Monday, July 23, 2007

Guest blogger, Murray Suid on curiosity and words

Thanks, Nienke, for your thoughtful announcement of my visit. You made me feel welcome at your remarkable website.


I’m the kind of writer who likes a distraction. Could be the smell of coffee in the other room, or a “dump your microwave oven” urban myth that plops onto my desktop. No surprise, therefore, that as I began typing this piece about words origins, I allowed my attention to be drawn to your Tip of the Day: “Always take the attitude of a learner in your writing and be open to new insights from any source.” I hope it won’t seem that I’m malingering if I comment on this sage advice before I get down to business.


In the 1990s, I enrolled in UCLA’s screenwriting program. At age 51 I thought I knew everything about cranking out scripts. I just wanted to meet producers so I could sell my work. But in my first class I discovered how much I had to learn about story structure. That humbling experience confirms the wisdom of your tip about being curious.


Now about words: In high school, I could take the study of etymology or leave it. Actually, I was more into leaving it. But as the years passed, I gradually became intrigued by word histories. I even began collecting doublets: word pairs that at first seem unrelated and yet are etymological kissing cousins. Examples include: anger & angina, automobile & mob, chaos & gasoline, computer & reputation, flatulence & inflation, candid & candidate. And my favorite: rectitude & rectum.


Such pairs—“words of a feather”— inspired me to write mini essays for my own amusement, especially when I had a pressing deadline. Take, for “excrement & secret”:


“Three may keep a secret, “wrote Ben Franklin, “if two of them are dead.” Ben’s witty observation points to the etymology of secret, which traces to the Latin se meaning “apart” and cretus meaning “separate.” A “secret” is knowledge kept apart from others. Hence, a secretary’s first function is to guard the boss’s private information. (Apparently, a few secretaries working for the British royal family never got the message.)


But what has this to do with excrement? Here’s the poop: The ex is Latin for “out” and the cre goes back to our old friend cretus, “separate.” Thus excrement refers to something “separated out.” Although in this case we’re not talking about information, it’s still a private matter, definitely hush hush.


If you want a loftier example, consider: “cosmos & cosmetics”:


The ancient Greeks named the universe kosmos, meaning “order.” Their belief that order is the key to beauty gave rise to the related word kosmetikos: the art of creating personal beauty.


The English version—cosmetics—developed around the time Isaac Newton published his theory about the orderly forces binding the cosmos.


Ironically, in this same period, the anti-adornment crowd made an effort to enact laws criminalizing the use of cosmetics for the purpose of seducing innocent victims into matrimony.


I had no plans for publishing these stories until an agent called saying that she knew an editor who was looking for a humorous word book. Did I have anything? Absolutely, only most of it was gathering digital dust on old computers. Six months later, Words of a Feather was published, which seems weird to me because I’ve spent years unsuccessfully peddling some of my manuscripts, and here came a contract out of the blue. The lesson? Even if you’re not an environmentalist, do not send your old computers to the landfill.


Lest I give the impression that etymology is merely an entertainment, let me end with a serious point. Sometimes when I’m writing, I’ll find myself staring at a word that, while I’ve used it my whole life, now seems unfamiliar.


If I look up the word’s etymology, I often have an epiphany. Here’s an example. Recently I was finishing a hilarious (don’t I hope) coming-of-age story. I viewed my protagonist Dan as a hero although he doesn’t see himself capable of accomplishing heroic deeds. Indeed, through most of the book, he wants to run away.


One day,—like Dan—I was avoiding my destiny and looking out the window rather than typing the story. The thought occurred to me that maybe Dan wasn’t a hero. Worse, I felt that I no longer even knew what a hero was. I could give the dictionary definition, but I had no emotional connection.

Curious, I looked up the etymology of hero at my favorite online etymology source (www.etymonline.com), and I discovered that hero traces back to an ancient Indo-European word meaning “protector.” Bingo! In a scene that I knew was coming, Dan has the chance to protect his town—spiritually speaking. (I admit, that doesn’t sound funny, but trust me: the moment in the story is both spiritual and funny. Or don’t trust me; buy the book when it comes out… if it comes out.)


What I’m suggesting is that if you find yourself in a word crisis, or if you simply wish to understand more deeply writing terms such as character, sentence, dialogue, climax or destiny, take a journey into etymologyland.


I used etymology today while writing this essay. I wasn’t sure that the piece would work out and that worried me. But then I learned that essay comes from the French word essai meaning “try” or “attempt.” This I have done.


Thanks for reading. And if wish, please ask me questions. But note: question relates etymologically to inquisition. So go easy.

22 comments:

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Murray,
Great guest Post! Having been a sort of "lover of words myself" (as well as my favorite word smith comedian, George Carlin), I truly enjoyed what you said and your subtle "plays on words" (and some Carlinesque).
Thanks!
Bill

Murray Suid said...

Dear Dr. Bill,

It isn't every day that I find myself in a sentence along with George Carlin. That's a compliment I'll long remember. Thanks.

Murray

Nienke Hinton said...

Murray, you tease us with your favorite pair: rectitude & rectum - aren't you going to share that one?

Josephine Damian said...

Hi Murray,

Great post! Till now, I never realized the connection between certain words. Thanks for turning me on to that website, and kudos to Nienke for having such an interesting guest blogger.

Josephine

Murray Suid said...

Nienke,

I don't know why I love this pair so much. Yet I do. Maybe it's something about opposites connecting.

For me, "rectitude" brings many things to mind --honesty, goodness, correctness, decency--but the list would not include "rectum." Yet the two words couldn't be closer, etymologically speaking.

Both derive from the Latin "rectus," meaning "straight," from which we get "rectangle" with its straight sides. That geometric figure seems o fit a person of rectitude, a person who is upright and foursquare.

