Category Archives: Writing

Animal expressions that should be as retired as a raphus cucullatus*

The best reason to avoid clichés in writing is that they are boring.

The next best reason is some are just plain wrong and it’s our job as writers to stop the spread of ignorance:

Sweat like a pig.

Pigs don’t sweat, at least, not enough to matter. That’s why they wallow in mud — they need a heatsink.

However, apparently this expression really refers to pig iron anyway, not pigs. So maybe this doesn’t exactly prove my point. Oh well. Moving on…

Blind as a bat.

Bats aren’t blind. They see very well when there is light, but of course, their thing is seeing in the dark. For that, they developed sonar. But their eyes didn’t suddenly stop working when they started squeaking at mosquitoes.

There are truly blind animals. Why not use “blind as a Texas cave salamander”? Or even “myopic as a mole”. Hey! that one is pretty good. You can use it. Until it becomes cliché.

Drink like a fish.

This is either completely wrong or mostly wrong, depending on whether you are talking about fresh or salt water fish:

– Freshwater fish don’t drink at all. They absorb all the moisture they need from the water passing through their gills. So you can’t “drink like a fish” unless you have gills or the ability to absorb water through your skin. Tadpoles and frogs can do that. So why not “drink like a frog”?

– Saltwater fish do swallow a little water to replace what they lose from their gills due to osmosis. Occasional little sips. I don’t think that is in the spirit of the expression.

Slippery as a snake.

Snakes are not slippery, they are smooth. If something is slippery, you can’t get a proper grip on it, like a wet bar of soap, or a politician’s promise. Snakes are dry (except, obviously, for water snakes) and you can hold a snake easily. If you want to test this yourself, remember if it wasn’t for snakes we would be buried in vermin, so don’t squeeze hard enough to hurt the little fella.

Slippery as an eel works, but you lose that attractive alliteration.

Piss like a racehorse.

Does that mean naked, on all fours, in the middle of a racetrack? While possible, it is a physically challenging pose for women and probably not a good idea for men either.

I smell a rat.

Rats don’t have a scent that humans can detect. You may smell a rat’s nest, but again, probably not — our noses are terrible.

On the other hand, humans have a scent that just about every animal can detect. We are a truly rank species. Even a few days without bathing will do it. So you should say “I smell a human”.

Working like a dog.

Okay seriously — when was the last time you saw a dog working? My dog naps, begs for treats, and chases things. So does every dog I know. Even so called working dogs, like retrievers and sheepdogs, don’t look they are working. They look like they are having a blast.

If only our jobs made us so happy.

If my job was sniffing butts and wallowing in bellyscratches, I’d work like a dog too.

 

* Isn’t “as retired as a raphus cucullatus” more interesting than “as dead as a dodo”?

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Six Examples of Sex Hidden in our Language

The English word “avocado” comes from the Spanish word aguacate, which comes from the Aztec word ahuacatl, which means “testicle”. This is most likely because the avocado, growing in dangling pairs, resembled the body part.  Fresh guacamole, anyone?

Grand Tetons is French for “big tits”.  Presumably the French voyageurs who first ran across this mountain range in western Wyoming were missing their wives.  As they paddled up to these perky peaks, they named them after what was foremost on their minds.

Some decades later, the US Park Service named a new national park after cleavage.  The Big Boobs Back Forty!  I hear it’s a great place to bring your motorboat…

Do you live in a cul-de-sac?  Well, the word “cul” is French for behind, bottom, rear end.  It’s more street-wise than, say, derriere.  In short, “cul-de-sac” literally means “ass of bag”.

Think about that the next time you see a realtor’s ad which says “this house is in a desirable location”.

Maidenhead is a town outside of London, England.  It’s also the classic and relatively polite term for the unbroken hymen of a female, which was taken as a sign of virginity (though an unreliable one, as it turns out).

The tie between town and tissue is more complex, though.  The term “maidenhead” dates to 1200 or so, when “hede” meant “condition or state of being”.  This is starting to make more sense, right?

The town’s name was originally “Maiden-hythe”, where hythe was Saxon for “wharf”.  No one knows exactly how the “Maiden” part got in, but eventually the whole thing got contracted to Maidenhead and the name stuck.

I find it funny how our straight-laced ancestors were scandalized over the sight of a lady’s ankle, but were open enough about virginity to name a town after it.  Hell, early American colonists named a state after it (Virginia) in honor of their virgin queen (Elizabeth I).  Apparently the first Queen Liz was very proud of her maidenhead, even though its maintenance necessarily meant the end of the Tudor dynasty.

Think you know about Columbus?  You probably don’t — most of what we learned about that tale is wrong.

