Wednesday Word: Ass

It’s been quite a while since I found the time to post a Wednesday Word, but I’m struggling with the words I’m supposed to be writing today and this particular post has been rolling around in my head for sometime. So, I thought, what the heck? Maybe writing a blog post will shake loose other writing.

A while back, I read a Regency-set erotic romance. While the story had its strong points, it nearly became a wallbanger for me when I read the first love scene. Why? Because the author used the word “ass” to mean “buttocks.” And that, my friends, pulled me right out of the historical, English setting. It also made me giggle and squick out at the same time, because I wondered when and how the donkey had gotten into the bedroom.

In a British historical, the proper word for this context is always “arse.” From one of my favorite references, the Online Etymology Dictionary:

ass (2)
slang for “backside,” first attested 1860 in nautical slang, in popular use from 1930; chiefly U.S.; from dial. variant pronunciation of arse (q.v.). The loss of -r- before -s- attested in several other words (e.g. burst/bust, curse/cuss, horse/hoss, barse/bass). Indirect evidence of the change from arse to ass can be traced to 1785 (in euphemistic avoidance of ass “donkey” by polite speakers) and perhaps to Shakespeare, if Nick Bottom transformed into a donkey in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1594) is the word-play some think it is. Meaning “woman regarded as a sexual object” is from 1942. Asshole first attested 1935.

Now, I’ll admit, the above suggests that the spoken word had begun to lose the -r- sound well before 1860, but even so, I still cringe if I see it spelled that way in a historical novel, especially one set in Britain. It’s just the wrong word.

Even today, I believe British English speakers use “arse” more often than “ass” as the dirty term for the human backside, although I’m more than happy to be corrected if that’s not the case. (My favorite modern slang use of the word is as a verb meaning “take the trouble,” as in, “I can’t be arsed to post to the blog more than once a week.” Those Brits do have a way with the English language!)

YOUR TURN: Are there any words you find used in historical novels that can have the effect of pulling you out of the setting? What are they? Why do they bother you?

Wednesday’s Word: Arms

After a two-week hiatus, the Wednesday Word is back! (Waits for applause to subside. Hey, allow my delusions of grandeur without laughing quite so loudly, please.)

I do have to warn you that today’s entry isn’t related to romance (or even fiction) writing at all. No, today’s blog is overtly, shamelessly political. Not in the sense that I’m taking sides, though. In the sense that I get annoyed when I see language so blatantly misused by everyone, up to and including justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yes, today, I am talking about the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution. The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a case stemming from a Washington DC ban on individual licensing of handguns.

Naturally, the debate falls along the usual lines: those who want to interpret the 2nd Amendment as granting a broad, individual right to gun ownership and those who want to interpret it in light of the preceding clause, which mentions the necessity of a “well-regulated militia to a free state.”

But see, I don’t take sides in that battle. Because as far as I’m concerned, the 2nd Amendment doesn’t say anything about guns at all. It says “…the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Guns are arms, to be sure. But so are rocket-propelled grenade launchers, tanks, fighter jets, Scud missiles, and ICBMs. As are swords, knives, spears, and bows and arrows.

Now, call me a semantic hair-splitter, but I have yet to understand how this particular clause in the Bill of Rights is always, always read to grant individuals the right to own guns, but not (say) nuclear bombs. It says arms, and that the right to keep and bear them shall not be abridged. Just because the framers weren’t capable of foreseeing nuclear fission (any more than they were capable of foreseeing Uzis, given that in their time, the only guns available were of the single-shot variety) doesn’t mean they didn’t intend to give individuals the right to own A-bombs, does it?

And really, if the purpose of this clause was (as many “strict” constructivists believe) to give people the ability to resist the tyranny of a government run amok, then you know, guns alone are probably not gonna cut the mustard. Just sayin’…

You might think from the above rant that I oppose gun ownership. Far from it. (Although we don’t own guns ourselves for a number of practical reasons, my son has been target and skeet shooting many times, and I fully approve.) But I do think it’s rather silly that so many people stridently hold to the position that the 2nd Amendment gives people the right to own just about any type of gun known to the hand of man, but not the right to own other types of weaponry that would be, frankly, a heckuva lot more effective in the event of a breakdown of our system of government.

