Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Etymology of Common Idioms

“Etymology of common idioms”, try saying that five times real fast. As writers we sometimes find it useful to use idioms. But do you know how they got started and what they really mean.

Rule of thumb: means a common rule or practice. But back in the day, for those of you who beat their wives, “Rule of Thumb” meant that you could not beat your wife with a rod thicker than your thumb. There are some other explanations out there, but this one popped out at me. I don’t think I will be using that one again.

Paddy wagon: Paddy wagon is a term commonly used for the cart, wagon, or van used to pick up intoxicated people and take them to the jailhouse. Paddy is a slang word for the Irish, (not sure if it’s derogatory or not, so use it at your own risk and don’t blame me if you get punched in the face). So it was named the paddy wagon because at the time most of its customers were supposedly drunken Irishmen. I used this one to make a point. You work hard at your craft and you may use commonly accepted phrases, but all of your work will be for nothing if you inadvertently offend an entire race of people.

Keep your pants on: Means to calm down. An obvious one, which originated with the ladies no doubt. It makes an apparent reference to suggesting that one should calm down… romance is not imminent.

Knock on wood: Shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus pieces of the cross on which he was crucified were circulated in the early church. To touch one of those pieces of wood was supposed to bring good luck. The idiom grew to knock on any piece of wood and it would bring you good luck.

Pot to piss in: Means you are poor. My mother-in-law used to say he didn’t have a pot to piss in or a back door to throw it out. I knew what she meant, but didn’t know where it came from until now. In the days before indoor plumbing you did your business in a pot called a chamber pot, which would be dumped out a window or door. So if you were very poor you didn’t even have a pot to piss in (I’m not sure what the alternative is. It should be noted that “piss” was not a bad word originally and found its way into other idioms like “full of piss and vinegar”.

Bouched (botched) up: There was a guy named Sir Thomas Bouch who designed a bridge somewhere in Scotland around 1876. Less than two years after the bridge was finished it collapsed in a violent storm sending 75 people to their deaths. After that night, if you really messed something up… you bouched it. I believe that the American spelling is “botched”, and though “bouched” is spelled differently, it is pronounced the same. I goggled the name Bouch, there are still a bunch of them around. So be careful if you like to us this one.

Break a leg: Theatre people believed that there are spirits or ghosts known as sprites. Sprites hung around the theatre and caused trouble by wreaking havoc and breaking things. If the Sprites heard you ask for something, they were likely to make the opposite happen. Hence “Break a Leg” was actually a wish of good luck.

In the Crapper: I kid you not, there was a English guy named Thomas Crapper who is credited with inventing the flushable toilet. Soldiers returning home from England after World War I introduced the word to America. It means something is messed up beyond repair. And that is where we get the word crap… I guess we now know where that one comes from too.

There are thousands of these and they all have origins. Most are benign but some are not and can get you into trouble. So before you use one in your novel or Blog make sure you know what it means and where it came from.

I found a couple of websites some just list idioms and gave their common meanings, but at least one of them gave the origins of the idiom.

If you are not sure goggle it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Could you write a story in fifty-five words or less?

There are contests and challenges popping up all over the Internet designed to challenge writers. I stumbled upon a bunch of them and I thought it was ridiculous at first, but the more I thought about it the more I became intrigued.

Could I write a story in fifty-five words or less?

The rules are:
The story has to describe a scene and have a discernable plot. The story should involve at least two people and have some sort of conflict. And finally there has to be a resolution to that conflict. Your story can have a title and the title does not count towards the fifty-five word count.

Here is my entry:

So This is How it Ends

The light bulb hanging from the ceiling flickered in the darkened room. I heard her laugh. When my eyes adjusted, I saw her leaning in the corner. I thought she had forgiven me… until I saw the gun in her hand. I put my hands up… then smiled. The smile usually worked. Not this time.

I entered the contest. I didn’t win... but I was glad I participated. You see, I am a fiction writer and fiction writing is very competitive. You have to grab your reader in the first few pages - some say the first 100 words.

If you want to go the traditional publishing route you need to distill your novel down to a page or less, but wait... it gets better. After that you need to winnow it down even further to two sentences (three sentences tops). This is called your elevator pitch.

Here is the rationale for the elevator pitch contained in the following scenario:
You find yourself on an elevator with a high-powered literary agent or someone in Hollywood royalty like Tom Hanks.
He asks you, “So what do you do?”

