Literary speed dating

‘I like Putin’, a tonged-straight-haired platinum blonde declared. We were standing in a long queue to make a pitch to a publisher. Mine was about Russia and history and houses.

The blonde had a card. On one side was the cover of her book — the back of a naked woman with a horse tattoo, her arms tightly bound; on the other side was a quote from her racy novel about bondage and a picture of a red stiletto shoe. I didn’t have more than my normal business card. ‘For an older guy he’s pretty hot’, she continued.

The girl in front of us — her bangs ended in a purplish hue — raised an eyebrow. I said that Putin did feature in my story but not as a sexy dude. The girl gave me an approving glance. In her millennial- American-TV accent, she told me about her book, a young adult fantasy, and about her potential market. She seemed to know a lot. Even so, she said she’d fluffed her second interview. At least the first, with one of the YA editors, had gone well.

In front of her was the youngest man in the room, suave, chic. He had a card, also featuring the name of his book. And he was counting. With 27 minutes to go in this speed-dating, we weren’t all going to get our three minutes with the big publisher. I just made it. The editor’s skin glowed. Her job must suit her, I thought, and right now I wish it was mine. She was attentive, as she had been to all the ones before me. She asked a pertinent question about my approach to the tangle of material I was reeling off. It was going okay, I thought. Then I heard ‘ambitious’, a code word perhaps? Definitely. Politely, sympathetically, even ruefully, she told me her publishing house was too commercial for my project. My time was up; the blonde was next, with her raunchy offering to round off the event. That lucky editor’s head must still be spinning.

This was literary speed dating. A motley collection of wannabe writers, mainly women, some lugging shopping bags with their manuscripts, stood around in a bland hall waiting to sell their projects. Heart rates were high to start with, gradually lowered by the camaraderie of strange competitors. We practised on each other, then chatted, till the bell rang again, signalling our turn for a three-minute date. My first went quite well. I didn’t choke up; I think I got the idea across. We had a convivial chat all in 180 seconds! The second meeting seemed okay too. He asked if I had finished the manuscript. Not quite, I replied, immediately regretting my honesty, then thinking such an enquiry could be a hopeful sign? I wanted to think so. But as I went back into the bustle of late Friday afternoon on Broadway, I felt utterly drained. I’m still waiting for the call.

 

What’s in a word?

Bundanoon Memorial Hall

‘Community’ is one of those words that sounds positive. For some, it might convey a bit too much touchy-feeliness but like mother’s milk it is hard to dismiss as essentially a good thing. I live in Bundanoon, a small town which prides itself on its sense of community. I’ve had glimpses of it in the four years I’ve been here, from the fringes. I’m not much of a group person.

Yesterday, though, I got an insight into what gives community its good name. Two hundred of us, may be more, gathered in our memorial hall to farewell a bloke who had touched our hearts. Norbert Belley, 70, had died a fortnight earlier; the chemo killing him before the cancer could. He was gone much faster than anyone anticipated. His familiar scruffiness; that chortle from his roseate, unkempt face; the Croc shuffle: all gone from the café and the Men’s Shed and the community garden and the book club and the music gigs and, we learned at the funeral, from the sidelines of his grandson’s football games.

It was a community funeral conducted by Norbert’s brother-in-law, built to perfectly match Nobert’s petite sister Gabi. Others in the family put together the photographs revealing the young Norbert – he and Gabi had had a short-lived religious phase, noted one caption. Most of us had not known the adolescent, the merchant sailor, the air force signals operator. Norbert only arrived in the village five years ago.

The community gardeners did the flowers, huge swathes of wattle up on the stage where Norbert had sometimes acted in local productions and more often worked behind the scenes and afterwards to pack up the chairs and sweep the floors. The hall has always to be tidied up in anticipation of the next event: falls prevention classes aka Dancing with the Stars, Music at 10, the history group and garden club meetings, a film screening, the makers’ market and the community choir. The speeches were heartfelt, straightforward, all delivering the same message. Kindness and generosity count.

The secular ceremony was full of emotion and music. The Ecopella choir that had become part of Norbert’s life sang. A bugle played the Last Post while his RSL colleagues laid a poppy on the coffin, where his grandson had already put his rugby jersey. As they trooped past, I looked up again to those now familiar words above the stage, Lest We Forget, and those lists of names of boys from Bundanoon who did not come home from the First World War, and began to understand the essence of this word ‘community’. Here it means having time to help someone out, have a chat, share a beer and burnt sausage or a cuppa. His Canberra friend played the harp as Norbert left the hall for the last time.

The conversations over afternoon tea, brought by many friends and the local deli (Norbert would have approved of the spread), were convivial. People were pleased the celebration of an ordinary life had been pitch perfect. It had spread the seeds of kindness in the heart of the village.

Metaphors: find the right word to stimulate the brain

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase ordinarily used to describe one thing is applied to another:

Fill your paper with the breathing of your heart. William Wordsworth

It’s not just poets who use metaphors. We all do. Some have become so deeply entrenched we hardly recognise them, for example ‘deadline’, which derives from the literal line around a prison beyond which, should a prisoner go, they would be shot.  The language experts have branded these, inaccurately, ‘dead metaphors’ . They may have lost their freshness but they certainly live on in everyday language.

