Presenting: The Present Perfect!

Posted in Figuratively Speaking, On writing, Writers at 3:27 pm by Marion

It’s back!

This sometimes Friday feature examines language quirks and oddities. As I am currently teaching English to international students, I’ve had a lot of exposure to the sometimes random nature of this language.

Present perfect
What a crazy tense this one is. It is among the distinctions of the English language that we have this cool tense. It represents an action that began in the past, and continues right now. It also refers to an action that began in the past and may – or may not – be continued in the present or near future.

I have been to France = I went to France, and I may go again. My life isn’t over yet!
He has eaten breakfast = he just completed it, and we’re still thinking about it right now. I think he’s still wiping the toast crumbs off his face.
Have we got enough money? = We want to do a thing and need to know before we get started.
They haven’t paid = They need to pay right now!

Notice the subtle differences:
I went to France = I went one time and I can tell you about it, but that chapter has closed.
He ate breakfast = so what?
Did we have enough money? = Who cares, it’s over now
They paid = Again, nothing to see here

The present perfect gives a vivid, active connection to the present. That tense enlivens our conversations, and gives our language additional life, vigor, and immediacy.

Next week: More fun English language tenses



Posted in Figuratively Speaking, On writing, Writers at 11:19 am by Marion

In which the writer rambles through the dictionary joyfully

Photo by Greg Eans

Photo by Greg Eans

Lately I’ve been laughing a lot about bees, and that’s thanks to comedian and actor Eddie Izzard, a British stand-up comedian known for his Emmy-winning turn in “Dress to Kill.”

He does a bit about finding oneself covered in bees that brings me to my … well, knees … and with that, today Figuratively Speaking looks at Bs, bees, Aunt Beas and all things B.

My trusty Oxford American Dictionary describes B as the second letter of the alphabet. I’m also painfully familiar with it as the second highest class of academic mark. As in, Too bad I didn’t get an A. Though my freshman year in college, I deeply appreciated them.

Bees, or honey bees, are a large group of insects from the family Apidea. Bees are both solitary and social. The poet Sylvia Plath’s father researched bee movements, or dances, and we now know those dances hold remarkable value in guiding bees to pollen and back to the hive. Aunt Bea, played by Frances Baviar, kept Andy Griffith grounded back in Mayberry, N.C.

“Bee in the bonnet” means an obsession; having a scheme or plan. The “bees knees” is an outstandingly good person or thing, though in Britain it once meant the opposite, as something small or insignificant.

My query started when I wrote the term “beeline” and became curious about its meaning and origin.

Beeline refers to a straight line between tow places, and it originated in the early 1800s, supposedly because of the instinctive line bees took to return to the hive.

Of course we have busy as bees and bees’ nest, which refers to a messy situation. Beeswax, which is the substance secreted by bees in their hive, also refers to someone’s business, as in “That’s none of yer beeswax.”

A beehive is a hairdo, or a place where lots of activity is taking place. It’s also the name of a star cluster, also known as Praesepe.

Now to digress a bit, we have an entire class of words starting with “be-” as a prefix which transforms words in these ways:
— all over, all around: Bespatter
— thoroughly, excessively: Bewilder
— when added to intransitive words, makes them transitive: Bemoan
— when added to adjectives, makes them transitive: Befriend
— when added to nouns, makes them … transitive!: Befog

… and a few others, too.

So when one day I found myself using the word “bespoke,” I wondered where does a word like that get its flavor?

I’m improvising here because I use it to mean something that’s been mentioned before, as in “the bespoke bees.” My dictionary says “bespoke” is a term used by those in the clothing industry to refer to something made to order.

So while I figure out the best way to bespeak of these things, I will make sure I avoid finding myself covered in bees, which I wouldn’t dare to call bebeed.



Posted in Figuratively Speaking at 6:19 am by Marion


The Great Moon Hoax, an 1835 lithograph from the New York Sun


Hello out there in Fiction Dailyland! Figuratively Speaking Friday returns today, in this special, limited edition blog entry, marking this exceptional day in history.

