New Words

bully sticksLast Monday I ghostblogged for my dog Alex so he could complain about a treat he did not appreciate, called a “bully stick.” He thought it meant I was trying to make him eat something nasty. (Turns out this might be true, but it certainly wasn’t deliberate.)

I had a different take on the meaning of Bully Stick. After Alex refused to eat it, I wondered why. It looked like leather, so I thought it was some kind of rawhide. That night, when my daughter and son-in-law came to dinner, I told them about Alex hiding the bully stick and asked if they knew what bully sticks were made of.

My daughter just shrugged, but my son-in-law spoke up. “Bull pizzle,” he said.

“Huh?” I had never heard the word pizzle before, and since I am a highly-educated word-person, this kinda bothered me. But my son-in-law is a knowledgeable guy not given to silly jokes, so I believed him and asked him what it meant. “It means penis,” he said.

“Oh come on,” I said. So I got the package of bully sticks out of the cupboard and read the ingredients. Sure enough, it said: “Ingredients: Bull pizzle.” Nothing else, just that.

My daughter spoke up then. “But it’s over a foot long!” she said. She and I looked at each other.

“OMG the poor cows,” I said.

Later I googled the word “pizzle” and sure enough it’s an old English/Germanic word and really does mean the penis of an animal. I guess you’re never too old or too educated to learn new words.

Haiku Friday: Home

WritersToday my haiku is from July 31st of my new book A Haiku Book of Days for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Other Artists, one of a 7-book series. The topic for today is: “Home”

words pop out your mouth
once you birth them, they leave home
gone to see the world

It’s Haiku Friday again. For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose. I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog. Just write it in the Comments below. The only rules are: 1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those). That’s it.

You can purchase this book on Amazon here.

A Limber Mind

Eating Mythos Soup - trimmedHere’s a writing tip to use every time your writing feels staid, stale, and stuck. Write a paragraph and make every sentence start with the same simple phrase, usually an “I + Verb” phrase, written very fast with no pauses between sentences to think. Be careful with this one, because if you do this correctly your mind might show you things you didn’t want to acknowledge. I’ll be brave today and share one of my own exercises, using the phrase “I don’t want”. As you will see, it is pretty darn scary but handy to know. (BTW, this shows up in my book Eating Mythos Soup (amazon link). Sometimes your exercises might even get published.

I don’t want to cry, for my eyes redden and my nose runs, and I must avert my face from those who might regard me with pity. I don’t want to be alone at the end of my life, with no one to hold my hand when I die. I don’t want to sit at a table with a plastic tablecloth, eating dinner alone in front of the TV. I don’t want the deep holes of loneliness to appear like zit craters in my skin, into which I might free fall forever.

I don’t want to dream, for then the black petaled flowers of fear bloom in the night, and their noxious rotting perfume eddies in a swirling cloud about me. I don’t want to make mistakes, for the red sand ants imprisoned in my belly will sting me to humiliating acts of grovel and apology. I don’t want to be angry, for then the self-loathing that lurks like an orange cancerous clown in the hidden lobes of my brain will dance in the center ring to the crack of the ringmaster’s whip.

I don’t want knowledge, for then I might find out that God is just a joke and there is no meaning to whatever we are doing here. I don’t want to know that no one sees me as their one true love. ©Eating Mythos Soup, 2000

A Story Of Words

Eating Mythos Soup - trimmedI’m on vacation this week so no new blog post. Instead here is an excerpt from my book Eating Mythos Soup, Poemstories for Laura, published 15 years ago. But still true.

I am obsessed by the sounds of words.

I like Old English comical words like mugwort, or marshmallow. I like hushed words spoken in whispers, like neath and ghoul. I like common every day words like horn and jump and dog.

I feel words nestled in my mouth, tucked into my cheeks. I smell them and taste them and lick every last drop from the corners of my lips. Then I let them roll and drip like sweet spiced oil off my tongue.

Words like nut have a short sharp crunchy feel as I say them; and when I say honey I can feel the golden brown goo thick at the back of my throat. Or consider the word crazy: the bee-tickled Z sound juxtaposed with the terrified EE sound of the Y, the harsh C next to the soft liquid R; these are contradictions and make you doubt the location of your mind.

I am enveloped in the sweet glut of words. I jump into them as if they are piles of autumn leaves. I roll around and listen to them crinkle and crisp under my broad soft hips. Or I dive into them as if they were the gooiest darkest mud in the Congo Basin; I let them stop up my ears and my nose and I snort and sneeze and squelch and rub them in my armpits. I hang them on my body like jewels, and I spray them onto my skin like perfume. I ornament and decorate and design myself with words.

And I feed myself with words. I suck them in while hot and feel them burn all the way down, and I even crave cold leftover words because they too can hit that blank lonely spot and make the soothing Aahh begin.

Compost: Senior Word Power

DiplomaRemember when you were a Freshman in High School and looked up to those elevated beings, the Seniors? The Seniors were the ones who were the epitome of cool, the ones who knew where It was At, the ones who enjoyed the perks of powerful positions in the student body, the ones who could drive. You couldn’t wait to become one of them.

