Category Archives: English Usage

Fishing for the Fellow under the Bridge

In my time writing and commenting on discussion boards and weblogs, I’ve run across a disturbing word: troll. Commentors are cautioned not to feed the troll, and anyone who expresses an opinion different from the majority’s risks being given that label. The term has two possible origins:

1. In Norse mythology, “troll” is a word used as a synonym for the Jötunn, the giants who are the equals and rivals of the Æsir and the Vanir. Readers of The Hobbit know of them as the monsters that confront Bilbo and the dwarfs before being tricked into staying out past dawn and turning into stone. Trolls also show up in the Harry Potter series. Then there’s the troll who lives under the bridge and eats travellers who try to cross.

2. The French verb, troller, means “to quest.” It’s used in English to refer to dragging bait through the water in hopes of catching fish.

The second of those is probably the origin of the term in Internet usage, since the offending commentor was someone who threw out silly or unrelated remarks in hopes of derailing the discussion, but it’s come to have both meanings, as seen by the idea of avoiding feeding said creature.

What disturbs me is the notion that a discussion must only be conducted by people who already agree on the main points. I’ve seen far too many cases of dissenters being called trolls for merely offering a contrary view. Our kind of society depends on a lively debate and a respect for the right of everyone to hold individual opinions. Yes, there are obvious cases of someone whose sole interest is to disrupt the conversation, but too often, moderators or participants label opposition as disruption.

This kind of attack is akin to the ad hominem fallacy. It’s directed at the person, while ignoring the points being presented. It’s also a sign of a small mind that is unable to address outside thoughts. I’ve said before that we get the society that we deserve. We shape that society by our participation in the marketplace of ideas. It should also be remembered that some of the Jötunn–Skaði, for example–live with the gods and are their friends. Odin himself consults Mímir, the giant guardian of the Well of Highest Wisdom. We dismiss trolls lightly at our peril.

News! News!

Regular readers of this weblog know that I have a good many opinions on a wide variety of topics. Occasionally, I’m even well informed on the subject. But it’s been brought to my attention that as a writer who is trying to get my work sold, some of what I put here may give offense to my readers. In fact, I can just about guarantee that something will offend everyone.

Now don’t get worried. I’m not going to change my ways. I’m just expanding–something like a Japanese conglomerate. Instead of making cars, cameras, and assorted crap, I’m adding a new weblog to my portfolio. Here’s where to find it:

English 301: Reading and Writing

The focus of that site will be exactly what the name suggests. I’ll discuss books that I’m reading, work that I’m writing, matters of grammar and style, and other such things. I may drift into music and movies, since I have no wish to be organized about it. In fact, it will be a lot like the composition classes that I teach, only freer in form. Politics, guns, silliness in the news, and all the other matters that catch my attention will continue here. Being free form, there’s likely to be some overlap, since I write about guns and enquire into the language about them and since English continues to be abused in public.

My hope is that my readers–you few, you happy few–will read and comment on both weblogs, but now you get a choice. There’s more of me, and who wouldn’t want that?

(The shifting in the Earth’s axis of rotation was from the collective raising of hands. . .)

Verbal Anachronisms

One problem that the writer of historical fiction faces is whether a word or a phrase existed in the time of the story. Some, alas, don’t care, and that lack of concern used to be tolerated. Chaucer, after all, gave us mediaeval knights fighting in the Trojan War in his Troilus and Criseyde, for example. John Wayne carried an 1873 Colt SAA and an 1892 Winchester rifle in many of his westerns, regardless of the year in which the story is supposed to take place. But there are at least a small number of critics–I include myself in that group, of course–who get into a fury when we see a nickel-plated M1911 in the hands of an Englishman in James Cameron’s Titanic. (Yes, it’s theoretically possible, but highly unlikely, and we’re going to pick that nit.)

But what’s a conscientious writer to do? Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey – Maturin series, read everything that he could get his hands on from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That’s a good technique, but one that requires more time and money than many have.

Another approach is to buy a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. This, of course, requires either a dedicated shelf or a magnifying glass (provided by the publisher, if you buy the small print edition). Or one could subscribe to the O.E.D. on-line. Any of those are also spendy.

Here’s the cheap bastard’s approach: The Online Etymology Dictionary

The sources for that site are good, and it’s free. It provides a quick way of checking whether your character can refer to a calculator at all and if that word names a person or a device when the conversation occurs.

Now heave away, me writers, and stow your words ship-shape and Bristol fashion.

The Oxford Comma Saves Lives

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Oxford comma, here’s an illustration:

I bought chips, candy, and soda.

The comma before the and in that sentence is the Oxford one. I’m in favor of it, even though there are people in this world (including at least one whom I respect) who don’t use it. Today, however, I ran across a case in which using it may mean the difference between life and death. The following comes from the warning signs above the gas pumps at Sam’s Club in Rogers:

In case of fire,
spill or release

What comes after that message is advice to call 911 and other safety blather. But notice how as the quoted lines are written (and without a colon at the end), the message actually tells me to spill or to release fuel if a fire occurs.

A comma after “spill” would correct this glaring error in safety.


It’s been tornado weather lately, which raises one point about the language that we use to describe that particular kind of wind. In my own experience, a tornado does not sound like a train. Trains have a heavy bass rumble and a high-pitched mechanical whine, along with the mid-range groaning. A tornado, by contrast, sounds like an industrial fan. That is, until it gets close, and the air pressure drops. After that, most sound is of crashing and smashing.

Here’s hoping that you only have to hear this in a movie theater.

Hau Du U Spel Dat?

I’m getting bloody tired of seeing (sp) placed in on-line comments after words that are more difficult to spell correctly. I understand misspelling a word without noticing. We all type faster than our internal spell-check from time to time. What is just plain laziness is when a person knows that the word is likely spelled with the wrong letters, but can’t be bothered to look it up.

In the future, dear readers, when you see (sp), understand that it means “slovenly person,” and feel free to respond accordingly.

Whose Story Is It?

The other day, I ran across a word that drives me nuts:  herstory.  In the opinion of some, the subject of history derives from the English pronoun his and is thus hurtful to half the population.

This, of course, is nonsense.  The word history comes from the ancient Greek historia.  It meant a method of knowing.  The word itself is grammatically feminine, as were the terms for the arts and sciences generally.  It certainly has no relationship with English pronouns that are of Germanic origin.

Cuteness in thinking never resolves any problem and is best to be avoided.  May Clio save you from such lapses.