Bespoke Artisanal Handcrafted English

In writing my latest MercatorNet article I wanted to use the adjectival form of “penance”.

Penance is “punishment inflicted on oneself as an outward expression of repentance for wrongdoing.”

Such punishment could be described as….what exactly?

The first thought is “penitent”, but penitent is the adjectival (and nominal) form of “penitence”.

Penitence isn’t penance exactly, rather it’s “the action of feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong”.

Historically it looks like penitence had the adjectival form penitent, which then became the nominal form (“the penitent person” becomes simply “the penitent”).

The alternative adjectival form “penitential” came a bit later, borrowing directly from the Latin adjective.

Penance came indirectly from the same Latin as penitence, via Anglo-French, but there doesn’t appear to be any adjectival form available.

The pattern of penitence would suggest “penant” as the adjectival form of penance.

The only reference I can find to such a word is the nominal form in Chaucer: penant – one who does penance.

I ended up using “penant” as an adjective in my article. “Penant qualities”, for example, and I have to say I’m unrepentant.


Overcoming Low Elf-esteem

I grappled with a lot of issues in writing my new ebook To Create a World.

One of the biggest was elves.

The novel is contemporary fantasy rather than high fantasy, but it still needed elves in it and that presented an unforeseen challenge.


How do you write elves in a post-Tolkien context without becoming painfully, transparently derivative? I defy you to turn your hand to the task without suffering recurring nightmares of J.R.R. sitting smoking a pipe and wryly mocking you in Sindarin. You know, one of the Elvish languages he created before, during, and after writing his epic books.

If you’re not a professor of linguistics and you don’t already speak half a dozen languages, you’re at a disadvantage. I have a pretty good working knowledge of English and a passing familiarity with two other languages…and zero interest in creating new languages.

Not a problem, I decided. Nobody expects anyone to replicate Tolkien’s philological exploits. That’s clearly above and beyond.

And all was well, until the moment came in which an elvish character required a name, and I realised two things:

First, that all Elvish influences in the depths of my mind can be directly or indirectly traced back to Tolkien.

Second, that each and every Elvish name (make that every name) in Tolkien’s universe will undoubtedly have an etymological pedigree backed up by his enormous, unnecessary, unassailable body of fictional languages. I didn’t have to check. I just knew that names like Celeborn, Galadriel, and Glorfindel would have a watertight linguistic provenance.

For some authors this poses no problem. Just shrug your shoulders and come up with something that sounds cool. And if you need to name a second elf, just come up with something else that sounds cool. Bonus points if the two cool-sounding names are phonetically similar.

Which is all fine, until you discover that your idea of what a cool elf name should sound like is also transparently derivative of a certain over-achieving philologist.

If you still don’t see the problem, consider for a moment if someone asked you to come up with a Chinese-sounding name, or an American-sounding name, or a Scottish or Indian or Arabic-sounding name, without actually using existing names from those language groups, or using their languages to create new names.

What would you end up with? You would end up with an unspeakably shameful and racially provocative parody.

In contemporary fiction making human character names consistent with real cultural and linguistic sources is fine.

But try it with elves and dwarves and suddenly you’re writing LOTR fanfiction.

One solution that comes to mind is to have Tolkien’s fictitious peoples recognised as States under the UN, and his linguistic work rendered public domain forthwith, so we can all pretend it’s just part of our shared global culture.

The other solution is to not take it so seriously in the first place. Allow your elves to have whatever names they like, and not stress too much about their etymological integrity.

Incidentally, I think that’s why authors like J.K. Rowling began with overtly silly names for pretty much everything in their magical universe. The names seemed to become more serious as the series continued, matching the tone of the books (and increasing age of its readers). At the same time, names that were there from the beginning like Dumbeldore, and even Hogwarts itself took on different emotional resonance as our experience of them grew throughout the series.

Giving things silly names implicitly lowers expectations and takes the pressure off, as well as offsetting the shock of Harry’s entry into a parallel magical world. And if even a silly name like Hogwarts can become infused with meaning and gravitas, there’s no need to stress unduly about the quality and internal coherence of naming schemes for mythical races in the first place.

Just in case that’s what you were doing…

Now go buy my book. It has elves with linguistically arbitrary naming conventions!


Has “natural” been de-natured?

My latest MercatorNet piece looks at the supposedly lost meaning of the word “natural”:

We are so deeply in agreement on the actual quantities of numbers that there is no room for controversy in basic mathematics, only for error and correction. Yet when it comes to language our capacity to bend and distort the meaning of words undermines even the efforts of a wise man like Socrates to appeal to the reason of his interlocutors.

By analogy, it is as though most of us are not entirely sure how many is “two”. We know that two is usually less than five, but we’ve never taken the time to work it out precisely. In a society where two can be several different quantities, math cannot really take priority, and the insistence of a Socrates that two is always and everywhere 1+1 will be viewed as merely a firmly held belief, one opinion among many.

Decisions and choices

Embed from Getty Images

In addition to being a bit of a philosophical quietist, I’ve also adapted an approach to language that appears somewhat idiosyncratic yet is, like everything about me, intensely interesting and inestimably valuable.

I haven’t had a chance to develop the theory formally, but in essence: I believe we can use etymology to identify the reality underlying the words we use, and thereby clarify and sharpen our thinking.

I suspect that in many cases the original meaning of words and their complex inter-relationships remains intact despite our ignorance of them.

In other words, our language contains more knowledge than we can consciously convey, and by reducing our terms to a reality-based definition we can eliminate most of the confusion and ignorance in our own minds.

