Distaff of Life


“distaff.  Originally a cleft stick on which wool or flax was wound in the process of spinning, the word distaff came to be used (from the 14c. onward) as a type of women’s work or occupation, and hence, symbolically, for the female sex and the female branch (or line of a family.  The term female line seems to be preferred by scholarly genealogists (e.g. A.R. Wagner, 1960), but it is not unusual to hear the term distaff side used by gentlemen in after-dinner speeches or the like.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage

This word is new to me, and for some aesthetic reason I like it.

I can’t say I’ve ever loosened my belt an after-dinner speech where a gentleman called something distaff.  As our language becomes less gendered with each dictionary revision, do words like this have a chance?  Especially distaff, with its “negative” prefix?

Dictionaries trace it to Middle Low German–I wonder if the lederhosen-clad gecks who first used it would have believed that one day, running Germany would be distaff work.

I hope it can stay with us, as an antique if nothing else.  I’m going to dig up some choice instances where it’s been used.  Suggestions welcome.




avoid verbing and adjectiving nouns  Try not to verb nouns or to adjective them.  So do not: 

access files

author books. . .”


The Economist Style Guide

This is a joke, right?  I’m sorry–they’re having a laugh, right?  It’s like this clever list where every rule is stated in a way that breaks itself.

Saying “don’t verb the noun” VERBS THE NOUN!

Anyway, The Economist  has earned the benefit of the doubt in matters of English, being English and all.  More importantly I agree with the spirit of the law if not the letter of it.  The only thing I dread more than hearing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Silver Bells” every December is hearing talk of “gifting” things.

Authoring or worse, penning, something makes me want to chug a tall glass of ink.

On the other hand, I can’t say I have anything against pressuring someone to do something, or that I’m beefing about useful bits of slang finding slots in the tool belt.

P.S. Please check out this wine article I wrote recently.

Get Ready For A Surprise!

“But to succeed you must make your piece jump out of a newspaper or a magazine by being more diverting than everyone else’s piece.  You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment.  Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise.”

-William Zinsser, On Writing Well

This reminds me of a popular musicology book I read back when I had delusions of rock-n-roll grandeur called Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy.  It makes the same point about “surprise” being the conduit for those moments when your audience forgets their names and social security numbers, and freezes, hypnotized, laid flat on their spines by the thing you created.

Surprises can be big or small, and the big ones usually fall somewhere between obscure and obnoxious.  It’s the small ones that affect people in the way we hope–a pine nut at the center of each mascarpone raviolo, the drums kicking in at 7:00 of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern getting pwned.

These are terrible examples, and if I could give better ones I would have a more profitable way to spend my Tuesday evening.   So how do you manufacture surprise?  Hasn’t everything been done by now?

Maybe, but not everything has been done to everyone, in every way.  Twelve musical notes, four-and-a-half basic flavors, twenty-six letters in the alphabet.  Maestro, show us something craaaazy.

What’s Beef?

“To many people, (Fowler) seemed to offer an idealized view of what it meant to be English–decency, fair play, roast beef–and to recommend, even to prescribe, those things.”

-Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, 5/14/12

So this book The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings is getting around, dredging up the old prescriptive/descriptive barnacles in hopes of starting as many grammarian slap-fights as possible.  Did every rule begin as somebody’s mistake, or is a set of iron standards the only thing keeping OMG out of the OED?

OK, OK, before a Blackwing ends up in someone’s eyeball, let’s agree that this is an unwinnable argument good for entertainment and making us examine our own relationship to language, but not one worth warming up our windmill punches.

I haven’t read the book yet, but Acocella’s review had me reaffirming my descriptivist bent by the end.  While I acknowledge that there is such a thing as using English poorly, I’ve never thought that has much to do with whatever rules the establishment likes at the moment.  It has a lot more to do with being afflicted with a certain deafness as you fill the page and read it over.

Of course the language evolves.  I mean, somehow we got where we are now from:

Ther walketh now the lymytour himself
In undermeles and in morwenynges,
And seyth his matyns and his hooly thynges
As he gooth in his lymytacioun.
Wommen may go saufly up and doun.
In every bussh or under every tree
Ther is noon oother incubus but he,
And he ne wol doon hem but dishonour.