You tell him that you are a writer and Tom Hanks, who happens to have run out of ideas for movies and is desperate for a fresh idea says, “Oh really? Tell me about it.” And before you can say, “Houston we have a problem,” the elevator door closes. So now you have just the time it takes for the elevator to reach the next floor to tell Mr. Hanks what your book is about.

OK… I can hear you naysayers naysaying. What was that? "That’ll never happen" you say? You’re probably right, but that’s not the point. You should be able to pitch your book in two to three sentences or less.

Here’s mine:

A Storm in Memphis

Will Compton is a burned out, time traveling cop whose job has put his sanity on life support. He desperately needs time to sort things out - instead he gets dispatched to the most difficult case of his career. Criminals have time-jumped back to the assassination of Martin Luther King and he has to set aside his personal problems long enough to deal with them!

I know what you’re thinking… "only three sentences eh? Well I'll just make them really really long sentences then." But the rule of thumb is a sentence is too long if you can’t say it in one breath. Some experts challenge you to get it down to just five words. I haven’t figured that one out yet.

If you want to be a writer try this exercise. Write a novel in 55 words or less. It was one of the hardest writing exercises that I have ever done. But be careful, it can be addicting! I worked on this one for about a week and revised it more times than I will ever admit.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

So how was Vegas?

My wife and I find ourselves in a unique position. We are caring for both grandbabies and grandparents and the similarities are striking. They both are in diapers; they both are extremely demanding because they want things NOW and cannot get them for themselves. They know when they hurt and they know when they are hungry and they are not afraid to let you know. They go to sleep when they are sleepy… anytime, anywhere. They live for the present and they don’t remember a thing.

My mother’s blood pressure shot up one weekend to where we thought we would loose her. We called the paramedics and they called an ambulance and they rushed her to the hospital. We spent all day and all night in the emergency room while they tried to stabilize her blood pressure. Then they over corrected and it got too low.

It turned out there was a problem with her medication and eventually they got it figured out. It was an awful, awful time and we were afraid that this time she would not leave that hospital alive. My mother cried most of the time. She hated hospitals.

They kept her in the hospital for three days and we all took shifts sitting with her. When she was discharged we loaded her up and took her home.

To our surprise my mom sat in the back seat grinning from ear to ear.

“This was the best Vegas trip ever,” she said. “I won $1,400 dollars.”
I made eye contact with my sister, that trip had been months ago.
Thank god for short-term memory loss.

My brother was in the front yard, looking tired and grim. My mother popped out of the car and glided up the walkway.
“I won $1,400,” my mother informed him with a grin.
My brother was shocked and more than a little confused.
“We just got back from Vegas,” I said.
“Ohhhh,” he said, nodding with understanding. Then he turned to my mother and asked.

“So how was Vegas?”

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The School Bully and the Principal

It's "Back to School time"! I know this because of the abundance of "Back to School Ads". I got to thinking of some of the trials of school with all of the bullying that is going on.

For better or worse, some aspects of high school are 'Darwinism on display'. The little kids stay out of the way of the bigger ones, the smart kids avoid the dumb ones. And the nerds keep a wary eye on the jocks. Survival of the fittest.

School violence was big in the media at the time my son went to school and the district that governed my son’s high school instituted a zero tolerance for violence one year. In some ways the new 'zero tolerance' policy upset this delicate Darwinian balance. A couple of the smaller kids actually began taking advantage and started bullying the bigger kids. Most of these bigger kids, like my son, were focused on grades and college prep and were former little guys themselves who had just hit a growth spurt.

So I was shocked when I learned that my son was being bullied and even more shocked when I learned who the perpetrator was.

In humans, dwarfism is sometimes defined as an adult height of equal to or less than 4 feet 10 inches. This kid had barely surpassed that threshold and my son was at least a foot taller. He was more than willing to clean this other kid's clock but he'd been taught not to. So I was on the spot. I did what most of you would do; I told my kid to go have a talk with the school principal, explain the problem and let the zero tolerance policy do its job.

The principal explained to my son that the non-violence policy had been put in place to protect the smaller kids from the bigger ones. He doubted that my son was being bullied because he was tall. He hinted that he should be able to take care of himself and more than just hinted that my son was being a sissy for allowing a little guy to push him around. Now I was really on the spot, because everything I had taught him about the system seemed to be garbage and I had to think of something quick.