On this day in 1835, the New York Sun created a stir by reporting that esteemed British astronomer Sir John Herschel, had discovered life on the moon.

Thank Jeffrey Kacirk for noting it in this year’s Forgotten English calendar, or I’d never have known it.

Yes, the Sun claimed it was reporting from the Edinburgh Journal of Science when it described winged, humanlike beings on the moon. He was even quoted to say,

We counted three parties of these creatures walking erect in a small wood … They averaged about four fee in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the top of their shoulders to the calves of the legs.

The article also claimed these moon people had yellow faces similar to great apes. (You can read a full account, including the original Sun article, at the Museum of Hoaxes.)

Kacirk reports the article temporarily put the Sun above its rivals, and then humiliated other press which reported the story, without verifying it.

Now those of us in the news business know few things are worse than reporting wrong information. The only thing I know of that’s worse is when an editor inserts errors into a story that I researched scrupulously. It was always an awful feeling (and still is) when I see my beautiful, perfect stories ruined by bad information — and they carry my name, but not the offending editor’s.

In any event, we can all snicker a big when reading about these winged moon creatures, knowing what we do about the vast, airless, bleakness of the Lady of the Night.

Happy Weekend from Fiction Daily!!


Justice, a la Francais

Posted in Campaign '09, Figuratively Speaking at 8:12 am by Marion


Hello out there in Fiction Dailyland! The campaign for Greenville, N.C. City Council is ticking along with an eye on the Nov. 3 election day. There’s so much to do, everyday, from taking photos, to updating the Web, to writing letters and planning events. Taking care of these details everyday, while still writing the articles I am so fortunate to have been commissioned for, has become a more-than full-time job. It’s a wonderful thing to be busy, though sometimes I’d like to sit on the couch and watch reruns of Dr. House.

Today, though, a blog post I couldn’t resist.

As regular FD readers know, the page-a-day calendar “Forgotten English” published by Jeffrey Kacirk has given this blog many hilarious points of departure.

Today, “bed of justice.”

This expression comes from the French, “lit de justice,” and refers to the throne used by the King of France, when he attended meetings of parliament. As you remember, since the king had final authority over the parliament, this chair, in the end, signified the seat of power.

The last “bed of justice,” however, occurred on this day in 1788. That’s when our doomed Louis XVI, husband of our chere Marie Antoinette, assembled his parliament with the goal of solidifying his own power — and adding more tax burden on the poor. The idea was seconded by the Assembly of Notables (who may have later become known as the Assembly of Headless.)

In any event, it’s believed this idea of taxing the poor, yet again, gave rise to revolutionary sentiment.

You might say that the king made his bed, and had to lie in it.

Fiction Daily returns in November, and occasionally before then.


With Love, Sherlock Holmes

Posted in Book reviews, Events, Figuratively Speaking, On writing, Writers at 9:10 am by Marion



Today marks a big celebration in Fiction Dailyland: It is the 150th birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), creator of that marvelous character for all times, Sherlock Holmes.

Nothing compares to Conan Doyle’s writing for clarity, subtle humor and mystery. It’s interesting to note that prior to Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, never had there been a true detective character in a novel. We indeed had the masterful Edgar Allan Poe’s detective C. August Dupin, in “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a short story. (He also appeared in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter,” one of my personal favorite short stories.)

We also had an early prototype of a detective story penned by Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone. I can’t remember at all how that one turned out, but I certainly enjoyed reading it. That novel centers on a missing, exotic, gem and the family who possessed it. There were strange bands of touring gypsies, magicians and Indians; ladies with honor; families with class and wealth. (They just don’t write them like that anymore.)

In 1892 appeared The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sir Doyle also gave us these stories: “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of Four” and “The Red-Headed League.”