The rules of English have changed and will keep changing, just like the rules of roast beef.


O Captain

“I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, 
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, 
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue 
to my bare-stript heart, 
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.”

-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Was the NY Post taking their version of the high ground by not running a cover headline about Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage, and instead running one about John Travolta soliciting gay sex?

Gotta love the Post.  Gotta “love” the Post.

Point being, I wish Walt Whitman were still around.  I wish this for so many reasons, but mostly because if he were, we could have his words on this political issue, every political issue, every moral issue, every moral code, everyone, everything we’re trying to cram into our sixty seconds of history.  And I bet he wouldn’t openly support anyone for President.

Since Whitman, it seems like attempts to weave current events into art tangle quickly and usually get worse from there (with apologies to Dylan and “Guernica”).  Do we get a “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”?

He’s Dead, He Got The Chair

Who else caught the scare stories about how sitting for extended periods of time does bad things to your body?  Bad things that exercise doesn’t reverse?

Ruh roh!

This affects a lot of us, certainly all of us who write for a living. If I had read these back when I was making wine–the tendon-fraying antithesis of a seated job–I would have had a nice, smug laugh.

Instead, I have upgraded my workstation chair to this:

If nothing else, it makes putting my feet up on the desk impossible which has to be good.

Of course the real way to avoid death at the desk is to take little exercise breaks every fifty minutes, which presumes one is disciplined about time management.  What are your mini-workout routines?

Stay alive, friends.

Splat Infinitive

“One (misconception) is the belief that the split infinitive is a grammatical error.  It is not.  If it is an error at all, it is a rhetorical fault–a question of style–and not a grammatical one.  Another is the curiously persistent belief that the split infinitive is widely condemned by authorities.  That too is untrue.” 

-Bill Bryson, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words

I’ve been called out a few times for splitting infinitives, and until recently accepted them as a venial grammar sin.  This never felt completely right to me, and it’s nice to see the record set straight.

Bryson continues:

“The problem of split infinitives arises because of a conflict between the needs of the infinitive and the needs of an adverb.  The natural position for the two elements of a full infinitive is together: ‘He proceeded to climb the ladder.’  With adverbs the most natural position is, very generally, just before the verb: ‘He slowly climbed the ladder.'”

Now we’re getting somewhere.  The interesting thing is the idea of a most natural position for an adverb.  Would “he climbed the ladder slowly” be less natural?  Not really.

But how about: “To go boldly where no man has gone before”?  Or: “To go where no man has gone before, boldly”?  Imagine Captain Kirk blurting out that mouthful of clay as the sleek frame of the Enterprise whooshes by.

So adverb placement can certainly change the aesthetics of our lines.  And adverbs are an especially portable part of speech–how often do you have three options about where to put your noun?

What’s tricky is how to locate the most aesthetically pleasing or “natural” position for an adverb, or for anything.   Yet somehow, we will.

Structurally Sound

12. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

        A  basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. . .  Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.  This calls for a scheme of procedure.  The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.

      A sonnet is built on a fourteen-line frame, each line containing five feet. . . Most forms of composition are less clearly defined, more flexible, but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and the blood.”

The Elements of Style

Whoa.  Is it sacrilege to suggest that the claim in the second paragraph is out of date or even weaselly?  That “less clearly defined, more flexible” means, in some cases, “not defined at all, total anarchy”?

I struggle with the idea that a novel has a prescribed structure that, if broken in any way, makes it something other than a novel (as would happen with a sonnet).  Good essays may have beginnings, middles and ends, but that’s about as specific as it gets, which is not very specific.

Blog posts?  Yeah.

So this is my dissent with the idea that you can find a place on some spectrum of structured-ness for any kind of writing.  Fleshing out an existing skeleton is one thing; making an entire beautiful woman out of a single rib–which feels like the task sometimes– takes some, uh… supreme expertise.

The reason this concerns me is that writing is much easier when you know where you’re going, when you aren’t staring into infinity wondering which first step is the right one to take.

S & W are as right as ever telling us we’re much better off beginning with a shape in mind, but it seems like we have to invent the shapes ourselves sometimes.  And that’s not easy.

Photo Friday

You can only post so many flyers on each telephone pole.  Have a good weekend, everyone.