Swearing and cussing? Sirrah! It’s a lot of craven murrain

The other week the Prime Minister of New Zealand used a word in public that literally means the ordure of a male cow. The colloquial meaning the PM deployed it for was ‘rubbish’.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Thou dankish unchin-snouted malt-worm!’ William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Oooh, naughty. Or is it? Way back in 1970, the same word was publicly used by Germaine Greer when she visited New Zealand. Then, police issued an arrest warrant. This time? The PM is in the middle of an election campaign in which everything he says or does will win or lose voters – and nobody batted an eye.

But of course. In New Zealand, today’s generation don’t regard this term as particularly offensive. I’ve seen the same word used in book titles, in the US it was the title of a Penn and Teller series, and so on. But that’s swearing. Words come and go. If they didn’t, we’d all swear like that impious swiver, Will Shakespeare.  Zounds! (God’s Wounds). The big word of his day was fie. But wait, there’s more. Not satisfied with the general vocabulary – which included some of the Anglo Saxon we use – the immortal bard is usually credited with coining around 1700 new words, many of them boisterously intended. You can check some of them out for yourself – here’s a Shakespeare insult generator.

What changes is the degree of offence society considers the word causes to ‘polite’ ears. That’s how Benjamin Tabart was able to use Shakespeare’s vilest word in his 1807 childrens’ tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Of course, by that time the hot potato word was ‘damn’, so offensive in polite society it was soon censored to d—d. That became a swear word too – ‘dashed’.

As always, older swear words that now seem acceptable aren’t directed ‘at’ anything. They’re abstract intensifiers that have lost connection with their original meaning. That’s different from offensive words intended to demean others’ behaviours, beliefs or cultures, which never become acceptable, any time. The fact that new terms of this latter kind keep turning up says quite a bit about the unpleasant side of the human condition.

But abstract intensifiers, directed at revealing one’s response to an ordinary event – like stepping in dog poo – are something else, and the funny thing is that any word will do, providing it’s understood. Sci-fi authors coin new ones often as devices for reinforcing the difference between ours and their future society. In Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) the word was ‘frack’. An obvious homophone, but it worked well anyway. Or there’s Larry Niven’s Ringworld-series ‘futz’, which to me sounded like a mashup with putz. But you can’t fault the logic – the ‘different but not TOO different’ principle demanded of accessible SF.

I’ve only seen one place where a different word emerged. It was in Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero. The forbidden term, the deeply offensive word of his galactic future, repeatedly used by his ‘starship troopers’? Bowb. It echoed 1930s slang, but Harrison made it the verboten word and used it with stunning effect – a multi-purpose obscene noun, verb and adjective with which readers instantly identified because of the context. ‘What’s this, bowb your buddy week?’ a trooper demands as his power suit fails and nobody stops him drowning. ‘It’s always bowb your buddy week’, the gunnery corporal tells the troops as the man sinks.

Bowb. Conveying the intensity of personal emotional response to the abstract without the current-day offence.  And that, of course, is the essence of writing – transmitting the intended emotion to the reader. Way cleverer than using existing swear words.

Trouble is, when I use bowb  in conversations, people look at me funny and think I’m a gleeking, beef-witted dewberry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

When tyre-kickers leaf through your books…

Last week I sauntered into the (last) bookstore in Wellington’s Lambton Quay, New Zealand’s Golden Mile of retail shopping. I soon found some of my books – quite a number of my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand, in fact, cover-out, which is the very best way to display such things.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). A display from earlier days.

Cheered, I went to leave, when someone standing nearby picked up a copy and began leafing through it. I loitered. He leafed, frowned, smiled, leafed again, smiled, looked quizzical, and leafed some more. Finally he put it back in the shelf. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Would you mind telling me what stopped you buying the book? I’m the author, you see.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I was just browsing.’

I guess you can lead the horse to water. If the guy had no intention of buying and was simply passing time, he wasn’t likely to be captured by the book even if it had ‘buy me, you bastard’ in fluorescent ink at the top of every page. In point of fact, I wrote the whole thing to be appealing (obviously) – but not to capture a reader with hook lines every paragraph. That would ruin the book. That’s why TV is so terrible at the moment, incidentally; the pacing is designed to capture people as they idly channel surf, meaning action/drama every eight seconds (literally). It really affects the structure.

I walked off, “No Sale” signs chinking up in my mind’s eye. Better luck with the next customer. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: Weird Al is right to use a split infinitive

I couldn’t stop laughing at this week’s furore over Weird Al Yankovich supposedly having an ‘error’ in a song about grammar errors. Weird Al apparently included a split infinitive in the lyrics.

Oh, the (apparent) irony. Social media went nuts. Well, I beg to differ. And so, I think, would Captain James T. Kirk. Gene Roddenberry anyway.

A split infinitive is where the infinitive marker (‘to’) and the verb (‘go’) are divided by another word – let’s say, ‘boldly’. Thus we could say ‘to boldly go’, rather than ‘to go boldly’. It’s technically ambiguous – what you are doing is making ‘boldly’ into the verb. Are you saying they boldly? Or that they go? See what I mean.