Funny, ain’t it?

YOUR TURN: Are there any words you see persistently misused or misinterpreted in political (or other forms of) speech? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday Word: Killing “It”

Yes, I know it’s actually Thursday, but due to Blogger’s amazing post options capability, I am able to manipulate the time-space continuum and pretend that it’s still Wednesday. Ah, the power…

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, I am not a fan of it.

Hmmm, that didn’t come out quite right. I am a great fan of It, as you might imagine from my propensity to write about It.

Let’s try that again. I am not a fan of the pronoun it. While it has its uses (wink), much of the time, a writer can make a sentence both more precise and less wordy by avoiding the it.

The most notable example of how using the word it weakens your writing and increases your word count is the it was construction (along with its friendly corollary there was, but I digress).

It was obvious from his tight-lipped frown and narrowed eyes that he was angry.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with this sentence, of course, but it’s much wordier than necessary. Eliminate the it was and you wind up with something much clearer and more immediate:

His tight-lipped frown and narrowed eyes communicated his anger.

The other overuse of it I have to watch for in my own writing and eliminate with ruthless precision is the it for which the antecedent isn’t immediately obvious.

Safe in the suburbs, it was hard for me to identify with either side of the argument.

Again, the grammar’s fine here, but the it doesn’t really have a clear antecedent. It’s a pronoun without an idea or concept behind it. Now, this is the way people talk and think, so I can see an argument for keeping the sentence as it is. Notwithstanding, I think it’s better like this:

Safe in the suburbs, I found it hard to identify with either side of the argument.

I think it’s better for two reasons:

1. It’s less wordy, and
2. The sentence is more active, with a person actually doing the action of the verb.

So, what do you think of it? Do you want to keep it or kill it? Any examples from your own writing you’d like to share? Spill!

Wednesday Word: On Wasted Words

So, you’re getting ready to submit your manuscript. You’ve smoothed out all the inconsistencies in the plot, layered in emotion and backstory where appropriate, etc. What else can you do to make your story stand head and shoulders above the rest?

Don’t waste words!

Seems obvious, I’m sure, but from my experience in editing both other people’s mansucripts and my own, it’s harder than it sounds. I’m not talking here about those pesky -ly words that seem to slip in and expand the word count without adding much to the meaning. You already got those, I’m sure!

No, I’m talking mostly about these four verbs:

Watch/watched
Feel/felt
See/saw
Notice/noticed

Now, of course I’m not suggesting you never use these words in your writing. But in your final round of polishing, I do recommend searching for them in your manuscript and making sure each and every one is necessary. That there isn’t another way you could construct the sentence that would be snappier and more direct.

Here is an example of what I mean (and no, they’re not taken from any of my manuscripts or any that I’ve read–I made ’em all up just for the purpose of this post).

Mary dropped into the chair with a sigh of resignation. She watched John pace the floor, his brow furrowed in thought.

This isn’t horrendous, but since we’re Mary’s point of view, anything reported in the narrative is something she’s watching (or seeing or noticing or feeling…). The fact that she’s watching John is a given, so why not just report what she’s watching? Not only does the phrase “she watched” impart no useful information to the reader, it actually distances the reader from the scene by placing the emphasis on Mary’s act of watching rather than on what John is doing.

The same logic applies to the verbs “see,” “notice,” and “feel.” Though they’re useful and even essential at times, it’s important to evaluate whether their use is adding to the reader’s understanding and immersion in the scene or detracting from it.

No writer is immune from using these words when they’re not needed. Knowing that, I’m taking extra care to comb through my manuscripts for offenders and deleting them with ruthless efficiency.

YOUR TURN: What word or words do you realize you tend to “waste?” Do you notice wasted words in other people’s writing (including my post above, lol)? Remember, sharing is caring!