On today’s “Forgotten English” calendar (by Jeffrey Kacirk), a fascinating story with which we writers can find considerable affinity. Trained as an eye doctor, he took an office at 2 Devonshire Place, and

… Every morning I walked from the lodgings at Montague Place, reached my consulting room at ten, and sat there until three or four with never a ring to disturb my serenity. Could better conditions for reflection be found? It was ideal, and so long as I was thoroughly unsuccessful in my professional venture, there was every chance of improvement in my literary prospects.

Imagine if he had instead collapsed with self-pity and done nothing all day; instead, this stellar “failure” gave us one of mankind’s most delightful writers.




Posted in Figuratively Speaking at 9:52 am by Marion


Suddenly, a word comes to mind — lese. As in lese-majeste. Let’s see where it goes.

My beloved New Oxford American Dictionary says lese-majeste refers to insulting a monarch or other ruler; it implies treason.

It comes from the Middle English, from French, from Latin laesa majestas, “injured sovereignty.”

How interesting to note that so many of our terms regarding authority come from the French. Not a surprise, really, since the French did monarchy better than anyone since the Romans.

Where else do you have a Sun King (Roi Soleil) like Louis XV? Or a saint-king like Louis XIII, called “Saint-Louis.”

Even our phrases for royalty have French pedigrees:

Sovereign is a supreme ruler or monarch, a term that comes from the Middle English and Old French soverain, based on the Latin super, “above.” The ending was changed to reflect its association with “reign.”

Reign means to hold royal office, and comes to us from the Middle English and Old French reignier, “to reign” from reigne, “kingdom” from the Latin regnum, related to rex and reg-, “king.”

(My dictionary notes here that the correct idiomatic phrase is “free rein,” not free reign. Turns out rein, based on the Latin retinere, “retain,” gives us that phrase which refers to letting go of the restraint of reins. But I digress ….)

The word potentate comes to us from the Latin potentatus, “dominion,” from potent, which means able or powerful, and also gives us potent.

Aristocracy, the king of nobility terms, refers to the highest class in societies, and also a government by nobility. This word comes to us from the Old French aristocratie … and SURPRISE, dates to the Greeks, whose love of all things government gave us the terms aristokratia, from aristos “best” and kratia “power.” The term originally denoted government of a state by its best citizens, which was unforutunately later interpreted to mean rich and well born.

Note that we also have oligarchy, rule by a few, and plutocracy, rule by a few very rich.

Last to noble, which comes to us from the Middle English and Old French, from Latin (g)nobilis, “noted, highborn.” Oddly enough, it is an Indo-European root shared by know.

Which, by the way, leads me to the noble gases — helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon, thought to be noble because they don’t readily react with the other elements.

Exclusive and self-contained? Sounds like a typical aristocrat to me.



Elusive Meanings

Posted in Figuratively Speaking at 7:45 am by Marion


Today I had to dig my dictionary out from beneath my Urgent-To Do pile, which was crowned by my cat’s food bowl. That tells you a lot about the week I’ve had, since one of my cardinal rules is to NEVER place anything atop my dictionary. It should be easily reachable … to encourage, and never discourage this sometimes lazy writer, me to consult it.

So I’ve moved that Urgent-To Do pile to another location. And Yes. Today, I’ll get through it. (Sure I will ….)

Meanwhile, it’s Friday, my favorite day of the week here at Fiction Daily, and a chance to take a whimsical journey from one word to the next.


ELUDE takes us from a bad situation, and is a transitive verb that means to evade or escape, typically in a skillful or cunning way. I think of Bugs Bunny avoiding Elmer Fudd.

Elude also gives us the sense of something that is just outside of our reach, verbally, something we can’t grasp or remember. The meaning of his speech eluded me.

It also refers to someone who avoids penalty. Though he was convicted, he eluded his punishment by leaving the country.

It comes to us from the Latin eludere, “ex” meaning out, away from and “ludere” to play. It also gives us “elusive,” as in The elusive answer to his questions about the meaning of life.