One myth is the names of his ships.  Columbus’ lonely sailors nicknamed these ships after women.  The real names are forgotten by all but historians; it’s the nicknames we know today.

Two ships were named after what these sailors missed the most — prostitutes.  Maria was a well-loved prostitute, and Pintada, or “the painted one”, was local slang for same.  Naturally, church and elementary school officials sanitized those details over the years.

There are undoubtedly others out there… know of any?

Verbal Kombat

As a watcher of all things English (the language, not the people, though Pippa is pretty cute) I’ve picked out a few strange verbs popping up in our daily vernacular.

I’m not talking about fantasy verbs created from artifacts of the language… you know, the George Carlin kinds of things like:

  • When you get off a plane you “deplane”, so does that mean you “planed” when you got on?
  • If someone is disheveled, then cleans himself up, does that make him sheveled?

I’m talking about verbs that well-meaning people are creating every day.

How about “google“? The little search engine that could has become so pervasive that we now use it as a verb in all tenses, and as a noun we only capitalize it when we explicitly mean The Company.

Then there are the verbs that just don’t sound right. For example, someone under NSA surveillance (that is everyone, apparently) is being surveyed, right? Or watched, supervised, violated.

So why do people keep saying they are being “surveilled“?

Well actually, surveil is in Webster’s dictionary, which surprised the heck outta me. Spellcheckers don’t like it though, so I feel vindicated. It still sounds bogus to me.

Here’s a better example. Someone who serves drinks at a bar “tends the bar”, meaning to take care of it. With use, this term was shortened to “tending bar”, and even “tend bar”. The person who performed this activity became a “bartender”, at least in North America.

The natural progression, of course, was to shorten the noun to create a verb. So now, a bartender bartends.

I find that kind of full-circle-etymology interesting.

How about a pair of fraternal twins: lase and tase.

The verb “lase” of course comes from “laser“. It is more correctly spelled LASER, but the acronym was used so often it became a word, like “radar” and “snafu”.

Most people don’t realize these are actually acronyms. In fact, people often spell “laser” with a ‘z’, which is cleverly inventing two new words at the same time: “lazer” and “ztimulated”.

By the way, SNAFU should not be used in polite company. Like Sarah Palin’s use of “WTF”. Does she think kids don’t know what that means?

Anyway, when Jack Cover developed a weapon to deliver electric shocks at a distance, he called it a Taser. He says he named it after an electric rifle developed by his childhood hero Tom Swift, but the fact it rhymes with “laser” is certainly not coincidental.

So naturally people shortened that noun too.

Thus a laser lases and a taser tases.

That’s all cute and logical. It fills a need. What bothers me is when people use more complicated words than necessary.

Let’s take “explicate“. It means “to explain”.

So why explicate when you can just explain?

Same thing with “orientate“. It means the same thing as “orient”. Why add the extra syllable?

One extra syllable, heck — let’s try for three.  The perfectly good word “instant” has been elbowed out by “instantaneous“.  See my earlier rant on that.

What’s next? Configurate instead of configure? Actually, I have already heard that.

Well then, to stand up is to perpendiculate. To treat something with fire retardant is to noninflammabalize. To speak in superfluous syllables is exhaustifying.

It’s time to cessate before I nonsense. Here, ladies and gents, is my favorite new verb:

I’m sure you will agree that our kids spend waaay too much time on video games. We are evolving into a species of button-mashing troglodytes, with swollen thumbs and hunched backs, our pale liver-spotted skins crisping under the forgotten rays of the sun.

Well, any video game that pits one tiny troglodyte against another starts with a flashy title screen that says, “Grim-faced yin-yang monster vs. babe with overpixellated breasts” or something like that.

347461-mortal-kombat-4-nintendo-64-screenshot-versus-screens

Kids quickly learn that vs. means “versus“, which is good. But then they start using it as a shortcut. The first time my son said to me, “C’mon, Dad, let’s versus,” I fell out of my chair. At least, I think I was sitting. I know I hit my head on something.

So “versus” has become a verb, thanks to video games.

It will certainly catch on in the Middle East, where they versus all the time. Gives new meaning to “The Satanic Versus”.

Everyone, please, before you decide to verbalize a noun, stop and ask yourself: would Pippa approve?

I’m sure the answer, in all cases, is no.

For Whom the bell tolls

I wish to lament the passing of an old friend.

Whom do I mean? About whom am I speaking?

I think you know who.

It’s whom.

Our old friend whom is disappearing. Our old friend whom we will surely miss.

It is to whom I dedicate this blog post.

Wait a minute, what?

I don’t know.

(Third base.)

Whom is the object form of who, in the same way him is the object form of he and them is the object form of they.