But that was then and this is now. Nowadays when I hear the word “senior” it drips condescension. For those 55 and over, every day the mailbox brings advertisements for long-term care insurance, membership in AARP, over-55 retirement communities, cremation or burial services – plan ahead! – all on glossy paper with beautiful ocean scenes or people with gray hair and no wrinkles smiling as they golf on greens so bright they hurt your aging eyes. And of course all of them with the word “senior” sprinkled liberally through the text. Who are they kidding? In High School the next step after Senior is either College or Adult Work. But for these other Seniors the next step is Death.

Or is it? We’re not in High School any more, but we are still students in Life School. So if people 65 & over are “seniors” then let’s call people 50 to 64 “juniors” and those 35 to 50 “sophomores” and those 20 to 34 “freshmen, and those under 20 kindergartners. What if the next step after Senior was “Graduate,” not “Dead”? When you graduate you’ve passed the most important tests and learned the most important lessons and now you are ready to join the universal throng of real “grownups” who know what it’s actually all about. (Or at least have a better guess.)

Ah words. They mean a lot. They affect how you think. How you behave. How you believe.

Haiku Friday: Infinity

Here’s my haiku for today, on the topic of Infinity:

disappear into

that infinity of light

maybe then you’ll know

It’s Haiku Friday again.  For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose.  I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog.  Just write it in the Comments below.  The only rules are:  1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those).  That’s it.

 

Sharing Word History: Cow Shots

The word vaccination comes from the Latin word vacca, which means cow. Huh? Why would inoculations be named after a cow – do you know? If you don’t, here is why:

 

Inoculations had been used to try and prevent smallpox, which killed millions of people. Doctors  introduced the live smallpox virus under the skin, hoping to create a mild case of smallpox and thus build immunity. This method was somewhat successful, but as you might imagine, it was also risky because sometimes those introduced cases didn’t turn out to be so minor.

 

Then in 1796 a man named Edward Jenner, a doctor, heard a milkmaid brag that she couldn’t catch smallpox because she had already caught cowpox from the cows she milked. Cowpox was related to smallpox, but had only a mild effect on humans. It was Jenner’s idea to inject fluid from cowpox sores into people, instead of live smallpox, and hope it would build immunity to smallpox as well. It worked and Jenner called his method “vaccination” after the Latin word for cow. Jenner published his research at his own expense, and spent the rest of his life promoting the practice of vaccination.

 

All words have a story.

Writing Tip: How to Handle Nice People

The most frustrating kind of ghostwriting clients are not the ones you think. Usually they are the nicest people who have been brought up on the adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” What this means in interviews is that nearly everything these people say is likely to be boring, because “nice” has got to be the most yawn-producing word on the planet. Almost anything other than bland will offend somebody, and nice people try never to offend. So they stay nice or else – you guessed it – they don’t say anything at all.

Trying to winkle out interesting details from these taciturn folks can be quite a challenge. Here is one trick that I’ve found to be effective: I sometimes make up my own details. This is how this goes:

Ghostwriter: “So tell me more about Joe Smith so the readers can get to know him. You said he was ‘funny’ – so what kind of jokes did he tell? Can you remember any?”
Client: “Oh, you know, he was just funny. He could tell all sorts of jokes.”
Ghostwriter: “Like what?”
Client: “Funny ones, you know.”
Ghostwriter: “Did his jokes make fun of himself, or of other people? Or did he make puns, or plays on words?”
Client: “Um…”

And so on. This can take a long time. Instead of making both the client and myself frustrated, instead I’ll move on to something else and I’ll write a paragraph describing Joe Smith, expanding on a situation about Joe, making up details and jokes that I think are funny. Then I’ll show this to my client.

One of two things will happen. Either my client will say, “Oh, that sounds just like Joe!” (This makes me feel so intuitive, even psychic.) Or my client will say, “Oh, it didn’t happen like that – this is what happened, and this is the joke Joe told,” and they’ll proceed to tell me the specifics.

Either way, I’ll get the details that will make Joe Smith come alive on the page.

Haiku Friday: Sounds

Here’s my haiku for today, on the topic of Sounds:

don't be so afraid
mockery mockery mock
only silly sounds

It’s Haiku Friday again. For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose. I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog. Just write it in the Comments below. The only rules are: 1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those). That’s it.

Word History: Okay

OK, let’s talk about okay, okay? Okay is one of the most popular words on earth, yet there are many theories of where it came from and how it’s spelled, and each of these theories has its supporters and detractors, and none of the theories has been proven. Some popular theories are that 1) it’s a borrowed word from the Choctaw Native Americans, from their word okeh, meaning “it is so”; 2) it comes from the Scots phrase och, aye (oh yes); 3) it’s a borrowed word from the African language Wolof from their word waw-kay meaning “yes indeed”, coming into English via slavery; 4) it’s an abbreviation of orl korrekt, a jokey misspelling of “all correct” current in 1830s America.  The truth is that no one really knows or is ever likely to know. The only thing all seem to agree on is that OK or okay is American.

It seems to me that the dispute over okay’s origins is also uniquely American because of its racial overtones – in the early 1800s, when this term became popular, white Americans would not have wanted to admit they borrowed anything, even a word, from either Indians or African slaves; so perhaps they invented European origins for this popular word. I could be wrong, of course.