ALLUDE, on the other hand, is a reference to something; a suggestion. He alluded to his work only briefly, as he was modest. It also comes to us from ludere to play, plus “ad” toward.

DELUDE also comes from that Latin root, but combines with “de” in the sense of “with pejorative force” to give us a word that means to impose a misleading belief on someone, to deceive or fool.

ILLUDEis a mostly poetic word that means to trick or delude, but comes from a different origin. It is taken from the Latin illudere, to mock.

ELUTE is a word that found some vogue in recent years when attached, wrongly, to a medical device known as a “drug eluting stent.” In fact, elute means to remove an absorbed substance by washing with a solvent. It is usually used in chromatography, a chemical process that separates substances in a mixture.

And should not be confused with EXUDE, which means to discharge (in the transitive sense) or to be displayed by someone (in the intransitive sense). Transitive: He exuded a strange odor we believe was related to his time in the Amazon. Intransitive: Our displeasure was exuded.

Exude comes to us from the Latin exsudare, from ex, out and sudare, to sweat.

So let not a doctor delude you when it comes to describing those stents. I’d rather have a stent that exudes a healing drug, than one which is performing a chemical operation inside me. Then again, I’d rather elude the whole stent thing altogether.



Existential Waters

Posted in Book reviews, Figuratively Speaking, On writing at 7:24 am by Marion



Today, for the first time in several weeks, I’m not sweating blood to meet a deadline, or tearing through piles of receipts for taxes. Heck, I may even have finished the article I’ve been working on for several months!

And so I’m sitting at my desk, getting ready to take out the garbage and recycling, and about to start work on a Web writing assignment. And maybe take a long run later today. And that’s it.

In a big-picture way, I’m feeling pretty “free.”

… but not in the existential sense.

Why not, then, take a look at what we mean by free … and why we never really are.

In college, I was a devoted French major, with a minor in Political Science. I also have a master’s degree in French literature and language. I know, it sounds so, well, frou-frou. But when I was offered a choice in school at age 14 and someone said “French” I knew it was all over.

My French I class was heaven … and I dreamed of the castles and art museums, all the beautiful ladies who lived there, the incredible literature like Eugene Ionesco (The Bald Soprano) and Albert Camus (The Plague, The Stranger, The Fall).

French took me far from the tobacco fields where I grew up, and out of the small town, split by railroad tracks, where I lived. Before it was over, I was living in France. For two years, including a year in Paris.

I was a big fan of Albert Camus. Most of us know him as an “existential” writer, along with Jean Paul Sartre. But the two could not have been more different.

My soft spot for Mr. Camus comes from his masterful novel, The Plague, and the tender way he writes about humankind. On the surface, “The Plague” tells of a deadly disease that strikes a village in Algeria. The main characters are doctors working there.

This novel is often considered the epitome of existential writing, but let me say it’s quite simply a very very excellent book.

What makes it a keystone novel for philosophy is that the characters don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out why the pestilence persists. Nor do they wail about their lot. They accept it, working humbly and without fireworks, saving people, one day at the time.

I’ll never forget the scene in which the doctor goes into the ocean for a swim one night. Exhilarated by the freedom of body and movement in the cool water, he feels a temporary, but profound, sense of joy and release.

That night he is free. The next day, he is back at the bedside of his dying, suffering, patients, working against the overwhelming tide of plague that threatens to overwhelm them.

So today, I take my swim. I will breathe and write without constraints of time or cruel editors. I will take big deep breaths of fresh spring air and not think about anything beyond what’s in eyesight. I will be free.


SF: New Wor(l)ds

Posted in Book reviews, Computers & Technology, Figuratively Speaking at 8:52 am by Marion



Since we’re looking at Science Fiction, today FD turns to the words of SF.

