Clues

Etymology always has a new story. No, not bugs – that’s entomology. I’m talking about where words come from, the roads they use to get here, and how the journey changes them. When they arrive, they often look very different from when they got on the omnibus.

A ‘clue’ is a piece of evidence, something we follow to solve a mystery or unravel a problem. It’s a rather general word – a clue can be fingerprints, a lab test, an observation, a phone call. Crossword puzzles have clues. Lots of people don’t have a clue.

Originally ‘clue’ was ‘clew,’ a ball of thread. Think of a labyrinth, trying to find your way out of those twisting passages. Even Daedalos, the inventor, had trouble with that. The Greek hero Theseus unwound a ball of thread as he pursued the Minotaur so he could quickly find his way back out. Clever Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, gave him the ‘clew.’

Writers must leave clews. As we wind our way towards the center of our story, we have to leave a way to get back out. It’s no good to get to the middle and then have to bring in a deus ex machina to rescue our story. Too contrived. If we unwind our clew a little bit at a time, the way out is no problem.

This is how I’ve been re-writing my most recent story, begun in November. I am creating a detailed outline – literally everything that happens, in order. Each event must lead naturally from the last. I am about halfway now, and see the value of planning before writing. On my first draft I wrote my way to the middle and couldn’t get out. Surprisingly, this method doesn’t produce a bland and predictable story; it lets me place clues where they can increase tension and raise suspense.

Once my outline is laid, the writing will be easier because I won’t be thinking about what should happen next or how to solve a problem I just created by blundering into a dead end. All that pretty writing – how can I bear to unravel it? That is how my first drafts usually go; by the time I figure out I don’t need something, I’ve already committed too much time and emotion to it. I can’t cut the thread.

Today my creative writing students will each receive a box containing three clues. Some will find a stack of letters, twenty years old, or a page from a newspaper article. Some will find a watch, or a picture, or a diploma, or a ring. (None of these clues are actual objects, of course – this is a fiction class, you know.) They will ask themselves, who sent this box, and why? What does each item tell us about the person who put them inside?

Students always want their characters to be physically attractive, rich, famous. They forget about the little things, the small clues that lead to the really interesting stories. We will see how far these clews will unwind, what stories they will produce. That is my journey today.

Fun and Funner

We had a German exchange student once who kept confusing ‘fun’ and ‘funny.’ He would say, “We played paintball. It was funny,” or, “That was a fun joke.”

It’s funny – not ha-ha, but odd – that these two words behave this way. ‘Fun’ ought to be the noun, and ‘funny’ the adjective – like ‘love’ and ‘lovely,’ or ‘salt’ and ‘salty.’ And yet they can both function as adjectives – with different meanings. ‘Fun’ also works as a noun, but ‘funny’ is stuck with being an adjective.

They come from a common root: ‘fon,’ meaning ‘to befool,’ or ‘a fool.’

Going off in another direction, ‘fon’ is also the root of ‘fond,’ which used to mean ‘foolish.’ It is probably in this sense that Juliet uses the word when she tells Romeo,

“I am too fond; and therefore thou mayst think my ‘havior light.” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2.102) She fears that he may think her frivolous or silly.

Here’s something else that’s funny about ‘fun.’ Most one-syllable adjectives add -er and -est to form their comparative and superlative forms, e.g. cold, colder, coldest. Longer adjectives use ‘more’ and ‘most’ – beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful.

But we don’t say, ‘fun, funner, funnest,’ except informally. Correct usage dictates ‘more fun, most fun.’ (Dax prediction: ‘funner’ and ‘funnest’ will be considered correct within ten years.)

We do say, ‘funny, funnier, funniest.’

Neither ‘fun’ nor ‘funny’ happily takes the adverbial suffix -ly. ‘Funly’ is not a word; though I’ve heard ‘funnily,’ it doesn’t strike my ear right.

And there are the idioms:

‘Making fun’ of someone recalls the obsolete usage – making a fool of someone.

‘Have fun,’ is an odd sort of command. As if fun could be demanded.

‘Fun’ is more versatile than its cousin; it can even be a verb (informally), as in, “I’m just funning you.” (Which must be said with the proper accent: “I’m jess funnin’ ya.”)

Both ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ are subjective concepts. For example, I think it’s fun to look up words, while most people would just find that funny (odd, not ha-ha).

Nice Story

Every writer knows that choosing the right word is critical. A word that is too odd or inappropriate can jar a reader out of the story, while non-descriptive words can be boring.

One of the most common words by far in English is ‘nice.’

It is common in both senses — ‘widely used’ and ‘ordinary.’ Everybody uses it a lot, but it doesn’t say a lot.

Pleasant? Agreeable? Kind?

An older meaning, which you may sometimes still hear, is ‘exact, precise, or subtle,’ as in: ‘a nice distinction,’ one so subtle that it wouldn’t be very noticeable.

But as it is commonly used today, nice has no ‘nice’ meaning. It means whatever you think it means, or nothing at all, and is used whenever the speaker or writer is too lazy to think of a more descriptive term.

An even older meaning, not seen these days, is ‘fussy or fastidious.’ It is this meaning that Shakespeare intends when he has Friar Lawrence lament, “The letter was not nice, but full of charge.” In other words, it wasn’t just a “Hi, how are you doing?” letter; it was a “Juliet’s not really dead, so don’t kill yourself” kind of letter. Not nice.

Going back further, we find the meaning ‘foolish or ignorant.’ Now we are coming close to the root of the word.

For nice actually is descended from nescius, which in Latin means ‘ignorant.’

To be more precise: a ‘nice’ person is a ‘fool.’

And next time you use the word, will you be precise? Or will you have no idea what you really mean?

They is Here

I give up.

I will no longer use he/she, him/her, his/her. These are clunky and awkward, and re-wording isn’t always better.

‘They,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ are now third person indefinite pronouns. I don’t like it, but everybody uses them that way; it’s time to give up the fight to keep them as exclusively plural.

At heart, I am a descriptive grammarian. Rules are good, but there’s a point when rules need to change. Language is not static.

But there are a few usages that really irk me — not because I’m opposed to change, but because I hear people using them without any thought as to what they are saying. More

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