In recent years, neuroscientists have also been taking an interest in the metaphor. They have investigated how our attempts to turn abstractions into something more concrete are processed in the brain. Their findings reinforce an important lesson for writers: choose words that can arouse all five senses.

In 2006, the journal NeuroImage published a study by researchers in Spain who asked participants to read words with strong associations to smell. The participants were scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When they saw the words ‘cinnamon’ ‘perfume’ and ‘coffee’ not only did those parts of the brain that control language light up, so did the olfactory cortex. At Emory University in the United States, by changing the sentence ‘the singer had a pleasing voice’ to one with a tactile metaphor ‘the singer had a velvet voice’, the researchers activated the sensory cortical region, which had not responded to the word ‘pleasing’. Similarly, ‘he had leathery hands’ triggered a more widespread reaction than did ‘he had rough hands’.

Perhaps these scientific discoveries explain why wordsmiths don’t usually like the mixed metaphor, where two inconsistent images are used in the same description:

Some people sail through life on a bed of roses like a hot knife slicing through butter.

Asking different parts of the brain to process simultaneously the images of yachts, roses (and maybe their thorns), blades and butter is a recipe for confusion rather than clarity.

By the way, I should explain the difference between metaphors and similes (both used in the example above) or, rather, let Ann Edwards do so:

While both similes and metaphors are used to make comparisons, the difference between similes and metaphors comes down to a word. Similes use the words like or as to compare things—’Life is like a box of chocolates’. In contrast, metaphors directly state a comparison—’Love is a battlefield’.

 

Season’s Greetings!

Do you say merry or happy Christmas or both? Are you comfortable with Xmas or do you prefer ‘holiday’? As we approach the festive season, here are some explanations for these differences, some of which are, I’m afraid, political.

First to merry or happy: you’ll note that both are used on this Christmas card, the very first, designed by John Horsley and sent out by Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper at the UK’s Public Record Office, in 1843.

clever animation from Mental Floss suggests that ‘merry’ is more about behaviours (imbibing in particular), while ‘happy’ is a feeling.  It also thinks ‘merry’ more American, and ‘happy’ more English, though Dickens used ‘merry’ in A Christmas Carol and so do many Brits today.

As for Xmas, do you know where the ‘x’ comes from? In Greek, the word Christos  begins with the letter ‘X’ or chi. Here’s what it looks like: Χριστός. This is where the politics start: Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham, has said the abbreviation is ‘taking Christ out of Christmas’.   The etymology suggests otherwise.

And President Trump has claimed to have brought ‘Merry Christmas’ back to the White House this year. Trump doesn’t like ‘happy holidays’,  seeing the term as a war on Christmas. But, as The Atlantic Monthly pointed out last year, ‘ironically, it’s a Christian-friendly greeting at its root; “holiday” stems from the Old English for “holy day”’.

My advice: put the semantics aside and embrace the best of the festive season but don’t forget that pesky apostrophe between the ‘n’ and the ‘s’ in Season’s Greetings!

 

Evolution

Are the cicadas deafening you this spring? Where we live they are out in force, causing people to talk. Some mention ‘si-KAH-da’, other say ‘si-KAY-da’. Why the difference, I wondered. And here, in an extract from the Boston Globe, is the explanation. It’s all about evolution, not of the species but of the English language.

In classical Latin, “cicada” was pronounced as “ki-KAH-da,” with hard c’s. The first “c” changed to a “ts” sound around the fifth century A.D., and the consonant further softened to “s” in Old French. When English speakers began importing Latin words, they looked to the French model, so words beginning with “ci-” like “circle,” “civil,” and “cicada” all took on the initial “s” sound.

But why would the second syllable of “cicada” be pronounced like “kay”? For that we can blame the Great Vowel Shift that marked the transition from Middle English to Modern English. Words with the stressed “a” sound, including borrowings from Latin, shifted from “ah” to “ay,” which you can hear in countless words like “table,” “radio,” and “stadium.”

For centuries, the “ay” pronunciation ruled for stressed “a” words regardless of their source. It even applied to words brought in from Spanish like “armada,” originally pronounced in English as “ar-MAY-da.” But eventually, “armada” fell prey to what the British phonetician John C. Wells calls “continental vowelism”: “Ar-MAH-da” displaced the older pronunciation because English speakers thought the “ah” sound was more appropriate for a Spanish import.

… By the turn of the 21st century, most British references gave “kah” as the primary variant, with “kay” still holding sway across the Atlantic.

 

Fact check: turn to the dictionary

Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary publisher in America, has had no qualms about entering cyberspace. Its Twitter feed now responds to the weird use of language in political debate.

After Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to explain the dispute about crowd numbers at the presidential inauguration, Webster tweeted:

A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.

Merriam-Webster lexicographer (noun: dictionary editor) Kory Stamper told CNN at the time:

We’re not going to change the meaning of the word ‘fact’ just because of the way one person uses it…We’re trained to pull words out of a jar and just tell the truth about what they mean. So we’ll keep doing what we do.

Stamper’s book, Word by Word, The Secret Life of Dictionaries, was published by Penguin Random House in March 2017. The blurb tell us that ‘Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language’.

Australian readers take note: it’s the Macquarie Dictionary (the seventh edition was published in March 2017) that holds sway down under. It too has a website, blog and podcast, and readers can vote for the Word of the Year. In 2016, the word (well phrase) was halal snack pack with an honourable mention going to, yes, fake news.