But what's this got to do with "rectum." For those of you who haven't done an autopsy lately, the facts are these: Unlike the curvy part of the intestines--aka the "small intestines"--the rectum is the straight part of the bowels. And that straightness is a good thing when it's time to use a rectal thermometer.

Sayre said...

I have loved words most of my life. When it came time to choose a language in high school, I chose Latin because it is the root of so many languages. Even when I don't know the language being spoken, I can usually figure out what's being said (or close to it). So, like you, when I see words that are close in spelling like that, I wonder (and sometimes follow up) why they appear so similar when on the surface they mean such different things.

Thanks, Murray. And Nienke for inviting him over to visit!

pepektheassassin said...

Nienke, I don't know how to make a link! :(

But you can go to Rob Kistner's blog at image-poetry.com

pepektheassassin said...

OOOps. Scratch that. It's image-verse.com

Silly me.

pepektheassassin said...

Oh, and thank you, Murray, for a fun and enlightening post! Loved it! And thanks also to you, Nienke, for inviting him.

Murray Suid said...

Josephine,

I appreciate your comment. Another excellent online source for etymology is the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition. I access it via www.bartleby.com. This dictionary has a resouce section that traces words back to Indo-European root families. That may sound dry, but you can discover some amazing connections there.

Sayre,

I do exactly what you do when I noticed words with close spellings. Sometimes there is no connection, but the quest is usually interesting.

Murray

Anonymous said...

Murray,
Your lively essay was more than an attempt. It was a winner! Thanks for the giggles and enlightenment. I look forward to reading your book!
Arletta

Jason said...

Murray,
This essay was fantastic! It was definitley more than a try, it was a complete success. On a side note, I wonder if I can try to persuade my college proffessors to consider the etymology of the word essay the next time they assign one, ha ha.

Murray Suid said...

Arletta,

What a phrase: "giggles and enlightenment." If I could consistently pull off providing that duo, I would be most content.

Thanks.


Jason,

I appreciate your enthusiasm. As for alerting your professors about the "deeper" meaning of essay, I'm all for it. I taught college writing for 10 years. The whole course focused on essay writing, culminating in a final example that cut across all departments--journalism, music, science, sociology. That is, students in all majors wrote on the same topic.

I could see how stressful this was for my students, so early on I began to take the test with them. (The topic came down from on high.) I was as nervous as my students. Thinking back on it, I would say that it was really about "trying," about "testing ideas." It was not about "perfect form" or style. How could it be when we writers had only 90 minutes to turn out three pages?

It was trying...but also ultimately exciting. That's what writing should be, I think.

Murray

Anonymous said...

Murray,
Can we get back to George Carlin?
I would like to suggest Jon Stewart
as the new favorite wordsmith comedian.

Murray is full of surprises in the same way.

Sylvie

Alison Tyler said...

Your exploration of the word "hero" reminds me of the scene in The Commitments when someone in the band spells the word heroin wrong.

I think the banner reads "Heroine Kills." (God I hope I'm remembering this right.)

"Hero" and "heroin" aren't linked.
Are they?

Great essay by the way!
XXX,
Alison

sm said...

This is such a wonderful topic...thanks for sharing!

MerylF said...

Fascinating Murray and very entertaining - words are wonderful things. Thanks for the etymology link and the post!

Jonathan Caws-Elwitt said...

I discovered that hero traces back to an ancient Indo-European word meaning “protector.”

That's funny. I didn't know the ancient Indo-Europeans had 12-inch sandwiches.

But seriously . . . what an engaging and educational essay!

Murray Suid said...

Sylvie,

Thanks for your note. I agree with you that Jon Stewart loves words, although the best of them are often bleeped--presumably to remind us that we live in a culture where saying something may be viewed as worse than doing it.

As for your conjecture that I'm full of surprises, I better leave that alone. But this is a free country, and you may think whatever you wish. At least for now. (I'm working on a movie project--THE ESP AFFAIR--which suggests a world where our thoughts might not be so private.)

Alison,

As it happens, "hero" and "heroin" are linked. In the late 19th century, when Bayer & Company was testing a new painkiller--thought to be non-addictive--patients said that the medicine made them feel "heroic." Bayer thus choice the name "heroin" for the drug, the final syllable "-in" signifying any pharmaceutical preparation: aspirin, insulin, etc.

Jonathan,

I'm not sure about the size of ancient sandwiches, but I'll check it out for you. Wait here, please.

Murray

Madeline Moore said...

Interesting post, Murray. And the more I follow your blog tour, the more I learn about my favourite things - words. We're so lucky, as writers, to find our raw materials, free, everywhere, anywhere, all over the place. All we need to do is organize them in a manner that a few someones will find interesting. And that you do!
Any comment on the word 'kudos' by the way?

Murray Suid said...

Madeline,

I was going to let you have the last word in this thread because your account of words in The Writing Life can't be improved. At least, I can't improve on what you wrote. I especially like your summary of the purpose of our effort: to create something that "a few someones will find interesting." Perfect.

But then you gave me the assignment of commenting on "kudos" ("fame, renown") so I did sign in. "Kudos" not a word I feel comfortable with. I've never used it in writing or speaking. Maybe it's because I don't get much in the way of "kudos," especially from my grandkids: they want someone who's silly, not famous.

I should also admit that I don't feel comfortable with the structure of Kudos. The word is singular--coming originally from the Greek "kydos" meaning fame--yet it feels plural. If you use "kudo" English experts may ridicule you, but I blame the word for sounding plural, especially when it takes on the informal sense of "cheers."

Now, if "kudos" happens to be one your favorite word, forgive me. I'll gladly read your defense of it.

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