus, and end up with ‘castigare’, which is a form of punishment, frequently physical.

This concept of physical or other punishment to enforce moral standards is a popular enough concept to survive down the centuries to show up today in the form of chasten and castigate. The Inquisition is a particularly well-known historical example of the abstract.

Frankly I think the BDSM take is mentally healthier, but there you are, gentlebeings: chastise and chasten, excavated.

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).

English, the ‘universal language’

English, the ‘universal language’

Bordering on English

I’m seeing a lot of noise online recently about English, the ‘universal language’. And it makes me laugh.

I invite these optimists to try travelling from York to London in the UK and ordering a Maccy D’s. Come to that, try asking if you can wear thongs into a restaurant in Newcastle and in Sydney. I guarantee two very different responses, but I’d only bother standing by with a camera for one of them.

This is because English has several oddities out of the gate. It’s spoken widely, and suffers from all the inconsistencies normal to wide geographical spread. Put a Scouser and a Texan together at an open bar without an internet translator and watch the fun.

English is built from a smattering of Celtic overlaid forcibly by Latin, in turn overlaid by Saxon and then Norman French, meaning it takes part of its vocabulary from the largely Germanic North, and a lot of it from the Romance languages to the South.

Have a look at some untweaked Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400), the first person to actually write in English, rather than French or Latin. At that point in time, actually writing literature in English would be roughly comparable to someone now writing a work of philosophy in text-message shorthand…doable, but something of a freak of nature.

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,

Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;

Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,

And in his tyme swich a conquerour,

That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.

Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne,

What with his wysdom and his chivalrie;

He conquered al the regne of Femenye,

That whilom was ycleped Scithia,

And weddede the queene Ypolita,

And broghte hir hoom with hym in his contree,

With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,

And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.

The Knight’s Tale

Certainly you can unfocus your brain a little, and stare at it, and you can make it out without too much trouble. If you have some grounding in Classic Mythology, you can cheat and fill in any blanks (cheat. There’s another good word, etymologically. ‘To escheat’, a shortening of Old French ‘escheat’.) If you feel particularly technical, you can even take a red and a green pen and highlight the words that are clearly Saxon in origin, and which are clearly Latin / French.

Let’s take one of the words there (just one, in the interest of having a post that doesn’t equal a full-length novel). Let’s look at contree. Obviously, modern English, ‘country’. Or you could say ‘nation’. Or, hang on, what about ‘county’? Doesn’t ‘county’ have anything to do with it? Starting to feel a twinge of sympathy for those who have to actually learn this language the hard way? I do. You’ve already got two completely different words meaning pretty much exactly the same thing and a third that looks really, really similar.

Among other oddities from its mixed heritage, English has nearly twice the vocabulary of most languages, with most estimates pinning it at somewhere near 1 million words. Given that the majority of English speakers actually commonly use about 5,000 words of that, and even a highly-educated university graduate only about 20,000…that’s still a lot of variation for a second-language speaker to try to master.

For example: fish is a plural noun. Except when it’s not. Anyone want to take a stab at why and when you can actually say fishes? What’s the difference between a belfry and a belltower? Come to that, which English-speaking populations can you insult by calling them a bellend, and which will just look at you blankly?

As practical choices go, picking English as the ‘universal language’ scores a resounding E for effort. It’s hard to pronounce, regional dialects vary wildly, and the vocabulary is, if possible, more enormous even than the number of grammatical irregularities.

Of course, as far as writers go, that makes English a whole bundle of fun with occasional streaks of psycho. You can do nearly anything in English. (Well, you all knew I was going to end up talking about writing.) You can turn up ten or so synonyms for pretty much any word you care to use (or not use. That’s what synonyms are for.) And if you care to dig yourself into regional slang for some character colour…well, the Urban Dictionary is a writer’s boon there. If you weren’t planning on slang to start with, you’ll almost certainly end up wanting some after ten minutes in there.  Not to mention if you put any two grammar nerds into a bar with a pitcher of beer, you can get five different opinions on something as basic as when and where to put a comma (Oxford commas, anyone?).