I had my son write a letter and then we photocopied it. We put one copy in an envelope and tucked it away. We took the original and put it in an envelope, sealed it, put a stamp on it, and then addressed it to the superintendent of the school district. My son couldn’t wait to mail it. He couldn’t wait to see that principal squirm when the superintendent lowered the boom on him. I had to sit my son down and ask him what his goal was. Was his goal to solve the problem or was it to punish the principal. His mouth said "solve the problem" but his eyes said something else… "punish him!"

I told him that we were not going to mail the letter, not right away. There was a third letter that my son did not know about and that letter was addressed to the media. The letter to the superintendent was our back-up plan, the letter to the media was our nuclear option.

Some of you will read this and see blackmail and I have to acknowledge an element of that. But as angry as I was, I tried to put myself in the principal’s shoes. I had to make some assumptions. I had to assume that he was not a bad guy, that he was probably overworked and saw this problem as a 'little' problem. I considered what I would want to happen if the roles were reversed. If I was this overworked principal I would want another chance to fix things.

In these days of emails it is too easy to fire off an angry message and be done with it. With Facebook I could have mounted a campaign to get the principal fired. I see that a lot these days. Sometimes it’s justified - a lot of times it is not. Often the loudest shrillest voices are those who have the worst kids and they are either blind or in denial.

Some parents are just angry while others simply want everything done their way. A teacher once told me of a parent whose kid was diabetic and wanted all snacks with sugar banned because her child kept eating snacks from other kids' lunch-boxes.

Some parents are into power and when an administrator does not bend to their will they enlist the help of others and use whatever influence they have to exact their revenge.

Yes, some administrators are incompetent and should be fired. But others are simply overworked and all you really need to do is get their attention. The key is to know who you are dealing with and not apply the same bludgeon to everyone. The key is to try and do the right thing... and revenge, though immensely satisfying, is rarely the right thing.

So before starting that carpet-bombing campaign, you probably should stop and think about what your goals are.  Do you want the problem fixed or do you want the administrator punished.

As we sat in that principal’s office and watched him read the letter, I knew right away he fell into the latter category. He was overworked and we just needed to get his attention. In this case the problem was resolved to my son’s satisfaction by the end of the day. More importantly, in that principal, my son had a reluctant ally for the remainder of his time in school.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What would you do?

I know a man who manages a super market. One day a woman came into the store to return a cut of meat that was sold well after its expiration. It was just this side of rancid and she was incensed. The manager took the meat back and gave the woman a full refund. And after she calmed down he pointed out that she had bought the meat from his competitor, the meat did not come from his store.

I asked him why did he do that. He said his company spent millions of dollars in advertising just to bring people into his store. All of that advertisement money would have been wasted if he had sent that woman away empty handed.

“So which store do you suppose she will buy her meat from now on?” He asked rhetorically.

I thought about that when I saw a “Sonic” restaurant commercial on TV today. I wondered how much they were wasting on advertising to get people into their restaurant. You see, I went to the local “Sonic” drive through and ordered a foot long Chicago Dog the other day. I love Chicago Dogs so I was really looking forward to it. When I got home however I discovered that they had stuffed two regular hotdogs and two regular buns into the package designed for the foot long.

Apparently they ran out of foot long dogs and buns so they were counting on me not checking the package until I got home… they were right.

Now here’s the problem, I was kinda pissed and I’m not sure I should have been. For all I knew, if I were to add it all together, the total weight of meat and bun of two small hot dogs was equal if not more that that the total weight of the foot long. So I should quit whining, right? It’s entirely possible I came out ahead.

When I thought about it, I guess what bugged me, wasn’t the fact that they made the substitution, was that they made the substitution without telling me. I think it made me wonder what else they were willing to substitute with the knowledge that most people wouldn’t notice. What if the manager could save a few bucks by using lower quality hotdogs imported from Romania where the standards are a bit more relaxed? Or perhaps he had another connection that ground and made his own hot dogs with meat from a dubious source.

I know that’s a huge leap… but is it?  I mean most chain restaurants have standards, that’s why we go to them because we know what we are getting.

I called the corporate office. I was told that the restaurant was a franchise and there was nothing they could do. They did offer to send me a certificate to go back and try it again. I didn’t eat the hot dogs that day and I doubt I will ever go back. So from my perspective all of that advertising money is wasted on me.

What would you have done?