We used to be more strict about this. When you talked to someone you didn’t know, you used who.  Any time you needed to talk about someone you didn’t know, you used whom. For example:

  • Who are you?

And:

  • About whom are we speaking?

Thing is, whom instead of who only sounds right when it comes after a preposition.

Consider:

  • Whom is that cup for?

As opposed to:

  • For whom is that cup?

The first sentence sounds awkward. Don’t believe me? Try saying it to the barista at Starbucks.

However, the second sentence sounds stiff outside of classic literature and English class. Actually, it sounds stiff even there. No one talks like that anymore.

So, third time’s the charm:

  • Who is that cup for?

There. That’s what you say to the barista.

It’s because the silly rule “thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition” is disappearing. In fact, it was never a rule in the first place, just a myth born of a few crusty old linguists’ pet peeves. And, along with other so-called rules like “thou shalt not start a sentence with a conjunction”, I won’t miss it.

Using whom just doesn’t sound right unless it follows a preposition. So it becomes collateral damage when we take down the whole “end a sentence with a preposition” thing.

Now, I’m not saying we should start every sentence with a conjunction and end every sentence with a preposition, just to spite our old English teachers. The point is, English is a language with innate beauty and endless flexibility. To keep it flexible, we need to stretch it now and then.

Plus it’s an amalgamation of many languages, and it keeps evolving.

Still, I’m a language purist. English can’t stay beautiful if we stretch it all out of shape. I’ll still use whom now and then, just for variety.

Now you pick up the ball, and throw it to Whom…

Naturally!

How do you move?

Everyone walks.  That’s boring.

But in the right circumstance, your character can:

  • amble
  • bumble
  • careen
  • clomp
  • clump
  • crawl
  • creep
  • dawdle
  • dodder
  • drag
  • flounce
  • hike
  • hoof
  • inch
  • jaunt
  • junket
  • lag
  • leg
  • limp
  • linger
  • loiter
  • lollop
  • lumber
  • lurch
  • march
  • mince
  • mosey
  • move
  • pace
  • pad
  • parade
  • paseo
  • perambulate
  • peregrinate
  • plod
  • poke
  • pound
  • prance
  • progress
  • promenade
  • prowl
  • pussyfoot
  • ramble
  • range
  • reel
  • sally
  • sashay
  • saunter
  • scuffle
  • scuttle
  • shamble
  • shlep
  • shuffle
  • skulk
  • slink
  • slog
  • slouch
  • sneak
  • spin
  • stagger
  • stalk
  • stamp
  • steal
  • step
  • stomp
  • stride
  • stroll
  • strut
  • stumble
  • stump
  • swagger
  • tack
  • tap
  • thread
  • tiptoe
  • toddle
  • tour
  • track
  • traipse
  • tramp
  • travel
  • traverse
  • tread
  • trek
  • trip
  • trot
  • trudge
  • turn
  • waddle
  • wade
  • wander

And there are even more ways for your character to run:

  • abscond
  • accelerate
  • arrow
  • barrel
  • beat a retreat
  • beat it
  • beeline
  • beetle
  • belt
  • blast
  • blaze
  • blow
  • bolt
  • bomb
  • bound
  • bowl
  • break
  • break away
  • breeze
  • bug out
  • bullet
  • bundle
  • bustle
  • buzz
  • cannonball
  • canter
  • careen
  • career
  • catch up
  • chase
  • clear out
  • clip
  • course
  • dart
  • dash
  • dig
  • double-time
  • drive
  • escape
  • flee
  • flit
  • fly
  • foot (it)
  • gallop
  • hare
  • hasten
  • hie
  • highball
  • hightail (it)
  • hoof (it)
  • hotfoot (it)
  • hump
  • hurl
  • hurry
  • hurtle
  • hustle
  • jet
  • jog
  • jump
  • lam
  • leap
  • leg (it)
  • light out
  • lope
  • make off
  • make tracks
  • motor
  • nip
  • outpace
  • outrun
  • outstrip
  • overtake
  • patter
  • peg
  • pelt
  • plunge
  • quicken
  • race
  • ram
  • retreat
  • rip
  • rocket
  • roll
  • rush
  • rustle
  • scamper
  • scarper
  • scat
  • scoot
  • scram
  • scud
  • scuffle
  • scurry
  • scuttle
  • shag
  • shin
  • shoot
  • skedaddle
  • skelp
  • skip
  • skirr
  • skitter
  • speed
  • spring
  • sprint
  • spurt
  • stampede
  • step
  • streak
  • surge
  • tear
  • thrust
  • travel
  • trip
  • trot
  • turn tail
  • vanish
  • whirl
  • whisk
  • whiz
  • zip
  • zoom

Know any good ones I missed?

 

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