If you love words, watch the History of English

One reason I love writing is because I love playing with the language itself. I enjoy finding that perfect word, twisting it in a strange way, or otherwise crafting something original. English is amazingly maliable, and is constantly incorporating new words and evolving how old ones are used. It’s been like this throughout its history, with even the standardization of spelling being a fairly recent development.

If you share my interest in the wordification of English, I strongly encourage you to watch this great video series from the Open University on the History of English. There are ten videos, each over a minute long, spanning from the Anglo Saxon invasions through English’s evolution as a global language.

The first video is below, and the rest of the fabulous History of English series is on OU’s YouTube channel.


Idea Generation

Image by annais via Flickr
Idea generation is an interesting topic. Obviously, different people get their ideas different ways. Personally, my ideas seem to come at me when I am in the process of doing something rather mundane, like driving or taking a shower. Unfortunately, neither of those occupations is conducive to writing down my ideas.

Years ago, because I found many of my ideas were springing forth on my drive to and from work, I purchased a small tape recorder to capture any inspired phrases or plot lines that zoomed into my head. This worked pretty well. I confess to a couple of impromptu renditions of old 80’s tunes working their way onto the tapes, but overall the device helped me during those times when ideas where popping up in the car. Most of these ideas came to me as a single sentence…almost like a log line for a story. I find that a single sentence can often lead to an entire story idea. Many a time, prior to using the recorder, I would drive eight or nine miles saying the same line over and over in my head until I got to where I could write it down without wrecking the car.

As far as where these ideas come from, it varies. Sometimes I will see something while I am driving that conjures up an idea. Often items that fall out of the backs of trucks will get my mind working or even a garbage bag left in the middle of the road. I wonder what is in the bag and then my mind will start on a story. Wondering about things will usually always lead me to some kind of story idea. Unfortunately, over the years, I have abandoned many of those ideas and left them unexplored.

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At a loss for words? There’s help for that.

There's No I In OfficeI recently read an insightfully funny book, “There’s No I in Office”, a compendium of 4,293 phrases to use in conversations with your co-workers.  Television writers Jacob Lentz and Paul Koehorst recognized the need for a guidebook to help cubicle denizens navigate the risky waters of office small-talk, where avoidance will likely get you labeled as anti-social and saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time may earn you an even worse title: anti-employed!

As a writer, I recognized another good use for the book: dialogue starter ideas.  Do you have a lumberjack character?  The book has a page of witticisms like “I love these plaid shirts” that are sure to get you thinking of other dialogue to build around it.  Got a character that’s a U.N. translator?  An entire scene could be crafted from a starter phrase like “What’s your favorite foreign swear word?”  The list of professions for which the authors have drafted entries is itself a gold mine of ideas.  Need to flesh out a character with an interesting career choice in their past?  I can just about guarantee you’ll find a gem or two.

creative writing exercise – one sin

A few weeks ago, Eric posted about a writing exercise in which you only use single syllable words.  I decided to give it a try, but first I had to come up with a title to work from.  I cleared my mind, set forth the constraint that it was to be a phrase consisting of single syllable words (might as well start off on the right foot) and took the first thing that popped in, which happened to be “one sin”.  Now, it is entirely possible that my subconscious was instead trying to convey the phrase “once in”, but I think “one sin” has more potential.  So, without further ado, it’s time to get all monosyllabic.

“One Sin”

Once in the church, I found the priest with a frayed frock tied much too tight ’round his neck.  I thought that I might just back out the way that I had come in, but some other soul who had come in from the cold blocked the door.  Her hand flew to make the sign of the cross as she weighed the scene in front of her.  She must have seen too much of the type of show where the perp hung out and got caught, since she eyed me with a tinge of fear.  I tried to speak, but found no words could be coaxed from my throat while my lips pursed and then gave part, all with no sound.  By the look in her eye, this was not what she would need for us to get past this point.  “Not me,” I croaked with a whisp of drawn breath, while she paused to stare at the floor.

When her eyes once more were raised, she spoke, each word forced like a great weight from deep in her chest.  “One sin, that was all I came back to make up for,” she said.  “And now,” she said as she crossed the floor with new found drive, so fast that I could not move, “I have to live with one more.”


Last week I talked about the pros of using short and simple words in writing.  It tends to keep prose clear, concise, and on track; good aims generally.  I do however think a hard-line fundamentalist view can limit your options for language. 

The wonder of English, after all comes from a fairly simple syntax with a huge well of vocabulary.  There is great joy in dipping into that well.  Fancy words, slang words, old fashioned words:  each can serve to add texture or heighten effects in writing. 

Clear is good, especially if you want a fast pace but what if you want a more leisurely pace?  Maybe you can get the reader engaged in the nuances of different words and phrases.  A glass window might be clear because you can see through it but a clear person and a transparent person are two different things.  An opaque window means you can’t see through it but if a person is opaque it might mean a number of different things. 

Adverbs are reviled by many writers as weak but sometimes you might want a man to breathe heavily rather than pant.  We tend to use adverbs naturally when we speak so if you really like them you can hide them in dialogue.

  Dream-like or fantastical pieces almost need lyrical, florid words to paint the right picture.  Poe and Lovecraft were going for radically different effects than Hemingway and London and the word choice reflects that. 

The danger, of course, is when you’re at your desk weaving what you’re sure is a rich and vibrant tapestry when, in fact, you’re stirring up a big plate of hash.  This is where feedback from a writers group can come in handy.  It’s okay if they’re diplomatic as long as they’re honest ( ‘dense’ and ‘a lot to chew on’ are code for ‘cut this beast down’ ).  But hey, as long as you’ll have the nerve to cut it down later if it needs it, don’t be afraid to strike out into labyrinthine passages of purple prose, rife with tangled description and resplendent in lyrical glory.  Why learn all those words if you’re never gonna use ’em, eh?