That prompted a furore of its own in the mid-1960s, when Roddenberry first launched that particular phrase upon the world.

Except that split infinitives were upheld as grammatically OK – even adding to the power of a sentence – in the right context, as early as 1948. In the strictest and most retentive sense, it’s not correct. But English is a constantly evolving language, and in general practical usage – back more than 60 years now – it’s been fine to split the infinitive. And we do, a lot. Along with starting sentences with conjunctions…

Weird Al, in short, got it right. But then, doesn’t he always? The guy’s a genius. And now…pay attention…

Some important lessons there, grammar-wise. I wish my high school English teacher had been as entertaining.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Busy busy busy busy…with science!

Last year I signed a contract with Penguin Random House to write a science book on a subject close to the hearts of everybody around the Pacific Rim.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

OK, I’m a geek. I have three computers (temporarily) on my desk with “2001-esque” wallpaper. Headphones by Sennheiser deliver Nightwish at high volume. Click to enlarge.

A science book? I’m known as a historian. And I can legitimately call myself one if I want – I have post-graduate academic qualifications in that field. Indeed, the Royal Historical Society at University College, London, elected me a Fellow, on merit of my contribution. Which I very much appreciate, it’s one of the highest recognitions of historical scholarship worldwide.

However, I don’t label myself ‘a historian’. Nor is it my sole interest or qualification; I spent longer learning music, formally, than history – and my home field always has been physics. I began learning it aged 4, as I learned to read. Seriously. When I was 16 I won a regional science contest prize for an entry on Einsteinian physics and black holes, which I hadn’t learned at school – I had to read the papers and then deduce the math myself, without help, aged 16. (I am not Sheldon…really…)

What all this adds up to is an interest in understanding stuff – in seeing the shapes and patterns and inter-relationships between things and fields. And so – a book on science. Time was tight, but I wouldn’t have agreed to the contract if I thought quality might be affected. All writing has to be fast and good. If you’ve ever been a journalist (another of my jags) you have no option. The key is having writing as second nature – and planning. Good plans also have built-in capacity to adapt to circumstance, which meant that one weekend I had to sit down with a pile of science papers and:

1. Read those science papers. These included content such as: “Our estimate based on the seismic moment equation of Aki & Richards (2002, p. 48) (Mo = (X x D x RA; where Mo is seismic moment; (X is the rigidity modulus, D is fault plane displacement and RA is rupture area.”

2. Write a draft that drew from this and a lot of other stuff, in English pitched for a general reading audience. I did end up writing occasional sentences like: “This is known as the phase velocity, and is determined by the equation v = √g x d , where v is the velocity of the wave, d is the depth of water, and g is the acceleration of gravity.”  No other way of explaining fluid dynamics, you see… and well, this is science!

3. Revise that draft to clean up the wording. Final word count added to the MS in this 48-hour burst? A shade over 7000. That’s researched and mostly finished for publication. Think about it.

What got sacrificed was social media. That week and most others. I kept this blog going because I’d stacked posts. I’ll be back full force. Soon. What’s more, I’m going to share how to write quality, write accurately and quickly. There is, dare I say, a science to it. More soon.

The book is already being promoted on Random’s website. Check it out.

Science! A good word, that. Sort of thing the late Magnus Pyke might say. Science!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

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Science: Nil. Stupidity: 1,000,000,000

It was Albert Einstein, I believe, who suggested only two things were infinite. The universe and stupidity. And he wasn’t sure about the universe.

According to media reports, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tinkering with the H1N1 flu virus that triggered a pandemic in 2009 and killed 500,000. Apparently, he’s altered it to take away human immunity built up since 2009. There are solid scientific reasons for doing so – we learn how to make better vaccines. Excellent motive.

Except – e-e-e-except…the modified virus poses a threat if it escapes. Estimates of casualties range from a billion people down to  merely 400,000,000. Kawaoka’s effort has been criticised as irresponsible, and response generally, seems critical.

I’m not a virologist. But I know what happened when the Justinian plague and the Black Death hit Europe, or when Europe’s diseases hit the Americas and Australasia. I know what happened in 1918-19. Diseases to which humans had no immunity. And I think if someone shows something can be done, somebody else will repeat it on that knowledge alone.

What worries me is the wider trend towards tinkering with viruses in labs. We can, I fear, only get away for so long without an accident. Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, of the Virology Department at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is reported as using more direct terms. ‘If society understood what was going on,’ he was quoted in the Independent, ‘‘they would say “What the F… are you doing?”’

Quite right, too.

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Sherlock’s public domain – but will writing new stories be elementary?

A recent US court ruling that 50 Sherlock Holmes stories published before December 1923 are in public domain – hence free for all to use – raises questions about whether we’re about to be inundated with a flood of new Holmes adventures.