If you’ve ever picked up a SF novel, you know there are going to be names you can’t pronounce, planets you’ve never heard of and words with more consonants than all the Slavic languages put together. In many cases, these languages are simply allowing the writer to establish an alien world.

In other cases, these languages serve as a commentary on our own world.

One of the best examples is taken from George Orwell’s 1984. In his own marvelous essay (taken from the book The Language Experience, Somer and Hoy, eds.), he examines how corrupt language is linked with corrupt politics … and the further we stray from clear, precise language, the closer we come to degenerate politics and evil rule.

He describes “operators” and “verbal false limbs,” which, he says, “save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns and at the same time, pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it the appearance of symmetry.” Such as: render inoperative … instead of kill … make itself felt or play a role in … instead of stop.

He also points out the use of passive voice as another way to rob language of its power … and in doing so, taking away our political power, as well.

We all remember how Orwell used his observations to excruciating effect in 1984 … the language he invented for that work was called “Newspeak” and it drained every experience of truth, leaving Winston and Julia and everyone else suffocating in a lying world.

At this site you’ll find an entire Newspeak dictionary, but here are some highlights:

Blackwhite … the ability to accept ridiculous ideas as true.

Crimethink … to consider any action not sanctioned by the party. Akin to Doublethink, i.e. holding contradictory ideas in mind at the same time.

Ministry of Truth … department of propaganda. Along with Ministry of Love (police) and Ministry of Peace (defense and war).

It’s interesting to note that not all SF languages are as bleak … for instance, there are people who actually speak the Klingon language that was developed for Star Trek, and other SF languages also have their own grammars.



Seen and Heard

Posted in Figuratively Speaking, On writing, Writers at 7:33 am by Marion



Yesterday, I wrote a sentence that kept me awake last night. Now I’m a writer, but not so conceited as to imagine my words are worth losing a night’s sleep over. (Over which to lose a night’s sleep? Oh well … another post.)

What you ask did I write that rippled throughout my sleep? I wrote a simple closing thought in an email, one of those silly throwaway lines you create as you’re desperately trying to get out of that d* message and onto something else. I’m often writing people I’ve never met, and making fairly personal and complicated requests of them (How old was your daughter when you gave her part of your liver to save her life?) So in my emails I always aim for the stratified politeness level that’s generally required to write a proper email, since normal language comes off as rude or brusque.

Here’s the line:

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

As soon as I wrote it, I shivered. How the mighty fall! Penning (or tapping) a line like that one nearly knocked me out of my rattletrap desk chair.

Just look at it — it’s a fright!!

Look forward to … a phrase that relies on a visual metaphor. Implies you are literally peering into the future and searching for something, as if you could spy a response, like a ship, on the horizon.

Hearing … an auditory metaphor. Implies the writer is a sounding board, waiting for anything that comes along. This phrase by the way is especially useful for writers who must constantly submit their work for review. It offers no promise of commitment to rewrite or revise. As in, Here’s the new brochure on Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I will wait until hearing from you before sending to the designer, and really appreciate your suggestions.

(Writers secret: If you want to make a writer’s skin crawl, tell us you are sending “corrections” or “changes.” There is a special place in Dantes Inferno for people who subject writers to such things. You may, however, send your suggestions, recommendations or ideas. If you’re very very nice about it.)

And last in that phrase, we have … thoughts.

As something that is shared.

I know full well that thoughts are in the mind, known only by one person, the thinker, and then, only remotely. Thoughts are abstract, shapeless, vague things that can’t be pinned down.

Much less heard.

So we have a ridiculous proposition. A writer sitting at her desk, eyeballs at the window looking not to the side or back, but forward. With her ear cocked, on alert, to hear something that may or may not yet be there … something that may not make a sound … to hear … thoughts.

Obviously, working every weekend for the past five weeks has done something to my brain.

So this weekend I will not work, unless you consider a family trip work, which it may be in the end. But not work of the verbal variety. It seems to rattle the brain. See what I mean?


« Previous entries Next Page » Next Page »