Take for example the words decision and choice. What is the difference between a decision and a choice? The two appear more or less synonymous, yet they carry the subtle implication of different emphases.

Does a decision seem a little weightier, harder, heavier than a choice?

Already we may sense that the words have slightly different meanings: ‘choice’ can refer as much to the act of choosing as to the various alternatives from which we choose, whereas ‘decision’ is typically singular: we make a single decision amidst a range of options.

Perhaps we also recognise on some subconscious level the heaviness of the word ‘decision’. Do we sense the deeper meaning implied by its cousins incision, excision, precision, and concision?

All of them derive from the suffix -cide from the Latin “to strike down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay”. It’s the same root in homicide, suicide, and regicide.

Incision cuts in, excision cuts out, precision cuts short, concision cuts up, and decision cuts off as in cutting off possibilities and alternatives.

Choice, by contrast, from ‘choose’ and the Old English ceosan originally means ‘taste’, ‘test’ or ‘relish’. It’s a subtly different meaning from the harshness of cutting off options, and perhaps suggests more of a positive preference rather than a definitive conclusion.

Is this difference reflected in contemporary use? Is it more romantic to tell your wife you chose her, or that you decided to marry her? At other times, say picking a meal from a menu, it seems to make little difference whether we are ‘still choosing’ or ‘still deciding’. But there is definitely a contrast between a person who is ‘choosy’ and one who is ‘decisive’.

English is overflowing with these points of etymological interest. I can, and maybe will, go on about them for a while. Nothing incides complex and convoluted argument like finding the cold hard reality behind the words. Nothing cuts through obfuscation and verbal trickery better than the reduction of language to its final constituent parts.

Learning Chinese the eccentric way


In applied linguistics we were taught that the best way to learn a language is to use it.  How do you use a language? By making meaning.  Meaning-making is pretty much the opposite of memorising vocab lists and taking part in feeble and uninspiring scripted dialogues.

My ideal in learning Chinese has been to learn without making an effort to learn, to learn, as it were, by accident.

But the key to learning by accident is to have a need or a reason to make meaning in your would-be second tongue.  And while I have a number of reasons for wanting to be able to speak Chinese, I have little actual need for making meaning on a daily basis.

Thus far my best efforts have involved an obsessive degree of online searching for information relating to the martial art I practise.  I’ve learned quite a bit of incidental Chinese, can search online and perform fairly slow translations.  But although there’s a surprising amount of transferable vocabulary from martial arts to everyday use, I have to face the fact that this interest is no longer enough to drive my learning.

The next step in my eccentric plan has been to learn the lyrics to some memorable Chinese songs.  The vocab and grammar are generally more transferable, and if a song is good enough it’s hard not to sing along. What better approach to efficient language learning!

I’ve had this plan in mind for a number of years, but have been hamstrung by the limitations of popular Chinese music.  Aesthetic appeal is somewhat subjective, so let’s just say that Chinese pop tends to be quite homogenous, and neither syrupy/nostalgic ballads nor rap are my style.

However, I’ve recently discovered an excellent little tumblr site that chronicles a range of Chinese Indie music!  The odds of finding something interesting, memorable, and worth learning have dramatically increased.

First on the list is this track by 朴树/Pu Shu, titled 平凡之路/Ordinary Road.

I found both the song and the translation via fyeahchineseindie:

徘徊着的 在路上的 Those who are drifting down the road
你要走吗 via via Are you leaving now? via via
易碎的   骄傲着 Fragile and proud
那也曾是我的模样 That was how I once was.

沸腾着的    不安着的 Those who are passionate and restless
你要去哪 via via Where are you leaving for? via via
谜一样的  沉默着的 Like a mystery, and so sullen
故事  你真的   在听吗 Are you truly paying heed to the story?

我 曾经 跨过 山和大海 也穿过 人山 人海 I’ve crossed untold mountains and oceans, passed through crowds and crowds of people
我曾经拥有着一切 转眼都飘散如烟 Once, I had everything; but in the blink of an eye, it was all gone
我曾经 失落 失望 失掉 所有方向 Once, I was frustrated, desperate and lost
直到看见平凡才是唯一的答案 Until I saw the only answer has always been an ordinary road.

当你仍然 还在幻想 While you are still daydreaming
你的明天via via Your future via via
她会好吗 还是更烂 Will it better or get worse?
对我而言是另一天 To me it’s just another day

我曾经毁了我的一切 只想永远地离开 I once destroyed myself and wanted to leave forever
我曾经堕入无边黑暗 想挣扎无法自拔 I fell into an endless darkness, unable to save myself
我曾经像你像他像那野草野花 I used to be like you, like him, like wild flowers
绝望着 渴望着 哭着笑着平凡着 Full of despair and longing, crying, smiling and being ordinary

向前走 就这么走 就算你被给过什么 Go forward, as you are, no matter what you’ve suffered
向前走 就这么走 就算你被夺走什么 Go forward, as you are, no matter what has been taken away from you.
向前走 就这么走 就算你会错过什么 Go forward, as you are, even if you might miss things down the road
向前走 就这么走 就算你会 Go forward, as you are, no matter what…(Repeating)

我曾经问遍整个世界 从来没得到答案 I once asked the whole world, but never received an answer.
我不过像你像他像那野草野花 I used to be like you, like him, like wild flowers
冥冥中这是我 唯一要走的路啊 In the darkness, this became my only road

时间无言 如此这般  Time flies, just like that
明天已在眼前 Tomorrow is just around the corner
风吹过的 路依然远 With the breeze blowing, there is a long way to go.
你的故事讲到了哪 Your story,  how much has been told?

*I took some liberties with the translations to preserve meaning