Holmes in action, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Holmes in action during the ‘Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It’s subject to possible appeal, I suppose. But it’s a tricky issue. Here in New Zealand, all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works have been public domain since 31 December 1980, the end of the fiftieth year after his death. But copyright terms and protections vary and his material has remained in copyright elsewhere. Some countries run 75 or 100-year copyrights after death, and the US has more than one term. The US court case came about, it seems, when a licensing deal with the Doyle estate tripped up.

To me, that raises a question. Sure, that ruling means any author can freely go ahead and use Sherlock Holmes and all the concepts and ideas that pre-date 1923 in stories of their own. This includes most of the classic Holmes imagery from the deerstalker cap to the pipe to the violin to the fact that it’s always 1895 and Hansom cabs are the way around London.

But should they?

Sherlock Holmes revisited has been done by authors. Nicholas Meyers’ The Seven Percent Solution, for instance. Or Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File. And there have been innumerable adaptations of the stories for movies or TV.

Another Paget illustratioon for Strand magazine.

Another Paget illustration, from the ‘Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez’, for Strand magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

As far as I am concerned, the only two adaptations that have come close to the spirit and intent of the Conan Doyle original were both by the BBC. There was the Jeremy Brett/Edward Hardwicke adaptation of the 1980s, which was utterly faithful to Doyle’s work in essential details. And there was the 2010 Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman re-telling, which was so faithful to the spirit that we can easily imagine Conan Doyle writing it, were he starting out today. Don’t forget, Holmes was set in what was, when Doyle started, the modern world.

I question whether re-imagining the Holmes character is effective. There’s been stupid Holmes and smart Watson (Michael Caine/Ben Kingsley Without a Clue, 1988). Or Holmes as action hero (Robert Downey/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes, 2009). But Holmes, as Conan Doyle imagined him, is iconic – so aren’t these new characters? Riffing on the old, but really something else?

That highlights what, for me, is the key issue for any author writing ‘new’ Holmes stories. Sure, there’s a market. But Holmes stories are hard to do well – and really, it’s elevated fan fiction. Isn’t it better for an author to invent something new?

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Seventy years since the battle that shaped our world

It is seventy years since a friend of my family looked into the sky above his village in England and saw a cloud of aircraft fly over. And over. And over. The sky was filled with aircraft, and they were all going one way – to France.

Landing at D-Day. Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.

Landing at D-Day. Photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.

It was D-day, the first day of Operation OVERLORD – the Allied landing on the shores of Nazi-occupied Europe. It remains perhaps the most complex, audacious and risky military actions in the history of the world. The battle plan – two years or more in the making – relied on taking some of the strongest defences ever built in that war, and was detailed down to individual pill-boxes. Even after the landings, the lodgement was stuck in a maze of hedge-rows and ditches and there was every risk that the Germans might bring superior forces to bear before the Allies could get enough forces pushed into the lodgement.

The world we know today was shaped by events on that Normandy coast. If the Allies had been knocked off the lodgement – or if the storm that delayed the landing on 5 June had destroyed the invasion fleet – what then? Another assault could not have been staged for years, if at all. Part of the impact was surprise; Hitler, particularly, never expected them to land in Normandy. If it had failed, the Allies could have carried on their campaign in Italy, their blockade of the Axis economy and their air campaign against the German heartland. But they could not have got involved in war on the ground in northern Europe.

Naval bombardment plan for D-Day. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Naval bombardment plan for D-Day. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

That doesn’t mean that the Germans would have got away with it. if OVERLORD had failed, the war in Europe would still have been over by mid-late 1945 anyway, because by D-Day the Germans had already lost the war in the east. The monstrous battles around the Kursk salient in mid-1943 effectively ended any chance of the Germans fighting Stalin to a stalemate. After that the only real question was how long their commanders, tactically hobbled by Hitler’s foaming ‘no retreat’ demands, could delay the Soviet advance.

In absence of an Allied threat to western Europe, the Germans could have transferred the 50 divisions they had in the west to the eastern front. But it would have only deferred the inevitable. By this time the Soviets had around 300 divisions committed to the struggle. The Luftwaffe had lost air superiority, and that wasn’t going to change in a hurry – if at all. We can forget the ‘Luftwaffe 1946’ dieselpunk fantasy. Aside from the fact that Nazi super-science wasn’t actually all that advanced, the Germans were desperately short of key materials thanks to the Allied blockade. Particularly oil and chromium. Albert Speer estimated that war production would have to halt by early 1946, come what may, on the back of the chromium shortage alone.

If OVERLORD had failed, in short, the face of post-war Europe would have been Soviet. The spectre isn’t one of Soviet tanks sitting on the Channel coast, but of the Iron Curtain descending further west – perhaps on the Rhine – and France and likely Austria becoming Soviet puppets. The Cold War would have had a very different face – one without a strong Western Europe. And that begs questions about how it might have played out. I figure the Soviet system would still have collapsed – totalitarian systems do, sooner or later – but the detail of the later twentieth century would have been very different.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014