Basically, English as a universal language is a moderately shitty choice. Why do I blaspheme? Well, because language, at its most basic, and basic is really what you want as a universal interface, is a means to communicate easily and clearly. Yup, really. I can lose most native speakers in three sentences if I make the effort. English has weird pronunciation, which varies wildly depending on region. It has a massively complicated grammar structure. And don’t forget that huge, doubled vocabulary. As far as simple, clear, universal communication goes…well, some of the Eastern writing systems might, possibly, throw more of a wrench in the works, but only by a whisker.

Scene it here?

Scene it here?

Making a Scene

So, yeah, right, a scene. Loosely defined as the smallest unit of book building, built of many of the sub-units of book building known as mugs of coffee.

Essentially, I see a scene is the smallest piece of your book that can be self-contained. It can be a paragraph or even a sentence, but if you lift it out of context and hang it on your wall, it can be read as a piece. Most of my scenes are a few paragraphs to a few pages.

They’re also something I tend to focus on when I’m editing, because they’re, in a word, achievable. If I look at 100,000 words and tell myself that all that has to be coherent, de-adjectived, copy-edited, proof-read and thrilling in a few months’ time, well, that way leads to ‘Author Not At Work’ syndrome, not to mention ‘Drunk Author Tweeting’. A few paragraphs to a few pages, though? Easy. Get ‘er done before dinner. Do that for a couple of months, and *BAM* edit done.

Right, but why focus on scenes again, aside from my motivation issues?

Well, basically, because we’ve all read ‘those’ books. They can be great books (I’m going to cite the Wheel of Time series here), but you find yourself at about page 423 thinking ‘Why the hell didn’t an editor come through here with a flamethrower?’ or ‘These eight books could have been a trilogy’. Sure, those 423 pages may have been full of well-structured, well-developed stuff. But was it all actually stuff necessary to the story, or did the author, in the process of writing, bolt a jacuzzi, a sunbed, and a whole ten-room mansion on the top of the Ferrari?

Please note, I’m not knocking jacuzzis. Or ten-bedroom mansions, come to that. They’re great. But are they what the Ferrari needs to be, well, as Ferrari-like as possible?

Scenes are good to look at because you can read them easily as a piece, and ask yourself some basic questions to determine if they’re vital, fascinating, or a jacuzzi.

Question #1 – does that scene need to be there?

If not, can I put a big red line through it without leaving a plothole, a continuity hole, or missing a vital bit of character development? Is it, in fact, the kitchen sink on the Ferrari of my storyline?

Question #2 – does that scene, if it’s really bothering me but does appear to be vital, need to be where it is in the story?

Would it stop sending me Code Yellow alerts at the other end of the book? Sometimes you write something, and it is actually great and a vital bit, but your subconscious had a hiccup and spewed it up on a page about fifty pages too early. Or too late.

Alternatively, would that scene make more sense if I (yes, sometimes, really) add some set-up so it makes sense? Because sometimes, when I’m writing, something that’s absolutely crystal clear to me, the author, is absolutely not crystal clear to a reader. Why is that damn planet so important that they’d send an entire fleet there? …well, it’s rich, it’s central, it’s famous… did you tell your reader that?

If you’re looking at your scene, and it’s not, technically, vital storyline advancement, you can’t think of anywhere better to put it, but you still feel it’s doing something useful, you’re on to the last item on the checklist:

Question #3 – is the scene serving as character development (or general society / atmosphere development)?

Because while dumping 400 pages of nothing but backstory, society dev and character dev on your reader is likely going to get your book used as a doorstop, yes, you do need some of that good stuff in there. Otherwise, why is the reader going to give a damn if your protagonist saved the unicorns / galaxy / right to personal freedom?

In short, if you’re staring at a scene in your book and you can’t make an argument for its survival under any of these three reasons…most likely you can pull the plug on it. ‘I thought it was hilarious’ is not, necessarily, a good reason to include it.

Look on the bright side. If you delete it, you don’t have to edit it. And your readers will thank you for it.

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